I’ve faced this question in more therapists offices than I can count, but the relationship that has given me the most practical understanding of loving myself is the one that I have with my dog.

I adopted Diesel about 3 years ago from a shelter in Seattle. He had been picked up as a stray in Texas and spent a month in a shelter before being shipped to Seattle, where I soon adopted him. I was told that he was a lab mix, and I was ignorant enough about dogs that I did not realize that he probably has almost no lab in him and that “lab mix” seems to be shelter speak for pit bull. But he is definitely a mix, I just did not realize that the mix seemed to be with the Energizer bunny and a race horse!

It quickly became clear that there was no amount I could walk him that would satisfy his energy needs. But if I did not exercise him, he would chew on anything and everything in an effort to get out his pent up energy. I thought I had found the solution when I discovered doggy daycare, but eventually his energy and temperament were too much for that setting and he was kicked out of two doggy daycares.

I was working full time and going to school full time, and was afraid that I was going to have to get rid of him. But I received a referral for a dog trainer who changed everything. The dog trainer was expensive, and lived almost an hour away, but it was my only option if I wanted to keep him. Then I learned that he would be given an electronic collar and grew concerned. I did some reading and talked to several people, and received mixed opinions on the ecollar. I was desperate, so I decided to give it a try.

When I met the trainer, she had me try the ecollar on myself before I ever put it on my dog. It was not about hurting him, but about building a relationship with him and developing communication. Over the next few months we worked with the ecollar and behavioral training.

The issue with Diesel was not simply his high need for exercise, but also his high prey drive, and ability to jump fences and generally escape confinement. Left to his own devices, all Diesel wants to do is chase/kill small animals and convince people to pet him. While in theory I have no problem with those things, it becomes a problem when the small animal is your neighbors beloved cat and the person he is running towards with excitement has an extreme fear of big dogs, especially ones who look like pit bulls.

I began to realize that using the ecollar would actually allow me to take Diesel more places and do more things. These days, when I pull his ecollar out he gets so excited that it is almost hard to get it on him. He knows it means that he is about to be able to go run loose outside. But I know that he is safe because when I hit the button and call him back, I can even pull him off a rabbit if I need to.

My dog can jump a six foot fence, scurry under a chain link or barb wire fence. He can bend the bars and escape out of most crates I have seen him put in and without enough exercise he has chewed up a couch. He needs to be able to run free and hunt, but he also needs to be kept safe from cars, predators and the fearful people who call animal control when they find him loose and running around.

My dog needs boundaries and structure that find a balance between freedom and safety. He frequently wants things that are bad for him. He would happily eat bacon grease, his own vomit, and anything from the garbage can if I were to leave him to his own devices. But I love Diesel. I want him to be safe, I want him to live as long as he can. I love seeing him flopped in exhaustion on the floor after a long run through a field. I love Diesel and so I frequently do not give him what he wants, but rather, I give him what he needs.

When I am honest with myself, I often do a far better job of showing love to my dog than I do at showing love to myself. Just like Diesel, I do far better when I have restraints around my behavior. Doing whatever I want tends to have negative impacts on myself and others, even though it seems fun in the moment.

In the same way, I often want to eat all the things that are bad for me, and feel bored with the healthy options that I know would be better. It is easy to mistake indulging myself with loving myself. The reality is that my life would be much better if I did even half as well at truly loving myself as I do at loving my dog.

I am trying to be more mindful about the relationship I have with myself. It has also given me a better understanding of the way that God loves me. I am not given structure and boundaries because God finds it fun to arbitrarily demand I do or don’t engage in certain activities. Rather, I am given them so that I can actually thrive rather than amusing myself to death.

I love my high maintenance little puppy! He makes me crazy, costs too much money and I might never have nice things again, but he teaches me so much that I never seemed to be able to understand before he came into my life.

My dog can jump a six foot fence, scurry under a chain link or barb wire fence. He can bend the bars and escape out of most crates I have seen him put in and without enough exercise he has chewed up a couch. He needs to be able to run free and hunt, but he also needs to be kept safe from cars, predators and the fearful people who call animal control when they find him loose and running around.

My dog needs boundaries and structure that find a balance between freedom and safety. He frequently wants things that are bad for him. He would happily eat bacon grease, his own vomit, and anything from the garbage can if I were to leave him to his own devices. But I love Diesel. I want him to be safe, I want him to live as long as he can. I love seeing him flopped in exhaustion on the floor after a long run through a field. I love Diesel and so I frequently do not give him what he wants, but rather, I give him what he needs.

When I am honest with myself, I often do a far better job of showing love to my dog than I do at showing love to myself. Just like Diesel, I do far better when I have restraints around my behavior. Doing whatever I want tends to have negative impacts on myself and others, even though it seems fun in the moment.

In the same way, I often want to eat all the things that are bad for me, and feel bored with the healthy options that I know would be better. It is easy to mistake indulging myself with loving myself. The reality is that my life would be much better if I did even half as well at truly loving myself as I do at loving my dog.

I am trying to be more mindful about the relationship I have with myself. It has also given me a better understanding of the way that God loves me. I am not given structure and boundaries because God finds it fun to arbitrarily demand I do or don’t engage in certain activities. Rather, I am given them so that I can actually thrive rather than amusing myself to death.

I love my high maintenance little puppy! He makes me crazy, costs too much money and I might never have nice things again, but he teaches me so much that I never seemed to be able to understand before he came into my life.