Ramona and me on the Houston front porch, watching the rain.

Ramona and me on the Houston front porch, watching the rain.

People praise dogs for their loyalty, their unconditional love, their general acceptance. And rightfully so.

But here's a nuance: Dogs make people earn it first.

My dog, Ramona, gets incredibly excited when someone comes to our house or greets her while we're out on a walk. But she dances around the person, fearful that if she stands still to be petted, he'll pick her up. (This is the bane of a small dog's existence. Every stranger wants to swipe her vulnerable little body off the ground, swoop her through the air, and attempt to hold her. Talk about frightening. Can you imagine?) When we encounter a dog she doesn't know, her hackles go up a little and she growls a bit.

When I first brought Ramona home, her little body would freeze when I lifted her off the ground, and she would shy away when I made a sudden movement. Her youth didn't make her unquestioning.

Ramona now lets me hold her in my arms—on her terms. I know her well enough not to violate her dogness by picking her up without permission. But her body doesn't freeze in fear anymore—she trusts me. And if she knows another dog, she's thrilled to see it. (Or cat. One of her best friends in our neighborhood is an orange tabby named Cedric. See exhibit below.)

Ramona and Cedric, a best friend from the Houston 'hood. July 2012.

Ramona and Cedric, a best friend from the Houston 'hood. July 2012.

Once you've earned a dog's trust, she's fiercely loyal. Ramona forgives my faults and slights. She thinks I'm wonderful no matter what I look like or what my mood. If I'm grumpy and snap at her, she retreats—and she doesn't hold it against me, even for a moment. Ramona doesn't hold grudges.

Dogs don't go into love and friendship blindly. We shouldn't, either.

Yes, I believe people are inherently good. But I'm not vulnerable to them from the start. Once they've earned my trust—proven themselves—I try to remember to take a chapter from the dog book.

This is where humans go wrong. We are often kinder to and more understanding of strangers than we are to the people in our inner circle: our closest friends, our families, our spouses and significant others. They have earned entry into the deepest part of our lives, and sometimes it seems we resent them for it. Instead, these are the people to whom we should be as fiercely loyal, loving, understanding, protective, giving, and forgiving as possible.

Life is short. Love your pack.