Everything I Know About Forgiveness, I Learned From My Dog

Everything I Know About Forgiveness, I Learned From My Dog
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Josh Misner, PhD

Allow me to begin this story by emphatically declaring that I am much more of a cat person than a dog person. I’ve always identified with the following quote from Robert De Niro’s character in Meet the Parents:

You see, Greg, when you yell at a dog, his tail will go between his legs and cover his genitals, his ears will go down. A dog is very easy to break, but cats make you work for their affection. They don't sell out the way dogs do.

I genuinely admire the way I have to earn a cat’s love and affection. In fact, I have a cat at this moment who did not warm up to me for at least a few years, but once I earned her trust slowly and methodically, I became her best friend (until I rub her belly, and then all bets are off).

In a way, I suppose I can extrapolate something of myself when looking at my preference for cats. I tend to be somewhat guarded and protective of my trust at first for most people. I wait and watch what they do, carefully selecting who I allow into my “circle of trust,” as De Niro’s character would say, based upon how much of my trust I feel they have earned.

As a cat person, I suppose I’ve always looked at dogs with a healthy dose of skepticism. I never gave much thought to what De Niro’s character said about “breaking” them, but I can’t help but feel like dogs are a bit on the, well, dumb side. It’s always seemed to me like dogs blindly offer their loyalty to their masters. Once you bring a dog home with you and give him or her some food, it’s all over. You can tease them, toss them imaginary treats and laugh as they lunge at nothing, leave them alone all day long (knowing that they are waiting patiently by the door for your return), occasionally forget to feed them on time, and you can commit a whole host of other indiscretions, but their loyalty remains unfazed. There they still sit patiently, awaiting your return home again, ready to greet you with a wagging tail, and in my unnaturally large yellow lab’s case, a cheesy smile (yes, he really does smile).

<p>Disturbing, isn’t it?</p>

Disturbing, isn’t it?

Josh Misner, PhD

My beloved partner has always been the dog person in our family, and she absolutely adores them, which means I have to put up with them. As a result of healthy compromise in our relationship, she has always kept at least one dog, so I’ve had about a decade and a half to get used to dogs in our home and really observe how they interact. What has always struck me about dogs is their generally easygoing nature. I envy that.

Cats hold grudges. Make a cat angry by simply not filling their food dish up high enough (it doesn’t even have to be totally empty for a cat to get irritated—just near empty) or by petting a cat the wrong way, in the wrong place, or at the wrong time, and the cat will not only let you know, usually in the most painful way possible, but will then spend the next several days knocking prized personal possessions and knickknacks off ledges and countertops. In a sense, I recognize that I’ve always been a little like cats in that regard. They say that people and their pets often hold striking similarities, and now, I understand why. When I get upset about something someone said, perhaps a sharp comment or an off-color remark, I have a tendency to ruminate on it, to allow it to occupy space in my head for hours and even sometimes, days. I spin it around, look at it from various angles and often end up stewing on what happened before finally confronting the other person much later, usually much to their surprise.

Dogs, on the other hand, forgive almost instantly. When our golden retriever sneaks a snack that may have been left out by one of my kids (something that happens often), we discipline her, usually by shouting “No!” At that moment, we clearly see her canine expression of remorse, as she cowers away to her doggy bed, tail between her legs. After cleaning up the mess, and I sit down near her doggy bed, she gets up, tail wagging, and approaches me, as if to say she is sorry. In that moment, I am absolutely dumbfounded by what is happening before my very eyes.

First, the way in which she approaches me, in the unassuming and humble way only a dog can, assures me she’s already let go of what happened. She doesn’t dwell on the way I yelled at her. She isn’t fixated on rationalizing how she deserved the snack, nor is she making excuses for how she thought the snack was up for grabs. She doesn’t “kitchen sink” me by pointing out how this is the fifth time this week that I got angry and yelled at her for something. In that moment, what she exhibits is unconditional forgiveness in its purest form. She is the first to extend the olive branch. She admits to her fault, as best a dog can without the benefit of spoken language, and in doing so, seeks my forgiveness.

<p>Who could resist that face?</p>

Who could resist that face?

Josh Misner, PhD

Second, I am struck by how her action is completely and utterly disarming for me. Regardless of how irritated or angry I might get, regardless of how indignant I might feel because she took something she should have known better than to take, and regardless of any of my other emotional baggage I might be holding (i.e., had a bad day, a headache, or tired), her selfless and humble gesture immediately softens me, and I forgive her. In that moment, she lets go, as do I, and we leave the past behind us (hopefully with her learning to no longer sneak those snacks).

In this sense, I have come to realize that we all have a lot to learn from dogs. Despite all our intelligence, science, critical thought, and advanced technology, it seems that we humans could take a cue from our dogs and be slow to anger, quick to forgive, and even quicker to seek forgiveness from others whom we have wronged. How wonderful would it be to become like a dog in this manner? To not ruminate over trivial offenses, to not waste precious time with loved ones by maintaining a divided relationship over some misunderstanding, or to be so filled with hateful, unhealthy pride that we avoid doing the right thing simply because we don’t want to look weak? When reflecting on all of this, I am slowly being won over by dogs.

My cat is still my baby, though.

Follow Josh Misner, Ph.D. on Facebook: www.facebook.com/drjmindfuldad

(Originally posted to joshmisner.com as an excerpt from Seeing Again for the First Time: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, an interactive 16-week book that invites readers to explore the impact of mindful awareness, resilience, savoring the moment, and connecting with others through activities often involving destruction of the book itself.)

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