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The 5 Lessons Learned From Animals, and They're Not What You Expect

Loyal, friendly, playful — nah, that’s not what this writer is talking about

posted by Suzanne Gerber, August 3, 2012 More by this author

cats and dogs in a line

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


cats and dogs in a line
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
I’m an animal lover from way back. But because my father was allergic to dander, or so he insisted, my earliest pet memories involve hamsters. My sister and I would take them out and play with them, and they would always pull some Steve McQueen-worthy great escape and wind up in a shoe — invariably one of my father’s.
 
Lesson #1: Even tiny creatures have a sense of humor.
 
Eventually my sister talked my father into letting us get a dog, and soon everyone within a one-mile radius got to know Danny (Daniel, our beautiful but undisciplined cocker spaniel). We’re not talking dog whistle communication here; this would be my entire family out in the street, shouting at the top of our lungs: “Danny, come home! We have yum-yums! We’ll take you bye-bye in the car!” I never figured out whether he was a true adventurer, hated us, or if maybe all that inbreeding of “family champions” wasn’t such a good thing after all.
 
Danny was my first real animal teacher, although he never would have gotten tenure anywhere else.

He taught me Lesson #2: Cute dogs can get away with murder. So if you’re going to be civilly disobedient, do it adorably.

(MORE: Your Dog Can Be Your Best Friend for a Healthier Lifestyle)
 
In college I got my first cat (not counting the kitten I brought home from a flea market and hid in our downstairs bathroom for a week before my parents discovered her). Cassidy would come to me when I merely thought about her, which was a pretty neat trick. She was the first cat to teach me that animals communicate in ways we’ll never understand.
 
I think this is what separates the cat lovers from the haters. The former appreciate that kind of unspoken connection, while the latter are usually highly rational people who (a) are uncomfortable with a creature knowing what they’re thinking, or (b) refuse to acknowledge there’s such a thing as “animal communication” in the first place.
 
Those people would have a hard time with my friend Andrea’s story about her black poodle, Beau, and her friend’s dog, Lucy, a golden doodle. The two were doggie BFFs until they had what could only be called a falling out. Beau and Lucydoodle used to take long hikes with their owners in the Berkshire Mountains, rollicking and rolling like the good four-leggeds they were. One day Beau refused to walk with Lucy — out-and-out refused. Andrea didn’t know what had come over him. No cajoling worked, and she eventually called Dawn Allen, a well-regarded pet psychic who lives in Western Massachusetts.
 
During the phone session, Dawn “asked” Beau what was troubling him. (She works telepathically, so the animal doesn't need to actually get on the phone.) Apparently Lucy, a way more exuberant puppy, was overwhelming Beau, and he felt threatened and wasn’t enjoying their walks. Dawn then tuned in to Lucy and explained how unhappy Beau was, and asked if she might, in effect, cool it.
 
Lucy said she meant no harm; she just loved Beau so much that she couldn’t control herself when she was around him. Dawn then did what I absolutely love to call “psychic doggie therapy,” using the kind of conflict resolution techniques we’d admire in a people pro. She got Lucy to agree to settle down around Beau, and for him to give her another chance.  
 
The next time the foursome went for a walk, things were calm and focused — and fun — and they stayed that way until Andrea moved out west.
 
There were a couple of huge lessons in this for me. Lesson #3, the obvious: Human-animal communication is not only possible but can be truly helpful (not just an entertaining parlor game), and Lesson #4, don’t overwhelm your beau.
 
(MORE: The 10 Best Pet Companions to Have at Your Side)

A few years later I booked a session with Dawn, for my then-boyfriend’s uncooperative cat. Dear sweet Chester was peeing outside the box, John was about to return him to the shelter, and I was desperate enough to try anything.
 
Chester was the newest member of a large animal contingent, and clearly he was pissed off about something. But what? Rescued from a kill shelter, he now had a comfortable home, a lot of love and attention, and two squares a day. I gave Dawn a little background on the rest of the pack — two other cats and seven dogs — and then she turned to Chester. After a few minutes of silence, she came back to me and said something that to this day still amazes me: “There was an eighth dog…”
 
Ah-ha! I thought. Wrong! Nope, John famously has seven dogs — it even says so on his vanity plate. “Chester said there was an eighth dog," she reported. "'A big, ugly, brown dog’ that didn’t belong in the house, but was allowed in anyway.” This, she said, was what was causing him to act out and do the “territorial peeing.” 
 
Can you get him to stop? I asked. And that’s when she explained that cats aren’t as compliant as dogs.
 
Now, John knew I was having this session, but, being an engineer and hard-core “rationalist,” he didn’t take it seriously. Until I mentioned the eighth dog. “That’s ridiculous!” he said. “Thomas wasn’t ugly — he was handsome!”
 
Thomas! I had completely forgotten about him, indeed an eighth dog. I’d only met him once or twice in the brief time John had him. (We believe he was kidnapped.) And John acknowledged that while he had intended to make Thomas “an outdoor dog” (there are distinctions on his farm), he took pity on the poor old guy and let him come inside.
 
I’m sad to report that Chester didn’t clean up his act. John found him another home — and for entirely different reasons, wound up having his own session with Dawn a year or so later. My lesson from that whole experience may have been the most profound of all.

Lesson #5: A love of animals can open the hearts and minds of the most intransigent cynic — even an engineer.