Friday, October 09, 2009

Doggy Obedience

I have a dog.

I have always had dogs in my home, throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. I believe in giving a good home to at least one of the countless homeless animals in our country. I also believe having a dog somehow makes a home complete. Having a dog can teach children responsibility and the meaning of unconditional love. I know from experience not every dog is going to bring happiness to the household, but I also know that dogs will teach you much about yourself through your relationship with them. After the unfortunate passing of our last little four-footed monster, Shadow, I searched and searched through rescues, puppy mills, newspapers, and breeders for over two years. I finally found Bugsy Malone, our Shar-Pei/German Shepherd mix who is my newest "teacher."

We got Bugsy in March when he was eight weeks old. His wrinkly Shar-Pei face made it impossible for a person to not fall in love with him. Within a week, he was spoiled rotten, begging to be held and sleeping curled up on my chest. Potty training was a breeze and so were basic commands like "Sit," "Lay down," "Roll over," and "Shake". He learned in two days that he must wait patiently in the middle of the room while I fill his food and water each morning until I give the command "Action" (we're theatre people, after all). He even learned to sit straight and balance treats on his nose until we give the command. When "Action" is spoken, he quickly flips his head and catches the bone in his mouth.

Seven months later, and at 40 pounds, he is a big boy and can no longer curl up on my chest to sleep. If prenatal care in humans directly affects the health and mental development of a baby, well then, at least we have an excuse for Bugsy's lack of mental prowess. His mama was found as a stray, severely underweight, Heartworm positive, and with a cherry eye. The good people at PA Stray Save in Berwick helped nurse mama back to health after her eight puppies were born. Despite Bugsy's ability to learn commands, the rest of his behaviors are... well... rather dumb. But this, of course, is where all good lessons lie.

Every day, I take Bugsy on a three-mile walk. We head down Front Street and cross the bridge over to the island between Milton and West Milton. We walk down the ramp to the island, go under the bridge and walk the South Trail all the way to the very tip of the island. I let Bugsy off his leash and allow him to take a drink from the river. When he's had his fill, which is, of course, determined by how hot it is on any given day, he returns to me so I can put him back on his leash and we return back the way we came.

We have settled into a rhythm of sorts. With my headphones on and my MP3 player blasting Christian artists like Smokie Norful or the "I Can Only Imagine" compilation CD in my ears, I find my stride and sometimes sing out loud while walking. For me, the primary reason for my walk is to just find some time to spend with God. I listen intently to every word being sung in my ears. I sometimes hear a lyric which pierces my heart and brings me to tears. I find myself giving praise to God for every message He has put on these songwriters' hearts and walk on.

But even though my mind is on God while I walk my dog, it is through this daily practice God has helped me to see a truth in the dog and man relationship which mirrors our relationship with Him.

Bugsy has learned to respond to me, and I to him. We have gotten to the point in our relationship where his leash is like a steering wheel. I need only to nudge it one way or gently pull it the other to steer him in the right direction. He doesn't turn around and look at me for reassurance, he simply feels the tug on his neck and responds to where I'm leading him. In the distance, if I see a person or a car pulling out of an alley, I wind up his chain around my hand and pull him closer to protect him. He's still a puppy and wants to jump at everyone he meets, so I'm also protecting him from getting into trouble with people. When the danger is gone, I let out his leash and he continues on.

Rarely does Bugsy lag behind, but occasionally, he will see a squirrel, or a leaf roll by and try to dart ahead. I give him a yank on his leash and pull him back into our stride. Most of the time, one yank will do it.

Sometimes, the incline of the bridge is steep. It is here, going up hill, where I find Bugsy slowing down and losing steam so that he ends up walking right by my side.

Once we are on the island, Bugsy gets playful. Maybe it's the wide open space, or the abundance of sticks, but over and over again he tries to snatch something off the ground and take it along on our journey. I usually ignore it and eventually he'll drop it until the next thing he sees. Then we get on the trail. The trail is a well marked path with lots of obstacles - hills, valleys, tree roots, rocks, fallen branches, and more. For ease of walking, it is very important to stay on the path.

