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June 11, 2014

The Pet with Perfect Timing

Some animals seem to intuitively paw their way into our lives just when we need comfort the most. Here, writer Amy Shearn ponders these pets with “old souls.”

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The month I left for college, my parents got a rescue dog named Mother Teresa. She had been abused as a puppy, and once they got the dog, I don’t think Mother Teresa left my mom’s side for a minute. One thing I’ll say about being replaced by a preternaturally wise dog: It eases the pressure to call home.

Mother Teresa was an enormous husky-shepherd mix with searching eyes and a gently authoritative demeanor. From the start, my mom called Mother Teresa “an old soul,” and I always wondered what made my mother’s bond with this mutt so strong. Sure, she was a sweet creature -- but understanding what made her so special to my mother was a little like trying to figure out why two people fall in love. Who can ever say for sure?

When Mother Teresa died at the age of 13, my mother said she was done with pets. This, it turns out, is not an uncommon reaction among people who’ve had similarly beloved dogs. A neighbor showed me a photo album she’d made of the Welsh terrier she’d adopted after her children left home. A friend’s eyes welled up as she told me about the black Lab that saw her through a life-threatening blood clot. Another friend’s boyfriend remembered the loyal, foxlike mutt that helped him navigate a chaotic, largely unsupervised childhood in the 1970s. Just like my mom, these people often used the term old soul. The pattern seemed to be that these dogs arrived in a moment when their owners needed something special or unique.

Certainly, we’re drawn to different kinds of pets at different times in our lives. How many twentysomethings have Instagram feeds populated by sweet-faced cats and puppies (that have their own rain gear and hashtags)? This is the pet of establishing independence: the animal that says “I am so capable of taking care of myself that I can also take care of something else.” But these animals aren’t “old souls” -- their owners are more likely to call them their “babies.” So perhaps the different stages of our lives inform our relationships to our creatures.

Just as intuitive dogs know when you need them, “people know when they need a dog like that,” says author and Guggenheim fellow Marc Bekoff, who cofounded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall. Bekoff speaks from personal experience: A longtime dog owner, he adopted Jethro -- whom he anointed the Love Dog of the World -- when he was going through a difficult personal situation.

Granted, the idea that having a dog helps you through trying times is not new. Indeed, doctors used to “prescribe” lapdogs as a cure for various women’s illnesses in Elizabethan England. (Upset stomach? Press a pooch to your bosom.) “Many of us turn to our dogs when we’re in need of comfort or support,” says Vanessa Woods, a research scientist at Duke University and coauthor of "The Genius of Dogs" (Plume, 2013). “Studies show that people believe their pets make them less lonely.” So it makes sense, then, that when a grown child leaves home you might subconsciously replace her with an animal, or that if you’re a kid looking for unconditional love in a troubled home, a dog could provide it.

Both my mom and Bekoff likened their dogs to feral creatures -- Mother Teresa was like a wolf, and Jethro reminded Bekoff of a coyote. It made me think this might be just the kind of dog one needs when life has taken a wild turn -- when your home life alters dramatically, when your body fails you, when you’re feeling raw and untamed and yearn, whether you know it or not, for a simpler, more elemental relationship.

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