On messing up the bed and other things I’ve learnt from my dog…
I wrote this about a year ago, but it is as relevant today as it was then.
My dog, Gus, will be 12 next week (I’ve been documenting his year on Instagram). He doesn’t seem much bothered by a ticking clock; he seems to think he’s still 6-ish. I’ve been his human since the day we first saw each other: he, laying atop of a pile of puppies; I, looking-on through a chain link fence. Through our years, I’ve spent countless hours, days, weeks and months training this animal. And through it all — the life going on around his sweet puppy-into-dog world — he has been teaching me.
What I have learnt:
1. Stop to smell the roses. (And piles of weird stuff on the side of the road, rocks, other dogs’ butts. You know, the yummy stuff)
Gus can be going at an all-out, full-run, pace and then stop on a dime to sniff [something] that is the most interesting, fabulous, time-stopping thing. The rest of the world ceases to exist and that Thing (gross or otherwise) is the most important thing in the Universe.
If we all took time out of our busy-ness each day to notice just one thing that we didn’t notice yesterday, the world would be a much more interesting place. Also think about how lovely it is for that thing (or human) to be the One Thing that someone went out of their way to notice today.
2. Roll in the grass.
There is a certain spot on the grass next to the beach, on which Gus will invariably stop, drop and roll. I don’t know what it is about that spot, but the ecstatic purr-cum-whine noise and butt-wiggling that ensues tells the whole story.
We humans spend a lot of time being vertical. Going from point A to point B in order to do Thing C. We also spend a lot of time sitting. At desks. In cars. Sometimes in our favourite little coffee shop, but not often enough. We do not spend enough time close to the ground. We do not relish the simple pleasures of sitting, laying, rolling in the grass, breathing in the earthy, mossy, verdant textures of the terra firma that we take for granted. We should do this more.
3. Mess up the bed.
I make my bed every morning. There is something to the ritual of tidying up so that when I come home there is some semblance of order to my world. Sometimes when I get home, my bedroom looks as if a grand shag-fest took place without me. Pillows on the floor. Duvet in a weird pile in the middle of the bed. Tennis balls everywhere.
So either my dog has a better sex life than I do, or he’s trying to send me a message or two.
a. Don’t be so serious all the time. It’s OK to mess up the bed a little… you can always put it back the way it was. Besides, you’re just going to mess it up again when you sleep tonight.
b. Use your imagination. What would your perfect play-day look like? How can you incorporate some of that into the daily patterns? Set the intention… life’s too short. Have some fun.
4. Luxuriate in the little things.
Regardless of the weather, Gus needs to go out. So on a 37-degree rainy day in New England, I don my Gore-Tex suit and dutifully set out into the Great Outdoors with said animal. Upon return, we have a towelling-off ritual. First, the head, then paws, then back and undercarriage. Then, the head again. Gus makes this small, almost indiscernible, guttural sound when I’m towelling off his head. He gives me his head with all his weight and makes this teeny moan noise in the back of his throat. He loves the head-towelling.
I met a German woman on my trip to India. Each time we had a meal together (and there were many wonderful meals), she would make this small but intentional “mmmm” noise when she first tasted something that was utterly yummy. After a while, her “mmmm” became a running commentary on the food quality, and reminded me of Gus and his small moans that signal a deep content with the little things.
We encounter small Wonders every day. Cooking smells emanating from a neighbor’s window. Flowers in bloom. Pileated woodpeckers. The melodies the waves make as they tumble over rocks. What is your gut reaction to these Wonders? Do our schedules permit us the tender moments we need to stop and breathe in these little, simple pleasures?
5. Greet loved ones properly.
There is nothing like being greeted by a dog when you come home from a Bad Day. In fact, one of the best things about dog ownership is that split second when you open the door and this wiggling, wagging, so happy-to-see-Only-You face greets you with a slobbery tennis ball in its jaws. Even if you’ve been gone for 26 minutes. Pure unconditional love.
