Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog

Home Life, Mental Health, Pets , ,
Boomer and Rocky- the unlikely duo.
Boomer and Rocky- the unlikely duo.

When I turned nine years old, my parents gave my brother and I a dog. Boomer the dachshund started out loving and cute and cuddly, but devolved into a cataract-ridden, biting-prone and highly territorial dog. When Rocky (the german shepherd mix who replaced me when I went off to college) came into the picture, Boomer still ruled the roost and Rocky gave in despite the fact that he was more than four times the size of Boomer. I loved Boomer (he was my first dog, after all), but when he died, to be honest, I wasn’t horribly horribly sad to see him go. He lived a long angry life, and at the ripe old age of 14, I think he was ready to stop terrifying the human population on earth. If there is a dog heaven, though, I’m sure there are plenty of people Boomer is happily protecting and then biting right now.


This was the cutie Winter we picked up the day I graduated from my masters program.
This was the cutie Winter we picked up the day I graduated from my masters program.

It’s kind of surprising in some ways that I wanted another dog after Boomer, but all through school, I dreamed about a dog companion to come home to and take care of. Finally, the day I received my masters degree, D and I brought Winter home. We literally drove from the graduation ceremony straight to South Carolina to pick her up. It was a milestone for us and a time I would finally be without school or a job (for a little while, at least) to devote to raising a puppy. I definitely don’t regret it.


Whether mean or nice, there is something about having a dog that is not comparable to having a human companion. As humans, we are dependent on language to bring us through life- through communicating in general, passing classes, acing job interviews, making friends, etc. But dogs don’t have language to explain anything about themselves, though of course they do use nonverbals. And because they don’t use language, it forces us to learn things about ourselves and about life that we may not have previously considered. Here is a list of things Winter has taught me in the last couple of years:


1) There is always time for play.

Winter is almost two years old, but she is still very much a puppy. We hope she stays this way for a whole lot longer. Winter scares people when they pass by, not because she is aggressive, but because she lunges into a play bow so quickly and intensely every time anyone or anything walks by. She would play with a bobcat if she could. She often wants to play so much that she doesn’t even recognize signs of anger or surprise in other dogs or people. That dog is growling and barking at me with their back fur on end? Well, must be another sign they want to play with me! Oh joy! It’s not always a good thing since she doesn’t back off when other dogs are warning her they don’t want to join in, but overall it’s always a reminder to me that life isn’t as serious as we make it out to be. Take at least a few minutes and play every day! 🙂

2) All you need in life is food, water, shelter, exercise, sleep, training, and play.

My husband has always said that a puppy is easy- that all they need are the above and they will be happy. Over time, I’ve realized that is all we need as people too. Replace “training” with “work” of course. 😉 It really is that simple.

3) Greet generously.

Winter wants to say “hi” to everyone- dog or human, cat or snake. Like most dogs, Winter does not understand that people do not greet each other by sniffing each other’s butts or genitals. As soon as she sees someone, she is “all up in their business,” as one of my good friends would say. I think there is something to her overly friendly (and universal) greeting. As people, we have different ways of saying “hi” to everyone- whether verbally or nonverbally. We might just say “hi” and shake hands if we meet someone new or hug someone we know well. Don’t you think the world might be a different place, though, if the universal greeting was to excitedly hug one another, whether we knew each other or not? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a moment of small intimacy with every person we meet, to feel connected to the people around us instead of avoiding strangers’ gazes? A photographer has already beat me to this concept, actually- Click here to read an amazing article.

4) When you don’t like something someone is doing, speak up!

Generally, Winter knows she is supposed to do what we ask her to. But sometimes, she speaks up- literally! If she does not get a walk in the morning, she makes it clear she is not happy with some husky howling. If she wants attention, she makes it obvious by putting her big face in your face and staring at you (blocking the computer screen) until you interact with her. She knows there are limits to what we will allow, but she also has no problem saying “No, I expect you to do this for me. I have needs, and you are the only ones who can provide them to me.” I would never want her being “well-trained” to interfere with her expressing her needs to us. And isn’t it the same with humans? Generally, we need to be on our best behavior, but when we see injustice, we should speak up about it! Let dogs be your guide. 🙂

5) Walk every morning…or else!

Like I said above, Winter expects a walk every morning. If not, she will howl and if she doesn’t get a walk by the end of the day, begin destroying things piece by piece. And, honestly, it makes sense. Not only does she deserve exercise and time to get outside of the house before we start working, we also deserve to have some time in the morning to rejuvenate before coming in to the “daily grind.” It is not an obligation; it’s a nice relaxing beginning to the day. I’d highly recommend giving yourself the pleasure of a daily morning walk.

6) Love unconditionally.

Are there people who will break our hearts? Yes. But that isn’t a bad thing. It means we provided our hearts to them, that we were “all in,” all enveloped, all committed (Read more about love and commitment here or here). We gave ourselves, and sometimes giving ourselves brings hurt and pain. But when you are giving love unconditionally, whether people make you happy or sad, do something you like or don’t, you are filling your heart with positive energy. Winter doesn’t know what a broken heart is because she thinks the best of all living things, because she loves without caring whether that love is returned or not. If we beat her, she would fear us, but she would still love us somehow. Is it logical? No. But it makes the world a better place.

7) The world is for exploring, not just viewing from a window.

Similar to children, Winter sees everything as novel, even if she has seen something one hundred times. There are new smells, new views, new people and animals to meet every single day. Staying inside and looking out at the world inherently means you are not part of everything around you. You are watching, not living in it. Winter seems to understand that her day begins only when we begin exploring what is outside of her window.

8) Be open to all opportunities (especially involving the palate)! 

