Wednesday, December 31, 2008

10 Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog

Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog
By Joanne Brokaw

It’s a national obsession: as we clink our champagne glasses to ring in the New Year most of us are listing our resolutions: Get in shape, get organized, take a dream vacation, get a better job, save money, write a novel, read a novel, decrease our stress levels. These are lofty goals meant to help us live healthier, happier lives but goals that most of us will abandon in frustration before mid-January.

Sure, there are some things I’d like to change about myself but I’ve decided that rather than changing something specific - like filing paperwork instead of leaving it on the desk for the cat to shred, or losing 15 pounds by March - my efforts would be better served by changing my general attitude about life. My inspiration? My quirky Border collie, Scout.

I think if we all approached life with the same attitude that our dogs do we’d be happier and more content and enjoy healthier relationships with our friends, family, and the world at large. I’ve started writing a book on the subject (finish the book proposal, a resolution for 2008), but until then, here are some suggestions to get your new year started on the right foot (or paw). I call it the “Top Ten Life Lessons I’ve Learned From My Dog:”

1) Assume that everyone you meet already likes you and wants to be your friend.

2) Greet the day by showering kisses on whoever happens to be nearest your nose.

3) Assume that the best spot on the couch is meant just for you, and if someone is already sitting there assume they want you to snuggle with them.

4) Realize that sometimes your natural enemy can turn out to be your best friend.

5) When life sends a cold, wet, miserable blizzard make a pile of snowballs and play catch.

6) Just because something looks good enough to eat doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

7) If you’re too scared to leave the yard, you’ll never get to play in the good parks.

8) If you get dirty you’ll need to take a bath sooner or later, and the longer you wait the harder it will be to clean up the mess.

9) A wet kiss covers a multitude of sins.

10) When someone throws a ball, you’ll have more fun if you bring it back and share it than if you horde it for yourself under the kitchen table.

Even if you’re not a dog lover you can learn something from our four-legged friends. Always think the best of other people, forgive, love, and seek adventure. Approaching life with a positive attitude will spill over into everything you do, and you may find that without even realizing it, you’ve achieved your goals (and if you haven’t maybe they weren’t worthy goals to begin with).

May you enjoy a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year and may your days be filled with love, laughter and play!

(This column originally appeared in ByLine Magazine's January 2008 issue. (c) 2008 Joanne Brokaw, all rights reserved.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Love your neighbor, even when she's mauling you

I took Scout over to my mom's this week. Dali needed a new crate, and I found a lovely one on sale. So we popped over to set it up.

Scout and Dali, my daughter's dog, spend lots of time together in the summer. Scout runs around my mom's huge yard, and while Dali needs to be leashed, the two of them romp and play and splash in the wading pool.

But this was the first time Scout and Dali had been in the house together since Dali has become a full-sized dog. She used to spend lots of time with us when she was a little puppy, but it was causing problems with Murphy, and Scout just hid upstairs when she was here. That, coupled with the puppy peeing, made it hard to have another dog around.

When we got to my mom's, Scout had a great romp around my mom's yard, tearing around the house like a bullet shot out of a gun and diving into snow piles. He knows how long Dali's leash is, and can stay just beyond her reach while they play outside.

Inside, though, was another matter. Dali and Scout are fairly close in size, but Dali has about 10 pounds on Scout. Dali is also a very assertive, dominant dog, so the whole time we were there she was all over Scout. Scout, on the other hand, is a gentle, submission dog. So while Dali spent hours trying to wrestle Scout, he spent the whole time trying to get away.

I could see that he was getting frustrated, and while I've read a bunch about dogs I'm still not sure how to handle the situation. Yell at Dali? Lock Scout in the car till it's time to leave? It is Dali's house, after all, so I didn't want to step on her dominance.

In the end, I just let them work it out, and to my surprise, my submissive, gentle dog finally turned on Dali with teeth bared, and let out a couple of long, low growls. I kept waiting for a dog fight to break out, but Scout would just give a warning and Dali would back off for a minute before coming back at Scout with a playful pawing on the head.

My poor dog. I hated to let him be subjected to an hour of mauling, but he taught me a good lesson. It would have been easy for him to simply turn around and bite Dali. I'm pretty sure she was just playing, and if he turned on her she may have left him alone. Then again, she might have been waiting for Scout to take the bait and engage in a little tussle to see who was the top dog.

Instead, Scout kept his cool. He gave a few polite (but scary) warnings, and in the end just held it together until it was time to go.

