Canis Major: The Heart Dog

Posted on Aug 31, 2023
Canis Major: The Heart Dog

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

–Anatole France

You’ve no doubt heard the term before in one of its many manifestations: Heart dog, forever dog, soul dog, that one dog. Whatever they are called, these unique and beloved animals change our world in ways we can’t always describe.

Bill and I centered our life work around this concept of dogs who change the direction of our lives. We gave them a unique name that resonated with us in a beautiful and wild way: Canis Major. 

Don’t be fooled by the “Canis” part. We can’t deny that the coincidence of guiding stars and the Latin word for ‘greater dog” inspired us, but we believe this title can be bestowed upon any animal whose life transforms and steers our own. While true heart companions are indeed rare and precious, we’ve discovered people can be gifted with a life-changing animal of any species – and can even be fortunate enough to have more than one, if we are open to receiving what they have to give.

What childhood dogs teach us

I grew up with dogs. I learned to walk by holding on to a very gentle and steadfast Collie named Lucan. My first real friend as a child was a scruffy little Maltese named Benji who shared my morning cereal. My pre-teen years were made less lonely by the unwavering companionship of Boris, my beautiful Rough Collie. Bo passed away while I was away at college. I still can’t forgive myself for not being able to be there for him. 

I loved them all. Fiercely. But as central as our childhood animals are to learning about love, play, and grief, it’s somehow different when you invite a dog into your life as an adult. A life–quite literally–is now in your grown-up hands.

You finally understand what it is to be completely responsible for all aspects of another being’s life and happiness. And for some people, this also means fully opening your heart, letting that dog influence the paths you’ll choose to walk and even the person you’ll become.

What makes a heart dog?

It’s hard to define what exactly makes one particular animal companion a “heart dog.” Ask anyone who has experienced this special bond.

Perhaps it’s that one dog that taught you to the beauty of nature by teaching you to run or hike. Maybe they pulled you into experimenting with a dog sport or inspired you to become a trainer or a veterinarian. Perhaps your beloved dog struggled with health issues and, by making wholesome food to nurse them, you were inspired to turn that food into a brand that helped countless people feed their dogs better. 

People write books about their heart animals. They paint them, photograph them, or just sit still and think alongside them, coming up with marvelous new ideas. They build relationships, brands and products that are inspired by them. Some heart dogs are heroes, helping us become heroes, search and rescue or animal-assisted therapy. Heart dogs guard our peace from nightmares of PTSD. Sometimes they are simply the catalyst we need to get up and go for a walk or go sit in the sun for a bit – and even this can save or inspire our lives.

Maybe it’s because, though it’s been years since they left this earth, you still can’t mention their name without a knot in your throat. 

Heart animals – to paraphrase words by Anatole France – awaken a part of your soul. Once  you are awake, your eyes are opened forever and, better yet, you are now able to  recognize that same openness when you see it in someone else.

Corbin and Willow: The brightest stars in our galaxy

Corbin, a black Labrador Retriever, and a cat named Leeloo were the start of our little family, followed shortly after by the addition of another kitty named Artemis. Corbin was an especially gentle and patient teacher. The mistakes I made with him, I learned not to repeat with his future adopted sister, Willow. He was the original “Lab” that inspired our building The Labs & Co.  If you’d like to learn more about Corbin’s story, we created this tribute to him back in 2020. 

Bill and I had good jobs but restlessly longed for freedom and fulfillment. Then Corbie got cancer at a young age and needed surgery. A dear friend knew we were photographers, so she asked us to photograph her dogs. She insisted on paying us because she knew it would help us care for him. That generous and heart-touching experience was like coming home. She not only helped save Corbin, but both she and Corbin put us on the path to our creative calling. The Labs & Co. was born. 

Untouched by cancer ever again, Corbie rejoined the stars at the age of 16. He passed his torch to his adopted baby sister, Willow, another true Canis Major. She not only carries on Corbin’s legacy, she is leaving her own mark as the muse of many of our personal projects as well our reminder of why we do what we do, every day: To live and thrive through the belief that a life-well-lived can be both wildly free and deeply rooted. 

