One man’s tribute to his remarkable best buddy—a four-legged not-so-fairweathered friend.
There is no doubt in my mind that Lance Corporal Jake, “The Piranha”, U.S. Puppy Corps (off-duty)* was sent to me. He entered my world just as everything in it was turning upside down. I adopted him on Valentine’s Day 2011, as a surprise gift to add a furry-celebration-of-love, to the relationship with my other half. Just a few months later, I went through a “perfect storm” of events that ultimately left me homeless, and living in a tent, in the National Forest, with my dog.
* “Jake” for short.
In rapid succession, I suffered one major loss after another. My best friend suddenly died, my long-term romantic relationship ended abruptly with the discovery of infidelity, I was fighting (and lost) an unfair eviction suit by a hostile LA slumlord systematically evading rent-control protections, the court system didn’t protect me, and the combination of stressors, logistics and personal dynamics left me with very little money and without anyone to call for help.
My ex laid down an edict forbidding me to remain friends with our former mutuals—and my decision to honor that request cut a very small platform of social support, in half.
A Sherriff lockout ensued, and now we were living in a tent, at various county campgrounds, and then the forest. I’d been using my meager unemployment earnings to pay attorney fees, and fell behind on my car payment, so now not only was I alone, and broke, but there was a repo man after the only roof I had—my car. Without some very basic support to prevent it from happening, everything I owned—the contents of a 3,000 sq-ft artist’s loft and 34 years of living and memories—was sold at public auction, by a landlord that didn’t bother to give proper legal notice.
Dogs are truly “in it” with us. Fully invested, fully engaged, fully present in the moment, and wholly committed. For better or for worse. It doesn’t occur to them that:
- you are a dork pretending to be a cool person
- they might have a better life with another master
- they made the wrong choice when they picked you*
* Did you pick your dog, or did your dog pick you that day?
They take the good with the bad, and they simply stick around. (Once upon a time, us humans were familiar with a similar notion—it was called a “friendship”—and it didn’t start by clicking a button labeled “Add Friend.” Or, it was called “marriage”—and you only had one.) [Dogs: 1 | Humans: 0]
It would appear naïve for me to think I’m sharing some new insight about dogs you didn’t already know, but it doesn’t mean we don’t need a reminder about its gravity. With Jake, it didn’t matter why I was in tears. It didn’t enter into his mind that I might deserve the circumstances I was in. It didn’t occur to him to withhold his love as a way to punish me for losing the roof over our heads. All that mattered was that I was experiencing anguish—and he could do something about that. Without hesitation, he’d simply lick the tears right off my eyes. [Dogs: 2 | Humans: 0]
If you don’t have any experience of homelessness, you might not know that it has many multi-faceted root causes. That discussion aside, I imagine it can be hard to fathom why many would rather live “on the streets” with their dog, than give ‘em up and go to a shelter.
Once you’ve lost everything, could you really fathom giving up the one source of love, compassion, companionship that you have? The purest form of friendship there ever was? There is great safety and comfort in knowing that LCpl. Jake would never willingly leave my side. He would never walk away from me, like almost everyone else did when it really mattered. There is deep, real power in that knowledge. An ineffable safety. [Dogs: 3 | Humans: 0]
At night, on my way back up to my tent-home in the forest, as I’d drive up Angeles Crest Highway, I’d pass a close relative’s house in La Canada, and wonder how my family could be so cruel … so … vacant … of the basic decency I’d always known them to have. They were, in fact, my favorite relatives.
I knew the answer; of course. I just couldn’t seem to accept it. I was being punished and ignored for taking a loud, vocal and unpopular stand against the abuse and neglect of a disabled family member, that no one wanted to acknowledge, or be inconvenienced to face.
Withholding love, to punish, is not something my dog Jake knows how to do. Passive-aggressiveness is not something Jake knows how to do. He’s either passive or he’s aggressive—but his intent is always crystal clear. [Dogs: 4 | Humans: 0]
I believe there is profound truth in the notion that dogs are here, existentially, to teach and inspire us. To model behavior for us. Behavior that, if us lowly, stupid, egotistic humans could learn to adopt more freely, could perhaps save us all from the law of entropy that plagues us today: deep trust, profound willingness towards co-operation, and generous, unconditional love … shown through actions.
It’s behavior that, if we mirrored it ourselves, we could suspend our critical inner-voices and truly deepen our bonds with the people around us. I mean that in the most earnest sense—that, quite literally, this remarkably unique relationship of co-operation that we now have with dogs—are gifts from our creator.
