Lessons from a Canine Mystic – by Michael LaValle

Bailey - the therapy dog who was a great midnfulness teacher.

About 10 years ago, I received the best birthday present my wife has ever given me. She surprised me with a golden doodle puppy we named Bailey. We were a bit surprised by his tremendous energy, but we found it easy to embrace his boundless capacity for affection. Following the extended time working remotely, we did not like to leave Bailey home by himself waiting for us to return from work. As an experiment, I began taking him with me to my office. I suspected that my patients would enjoy him and he had calmed down enough that I was confident he would not be too much of a distraction.

I could not have anticipated what unfolded. What seemed like a “cute” idea to bring my dog to work turned into the unleashing of Bailey’s full potential. It was like Jesus coming away from the carpentry bench and arriving at the temple to do his true work. Bailey seemed to view my therapy patients as a box of assorted chocolates with surprise centers. He required no training once he figured out that behind the door to my waiting room a visitor waited to be greeted enthusiastically and brought back for a session. While some dog owners claim their pets can smile, Bailey could and did smile. He had an uncanny knack for figuring out how long he should attend to each patient and then would lie down and let us tend to the business at hand. I knew something important was going on when patients scheduling their next appointments asked to confirm that Bailey would be there.

Animals as teachers

Animals can be wonderful mindfulness instructors. They don’t seem to worry or ruminate much. They are very clear that play and rest are vital components of living a fulfilled life. They seem mostly at rest or keenly curious about and engaged in the present moment. They are not particularly judgmental (excluding cats here), with each moment creating a fresh opportunity to engage and love again. Bailey clearly only knew two categories of people: instantly affectionate and not-quite-ready-to be affectionate. For him, it was always just a matter of time before he would win you over.

Lessons Learnt

I moved my practice into a new building last year and we had a much longer walk from my car to my office door. Bailey delighted in the many opportunities the longer walk offered to encounter people in the lobby and elevators. One morning, a woman was walking down the hall to leave the building and Bailey started angling over to her cautiously. The woman was wearing sunglasses and had a tense look on her face. I was getting ready to hold Bailey back to avoid an unappreciated encounter. But then the woman stopped and Bailey gently leaned against her. She took her sunglasses off, smiled, and said “thank you.” This was Bailey’s vocation – to offer kindness. I came to understand that I was actually in the presence of a very wise teacher. Here are some of the main points that Bailey conveyed simply by being himself:

  • Make it a practice to greet everyone you can. Respect them if they do not appear to want to do so, but try to win them over by exuding friendliness. Your basic disposition signaling openness should be akin to a dog wagging its tail. You may never know what someone is going through, so don’t underestimate the impact of the smallest gesture of kindness.
  • Be outside as much as you can and when you are, really “be” there. Fall into your senses. Look. Listen. By all means, use your nose. Seriously. Smell is the most underutilized faculty.
  • Bailey knew that the pursuit was as important as success. He never did catch a squirrel or rabbit; he was 0 for 82,478 attempts. But, he always enjoyed trying.
  • Be completely uninhibited and generous in displaying affection to those you love. Minus the slobber, show your love the way Bailey would nuzzle and lean against his favorite humans. Greet them as if you had not seen them in a very long time even if it was just minutes ago.
  • Live simply. Eat well. Rest well. Be compassionate when there is suffering, and delight in knowing there are so many ways to enjoy this life.

Don’t take things for granted

Bailey had his usual perfect annual physical in late March of this year. One Wednesday, just five weeks after his physical, I noticed that Bailey wasn’t getting up to greet patients. I took him to the vet the next day and learned his body had been ravaged by a very aggressive form of cancer that was causing internal bleeding. The cancer had already advanced to stage IV and there was nothing to do. We had three remaining weeks to enjoy Bailey and to prepare ourselves for life without him, a poignant reminder about impermanence and not taking things for granted. Even though he was fatigued during his last days, his tail never stopped wagging when one of us entered the room. After a little over nine years of being the best boy ever, Bailey left us on May 9.

Bailey was a Certified Therapy Dog.  In addition to his daily trips to my office, he visited schools to help faculty de-stress.  He went to senior living facilities to provide affection and comfort. He especially loved interacting with children who typically gasped with delight when they saw him.

Bailey was a daily blessing in our lives. He invited us to know that there is no greater calling than to be kind to each other. He continues to remind us that we are a blessing to one another each time we simply acknowledge one another or show kindness in our daily living.

Bailey - the therapy dog who was a great midnfulness teacher.

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