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Lessons from a Four-Legged Friend





Life Lessons



· Travel

“A man and his dog”, a fellow hiker exclaimed as he took a picture of Sophie and I, with the Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina in the background. I smiled at this remark. The implication was true: the relationship that I have with my dog is special. Ask any self-respecting pet owner and I’m sure that they echo the same sentiment about their own furry friends. In 2012, my family adopted Sophie and my life changed immediately. 

Right away the family fell in love with Sophie. She was cute and loving, but a tough cookie to crack as she was undeniably shaken from her past life with her previous owner(s). It wasn’t until her third or fourth day of residency in the Shepardson home that she seemingly calmed down and became more comfortable. Even today when meeting new people, she tends to air on the side of caution and avoids contact, until she confirms that there is no malicious intent. However, after joining me in my move to Charlotte, NC in 2019, Sophie’s sociability improved tremendously. 

The day I parted ways with my family to begin life on my own, was the dawn of a new day for my canine companion. Living in Massachusetts with my dad, Sophie’s true adventurous and energetic self, adjourned. Tired from work and age, my dad was unable to keep up with this spry and lively animal, causing her to gain weight and decrease in mood. But when I adopted her from the family and brought her to North Carolina, her energy and liveliness returned. 

With plenty of walks, hikes, new smells, new people and more animals for play, her personality blossomed. Her weariness around strangers lessened, she lost weight and her hyper-activeness returned. The crazy, sporadic and lively pup that I chased around the house at night in order to afford me a sound sleep, had returned. It felt amazing to give Sophie a new lease on life filled with adventure, exercise and attention. I take her with me almost everywhere I go, including the six week road trip that I made to America’s beautiful West. Spending most of her time off leash and exploring, she seemingly fell in love with the wide open territory and gorgeous landscape.

But I find myself asking, “is this all enough?” It is undeniable that Sophie has an innate desire to give in to her animalistic tendencies and be free, as is the same for many domesticated animals. She enjoys roaming off leash, eating anything that smells delectable (unfortunately for me that includes feces), and from time to time shows her teeth and snaps at me when I try to impose on her my own will, to her dissatisfaction. She is well trained and generally obedient, but has the propensity to do what she wants whenever she wants, regardless of her owner’s wishes – the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. 

Reflecting on my relationship with Sophie, it is difficult to determine the difference between her animalistic characteristics, her individual personality, and the traits that she gained from our imprinting on each other. Sophie’s whims of freedom may be a result of her own personal call to nature, they may be a reflection of my desires, or both. Her anxiety may come from her past experiences, her own personality, the anxious vibes that she occasionally sees in me, or all of the above. 

One thing that I do know is that it is my responsibility as her owner, to provide her with the best life possible. Her happiness is my happiness, and vice versa. It is a fact of nature that we all must make sacrifices. I must make sacrifices for Sophie’s happiness, and she must do the same for me. Balance. But the commonality that we share is our innate desire to return to the natural world. Some of our happiest moments together are from times of exploration: traversing mountain tops, jaunting through fields and scuttling by Cape Cod seashores. Upon reflection I wonder, “is this unnatural World in which we humans manifested, truly for the better?” 

We humans have a history of imposing our own agenda, with little regard for the impact on the World in which we live in: climate change, wealth-gaps and domestication, to name a few examples. The latter not only effects the pets that we all know and love, it effects the Homo Sapien population as a whole. The normalization of forty hour plus work weeks, industrialization and the over use of Earth’s natural resources are all products of our domesticated environment. 

According to Karl Thompson – author of the online article, “Modernization Theory” – the Modernization Theory was developed in the 1940s, suggesting that capitalism “encouraged efficient production through industrialization”, and in turn led to idealistic progress. During this time period, the Theory applied specifically to poverty stricken nations that Western Civilization deemed incapable of independence. It led to an imposition of Western Civilization on under-developed communities in the East. Critics of the theory claim that it unjustly “assumes that western civilization is technically and morally superior to traditional societies”. These assumptions lead to unnecessary foreign intervention. Americans must realize the faults in our own foreign intervention: the exploitation of countries’ “cheap natural resources and cheap labor”, as well as the spread of war, disease and famine. Who are we to claim superiority? Who is to say that a ‘Modernized’ World is superior to a culture built off of traditional and Earthly values? 

