Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How one dog can change a life: the story of Max

Ying Ying was not a dog person. Until Max came along.
I saw Ying Ying speak at an RSPCA Fundraiser. She had a small stall in the corner where she was selling copies of her book, Starting With Max:How a Wise Dog Gave Me Strength and Inspiration. I will admit it looked like yet another book about a dog.

But when Ying Ying spoke the room fell silent. Hers is a story of an incredible transformation. A former teacher of Social Justice and Criminology, she had given up her career to emigrate to Australia. She promised her daughter a dog to sweeten the move, but – not an animal person herself - thought the promise would be forgotten. She was wrong.

When she told her story about the unexpected bond that formed between her and Max, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

I bought a copy of her book and read it that night. It’s a beautiful reflection on our relationship with companion animals and the huge philosophical questions this raises around animal consciousness, inter-species communication, belonging, dying and death, and the meaning of life. It also provided some (for me) very helpful insights into an owner’s perspective of veterinary visits.

Ying Ying took some time to e-chat with SAT about her book. 

[Just a note - she has been incredibly generous, so I recommend making a cuppa to drink while you read over this post].

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I was born to Chinese parents, raised and educated in Hong Kong. My first job was to educate the Hong Kong society against corruption and after that I started an academic career teaching Sociology and Criminology. In 1999, I, my husband and our daughter migrated to Sydney. I became a full time housewife and a dog owner when we started our new Australian life.

You gave up an academic career to move to Australia. Was that a big decision?

Indeed, it was a very big decision for me because I liked everything intellectual and found domestic works boring and frustrating. Besides, losing my career meant losing my identity as a professional. But because my new life didn’t permit me to continue my teaching career, and also due to the frequent overseas commitments of my husband, I had to sacrifice my personal ambition in order to safeguard a healthy development for our family, especially for our daughter.

The dog who changed everything: Max. 
How did you feel about dogs and companion animals in general before you met Max?

Taking into consideration our traditions and customs, I think conventional Chinese mentality does not agree that humans should be emotionally affected by animals. Most Chinese think that animals are either to be eaten or used by humans, though nowadays many keep dogs and cats for pleasure. It has become a fashion to ‘love’ animals, but the Chinese’s understanding of animals is still very superficial.  

As a child, I was never taught to feel for animals, not to mention loving them. Before I met Max, I had thought of dogs, cats and other companion animals as generally useful as they could guard the home, catch mice or give fun to children. But I considered them as ‘extras’ in human life, not necessary, not significant, and not to be taken seriously. Because my interests were in Social Sciences and Literature, I paid little attention to animals although we lived with a cat in Hong Kong. The cat was really my German husband’s cat—she had been there before we got married. I never treated her as my companion. My life was busy and there was no room for excessive sentiments for mere animals.

Max on the stairs.
You described a moment, a look, in which your view about dogs changed. What do you think happened?

There are quite a few moments in the book in which I described myself as stunned, moved and even overwhelmed by what I saw in dogs. First of all, my encounter with Max in the RSPCA was an eye-opener. 

When I gazed at Max, I could see right away that those were not eyes of a creature merely controlled by mechanical instincts. His expressive eyes could actually convey thoughts and feelings. This was something I had never thought of before. 

And when we picked up Max to bring him home, I saw how he and the other dogs behaved---I was not prepared for such a moving scene that I had to reconsider the capabilities of dogs. I think what happened in those moments was that I suddenly realised how superficial and narrow-minded I had been in my judgement of dogs. I felt ashamed of my own human arrogance and thus humbled by what was unfolding in front of me to show me an aspect of life—a dog’s life, something I had used to disregard. I was challenged by what dogs are and how much humans can be affected by them.

Max hogs the balls.
You reflect a lot on the intensity of the bond between yourself and Max. Why do you think our bond with companion animals can be so strong?

Our bond with companion animals can be very strong because the love that we experience with them is pure, without pretension, always available and unconditional. They love you for who you are, and their love doesn’t wear out. Such noble sentiments are able to draw out the best in humans. We then become capable of loving for the animals’ sake, willing to sacrifice our own interests; for by giving a lot, we actually taking back more than we expected. The strength of the relationship also comes from the certainty of its never fading quality. In human relationships we can never be so sure and often feel disappointed.

Max enjoys the park.
You had to go to the vet a lot, and wrote: “I have so often stepped into the vet’s surgery ready to be told the worst, only to step out again with affirmation of life together. Max and I then walk away with lively strides, even more conscious of what it means to share our life together, of the shortness and fragility of life and the brevity of most human-animal relationship.” Do you think pet owners in general feel vulnerable at the vet and if so, how can we help?

I think experienced pet owners shouldn’t feel vulnerable at the vet as they generally understand animals and how vets work. But for first-time pet owners who don’t know much about animals and how to handle them, visits to the vet can be a traumatic experience especially if they are not familiar with the terms of treatments. 

As I was a first-time dog owner and actually a bit afraid of dogs, trying to understand what the vet asked me to do and afterwards dealing with Max at home, be it dropping the pill into his throat or cleaning his ears, I felt most of the times quite worried, unsure, and hence vulnerable.

