I love my dog. I just hate my dog’s barking. He’s a working dog of some kind, likely generations back he was bred to herd things; trouble is, we live in the suburbs and there is nothing of use for him to herd here. Unable to break the genetic bond to his ancestors, however, he instinctually herds things that are of no use. Teenagers on skateboards, children on bikes, our cats or any other animal that happens to be passing by, including the crows who sit in the trees above our backyard an taunt him relentlessly—Mario feels it is his duty, moreover, his moral imperative, to put these creatures back on the correct track. Given he has no words and he walks on four legs, he has one way of fulfilling his obligation: to bark and run circles around the house and yard, alerting anyone and everyone to the danger.
In loud, frantic barking language, it goes something like this, “OH MY GOD! THERE’S A CROW/CAT/TEENAGER OUT OF PLACE. COME QUICK! COME QUICK! MAYBE YOU DIDN’T HEAR ME? I SAID THERE’S A CROW/CAT/TEENAGER OUT OF PLACE! NOW! COME HERE! YOU THERE, YOU GO HOME WHERE YOU BELONG! DID YOU HEAR ME? I SAID…” And it continues like that until the crow/cat/teenager is out of sight and he can relax, knowing his job is done. Either that or he figures then it’s just in somebody else’s domain and no longer his responsibility.
As if that’s not enough, apparently somewhere along Mario’s familial line a working dog crossed with a hunting dog, because the only thing he does more than try to herd things is chase things. Put a squirrel in this dog’s line of vision (or smell) and you will witness an untold feat of canine gymnastics. He twists and turns and whines and growls and pants and paces. Watch your feet when you finally open a door because his back paws will dig into whatever is near in order to propel him out the door with the force of a cannon.
I’d imagine the inside of his head sounds something like this, “SSQQUUIIIRREELLLLL!!!!!” Based on his behavior, my guess is it repeats much like that over and over, louder and louder, until he finally can chase that sucker with bullet speed. Thankfully, squirrels can climb. If not, there’d be none left in a five mile vicinity of where we live.
No matter what kind of positive or negative reinforcement that Mario is offered, the barking and the chasing continues. The messages to do both course through his veins with such power that human intervention has no ability to override them. It’s as if he’s powered by God to do this work and, by God, he’s going to do it.
The interesting thing is, when I give him an outlet on a regular bases for this energy, he’s far less likely to spend his day as a caged animal waiting for his moment to do what comes naturally. When Mario first came to us I walked him twice a day, sometimes as much as two or three miles at a time. He herded and chased and ran and delighted both himself and all those around him (“His body language just screams ‘happy dog!’” people would say to me). In those days he didn’t pace and bark, lying on the floor in a sad-dog state one moment and turning into crazy-dog-breaking-down-the-screen-door-to-get-out when the whiff of a squirrel came through with the breeze.
Where before we could speak freely, able to say the “SQ” word (squirrel) out loud, without fear he’d jump out of his skin and frantically circle the interior of the house looking for one, we’re now editing ourselves (hence the code language) in futile hope of preventing the inevitable outburst. In those early days Mario was mostly just a quiet, contented dog that only lost his mind in delight when someone new came over to visit. Now, if we so much use the w.a.l.k. word in passing, he loses his mind in hopes of procuring the walk that may never come.
In recent years I just have not made the time to get him out like I used to. Graduate school, kids’ schedules, the demands of work…I’ve allowed all of it to get in between Mario and the daily feeding of his soul. Truth is, in feeding his soul, I fed mine too. I exercised, I spent time outside, I had time to clear my head, be still, and be fully conscious of who I was in those very moments. I’d come home every day and write, and the words would come as easily as if I was powered by God to do that work and, by God, I was going to do it.
I’ve noticed a similar dynamic in my children. When they are doing what they were genetically wired to do, they do it with such ease it’s as if resistance did not exist. My older son plays hard outside, exercising, competing, and allowing his body to move in a way that releases any and all pent up intensity. My younger son sings and dances, loud, raucous, and uninhibited, allowing his body to creatively express any and all ideas that delight his mind. In those states, their body language seems to scream “happy children,” both to me and those around them.
The difference between us and Mario is the fact that, because we have language and walk on two legs, human intervention does have the power to override our genetic purpose. It usually starts with something like, “You should…” or, worse, “You shouldn’t…” and because we’re conditioned to do what people tell us to do, we abandon our life’s purpose—the very part of us that is and brings us closest to God—in order to follow another person’s agenda. We don’t bark and break through screen doors, but we usually argue and defy and act out in other ways, all in a pathetic attempt to get someone to give us permission to do what we really want to be doing with our lives.
While I do realize we’re all in this human civilization together and, at least to a certain extent, sometimes we do have to prioritize one thing over another just to get through life. What I’ve noticed, however, is that when we allow ourselves to live in and express our true God-given purpose as often as possible, the hard parts of life don’t seem so hard. The sacrifices don’t seem so painful. The offerings we make for one another are out of good will instead of obligation.
And in those moments, we are just like Mario running down the dirt path chasing not the sanitized “SQ,” but the living, breathing, “SQUIRREL!”
And in those moments, we are truly alive.