Tell It To My Heart: What Heart Dogs Mean To Us.

Photo courtesy of Kristen Weingarten

Heart dog. Say those two words to any dog lover and their eyes will go soft. They will look wistful. They will be fondly thinking of a dog they currently share their life with if they are lucky. If they are less than lucky, there will tears in their eyes. They will be thinking of a dog that is no longer physically with them. A dog that left a permanent mark on their soul. Almost every dog lover has such a dog imprinted into their DNA. It matters not at all how long a heart dog has been gone from our physical existence. They are forever a part of our emotional existence. They are part of what made us who we are.

I have asked online a couple of times how others define heart dog. The sheer number of responses was staggering. It is a subject that resonates with many dog lovers, and everyone has a story to tell.  My heart dog is Merlin, my beautiful Doberman/Shepherd mix who I lost to cancer 3 days shy of the day that I used for his birthday. He has been gone physically since late September of 2011. Not a day goes by that I don’t talk to him. I knew that the moment that I met him that we were destined to be together. All that I truly have as far as words to explain that moment was that it was a moment of complete recognition. One soul’s recognition of another. There was no question that we would be together. I could not have walked way if I had tried. I felt like he had been waiting for me and I for him. There was no denying the destiny of the moment. Here is something I wrote to honor him at the first anniversary of his passing.

Is recognition the only trait of meeting a heart dog? Not at all, it's very individual. Some thoughts are easier to put words to than others. Everyone’s feeling about this subject is different but equally valid. With Merlin, I felt that he was my child to care for but also my platonic partner in life. That sounds so odd to say, but I cannot help but believe that so many others will understand this statement completely, while nodding their heads.

Merlin and I communicated perfectly and without words at our best. Most of the understanding started at day one but once I learned better to listen to what he was saying to me, the communication deepened to the point that just a look was all that was needed. I have never felt so connected with another being as I did with this dog of mine. The world was unimportant when we were together. All that mattered was our relationship.

I did not start my life with him communicating on a level playing field. Our first year was a struggle when I thought that my own decisions were all that mattered at times, but the intense love was always there at every moment. He forgave so many of my errors. His love never faltered. I learned, and we negotiated and communicated more fully, and we fell into a wonderful partnership.

I am a crossover trainer. That means that I used punitive methods of training with him initially. Thankfully, he was an intelligent confident dog who loved me with a passion. So he took the time to teach me a kinder method of communication. That lesson included learning how to train him with compassion and respect instead of coercion. He was the dog that refused to be manhandled. He demanded respect. Fortunately for me, he was not only intelligent, he was forgiving. Once I learned to listen, I always knew what he needed and he did the same for me. I will be forever grateful for that lesson in communication. He also taught me forgiveness and to let go of grudges faster.

This heart dog of mine was so many things. He was trustworthy. I knew how he felt at any given moment. I knew that I could trust him to not let me down and he knew the same about me. We had each other’s backs. He delighted in learning. I delighted in watching him learn. He could ignore another dog’s taunts and use his amazing body language skills to try and show his lack of combativeness to others. He was a fantastic teacher dog. He was appropriately corrective with rambunctious puppies when he needed to be, with compassion and the right amount of leadership skills.

I think that some people worry about calling their heart dog “the one”, as if doing so slights the other current, past, and future dogs. I disagree. I have deeply loved all of the dogs that I have shared my life with, some differently than others. They have all helped shape who I am, some more than others. Some have come close to being as pivotal to my psyche as my heart dog. They have all left marks on my soul. But to me, my heart dog led me along this path to here,  and the connection that we had was different in an almost inexplicable way than even other deeply felt connections. I sometimes think that it goes beyond words to an almost universal intervention.

Many people feel that we can have more than one heart dog during our tour of this planet. I think that’s a fair assumption. After all, the term heart dog means something different to everyone, and that's okay. But I don’t think that I would consider what I feel for Merlin as the same as what I feel for other dogs who have made, or are currently making deep marks on my psyche. I certainly have loved some more passionately than others. Each has taught me things I would have been lost without. Each relationship is and was important. But my relationship with Merlin so far has not been replicated. To me, he will always be the one. I could happily live a thousand lifetimes with that dog and never regret one moment of it. Are my other loves important? Absolutely and some of those those are very deep. But so far the partner aspect is what seems to be different. Maybe I will change my mind in the future. I just don't know at this point.

Our relationships with heart dogs seem destined to help us evolve on this path called life that we are on. However you define a heart dog, the effect that they have on most people who state that they have one (or more!), is to inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. We see who we can be at our very best, when we are allowing our true selves to connect with our heart dogs. We see what may be missing in us. We see what they see deep inside. We see how deep a relationship that asks nothing of us other than returning the love, can affect us.

Photo courtesy of Casey Lomonaco

Think about it. Dogs are the best of who we can be. They obviously want their needs taken care, of but even those who don’t get their needs fully met by their person are still ever hopeful that it will happen. They see our flaws and instead of resentment, they are still there for us always. It’s a total win for humans. The relationship between a heart dog and his/her person is even more special than the average bond between a human and a dog.

Every dog that we allow into our lives teaches us something. Merlin taught me many things, above all patience and to deeply respect another being that refused to bend to my own ridiculous rules of how he should act. He opened my eyes. He set me on the path that put me where I am right now. He contributed to my ability to learn from other dogs who I asked to be a part of my life. My path would never have been the same without this heart dog of mine. He weaved his magic and helped me find my true passion and spark. He is not the only dog that has taught me things and made me look inside of myself further than I might have wanted to but he definitely started that process and he prompted my development far more than others.  He helped to shape me the most of any being that I have ever had the pleasure of connecting with. I owe everything to him.

I think that this is what many people are really looking for in a relationship. I am not sure that this kind of soul reveal is actually possible between two humans in a relationship. Humans have too many flaws and insecurities. Humans are more judgmental than animals. We can’t help it. There are just so many thoughts swirling around in our head that make it past our lips, words that have no business being spoken. And even when those words remain unspoken, those of us with expressive faces reveal our thoughts despite biting our tongues.

Dogs make mistakes, don’t get me wrong. But the words that can cut like a knife are not an option for the canine part of a human/canine relationship. The actions are what count there. Soft words are helpful from the human part of the equation. Strong tones hurt a relationship, but dogs are also more forgiving of such errors in judgment than humans are. Each interaction is a new hope for a better future. If only humans could look at hope through the eyes of a dog.

Human relationships could flourish with the kind of care that typical very dedicated dog parents give to a dog who might have been emotionally damaged by someone in the past. Remedying such damage involves building trust. Building trust is an incremental process very much dictated by small blocks of progress. There is both forward and backward movement.  Giving up can be easy in the early days of trust building, but get past the initial suspicion and confidence is given a boost. This allows both parties to bond with strength. This kind of bonding is part of what goes into what many people consider a heart dog. Overcoming trauma can set the tone of a bond in a relationship more than other scenarios.

But even sharing your life with a heart dog without past trauma in his or her life, is a carefully tended to relationship, unlike most human connections. We put so much into our relationship with a heart dog. That’s a good thing! We learn compassion and understanding that we may not otherwise practice.

Our heart dogs are part of who we are and who we become. My heart dog is always with me.  Losing a heart dog is deeply traumatic. Here is my story about that. Grief never ends. You just learn how to cope with it better and you build emotional scars around it to allow you to function. Who is your heart dog and what have they taught you? Tell me YOUR stories.


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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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