Acceptance as a Path to Freedom

Acceptance as a Path to Freedom

Many have known the unconditional acceptance of Joey Sweetboy – the Therapeutic Assistive Animal that for years teamed with me at The Mental Gym. What you may not have realized is my rough beginnings with Joey nearly cost me (and all of us) the opportunity to learn from and grow with this special furry being.

Dog Gone

When Joey was initially rescued, he was “a runner:” Skilled at slipping under the yard’s fence, this very naughty escape artist would hit the streets of our Long Beach neighborhood with me panting and yelling just out of reach.

Determined to tame my newly adopted wild boy, I poured through training manuals, trying all sorts of prescribed methods for correcting Joey’s behavior. Looking through young-adult eyes, I saw Joey’s demeanor as some kind of test: this was a big adult responsibility – my first attempt to nurture another – and I was resolute: I needed to impart my Will in order to correctly parent this mischievous creature into submission and acceptance.


Nothing worked. Summer fleeting, I was (ironically) at the end of my rope. I became unorthodox in my desperation: Impulsively, I called in sick to work one Friday – I grabbed my suitcase, a dog dish, and California’s Dog-friendly Beaches – and loaded Joey into my Toyota.

I pointed us north and stepped on the accelerator: This spontaneous family outing was a drastic plan – one that and would ultimately determine the future of “us.” Hours later, with the sun sinking toward the Pacific, I pulled to the beach side of Pacific Coast Highway and collected the ever-happy Joey from the passenger seat. Exhausted from the drive, I carried him down a ridge, across the beach, and to the ocean’s edge.

I held Joey as I settled us onto the sand: the sea breeze ruffled my brown hair and his blond fur. We both glanced toward the long expanse of deserted beach. I knew what I wanted but was only half of our equation: I needed to know Joey’s intentions.  Taking a deep breath I hugged my little hooligan one last time – and then I let him go.

Gone with the Wind

Bolting like an eager racehorse, Joey sped away as I stayed behind: I could no longer chase after him. Our months-long power struggle wasn’t healthy for either one of us and needed to end – whatever the result. As my little dog created distance between us, his image grew smaller and smaller until, within minutes and fate in his own paws, Joey was gone.

I rose from my wobbly knees and, with accepting tears stinging my eyes, I turned back toward my car: It takes two to have a relationship. And then I heard something: like echoes from a faraway shotgun…was that…barking? I turned back in the direction Joey exited my life: There was a small dot on the horizon – the dot was growing closer! I smiled, then laughed as the furry blur grew larger and larger: For the very first time, Joey was running toward, not away from me!

Joey and I, from that day onward – having made the conscious decision to choose one another – existed as mutually-invested family members and the game Joey invented so long ago – alternating roles of chaser and chased – became our playtime ritual.

Love as a Choice

I believe Joey’s natural instinct was never to escape me but to play with me: I was the one who saw Joey’s devotion as a test and I was the one who had misinterpreted the behavior because I wasn’t open to understanding and accepting Joey’s unique brand of communicating affection. I was making Joey fit into what I (and the training manuals) imagined he should be, rather than the enjoying the miraculous experience of who he was meant to be.

On your life path, I can only hope that you experience a Joey in your life: My sweet boy is gone now, but the memories of what we created together still fill my soul with the thrill of the ocean air and the reassurance of knowing that I was truly loved by another.