Winter has never chosen to be a crag dog. In fact, if she had her choice, I think she’d probably choose not to be- she’d be a sled dog (har har)! Despite that, she is always willing to come along with us wherever we will take her. She doesn’t complain; she just finds something interesting to focus on wherever she is. At the crag, it is tasting the foliage. Yes, she is not only a husky; she is also part goat. She will eat anything she can get her mouth around including but not limited to burnt tree trunks, thorn bushes, wood shavings, or just plain dirt. My point is that instead of saying “no” to opportunities that come your way, say “yes” (to the ones that seem remotely appealing at least) and find something there to appreciate- even if it’s just some exotic food!

Winter is always stretching. It keeps her body limber and her mind calm.
Winter is always stretching. It keeps her body limber and her mind calm.

9) Stretch all day long.

Winter starts every day by opening her eyes and stretching her entire body as long as she can make it. Then, she follows it up with a huge downward facing dog pose. She continues doing downward dog poses throughout the day during play, every time she gets up from a nap, etc. Tony Horton, the founder of P90X, always talks about how stretching will keep a body young. If that’s true, Winter’s body will live forever! 🙂 Stretching not only reduces the risk of activity-based injuries and improves athletic performance, it is a great way to calm your mind during/after work stress or just daily stress. For me, it reduces emotional intensity, keeps me in a better mood, and definitely reduces my aches and pains. If you want to learn more about how to integrate healthy activities into your daily rituals, read my other post here.

10) Trust that people who love you have good intentions.

Winter has toughed a lot of things out because she trusts us, even things that are totally fear-inducing to her. She has overcome her fear of jumping down a high ledge outside because we’ve encouraged her every time we’re at the crag. When she is too scared, she lets D pick her up and carry her down (also involves trust). The biggest feat she has accomplished out of trust for us is being roped into a dog climbing harness and being lowered down 40 feet off a rock ledge. She is quite a trooper. Was she scared? Yes. But she never bit us out of fear or hurt us in any way, assuming we knew what was best for her. Or maybe I’m just personifying her thoughts. 🙂 When I relate it to D and I, though, she does a better job of trust. D and I will often assume the other of us is saying or doing something maliciously instead of assuming we have the best of intentions for each other. We’re a team- team members have to trust each other or things go up in flames, right?

11) Time spent with your pack is the best time of all.

Though Winter needs her exercise and outdoor time, she is usually more than happy just being around us in whatever we are doing, even if we are sitting on the couch watching a show or talking or eating dinner. She lays by our feet or next to us and sleeps or licks our feet. She is so utterly happy when we invite her up to our bed in the morning to cuddle and hopes every night that we will let her sleep with us at the foot of the bed. I actually think the thing she loved most of all when we went to NH to climb recently was that she got to sleep with us. The point is that Winter is happy just being around the people she loves, nothing more and nothing less. If only we could all find happiness in such small things.

Dogs use growling and barking to warn others they don't like something. Why don't we?
Dogs use growling and barking to warn others they don’t like something. Why don’t we?

12) Warn others when you are in a bad mood so you don’t have to hurt them.

Dogs growl and bark for a reason- to warn before they bite. Dogs have bad days and also feel threatened just like people do. They have emotional eccentricities that are not logic-based as well. Winter recently was being pet by a young girl who meant well and was trying to play by running after Winter, who was leashed to our dining table. If Winter were off-leash, it probably would have been fine, but being confined by the leash made her feel (I think) like she couldn’t avoid the situation and ended up barking loudly. The girl thought this was more of a game, but I knew better. Winter doesn’t bark for no reason and she looked anxious. I told the girl she needed to stop playing; that Winter didn’t like that. Thankfully, nothing escalated, but it easily would have changed to growling or biting. That bark was Winter’s way of telling her she needed to stop and if not taken seriously, she would defend herself. How many times are you having a bad day and go about making bad days for everyone around you by biting back with nasty comments and hurtful words? Instead, be open and honest and let them know you’re having a bad day before you go about burning bridges and hurting people. Maybe they’ll even make efforts to make your day a good one.

13) There is no way to be in life except *all in.*

When Winter is doing anything, she is ALL IN. Anything she is doing in that moment supersedes all else and she is committed wholly and fully to that one activity. She does not use a cell-phone while playing or play a game while talking on the phone like people do. Our world is scattered among multitasking activities where we are half paying attention to multiple things at once, not fully devoted to anything. Devote yourself to life, to living, wholly and fully and you will find that it is far more worthwhile than being only semi-committed. Read more about being all in here.


14) Up-front effort yields exponential rewards.

Winter knows that with self-discipline and work, there are rewards. Do you live your life in the same way?
Winter knows that with self-discipline and work, there are rewards. Do you live your life in the same way?

This is one we learned while training Winter. D spent a LOT of time (read: 3-4 hours a day for the first few months) training Winter and it has paid off profusely. Having Winter around is never a hassle beyond the mere logistical standpoint of having a dog with you anywhere you go (like not being able to bring them into restaurants or other public places). We have a clear communication path with her and she lets us know when we upset her balance. All that work paid off and in the end wasn’t much work at all to get the benefit of a happy home and happy dog. (Stay tuned for a post about training dogs.) Winter also understands this concept because she knows if she tolerates an activity she doesn’t like, she will be rewarded with something she loves. For instance, we taught her to tolerate being restrained and be calm during the process and in reward she gets peanut butter or sweet potato, which she loves. She knows if she puts in the effort to control herself for something, she will be rewarded. Humans work in the same way. You wrote a paper for school? Reward yourself with some time with a friend, yoga, a healthy dessert. The list continues on. Here are some more ideas for motivation.


Take every opportunity in life to learn something, anything from others big and small. Love and appreciate your dog, your cat, your rat…and your people today. There may not be another.

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