When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies and our neighbors, I wonder if this is what he means. We may have a right to argue or even fight, but often that doesn't do much more than inflame a situation. If we give a little warning, then take a breath and bear the annoyance for a little while, we keep someone from getting hurt, physically and figuratively.

And in the end, the gentle dog keeps his gentle reputation.

Monday, December 22, 2008

You have to take a bath eventually

Scout is sitting under my desk, and he stinks. Seriously. I'm not sure why he smells so bad. He's been outside for hours playing in the snow. I didn't know snow smelled this bad.

I should probably give him a bath, although I've been saying that for a week now. It's just that it's such a big pain in the behind. I could take him to Bandit's Bathhouse, but Scout is afraid of the dryers, so he has to leave wet. And it's subzero windchill so I'd have a pupsicle by the time I got home. And I just don't have the energy to deal with a bath in the tub.

But the longer I wait, the stinkier he gets.

Isn't that the way it always is with dirt? The longer you let it alone more it builds up, and eventually when you try to clean it you can make a bigger mess.

I'm in an argument with someone I love today. I don't really know what we're arguing about. We just had some words (I might have started it), which escalated a bit, and now we're kind of walking on eggshells around each other. The longer we go not talking, the harder it gets to clean up the mess. Kind of like Scout.

So maybe I have two messes I should clean up today.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just give me the darn ball!

(Picture from summer 2008, when Scout's fur was wet and my hair was dry, and neither one of us was cold)

I'm standing in the driveway, locked in a stare with Scout. I've just thrown his Glo-ball, and he's retrieved it, bringing it about 5 feet from where I'm standing. He drops the ball, and stares at me with that border collie eye, head crouched, eyes locked.

"Bring it closer," I plead. I'm outside in my sweatpants and a t-shirt, my hair wet from my recent shower. It's cold out, but not the bitter cold of the past few days. Even so, I'm still not interested in a lengthy winter game of fetch with my hyper, under-exercised dog. I want to toss the ball a few times, and then go back in the house and finish working.

"Closer!" I chirp in a happy voice, and Scout nudges the ball with his nose. "One more!" I say and he nudges it again, until the ball is about a foot from where I'm standing. Scout, however, is still several feet away, crouched in anticipation, ready to bolt like lightening when I actually throw the ball.

Or maybe not. Sometimes he's just waiting for me to make a move, so he can snatch the ball before I can get it and run around the yard a few times.

This is all part of a game that I inadvertantly started when I taught him to nudge the ball in the house. He lies down on his dog bed and nudges the ball to me. I roll it back, he nudges it back, and we can play inside with little effort or broken glass.

At some point over the summer, we started playing "nudge" outside, and now that's his favorite way to play fetch.

Scout loves to be outside, and he loves to play catch. I can throw a ball for him to catch all day and he'll never tire. I, however, am freezing this morning and really want this little canine interlude to be over. Now.

What I never understand is why he just doesn't bring me the ball. He likes to run, and the sooner he brings the ball to me, the sooner he'll get what he wants. I don't think he enjoys standing 5 feet away from me with the ball halfway between us, me insisting that he bring it to me, anymore than I insist that if he would just nudge the ball the rest of the way, we could get this show on the road.

I wonder if God ever feels the same way about me. I'm sure that there are (many) times when He's asked me for something simple - my time, a prayer, worship, repentence - and rather than just bring to him what he wants, I toss something approximately close and hope that he'll accept that. And then I wait for him to bless me. Or, as I am continually praying, "Please use me!"

God can't use me unless I'm willing to surrender all and until I'm willing to actually come to his feet with my offering. Instead, I play a game of keep away. "You want it, God? Come get it! Gotcha! Not ready yet!"

I don't think it's fear. I know Scout isn't afraid to come close to me. For him, it's a game and when he gives up the ball, the game could be over. Because I might not throw it again. I might call him into the house. And where's the fun in that?

Maybe that's why I'm so unwilling sometimes to give God everything. He might just keep it. And since I don't know what he has planned next, I just keep nudging my gift closer and snatching it back in the hopes of playing the game just a little longer. Except that maybe God needs me to give up my current game, completely and totally, so he can involve me in something even better, and my inability to see beyond the end of my snout is holding me back.

When I throw the ball for the last time, I yell, "Let's get a BIG treat!" and head for the house. Scout comes barreling towards the door, because he knows that a BIG treat might be peanut butter in a toy, or some chewy turkey jerky, or maybe even a Chew Lotta bone. Or maybe even some treat he hasn't even dreamed of before. He doesn't really know what he's going to get, he just knows it's going to be good.

