My Dog, My Mentor

A guest post from Julia Penner-Zook.

Three days ago I was within just a few minutes of queuing this for a blog release when the internet went down. So now that things are back (to normal?) it gives me very great pleasure to publish this guest post.


My Dog, My Mentor.

We humans share the planet with an enormous variety of life forms. In fact, there are so many organisms in our world that scientists cannot agree even on an estimate of how many exist. Anywhere between two and 100 million, we are told. Those numbers are staggering, leaving me feeling small alongside all those with whom I share terrestrial space.

Today my thoughts come to rest on one specific type of world inhabitant––just one out of the multiple millions: the canine! The one who allegedly is man’s (and woman’s) best friend! I have had close contact with dogs since I was a young child, so it’s hardly surprising that I have a great deal of love and respect for them.

No longer are dogs simply farm animals or household pets. They rescue the lost and wounded after natural disasters, serve in combat, their keen sensitivities are used to detect disease in its early stages, their presence brings comfort to the ill or elderly, they accompany their seeingimpaired human counterpart, detect illegal and harmful substances in public places. In short, they frequently provide expertise and skill that exceed that of humans.

People are hesitant to admit this, always desiring to be on top. To be the best and the most developed. Since we seem to have great difficulty simply living alongside one another, we tend to keep score: higher/ lower; bigger/ smaller; better/ worse; superior/ inferior. One result of this scoring system is that we consider ourselves vastly superior to our animal sisters and brothers–– superior in intelligence, capacity for reason, emotion, creativity and relationship.

Carl Safina, marine conservationist, professor and author, challenges this notion of superiority, stating humans are not necessarily unique (or superior), but simply the most extreme: capable of the most compassion and the worst violence; possessing the greatest capacity for creativity and at the same time most able and willing to inflict destruction on one another and on other inhabitants of this planet.

Yet, animals do not respond in kind. Certainly, they will protect and defend themselves and their own, but humans display vastly more aggression. At times, animals choose to exhibit unsurpassed magnanimity towards humans.

Focusing this phenomenon on the family dog, it may surprise us that not WE but THEY seem to provide the greatest benefit in the human / canine relationship. If we are observant, we will be humbled by the fact that characteristics, effortlessly displayed in our pets, are the very same qualities we strive for and often fall short in attaining. Take gratitude, for example. My darling Maltese––gone since September 11, 2015––waited hours for his human to return home to love on, walk with and feed him. When I walked in the door, he did not unleash venom or aggression for having been left alone while I was away working. His tail wagging knew no bounds––he simply adored the moment he was again joined by his human.

But me? My mind would play all kinds of games when similarly “neglected”: It’s been weeks since I heard from her, it’s about time she called. I didn’t do anything to deserve this silence!

And then there’s unconditional love. What about the times I would become impatient with my furry family member? At times he was distracted on walks, simply delighted by all the sounds, smells and sights of the outdoors. But, I had a goal and a time limit, giving rise to frustration at his digressions. However, my dog wasn’t frustrated. On the contrary, he not only endured my impatient scolding––calls to move on, to hurry––but reciprocated with lavish love the very next moment. How did he do that?

Why is my dog, (whether instinctively or cognitively is actually irrelevant) capable of exhibiting the very virtue I strive for, fail at, attempt repeatedly, become frustrated over failing yet again? The list of virtues seems endless:

  • kindness,
  • patience,
  • resiliency,
  • forgiveness,
  • encouragement,
  • empathy,
  • sensitivity,
  • contentment,
  • the innate ability to live in the moment.

My furry family member expressed––indeed he lived them all.

And what about me? I exhibit these qualities periodically. Sporadically. Brokenly. With enormous, conscious effort.

In his final months, my small Maltese slowed down, had increasing difficulty with mobility, became disoriented, nearly blind and partially deaf. In a word: dependent. Yet his trust, courage and peace were astounding. In his final days he became quiet, hardly uttering a sound, yet the pictures of those days bear witness to his alertness and awareness. He knew!

Could it be that he was quiet because he was at peace with what had been and what was to come? I believe that because he had given all he had to give, in the best way he had been able to give it, he was able to quietly await and accept his departure as well.

What will it be like for me to grow old? Limited? Increasingly dependent? I don’t know! Will I know that the value of my existence is not tied with activity or productivity? Will I learn to live in the moment––grateful, at peace, content?

How will I face the imminent transition from this life to the next? I don’t know! Will my last days be characterized with peace? Absorbing and bestowing love? Satisfied with small things? Inwardly at rest?

These reflections will accompany me for years.

There are questions that are equally relevant––and perhaps more immediate:

  • How can I have a more sane understanding of my place in this expansive and exquisite terrestrial community?
  • What will enhance a sense of respect and appreciation for the dizzying variety of species I live alongside?
  • What will it take for me to continue growing and learning as a human?

These seem profound questions in light of growing disregard for human and animal life. It is not unlikely, however, that sharing space with dogs will help me grow into a more gracious and balanced person.

Here’s to our canine mentors!

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2015


Beautiful words and thoughts. So perfect for a blog named Learning from Dogs.

Julia Penner-Zook is the author of Behind Each Face Her book was Released: June 2015.
Please visit her website:

9 thoughts on “My Dog, My Mentor

  1. Thank you kindly, Paul! I appreciate you asking whether I would be interested in doing a guest post. What a pleasure, as I very much enjoy your site. All the best to you!


  2. Reblogged this on Life Matters and commented:
    Here’s a piece that is somewhat different from what I might typically write during the holiday and Christmas season. But having received the invitation to write a guest blog post from the generous Paul Handover, who hosts the site, Learning From Dogs, I was delighted!
    Please visit his site at


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