For years, I was tormented by dreams of being chased by wolves and packs of angry dogs. Usually I would wake up from fright, but sometimes not before one of them sunk their teeth into me or scratched at my hands and face.

In waking life, I’m a dog lover who raised and trained several dogs. In particular, I helped raise a beautiful German shepherd mix named Bandit who was a quarter wolf and lived only 7 years due to a faulty heart. So my nightmares do not come from a fear of unknowing, but rather a legacy of love, which always confused me further. What am I so scared of?

When discussing animal dreams, often we are tempted to focus on the traits and characteristics of the animals, reducing our relationship to a symbol or metaphor. This is valid, especially when we look at the evolutionary significance of “wild” animals and our collective relationship to them throughout the eons. Clearly, packs of wolves were once a threat to humans, especially lone people or children out in the open. Wolves are cunning, able to organize hunting parties, follow tracks and wait for the right opportunity. Yet, more often than not, wolves and humans lives peacefully in the same land-base, except when they successfully taxed our livelihood, such as in sheep-herding cultures.

Wolves make a good mirror. They are highly social, with a similar pecking order to human groups, with well-established alphas, betas and zetas. Wolves are loyal, intelligent and capable of great feats of endurance. They howl when excited, preen and groom one another, and alpha pairs can form lasting pair-bonds to raise pups.

But the wolves in my dreams are more than symbols of my cunning or my aggressiveness. As depth psychologist James Hillman says in a 1994 interview with Jonathan White about animal symbols in dreams, “Animals come into our own dreams as guides, helpers, and saviors… they teach us about something, but they are not a part of us.  The bear dream that one man had corresponds to his own earthy, shaggy nature, and therefore he can feel an affinity.  But that bear is not his own shaggy nature.  That reduces the bear to just a piece of himself and insults the bear – it interprets the bear away.”

A few years ago, I told an elderly German psychotherapist about my wolf dreams and my inability to proceed when the animals attack, despite often becoming lucid in the dream. Should I fight them off? Allow myself to be devoured as some sort of initiation rite? She suggested something else. “Reach into your pocket and pull out a gift for them.” I was struck by the simplicity of this action. I asked how would I know what to give them and she answered, “That is up to the dream, not you.”

A month or so later, the wolves came back. I was running through a clearing in the woods and climbed halfway up a tree when I became self-aware. I remembered the woman’s words. As the wolves snapped their teeth at me all around, I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a cloth pouch. Inside, I found raw, red meat. I offered it up instantly and the wolves hungrily ate from my hands. I could feel their teeth scrape against my flesh and soon they were licking my fingers. I looked around and saw they were now non-aggressive and awaiting my direction. I thought, “Go” and they instantly took off, running back to the forest.

I do not have terrifying wolf dreams anymore. While I still do not know the full story of who these wolves are and how they are connected to me—although as a man of Celtic descent I do have my suspicions—I have forged a relationship that continues to grow. On more than one occasional I have called the wolves in my dreams when I needed aid. They come running now, not to hunt, but to help.