What companion dogs can teach us about the world

Winnie the Pooh, just before she turned 16. (GSR photo / Dan Stockman)

There are times when the world — humanitarian disasters, wars, presidential politics — can make you just want to curl up with a warm dog and forget about everything else for a while. That's how I've felt lately.

There are some who believe that dogs are very spiritual animals. I'll leave that to others to decide, but I do know we can learn a lot from them. And the best canine teacher I ever had was my dog Winnie. She taught our family how to live, and she taught us how to die.

We named her Winnie the Pooh because even when we were first getting to know her, it was clear she was a bear of very little brain. But, like her literary namesake, she was loving and loyal. We adopted Winnie and her brother, Earl (named for the dog in the comic strip "Mutts"), from a no-kill shelter, where they had lived for the first four years of their lives. They were unsocialized and afraid of everything.

But the first thing they taught us was the healing power of love. These two dogs — border terrier mixes — soon blossomed. Though they remained shy, within weeks, they were no longer quaking masses of fear but happy dogs with wagging tails.

They also taught us about devotion. Though Earl was slightly smaller than his sister, he clearly saw it as his job to protect her. When they were in their crate, he was in front, guarding her. He always looked out for her, and I had to wonder what went through his mind. They had spent four years in what was, for them at least, a prison. Now that they were free, he still didn't let his guard down and always made sure she was safe before anything else.

Like a human saint, his devotion was relentless. But it took a toll on him: He would sometimes have nightmares and would be in a funk for two or three days after. The trauma of being in a kennel for four years would have been hard on any dog. The added pressure of protecting his sister multiplied his stress.

Then the meter reader left the gate open one day, and both dogs escaped the yard to go exploring. We never found Earl. But to this day, I believe that, whatever happened to him, his task of taking care of Winnie was done. He had seen her through. He had devoted every day of his life to her, and she had not only survived, but found her loving forever home. His work here on Earth was complete.

Winnie, in the years that followed, blossomed again. No longer in the shadow of Earl, her own personality became more pronounced and she became queen of the household.

She taught us to live in the moment rather than to worry about the future or dwell on the past. She taught us that happiness is in the simple things: a loving home, someplace soft to sleep at night, and walks in the great outdoors.

When there was a knock at the door, she would lose her mind, barking to protect us from whatever danger lurked on the porch. But when the dog sitter came in while we were gone, she uttered not a peep.

"Some guard dog," I thought. "Burglars could carry away everything we own, and the only thing that would upset her is if they didn't scratch her ears."

Then I realized she wasn't there to guard our possessions. She was guarding us. Material things can be replaced. It took a dog that we sometimes joked had a brain of "mostly fluff" to remind me of that.

Winnie taught us the value of friendship. When we had visitors, she would eventually stop barking and approach them cautiously. If they were friends of ours, she seemed to reason, they must be a friend to her, too. Soon, she was getting ear scratches and petting and responding with tail wags and her big brown eyes. No matter who it was, where they came from or what they looked like, if they were friendly, she was a friend. We should all be like that.

At the park, this shy dog who largely preferred to be left alone would find herself surrounded by children wanting to pet her. She recognized their desire to show her affection and would happily accept it, tail wagging all the while. We should all be so open to the wonder and giving hearts of children.

In later years, arthritis in her spine first kept her from being able to chase squirrels. Later, she became unable to jump on to the bed. Finally, she was unable to climb the stairs or hop through the doggy door. But she was never depressed. She had what she needed in life — food, shelter and a family to love — and she was happy.

Finally, after nearly 17 years of life, her body began to shut down, and it was time to go. There is an old saying that we do not have souls — we are souls who have bodies. Again, I'll leave it to theologians and other great thinkers as to whether dogs are souls or not, but it was clear to me that while Winnie's body's work was finished, her spirit of love, devotion, living in the moment and receiving the best life by giving it to others — that will live on forever.

Hopefully, it will live on in all of us.

Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at dstockman@ncronline.org.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]