Symbiosis/symbiotic: referring to the interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.
And therein lies our story.
Several years ago, with the passing of our then-latest in a series of rescue dogs, we soon found our lives empty without the sound of a canine padding about the house. This brought Julia – a small Dalmatian – into our lives shortly after Christmas of 2009.
A rescue dog was a must but most available were either too-small Chihuahua mixes or too-large pit bull mixes. A bit of internet sleuthing by my wife, Mikayla, brought us to a Dalmatian rescue site and Julia looked like a solid fit.
A couple of days of phone calls and a two-hour drive brought us face to face with an abused, undernourished, and skittish young adult Dal.
To take a line from the movie Casablanca, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The first weeks were – to put it mildly – a challenge. The traumas that our new household addition had endured prior to her adoption made Julia distrusting of everyone and everything. The only saving grace in these early days was that, as a dog who had not been properly nourished, Julia was very motivated by food. This, combined with the compassionate training regimen of a recommended training program, worked wonders.
While Julia always got her “three squares” and bedtime snack every day, multiple daily training sessions with food given for correct command response quickly yielded impressive results. At the end of the formal six-week training course, Julia had gone from not even responding to her name (a likely defense in response to abuse) to coming when called and doing everything from a simple sit-stay to shaking hands.
We were on our way and, to this day, regular lessons are re-enforced with treats at the ready. And, yes, there have been times when Julia’s weight has crept above that recommended by her veterinarian. Mom and Dad then get a bit of a scolding and there are no follow-on treats for us when we behave and get Julia’s weight back in line.
As she became more secure in her surroundings, Julia came to be what we learned to be a “Velcro” dog. This meant that, if we were to stop in place for any reason, Julia would be up against us, often wrapping a back leg around one of our ankles. All this looking for security and something that we never discouraged.
This Velcro behavior has morphed into what I call “symbiotic serenity” between pet and parents. Most often, a mildly anxious Julia will attach herself to one of us and, as the calmer of the two, an open-palmed hand is placed on Julia’s torso, along the ribcage below and behind a shoulder. The act of simply being touched results in a visible calming effect on Julia with her muscles relaxing and her breathing becoming slower and more calmed. Over the years, it’s not unusual for Julia to become so calm she begins to fall asleep on her feet.
Of late, the reverse can occur when a calm Julia presses up against a stressed parent (why stressed, you ask – check the morning news), prompting touching with an open palm. Julia simply remains in place, often leaning close in. The placing of a stressed hand on a calm pup has quite a positive effect on the homo sapien involved.
These two phenomena prompted an internet search regarding dogs-calming-people as well as people-calming-dogs. This resulted in a plethora of listings from the world of “studies show” with scads of data supporting what we experience on a regular basis.
I’m guessing that a calm dog being touched by a calm person could result in mutual blood pressures so low a search party might be needed to find them.
As you might surmise, reading about the experience of touch with a beloved pet comes nowhere near the effects of being up close and personal with such an animal.
Julia’s Velcro day starts first thing in the morning with her rubbing up against us as we try to dress. It would be interesting to video the whole experience but, as “seasoned citizens”, both Miki and I look better with clothes on than off. That said, safely dressing means sitting on the bed in order to put on pants and socks without the risk of a fall while Julia attempts a snuggle to start of her day.
Then it’s a matter of navigating safely down the hallway and through the dining area to cobble breakfast together. Here we have to draw a line as there’s not room in the kitchen to safely accommodate two bustling adults and one attention-seeking Dal.
After Julia gets her breakfast and morning medications, she knows to find her way to her bed in the living room while we have our morning repast.
No dogs at the table when people are eating. So cruel.
After cereal is finished and Mom gets up for her second cup of coffee, Julia knows she’s clear to come in the dining area until Dad returns with his second cup of coffee and toast for two. During this time, she cozies up to the most available parent. Then it’s back to bed until the table is cleared.
The remainder of the day’s various activities are accomplished with Mom and Dad having to always be aware of where Julia is at any given time. Any trip and fall could be disastrous for all concerned.
Over nine-plus years, we’ve managed to avoid a body slam fall due to the Velcro effect, but have come uncomfortably close with some noticeable stumbling when Julia gets into a blind spot. Instances of a pinched paw still occur.
Having a Velcro dog can sometimes be more hazardous than driving.
But the one big plus in having such a dog in your life is that it exhorts you to become less rushed and more concerned about those with whom you live in the here-and-now – both people and beloved animals.
The pets for whom we choose to become parents need us every day of their lives and a bit of wise perception can help us learn to let go of worldly things and need our pets as well. It’s this symbiotic relationship that makes two pet parents look forward to waking up each morning and we’d like to think the feeling is mutual.
Ours is a win-win arrangement that flies in opposition to contemporary greed and those who believe that every encounter must have a zero-sum outcome with a winner and a loser.
Such are the life lessons learned from our dog.