THE LIFE CYCLE OF
AN ANIMAL LESSON
At this early point, the process of working with an animal lesson may still seem a bit foreign to you, but I can assure you it’s not. In my many years of doing this work, I’ve found this kind of work actually follows a pattern. I’ve seen person after person follow mostly the same path in terms of learning what needs to be learned.
Working with your animal lesson can be an emotionally challenging experience. There are several stages to the work that most people go through. As you move through this work with your animal, you will inevitably experience some type of resistance (“I don’t want to learn that!”) as well as acceptance (“Okay, I see that this is something that has been plaguing me for a long time.”), and then excitement when things begin to shift (“Oh wow! This has never happened this way before!”).
Whatever stage you find yourself in, don’t judge it. If you’re resisting or if things are finally moving forward smoothly, it’s all just part of mastering this beautiful idea that your animal wants you to get. If you accepted it easily, right from the start, wouldn’t you have already gotten the lesson? So no self-judgments here, no beating yourself up, no wishing it were faster or easier or wishing it were something else other than what it is.
You’ll hear me say this again and again, but this work is not hard. The only real challenge is your commitment to it as you move through the various phases. Just keep your eye on your special animal, and eventually things will fall into place. Now, let’s move out of the emotional shifts that will go on and look at how animal lessons play out from a higher perspective.
Do you ever feel like a particular animal chose you? Or have you ever felt drawn to a certain animal? My work with tens of thousands of animals and their people has taught me that animals deliberately choose the humans they interact with. Of course that means that your favorite horse (the horse that just makes your heart sing) chose you as her human, but it also means that your mom’s dog, whom you became the caretaker of when your mom passed away and whom you find infinitely annoying, also chose you. Additionally, the fox that you almost hit with your car as he darted across the highway chose you too. All these animals have something to teach you through your interaction with them, whether that interaction is brief or a lifelong adventure.
In your human-animal relationships, once you and the animal have come together in some way, the learning begins! Now, “come together” could mean once this animal starts to live with you in your house, but it’s certainly not limited to this. The animal you are coming together with could be your neighbor’s cat, whom you’ve never even touched, the new lamb born to one of your favorite sheep, or even a wild animal you read about on social media. The human-animal relationship is not limited to pets—it extends out to any and every animal you are moved by, have an emotional experience with (whether positive or negative), or come into contact with.
Now, what’s even more interesting about these relationships is that one animal does not necessarily have the same thing to teach every human he comes into contact with (although, sometimes that is actually the case). Let’s look at an aggressive family dog, for example. The aggressiveness the dog holds may be a way for him to teach Laura how to chill out, to help Laura’s partner Jill learn to be more aggressive, to help the oldest daughter in the family to stand up for herself, and to teach the youngest daughter to become more aware of her surroundings. These human-animal relationships are totally and completely personalized!
In a human-animal relationship, you must deal with the challenges (positive or negative) that arise in order to uncover what that animal is there to teach you. Your job is then to learn this lesson! Unlike what most animal trainers would say, your role in your human-animal relationship is always going to be to “do” you, because change won’t happen (no matter how badly you want it to) until you do.
These special relationships tend to work in one of a few ways. Although the content within the relationship may change from relationship to relationship, the methods for getting the work done on the animal’s part usually fall into one of four categories.
This is probably the easiest to recognize in a human-animal relationship. Some animals will choose to mirror the behavior of the person (or of their environment) as a way to point out the area in which learning needs to happen. This goes back to how an anxious human often lives with an anxious cat, for example, but it is certainly not limited to that, as it could be extended out to feeling a great anxiety and worry for an anxious elephant located on the other side of the world. Other mirroring could be a horse who doesn’t have confidence out in the field because the human doesn’t have confidence out in the field. A dog that doesn’t like men who is mirroring her human who doesn’t trust men.
Sometimes an animal will behave in the exact opposite manner of the person involved in order to make a point. Common examples of this are the high-strung human with the very low-energy, relaxed, lazy dog or the cat obsessed with cleanliness in the house of the man who is a hoarder. Animals often perfect the behavior that the person involved is struggling to achieve. I’ve also worked with animals that will model a behavior to the extreme, such as a dog that is modeling confident behavior so thoroughly that the behavior moves into aggression.
Producing New Emotions
This type of relationship most often shows up in a positive way, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to navigate. I often see this occur with cats. The cat will be the most supportive, dependable being in a person’s life, radiating unconditional love for the human. Now, while this seems wonderful, usually the humans who find themselves with this type of relationship have a hard time accepting that love or finding it anywhere other than with their special cat, or they have a belief that the only one who could ever be that supporting and accepting of them would be their cat.
