Is Your Dog Enlightened?

Three things our dogs can teach us about living life to the fullest

The other day I was reading a book about spiritual enlightenment and it suggested there were three traits you could look to in a teacher to see if they were “really enlightened” — in other words, whether they were just really good at talking the talk or if they actually walked the walk. Putting to one side questions of whether or not enlightenment is a “thing” and if it is, how would an unenlightened person (and I put myself firmly in that category) be able to genuinely discern it in another, I read the next section of the book with great interest.

Apparently, enlightened people are a) unconditionally loving, b) live fully in the present, and perhaps most interestingly c) instantly forgiving, which is to say they don’t hold a grudge, refilling their glass of toxic emotions in hopes that the person they’re grudging on will get sick.

While I have been fortunate enough to meet several apparently enlightened people in my lifetime, I can’t say that I spent enough time around any of them to be able to truly evaluate them against these criteria. But on further reflection, I realized that by this definition I do know some enlightened beings quite intimately — my dogs Sgt. Pepper and Lily.

Sgt. Pepper belongs to the “wise fool” school of teaching — sometimes stalking shadows for hours on end, seemingly clueless until you look into his eyes and see the depth of his unquestioned confidence in his actions that makes me wonder at times if there really is something there in the shadows that I lack the discernment to see for myself. He is ever present and responsive to the moment, able to change tacks from vigorously chasing off squirrels to lying peacefully in a patch of sunlight in less time than it takes me to come up with my order at the local coffee shop.

Lily, on the other hand, is clearly from the “trickster” lineage of the Norse god Loki and his modern heirs, Gurdjieff and Osho, lulling you into a false sense of security before flying up at your face to lick whatever it is that remains behind from your most recent encounter with food of any description. She too loves unconditionally and lives fully in the present, though her superpower is teaching forgiveness by being the naughtiest dog we’ve ever had. The almost daily pattern goes something like this:

  1. Lily steals garbage, throws up on the carpet, or wakes us up with a barrage of barking that convinces us that not only is a home invasion in process, it’s being perpetrated by a gang of heavily armed ninjas roping in from attack helicopters.
  2. We totally lose our cool, demonstrating the conditionality of our love and our inability to stay present as our minds run through a litany of past incidents of destruction and mayhem.
  3. She forgives us for our tirades with absolute love and trust, mischievously promising with her eyes that it’s OK for us to have failed her test because she’ll be giving us another chance when we least expect it.

While these examples are anecdotal and have yet to be peer reviewed, it seems to me we could do worse than to spend more time in the presence of these unconditionally loving creatures and learn from their loving presence and seemingly endless capacity to forgive.

For example, whenever I’m in a quandary about something and my go to move of ignoring it and hoping that it will either go away or resolve itself doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, I take Sgt. Pepper and Lily for a walk and talk it through with them.

While they rarely say much (they might argue I’m just not listening), inevitably I come back from these dog walks feeling more settled and often with some fresh perspective and new ideas about what if anything there is to be done and how to do it. And there’s something about their utter acceptance of me exactly as I am that makes me want, as the old saying goes, “to be the person my dogs think I am”.

So are dogs really enlightened?

No idea.

But the question “what would Sgt. Pepper do?” has gotten me through some pretty hard times over the years, and every day I spend with them both seems to bring forth my capacity to love, be present, and forgive myself, life, and everyone in it in previously unimagined ways.

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Michael Neill is an international thought leader and master coach, challenging the cultural mythology that stress and struggle are a prerequisite to creativity, happiness, and success. As the founder and CEO of Genius Catalyst Inc., Michael’s mission is to unleash the human potential with intelligence, humor, and heart.

To learn more about Michael and his work, visit or join the nearly two million people who have enjoyed his TEDx talks Why Aren’t We Awesomer? and Can a TEDx Talk Really Change the World?

Michael Neill is an internationally renowned thought leader, CEO, coach, and best-selling author of six books. To learn more go to

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