By Ed Staskus
Whenever Padma, a white and tan hound dog, hears her master’s namaste marking the end of class at Blue Lotus in Raleigh, NC, she stirs from her Mexican blanket pile, shakes, stretches in urdhva mukha svanasana, better known as upward-facing dog, and with her long nose in full gear makes the rounds of the yoga studio, sniffing out the sweaty yogis.
“It’s like clockwork,” says Jill Sockman. “She thinks namaste is her release command. If I am at the studio she is with me. On the rare occasion I am working and she’s not with me, people come in the front door, look to her empty bed, and the first thing they say isn’t ‘Hello’ or ‘I’m here for class’, but ‘Where is the dog?’ “
“She is my one true love and constant companion.”
The canine has been mankind’s best friend for a long time.
DNA research suggests gray wolves and dogs split into separate species around 100,000 years ago. Domestication began 30,000 years ago, based on archaeological evidence from caves in Europe, and our herding and hunting relationship with them dates back to the end of the Pleistocene Age. Initially tolerated as scavengers of bones and animal remains, over time dogs were co-opted as guardians and trained helpmates.
“It takes only a short journey to get from dogs guarding the village to a personal house dog,” writes Stanley Coren in The Intelligence of Dogs.
There are more than 400 million dogs in the world. Approximately 78 million of them are in the United States. Almost forty percent of American households own at least one. Among them are many yoga households. Although it is difficult to determine with any accuracy, it often seems like every other-and-more yogi has a dog.
“Almost all the yoga teachers that come to my mind have dogs,” says Dawn Schroeder, a Kundalini Yoga teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. “I have two dogs, both of them rescued.”
For some people, such as the handicapped, dogs are lifesavers. Helen Keller, the deaf and blind social activist, introduced the Akita to the United States and described the dog as an “angel in fur.” For others, like police, farmers, and even corporations, dogs are working partners. The runways of airports like Southwest Florida International are kept clear of large birds by Border Collies. For most people they are better known as pets and companions.
Although more physically diverse than any other land animal, resulting from centuries of intentional breeding, dogs are generally loyal and gregarious by nature, running to the door at the sound of familiar footsteps, not caring whether their owners are young or old, fat or fit, rich or poor. Money can’t buy the wag of a dog’s tail. They rarely run in packs anymore and nowadays consider people to be part of their posse.
With the rise of suburbanization in the 1950s dog populations boomed and they made the transition from the doghouse to the home, becoming increasingly integrated into the lives of their owners. The modern dog became part of the family. Today many people feel like their pets are their favorite people.
“Our dog Zoe, a Westie terrier, is the light of our lives,” says Regan Burnett, who teaches yoga at the Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia. “She does a perfect down-dog and up-dog every morning upon waking and practices Centering Prayer with me in the evenings.
“She is very special.”
“Increasingly,” says Jon Katz, the author of The New Work of Dogs, “we are treating them as family members and human surrogates.” Some single people and childless couples, among others, anthropomorphize their pets to the standing of an honorary child. They are called ‘fur babies’. Even families are challenged by children who know the best way to get a puppy is to ask for a baby brother.
“People are leaning on pets to fill the gap in social support mechanisms that earlier might have come from their families or tight-knit neighborhoods,” says Michael Schaffer, author of One Nation Under Dog.
Americans have fallen in love with their dogs. Since the mid-1990’s spending in the United States on pets has almost tripled, from $17 billion to $43 billion, which is nearly seven times as much as is spent on contemporary yoga and its related products. Yesterday’s Fido and Spot are today’s Jake and Bella, part of the family.
Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss in Rocky River, Ohio, believes yogis engage especially with dogs. “I’m not sure why,” she says. “My guess is our desire to connect with all living beings and to share the vibrational quality of love that is unconditional and undefined. My husband and I rescued an amazing dog eleven years ago. She just passed away late last year, and I still miss her with my whole entire being. I would look into her eyes and know she could see all of me, without words. And she loved me no matter my flaws, failures, or even my not so attractive qualities.”
Dogs hop, skip, and jump when their owners come home. The Odyssey, the second of the two epic poems ascribed to Homer, is the story of a man who returns home after being gone for more than twenty years and is recognized only by his dog, Argos. Once known for his speed and tracking, but now neglected and lying on top of a pile of trash, after waiting ninety-three dog years for Odysseus to come back he wags his tail once and dies.
They lay their heads in our laps and stare up into our eyes, a heartbeat at our feet. They invite our attention and affection. Never mind that Fred Metzger of Pennsylvania State University, who studies the human-animal bond, believes dogs are highly skilled at parsing social behaviors, especially those having to do with hearth and the food bowl.
“Dogs make investments in human beings because it works for them,” he says. According to Dr. Metzger they act according to what makes humans happy to get what they want and need. They are den animals just like us integrated into the hubbub of the household, adaptable and attuned to the moment.