Willow fostered magic for my heart

By the time Willow came into our lives, our business was a few years old and I had immersed myself in canine behavior studies, completing two academy courses followed by three years of volunteering in the behavior and training department at the Humane Society of Sonoma County. Willow was assigned to us as a “behavior foster.” She was so scared of the shelter environment, it was hard for her to thrive there. We had fostered before, and we were ready to help her grow more confident and find a great home. She was special, and quickly taught me what it really meant to embrace and embody patience, kindness and compassion. 

For a timid shelter puppy and an introverted person such as me, Willow has done more to help me connect with like-hearted people than I could have ever imagined. That is definitely part of her Canis Major magic – and it really is magic. Making friends as an adult gets harder, but dogs (or any heart animal) invite conversation and sharing, providing rich soil where the seeds of friendship can grow.

I gave Willow a loving home where she is happy and safe, and in return she gifted me with daily communion with the land outside, endless hours of laughter (because she is so incredibly funny) and a loving armful of friends I would otherwise not have the joy to love.

Heart dogs are good for the heart.

Heart Dogs in your brand or business

I had a recent meeting with a client whose origin story was much like ours. They started their business because of a dog that changed everything. They already had a keen sense of design, branding and a cohesive aesthetic, and they had already been sharing a lot of content related to their heart dogs. But change and growth can feel scary, and can cause a lot of self-questioning and second-guessing. They asked if I felt they should be sharing photographs of other dogs versus their own heart-and-brand dogs alone. When she asked this, it really struck a chord with me. 

This was my reply:

If you were set on the path of your brand and business because of one special dog, that dog and any dog you share your life with should always be a part of your content. It’s important for your target audience to see you as a human, along with all the parts – including your heart dog – that take space in your brand ethos and its reason for existing.

That being said, if you limit your content and imagery to your private experience, your audience and customers can’t see themselves – and their own dogs – in your product. We fall in love with great products and great brands because we see something we know we want to be part of:

  • THAT life would make my dog happy
  • My cat would love to share THAT experience
  • I share the SAME love for and belief about animals as this brand does

So yes, absolutely do incorporate your heart animals as much as you can in your brand marketing, imagery and story.  The remnants of social distancing and the looming unknown of AI leave people starved for connection. Your audience wants to know your life, feelings, images, and words are genuine (not generated by some chatbot).

But yes, absolutely do also include other animals in your marketing plan so people can see themselves – and their own heart animals – represented in your brand marketing. You’ll gain a genuine connection and build loyalty with your people and the animals they’ll do anything for.

You’ll always keep the indelible mark of a heart dog

Love is timeless, but life is fragile, and time with a “one and only” animal is finite. Yet, even when we lose that special animal, we can’t help but reflect on how they influenced every important milestone. Even though we can no longer touch their fur or walk with them on a wooded trail or a quiet beach, they’ve permanently set us on this path.

I believe a Heart Dog’s irreversible mark upon us begins the moment we become willing to learn from them. Willow taught me how to embrace my softness and honor it as my superpower. Our slow but strong-then-stronger bond and her trust in me is the greatest thing I have ever built. 

We’ll probably never really know why we find a truer, stronger kinship with some people and animals than we do with others. Somehow, something is different about the connection we share with that special heart dog. Even though we can’t put a finger on what it is, when they enter our lives, something clicks and changes the game. And changes our hearts. 



1 Comment

  1. Mary Ann Weber
    September 8, 2023

    Beautiful!! I get it! All my dogs have been a “ heart dog” —- GROWING my heart, piece by piece. For so long, I thought that when they died, they took a piece of my heart with them. Now, I see that all the while, they’ve been nourishing my capacity for love, and growing my heart. They will forever be there. I look at the beautiful photos you have captured of the two that have passed ( Spencer and Charlotte), and I am blessed to have those images to remind me of their physical beings, although their spiritual beings are always present. Thank you for capturing them so beautifully.