While watching a recent episode of Cesar Millan’s show, Better Human, Better Dog, it occurred to me that dog training and spirituality have some commonalities.
While I’m not a habitual watcher of the show, I have seen a number of episodes and am familiar with many of the techniques that Cesar demonstrates. In any of the shows I’ve watched, the theme is always to have the dog achieve the “calm surrender” state. It seems like magic when Cesar gets a barking dog to just sit down next to him and not be disturbed by the people around it. That calm surrender state does not change the personality of the dog, but rather allows the dog to be around other animals and people and able to interact with them in a respectful way. It seems much like what God asks of us: to allow God to be our center and for us to surrender ourselves to His will. When we do that, it does not make us any less than who we are, but makes us more of who we’re supposed to be because we’re fulfilling the role God intended for us.
While Cesar Millan makes it look easy for dogs to get into the calm surrender state, for Christians trying to surrender their will to God seems a lot more challenging. Or maybe it’s just me, but as much as I try and pray for that willing surrender, I do get nervous and anxious about situations and future events. I may tell God that I’m putting it all in His hands and then minutes later I find myself thinking about that same issue again. Perhaps it’s God giving me the opportunity to practice, then again, with the amount of practice I’ve had, why am I not an expert by now?!
Other similarities are discipline and boundaries. Dogs need to learn how to behave within “the pack.” When in a family of humans, the humans are the leaders and set the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior, like not jumping up on a person as they walk through the door or getting right into a person’s face. The simple “shushing” sound that Cesar makes is incredibly effective for dogs to respond to a simple chastisement. When practiced consistently, dogs not only learn what’s allowed but they also enter into the calm surrender state in lieu of acting out. Unfortunately, even with the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes, practicing a Christian way of life is easier said than done. I have many good intentions, yet there always seems to be some reason that I find blocks my ability to act. When it comes to checking social media or relaxing by watching television, I seem to find the time to do those activities. But I’m in good company, as even Paul wrote to the Romans, “The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Romans 7: 18-19)
Perhaps the difficulties I face are because I’m more of a cat person, or at least more like my independent Vera, who insists on affection only when she wants it and loudly protests my lack of attention if meals are not provided on time. I wonder if I’m limiting my interactions with God to the routine prayer times and only petitioning God instead of rounding out my prayer with adoration, contrition and thanksgiving. Although when Vera curls up in my lap at the end of day and purrs herself into a gentle snore, any mischief she may have gotten up to is quickly forgotten. Even more generous is God, as His mercy is readily available to me in the sacraments.
Dogs, cats, and fellow creatures can teach us much about the spiritual life. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons God provided such an incredible amount of diversity on earth. Each person can relate to some animal and find that special bond of understanding that defies description. Truly knowing another creature — their habits, their personality, and their instincts — can give us a unique perspective in our relationship with God.