It is often said in spiritual circles that when you are ready the teacher will appear. Having had the experience with a false teacher I was reluctant to ever put myself in that position again. A yogi whose wisdom I respected had written a piece on the Internet where he said that the grace of the guru was essential for spiritual unfolding to occur. I wrote to him relating my own experience, my concerns and asked was the guru really necessary. His reply was most interesting and I think really amazing. He said that yes, the grace of the guru is absolutely necessary but that you must on no account seek the guru, it is the gurus job to find you. Furthermore, you may receive the grace of the guru and be completely unaware of it. Finally, he added that the guru, need not even be in human form. Well, my guru certainly did find me and he definitely wasn’t in human form, he was a dog, called Dougal!
Our first dog Noisette had been dead a couple of months and I was beginning to miss having a dog. Noisette had been quite a difficult dog, she was a bearded collie and delighted in chasing sheep, rolling in anything that smelled disgusting and eating things she shouldn’t. Once she ate a pincushion and we spent hours extracting pins from her gums. She also ate watches, shoes, furniture and walls, but she remained with us for thirteen years. Thirteen years of Noisette had turned us firmly into cat people but I knew another dog must come into our lives. We began to consider what kind of dog we would like and all I knew was, it couldn’t be another bearded collie and it had to big! It was Michèle that remembered a dog we had seen at a hotel in Brittany many years before. It was a distant memory but we both remembered the dog as being remarkable and Michèle actually even recalled the name of the breed, a Leonberger.
A Leonberger it turned out is one of the largest dog breeds in the world. It was created in the town of Leonberg in Germany in the 18th century. The towns’ coat of arms not surprisingly is a lion and they decided in honour of this to try and breed a dog that resembled this huge feline! A Leonberger is essentially a cross between three giant breeds of dog, the Newfoundland, the Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog and the Saint Bernard. Fully grown, they have a long coat of golden hair and a black face. They weigh up to eighty kilos and in my opinion look a bit like a bear, pretending to be a dog. If you want to get an idea of Dougal watch the film, ‘Call of the Wild’ about a dogs yearning to return to his wolf ancestors. A Leonberger is the star of this film. Despite their huge size and strength they are amongst the sweetest and gentlest of all dogs and it was this reputation that was a deciding factor for us. We began to look for one of these monsters and despite being quite rare we found a breeder in our locality. Puppies were due on the seventh of December, our daughter’s birthday, it felt like a sign.
At this point I was just at the beginning of my spiritual journey in adult life, taking my first tentative steps back into yoga and meditation. After we found out that puppies were coming I had a dream. I was standing in a forest at the bottom of a high cliff. On the top of the cliff was a Leonberger. It jumped off the cliff and landed front of me. It said, I am a shaman Leonberger. I told Michèle and we laughed but in truth I thought little of it. I really had no proper idea what a shaman was at this time and it wasn’t until after Dougal had died that I remembered this dream.
After Dougal was born he had to stay with his mother for two months but we gave him a teddy bear imbued with our scents so that he would be used to our smell when he came to his new home. I should have known he was into shamanism, as the poor teddy got thoroughly dismembered! When Dougal came to live with us at two months old, he became best friends with our little foundling Siamese cat Singha. They would tear crazily around the living room creating mayhem; we called them the ‘fun loving criminals’. They remained firm friends even when Dougal had grown to vast proportions. Sometimes he would carry her gently in his mouth, we would see them going by, Singha hanging limply held by the skin at the back of her neck like a kitten in her mothers mouth.
Dougal grew up surrounded by felines, mad little bodhisattvas that would steal his food, use him as a bed, become accomplices in the stealing of cheese. They would bring their huge gentle god offerings of mice. He was too polite to refuse and would take them in his mouth, storing them in his cheeks to be disposed of later when no one was looking.
It was Dougal who brought me my first shamanic gift from the land, the pair of small antlers. I’m sure that he, as the actual shaman felt that they were really his. As I took them out of his mouth he gave a look as if to say, OK, you can have them but remember it was me that went into the woods, rooted through all kinds of disgusting stuff, found them, and dragged them all the way here! Weather permitting I would always meditate under the oak tree and Dougal would always come with me and sit silently until I was finished or come and give me a nudge if I was taking too long. One time I came out of a very deep meditation and nearly jumped out of my skin because the head of a baby deer had been placed at my feet. Dougal, sitting silently a few yards away gave me one of his shaman looks. The night before I came into full awareness of the Tiger, I had a dream. I saw Dougal walking towards me with a Tiger, they were rubbing noses, he was bringing the animal to me.
