What I learned from Shadow

shadowface175Shadow is our nine-pound Yorkshire Terrier. She’s been a family member since October, 2005, and she is seven years old. She’s family in the fullest sense; she eats here, she sleeps here, she shares family events here and she has her private space and objects here. We don’t see her as a dog, but as a little girl who happens to enjoy walking on all fours, has an abundance of body hair and occasionally stumbles with English.

She and I enjoy going for walks several times a day, usually at least five outings although some are short and some long. When we started our walks years ago I felt my time was being wasted, just walking a “dog”. Fortunately, I have learned so much in the past several years from Shadow and I share them here.

Seize the day: Early on I learned from Shadow the importance of dealing with the issues of the day and not focusing my energy on tomorrow. Shadow greets every morning with gusto and excitement. We’re usually awakened by her licking our faces and then jumping around on the bed. She sees each morning as a new day to enjoy life and to be alive. Each day I try to do what I can, yet I know there will also be a tomorrow. Each day is a joy and a gift to treasure.

Be persistent: Whenever Shadow wants something she kicks my shins (gently). If I don’t respond, she returns a few minutes later and repeats the act. By the third kick I feel obligated to respect her request as a family member and I follow her to address her issue. This technique applies equally to us. If there are issues we want to address, we do ourselves and others a disservice by giving up too quickly. Often we do not get our issue addressed because the other person didn’t understand us or was focused on something else. We have a natural tendency to assume that others know what we mean when we say something, but often that does not happen. Until the other person can paraphrase your issue, you need to persist.

Be assertive: This is a troubling word and readily misunderstood. Assertiveness is ensuring that you speak your point of view, not that you win the debate. I have learned that on those occasions when Shadow snarls at me or otherwise sends a strong message that she is not acting as a “bad dog”, but as a family member whose message has gone ignored. When she was a puppy she let me decide where we took our walks. When she grew older she started resisting. At first I forced her to follow my lead, but eventually I realized that the purpose of the walks was for her benefit. We now walk where she likes to walk; she’s happier now and so am I. Assertiveness has the positive benefit of educating others to new ideas.

Celebrate: Whenever I am away from the house for any period of time, there is a grand celebration on my return. Jumps and pirouettes are all done to exhibit her joy at seeing me again. This is an area of growth for all of us. We become parents, we graduate college, we get married and we celebrate. But there are other areas to celebrate. Maybe it’s an unexpected day off work, a new job, the tomato plants are in bloom — share the joy and celebrate, even if it’s only sharing an Oreo cookie. Do something to show your pride and excitement.

Be patient: Being a dog, she is always dependent on my wife and me to cater to her needs. She accepts this. She waits. No anger, no barking, no displeasure. Sometimes what we want isn’t available yet, and may never be available. By being patient we have the opportunity to rethink why we want the item and to often find other solutions. We also appreciate the result more.

Be forgiving: Can a dog really forgive? I don’t know. However, Shadow never holds a grudge and never thinks about something I did that she didn’t like. Whatever decision was made 5 minutes ago is irrelevant to where we are now. Her interests are in what she’s doing now, not what happened before. We could learn from this and focus our energy on today and what we can achieve. Focusing on where we feel mistreated or not respected never solves anything and just wastes time. Shadow never wastes her time.

Show affection: Each morning Shadow insists on sitting on my lap and licking my face and hands. She then jumps on my wife’s lap and repeats the display of affection. This display also happens at bedtime and often when attaching her leash for a walk. This is a grand reminder to me that we should not withhold affection because the other person is already aware of our love for them. Quite the opposite, we build the relationship by always exhibiting affection at some level to the other person. Whether a hug or just a shared smile or touch, such contacts are beyond price.

Enjoy the little things: Shadow finds happiness in the little things in life. On a walk, she may seemingly sniff every blade of grass, investigate every spot of yellow snow, and inspect any minor change in her usual walk path. When mail comes, she happily devours any envelope or letter that drops onto the floor. I see that this applies to us as well. We plan expensive vacations yet they often just provide stress, we buy new cars and other toys and find we are shackled with higher costs and no pleasure other than possible compliments from others. Is that fun? Or are we just seeking to have more toys?

Make time for yourself: Every day Shadow will find time to sit by a window, take a nap or play with a toy. When doing those things she wants no participation and will use assertiveness to send me away. We also need that time each day for our thoughts, dreams and personal goals. When we give our day to others we lose and so do the others. Finding time for ourselves lets us give more and enjoy more.

I should share that, although I learned these views from observing Shadow, I still struggle in being effective with them. I routinely fail in some of them but I keep trying, and that is the hard part, knowing what we could do and then working toward doing better. Shadow is patient with me and that tells me that I also need to be patient with me.

Follow the Geese

It was an overcast mid-March day: snow in the air, mud and snow intermixed in the warming weather. I was driving home from a business meeting, coping with traffic, potholes and a dirty windshield. My mind was cluttered with ideas, challenges; frustration that more progress hadn’t been made was a recurring annoyance. While sitting at a stop light and feeling the world on my back I happened to glance skyward.

There, high above us all, flew a small wedge of geese, oblivious to our world as they paddled northward through the wind and snow, announcing the coming of Spring. God’s messengers, these. Messengers that the changing of seasons is part of a bigger view of our world, messengers that there is more to life than our petty problems and frustrations, messengers that life has a pattern and we are part of that eternal pattern. The geese were fighting a tough headwind; the V formation floundered while they struggled to stay focused on their mission, but nothing would stay them. Geese flew that route thousands of years ago and will be there thousands of years from now. Our little concerns are so small and temporary.

The rest of my drive home I thought of the geese and their message. My frustrations had dissolved, the beauty of the snow gently flaking the windshield gave me comfort, the sight of mud and snow in the fields reminded me of how priceless this will be when the grass and flowers come into bloom.

Life is every day, one day at a time. Follow the geese. Stay focused on where you need to be. Little things take care of themselves. Geese mastered this before we were here. We can learn from them.