The origin stories of Valentine’s Day are as diverse as love itself. From ancient Roman festivals to saints who were beheaded for their dedication to love, how we arrived at giving gifts of chocolates and flowers to our beloved every February 14th has been lost to time.
In a way, it seems just as well. It means Valentine’s Day can be whatever we wish it to be. Advertising agencies have decided we should focus on expensive romantic gestures, but in reality we don’t need to limit our celebration of love to that of the romantic kind.
There aren’t enough words in the English language to precisely define each sort of love we experience. Yet when someone says, “I love pizza!” we all know they don’t mean the same thing as, “I love my mother.”
There is sibling love, parental love, spousal love, child love, romantic love, friendship love, grandparent love, and many many others. As our pets evolved from our co-workers on the hunt and in the fields to our family members at the hearth, so has the love we have for them evolved.
But it can be hard to put into words. In those brief few weeks I fostered Tucker before adopting him, a friend of mine observed, “Half the time it sounds like you’re talking about your kid, and the other half of the time I think you’re talking about some boy you like… So clearly he’s your dog.”
Indeed, love of a dog is a unique sort of love that doesn’t fit into any of the traditional categories. For some children, a dog or cat may seem like the human sibling they never had; for others, a therapist. For me, a single adult woman, I wonder if the love I have for Tucker in any way resembles what a single parent feels for their grown child. While I expect him to be my partner and act like a grown adult in all matters, he’s still my little boy and always will be.
Parents raising our next human generation can be offended by pet guardians who say that their pets are their children. Some human parents feel this degrades their own deep connection with their child. It is not meant to; it is simply our lack of words to accurately express this unique love that leads us to make the comparison. It does not diminish a parent’s love for their child; it raises up the love a person has for their animal companion.
Even a parental love doesn’t quite express how a pet guardian feels. We experience all different kinds of love—sometimes all at once, and other times, it changes over the years. Our pets live so quickly, that while in the beginning they are child-like, ten years later, you and your dog may find yourself both experiencing a midlife crisis together. And a few years after that, you start caring for your pet as you would an ailing parent: with medications and bed rest, and frequent visits to the doctor. The love we have for our pets evolve throughout their lives, while their love for us remains constant: unconditional.
Perhaps that’s the lesson in all this: we need not define our love for pets—or our love for anything or anyone for that matter. We should pick up our cues from our pets on not only what love is, but how to show that love.
This Valentine’s Day—and every day—celebrate love in your life the way your pets express love.
When your loved one walks in the door, be exuberant as if you haven’t seen them in centuries. Be grateful for any little treat they offer and jump for joy in thankfulness. When you want to cuddle, don’t let physical objects get in your way—squish your body between the couch pillows and your loved one. Lie on top of them if there is no room. Sit your butt in their lap.
Keep your loved one company during their long hours at work. Offer a game to give them a break (nothing like a game of throw to relax for a bit.) And when they’ve been working far too long, and dinner is late, just climb up on the keyboard, look them right in the eye, and remind them that this—you—are more important than any job.
Share a special meal together. Go for a long walk in the moonlight. Listen to music together. Cuddle in bed. Find their snoring endearing. And be grateful that they are the first one you see each morning when you open your eyes.
We do not need a saint or an ancient festival to celebrate and express love. We can do it every day, just as our pets do. Our pets’ lack of words to describe their love for us does not stop them from loving; and our inaccurate descriptions of how we feel need not hinder our expressions either. Use whatever words you like or use none at all. Make a grand gesture on February 14th, or make it on July 27th. Or make it every single day. Love is not bound by time. The key to loving as our pets do comes down to one simple thing: spend as many precious moments together as you can for life is short, but love is eternal.
Happy Valentine’s Day from all of us at Bark Avenue Foundation.