One day I went to pick up pizza in town and as usual Dougal came, as he loved a drive in the car. I noticed he seemed to have difficulty launching his huge body into the car but thought he was just being lethargic. We went and got the pizzas and Michèle and I sat down at the table to eat, with Dougal at our feet waiting for titbits. I was about half way through eating when I noticed that Dougal was resting quietly with his chin on his paws rather than hassling us excitedly for pizza crust, as was the norm. I said to Michèle I thought he may be sick and then she noticed he was drooling which is something he never did. I immediately suspected a twisted stomach, which is something that happens to big dogs and brings a very fast death. I had him at the vet within fifteen minutes where it was discovered he had an extremely high temperature, and a severe infection. It was touch and go for a while and he ended up on a drip for three days. After a phone-call from the vet telling me that Dougal’s condition was very serious I lay down in bed and looked for guidance. Drifting off into sleep, I saw myself playing my first drum. In front of me was my new drum and as I was drumming the spirit ongon would repeatedly shoot off as if from a bow and arrow towards Dougal. That evening I went outside to reenact what I had been shown. I drummed my first drum, which was tight and sounding perfect. After, I picked up the new drum to play and it was totally slack, the slackest I’ve ever seen a drum, it was like trying to drum something liquid. This was strange as both drums had been in the same room, in exactly the same atmospheric conditions, the fact that one was completely taught and the other completely slack made no sense to me. I realised that my first drum was driving the second and that the second was slack because the spirit was away working on Dougal. Dougal came home on Samhain and seemed fine for a while but really the treatment was just masking the symptoms of something much more serious. Despite further visits to the vet, the tumour in his bladder that was killing him remained undiagnosed and he died at home with us a few days after his sixth birthday.
That night I dreamed of a child, tiny pieces of white paper, like confetti, were thrown over it. The pieces changed first into flowers and then into butterflies. Then spirit women came with flowers tattooed on their hands and wrists. They took my hands and showed me that I had the same. Then I saw my whole left arm was covered by a tattoo of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent marrying earth and heaven.
The next day I chose a beautiful place to bury Dougal near the oak tree. I went away to get my shovel and when I got back Singha was there, she knew it was Dougal’s place. After digging I sat under the oak to meditate. Straight away the Tiger came, and I could see Dougal sitting down. The Tiger nudged him picked him up like a kitten and off they went. After burying him we covered his grave with stones and I played a lament I had written for him on the harp, Cumha MacDougall, ‘Lament for the Dark Stranger’. During the night I felt weight on the bed behind me and the duvet pulled tight around me, from something heavy pressing on it but there was nothing there. I dreamed I was in a large empty house and fell asleep on a couch. In this sleep within the dream I began to sing, Dougal is gone, Dougal is missing, over and over. Then, still within the dream I woke myself up singing and was embarrassed to find I was not alone. Sitting next to me was a woman, she said, this has clearly affected you very deeply but it’s best to let it go.
Dougal had died on the 13th of December and on Christmas night he came to say goodbye. I was awoken by the spirit of Dougal clamping his jaws firmly around the upper portion of my right arm. It didn’t hurt, it was just to get my attention. I then fell back asleep and dreamed I was at home in Kent. From the side of the house Dougal came running at full speed. He was beautiful, his coat shiny and lustrous and billowing with the speed of his motion. I realised that in this moment I was truly with him again. We greeted each other with great joy and played together again for one last time.
Some say that shamanically, a domestic animal spirit does not have the power of the wild ones but I would argue that they offer something very different. Incarnating as a domestic animal like a cat or dog entails a huge element of risk as they are putting themselves completely at our mercy. I read a book on dog training by a man that had grown up in the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet regime it was incredibly difficult to obtain a dog and if you did manage, it was a requirement that if needed, the dog should be able to serve the state. This meant that all dogs were highly trained and cherished. When he came to the West this man was utterly shocked at seeing the amount of animals discarded in animal shelters waiting to be put to sleep. Domestic animals are in between the worlds; they forsake the call of the wild to be given the chance to give us their hearts. Dougal’s great teaching was that for six years, all day, every day, he gave unconditional love. How many of us can say the same.