Many years ago, as I watched a roommate pack the last of her belongings, it hit me: I’d be living alone for the first time. Within a week, I found a Rottweiler mix from a local shelter. She was a rescue, but as I grew fond of saying, she was the one who rescued me.
She taught me so much about how to live an authentic, more spiritual life and how to prioritize what was important. The first thing I noticed about her was how little she needed: water, food, shelter and recreation. Our pets are masters at keeping things simple. None of the trappings of modern conveniences make any difference to our pets. They only need the basics, and it’s a good reminder to us as well.
Recreation is one of those needs that we often overlook. Pets are great for reminding us that we should always find a little time to play, no matter what. I remember a friend’s dog who, in the midst of our loud vent-session, gently nudged me, tennis ball in his mouth. His eyes seemed to say, “Yeah, I know. You hate your job. The only solution is a game of fetch.”
That dog was right!
Our pets also have a sweet way of reminding us to bond with them as well as others. This is especially important for the loners among us. My dog is a daily reminder that I need to get out of my own self-absorption and take a walk. In doing so, I get a unique opportunity to socialize with like-minded people.
When I first moved to my current building, I remember the real-estate agent saying, “If you want to make friends, get a dog.”
He was not wrong; I met more people in the dog park than I ever would have otherwise. I’ve also watched strangers bond with each other at the veterinarian office. Pets have a way of bringing unfamiliar people into familiar territory and making any initial differences disappear. Beyond friendships, singles with pets could meet many more potential dates. They don’t call puppies “chick magnets” for nothing! They can be men magnets too.
Another aspect of socialization that pets could teach us about is conflict resolution. That sounds far-fetched, but it makes sense. We already know that our pets cannot get bogged down by petty disagreements, resentment, gossip, jealousy and deceit because of their lack of higher-order cognition. But they show us that these behaviors are not necessary for our survival. For us as Catholics, it is a gentle reminder of how we are called to treat others.
Pets also give us purpose through fostering responsibility. As singles, we often have fewer people – spouses, in-laws, etc. – who need our care. Caring for them, even with a minimum of effort, gives us the maximum return of our creatures’ love and affection. And who among us couldn’t use more love and affection?
In fact, I would classify that love and affection as unconditional. This is of particular importance for single people. Our pets don’t care about all the things that seem to matter when we are scrutinized on dates or by others who question our single status. They just accept us for who we are, not imposing any unrealistic standards. And, as any dog owner knows, they are always happy to see us, even if we leave the room for two minutes. Our pets remind us of God’s unconditional love. They are a physical manifestation of one of the eternal mysteries of our faith.
Another way singles can benefit from pets is the idea that a pet is a good judge of character. My Rottweiler was abused before she was rescued. If she cowered behind me, I knew to avoid whoever I was talking to. Conversely, if I notice someone behaving strangely around my dog, I avoid them as well. Psychologists have proved that if people are unkind towards animals, it’s a red flag.
Finally, I believe that our pets are a mirror to ourselves. Many therapy dogs, for instance, are able to alert their owners who are epileptic that a seizure is approaching. I half-jokingly refer to my former dog, the beloved Rottweiler, as “co-dependent” and my current dog, a retired racing Greyhound, as “anorexic.” They are jokes, of course, but there’s an element of truth in the idea that what I see in them, they reflect from me.
The idea that animals could be our spiritual guides is often embraced by New Age enthusiasts and eschewed by Catholics; however, the Feast of St. Francis is the perfect time to reflect on this idea. Certainly, St. Francis himself would agree with it! His feast day is a great time to give thanks for your pets and to get them blessed by your local parish.