What My Dog, My Zen Master, Taught Me About Life After My Mom’s Passing

A woman, appearing as a Zen Master, kneeling on a boardwalk with a dog, imparting life lessons.
Image Credit: Kate Santichen

This article has been updated.

My zen master and spiritual guide is golden blonde with deep, soulful brown eyes.  

He weighs 40 pounds, has a wet, cold nose and loves to eat whatever delicacies (many crawling with ants), he can snag from Brooklyn’s “sidewalk buffet” before I notice. 

Cooper — full name Mr. Cooper Pierogi — has only been in my care for a little over three months, and during that time, his teachings have been patient and consistent.

Image Credit: Kate Santichen

This approximate 5-year-old pupper was a stray found in the woods of western Pennsylvania, covered in fleas and ticks. My mom adopted him from the shelter for his sweet, curious demeanor and cute face. Cooper rescued my mom from the depths of depression after she lost her youngest child, and, now, he’s rescuing me after she passed away.

Since I brought Cooper home to my one-bedroom apartment, I have learned so much from him.

I laugh every day; these are deep, belly laughs that leave me in stitches. It started from the first moment, when he walked from room to room with a puzzled look, wondering where’s the rest of the house? We’re not in the suburbs anymore, Cooper. 

The horrified expression on his little face when he sees me in a deep tub full of water, one of his greatest fears, cracks me up. The way he knows my sad cooking skills in the kitchen mean goodies on the floor for him makes me smile. And the way he demands my attention be undivided and focused — no cell phone in hand permitted — when rubbing his belly or playing tug of war makes me laugh.

Image Credit: Kate Santichen

Related: 8 Ways to Show Your Dogs You Love Them That You Probably Haven’t Even Thought About

He wakes up each morning 6:52 am with gusto, ready to greet the day. When I resist his efforts to stir me by rolling over or retreating under the covers with my phone, he becomes more insistent. He whines at me in an ever-faster cadence, insistently slapping my bed with his tail. Stray hairs float through the air, dancing in the narrow beam of daylight fighting its way past my blinds.  

Ok. Fine. We’ll go outside. 

To him, each new day is worthy of excitement, full of possibility. Despite having little control over his daily routine, he finds overflowing joy in each activity. He lives in the moment, free of worries about the future and regrets from the past. He revels in each action as if experiencing it for the first time, even though we’ve walked this route dozens of times and he’s eaten this chicken-flavored weight management kibble for the 216th meal straight.

Image Credit: Kate Santichen

As someone consumed by worries, struggling with a loss of control over seemingly any aspect of my life, his earnestness is a welcome respite from the swirl of anxiety inside my head. I need his constant reminders to find contentment in the small things.

Finally relenting, I put on yesterday’s sweats, slip on my beaten up sneakers, pull a baseball cap down over my eyes, and manage to harness and leash the fluffy beast as he leaps around the living room like a bunny. Even when I’d rather not, he makes me get out of bed and see the world. 

Once on the street, the exploration begins. What looks to me like a pretty basic one-way street and crumbling sidewalk is an exotic safari for this dog. 

The aging oak tree on the corner doesn’t appear to have changed since yesterday, but its trunk still needs to be examined with the focus and determination of a CSI detective. Our journey is halted until he’s sufficiently sniffed and peed on a favorite utility pole across from my apartment building, but it just looks like a normal streetlight to me. 

Image Credit: Kate Santichen

As we walk, I wonder how many times a day do I move through the world on autopilot? What simple things can I stop and marvel at today — from singing birds perched on a wrought iron fence to a young child learning to read on a packed subway car with his dad’s encouragement?

Related: For the Love of Dogs: Program Offers Recycled Pacemakers to Pups In Need

I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 12 years. If I ever knew the East River is a rich, rippling blue as the sun rises in the sky, I’d long forgotten. The flowers have marked each turn of the seasons. Happy yellow daffodils heralded warmer weather, hydrangeas welcomed summer and black-eyed Susans are leading the charge into fall. Has this happened outside my front door every year? 

