Does this look like the face of repentance? No, I don’t think so either. This is our fox terrier Cowboy, sitting in the passenger seat of my car after I sprung him from jail. A couple of weeks ago, he escaped from the backyard and went on an adventure. After chasing him across town for four hours, we gave up for the night and went to bed worried.
The next morning we called the Humane Society. They had him. Cowboy had travelled a few miles that night, crossed a highway, and ended up at a fire station and from there was taken to the Humane Society, where he joined the other incarcerated fugitives. After I posted his bail money, Cowboy appeared with a look on his face that said, “It’s about time you arrived. The food here sucks. Take me home and feed me.”
The woman at the front desk chatted me up about whether this had happened before. When I admitted that this was not his first expedition, she sighed in relief and said, “I roll my eyes when a person says, ‘Oh my dog has learned his lesson. He’ll never do this again.’ Yeah right! We’ll see them again in a couple of months because that dog hasn’t learned a thing except that he can go on an adventure anytime he wants.” Apparently, the adage is true: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
I’m wondering if you can teach a human new tricks. Can we actually change? If so, how does it happen? Why do our wistful cries of, “never again” rarely lead to longterm behavioral change? And when we do actually change, what, outside of a dramatic shift in life circumstances, is the impetus?
Perhaps to learn new tricks we should seek advice from cats instead of dogs. Our cat Bebe, eleven years old, has long been referred to as “the fourth pet”. Sweet, but not overly affectionate, she has typically been a loner. She usually has slept outside in warm months and in far corners of the house during cold months, while the other three pets (two dogs and another cat), jostle for position in the bedroom to sleep as close as possible to their humans.
But starting in February something shifted. Bebe now sits on my lap (as much of her as I can fit on my lap) and wants to be petted. Bebe constantly brushes up against me, marking me as her human. She hops up into bed each night and sits on top of me wanting to be nuzzled before the lights go out. She then snuggles alongside me and settles into a contented, sonorous rest.
What changed? I think it was our insistence during some cold nights in February that she sleep inside. Something in her clicked that she was no longer “the fourth pet” but was loved as dearly as everyone else in the house. That sense of being loved shifted her behavior.
I notice that I too am freer to move from good intentions to changed behavior when I am steeped in love. What usually keeps me stuck is fear – of rejection, failure, isolation, financial distress – and what gets me unstuck is flooding myself, particularly those fearful parts, with unconditional love. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but it does seem to work. When I find myself closing down, resentful, and anxious, rather than stew in those ways of being, I shift my focus. I imagine every cell of my body filled with worth, acceptance and a love that can neither be earned nor taken away.
Now I do have one caveat. While I am finding this increasingly effective in my own life, and while I believe it has transformed Bebe into the most adoring of cats, I don’t know that it has any effect whatsoever on fox terriers. Cowboy is lavished with more attention than any other pet in the household, and yet he remains an unrepentant, incorrigible, jealous escape artist who will jump at any chance to run away. And still, I can’t help but love him.