What Can Animals Teach Us about
Having Healthier, Happier Relationships
By Allen and Linda Anderson
The human-animal connection is a complex one. We know this for a fact because we share our home with five animals and have learned that the animal kingdom definitely operates by its own set of rules. Animals, we've observed, view life from an entirely different perspective than we do. Yet most cultures of the world have chosen to make many types of animals into pets. In other words, even though we don't speak the same language and can't figure out what animals are thinking most of the time, we've asked to have a relationship with them. Sometimes we're surprised and amazed at how those relationships grow and develop.
In reading the stories we've collected from around the world about a wide variety of animals and insects, we've realized that "Animals R NOT Us." They're individual sparks of the Divine, expressing their uniqueness while finding ways to accommodate our needs and desires. Their spiritual natures, not their instinct or trained behavior, cause animals to display the spiritual qualities of unconditional love and compassion. Animals offer spiritual lessons that only furry, feathery, flowing, and flying creatures could teach.
The Dog Who Wouldn't Help
One evening we had the pleasure of addressing volunteers from an organization called Helping Paws of Minnesota. These wonderful people adopt donated and animal-shelter dogs and train them to help the disabled. The dogs do things for disabled people that they couldn't do for themselves - turning on light switches, retrieving objects, standing still to steady a person who needs physical support. And of course, service dogs become friends who are there for people emotionally as they deal with the trials and challenges of their lives.
Before our presentation that evening, we met one of the dog trainers. She told us about an interesting relationship she'd had with an animal who she had volunteered to prepare for service work. The dog, we'll call him Sammy, hadn't been able to pass any of the tests that were required to place him in a home where he would assist a disabled person. Yet this trainer sensed that Sammy knew how to do all the tasks. It was a mystery to her why he didn't perform for the tests.
One day the trainer took Sammy on a field trip to visit with a disabled woman who needed a service dog. To the trainer's surprise, Sammy immediately went into service-dog mode and performed tasks for the woman - perfectly. He did things for her that he'd previously never done well during testing. The trainer was gratified to have confirmation that her intuition had been correct. Sammy really would make a superb service dog.
When the trainer left the woman's house, she decided to test Sammy one more time by dropping her keys on the sidewalk. A well-trained service dog would pick up the keys and give them back to the person. Not Sammy. He looked at the trainer with eyes that seemed to say, "You don't need for me to pick up those keys. Why did you drop them?"
The trainer chuckled at the lesson about relationships that Sammy had taught her. She realized Sammy had shown her the importance of treating him with respect and not taking advantage of his help when she didn't need it. She had learned from a dog that relationships are built on trust. When someone is truly in need, a good friend will come to the rescue. Yet Sammy had shown the spiritual virtue of right discrimination. This dog knew the difference between real need and the pretend kind. And he had let his trainer know he knew.
Sammy was placed in the disabled woman's home without ever having passed the formal training tests. He became an excellent service dog for her and a warm, wonderful, true friend.
Giving Without Expecting a Return
Animals show how to build relationships because they bring their unique spark of divinity to almost any situation. The Courage Center in Minneapolis offers services to disabled people to meet the challenges of recovering from accidents, strokes, or lifelong disabilities and to develop skills that will help them have more satisfying lives. As part of the animal humane society's pet-facilitated therapy program, Linda takes puppies, kittens, or rabbits from the animal shelter and brings them to visit people who come to the Courage Center's dayroom for classes and to socialize with one another.
It's a gratifying way to help people who usually can no longer care for animals or who live in places that don't allow them. One man, a newcomer to the center's programs, burst into tears when he saw Linda arrive with a seven-week-old Labrador-chow puppy who had come to the shelter from an unwanted litter. As the man held this puppy in his arms, he said, "I never thought I'd see an animal here!" He'd been thinking of not returning to the program, but the animal's presence caused him to view the center in a new light. The puppy had put the face of unconditional love on what may have at first appeared to be an impersonal, institutional setting.
As Linda carries a baby animal from client to client, they eagerly await their turns. From visit to visit, she listens to the clients repeat their stories of animals who have meant so much to them before whatever circumstance of life caused them to become disabled. Memories flood the room as the animal works his magic and reminds the clients of happier days.
A blind woman smiles as she strokes the soft fur of a kitten; a man's shriveled, stiff hands pet the rabbit Linda places on his lap; a puppy crawls up the chest of a stroke victim and licks the woman's chin with his soft pink tongue. One completely paralyzed man blinks his right eye, the only moving part on his body, to let the attendant know that he wants Linda to place the puppy on his lap. As the puppy crawls up the man's chest and rests his head against the paralyzed man's heart, the attendant asks him, "Are you enjoying this?" He blinks his right eye, "Yes." Only his body is paralyzed; not his emotions, mind, or spirit. The puppy has touched all of these aspects of his nature as no one else could have.
In this ward, where people gather to learn and support each other, a new relationship is born. An animal offers the gift of unconditional love without caring that the person spends his days in a wheelchair and will never play ball or run with him. An animal gives service to life without expecting even a morsel of food. An animal teaches the spiritual lesson that relationships, formed from the fabric of love and service, are the deepest and truest kind.
What has an "angel animal" taught you about having healthier, happier, more meaningful relationships?
Allen and Linda Anderson are co-editors of the Angel AnimalsŪ newsletter. For a free sample of this bi-monthly publication, filled with inspiring stories from around the world of how animals help people in amazing ways, call 1 (888) 925-3309. The Anderson's book, Angel Animals: Exploring Our Spiritual Connection with Animals, is being published by Dutton-Plume in September 1999. Visit their Web site at www.angelanimals.com
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