Bugsy varies from day to day on how well he can keep his sight on the path. Some days, it's as if he knows that at the tip of the island is the refreshing water to which I'm leading him. Other days, he darts and twists and yanks the whole way there with every stick, rock, or scent he finds. On days like these, his yanking and sudden jerking either completely trips me up or sends a shockwave of pain through my sciatic nerve. One day he actually jumped up and bit my butt for no apparent reason, just his need to be playful (German Shepherds use their mouths to play). I give him an, albeit, more forceful yank and try to get his attention back on the path.

I've been collecting these "Dog + Human mirrors Human + God" messages for about two weeks now. But just when I thought I had a clear picture on what God was trying to reveal to me, Tuesday struck. Bugsy and I settled into our routine all the way to the island. He pooped a few more times than usual (more on that later) but other than that, it was like any walk. We got to the tip of the island, I let him off his leash, he took his drink. But when the time came for him to get back on his leash, he decided to play "keep away."

Round and round he ran, darting yards ahead of me, then rushing back. Just when I thought he was coming to me so I could put his leash on him, he'd take off again. I thought to myself "I should give him credit since he is coming back to me and seems afraid to go too far without me," but because he was not following basic commands of "Cut" or "Sit," I found myself growing angry. I carry a rolled up newspaper to correct him when he has these moments of disobedience. He finally came close enough to me that I was able to tackle him to the ground, give him three swats wth the newspaper on his backside and put him back on his leash. I held his chin in my hand and said, "Don't you ever do that again.... Let's go!" I resumed walking, well, more like stomping in my fury and then the strangest thing happened.

Suddenly, it was as if Bugsy feared me. He kept turning around and looking at me sheepishly, nearly cringing. If I gave his leash a little nudge, he winced. He didn't dare stop for any sticks or do his usual attempt to romp and play when we came out of the woods. It was almost as if he finally realized I meant business.

In your Christian walk, I'm sure you feel the gentle pulling and nudging of God's "leash" on you. He's trying to keep you moving forward on the path; He's trying to lead you to refreshing water. Along the way, He pulls you in to protect you from harm, but He gives you free will and allows you to continue to walk ahead. When you're facing your mountains, He's there right beside you.

But how many times in our Christian walk, do we try to dart off when something flutters by? How many times do we pick up a new habit (stick) and try to take it along on our journey? How many times do we get distracted, step off our path, yank and jerk until we bring pain to God, and even sometimes bite Him in the butt with our ways?

Because of our routine, Bugsy poops in the same places on his walk always within a few feet of garbage cans. I, always armed with plastic bags, quickly scoop the poop up and place it in the trash receptacles. But on a day like Tuesday when Bugsy pooped a few more times, I ended up having to carry his poop for awhile until I could find a place to deposit it. I know it's gross, but there's a spiritual truth here, so I had to share this information.

How quickly God gets rid of our own personal poop, but sometimes we put Him in a position where He has to carry it a bit longer. When we make mistakes which not only affect us but also the others around us, He's the one left with the cleanup. He's the one who has to mend the hearts and restore the souls left in our wake, not us. We already have our minds on the next stick.

Finally, why does God have to tackle us to the ground and give us a couple of "Life's Swats" in order to gain our attention again. Sometimes we run around and around God - close enough so that we know He is still there, but still in our own place of play and disobedience. And suddenly, when He corrects us, we're surprised! We start looking behind us to see what other danger lurks because we know we're getting spiritually corrected. But if we had stayed on the path and did what we were told in the firstplace, we would have no reason to fear. We could be free to simply walk with God in His undeniable love for us!

Sometimes we act like dumb dogs. God chose us and gave us a place in His home. He gives us food and water, protects us and cares for us. But sometimes, we want what we want, get too easily distracted or simply disobey our Master's call.

When we got home from our walk, I was still fuming. Bugsy kind of collapsed on the floor and hung his head in shame while I detailed the events to Derek. Derek shook his head in disbelief and Bugsy continued to pout.

But then comes the best part. After I had calmed down, Bugsy came to me and lay his head in my lap with his little pointed eyebrows and his pleading eyes. "You know I love you," I said. And with that he jumped up, putting his forelimbs across my lap and burying his head under my arm - the only cuddle position he fits in anymore. Then I added, "You better start listening."

And with that, I was reminded again how our Master handles us. When we finally deal with our shame and come back to Him with a sorrowful heart, He welcomes us back into His arms and reminds us of His love for us.

Okay Lord, I'm listening.