The Path to Self-Knowledge, According to Puppies


We have puppies on the farm. Four of them.

When we were visiting the U.S. last fall, our beagle-fox terrier Mini escaped the clutches of her caretakers for a carefree jaunt across the countryside.

That in itself wasn’t unusual, but then my husband got a text from his cousin saying that there were also a lot of dogs hanging around the farm.

We groaned. Sure enough, Mini got increasingly rotund over the next several months.  

I felt terrible, upset at us for putting off getting her spayed (the sterilization of dogs being one of my “city girl” ideas that has been met with quizzical looks on a Catalan farm). Now we had a crisis on our hands. Would we be able to find homes for all the puppies? I had an idea how this would go in the U.S., but in Spain I had no idea if we’d have takers.

Then, at the start of December, Mini started acting anxious and it was time to stop worrying and instead put “manos a la obra” – hands to work. Time to do whatever I could to keep Mini and the puppies healthy.  

I’d grown up with pets that were all immediately sterilized when they were young (as is commonplace in the U.S.), so this was my first time witnessing puppies being born, and I was fascinated.

Of course by this point I’d begun a flurry of internet searches on every question I had about whelping, only to then stand back in awe at how entirely self-sufficient Mini was through the whole process. My only role was to make her a nice comfy bed in her kennel (a former cow pen used by my husband and father-in-law when they were dairy farmers), and then step aside. My husband, of course, having seen so many calvings, went about his usual business with only a passing interest.

Watching these little pups develop has continued to be a fascination bordering on obsession for me.

There was that first chaotic day of birth, where they appeared one by one every few hours, each one a new, blind, rat-like creature. Mini spent the day feverishly licking the puppies clean of afterbirth before letting them settle in to nurse. It was a frenzied, stressed-out scene, with puppies crying pathetically.

The next day was a day of peaceful sleeping and nursing, order and cleanliness having been at last achieved.

After that, the puppies were boring for a quite a while. Their eyes didn’t open for more than two weeks so all they did was nurse, sleep and cry.

After a few weeks, even Mini got bored. When I’d walk into the kennel, she’d jump up to go for a walk with me. The puppies, nursing, would dangle from her teats, then drop with a soft thud into the straw bed as Mini leapt into the air and out the door. I couldn’t help laughing. I’m sure Mini wasn’t the first mother to feel this way at times.

Then, they opened their eyes. Vision, plus a coordination of limbs that improves every day, has completely changed their relationship with the world.

I loved seeing them begin to use their eyes to observe their surroundings and me, the giant in jeans and boots that arrives several times a day. I watched their gaze wander, then stop when it landed on something of interest. “What’s that?” their looks would say, and then they would clumsily locomote over to investigate the object of their curiosity.

Awareness → Curiosity → Action → Self-Knowledge

They illustrated so perfectly the stages of development that I see so often in my work. 

When people come to me with problems, or feelings of being stuck, we often start by investigating where they're at with any of these steps. Surprisingly, I observe the same thing in people as I’ve seen in the puppies: Increases in awareness, curiosity, and action all lead to rapid growth. Awareness and curiosity especially are accelerators of development. 

Now the puppies are five weeks old, and no one could call them boring anymore. They are fat, fast, and mischievous. Yesterday when I opened the kennel door, they all charged me in a perfect four-pup lineup, like racehorses fresh out the gates.

They will wean in the next couple of weeks, but won’t go to their adopted homes for another month (we have two lined up and just need one more!) Now Mini’s job shifts from feeding to socialization. She’s the one who teaches them how to live peaceably in a pack and how to play for fun and without hurting anyone (light bites only! she warns with her sharp growl).

It’s funny, but if I were to name yet another stage in this path of development (according to puppies) it would look like this:

Awareness → Curiosity → Action → Self-Knowledge → Play

I’ve seen that as soon as the puppies gain a confident understanding of their environment, the next thing to do – naturally – is to play in it.

This makes perfect sense. We generally only let down our guard to play when we feel relatively safe and secure.

I like this idea of development where the be-all, end-all destination is Play. The idea that development is driving us all toward a place where we can engage with our environment in a way that is lighthearted, creative and fun. Joyful, even.

Intuitively this resonates a lot with me. I feel like I’m at my best when I'm interacting with people in a way that is lightly playful. I feel like I do my best work when I'm in this type of space too. I’m happiest and most creative here.

No doubt that as the puppies get older, they’ll start to settle down and play less. This is definitely the case with Mini. She’s a little more serious now, at the mature age of four. Now she mainly devotes herself to her passion of patrolling the farm for enemy interlopers such as mice and cats.

Yet as the puppies have become more playful, she has too. They easily get her back into play mode – and when she does, it’s apparent she’s got expert level skills in wrestling, nabbing, flipping and feigning.

So maybe there’s yet another lesson in there too. The company we keep has a big impact on how easily we access our playful natures.

See? Puppies are a very good influence.

Now, who wants the last one?