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The Year of Doggy Dharma

Dog meets Buddha. From
Dog meets Buddha. From

To date, the Lily Pad Sutra column has explored the people and places I’ve encountered while combining location-independence with letting the Dharma take the lead—or what I like to call lily padding. But what of the animals I’ve looked after these for past seven years? Would it surprise readers to discover that some of my greatest Dharma teachers have never uttered a word to me, and that bodhisattvas sometimes have more than two legs?

Regular readers may recall that in my article from July last year, I described how metta unexpectedly paved the way when I was interviewing for a year-long housesit to look after a country estate in Kent and its three inhabitants; one pet Border Terrier and two guard Rottweilers. With the recent Epiphany celebration (the Christian holiday for the three wise men at Jesus’s birth) on 6 January and the upcoming start of the Year of the Dog on 16 February, it seems fitting to share what happened next: in other words, the wisdom I gained that year from three doggy-sattvas!

My own love for all animals began long before I started lily padding in 2010. The stories I read as a child about the ancient Egyptian animal gods, or the Shinto kami deities of Japan returning to Earth as animals to keep an eye on us humans, or all the magical First Nation, Aboriginal, and druid legends about animal spirits and totems, all made more sense to me than the Catholicism I was raised with. The consideration of all the sentient beings we humans share this planet with is what later attracted me to Buddhism: spiritual biodiversity, so to speak, rather than the monoculture of monotheism.

Of all domesticated animals, dogs are probably the most versatile in their “service” to humans: whether it’s sniffing out illness or criminal activity, tracking something or someone, pre-empting danger or supporting humans with additional needs. In Britain, exceptional service during wartime can even earn brave animals the military Dickin Medal.

Part of the joy of a dog’s company is their ability to truly live in the present. But what happens to that ability when their need to serve gets misdirected? The three dogs I looked after in Kent, England, taught me much about the muddle we humans often make of need, attachment, and letting go.

Whenever possible, I like to arrive at a dog sit a day or two before their masters depart. Not only does this give the humans a chance to “sniff” each other out, it also gives me a chance to learn a dog’s favourite walks and hiding spots. It’s also the easiest way to meet my new neighbours as they’ll often recognise my companion and strike up a conversation.

In previous articles, I’ve discussed how the non-interference aspect of meditation practice can help when one is cat sitting.  Dogs being domesticated wolves (i.e. pack animals), however, require a certain level of “interference.” As a dog sitter, you’re taking the lead in more ways than one: and establishing yourself as the new alpha of the pack is invaluable in the first few days after their masters leave, before their need to protect or dominate turns into all sorts of weird and wonderful behaviour.

For any readers unfamiliar with what is popularly called dog whispering, some simple ways to establish yourself as the new pack alpha is to eat first, walk through doorways or gates first, and not to acknowledge the others when you are leaving or entering the house. At the human-to-human level, these behaviours would be considered rude; human-to-dog, these behaviours help an already anxious dog that is missing its master to relax. The first teaching of the three doggy-sattvas happened before I could even put all of this into practice. 

Dog tugs the orange robe of a young Buddhist monk. From
Dog tugs the orange robe of a young Buddhist monk. From

Archie, the little Border Terrier who normally lived in the main house with his master’s family, went missing. I looked high and low for him and checked all his usual hiding places, my inner panic mounting by the minute. Losing a pet is scary at the best of times, but losing someone else’s pet is a whole new level of scary.

After the sun went down, I decided to return to the house to wait by the phone and hope for the best.  Luckily, a couple rang a few hours later to say they’d spotted Archie on the side of the road some 10 miles away and had managed to coax him into their car. They kindly brought him back and, to our amazement, we worked out that he must have followed the route his master would have taken to London. After that scare, I doubled my alpha-efforts . . . perhaps a bit too much, as Archie soon took to sleeping on the other pillow of my double bed in the game keeper’s cottage I was staying in (separate from the main house) and had to be reminded with a covert nudge from me of who his true master was when his actual master returned.

Ace and Angel, the two Rottweilers who lived in the cobblestone stable yard adjoining the gamekeeper’s cottage, presented a different challenge. Unlike Archie, a much-loved pure-bred house pet with an obvious alpha (his owner), Ace and Angel had been adopted from a Rottweiler rescue charity to protect the country estate. Imagine the classic British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs in canine class division terms of Inside, Outside.