While it is illogical to suggest a complete overhaul of modern-day society to revert to times of living off of the land, we must learn a thing or two from our domesticated animals to curtail the consequences of modernization. Get outside and be in nature as much as possible. Stop and smell the roses. Greet your loved ones with excitement and joy. Treat all with an open heart, an open mind and open arms – or open paws – regardless of position, power or economic status. These are all steps that we can take on a daily basis, to become closer with our true, natural selves. Superiority is a construct. Love is real. I learned all of this and more from the relationship I built with Sophie. 

When outside and exploring, are the times in which Sophie and I are closest to our truest, most natural selves, and are therefore at our happiest. I have learned more from my four-legged friend than I previously thought conceivable. From these lessons, I am more content. To my fellow pet owners, I urge you to reflect on your own relationship with your companion(s) to head the lessons that they provide. And to those without a pet, I urge you to consider adoption. There are plenty of damaged and innocent furry friends who have a lot of love and life lessons to offer.

Enjoy life while you can. Enjoy the natural World. If you are unhappy with the status quo of modern day civilization, make the necessary change in your life. 

Yours Truly,

Ian and Sophie

broken image

Update: Rest In Peace, My Friend - July 6, 2021

Sophie passed away on Memorial Day of this year, 2021. She was a beautiful dog with a beautiful soul, and although it is tough to deal with her passing, it comforts me to know that her legacy will live on forever. I am truly proud of the animal that she had become. As I mention in the original version of this blog, she progressed from a shy and timid pup, into a courageous and heart-warming furry friend. 

I remember fondly, times of exploration with Sophie. On the road, I recall sharing my fast food lunch with her. Tossing french fries in the air towards the back seat, I would hear the disntinguishable chomp of her jaws crushing down onto the delicious fried treat. Her snout-eye coordination was on point. Times of foraging through forests, I remember seeing her smile from ear-to-ear as she trotted down the discernible path ahead. One time in particular, I remember a passerby exclaiming, "I can't tell who is or your dog!" 

I also remember times of great reluctance, as she was a bratty little creature who made it known to me when she was not happy. During my cross country road trip, I remember spending several days in Springdale, Utah to visit Zion National Park. After spending over 20 hours in my car in 1 week's time, and settling into a place with wide open space to explore, she understandably resisted my attempts to corral her back into the car to afford me a trip to the grocery store. She trespassed on others' campsites and ran through brush to escape my clutches. Finally when I had had enough, I entered my car and pretended to drive off in an effort to scare her into my Toyota. It worked! The worry on her face was inexplicable, and she finally climbed into the front seat: a rarity.

My favorite memory of Sophie is from another time during our cross country trip. After spending a night in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, Sophie and I ventured out to a nearby 3 mile trail that would take us to see the Lower Calf Creek Falls: a gorgeous waterfall tucked away in the greenery of an otherwise arid landscape. As the sun beat down on us and lit up the sand beneath our feet, Sophie showed me the signs that she was ready to turn around and return to camp. I dragged her along because I knew that once we reached the waterfall, the air would cool and it would afford us the opportunity to rest. After trudging along for another mile, we finally reached the falls! I brought my exhausted canine companion to the pool of water beneath the rushing water, in an effort to cool her from the heat. ZOOM! After a moment of cooling, Sophie was off to the races. Darting between fellow hikers and unsuspecting picknickers, kicking up sand as she went, her happiness in that moment was obvious in the 'Zoomies' that she caught. I continiued to admire as her gleeful state spread to the faces of the people she passed. My heart was warm.

Sophie was the best and no other dog will replace her. She taught me a lot about what it means to be alive. Her charisma and loving nature spread to all those with whom she interacted, especially to me. I also like to think that I provided her with an amazing life. We went for daily walks (sometimes multiple), traveled the country and explored the natural world together. I guess the saying is true: you get out what you put in. I gave a lot to make Sophie a happy and health dog, and in return she did the same for me. May I go forward and use these lessons in future relationships with people, plants, animals, insects and more. Love is the answer.

Rest in peace, my furry friend. May you find many butts to sniff, territory to explore and peanut butter to consume. 

Sophie on the Cape Cod Canal, 2020

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© 2021 Ian Shepardson