Some people find this form of relationship very upsetting, but I must talk about it because it’s common. Some animals will develop a sickness, and that sickness can be used as a learning tool for the human involved. For example, it’s possible that someone who never takes any time for himself, works eighty hours a week, and doesn’t have a personal life will end up with a dog that has a broken leg or a wild rabbit or bird that requires around-the-clock medical care. The animal’s goal in this situation may be to teach that person how to slow down and smell the flowers (which they will have to do in order to care for the animal) and stop pressing to be the best all the time. Now, this doesn’t mean that all sicknesses in animals are signs that we need to slow down, just in this example. But I have often seen this play out. When an animal has a medical problem, if the human changes his lifestyle, mindset, expectations of life, emotions, or something else big (depending on the lesson), things will often alleviate for that animal. I do want to point out though that I use the word “alleviate” on purpose because alleviate does not always mean that the animal stops being sick; it could also mean that the animal crosses over or some other option.
This brings me to the big question that everyone asks me when they first learn about these special human-animal relationships: “What happens when you finally master the lesson this animal has been working so hard to teach you?” After all, if you’re in this theoretical contract with the animal, there has to be an ending, right? The answer is actually very simple, although many people fear it. When you finally master this soul-level, heart-expanding thing about yourself that this animal has been working so hard to get you to see, there is no longer a need for that animal to remain part of your life. That means the animal could pass over, he could go to live with another family, he could run away, you could unexpectedly not be able to take care of him anymore, or any other number of options. The relationship only lasts as long as it takes you to learn and master a particular deep truth about yourself.
Now, I know that no one likes this aspect of the work, but I have seen it play out time and time again. It means that, when an animal does leave your life, a great lesson has been had within you. But to many people, even the thought of the loss of the animal they are connected to can make doing this relationship work completely unacceptable. At this point, most people will say to me (or at least think to themselves), “Alrighty then, I’m not going to do this work! I’d rather not learn the lesson than take the risk of losing my beloved dog/cat/chicken/zebra, etc.” Please avoid saying this!
So many of us get so attached to the animals in our lives—whether they’re our domesticated cats and dogs, our farm animals, the wild animals living near our home, or simply an animal we’ve heard about on the news or through social media—but this is a fact of life and of this deep work with animals. When the animal has done his or her job and taught the lesson, the animal will take her leave, and my intuitive work with animals has shown me again and again that this is a good thing. Animals enjoy moving on to the next stage of their evolution!
Humans are a funny lot. When everything is wonderful in our lives, we don’t really do much to make changes. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I love my life, my job, my family, and how everything is going so perfectly right now. Because of that, I’m going to change it all up!” No. When things are good, many of us can get complacent or spend our time trying to ensure that things stay exactly as they are. It’s when things are bad or challenging or difficult that we tend to make changes, because that’s when we’re open to change. Here’s where you have to give animals their due: the animal in your life is going to see through you. Yup. And are you starting to clue into what happens then yet?
Things get big. Life gets tougher. The challenge gets bigger.
Let’s look at Rachel the aggressive pig and her human, Ferris. Ferris has decided that he doesn’t want to do his work with Rachel the aggressive pig because he has too many other things on the farm that he feels he should be focusing on and doesn’t have time to relax, which is what Rachel has been showing him he needs to do. So, instead of learning how to chill out, he continues to push himself harder and harder to get everything on the property done properly. Well, as a result of Ferris ignoring his work with Rachel the pig, Rachel may then choose to become more aggressive, perhaps even fighting with the other pigs. Or maybe she’ll get very sick, to force Ferris to slow down and take care of her. Rachel the pig will do whatever she can possibly do that will get Ferris’s attention. And you can be sure that Rachel will not choose something that Ferris can easily overlook; she’ll make things harder and more challenging until Ferris finally feels that he has no choice but to listen and learn how to relax.
This deep learning and growing can also happen directly through an animal’s passing. Military dogs’ funerals are often highlighted in social media. These highly trained dogs have usually saved countless lives through their military service and are often overlooked at the end of their life when they can no longer perform their duties. There are many organizations working to help match up these dogs with their handlers from when they were on active duty. When a military dog dies, often there is a public funeral honoring the work of this dog. For many, this is an opportunity to remember the unconditional love of this animal who served so faithfully, and I have witnessed many hearts opening as a result of these funerals. Sometimes, a passing doesn’t indicate that a lesson has come to its culmination, sometimes the passing is the lesson itself.
