When I first laid eyes on our Labradoodle, Charlie, I was smitten. Sparkly eyed, with reddish fuzzy fur and a tail that whirled wildly in circles, he was the first of the pups to dash over, jump on my chest, and burrow his tongue in my ear. I was immediately charmed by his spunkiness and breezy confidence.
Four and a half years later, he has proven to be my most hilarious, inspiring teacher. Here are some of the life lessons Charlie has taught me:
When Charlie was a 12-week-old pup, my partner and I dubbed him “The Joy Monster” — not only because he constantly made us smile, but because his cheery personality, springy strut, and frenetic kisses lift the spirits of just about everyone he meets.
If I interrupt Charlie’s nap with kisses, he will grumble, jump off the bed, and flee into the closet. When really annoyed, he will disappear entirely. While at first I was a bit perturbed by this (don’t we want affection all the time?), I came to understand that Charlie was showing a healthy dose of self-care. Watching how clearly he communicates his need for space has helped me learn to respect my own urge to check out once in awhile. And when I give myself that alone time, it makes the time I do connect with people more satisfying.
There are certain things that greatly annoy Charlie: a sloppy-pawed puppy barreling into him as he enters the dog park, being quarantined in the time-out room, and being ignored by our cat when the kitty’s not in the mood to play. Despite how bratty or sulky Charlie can get, he shakes it off quickly.
Growing up, I habitually compared myself to others. Whether it was my sister (my mom’s favorite), my grade-school best friend Chrissy (who snagged the boy I had a mad crush on), or Francine (my high-school chorus friend who got to sing the solos I auditioned for), I never felt I matched up. Over the years, I have tamed that pesky gremlin. However, it surfaced again when I met my neighbor’s gentle, Buddha-natured Poodle Sage. Sometimes I wish Charlie was as calm and even-tempered as her. He does not make apologies for who he is. He just is.
When it comes to collecting information about their environment, dogs are experts. Whether it’s a bush that has previously been peed on, a rotting bird, or another dog’s butt, almost everything is interesting to a dog’s nose. And even though what Charlie sniffs can often be gross, the gusto with which he approaches the task is downright admirable.
As my partner can attest, when I’m up against a wall, I can be stubborn, have a short fuse, and refuse to apologize even when I am in the wrong. However, when I am able to step back, take a deep breath, and approach him with more patience and empathy, we are more able to open up and listen to one another. The same goes with training Charlie. When we employ positive reinforcement, such as rewarding him with a bone or chirping “good boy!” the second he stops barking at the front door, he is much more likely to cooperate. Though yelling may seem like an effective option in the moment, it rarely produces the desired results.
Recently, during a romp in the park, Charlie found a branch the width of a small log. He secured one side in his mouth and began to drag it, but it quickly fell out. He ran around to the more manageable end, gripped it, and continued to drag the branch before it popped out of his mouth again. Undeterred, and to the amazement of the other dog owners, Charlie repeated the process until he was able to haul it all the way to the opposite end of the park.
Charlie follows me everywhere. He sleeps on the bathroom floor while I soak in the tub; pokes my leg while I work at my computer, angling for a belly rub; and Velcros himself against me while I counsel my clients. I have come to accept that while at times such actions are inconvenient, he’s simply expressing his intense love. And really, what more could a person ask for?
Have you learned any life lessons from your dog? Tell us in the comments!
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About the author: Rachel Katz is a San Francisco-based spiritual director in private practice, a human/animal bond researcher, a writer, and an end-of-life volunteer caregiver with the nationally recognized Zen Hospice Project. She is also a besotted mom to her Labradoodle, Charlie, and certified therapy cat, Bodhi — her two most playful, inspiring teachers. In her spare time, Rachel can be spotted roaming the streets of San Francisco in search of urban adventures, great thrift finds, anything shark related, and other dogs to love on. Learn more about Rachel at theurbanspirit.com.