Lessons My Dog Taught Me
As I sent my daughter a Snapchat to show her how much “the dog” missed her, I realized one more way our dogs teach us so much.
I really feel like I might write a book on this one day, but I think pets are a vital part of childhood because they have a gentle way of preparing us for adulthood. Think about it... the span of childhood aligns perfectly with the lifespan of a dog. So while a child is at home, they could nurture an infant, deal with a “teenager,” enjoy the success of midlife, and work through the complications of aging ... if they have a pet. A pet allows a child to experience a unique range of events that — in some ways — can help prepare them for adulthood.
When I was in high school, my brother got a dog that would eventually come to live with me. Through Cookie’s gentle lessons, I learned so many things about life that the stories we tell about her have become a kind of family folklore about “the most perfect dog ever.” Cookie had a brilliant mind and a gentle heart as the tale goes, and she taught us so many things about life. As her 15 years came to a close, I had learned to grow up. She had worked so hard to prepare me for the challenges adulthood would bring my way.
Here are a few of the lessons Cookie taught me about life & death:
1. Choose your friends carefully.
I will always remember the day I brought the “wrong” guy home to meet the family. I had gone into the kitchen to help my mother. As I came back into the living room, I saw Cookie staring at the man with her teeth bared... Ironically, his were, too, as he muttered under his breath, “I don’t have to like you either.”
The man never knew I’d heard this exchange, but the relationship did end shortly after.
A few years later, a man showed up at my workplace to ask me out and I suggested we take the dog for a walk so we could make our plans. As we went around a corner, he came toward me a little too quickly. Cookie went after him. He cursed my dog and left... we never went on that date.
When the man who would become my husband came over to visit many years later, Cookie sat between our feet. One day, we were goofing around and I screamed. Cookie grabbed his hand. She didn’t clamp down, but she held his hand until they made eye contact. He understood her message... and he soon won her over (with treats and walks) and we were married.
Cookie was cautious in every new encounter, but once you’d proven yourself to her, she was your friend for life.
2. If you don’t know what you’re doing, just pretend.
I was on the equestrian team in high school and worked at many different horse farms over the years. Cookie had the bloodlines of a hunting dog, yet when it was time to send the horses out to pasture, she knew how to round them up and send them through the gates. We didn’t teach her this. She just did a lot of running and barking at it worked. It was fun to watch the horses obediently crowd through the correct gate as that bossy black dog ran back and forth, coaxing the stragglers to catch up.
We also appointed her the baby-sitter of the family cat. And the cat hated it. We would send her out and say, “Go get Boo.” It wouldn’t be too long before an angry, yowling cat would come bounding onto the porch with Cookie leaping along behind her.
That’s how Cookie learned to be obedient. We would say a command and she would just look at us a moment and then do something.
3. Just being there is the most important thing...
While I believe Cookie instinctively knew what to do when people were stressed, I do believe my brother “trained” her to become such a great stress reliever.
As I mentioned, Cookie came into our lives as I was finishing up high school. Do you remember those final days at home? Always at odds with your parents. Sometimes you felt like they could not possibly understand what you were feeling. (The other side of this feeling is a discussion for another day.) Needless to say, there was a lot of yelling. And I caused a lot of it... most of it.
When my mother and I would start in, my brother would pick up his new puppy and take her to his room. In that house, my brother lived in the attic... complete with folding ladder. Somehow, he had rigged the steps so that he could fold them from above and literally “close” his door. Then he would sit upstairs with his puppy and read, listen to music... anything that would drown out the argument of the day.
By the time Cookie became my dog, she knew stress when she saw it.
When I was a dorm mother, Cookie roamed the halls with me. She would sit and listen to the girls tell stories. Then she would look at me as if to comment. The girls would laugh at her “comment,” then they would pet her and talk to her. They always walked away feeling a little bit better.
I had two roommates in graduate school. We got along well enough because we each had very different goals, different schedules, different lives. And we had some dogs with us. I had Cookie and a little chihuahua named Patrick. As I worked through that first year, my dogs never left my side. Patrick sat on a folded towel on the corner of my desk if I was moving too much for him to rest in my lap. Cookie stayed at my feet. She was the calm in my academic storm.
After our daughter was born, Cookie was always attentive. In a fit of absent mindedness, I once laid the baby on a play mat on the floor and then went to check the mail. The mail was only a few steps from the front door. But that was just enough time for the door to close completely... and lock me out. As the panic rose, I saw Cookie look up at me and lie down beside the baby as if to say, “We’ve got this. We’ll be here when you decide to come back in.” (To this day, I am so thankful for gentle, well-fed dogs. I had heard horror stories about similar situations, which caused my panic to escalate. I should have trusted Cookie as much as she deserved. She had a good record.)
A full half-hour passed before my husband was able to come home and unlock the door. When we finally got inside, Cookie was still sitting beside our very content daughter. My husband echoed Cookie’s facial expression as he said, “See? We had nothing to worry about.”
In the New Living Translation, Proverbs 12:10 says, “The godly care for their animals, but the wicked are always cruel.” This has always been my favorite verse. In the New King James it reads, “A righteous man regards the life of his animal.” I want you to see both translations because they reveal the complexity of this simple verse. The writer is pointing out that the way a person pays attention to animals says a lot about his character. So a godly person takes care of animals... nurtures them. But beyond that, he has a certain respect for animals. In other words, he understands their personalities and habits as well as their needs. This only comes from studying the animals in your life. Dogs are the purest example of this because they study OUR habits to they can adapt to us. Yet the Bible says the righteous — the ones who are trying to live in a way that please God — study the habits of their animals so they can better care for the creatures.
I think the writer was thinking about livestock, not necessarily family pets, but I would argue that the more I understand about dogs, the better I can care for them. At the same time, the more I watch their habits — their incredible desire to be with us — and the way I respond to those habits emotionally, the more I understand what my relationships, with God and with the people he created, are supposed to be like.
Cookie was a great teacher.