Instead of worrying about what happens to the animal at the completion of these complicated yet unconditionally loving human-animal relationships, I invite you to enjoy the relationship all the way through. From challenge to challenge, success to success, lesson to lesson, your relationship with the special animal in your life is there to be witnessed (and enjoyed) by you, and working deeply with your animal in this way will make the relationship even more pleasurable.
Animals in Action:
Danielle’s Lesson from the Dolphins
My quiet, introverted husband actually laughed out loud at what I’d just said. “You’re going to take a group of people on a dolphin swim?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said very seriously while looking him directly in the eye. “Yes, I am.”
“You’re going to get in the water?”
“Yes …” But I could feel my determination waning a little bit.
“And swim in the open ocean?”
“Yes …” And now I wasn’t so sure.
Kevin had been asking me these questions with good reason. For the past fifteen years I had made sure to stay out of any body of water other than a pool. So, to him, it seemed like a tall order (and perhaps in his mind a supremely stupid order) for me to book myself to lead a group of thirteen people on a wild dolphin swim in the middle of the open ocean in Bimini, Bahamas. While I was happy to ride on a boat or paddle around on a kayak, I did everything I could to avoid actually submerging my body in the water. My one water-skiing adventure had resulted in my friends believing I was an expert water-skier because I didn’t fall once. This was out of sheer fear, not skill. I was not going into that water.
My phobia began more than a decade and a half earlier on our belated honeymoon in Kauai. Kevin and I had booked a snorkeling trip on a large catamaran with about fifty other people. It was only a day trip, and the captain of the boat took us around the island to various beautiful spots, where we would snorkel to view the fish, plants, and lots of other little swimmy critters. I’d always been somewhat fearful of things touching my legs while in the water, but it had never kept me from swimming. However, on that fateful day in Kauai, this was all about to change.
At the first snorkel spot things went well, despite my hesitation. The area was protected by a coral reef and the number of fish both large and small was almost overwhelming, but with Kevin there it was more interesting than scary. Kevin and I reveled in the beautiful colors and spent a lot of time motioning to one another with pointed fingers under water to “come see this!”
The second snorkel spot, however, was different. It was in a protected cove that was shallower than the open ocean but much larger than the first spot. Land was far away, so the only way to get out of the water was to climb back up on the boat with the helping hand of the captain or one of the crew. I was feeling a little unsure, so while everyone else spread out fifty or so feet away from the boat, I hugged the side and kept pulling Kevin toward me. He wasn’t happy about that, as he tends to like to explore more than I do, but after five years together, he’d come to accept some of my little idiosyncrasies and was happily supporting me.
We were feeling complete with our adventure, so Kevin climbed back up on the boat first in order to help me out of the water. As I waited for him to get in position, my legs felt somewhat vulnerable because of all the fish swimming around and because Kevin was no longer there to protect me. But all in all, I was okay because I knew I was about to get out of the water and back onto the boat. While I was waiting, the captain jokingly decided to dump a huge bowl of bread pieces into the water all around me.
Well, if you know anything about fish, you know that they’re going to love that bread! I spent the next five minutes in pure panic as one fish after another nipped for the food surrounding my body in the water. I could feel little fish mouths touching me, gently swimming all around me, unafraid of my body, and it was more than I could handle. I felt utterly helpless there in the open water, being mowed all over by hungry fish, and there was nothing I could do to control the situation until I was out of the water. Unfortunately, Kevin had not yet realized what was going on, as he was putting his fins and snorkel away, and I was left in an almost panic-attack state. Finally, I was able to grab the side of the boat, and with a burst of strength I hoisted myself up and landed my bum on the boat floor, without help from anyone else. (It’s amazing the strength that adrenaline provides!) Needless to say, I was not happy with the captain.
In the subsequent fifteen years, going into the ocean or a lake felt too uncontrollable. Since I couldn’t always see what was in the water that would potentially touch me, it never felt safe for me to venture in. So my honeymoon in Kauai was the last time I had entered any body of water other than the pool in my backyard until my swim with the wild dolphins.
Bimini. It was one of those things that I just decided to do. I had considered over ten different trips, but nothing appealed to me like the wild dolphin trip. Although I didn’t know much about dolphins, I’d always felt drawn to them. On my desk, I had a small dolphin statue that I liked to hold between my fingers while I meditated, and I had spent time listening to YouTube clips of dolphins chatting between one another. So, without really acknowledging my fear of the water, I gave the okay and had my event organizer schedule wild dolphins for August. Perhaps it was weird to schedule leading a trip that would center on my greatest phobia, but since I wasn’t acknowledging that I even had that phobia, it was actually easy to agree.
