Savannah just walked over and smiled at me. As usual she cracked my heart wide open, and all the busy-ness on my mind was washed away by the love I feel for her. And once again I was amazed by how much sweetness is in her eyes, as I have been every day for more than six years now.

We’ve had a rough couple of weeks. She was sick, and for almost ten days unable to get up or walk on her own. She was incontinent, and refused to eat anything but Mr. Barky’s and Mr. Pugsly’s (her favorite vegetarian dog biscuits). She needed constant attention, even through the night, to help her if she tried to get up, keep the bedding clean, bring water when she was thirsty. There was the ongoing effort to come up with a meal she’d want to eat. And my back hurt from lifting her 115 pounds.

But really, the only thing that was a struggle was watching her go through it. It’s like that when you love someone this much. Since you’re reading this, I know you know what I mean. Animals have the ability to open up the place inside where we love the best.

There’s a common misconception about what animals do for us, and why our lives are so much better in their company. The prevailing assumption is that it’s because they love us unconditionally. It’s not that I disagree, but I think it misses the point. It’s a little like saying all we really want to eat is chocolate cake. I’d hate to live in a world without chocolate cake, but what keeps me alive is a plate of fresh organic vegetables. Unconditional love is a gift, no question. But it’s only the beginning. The real gift goes much deeper, and is even more invaluable.

It was Tashina who first taught me this. She was beautiful, tall, with a coat like black velvet. When we met she was just ten weeks old, nothing much more than ears and feet. It was a week after I’d moved across the country, and for a while she was the only friend I had within two thousand miles.

She grew to be stunning but challenging—she didn’t readily assume the protocols of human society. It wasn’t a lack of intelligence or an excess of aggression. It’s just that she was independent and knew she had other options. She also seemed to lack the filters that most of us have to protect us from changes in energy, and so had fears that were difficult to predict or understand—a passing cloud or a stern glance from a strange dog could have her trembling in the closet, laying flat out and immobile in a parking lot, or launching a display of bravado beyond all reasonable proportions. Nonetheless, I soon realized I loved her more than I’d known I was capable of loving. The feeling had a quality of vastness to it that encompassed everything. Simply everything. When Tashina was sweet it was easy, no surprise. But even when she was most difficult, there was never, ever a heartbeat that missed loving her. The love was always—always—huge. I’d had no idea I could do that.

Savannah, on the other hand, is always easy. She is consummately gracious and polite. She has no idea that aggression exists in the world, and she wears her sweetness like a quiet radiance all the time, no matter what is happening in our world, or in my brain or in her body. So yes, loving her is easy. What’s remarkable this time is that she makes me aware of it a hundred times a day. Because she comes to me with her open heart, her sweet smile, and eyes that see straight into mine, she brings me into the moment with an awareness of what is best and most beautiful in both of us. Is there anything more essential than that?

Tashina and Savannah are not unique in their ability to teach a human to love. I know you’ve had similar teachers along the way. It’s what they do. Animals help us to be more of who we are; they teach us to get back in touch with what is most true about us…about the world. It’s no longer news that we’re calmer, heal faster, and live longer when they’re in our lives. They help rehabilitate abused children and soften the hearts of hardened criminals. And when it’s just too hard to let our guard down with others of our own species, animals give us a space where it’s safe to let the tears fall. All of that happens because in their company we can work through the layers of fear, anger, and insulation the world has wrapped around us, and rediscover what’s most important—but much too easy to forget. They help us reconnect with the goodness at our core. I’m not sure any teacher, mentor, or guru can do more.

Savannah’s feeling just fine now, thank you. But in good times and bad, her smiles bring me back to “be here now.” When my fingers are on the keyboard and my mind lost in cyberland, she takes me from my head to my heart, and I smile, too. When the sheets on her bed need changing in the middle of the night, the flash of annoyance quickly gives way to the quiet grace of doing something difficult in the name of love. In that moment I don’t want to be anywhere else—and I’m grateful to know I’m capable of that.

The unconditional love of a dog is a blessing and a joy. But the opportunity to explore my capacity for love, and to be reminded again and again that I can choose to live in love here and now, is a far greater gift. It’s a lesson in self discovery and a catalyst for my spiritual growth.

In this season of giving, I can’t think of a greater gift than the light of two big brown eyes showing me the love in my own heart. It’s a gift I can pass along in the coming New Year and beyond.

Happy New Year to you and to everyone who helps you to know your own goodness.