So why is it, then, when we have had an historically Bad Day and our partner has had an historically Grumpy Day, do we greet each other with something akin to “F*ck You.” Not even, “I love you but F*ck You.” Just, “do not even bother coming near me. F*ck. You.” We need to borrow dog logic on this one and start letting the past (and hence said Bad/Grumpy Day) go for even a moment and greet our loved ones as we would want them to greet us on our Bad/Grumpy Days. Because, really, don’t we feel better after giving a hug when we are in a Crappy Mood? Hugs are pretty much always reciprocated. And life is too short to regret not giving that hug you should have.
6. Let them know if you don’t like it.
Gus is one of the most laid-back dogs I’ve known. He is genial, middle-of-the road, non-dominant but not submissive either. He shares toys, food and for the most part plays well with others. He does not, however, tolerate all acts. When another dog jumps on him without warning, he will growl and/or snap. When a dog charges him or approaches aggressively, he will defend himself. After that warning and a good butt-sniff, things are usually OK. And if the dog does it again, there is additional warning. If it continues, we will leave the beach if Offending Dog (and their as-offensive owner) is there. I don’t want to be “that” dog owner.
I think we need to let people know that what they are doing is not always OK. And we need to let them know that we still like them even if some things they do aren’t cool with us (so please don’t do those things). And sure enough, if we tell them in earnest, they will stop doing those things — to us and to other people. There are also the people we have in our lives who continue to jump on us, or do things we can’t tolerate and that they alone are able to change (be it selfishness, excessive drinking, passive-aggressive behaviour, speeding, whatever). And it is just these people with whom we have to make the decision of whether or not to engage and enable in perpetuity.
7. Snuggle. Hug.
What I didn’t quite understand when I got Gus was that he was to be a 75-lb lap dog. His modus operandi is to find an unsuspecting victim (er…friend) sitting on the grass, floor, sofa, whatever, and nonchalantly skooch his little-ish dog butt onto their lap. The shock abates quickly (especially in unsuspecting strangers), and usually turns into fits of laughter. And hugs. It is very hard not to hug a giant dog who has purloined your lap. It is especially fabulous when he tilts his large dog head back to lean on yours — this is the Gus way of hugging you back.
So we humans live in these giant houses and flats with distinct rooms for every little thing and we ramble through our lives not touching. Or not touching enough. That isn’t to say that on a 95-degree New England August afternoon I want anyone sitting in my lap. But it is quite nice to hold hands, touch a shoulder, kiss a cheek, hug with intent…even direct eye contact makes a big difference.
8. Observe. Listen. Identify what’s not quite right. Ask questions.
This is perhaps the most profound piece of dog-wisdom I’ve gleaned. The Gus nose is always sniffing. The ears, always listening. The eyes, looking for shiny things and that what seems out of place. Frequently on a walk, he will stop and point at Things That Were Not There Yesterday. A pair of sneakers tossed over a utility wire. A zombie hand sticking out of a tree at Halloween time. A lost glove sitting on a snowbank. A child crying on the beach. A person in a dark hood. He points, then looks at me. For what, approval to go check it out? To ask what that is? To learn why it’s there? To understand what’s changed?
Throughout my life, I’ve been called out for asking too many questions. For digging for the deeper meaning. For reading into the why or the where or the how. If we go through life taking for granted what others give us as The Truth, then what is our Truth? Where is our meaning? How do we discern our individual thought from what is groupthink? That’s not to say that some things aren’t what they are. A glove on a snowbank is just that. Put there for its owner to find. But maybe, sometimes, there’s a deeper story or more information that’s needed to make the situation Just Make Sense. We need to stay curious, stay informed, seek meaning, discern truth from fiction, drama from reality.
We need to learn from our dogs. Or from our friends’ dogs. Because dog-wisdom is simple. And it can teach us to look at the world through puppy eyes, which just maybe is what’s needed sometimes.