Because he trusts me, and is willing to give up the game to get the BIG treat.

I wonder today what God is asking me to bring to his feet, and what I'm just tossing to him from a distance? What BIG treat am I missing by not letting go?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Do I like it when God hugs me?

I'm reading a really interesting book called, How Dogs Think, by Stanley Coren. In the chapter In Touch With The World, Coren talks about how dogs use the sense of touch.

At the end of the chapter, after talking about ways dogs use their whiskers (or vibrissae, if you want to get technical) and feel pain, he writes:

"One form of touch that humans find pleasurable but most dogs hate is hugging. For dogs, the experience of hugging is perceived as confining and restricting his movements ... When you hug a dog you effectively immobilize him, which raises his anxiety level. Most dogs will struggle to free themselves from the restraints of her arms, and some may become anxious enough to snap or threaten in order to break loose."

I felt badly when I read that, because one of my favorite things to do is hug Scout. He doesn't struggle to get free but I've noticed he doesn't seem too thrilled with me either, and when I let go he bolts as fast as he can.

I never understood why he couldn't understand that I just love him so much that sometimes I want to wrap my arms around him and hold him close.

Then again, do I really like it when God hugs me?

1 John 5:3 says that God's commands are not burdensome, but sometimes it doesn't feel that way. Don't do this, don't do that, stop, sit, stay. And stay and stay and stay. I grew up believing that God's role was to make up rules and mine was to follow them ... or else. I never really believed God loved me as much as he wanted to control me.

But as I've matured in my faith I've learned that there are really less rules than I'd been taught. In fact, when you come right down to it, just two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-39)

God gave us rules and boundaries for our own good - physical and spiritual good. His desire is not to control us, but to engage in a loving relationship with us. And every relationship has boundaries, and those boudaries are set out of love.

I don't let Scout roam the neighborhood, even though he'd like that. There are too many dangers. But I also don't chain him up. He has complete reign of our yard, and within those boundaries he's safe. He doesn't seem to mind.

So I guess when it comes right down to it, God's overwhelming love for me can sometimes seem as confining as my hugs feel to Scout. That's why it' so important to grow in our faith, to read the Bible, to ask questions, and to ponder what it really means to love God and to feel his love.

I've stopped hugging Scout, and instead have started using a massage technique that dogs love, where you apply firm pressure in a rotating motion on the dog's shoulders and neck. Not only does Scout not squirm away, when I stop, he nudges me for more.

That's love.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Welcome to Our Daily Dog Chow

For a while now I've been writing little faith pieces I call "dogvotionals," short essays and columns that use my experiences with my Border collie Scout to share a message about God or faith.

It's not rocket science, and it's certainly not deep theology. It is just a heartfelt thought or two about my own faith and relationship with the Creator of the Universe.

The idea was born out of a dog training class that we attended on the advice of our vet, Dr. B. Scout was having some anxiety issues after spending 5 weeks in a cast. He was only 20 weeks old, and had only been with us about a month when he took a giant leap in the backyard and landed at my feet with a loud CRACK!

I was feeling guilty, Scout was feeling nervous, and together we were a mess. Dr. B said obedience class would give both of us confidence. I was doubtful, but at my wit's end. I couldn't even take Scout for a walk around the block because any noise or sudden movement - from a train whistle two miles away to a rogue butterfly making a dive for his head - would send him into a panic, making him plant spread eagle on the sidewalk. I'd have to end up carrying him home every time.

Bill the trainer kept emphasising the importance of not dominating your dog, but developing a relationship where he trusts you and knows your voice and responds to your commands because he knows your in charge. He obeys not out of fear, but out of relationship.

Huh. Sound familiar?

See, for most of my life, I was in a fear relationship with God.

But over the past decade, and especially the past two years, I've learned that God isn't some mean ogre waiting to smack my nose with a newspaper for whatever evil I'd done. He's in charge, and for good reason. He has my best interests at heart. He sees the big picture when I can only see the biscuit in front of my nose. In a crisis, he's got a handle on the situation, if only I would listen to his voice and not freak out.

And so for the past two years I've been writing dogvotionals. I'm currently working on a book - but to be honest, sometimes I just need to share a story now, or work through a column idea or get an anecdote down so I'll rememember it later.

So here we are. I use the word "daily" loosely. There's not much I do daily and regularly, without some kind of incentive. Reader feedback is often the "good dog!" I need to keep writing. (Hint, hint.)