“Dogs give to get back,” says Brenda Motsco of Town and Country Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Ohio, who when not rescuing dogs is a feisty Bikram Yoga aficionado.
Unlike most other animals whose lives are not necessarily dependent on people, and whose existences are in some sense solipsistic, the dog is a different breed. When hailed a cat may or may not get back to you that day, but a dog will bust its butt to heed its master’s beck and call.
“Your dog kind of lives for you,” says David Bessler, senior emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City. Other than adoption, acquiring a dog may be the only opportunity a person has to choose a relative.
Dogs are social animals, like people, and so need and rely on emotions to bond with other dogs and people. According to Marc Beckoff, a behavioral biologist at the University of Colorado, emotion is one of the foundations of social behavior and connects individuals, whether in society, family, or pack. Dogs have an evolutionary need for close emotional ties.
The dog world intersects that of people in many ways. They almost always feel like doing whatever you feel like doing, whether snoozing while you nap or walking in the woods with you and chasing sticks. The other side of a door is always the wrong side of the door to a dog. They rarely hang out a “Do Not Disturb” sign.
“My Chihuahua is always with me at the studio and is our mascot,” says Ellen Patrick of Yoga Sanctuary in Mamaroneck, NY. “She greets all my students and then sleeps next to me while I’m teaching. People tell me they come more for ‘Chi’ therapy than for the yoga because she has such a sweet spirit.”
Over the course of centuries, through the process of domestication, dogs have come to understand people the better than all other animals, and have most easily adapted to our social circumstances. The average dog may be a better person than the average person. Yogis find their dogs through adoption, rescue, and accidentally, like everyone else, but sometimes their dogs come to them in dreams, figuratively and literally.
“I was searching for a companion dog to my older Cathula Leopard Hound,” says Connie Murphy of Yoga Village in Arroyo Grande, California, “but whenever I found one and did my pendulum on getting them or not, I was always told no. Then I started dreaming about a black and white dog. A few days later a black and white stray, part terrier and part cattle dog came into our yard. Cold, wet, starving, filthy, and afraid. It took several days before he would allow us to touch him. We left the garage open for shelter, and fed him, and after we put out fliers and no one answered, he became part of our family. It’s amazing what food and a bath and love can accomplish.”
Although some people find themselves loving dogs more the more they get to know people, it isn’t always the best of all worlds for dogs in the modern world. In the past dogs hunted with men and were their guardians, but today they are acquired for many other reasons. Children pressure their parents to bring home the cute puppy they saw at the store; the lonely get them to relieve stress and anxiety; others buy intensively bred dogs because it is prestigious.
But, even though dogs may be so smart they can do anything short of calculus, they still rely on their human families for everything, including shelter, groceries, water, exercise, and veterinary care. “The way they think about their world is that people are super important and they can solve any problem if they rely on people,” says Brian Hare, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University. Domestic dogs also need social interaction to the degree that without a master and family they grow unhappy and even lost.
Many dogs are abandoned by their owners because of management problems, the pet’s old age, or simply because it is more expedient than taking care of the dog over the course of its 12 or 14-year-life. More than 5 million dogs enter shelters every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and those same shelters euthanize several million more when the dogs aren’t rescued. Puppy mills overproduce pets, annually dumping millions of them on the market, according to the ASPCA, marketing their lovability to the ill prepared.
Many people who practice yoga, and live by its ethical guidelines, rescue rather than buy dogs. “As a person’s awareness expands they are more likely to acquire a dog from a shelter as opposed to buying a dog from a pet store or breeder,” says Cassandra Wallick of Gilbert Yoga in Gilbert, Arizona. “As we begin to see things more clearly we may realize that the breeding of animals for pets is somewhat inhumane when in fact there are thousands of animals being euthanized because of careless owners and over-breeding.”
Television shows like the ‘Dog Whisperer’ on the National Geographic Channel and ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ on Animal Planet have grappled with the biting, barking, and bad behavior of dogs made insecure, neurotic, and bullying by uncaring or uninformed breeding practices and by inappropriate human-to-dog interactions. Less than two generations ago neither Lassie nor Rin Tin Tin ever required a dog behaviorist. Today it seems like all our purebreds and even mutts need a couch.
“Ending or preventing suffering should be the main goal of a real animal lover,” says Val Porter, the author of Faithful Companions: Alliance of Man and Dog. Dogs are trusty and vigilant sidekicks to man. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were always pulling families out of burning buildings and saving the cavalry from marauders. They deserve the reciprocal care and loyalty of committed human companions.
