It’s a Dog’s Life: What my dog taught me about a life well lived
Our position as the sentient beings atop the Animal Kingdom food chain leads many humans to mistakenly believe that we are an enlightened and superior species. I’ve always subscribed to the Buddhist notion that sentient beings are characteristically unenlightened, and believe that we have a lot to learn about life from our animal friends, who are closer to Nirvana than the very best of us.
My dog Samson, who would have been 11 in human years today, was a curmudgeon. In the first three years of his life, he was beaten, starved, and trained to kill – until my partner Gabe rescued him, and he was given a new life as the world’s most pampered dog-who-thought-he-was-human. Eight years later, on the day before his 11th birthday, Gabe and I shared the heartrending experience of easing Samson to his rest after discovering he had a bleeding tumour in his abdomen. In the end, I can say unequivocally that it was Samson who rescued us. In the end, that dog taught me more than any human has – or could.
As I reflect on his short but incredible journey, here’s what I’ve learned about a life well lived from my inimitable, irreplaceable best friend, Samson McDog:
It’s better to say ‘I love you’ without words
Words deceive. Lucky for us, animals don’t truly understand the spoken language of humans. But they are fluent in tone and body language, and can read us with far greater accuracy than we can one another. They are also amazing non-verbal communicators. As humans, we place a lot of value on saying I love you. We need the words, and often will ignore negative actions as long as those words are being said regularly. My dog told me he loved me every single day – with soul-deep gazes into my eyes, exuberant licks on any visible and readily available skin, head bumps, nuzzles, and bone-deep sighs of contentment during lazy couch sessions curled up next to one another.
Live for the moment – and in the moment
Dogs don’t waste time dwelling on the past. Samson never spent days agonizing over that time he had an accident on the laundry room floor, or reliving that time he ate an entire lasagne and experienced gastronomic distress of epic proportions. He never lost sleep over the many territorial disputes he had with our younger dog Angus, or plotted revenge against me for the time (or two) that I forgot I’d put him in the side yard to pee and he had to bark his head off for me to let him back in. Why do dogs forgive and forget? Not because they’re less evolved than us, but because they live in the moment. Dogs deal with their emotions in the moment, and then let it go. Because they know there are more moments to enjoy, and they don’t want to miss out on them. I’m still working on this one.
Never let your happiness be tied to someone else
When Gabe and I temporarily broke up earlier this year, Samson and Angus stood as sentries and silent support. I held tight to them as I cried out an ocean of tears into the scruffs of their necks. I told them things I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. The words themselves were inconsequential; it was only the out loud uttering of them that mattered. I didn’t have to hold back with them for fear of judgement or concern. At its scream-and-punch-the-crap-out-of-a-pillow worst, my grief made them whine in empathy laced with fear. But for the most part, my emotions didn’t affect them. They greeted me each day with the same maniacal level of love and enthusiasm they always had. They enjoyed being with me even when I couldn’t stand myself. Because their happiness wasn’t tied to me. My dogs taught me how to be happy, without words and by sterling example.
Go after what you want in life – it’s the chase that counts
All dogs are relentless in their pursuit of what they want – be it a treat, a back scratch, or a squirrel they have no hope in hell of catching. But Samson was more indefatigable than most. His laser focus as he sharked around the dinner table, stalked the treat jar, or repeatedly stuck his rump in my face for a scratch was something to behold. Even when his constant vigilance didn’t pay off, he seemed to truly enjoy the pursuit. Dogs get that life’s a journey, and they spend the entire ride enjoying the feel of the wind on their grinning, tongue-lolling faces.
Listen to your instinct
You’ll never convince me that dogs aren’t conscious beings with fully developed emotions, but they do run on instinct. There was a time when we humans did too. We still have that ability, housed deep in the hippocampus – something marketing guru Seth Godin refers to as the lizard brain. While Godin would have us ignore the voice of the lizard brain to break through fear and caution and make room for creative thinking, there are times we should heed the evolutionary advice we come equipped with. My dog knew when to listen to his gut – and when to get crafty.
Greet the people you love with unbridled joy
When you were in his presence for a stretch of time, Samson doled out his love in measured doses – not dissimilar to the way Gabe and I doled out dog treats. Except when you left, and returned again. Then, you’d get a hackle-raising, tail-wagging, jumping-in-circles welcome worthy of a multi-platinum rock star returning to his hometown. Imagine if your human loved ones greeted you this way every time you came home. Once you got past wondering if they’d lost their ever-loving minds, how would it make you feel? Like a rock star.
Do not go gentle into that good night – rage, rage against the dying of the light
I’ve never met a creature – human or animal – tougher or more resilient than Samson. In his relatively short life, he endured countless surgeries, barely batted an eye during the most rigorous of vet exams, and never had to shoulder the shame of a post-procedure cone because he never licked his wounds. He just bore the pain and got on with living. When he was diagnosed with a carcinoma this past February and had to have a delicate, hours-long surgery that most dogs wouldn’t have made it through, he fought like a demon, gathered his strength, and rebounded. His will to live never flagged through several rounds of chemo. Even at the end, he rallied and raged against the dying of the light.
You more than earned your stripes, Samson McDog. Thank you for being my best friend and teacher. I’m not sure what lies on the other side of this life, but I hope that your Nirvana includes finally catching that damned squirrel you’ve been chasing in your dreams all these years. Until we meet again, my friend.