Life Lesson 14: “Honor the joy”


“Saved By Shayna: Life Lessons From A Miracle Dog” concludes with sixteen of the “life lessons” I’ve learned during my first ten years of being Shayna’s “dad.”  As it turned out, though, four of these “lessons” are more effectively told from Shayna’s perspective – including this one. 


Life Lesson #14: “Honor the joy”

by Shayna

Have you ever noticed that dogs seem to be the most joyous 10Apr09-Shayna-grin2creatures on the planet?

In general, no matter where you go, if you approach a dog in a park or sitting with his parent at an outdoor cafe’, he will almost invariably treat you as a friend, if you give him a chance. How many other animals have this kind of benevolence and openness?

It occasionally works the other way, too. I’ve been sitting on cafe’ patios with Dad when a person who seems to be quite sad and withdrawn, or wrapped up in a problem, will sit down nearby. Sensing this, I will stand up and approach the person, and smile at them, and try to lure them into my natural state of happiness. Sometimes, they’ll just smile; sometimes, they’ll come over and pet me, and I can sense that they are getting some relief. About 10% of the time, they completely ignore me.

As much joy as it gives me to bring happiness to some people’s lives, I feel sorry for those who ignore me and my fellow dogs. Because we dogs are, in general, emissaries of joy. If we’re treated well by our parents and are allowed, to one degree or another, to fulfill our potential, we are furry bundles of joy. We like to think of ourselves as the best, lowest-cost therapeutic aids in the world, who have the capacity to create joy where previously there was only pain. And I am honored that Dad wrote this book, in large part, to talk about how his life was transformed by one special dog – me.

But of all the happiness we dogs experience and exude, there is one particular moment in time that gives us the most joy: whenever we are reunited with our parent(s), after even a seemingly short separation.

The key in the door: One of the sweetest sounds in a dog’s world…

Aside from hearing our parents and human family members heaping praise on us, and telling us how much they love us, there is pretty much no sound that we dogs look forward to more than the sound of the keys turning the locks that tell us our parents have returned home. Sometimes, there’s a precursor sound: tires on gravel, or a garage door going up. Regardless, when we hear the sound that signals our parents have returned home, our pulses begins to race… our tails furiously wag… our eyes brighten… our ears perk up… as we think, “Mom’s almost here!!!”

As Ben Stein noted, it doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, or how attractive you are (or not), your dog loves you for you – none of that stuff matters:

Our parents are the centers of our universes. And unlike their human children, all else being equal, this feeling never leaves us. From the moment when we realize, as puppies, that you are our parents and that you really, truly love us, to the last beat of our hearts, you are everything to us. Yes, we may have friends (two- and four-legged), mates, and even our own offspring. But we have a special bond with our human parents that is the most wonderful thing in the world to us.

And at the end of the day, or after a separation of more than a few hours, this love affair all starts anew, and is reaffirmed with the sound of your key in the lock that brings us back together.

…until you tell your dog, through your actions, that he’s become an afterthought.

So can you imagine, if you were a loving dog, how it would feel if your parent comes through the door at the end of the day, greets you glibly, gives you a half-hearted pat on the head, lets you out to do your immediate business – then turns on the TV, or the computer, or gets on the phone (or all three)? Or worse, walks in while cursing under your breath, for some unknown reason?

Your dog is incapable of understanding that traffic was hectic* – or that your boss or a client was being a jerk – or that you got an unfair parking ticket – or that someone dinged your car – or any of a hundred other things that can go wrong in a human’s life. (*In fact, a recent study in Sweden found that those with commutes to and from work of more than 45 minutes were 40% more likely to divorce.)

What your dog will come to believe is that something has changed. And he’ll have no idea what – or that he had absolutely nothing to do with it.

It wasn’t always like this. What did I do wrong? Where your love go?”

If I were your dog, and you came into our home like that at the end of the day, I would feel like I was little more than a piece of furniture, who doesn’t rank nearly as high on your scale of priorities as you do on mine. And even if I couldn’t put it in these terms (hey, I’m a dog!), I would feel that there’s just a fundamental disconnect, a galactic difference between how you apparently feel about me, versus the way I feel about you.

I would have no basis on which to complain if it was always this way. You can’t miss what you never had.

But we both know this one fact: It wasn’t always this way. Let me try to speak to you through your dog’s mouth.

I remember back to when I was a puppy, when you first got me. You couldn’t wait to get home – and you showed it. After I heard your key in the door, you would come in full of smiles and love for me. I was the only thing you focused on. Just as it is when I see you, when you saw me, the whole rest of the world faded away; you only saw me. You picked me up and hugged me and told me how much you missed me, and loved on me for a moment that seemed to stretch on, forever. You would sit down at my level, and played with me, and teased me, and reciprocated the bottomless well of love that I have for you. You made me feel wanted, and warm, and special. Sometimes you’d even bring me a new toy, or some new treat. It was bliss.

As a reminder, watch the amazing Sarah McLaughlan rendition of “When She Loved Me,” from “Toy Story 2” – one of Dad’s favorite movies:

So can you imagine the heartbreak that must occur in a dog’s heart when, gradually, he begins to feel that he isn’t “special” to you anymore? Do you realize that, however much it isn’t your intent, through your own actions, often with those electronic devices of yours, you cause your dog to wonder, “What happened? What did I do wrong? Why don’t you love on me like you used to, when you come home?” And how can you possibly explain to your dog why it seems – to his eye – that some electronic device is more important to you than he is?