“To live in harmony with all beings, including dogs, is a truly yogic principle,” says Julie Lawrence of the Julie Lawrence Yoga Center in Portland, Oregon. Judging from the principles they live by, known as the yamas and niyamas, the man or woman who practices yoga may be a dog’s best friend. Dogs probably don’t need yoga, better known as doga, but running with yogis may be good for their health. “Because dogs are pack animals, they are a natural match for yoga’s emphasis on union and connection with other beings,” writes Bethany Lytle in ‘Bonding With Their Downward-Facing Humans’ in The New York Times.
The intersection of dog and man can be fraught with misunderstanding and neglect. But, if there is a yogi at the crossroads, the dog is likely in good hands, since the goal of yoga practice is to be as good a person as your dog already thinks you are. ”In my lifetime I have had rabbits, turtles, a mallard duck, fish, parakeets, many cats, and a wonderful dog,” says Marcia Loffredo of Yoga 4 Health in East Hampton, Connecticut. “I believe we love, honor, and respect all of God’s creation based on what we learn and experience in our yoga practice.”
The way of the yogi encompasses animal rights as well as human rights, because that is the way of the whole human being. “My gut reaction is that yogis are good for dogs because through practice they learn to be more caring and compassionate,” says Brenda Motsco. Even though dogs exist for their own reasons, indifference and callousness results in suffering in dogs, and impoverishes the human spirit, as well.
Yogis seemingly gravitate towards dogs and dogs likewise towards yogis. “I have seen this,” says Mandy Grant of Juluka Yoga in Hillsdale NJ. “I have a dog who comes to my studio and students love him. Yoga creates compassion and understanding, and the practice of ahimsa, and the knowledge that we are all linked, makes people like dogs more after practicing yoga.”
Dogs have an unrivaled sixth sense, as any dog will tell you. They can predict thunderstorms and earthquakes, epileptic and diabetic seizures, their owner’s imminent return, and whether or not your friend is really your friend. In 1975 Chinese officials, fearing a catastrophe based in part on observation of the alarming behavior of dogs, ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city of one million people, just days before a 7.3 magnitude quake, saving an estimated 150,000 lives. Japanese researchers, in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, have long studied the usefulness of dogs as prediction tools.
Seizure-alert dogs are trained to react to the smell, reminiscent of nail polish remover, of the metabolic changes before a seizure induced by low blood sugar. “They are masters of observation,” says Nicholas Dodman of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “Their sense of smell is second to none and is beyond our comprehension.”
Sometimes it’s better to have a dog than a doctor in the house.
Dogs have more than 200 million smell sensors in their noses, compared to the 5 million of the average person. Smelling is a dog’s special sense. They discriminate their world through a predominant olfactory cortex and can sniff out fear and friendliness. If a dog snuffs you up and down but will not come to you, it may be time to examine your conscience.
“A dog can sense the softy in us,” says Ginny Walters, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in Rocky River, Ohio. “They know when a good soul will do no harm”
At a bed and breakfast she and her husband built in Costa Rica, featuring a fifteen-mat deck overlooking the lowlands along the Pacific coast, Ginny Walters hosts yoga retreats every winter, and two years ago found her second home adopted by a dog.
“He appeared one morning with buggy eyes and famished. He had a sore on his ear that would heal for a day and then bleed all over again. I really didn’t know what the retreat participants would say. I figured if we didn’t feed him he would go away. But, he stayed. The retreat group would look out the window and he would immediately go into upward dog and as if on cue downward dog. He would never try to come into the house, just stay on the threshold and look at us. Two years later Rahm the dog is getting fat. He is our protector even though he doesn’t belong to anyone. When we leave the house he goes to his other place and stays until we return. He knows the sound of our car. We had an open heart to accept him. We didn’t give off the sweat of fear or anger. Ahimsa is all he asked for and with the yogis he found it.”
Most pet owners satisfy the fundamental requirements of hunger, thirst, and shelter for their dogs. Many of them tend to their social needs and sense of belonging, making them part of the family. Some address the needs that even dogs have for esteem, recognition, and status, fostering strength and self-confidence in their companion animals. A very few understand that dogs may be candidates for self-actualization.
“At one point in my spiritual growth I began to realize the soul of my dog was simply in a four-legged embodiment,” says Cassandra Wallick. “That soul was evolving just like mine. The attainment of oneness, unity, and self-realization is the ultimate path of the soul, and my dog was on his journey just the same as I was. After this epiphany I looked at my dog very differently. Not as a lesser creature, not even as a ‘dog’ anymore, but as a friend soul who was living out one of his incarnations in a dog’s body.”
Many people, even animal lovers, believe dogs have less potential for freedom than humans, so we are free to feel less compunction about denying it to them. But, since our standards for humane treatment of others is constantly expanding, it may be that every dog will have his day. If the dog’s companion is someone who practices yoga, a person whose core values are freedom and actualization, that dog will probably have its day sooner than later.
A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus