Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Ninth Dog Guards The Threshold

[This “Dream Alchemy” column, first published in DreamTime magazine in 2019, includes a dream that still raises questions in my mind about the true meaning of healing. Now, more than four years after it was written, I’m touched by the innocence of my approach to the dream, my idea that the “ninth dog” resting across the threshold and blocking my way, might be suggesting that my need for rest would require nine weeks, after which I would be ready to return to life. Healing turns out to be a much more complicated process—and the dream, too, is rich with imagery that I don’t/can’t fully understand. Dreams are mysterious; they don’t offer formulaic answers to our questions, though they do allow us glimpses of potentials, impressions and openings. In this dream, the experience of the dreaming itself was a form of healing that unfolded over nine weeks, nine months, and beyond. Some healing is completed, some is perpetually in process. My intention is to remain aware of my own changing understanding over time.]

What are your intentions as you work with dreams? Whether we are researchers, artists, therapists, educators or explorers, our dreams can be some of the most powerful, potentially sacred, experiences in our lives, and we should approach them intentionally and respectfully.

Whatever we bring into the world, the intentions that guide our actions really do matter. That was true for the ancient alchemists, too. If their intentions were selfish, their experiments were likely to end in flames and failure rather than successfully realizing greedy dreams of gold, power, and immortality. 

When I offer workshops (about dreams or anything else), I always begin by sharing my intentions for this gathering of people, this unique event: 

  1. I intend that we will be reminded of things we already know.
  2. I intend that we will learn something new.
  3. I intend that something special will happen among us: an alchemy that can take place only here and now. 
  4. I intend that whatever happens here and now will expand outward to touch others and spread beyond our imagining.

These intentions are very broad, of course. I think they can be applied to many different kinds of endeavors, and they can certainly be applied to dreamwork. Dreams themselves serve all of the purposes expressed by these intentions: they remind us of what we already know; they show us something new; they create an experience in themselves; and they can expand beyond any one dreamer’s experience to reach others in ever-expanding ways.

Here’s a dream that expresses these intentions clearly:

The Ninth Dog Guards the Threshold: I’m in deep woods, being chased by a pack of wolfhounds. They are not mean dogs—but they are guard dogs, and I am in their territory. For refuge, I run to an isolated house; an older woman meets me at the screen door and lets me in. The dogs come in, too, but she provides protection and will help me deal with them. She explains that we can’t manage the dogs as a pack—each dog needs something different. One dog needs information, understanding. Other dogs need other things: some have emotional needs (comfort, kindness, patience, reassurance); some have physical needs (petting, feeding, healing, play). The dogs become calmer and friendlier in the woman’s presence, and I know I can follow her example and be safe with them. But now the woman is speaking urgently, calling for my full attention: “Not all the dogs are here! Where is the ninth dog?” I am confused by the question. Why does it matter whether they are all here or not? Also, there are only six dogs—are there supposed to be nine? She’s insistent, so I recognize that the ninth dog is especially important. I look for him, and find him. Unlike the other dogs, he’s a black lab. He’s sleeping on the threshold of the doorway where I entered. He wakes, stands up wagging his tail drowsily, greets me, then lies back down. He’s not threatening at all—but not budging either. He won’t let me cross the threshold until it is time. For now, we must let him sleep. 

The dream helpfully reminded me of something I already knew. I was recovering from spinal surgery, and the wolfhounds expressed the many urgent needs that were “hounding” me. I would have to tend those needs one by one, in a safe place, under the guidance of the wise woman who represented my own inner wisdom. The last dog affirmed my need for rest, and I couldn’t cross the threshold and return to active life until all the dogs were satisfied, especially that one.

I also learned something new. The question “Where is the ninth dog?” led me to wonder about the significance of the number of dogs in the dream. Apparently there were nine dogs: six chasing me, two absent, one guarding the threshold. The specific numbers made sense if I looked at them in terms of time: It had been two weeks since I’d left the hospital (those two dogs were absent because they’d already caught up with me—their needs had been met), but there were still seven more weeks, seven more dogs presenting their immediate needs. I’d hoped to return to work after five weeks of recovery, but the dream suggested I’d need more time—a total of nine weeks. My healing would take longer because there were many physical, emotional and spiritual needs still to be met. The first need was for me to “get” this information, to understand; and the last, most significant need was for rest. Because the wise woman insisted that I find “the ninth dog,” I was compelled to pay attention. As it turned out, I needed those extra weeks since new cardiac problems and pain issues developed, and prolonged rest was absolutely essential to my healing. It wasn’t enough to accept my own needs conceptually—I had to learn what these dogs were asking of me. I had to change my expectations, and my plans. I had to allow myself to be changed. 

A powerful alchemy occurred within the direct experience of the dream. I truly felt the fear as those needs threatened to overwhelm me, the relief when I turned inward (entering the house) and found a guide who could respond wisely. I felt genuine recognition when I found the sleepy “ninth dog” on the threshold, and acknowledged my own profound longing to rest, to satisfy the simplest and deepest need of all. This was the need that lay behind every other need, gently but firmly preventing me from crossing the threshold. The “black lab” was the blackness of night, the transformative laboratory of sleep and dreams where authentic healing can occur—a place where I could rest in the deep darkness of my inner unknowing, to be restored and recreated. 

So, this dream spoke to all of my personal intentions: I was reminded, guided, inspired and changed—and after all of the dogs had been satisfied, I was released to share what I had learned by living this dream in the world, letting its meaning expand and spread beyond me. All sacred ceremonies follow a similar pattern. Like our dreams, they are shaped by fundamental spiritual intentions that include revisiting the wisdom we already hold, making new discoveries, invoking and inviting transformation… And, finally, there’s a “sending forth,” where the individual and collective experience of the this unique time and place can be scattered like pollen on the wind, to seed new possibilities, new dreams. 

Perhaps every dream is a kind of ceremony that potentially expresses our best intentions, holding us in the crucible of transformation (guarded by the “black lab” of sleep, and “hounded” to meet our own essential human needs), until we can be “sent forth” to share that which has changed us.

[This article was originally published in the Fall, 2019 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]


  1. unicornkl7

    The Ninth Dog Guards the Threshold. Perfect timing. I was just diagnosed with a Meningioma – a tumor in the lining around the brain. DREAM: My mom and dad are combined into one person and are in bed. They tell me a relative is ill and it is serious. I need to find help. Stephen (my x-husband) knows the phone number for a healer. Then a healer shows up at our house. He is an American Indian and is wearing his native clothes and jewelry. I sit on his lap naked and he is bare chested. He is my lover. It feels so good to be close to him and I melt in his arms. People start arriving to visit the sick person and I want to jump up and leave because of my nakedness. I want to keep our relationship secret. He is playful and won’t let me off his lap. I realize it doesn’t matter if people know we love eachother. What’s to hide? He is lighthearted and visiting with others. Now I am semi-awake and I see a group of 23 Indians walking from the ocean towards me in a triangle. The wide part of the triangle in the back. I see an American Indians face up close and he puts his fingertips on his pursed lips and then opens his hand and throws me a kiss.
    I remember my training in American Indian Spirituality. I take time to rest and journey (visualize) for wholeness and healing and feel the Love. I am filled with Spirit, share my story with others and demonstrate how I am at peace with the unknown.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I’m so sorry to hear about this diagnosis, but it’s encouraging that your dream speaks of being “at peace with the unknown.” I know that this kind of peace is consistent with dream gifts you have received in the past, and hope that it strengthens you. Blessings!

  2. Lisa Rigge

    Thank-you for revisiting this dream! The intentions inherent in spiritual practices were especially relevant to me this am as I do not usually think about them prior to engaging in dream work. They spoke boldly today-these and Parker Palmer’s Touchstones are powerful reminders to bring up in dream groups. The dream itself, well, a wonderful reminder of the power of dreams and their aid in healing. Those of us who remember our dreams are surely fortunate and/or blessed. For ourselves and for others. Thanks again!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Lisa, I always appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Barbara Herbin

    Thanks for sharing this powerful dream again, it really speaks to me and is one of those big dreams that go beyond the individual dreamers personal issues and can relate to everyone. It certainly resonated with me and gave me comfort.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Barbara, it means a lot to me that you can relate to the dream. I think that whatever personal challenges and discoveries we have are especially relevant to the world right now—there’s nothing that’s “just” personal. And, of course, some if not all dreams can resonate beyond the individual.

  4. Jamie

    Thank you for this dream. It came exactly at the right time for me. I am in my second week after spinal surgery. I’m anxious to give back to my life but every time I overdo a bit I’m so back. I relate to the lab sleeping over door jamb.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes, healing doesn’t come quickly, especially after spinal surgery—but we’re so conditioned to push ourselves. I hope you can take the time you need, Jamie. Like the ninth dog knows, resting is part of our real lives, too.

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