Our teachers come to us in all forms. Sometimes, the animals in our lives carry the most powerful lessons, insisting that we search for and find a common language of trust, honesty, and love. Tai Little, who helps Circle Up with content creation, tells her story of her soulmate dog came into her life and how they transformed each other.
She was pregnant and homeless. She was about half the weight she should be. She was so scared that she’d become vicious, and she — the dog who would become mine — was about to be killed by the pound for it.
I found her on a rescue organization’s website. “Shy” it said. “Timid. Will not be the dog to run up to you and lick your face.” As it happened, I wasn’t a dog person, I was a cat-loving introvert, so this apparently reserved and withdrawn dog sounded like the perfect match for me.
Withdrawn. My father’s friend had lobbed that at my brother and I when we were children visiting his house. “We’re just shy,” we defended ourselves to Dad when he accused us of this imperfection and asked us to account for it. “No. Withdrawn.” He seethed and drew the word out. He punished us with silence all the ride home and that night.
I went to pick up the dog not knowing what to look for in a dog, how to tell if we were a match. Having worked rehabbing various formerly abused creatures before, I knew that ignoring her would be the safest I’d be able to make her feel. Be serene. Not direct any energy whatsoever her way, positive or negative.
I held the leash and stared out into the distance, hoping for some kind of change. She shivered frightened at the end of the leash. I focused on my breath and stayed stock-still. Throughout the next ten minutes, she began to get curious. She crept closer, moving between sniffing me and pulling back. I didn’t move. She cautiously gave my hand the tiniest lick I’ve ever felt. “It’s a match!” the woman at the rescue concluded, “Soul mates!” I thought that was a bit much. I took this stranger home with me anyway.
At home, she was so terrified she slunk and shivered along the ground, huddling at the noises of the upstairs neighbors’ footsteps. I led her to the bathroom without talking to or looking at her, as gently as I could, and left her with food and water and the mercy of a closed door so she could be more comfortable — alone.
I also was more comfortable alone. In my family of origin, proximity meant pain. Once I had the means to get out of the house, I left and never returned. I thought it’d be as easy as physically getting away, but as you all probably know by now, that’s not where the pain ends. The trauma stayed with me. I plotted my suicide with more and less detailed plans over the next ten years. I went to therapy, I tried medication, but my conclusion was that I was hopelessly broken at the core.
Then I got the dog.
Checking on her in the bathroom that first week, I never looked at her, even to take her out for a potty break. She was scared by my mass, by my energy, my movement, and this relationship — being stuck with each other — that we could both feel. A new being to adapt to. A new creature to learn the rules of, so you could act “good” and hope to avoid punishment.
I lay prone on the bathroom floor for long stretches every day, head turned away from her, sweet-talking in a murmur, my hand stretched out with treats in case she grew brave enough to approach. It was still threatening to her, but I wanted her to know that I would only ever be gentle with her. If I had to screw up my neck and press my face to the cold tiles of the bathroom floor — under the toilet, no less — I’d do it to get my message across.
Gradually, she began eating from my hand. She sniffed me all over as I stayed still and continued the sweet-talking. It became no big deal to her in a matter of days. I sat up. I looked at her fleetingly and kindly, skipping my gaze over her face so she wouldn’t feel threatened. She let me touch her, flinching at first but then settling into my touch. And she became, unexpectedly, warm. In two weeks, she was utterly transformed. “Soul mate” seemed right after all.
She was the most beautiful spirit to me, her change from “vicious” and terrified, to a warm engaging friend was inspirational. She’d come from the worst circumstances, and here she was, living like there’s only the present moment. Admirable, this sea change. But of course, I couldn’t be like that. I was damaged at the core.
Only I wasn’t.
It took me years to realize it, but who’s counting. My dog had this incredible transformation because she always was the same innocent, loving, bright spirit at her core. Coming into my home enabled her to return to that, natural as could be. We felt so attuned, so aligned, both gentle and curious.
So, what if my core was the same as hers? Not made up of all the shards of my past, things that happened to me, but quite simply, only the gentle awareness of being alive? What if all those things that I’d perceived as signs that I was broken were not me, at my essence, but only accessories in my life? Things I’d chosen to use for a time, things that got me through hard times. What would it look like to walk through life telling myself not, “I’m broken,” or even, “I’m resilient,” but “I am, at my essence, innocent awareness?”
Ever since I got her and saw her change so quickly to love and trust, I thought of my dog as my role-model in healing. Now I see that there wasn’t much to heal — just some adaptive behavior to shake off like a dog coming out of a bath. Nothing permanently broken. And the reason why I felt and continue to feel so much kinship with her is that we are, indeed, kindred spirits.