Meet Homer, a 7-year-old Brittany Spaniel who belongs to the owners of La Muse, a writers’ retreat tucked away in the foothills of Languedoc, France. How I found myself in France, and in the presence of such a beautiful dog, is another story, but suffice it to say that extraordinary circumstances brought me to La Muse, where I was to write about how shelter dogs had helped me to heal from bulimia and depression, a story that would become my new book, Pound for Pound.
The retreat took place in a rustic 12th-century home in the least populated, least touristy part of France, surrounded by heavily forested mountains. The air was so clean it seemed to sparkle, and nearly everywhere you turned, something took your breath away: a bed of crimson wildflowers, a massive tree with emerald leaves, swirls of sunlight, and white clouds kissing the mountaintops. La Muse was an ideal setting for a writer looking for some inspiration, but it also was a dog’s playground. Or, more accurately, Homer’s playground.
During my 10-day stay, Homer was not only my daily hiking companion, but my favorite form of entertainment. Every time we ventured into the forest, he was overjoyed. He often circled around himself and let out a cry before we left La Muse, as if he couldn’t contain his excitement. Then, he morphed from a relatively lazy dog who sunbathed most of the time into a mischievous, wildly energetic puppy. Sprinting up and down hillsides. Devouring sticks like Milk-Bones. Hopelessly trying to chase squirrels up tree trunks. Digging holes in an attempt to catch creatures scurrying below ground. And leaping into bodies of water like a child cannonballing into a pool.
One day, when we had hiked farther into the forest than usual, we came to a large stream. An old log stretched across the water, and while Homer splashed ahead of me, I inched my way across the log. Then I heard a cracking noise, which echoed in the mountains, and the wood snapped beneath me. I fell facedown into the cold water. My palm hit the point of a sharp rock, and my left thigh hit a boulder.
I heard Homer’s paws drumming the ground before I saw a blur of red and white rushing toward me. He leapt into the stream and came to me like some kind of hero dog, as though he’d been trained for situations just like this (he wasn’t). I gripped his wet coat with my fingers and used him to steady myself back up to standing. Then I leaned my weight onto him, and together we trudged across the water.
Once we made it to the opposite bank, I sat down and cried, more out of shock than pain. My chest felt heavy, and it was hard to breathe. Homer sat beside me and licked my hand where it bled. Then he paced around as though trying to figure out what to do. I’m sure there were a thousand scents his nose wanted to sniff, and at least a couple creatures his legs wanted to chase, but Homer didn’t leave my side.
I petted him and tried to focus on his golden-brown eyes rather than the bruise on my thigh or the taste of dirty water still in my mouth. I wrapped my arms around him and stroked his broad chest. I kissed his muzzle, and soon I realized that Homer was comforting me in the same way shelter dogs had over the years, especially when I struggled with bulimia.
Five years earlier, during a time when no one could see the real me — not even myself — I felt profoundly seen, and even loved, by the homeless animals I cared for at the San Diego Humane Society. Pit Bulls, Labs, Chihuahuas, Shepherds, mutts of every kind: They gave me a level of comfort and acceptance that I was certain I didn’t deserve. I could hunch over their stringy, matted fur. I could stare into their bright, honest eyes. I could let their unclean tongues cover my face. And sometimes, I could let their natural way of existing in the present moment rub off on me.
In the presence of a dog, my mind calmed. My breath softened. My heartbeat slowed. And sometimes, my all-consuming thoughts about food — baby carrots and Big Macs and sugar-free gum and dark, dark chocolate — faded away.
Homer shook his coat and let out a big yawn. Then he picked up a pinecone and lay down by my side to eat it. He didn’t seem so concerned about me anymore, and though I was a little concerned about him eating the pinecone, I had calmed down. I was no longer crying or berating myself for falling in the water. My awareness had gravitated toward Homer’s long tail whipping back and forth. His teeth crunching and chomping away. His ears moving like antennas. His nostrils flaring with the slightest breeze.
Eventually, it seemed I’d been more freaked out than hurt, and I stood up. Homer and I began making our way back into town. My hand was a little bloody and my leg bruised, but I could walk. Secretly, I’d hoped that my heroic Homer would stay by my side all the way home, but he behaved as usual, running ahead and then waiting for me, chasing squirrels, and even to my dismay, eating some poop.
And that was the thing that I loved about dogs — there was no need to be the hero of the story. No pressure to save anybody or be perfect. Dogs are always true to themselves. Authentic in every moment. And a girl like me — who once abused her body to keep up the appearance of control, and who probably still worries far too much about what other people think — can learn a lot from that.
Maybe we all can.
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About the author: Shannon Kopp is a writer, eating disorder survivor, and animal welfare advocate. When she’s not tapping away at her keyboard, you’ll find her smooching and loving on Pit Bulls at her local shelter. Shannon has worked and volunteered at various shelters throughout Southern California, where homeless dogs helped her to discover a healthier, more joyful way of living. Her book, Pound for Pound (William Morrow), has struck a chord with readers and reviewers across the country. You can learn more about her writing at www.shannonkopp.com. And if you don’t mind an abundance of furry friends in your newsfeed, follow Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.