Cooper also doesn’t let past failures inhibit him. While fear of yet another rejection holds me back from applying for this week’s round of 80 jobs, Cooper’s unplagued by that same embarrassment or self-doubt. He didn’t catch the squirrel yesterday, over the weekend, or last Thursday, but that doesn’t matter! Today could be the day! Every day, he has a renewed ambition to give it a go.

A dog standing next to a heart with the word "choose love" written on it, embodying life lessons from a dog.
Cooper on a walk

He doesn’t even notice his limitations, how the deck is already stacked against him before he starts. The jingle of the dog license on his collar warns the squirrels if they haven’t smelled him already. And of course, he’s tethered to my right hand with a five-foot nylon rope, so he won’t get very far even when he spots one. Still, he keeps looking, keeps hunting, keeps trying. His message is clear: never give up

Why am I so quick to throw in the towel? How can I better follow his example to keep pushing forward when I feel so small? Cooper walks right up to a Great Dane as if they’re equals. Maybe that’s what I need to find: my inner confident dog, cheerfully on alert, ready for anything.

Image Credit: Kate Santichen

When it comes to his possessions, Cooper isn’t precious. While I might hang on to an expensive body lotion or a bottle of wine I brought back from a vacation on the other side of the world for a special occasion, he uses his good stuff now. Today is the only special occasion he needs. I once hung on to a special sample of perfume for years, waiting for the perfect moment to wear it. When I finally opened the frosted pink glass decanter, it had dried up. My fuzzy puppy doesn’t decide some toys are more precious than others. He gets full enjoyment out of each one. 

This dog is clear about his boundaries. And he doesn’t apologize if he doesn’t want to spend time with someone. Cooper thinks puppies are jumpy jerks, and he keeps moving when we encounter them, leaving me to apologize to the stunned owner. He knows that walks, and life, are too short to spend time with someone you don’t like. He doesn’t lie awake when the lights are turned off at bedtime, ruminating on how he shouldn’t have been polite to the detriment of his own dignity and what he should have said when a potential life coach said he’s “low energy with no spark for life.”

Related: New Survey Shows How Crazy in Love We Are With Our Dogs

My furry guru also isn’t afraid to take a bite of what he wants. Last week, I stopped to get breakfast at a local bakery. I set the brown paper bag on the sidewalk, out of his reach, or so I thought, as I was untying him from the bike rack. While I was preoccupied with his leash and a locked carabiner, Cooper seized the day, sticking his entire snout in the sack, taking a large bite of my blueberry muffin’s perfect top.

Image Credit: Kate Santichen

Rather than being annoyed, I burst out laughing. He was so pleased with himself! He smelled muffin, wanted it, ate it. I finished off the rest, sans giant doggo bite, and shared the crumbs with him as he shared his lesson with me. No matter how out of reach what you desire may seem, go for it. Maybe you won’t get the whole muffin, but you could at least get a mouthful of the best part. 

Cooper’s not only unafraid to go after what he wants, he doesn’t allow other people’s perceptions of him affect his self-esteem. Even though passersby on the street point out he’s overweight (hey, we’re working on it), it doesn’t stop him from strutting through the neighborhood as if he owns the place. He isn’t ashamed to wag his tail with such a fervor of excitement that his whole chubby butt wiggles back and forth. He never thinks twice before eating a carb; he’s here to enjoy life, not count calories. 

Cooper shouldn’t even be here to scarf chicken wings off the sidewalk and have me fish them out of his mouth with ninja-like reflexes. His presence is only possible because of an absence in my life that’s left a searing hole in my heart. If my mom hadn’t passed away last November, he’d be nuzzled next to her on the couch every night. I’d rather have her just a text or call away than be learning any of these lessons, especially the biggest one–that grief and healing of this magnitude can’t be rushed, only accepted.

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Related: Some of Us Really Do Love Our Dogs More Than People

By Kate Santichen

Kate's been a Brooklyn resident for over 10 years. She works in media and enjoys long walks along the waterfront with her pupper, Cooper, and very large iced chai lattes.

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