I realized it one day, while spending a particularly delicious Saturday in one of the armchairs of the living room, feeling the sun warm my back as it streamed through the shutters: for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel stressed. Coco was draped across my back, lying on the back of the chair. As if on cue, he let out a long puff of a sigh, his eyes closed. Coco is never stressed, I thought to myself. And then I realized it: Coco is more naturopathic than any doctor could hope to be. As Dr. Stargrove said, at The Gathering in Chicago, “nature knows more than doctors ever will.” And Coco, with is furry body and leathery paws is much closer to nature than any of us will ever be.
Coco can’t drive a car, turn on a TV or set off an atomic bomb; his world is closely intertwined with and dependent on the natural world, even if we humans have taken his ancestors out of their forest homes and raised them on fluffy dog beds with corn-free organic dog-chow. Our animal friends remind us that, like them, we are all a part of nature. So, here are some notes to take out of Coco’s book; even though he’s never held a pen, his poetry speaks more to us than any verse Neruda could ever dream up.
Coco lives in the moment. How many walks have I taken with Coco through beautiful natural settings only to be filled to the brim with useless musings about school work or interpersonal stressors? Coco runs in a zigzag pattern through the soft forest floor, unburdened by thoughts of that bitchy dog who growled at him only moments before. The way he glides over the brush shows that he’s completely present; to him, there is only this moment. He lives by the lyrics of “No Day But Today” from Rent: “there’s only us, there’s only this, forget regret, or life is yours to miss.” But Coco doesn’t need a Broadway musical to spin philosophical insight at him about how to live. He sniffs a rotting log and gnaws on something dead right before picking up a decent-sized twig and tearing through the brush. When we sit on the couch to watch a movie, his whole body melts into the couch cushions. His muscles hold no tension whatsoever and his conscience is completely clear. As if on cue, he nuzzles his head under my hand so that I scratch his head.
Coco has a sense of community. “Hi there, cute little guy,” says the woman at Pet Value as she slips him a delicious-looking morsel. He responds by rolling onto his back and receives a nice tummy rub. Whenever we stop to greet another dog, Coco always sidles up to the owner, his big eyes staring them down, inviting them to give him a pat. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t melt when they met Coco. While a fellow dog owner and I give each other tight-lipped awkward smiles of acknowledgement, Coco nestles his nose far up the rectum of the new dog on the other end of the owner’s leash. It’s clear he doesn’t have the same kind of reservations when it comes to meeting strangers. When we walk by a daycare he rolls on his back, allowing the two-year old toddlers to stick their grubby hands through the fence and scratch his ears. Coco is the best people person I’ve ever met, and he’s not even a person.
Coco listens to his body. We’re studying. I cross my legs, my back hurts a little. I roll my shoulders and crack my neck, then I continue typing. All of a sudden, Coco perks up his head and, without warning, pads over to his food dish, which is still almost full from when I filled it in the morning. He begins crunching delicately, then takes a few sips of water and looks outside to see if there are any squirrels. Then he starts to whine at me, ordering me to pay attention to him: it’s time for a walk! I reflect on the fact that I’ve been hungry for a while but can’t think of anything to eat. I know my body needs a break but I push aside the physical, restless desire for activity in favour of continuing with my work.
Coco never overeats out of boredom or anxiety. He drinks when he’s thirsty. He stretches before rising in the morning without fail and, when he’s tired, he lays down and rests. We humans often need governmental health organizations to advise on the adequate amount of physical exercise our bodies need (30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week, in case you were wondering). When Coco needs exercise, however, he doesn’t need anyone to tell him. His body knows when it’s time for a walk and he tears around the living room, tail held high, inviting us – rather, demanding, through his high-pitched barking – to engage him in a rousing game of chase so that he can blow off steam.
Coco goes with the flow. I pull on my boots and grab the car keys. Coco’s already at the door, barring my exit, wondering when I’m going to clip the leash onto his collar, solidifying the fact that he’s coming with me. When I open the car door he leaps in, proudly sitting atop the knees of the person in the passenger seat. “We could be going anywhere,” I muse, “how does he know we’re not taking him to the vet? Or the dog pound?” Coco’s trusting nature is often the butt of our dark jokes. But it’s a true and endearing fact: he’s happy to go wherever we go, as long as we’re all together. Any destination is game and anywhere we are is an awesome place to be. Coco has no idea what events tomorrow will bring, or even the next half hour. But, so far, things have worked out pretty well for him, so he just hands over control and lets us get behind the wheel. As Volkswagen says, challenging us to take charge and buy their cars, “on the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers.” Well, Coco’s feet don’t reach the peddles and his paws would have a hard time changing gears or manipulating the wheel, and he seems to have no problem with that.
Coco appreciates the simple things in life. We both walk silently through the forest. Seeing a squirrel, Coco tears ahead and, even though the squirrel has safely made its way up the nearest tree, Coco’s adrenaline surge leads him to run in wild circles on the leaf-covered floor. He sprints ahead, ears slicked back. I call him and he turns to me, briefly, his mouth open, with the corners of it pulled back in what we can only anthropomorphically describe as a “doggy smile.” In a similar spirit of bliss, just hours before, he’d found a delicious spot of sunlight, which shone through a break in the clouds to a patch of ground in our backyard. He settled in the warm sun for a few minutes, his eyes closed as the cool breeze tickled his wet nose, with an expression of pure enjoyment on his face. It seems paradoxical, based on what we are both implicitly and explicitly told since childhood: we can’t be happy without vintage wines, mink coats, a Ferrari or a Tiffany diamond. However, in a very Epicurean way, Coco has no problem enjoying life; and all he owns is a small basket full of very scruffy-looking toys (most of which he dug up from the schoolyard sandbox and brought home). All the ingredients Coco needs for creating his famous happiness recipe is a ray of sunshine, an over-sized stick or an expansive field. His puppy heart will do the rest.
Perhaps the phrase docere, doctor as teacher, can be changed to dogere: Dog as teacher. For who is a better spokesperson for the healing power of nature?