I have been an animal lover ever since I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are being at our vacation cottage and going on missions to rescue whatever living beings I could find. In fact, my mom can remember a time when I was about 5 years old and she found me behind the cottage, cuddling what was very possibly a feral cat. I cried and named it “Poor Thing” because I felt sorry for it (I never lived that down and am still mocked by my family to this day). During my childhood, we had at least one or two dogs in my family at all times. I loved them so much that when they had to be put down, I felt as if I had lost a sibling.
A few years ago, I landed my dream job as a facility dog handler at Cook Children’s Medical Center, a children’s hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. I was so excited about the opportunity that it took me a while to consider what I’d actually be doing and how the job would impact my life. I knew I loved dogs (especially golden retrievers), and I knew I loved kids, and had a knack for helping them through tough situations. This job was perfect for me – I was born to do it.
When I first met my canine partner, Ralph Lauren, I mistakenly had an image in my head of a golden retriever that was red, small, and female. Instead, looking at me via side-eye through a crate door was a large, white male. I looked at him and excitedly said, “Hi buddy!” to which he promptly sighed and laid down. I panicked. I not only assumed that my dog would be something he wasn’t, but I also assumed he’d be as overjoyed to meet me as I was to meet him. Not the case. It felt like I was failing in some way. I asked if maybe he wasn’t the right dog for me and I was assured he was and I should just give it some time.
Within an hour of meeting him, I was so in love with Ralphie that I cried happy tears. He came around pretty quickly to loving me, too (or at least I like to pretend he did).
More than four and a half years later, I have a unique perspective on what it means to have a relationship with your dog. For the past half-decade, I have spent nearly every day, all day, with Ralph at my side. He, more than anyone else on the planet, has seen every good, bad, and ugly thing I have to offer. He’s been with me when I’ve been sick, heartbroken, happy, afraid, and content. He’s been with me for every great day and hard day at work, he’s left town with me for funerals, and hit the road with me for vacations. I once had the opportunity to take him to the beach and see him discover sand for the first time. He was an absolute maniac and I laughed so hard at his wild, uninhibited joy, that I again cried happy tears.
After being with Ralph 24/7 for several years, here are a few things I have learned about the human-dog relationship:
ONE AND THE SAME
It’s not unlike the human-human relationship. For example, a successful relationship with your dog requires a secure attachment, effective communication, understanding of needs, patience, respect, shared joy, alone time, and trust.
THE EYE CONNECTION
Eye contact matters more than we think. Think about it this way; if you’re spending time with someone you love, and all of the sudden you realize they haven’t once looked you in the eye, wouldn’t that be upsetting? Worrisome? You’d probably wonder what you did wrong. Dogs are the same way. They’re looking to us for a connection. It is our responsibility to offer that to them.
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
Dogs need reassurance. They are wired to want to please their human, and they need to be told when they’re getting it right. I have found that ignoring (not punishing) undesirable behaviors and celebrating desired behaviors ends up producing the most robust relationship.
ACTS OF SERVICE
Just like with any relationship, we have to do the work. After an especially long day, it can be hard to pour into your dog, take them for a long walk, put life on pause for a while to play with them, etc. But doing the work (and doing it the right way) is what deepens the bond between us and our dogs, and it’s what allows us to reap the benefits of having a four-legged friend.
A LOVE THAT LASTS
We don’t deserve dogs. I know that’s written on a thousand silly memes circulating the internet, but it’s true. Dogs are so pure, so loyal, and so unconditionally loving/forgiving, they offer something no other animal or human can offer. The relationship we have with our dogs is sacred (and way too short). It is not to be taken for granted.
At least once a day, I look Ralph right in the eye and say out loud, “You are my very best buddy,” and that’s probably the most honest thing I could ever communicate to him.
How have you felt the dog-human connection in your life?
Kizzy Marco grew up in Chicago and is a graduate of the University of Iowa. She has loved dogs her whole life, starting with the Cairn Terrier her family got when she was 5 years old (she wanted to name him StarBright, which her siblings still mock to this day). Now Kizzy has her dream job which is improving outcomes for hospitalized kids with the help of her Golden Retriever, Ralph Lauren.