My sweet 7-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Coco, has weathered a lot of changes over the last four years. Through it all, her graceful spirit has spoken volumes to me about adaptability, bumps in the road and, oddly, the resilience of the human spirit.
I found Coco in a rescue shelter where she had been placed when her elderly owners could no longer care for her. She wasn’t in the best health when she arrived. She had eaten her way to 25 pounds and was acting out her anxieties with “eat-everything in sight” behavior. I could relate. My own domestic stressors were at an all time high, triggering familiar insecurities and negatively impacting my life. So when Coco’s rescue mom said she wasn’t very smart, my heart felt sadness and I immediately wanted to take her home. We made an instant connection.
Coco adjusted to our home pretty easily. She was well-mannered, good with the grandkids and liked to play. She responded to love and affection, and our bond was solid. But new challenges were just around the corner.
Shortly after bringing Coco home, I made a major life change of my own, ending a 35 year marriage. I moved to an apartment. Coco adapted to our new routine, and loved me unconditionally. No judgement. Something I had never experienced in my life.
After a year of apartment living, we moved again. With more space and a nice big yard, Coco acclimated quickly to our new digs. We were together constantly, taking daily walks, running errands and doing yard work. She was always by my side or under my feet or hogging the bed. My best bud! And then I met Craig, my new “best bud” and Coco’s biggest challenge yet.
Along with his big heart and enthusiasm for life, Craig also brought Grasshopper and Buckley (two huge German Shorthaired Pointers) into our lives. Together they were 120 pounds of fear that didn’t thrill either one of us. The first time Coco visited, Grasshopper and Buckley scared the “Coco Puffs” out of her and she pooped on the floor! Not exactly the behavior I’d hoped for. But then, the “big dogs” had their own issues. As Craig and I moved from dating to committed life partners, both Coco and I had a steep learning curve as we adapted to life as part of a larger blended family.
Again, there were new rules and another new routine — a different feeding schedule, a no-dogs-in-the-bedroom policy, and an electric fence. Some lessons took Coco a little longer to learn than others. After two separate rabbit chases ended in a jolt from the fence, Coco was so afraid of the yard that we had to carry her out onto the grass to do her business, sooth her as she went, and carry her back into the house. Eventually, she learned that the yard could be a safe, happy place, as long as she understood the boundaries. Smart little Coco not only mastered the new rules, she flourished!
The day Coco pranced into the house covered from head to toe with mud, I realized she had truly transformed from city dog into country explorer. She’d changed from timid to assertive, fearful to fearless, tentative to self-assured. Even more amazing was that Coco’s continuous adaptability served to “coach” me through my own transitional period. She simply let herself feel how she felt, spoke to me through her actions, and trusted that I would recognize what she needed and see her through any rough patches. Smart dog!
In Chicken Soup for the Soul, author Alan Cohen writes, “Scared and sacred are spelled with the same letters. Awful proceeds from the same root word as awesome. Terrify and terrific. Every negative experience holds the seed of transformation.”
Coco’s resilience reminded me that we all have the same options: to allow our negative life experiences to hold us back, OR to acknowledge them and use them to move forward. I wish I’d learned that lesson earlier. I wish I’d had the tools to recognize and deal with my own anxieties, fears and insecurities before I moved into adulthood with all kinds of negative patterns in place.
What if I had learned to understand my emotions as a child rather than let them rule my world for so many years? Where would I be if I had understood what I felt was real and valid? I believe I would have been able to move from a place of anxiety and fear into a peaceful and productive mindset of fearless self-assurance much earlier than my mid-fifties. But, I’ve learned to let that go and focus on the here and now, just like Coco did.
Good dog, Coco, good dog.