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My dogs learn simple lessons from me, like sit, stay, come, and roll over.
Though our parents taught us to be kind, patient, and polite, my dogs have also taught me complex lessons about life and love.
1. Be authentic.
Though Cyrus was a retriever mix by breed, he did not like to retrieve anything I threw into the distance to play with.
He would politely return a thrown stick to me, once, maybe twice. But the third time, he would pick up the stick, give me an exasperated look, then trot off into the woods to hide the stick from me. I eventually learned that despite his retriever breed, he, himself, was not interested in being that.
I learned that I should never let a label or expectation define me, and rather, to be authentic to my internal nature, not my external looks.
2. Sit and watch nature.
Cyrus spent hours watching birds fly across the lake, some of which landed on the water, some in the trees. He never chased them.
As seasons changed, Cyrus would wake me in the night by rumbling around on the bed before he went to sit by the window. Once I woke enough to be aware of his musings, I realized he had heard the geese in migration overhead, and woke me to sit by the window with him to listen and watch.
3. Be generous with gratitude and appreciation.
Kelly was a yellow mixed pup I found on the side of the road. She was small and scared, barely old enough to be cruelly separated from her mother and tossed into a ditch.
I sat down to coax her to me, and she came easily, first to my hand and then into my lap, where she fell fast asleep. Back at home, Kelly made a point, every day, to step into my lap and lick my hand, as if to say thanks. But it was I who thanked her, for her calm demeanor and daily attention taught me to take a moment every day to thank someone for their presence in my life, and to remember Kelly and her sweet kindness.
4. Find the person who will take care of you, and take care of them, too.
Dogs often bond with one or more people in their lives. Happy was not different. I’d just turned nine when she came into our lives, and I assumed she was a present for my birthday.
She knew what each of us in the house would give to her. I petted and played with her, and would spend hours trying to straighten her perpetually curled up tail.
Though there were adults in the house, she had designated me to be her person. When she needed food or a walk, she often came to me, doing a little dance by the door or her food dish. Once, when she hurt her foot, she glued herself to me wherever I sat, perhaps for comfort, perhaps expecting me to make it all better. I was her person.
When she was about to give birth to puppies (the first and only time) it would seem natural for her to seek out my mother—but instead, in the middle of the night, she pulled herself up on my bed and woke me up, letting me know the time had come.
Later, as time and age took its toll, she cuddled up next to me. I’d wrap her in my arms, find her still-curled tail, and gently straighten it over and over, reminding both of us of our younger days. I was still her person and she was still my pup, as she fell into a long, final sleep.
Happy taught me that it’s important to know who my person is, to know where to find trust and comfort when I need it.
5. Be nice, then be nicer.
In 2016, I found myself watching the news on television. It was a practice I had ended a dozen years before, when violent images and alarmist journalism had caused too many sleepless nights.
This time, news was compelling and surprising, and I found myself voicing strong, sometimes loud opinions at my TV. I began to notice that when I did so, CocoBelle, my small, gray bundle of fur, would jump off the couch where she sat with me, and disappear. Luckily, it did not take me long to realize that my animated response to the news was impacting her in ways I had never imagined.
When I found her in her bed, head down, as if she had done something wrong, I turned off the news then and there. No amount of self-righteous anger was worth my dog’s peace of mind. I also realized that by returning to paper-based news and moderating my responses, I became a nicer person again, even in the midst of unbelievable social change.
All of my dogs taught me to enjoy life, at any moment, in spite of what goes on around us. If I see a field of flowers on a sunny day, it is incumbent upon me to stop, sit and enjoy, or even play. Or watch the birds fly by. Or roll over and stroke a curled tail or a furry back, enjoying the sun on our faces and the time we spend together.
For the time each dog spent with me, they were the life I was responsible for—but it was clear they felt a similar sense of responsibility toward me.
They taught me to find happiness, no matter what was going on around me, and to savor every moment spent together. They taught me life-affirming lessons only a dog can teach.