Our dogs look to Keith and me for approval. “Good girl, Freya,” we say, “good boy, Heathcliff,” when they’ve obeyed a command. We often stroke them, too, even when they haven’t done anything, just because we love them.
Heathcliff likes approval but loves routine. “Time to get up,” he snorts and drums his tail between the wall and bedside. Then in the late afternoon, he seeks me out and follows me around the house as if asking, “Why aren’t you making dinner?” He insists on going outside for a “hurry up” before going to bed at night even though he’s just come in from his evening stroll.
Freya likes routine, too, but loves approval—she is more of a rule-follower. At mealtime, she ponies right up and sits, her eyes focused, waiting for the hand and voice command, “Okay.” Heathcliff’s obedience depends on how much he wants the food. If he smells that it’s nothing special, he tends to get distracted. When he’s slow to sit, Freya wiggles her fanny as if to say, “See how well I’m sitting, I’m the good dog.”
She’s a bit competitive.
In her recent blog post, New York City agent, editor, and author Betsy Lerner wrote about the Q&A after a reading for The Bridge Club Ladies, Lerner’s memoir about her mother. “People were opening up in a very deep way about their failures as mothers, and failures as daughters,” Lerner wrote. “It was so painfully clear that daughters never stop seeking approval from their mothers and most never get it. So clear that a woman’s self-esteem is almost entirely based on the messages her mother sends.”
My mother was a role model for me, and I tried to be the same for my daughter. But if setting an example and following that example are tied to approval as the measure of our success, get ready for disappointment. A daughter can never earn enough and her mother can never give enough. This kind of approval makes us anxious, needy, and self-centered.
I read somewhere that selfishness happens whenever we want for ourselves and from others more than we want God. “These are the deep, dark traps we make for ourselves when I do not put God first,” Richard Rohr stated in a recent reflection. “Indeed, the only approval you need is His.”
Perhaps dogs are good role models for us.