I want you to imagine a tiny bundle of tan fur with pointy ears like a Chihuahua, the short, scruffy body of a corgi and warm, engaging brown eyes. Got that? Well, that was my first actual pet dog, his name was Regalito, and I will never forget him.
The name Regalito is Spanish for “little gift,” and he was, both literally and figuratively. The dog was a going-away present from my grandfather to me when I was 6 years old, when my family decided to move away from the farm to the big city, Mazatlán.
The move was a huge turning point, but not necessarily a good one. On the farm, we were poor but we had wide-open space, animals and nature, plus three generations of family along with the extended “family” of the other farm workers. In the city, we were still poor — but now the four of us were stuck in a small two-room apartment. And although we were surrounded by the other 400,000 residents of the city, in a lot of ways it felt like we were all on our own.
We did have some nature with us — my father’s two parrots and my mother’s egg-laying chickens lived in the apartment hallway, and so did Regalito. But the city was a very different place — crowded and noisy all the time, and our mother became much stricter with my sister and me in order to protect us from the traffic and crime.
Dogs were also treated much differently. On the farm, they were our working companions that helped the farmhands do their jobs. In the city, for the most part, they were considered a nuisance and there were wild dogs everywhere. Those that were “pets” mostly lived on the flat roofs of the houses and really weren’t part of their families.
Seeing that treatment really opened my eyes to the ways that people can be inhumane. A lot of times, that inhumanity is simply a product of ignorance or indifference — people don’t know better, or don’t have the time to do more. But sometimes it’s intentional — people would throw things at dogs, or kick or beat them in an effort to keep them scavenging from the trash.
I couldn’t understand it then and I don’t now, which is one of the reasons I’ve been doing what I can to prevent things like the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. That effort is going to be one of the themes when I join Lisa Vanderpump onstage in Las Vegas in August at the Zappos for Good Speaker Series. The other theme is going to be how to have a balanced relationship with your dog, and that is one of the tricks that Regalito taught me growing up in that crowded, noisy, indifferent city by the sea.
Note that I say he taught me because that’s exactly what dogs do, if we let them. In my case, I really didn’t fit in at school in those years, so I didn’t have a lot of friends — until I got home, and Regalito was there to eagerly greet me without judging me, because our dogs never judge us. He really cared about what I was feeling. I could be myself with him. I didn’t feel like I had to put on any mask or try to act happy or tough when I was hurting inside. He always knew what was going on with me, and in that way taught me how special the relationship is between humans and canines.
I’d always been in love with animals, but after the move to Mazatlán my interest in dogs became a full-fledged passion. I connected much better with dogs in spiritual and emotional terms than I did with any humans in my life at the time.
Dogs had all the qualities — silent strength, adaptability, playfulness, determination, empathy, patience and wisdom — that I aspired to. I loved my family and knew they loved me, but with dogs, I felt different. I felt whole. We may have named the dog Little Gift, but what he brought to me was the biggest gift of all — one that is still giving to me and which I’m sharing with others even to this day.