A few months before I arrived, Ace had escaped and bitten a passing cyclist. Understandably, this led to an official complaint and a court order that Ace be put down if he ever left the grounds again.  Without preconceptions about Ace, it soon became obvious to me that the incident hadn’t stemmed from him being “bad” but that it was a misdirected service. As the family and house staff had been too nervous to walk or play with Ace and Angel, I decided to experiment and set to forming a new “pack” when they left me to my own devices.

Every morning and evening, I would walk them together around a small enclosed field off the stable yard. After a few weeks, we graduated to a bigger field, often walking for an hour to cover its  perimeter. While it’s not my place to judge why anyone adopts a rescue dog, my decision to treat the guard dogs as pets led to a transformation that was humbling to witness.

Angel, a gorgeous former breeding bitch, had spent most of her adult life pregnant before being neutered. Perpetual dog mothers often later suffer from phantom pregnancies, and Angel would often disappear in the hay loft to prepare for a ghost litter. It’s heartbreaking to witness an otherwise sunny soul withdraw into the dark for days, not understanding why no puppies appeared.

Our “pack” walk routine gave Angel a new focus and playmate in Archie who worshipped the ground she trod on. Despite this progress, on Good Friday (of all days), she disappeared again. I looked in all her usual hiding spots in the stable yard with no luck. Given the ill will in the neighbourhood towards Ace, I frantically rang around to explain that if anyone sighted a Rottweiler it was Angel not Ace. Luckily, someone had seen her and called the local dogcatcher in their fear and confusion. When I finally reached the dogcatcher, they were closed to visitors until after Easter but promised to return her on Tuesday.

Two rottweilers. From
Two rottweilers. From

I barely slept that weekend with what turned out to be unnecessary worry: when the van arrived as promised, we had trouble coaxing Angel out. Apparently, she’d had so much fun in the kennels she wanted to extend her Easter holiday!

Ace proved a more complex case. He had originally belonged to a homeless man, offering the best form of both protection and companionship for someone sleeping rough. One day, Ace was hit by a car. His master took him to the local vet knowing the price he would pay for saving Ace’s life. Ace wasn’t allowed back on the streets, and was fostered by a Rottweiler rescue charity, where his aggressive behaviour made him the perfect candidate for someone looking to adopt a guard dog. Imagine how confusing it might be to go from guarding a homeless master to guarding a multi-million pound estate. Is it any wonder the unfortunate incident with the cyclist happened?

To say Ace enjoyed the new walking routine would be an understatement. It was a true joy to watch a 60 kilogram guard dog slowly let his guard down. Before long, he was off the leash and inspecting every rabbit hole we passed—perhaps to protect his new pack from the Easter Bunny—and gambolling through wildflowers. By night, he insisted on sleeping on the doorstep of the gamekeeper’s cottage, come rain or shine. I have never felt so safe.

Interestingly, that year we really did have one trespasser. I immediately put Ace on a leash and, as if he’d been waiting for the moment to play the role of the mad dog everyone had scripted for him, he put out on an Oscar-worthy performance, snarling and drooling while I calmly asked our uninvited guest: Are you lost? I have never seen anyone turn and run so fast!

Leaving our pack was one of my hardest partings. Usually with housesitting, I return pets to their doting owners. In this case, I wasn’t sure what would become of what I’d come to call my Triple AAA pack (a private pun on the battery power energy and roadside assistance those three generated).

Ace died of cancer shortly after I left. I couldn’t return in time to say goodbye in person, but I did manage to visit the week after he was put to sleep and placed flowers on his grave. No sentient being has taught me more about the power of unconditional love than Ace that year, and I have never cried so much over any loss.

On a happier note, the owners saw for themselves the difference socialising the dogs together had made to Archie’s loneliness, Ace’s aggression, and Angel’s depression. The last I heard, Angel was living in the main house alongside Archie instead of on her own in the stable yard.

And me? I commemorate the doggy-sattva Ace by giving any Rottweiler or homeless person’s dog I come across an extra ear scratch or treat. . . . and plenty of metta

See more

The Dalai Lama’s Cat
The Dharma of Dogs: our best friends as spiritual teachers

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