I’m often intrigued by how my twelve-pound rescue poodle interacts with other dogs and other people. At a high level it’s easy, he likes boy dogs and girl people, but it’s actually more complicated that that. As always there are lessons to learn from Pepper that I can apply in my life.
Be Authentic. Pepper is exactly who he puts out there. He is an energetic, friendly, a little bit alpha poodle. It is possible that his inside authentic self is a 70 pound dog rather than the 12 pound body that contains him. He is a well behaved dog 98% of the time and a brat the rest of the time. While he is mindful of his behavior around some people, he is never anyone different than his authentic poodle self.
Be Appropriately Vulnerable. With his best friends, Pepper is willing to be completely vulnerable. With his dog best friend, Harry, this means that he greets Harry with complete joy every, single time, even if Harry ignores him. He will also quite happily sit under Harry. With people this means that Pepper will roll over on his back and trust that the person who is holding him will treat him well or he will jump into my arms for love from one of his favorite people. But, for people and dogs that he does not totally trust, he is not vulnerable, he does not expose his belly (and his privates), he does not make it easy for them to pick him up, and he does not sit underneath them. Brene Brown in her work on vulnerability talks about the importance of choosing carefully and mindfully with whom you will be vulnerable.
Give Love. There are many people (and a few dogs) who Pepper knows and loves. He will greet them warmly even if he has not seen them for a year. Often he begins to get excited by their visit when he sees their car drive by our living room windows. He is excited to see them and appreciates the love that they give him. But, this is not a vulnerable love. He is quite content after a greeting to go back to other pressing matters such as keeping guard at the window on his constant watch for Harry, playing with his favorite beanie baby, or, usually, napping.
Be Kind. Pepper is kind to most people and many dogs. He’ll sniff cautiously and say hello. He may bark at them if they get too much “into his business” but generally he is kind to other dogs. Similarly, most people get a warm, friendly greeting from Pepper. He makes them feel special and treats them as if he is happy to see them, and he is. However, he minds his boundaries and does not display vulnerability or the unconditional love that is the trademark of his relationship with Harry and with my stepdaughter whom he adores.
Be Mindful. Pepper, with instincts I don’t think I will ever understand, is mindful of the people and dogs around him. He has an uncanny ability to react appropriately to new people. With an older frail person, he will sit and look longingly into their eyes. With a young, strong person, he will jump up for attention and love, with young children, he will melt into their laps and let them play with him, pet him, and generally enjoy themselves. He mindfully senses and responds to what others need.
Have Fun. Pepper has fun with his friends. He plays, he cavorts, he jumps, and he runs. He does not go out to dinner with his friends or spend a lot of money when he is with them.
Be Wary. When we first adopted Pepper (who is a rescue) he would run up to any stranger any time. I think it was probably a survival mechanism from when he lived on the street (note I do not recommend adopting this strategy). Now that he feels more secure with us, Pepper is appropriately wary of strange people and strange dogs. If he sees a dog that he doesn’t trust on a walk, he will step closer to us and mind his own business as we pass the suspect beast. With people he will often let them greet him, but he sits quietly and does not engage. The exception is when he feels he is protecting us in which case he barks his head off. He understands that this amazing world has some dangers within it without letting them interrupt his joy.
Here are the lessons I am drawing from Pepper at this point in time. I love and enjoy my friends without judgment. I am putting a high priority on being kind. I love the consideration “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” before saying something.
At the same time, just as Pepper will not spend time with people or dogs who are mean to him, I am not putting energy into friendships where I see meanness. Most importantly for me is that I will continue to be authentic while being more mindful of with whom I am vulnerable. My call to action is to suggest that spending more time being kind, authentic, appropriately vulnerable, and mindful of others’ feelings and needs might just make for better, healthier friendships and shift the conversation from “Shall I unfriend you on facebook?” to “How can we best honor each other’s unique and beautiful spirits?”