As I know now, I was already being guided by the dolphin energy. And what I learned served to solidify my belief in the greater purpose of animals here on earth and helped me release a great portion of my own deep-seated belief that I am not safe in the world. Yes, all this happened because of the dolphins!
First, let me make clear that this was a wild dolphin situation, and I would never have agreed to do this with dolphins in captivity. I believe dolphins should be free, and swimming with wild dolphins is very different from encountering them in a captive situation.
Each afternoon on the trip, our group would drive the boat ten miles out into the middle of the ocean with our steady captain to call upon the dolphins. Luckily for us, dolphins are attracted to boats, to people, and to happy snorkelers, so if we made ourselves known, the dolphins would usually follow soon after. They were not trained to do this; instead they were as drawn to us as we were to them. It was their choice to play with us, and if they made that choice, it was also up to them to determine what that play looked like. Sometimes they would interact with each snorkeler, coming so close that people would have to pull their arms and legs in so the dolphins wouldn’t run into them, while other days the dolphins would decide they wanted to put on a show.
When I went into this trip, I didn’t know anything about how the dolphins would behave. In fact, as the days approached, all I could think of was how susceptible I would feel scooting my bum off the back of the boat into the open ocean—and how much potential there was for fish to touch my legs (or bite my legs) as I swam. At the same time, I was also plagued by the realization that I was the group leader. If I showed this fear, it would set a negative tone for the entire trip, and that was not something I wanted to do.
But if there was anything that my work with animals had taught me, it was to listen to that little voice inside me that said, “Do it anyway.”
It took about an hour and a half on the boat, searching the ocean and making our presence known, for the dolphins to show up on that day. While everyone else was excited, I immediately felt a sense of dread. Now that the dolphins had arrived, I was going to have to lead the group into the murky, cold water, and I was going to have to do it all with a smile on my face so that no one would know the true depths of my fear.
As I slipped each foot into a fin, my hands started shaking, and I felt challenged, taking a full breath into my lungs. I found myself hoping that the shaking was related to excitement, even though I knew it was due to fear. I’d already been in the water once with the dolphins the day prior, but luckily I had been forced to hoist myself back on the boat due to three snorkel malfunctions. For that first swim, equipment malfunctions turned out to be my friend and saved me from having to confront the depths of the ocean. But this time around, my snorkel had been fixed and there was no reason for me, as the group leader, not to go into the water.
Now, I’ve been working to bridge the gap of understanding between animals and humans for many years. And in all that time, the most important thing I’ve learned is that, in everything they do, animals are always teaching and assisting humans. Was I thinking about this as I got ready to slide into the water? No. But luckily the dolphins were.
I decided that I could talk myself into changing my fear of the open ocean. I consciously told myself, “You’re okay, Danielle. The dolphins will take care of you. You’re totally safe and protected out here in the ocean because you’re with these incredible animals.”
But you’ll find as you get further into this book that this is probably the least effective method for creating deep, soul-level change. Have you ever tried to convince yourself of something that your heart has a hard time believing? It doesn’t work. Soul-growth does not come about through force and willpower. Instead, it comes through the change in beliefs. And no matter how much I told myself I was safe and didn’t need control of the ocean to be safe, my belief was not going to change until I experienced that safety.
So I took the plunge (slowly) and gently lowered myself off the boat platform into the open water. Immediately my feet and legs felt exposed. What is below me? What might slide by my legs? What if my legs touch seaweed or worse, get stuck in seaweed? What if … what if … what if ? My mind was racing as I doggy paddled a little ways away from the boat to (supposedly) find the dolphins.
I then proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes trying to control my situation. (Again, this is the opposite of what I am about to teach you.) Where is the boat? Where is the group? Is the group together? How close am I to the edge of the group? Look down there; can something get me? Oh, and where are the dolphins? That’s a big wave—try to avoid those. Where’d the boat go now? I felt that if I could keep everything in order and really control what was going on, I would be safe. It was a careful dance of putting my head in the water to watch the legs of my group, lifting my head to ensure the boat was nearby, putting my head back into the water, and basically ignoring the dolphins.
Finally, the captain gave the hand signal indicating that the dolphins were moving on and we should swim back to the boat. I’m sure it’s no surprise that I was the first person back on the boat.