Besides, with our pets, we are like their gods who have the power of prolonging or terminating life. So it’s also this aspect that made me feel anxious---one can destroy a life by one’s own mistakes and animals have no way to protest.

I think it will help a great deal if vets take into consideration that some pet owners are just very ignorant in caring for their pets. In such situations, patience and clarity in explaining the illnesses and possible treatments are very necessary. Another aspect is an expressed empathy. When people have no confidence in themselves, it’s very important that they feel concern and care from the vet. It’s understandable that vets are often overloaded with work, but they can actually achieve more if pet owners are helped to develop trust in the vet and confidence in themselves.

Part of the family: Max unwraps a gift.
In the book you talk about human beings trapped in a timeline. How do you think dogs perceive time?

I think dogs perceive time as occasions to do certain things, like time to eat, time to go to the park, time to bond etc. It’s interesting that they never forget about time (e.g. never miss the time to go out), yet they are not bound by time. 

They don’t put themselves on a timeline, to be conditioned by the past, the present and the future, so they are not worried about planning anything. When the occasion comes, they are anxious about what is going to happen. For example, they can easily develop anxiety when they have been waiting for a long time for their owners to return home. 

I think for them, life is a series of moments to act and react: to smell, to eat, to look, to listen, to touch, to play, to love, to sleep…Because they are only concerned about that particular moment, their sadness or joy can be so complete and real. That’s why when we are with them, we can also be caught by the moment, to savour the here and now.

Max at the beach.
 You describe your grief over Max’s loss as profound. “No rehearsal could have prepared me for the pain, the searing pain.” The grief we feel for animals is very real, but has been described by some as disenfranchised grief because many feel they cannot share this grief or shouldn’t feel it over “just an animal”. What did your experience with Max teach you about grief for animals?

I used to think that animals were hardly important to mankind and I didn’t agree that we should grieve over an animal. My experience with Max has taught me that one can love an animal very deeply and therefore one can grieve profoundly over an animal. 

When it’s time to grieve, there shouldn’t be any difference between missing a human and an animal. It’s the quality of the love that determines the depth of the sorrow. However, for the loss of an animal, one tends to restrain oneself in expressing the anguish, especially if there are human affairs to attend to. It is often thought that human life should go on as usual since the animal was not part of the human world. 

But my loss of Max has shown me that companion animals are part of our human life. The moment when Max left me, I realised how much he had been part of me. And as he went, he took away some of me. That’s why it’s so important to go through the grief, to heal the soul by tasting the pain, confronting the loss, and not pushing the sadness away.  Every human-animal relationship is unique and everyone should be allowed time to grieve properly. The loss of a pet, and possibly one’s best friend, shouldn’t be belittled.

Max as he will be forever remembered - enjoying the finer things in life: a beautiful beach, a fine stick...
You quote Goethe, who said that “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love”. How did Max change you as a person?

Max transformed me from an arrogant, self-centred human to a loving and caring animal lover. He opened my eyes and ears to experience an interesting world that is made up of both humans and animals. My new world had a lot of nature and creatures of all kinds, but very little me. Max was able to direct my attention away from my self-obsession and he turned my focus to the beauty of the natural sceneries and animals, especially dogs. Affected by his pure and truthful nature, I became less calculative and more compassionate, not just to animals but also to humans as well. He showed me that we are all parts of the whole, created for joy.

In short, I have learnt how to enjoy the moments in life, what the true meaning of love is, and why simplicity is the wisdom in life. I have been shaped, both intellectually and emotionally, by Max to know what really matters in life. 

Do you have any words of advice to future vets, vet students or pet owners?

Before I offer any words of advice, I must first of all thank all existing vets for their valuable work to treat and save animals. I’m impressed by your compassion for the weak and vulnerable animals that cannot fight for themselves and can be so easily disregarded by humans. So, many thanks!

To future vets, the vet students, I appreciate your passion for animals and thank you for having chosen such a meaningful study and future profession. I’m sure you know, but I still want to point out that your future job will not be easy. It requires a lot of dedication and hard work, and as animals don’t speak about their problems, you have to be quite imaginative, creative and innovative. 

Also, we humans can easily become insensitive to animals’ misfortunes especially when you are confronted with them on a daily basis. As you become more experienced in your profession, the real challenge will be how to maintain your enthusiasm and passion. But you will always be rewarded by the lovely thankful looks of both humans and animals. And as this is a job done with your hearts as well, you will feel heartened with indescribable joy.

To the pet owners, I thank you for being bighearted for even non-humans, and I congratulate you for having found joy and fun from wonderful animals. Do not just keep them as pets, go further than just being ‘owners’. Explore your animals, talk to them, connect with them, learn from them. Let them be your friends, give them your love while you taste their unconditional love, enjoy your companionship. You are in a unique relationship that is beyond human rationality. Be grateful, and cherish your animal friends. 

Thank you, Ying Ying, for sharing your amazing story. If you would like to read more please check out her book "Starting With Max", either on paper, as an audiobook, or as an ebook. Order here direct from the publisher or via Amazon here.