Heck, LCpl. Jake even models good dental hygiene for me. Every night, at bedtime, LCpl. Jake is accustomed to getting a small rawhide bone to gnaw on. In fact, it’s the only time he’s interested in a bone at all, and has no desire to sleep (or allow me to) until he’s “brushed his teeth.”
So often we frame our relationship with dogs, in a master/obedience sense. Sometimes I wonder who really oughta be packleading whom. He is a living, breathing reminder of one of my favorite touchstone theories: Occam’s Razor. (Essentially, the simplest, least-complicated answer has a high likelihood of being a really good one.) Read: If there’s a boo-boo, lick it and give it your attention.
Jake reminds me daily that I am deserving of his love, simply because I am. Simply because I exist. That alone, is enough to be deserving—whether my inner critic wants to accept it, or not. [Dogs: 5 | Humans: 0]
Among the many things that I needed during my homelessness, the most essential and the most simple, was also the most rare: the gift of time and simple companionship. I couldn’t get my own “friends” to come to my campfire for s’mores on my own dime! “I’m here for you” became such a platitude. It’s a phrase I could really live without having to hear again. People were willing to throw me $20 (that I hadn’t even asked for), but not give me an hour of their time. I didn’t need their money, I needed their love. [Dogs: 6 | Humans: 0]
My journey of losing everything down to my underwear drawer, was all meant to happen. Ultimately orchestrated by a loving universe, pulling me forward while I tried to push back and hold on … to people that were manipulative and dishonest—including my own family—to places that would limit my future, and to old habits and thoughts that would stifle my growth. It was meant to catapult me into an entirely new life, with a deeper and wiser palette of colors to paint a new life with. There is a certain beauty that awaits us, perhaps … in vibrational escrow, when we accept and release.
This “awakening” prompted a deep examination of my values and daily interpersonal interaction, and then birthed the idea for a new kind of philanthropic movement, one that Jake’s devotion to me helped inspire.
It was through his unwavering acts of empathy, that he showed me a template for why I have so much trouble trusting anyone today, or believing them when they declare us to be “friends.” I kinda roll my eyes inside, and think to myself that I hope I’m never again in a position where I have to test whether you really mean that. Whether you know what the word ‘friend’ really means.
“Friendship is a sheltering tree,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Friendship is both a gift and a responsibility. A better word for friendship is this: it’s a covenant.
When I slowed down enough to pay attention, LCpl. Jake showed me what the baseline really is for decent behavior, and how humans are largely failing each other—because we’ve veered so far off the template, and lost our way.
When my time of need came, I quickly learned the perils of being a really honest person in an uncomfortable-with-real-truth, dishonest world. I learned that my newfound commitment to authenticity, while first repelling people from me, was ultimately a gift that took with it the toxic people I thought I should be loyal to, and made room to befriend those worth the investment.
See, LCpl. Jake may not be able capable of empathizing—it requires imaginative projection—but he is so much better at emulating empathy than most humans are currently capable of. [Dogs: 7 | Humans: 0] Our entire social and economic paradigm is, frankly, on the verge of collapse—and it’s not for the reasons you may think. It’s because our modern zeitgeist has rapidly been stripping us of our ability to empathize with someone else’s circumstances. Here’s the science and the proof.
Being the handsome devil that he is, LCpl. Jake gets all the phone numbers, play-dates and wrestle-mates, not me. [Dogs: 8 | Humans: 0] I have a theory, though. There seems to be a strong correlation between having a lot of hair, and getting attractive people to pet you, and rub your belly. I’m looking into it further, fellas. I’ve already got the tail covered, but that’s another story.
Although dogs have kept their larger mission under wraps, (they are very good at keeping secrets: remember the Bush’s Baked Beans dog, Duke?), I’ve been cleared to unveil their worldwide agenda today, on the authority of LCpl. Jake. (He looks pretty serious.)
So, here it is, folks. The mission of the U.S. Puppy Corps is an awareness campaign: to practice acts of unconditional love throughout the world, via the use of copious puppy-dawg kisses. They may not be able to say “oxytocin,” but they’ve been little furry neuro-chemical catalysts for the release of this feel-good, well-being hormone since before we even knew the hormone existed. [Dogs: FTW | Humans: 0]
Go give your dog a hug, and 20 minutes of devoted playtime. He needs that more than he needs another treat. In fact, you both do.
Read more on The Good Life.
Images courtesy of the author