Several people stood around at the back of the boat in awe of what they had just experienced. “Amazing!” and “Wow!” were peppered about. I, on the other hand, was just happy to have my breathing return to normal and to spend the next hour relaxing at the front of the boat with the group, secure that I wouldn’t have to confront dolphins again until tomorrow. I was wrong.
Thirty minutes later, “We’ve got dolphins!” yelled the captain. Oh, dear.
Once again, everyone traipsed back to the salon to don their snorkeling gear. Once again, I felt that familiar shake and quake at the thought of reentering the open ocean. In fact, compared to our location earlier, we were now further out into the open ocean.
Five people left the boat before it was my turn. Finally, I gingerly slid into the water. As I adjusted my mask and snorkel to match the contours of my face, I noticed that a dolphin jumped out of the water not three feet from my face. Whoa! Rather than feeling scared, I felt intrigued, which was a very different emotion. After the last encounter, those who had come this close to these wonderful beings seemed to be entranced. I wanted to experience that, and after one jumped right in front of me … well, I wanted to see more.
I quickly put my face in the water and looked around. My breathing was loud through the snorkel, but for the time being it was the only thing I could hear above the rrrrrr of the boat’s motor. The dolphin was right there in front of me! He swam about ten feet away from me, and then he turned around and headed straight toward me. Just before he would have hit me, he slowed down and swam by to my right. I watched him as he watched me with one big, beautiful eye, and then he was gone, playing with his friends about fifteen feet away.
Wow! I thought to myself. I want more of this. It felt as if he were looking right at me, calling me to him. He was so close that if he had eyelashes, I would have seen them.
I quickly began to paddle toward another three dolphins that were swimming in a little group together. As I approached, they seemed to sense I was there and wanted me to join them. They surrounded me as they swam past me, and then they swam back and repeated the game. I made sure to keep my hands and legs to myself so as not to get in their way, but I also made sure to keep the dolphins in my sights. I felt drawn to them, and the more I concentrated on them, the easier it was to be with them.
Our group kept playing with the dolphins like this for more than thirty minutes. A few of the dolphins would swim toward me and then away from me, and they even put on a show for us. They would gather into a group of four or five, and together they would gracefully dive thirty feet down toward the white sandy bottom. In unison, they would turn around and shoot up toward the surface. I was utterly mesmerized, and they would all pop out of the water at once, only to land with a splash, still in formation. It was like I was watching my own private dolphin dance. It felt as if they had let me into their safe, playful world. And all that mattered to me was staying there with them and with our group. Even as I write this now, I can feel their pull, their serenity, and their comfort. It was the ultimate feeling of “everything is all right, right now.” Amazingly, I stopped worrying about how far away the boat was, where the other snorkelers were, or how exposed I was to the rest of the ocean. There was something about communing with the dolphins that allowed me to let go of all my fears. It was like a kind of universal protection in one of the most unprotected spaces. I knew I had nothing to worry about, nothing to control, nothing to look over, and nothing to make happen. All I had to do was just be.
Afterward, as I sat on the edge of the boat, reliving the experience, I realized that the dolphins had beautifully acted as my teacher. Much like my trainer at the gym will show me how to do a proper front squat, the dolphins were training me in feeling secure in the world. When I let go of my need to control things, to control my environment, to manage where the boat and all the people were, I was able to relax right into the experience I was having. I was finally free to experience the world as the safe place that it is.
Control is something that I have struggled with throughout my life. As a child, I developed the belief that control was the antidote to my lack of safety. Because I didn’t feel safe growing up, I leaned on controlling my environment, my situation, and the people around me as best as I could. At least that way I would know what was coming at me, and I could be prepared for whatever scary, unsafe thing it was.
By viewing the dolphins as my trainers and accepting that they had something to teach me, I was actually able to let go of control throughout the rest of the trip. The more I went with the flow, the happier I felt. Sure, I was still the group leader, but I was also immersed in a world that I really couldn’t control. Through the dolphins, I learned that that is okay with me; I will still be safe, supported, and protected.
The dolphins helped me to master a long-held belief I’ve had about myself (that I’m not safe or supported in the world), and they gave me the incredible boost of actually experiencing what letting go feels like. Animals are always working at this bigger, deeper level to help people see within themselves what is holding them back, and my time with the dolphins was indicative of this.
I only swam with the dolphins on four afternoons, and yet the impact they made on my life was enormous. Now, imagine what you can experience as a result of working with your own pet, whom you see every single day of your life! The possibilities for healing, moving forward, changing your life, and creating your life are limitless when you are willing to explore the animal as your teacher, mentor, trainer, and guru.