Can Canines Help Heal What Divides Us?
The internet is abuzz about the release of the Dogs docuseries from Glen Zipper and Amy Berg, which premiered on Netflix on November 16th. I’ve watched the trailer five times already and saw the first episode last night (post Thanksgiving feast). So what’s all the fuss about? Netflix has a stable of bingable movies and shows. What is it about Dogs that’s resonating with so many people?
The series includes six episodes focused on the bonds between doting dogs and their owners in far-flung places across the globe including Syria, Japan, Italy, New York City and Costa Rica. The six canine stars face heartbreaking challenges and obstacles to reveal fiercely authentic loyalty and love. And most poignantly, they show the reciprocal nature of this relationship. Yes, humans take care of dogs but dogs also take care of us.
The bonds between these human and canine pairs is as deep as today’s world seems divided and perhaps that’s the show’s most important take-away. In an interview with Variety, producer Glen Zipper put it this way, "Dogs don't just make us feel loved, dogs make us feel safe. In the world we live in today, no matter how divided we are, we should take care to realize how much dogs mean to all of us, and how our bond with them can help bring us together."
In this constantly changing and overwhelming world, we need our dogs more than ever before. I think many of us sense this intuitively and reach for them in times of doubt or crisis. My two 14-year-old dogs have helped me through my mother’s slow decline into dementia and death, my divorce, my job loss and the untimely loss of my only remaining sibling. Emma leans gently into my legs when I feel unstable and Otis kisses away tears when I feel all is lost. They are a constant comfort, bringing me back to presence and possibility when I am laid low with the discord of American politics or the challenges that life throws at me.
For those who practice meditation and yoga, the term “presence” is a familiar goal. Also called “mindfulness” it is the art of being rooted and aware in the moment – a crucial coping mechanism for uncertain times. In fact, there are many parallels between the goal of yoga and the experience of human/canine connection, and dogs are natural yogis. Our humble canine companions have an uncanny ability to model the key emotional states that make for a happy, fulfilled life according to The Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 Indian principles on the theory and practice of yoga.
According to these Sutras and Buddhist tradition, these qualities are collectively as Brahmaviharas and include loving kindness, gladness, compassion, and equanimity. Cultivating these principles can foster resilience in difficult times and is the ultimate goal of yoga. And as any dog lover can tell you, these are also the qualities we experience when we invite a canine into our hearts and homes. By looking at each of these divine states individually, it’s easy to see how dogs can help us cope with difficult people, situations and times.
Metta, or loving kindness is also commonly translated into friendliness. In fact, the cultivation of benevolence (mettā bhāvanā) is one of the most popular forms of Buddhist meditations. The concept of universal loving-kindness is also found in the ancient and medieval texts of Hinduism and Jainism and echoes of it can even be found in the Judeo-Christian principle known as the “Golden Rule,” translated into “love your neighbor as yourself.” In theory and in practice, modern yogis are challenged to cultivate an open and generous attitude of acceptance and love.
“Unconditional love” is one of the first phrases that come to mind in reference to the love of a dog. Unlike human relationships which can be fraught with complexity, dogs display a whole-hearted devotion that is second to none. Unlike mere mortals, they are incapable of holding a grudge, starting an argument or pushing your sensitive emotional buttons. When you spend time with them, you can be sure they aren’t checking their phones obsessively or wondering how they can speed things along to get to the next item on their to-do list. Dogs, by their very nature are preternaturally present. And nothing is more loving nor more kind than that.
Mudita is a Sanskrit word that has no exact English language equivalent. Loosely translated, it means unselfish joy, or happiness in the good fortune of others. One way to better define this word is to consider its opposites which include jealousy and envy. Schadenfreude, a German word that means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others also fits the bill. The cultivation of Mudita, or generous joy, is the antidote to these ugly emotions and a key tenet of the yoga tradition.
Dogs are notorious for their joyful natures and have an uncanny ability to pick up on our moods. So, while they may not actually cognitively understand that you got a promotion or won the lottery, you can be sure that if you are feeling elation, your dog will sense it and will gladly meet your good news and great mood with some joyful leaping and serious tail wagging of her own. What a beautiful world it would be if we could all share that kind of empathic generosity with those in our families and social circles!
Karuna is closely related to Metta and shares the same generous spirit. But while Metta focuses on happiness for another’s good fortune, Karuna is the quality of empathy for their pain or struggle. According to the Buddha, such a practice, “purifies one's mind, avoids evil-induced consequences, leads to happiness in one's present life and, if there is a future karmic rebirth, it will be in a heavenly realm.” Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, the quality of compassion is essential if one is to form healthy relationships with family members, friends, co-workers and those in our community. We are living in a time when we see compassion trampled on by politicians and public figures and the result is a growing sense of division and disenfranchisement.
As with the other Brahmaviharas, dogs serve as humble and heart-full models of the quality of Karuna/compassion. Many people will tell you that their dogs can sense when they are upset and will try their best to provide comfort and stress relief for the humans they love. In a recent study published in the Journal of Learning & Behavior, dogs form emotional bonds to us and can even “feel” our pain. In the study, four dogs of various breeds separated from owners by a clear, magnet-secured door. The owners were instructed either to hum the song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or to cry. Of the dogs that pushed through the doors, the ones responding to owners who were crying acted three times more quickly. According to the researcher, “We found dogs not only sense what their owners are feeling, if a dog knows a way to help them, they’ll go through barriers … to help them,” If only all the humans in our lives could display that kind of dedication and compassion!
Upekka is the fourth and perhaps most all-encompassing of the Brahmaviharas. It may also be the most difficult principle to practice on a regular basis – especially in these turbulent times. The state of equanimity is one of emotional stability, built on a foundation of non-attachment. It’s the goal of mindfulness and meditation and defined by the kind of psychological composure which is undisturbed by experience, emotions and pain. It is the ability to remain non-reactive in stressful environments or situations and in humans and in dogs is often referred to as “balanced.”
If you’ve ever had the experience of adopting a shelter dog, you know the vital importance of equanimity. Like people, dogs who have been abused or neglected will struggle with emotional balance and often act out in new or stressful situations. They may be wary of strangers – both human and canine – which leads to aggravating or even dangerous behavior. The good news is that dogs are some of the most forgiving creatures on the planet. With the right training and a supportive and loving home, even the most emotionally challenged dogs can make a full recovery and learn to trust again. Another lesson from our four-legged friends: love, trust and forgiveness go a long way toward establishing emotional equanimity.
I don’t think the timing of the release of Dogs on Netflix is in any way accidental. We are a world hungry for connection and kindness. The rise of nationalism, the demonizing of refugees, the partisan divide and the moral vacuum in leadership has us starved for what is good and true and right in life. And although each story in the docuseries is unique, the theme of the piece is the universality of love. In these dark times of fear and disenfranchisement, we need only look to our four-legged friends to model the type of behavior that may just save us from ourselves.