Savannah invented a new game this morning. That might not sound impressive, but for a 12½-year-old Great Dane dealing with some age-related disability, I think it’s worth writing home about. She’s always been more of a morning person than I am, but lately it’s become difficult for her to get out of bed without assistance, and she’s become more creative about rousing me to start the day. Today, when her sweet silent stare didn’t do the trick, she tried coaxing me with her softest “Wff….” That got my attention, but not enough to get me moving. So she resorted to the one move she knows I can’t resist—she kissed me.

Not a big deal for most dogs, but Savannah’s never been much of a kisser. My guess is that someone long ago taught her those licks were not acceptable, because it’s taken lots of convincing over the seven years we’ve known each other to let her know I think kisses are pretty great. She now bestows them like flowers—only for very special people, and usually only one at a time. They’re always delivered after a moment’s consideration, with thoughtful intent, and with the gentlest touch.

So today, when she decided to kiss me awake, she got results. Not only did I wake up, but I laughed and showered her with appreciative hugs. Her ears went down and her eyes got all silly, and she put on that puppy face of hers. She tossed her head in that flirty way she has, and kissed me again. More laughter, more hugs. I couldn’t resist egging her on, and laid down and closed my eyes again. One more “Wff…,” then another kiss. The game was on, and we carried on sleeping, kissing, laughing, and hugging. Savannah couldn’t have been more pleased with herself, and I reveled in the pleasure of waking up to her sweet happiness.

That sweet smile of hers has become a fixture of my mornings. No matter how late I’ve burned the midnight oil, no matter how rainy and muddy it is outside, no matter how much difficulty her aging body—or mine—has getting out of bed, Savannah’s smile is the first thing I see every morning. It’s not that I take it for granted, but I love the familiarity of it, the way something so beautiful has become just a normal part of waking up.

The funny thing about “normal” is that it never stays the same. That can be heartbreaking, or it can be a thread of hope when there seems to be none. Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes normal changes when we aren’t looking; sometimes we need to make a conscious choice to change it.

The first time I noticed that normal had changed was when I realized Savannah would probably never again have the spring in her step that she’d had as a five-year-old, when we met. She was past ten, I think, and had significant arthritic changes in her back. For a few months she’d suffered through a pinched nerve, but thanks to homeopathy, massage, and acupuncture the spasms that for a while made her yelp in pain had stopped. But her gait was still a little stiff, and I kept wondering what I was missing in her care. Why didn’t she move with the grace she used to have? When would her body return to normal? The answer was that her body had returned to normal—but normal had changed. She was actually moving quite well for a giant-sized geriatric dog. I realized that, while I’d always strive to do what I could to keep her feeling and moving her best, it made sense to recognize that as an elder, vibrant good health for Savannah looked a little different than it used to. In fairness to her (and to me) I needed to modify my expectations of her, and be mindful that our exercise and therapy remain appropriate for her age and capabilities.

More recently I realized that sometimes we accept something as normal without making a conscious choice to do so—and that may not be a good thing. A few weeks ago, in addition to the declining strength in her hind legs, Savannah strained her shoulder, so getting around was more difficult than ever. For a couple of weeks her strength and balance were precarious enough that I needed to support her every move; she was virtually unable to get around on her own. The first few days it was shocking to realize she couldn’t move from one favorite spot to another without my help. It was painful for me, frustrating for her. We readjusted our lives and our routine so I could try to anticipate her needs and desires, to lift her and guide her around the house, out to lay in the sun, inside again when she got too warm. As time went on, we worked it out—until one day I realized I’d begun to accept her lack of mobility as normal. Somewhere in the effort to stay positive and encourage both of us, my mind had attained a level of acceptance. If I let my guard down I’d be devastated to see her struggle, to lose her independence so profoundly. So I focused on the good, told her what a great job she’d done when together we moved her from her bed out on the deck to the one in the dining room where she eats her meals. But in my need to close my mind to how hard it was, in that moment of acceptance a sense of normalcy had begun to creep in around her disability. I’d crossed a line we didn’t yet need to cross: Her immobility was not normal for her, but if I accepted it as such she’d be dependent on me for the rest of her life. If I remembered that something better was possible, and stayed committed to that vision and the therapies that might help her recover, then a better life could once again become a reality.

All of this shares a dynamic quality with what’s considered “normal” in the lives of animals throughout our society, and the ways we relate to them. On the one hand we need to look honestly at what normal looks like for them so that we can understand the best ways to target our efforts to make things better. At the same time, we need to keep a watchful eye out for the ways institutionalized versions of normal have seeped into our culture, become so ingrained in our routines, our choices, even our language, to the extent we no longer see them for what they are.

When I modify my expectations and therapies for Savannah in accordance with her limitations—that is, with the reality of what is normal for her—I make the most of what she’s capable of without asking too much, and avoid doing more damage than good. In the same way, I can be most effective in healing what’s wrong with the way animals in general are treated when I’m realistic about the norms by which the rest of the world operates. When I spend my days interacting with animals as beings who have intelligence and awareness beyond my own comprehension, it’s easy to forget that not all humans have had the privilege of knowing them in that way. If I speak to those people about animals in language that makes sense to me, they might not hear a word I’m saying. As a case in point, when I have dinner with someone who believes a normal healthy diet must include meat, I can explain my reasons for being vegan in terms that express my passion for who animals really are, and the psychic and spiritual harm we do to them and ourselves when we exploit them individually and as species. If I’m lucky my companion will shrug me off as a romantic idealist. If I’m not as lucky he’ll become defensive or derisive. Either way we’re likely to end up exchanging views that are so disparate we can never gain understanding of one another. But if I tell him about my gradual transition from the meat-centered diet I was raised on—perhaps the story of the orphaned foal who needed my best healing energy, and who made me question why I’d work so hard to save his life and then go home and eat the flesh of a cow—the conversation can start from a place of common ground. When I remember what normal is for my omnivorous friend, and meet him in that place, I’m more likely to make the most of what is possible in shared understanding, growth, and healing.

There are also times when I need to stay attuned to the aberrations that masquerade as normal, and stand up against them. Like Savannah’s incipient disability, there are anomalies in our society that have become so ubiquitous that they’ve been accepted virtually without anyone’s conscious assent. Most people who say they love the animals they “own” would consider it ludicrous to compare that ownership with ownership of a car, or a piece of furniture. But the behavior that society accepts as normal suggests the differences are incidental. The abuse of animals in labs, the exploitation of animals used for food, the disposability of the countless animals killed in shelters every year, all point to the acceptance of “ownership” as normal in our relationship to animals. If I don’t notice the horror of that paradigm, if I don’t recognize that it’s become accepted as normal, then I help perpetuate the dysfunction. When I see “normal” as it really is, identify it as unacceptable, and defy it—I can change it.

Maintaining awareness of what parades through my life as normal requires a certain vigilance, and a willingness to see through the many layers of perception. Then when I see normal for what it is, I can make wiser choices about when it needs to change, and when it’s perfect just the way it is.

In the meantime, I’m grateful to live in a world where normal means the animals are smarter than I am, more conscious than I am, and where they model the kind of awareness and purity of spirit I strive for. And Savannah’s smile teaches me what the normal way is to deal with life’s challenges…and what the normal way is to start a summer day.