What My Dog Taught Me About Being There for People on the Bad Days

DogLessonHe’s an unlikely mentor, but my late cocker spaniel Joey showed me how to comfort to people in times of trial.

Joey was a dog with a sweet, kind disposition. I only saw him act aggressively once when he tried to bite the veterinarian who was giving Joey the doggie equivalent of a prostate check. Can you blame him? He was also partially blind which made him a little bit slow, clumsy and unsure of the world. What Joey lacked in physical prowess though he more than made up for with emotional intelligence.

Yes, emotional intelligence. Dogs, some more than others, have an uncanny ability to sense and understand our moods. I believe it’s God-designed. Canine companionship is an intentional gift to mankind from the Lord Above. If you are not a dog lover, you either have not met the right dog yet or spent enough time with a dog to discover all their beautiful qualities. When I was pregnant I learned the true value of a dog’s friendship.

I am a miserable pregnant woman. I spend the first two trimesters exhausted and kneeling over the toilet bowl revisiting almost everything I eat. In the third trimester the nausea leaves only to be replaced with a gray shroud of depression. For all nine months I’m short-tempered and unpleasant to be around. I want to be left alone anyway. Conversation with other people takes more effort than I can muster, and woe to the person in my presence who doesn’t choose their words carefully enough.

Twice I suffered the trauma of pregnancy. (No, I don’t plan on doing it again.) During both ordeals Joey was a great comfort. Somehow this little dog who walked into walls and was afraid of the vacuum cleaner knew I was pregnant, sick and unhappy. For nine months he barely left my side. We were usually on the couch together, Joey curled up around my legs with his head resting on my belly.

When I walked into the kitchen to get a drink Joey went with me. At night he slept at the end of my bed. When I was in the bathroom hugging the commode Joey waited for me on the other side of the door. When I was pregnant with Wade, David was a rambunctious four-year-old. If Joey sensed that David was playing too roughly nearby as I reclined on the couch, Joey would move from his position near my legs and put himself between David and I. He never growled at David. He just stood guard, a furry little barrier.

I knew Joey knew something wasn’t right with me, because he didn’t act like that when I wasn’t pregnant. He was always affectionate, but not attached to me continuously. Somehow just knowing Joey knew was comforting. When his warm little body was snuggled next to mine I felt less alone in my misery. When he looked up at me with those soulful brown eyes and blinked as I lamented to him how sick I was or how I couldn’t, “wait for this kid to get out of me!” a sense of brief relief filled me.

Yes, I talk to dogs. Sometimes I have long, serious conversations with them. Sometimes I tell them jokes. Sometimes I kiss them and say, “I love you.” I figure talking to a dog is slightly more sane than talking to myself.

All those times I talked to Joey he never once said a single word to me. (Aren’t you relieved I said he didn’t speak back to me?) He never offered advice. He never tried to fix my problems. He just snuggled a little closer and was there with me in the middle of my darkness. The just being there, that’s what made all the difference, because who really likes to be alone in the dark?

Never as much as in the last year have so many of my friends and acquaintances experienced so many struggles and trials. I watch, and my heart breaks. I feel inadequate, because I know I can’t help. What can I do? Joey, he knew what to do.

If a dog lying next to you on the sofa is such a comfort on your bad days when you’re desperately trying to hold down Saltines, how much more so is a fellow human being when real tribulation comes?

I don’t recommend you go to your troubled friend’s home and lie down on the couch with her. At best she’ll think you’re weird. At worst she’ll call the police. What you can do though is just be there.

Don’t say, “I understand.” You can’t. I firmly believe even in the exact same circumstances two people can have two completely different experiences. You can’t assume you know what they feel. You can say, “I’m sorry this happened. I’m sorry for your loss. I know you’re having a hard time.”

Don’t offer advice they didn’t ask for. People who are grieving or in pain aren’t in a place to receive advice, and how do you know you’re right?

Don’t try to fix their situation. You most likely can’t. If they want to tell you how they feel, just listen. Nod. Hold their hand. Put an arm around their shoulder. If they don’t want to talk, just sit with them. They want to be seen. They want to know that someone else knows they are hurting or suffering, because it makes them feel less alone.

You can ask how to help, but many people won’t answer. Small gestures like offering to pray for them, a gift card to their favorite restaurant, a casserole dropped off for dinner or an invitation to join you for coffee are tangible ways to say, “I’m just here with you in this.”

Grief and suffering is so private, yet is also aches to be acknowledged in quiet, simple ways.

Almost two years ago Joey passed away, and I still miss him. Not a day goes by I don’t think of that little dog who loved me and whom I loved. I’ll always be grateful to Joey for sharing his canine wisdom and teaching me how to be there for someone on the bad days. I’ll never forget how during those miserable days of my pregnancies Joey was just there with me.

11 Responses to What My Dog Taught Me About Being There for People on the Bad Days

  1. This is just beautiful, Colleen! I’m right with ya and believe canine intelligence and companionship are gifts from above. There are so many things our four-legged babies teach us about life and love! I have no doubt your sweet Joey is patiently waiting for you at the Rainbow Bridge. Thanks for sharing this story with us!

  2. Honesty, just looking at your dog makes me happy. If I were in a bad mood, or had a bad day, I know his droopy and adorable eyes would make all the difference in the world (even if it’s just looking at his picture).

    Dogs are seriously the best pets. I mean, yes, all pets can help, but dogs have the most personality, and I swear sometimes we can read our pets minds. I know that when I visit my dogs at home, they always put a huge smile on my face, even if the entire day has been terrible!

  3. What a beautiful tribute to Joey. I get what you mean about dogs understanding emotion. My huskies acted differently when I was pregnant. They watched over me to make sure I was okay. They “guarded” my boys when they were born. Unlike Joey, my dogs actually talked (as huskies do) back to me when I spoke to them. 🙂 We lost Kona recently after 12 wonderful years with him. I will always appreciate his companionship.

  4. This is a fantastic post!! My dog is my bud… he was org. got to run the fields with the Hubs out on the farmland but yet the 80lb. pound puppy thinks he’s a purebred probably worth millions & in my mind he is! I love this post!!,:-)

  5. We are new dog owners – just under a year and already I can relate to this. They don’t ask for anything in return except love and maybe a little piece of steak. They’re just there for you all the time – but especially when you need it the most 🙂

  6. This made me want to cry. So, so sweet. I tell my dog I love him ALL the time. Literally a hundred times a day. I kiss him and love on him. Animals really do become a part of our family. 🙂

  7. Oh, I just love this so much! And I completely understand that special bond between people and their dogs. I had a Collie who was so sweet and kind and in touch with how her people were feeling. She passed away about 5 years ago, and I still miss her to this day.

  8. We just got our first puppy and I can already see how all of this is true. My dog, although still in the crazy, rambunctious puppy stage, is also a wonderful companion and has truly been a blessing to us in our time of healing.

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