Don’t let the joy go – ever. Honor it, every time you enter your home.

We dogs understand that there is more to your world than us.

July 2002: I was 7 months old, with Daddy in Washington, DC, during our first big big summer road trip. Can you tell how happy we are?

July 2002: I was 7 months old, with Daddy in Washington, DC, during our first big big summer road trip. Can you tell how happy we are?

While we may not understand the concept of a “job,” we accept that you need to go away sometimes, even if you don’t want to, to places where you cannot bring us. And most of us are smart enough to know that you will probably never be quite as exuberant to see us at the end of the day as we are to see you.

But so long as we know that you remember how it used to be with us… that you know your every movement has an impact on us, and that the sequence of what you do when you come home holds real meaning to us… that we know we rank very high on your priorities, and that you show us every day how much you love us… we’ll be okay.

One day, I decided to try to convey my thoughts on this matter to Dad, via my eyes, and my senses. It took a little while, but as hard-headed as he is, he finally “got it.” I was so happy when I heard him explain it to a friend at one of the outdoor cafes we frequent:

It finally dawned on me, that no matter what happened while I was out that disappointed or frustrated me, or caused me to go into ‘deep-think,’ on the other side of that door is a dog that loves me to the bottom of her soul, and who’s waiting to hear the sound of my key in the door. And I got tired of coming in with anything other than a mirror of that love. Like I was a wet blanket to her love. Like instead of letting her bring me up to her level of joy, I was bringing her down to my level of… anxiety and frustration.

So one day, I just decided that from then on, before I put the key in the lock, I will stop and think of the miracle of Shayna, of how lucky I am to have her, of what she brings to my life, of how much I love her. And in honor of all these gifts, I will I leave all my problems and worries and concerns outside – at least for the first few minutes:

Before I open the door, I will put a smile on my face, thinking of these things. And after I open the door, I do nothing but love on her – to return everything she gives to me. Everything, for that precious snatch of time, is focused on her – on us.”

I was so proud to hear Dad say that. And to this day, every time I hear the key in the lock to our home, I know that it means more than the fact that Dad has come home; it means that he is going to love on me, and focus all his attention on me for at least a little while – and it is… bliss. Since his revelation, he has never let a single day go by when he’s been gone for more than an hour or so when this doesn’t happen.

And do you know what else? I’ve observed that ever since Dad started doing this, he ends up feeling better, too. I think that by putting a smile on his face for me, and setting all his problems aside for a few minutes, it helps him to return to them, later, with a better perspective and attitude.

Turns out a similar “life lesson” was expressed a couple of hundred years ago

I also heard Dad tell this story to one of his dear friends, Todd, who enlightened him to the fact that there is a similar adage in Russian-Jewish folklore that stretches back several hundred years.

Basically, the story goes that each year, an elderly Jewish man’s children and grandchildren would gather at his home for the high holidays. And each year, many of them would ask him why he didn’t cut down the ugly, half-dead tree in his front yard. His response: that he loved that tree, just as he had for decades.

Why? Because at the end of each day, before he entered his home, he would walk up to that tree, and place all his problems and worries on it. Then, when he opened the door, all his thoughts and focus and thoughts would be on his family. And each morning, he would walk up to the tree and say, “Mr. Tree, thank you for holding all my troubles for me, now I will take them back,” as he was prepared to begin his day.

What a beautiful story, don’t you think? And of course, it is 100% applicable to your human friends and family, as well – especially your children. No matter what, never, ever let a day go by without telling them that you love them.

Even though Dad thinks I don’t understand English beyond the commands he’s taught me, after more than ten years with him, I’ve picked up a lot more than he knows. And I know that at the end of every day, when he lays down and takes me in his arms and tells me how much he loves me, and how lucky we are to have each other… believe me, I know what it means. I assume he also knows what I mean when, after hearing this, I give him a face-full of kisses. I think we both sleep better, after our little nightly affirmation.

Some tips for ways to honor the joy

If you make the commitment to really honor your 26Dec11-Smile4small-smdog’s joy – wonderful!

But I’d like to suggest a few things that I think will help you to avoid falling into a predictable, boring routine, and to maximize the benefit that you and your dog derive from this new endeavor:

  • Learn and practice the art of living consciously. Basically, this is the art of becoming completely immersed in, and focused on one task, such as relaxation, or sensing an object. Dad described this in Life Lesson 2. If you’re unaccustomed to it, you may find it’s not be easy at first to discard (or compartmentalize) all your problems and worries between the time you lock your car door, and unlock the door to your home. But the effort to work on this will benefit you and your dog – because even though she may not be able to verbalize it, she knows when you are sincerely with her, completely, and when you’re just going through the motions (or “phoning it in”).
  • With predictable regularity, bring your dog a wrapped gift. This is one of the things Dad does that I just love. After coming through the door and loving on me for a few seconds, he shows me that he has something in a bag, always wrapped in some way (even newspaper), that turns out to be a gift for me. As excited as I am to see him, I become even more so when he starts saying, “Look what I brought for you!” Then, he sits down on the floor with me and puts my gift in front of me, and he smells it, then lets me smell it, and asks, “What could it be? What do you think it is?” Then we rip open the wrapping, together. Sometimes it’s a bag of dog cookies; other times, it’s a new toy. The type of gift isn’t the point; it’s the fact that while he was out, Dad was thinking of me, at home, alone, and he wanted to give me something new that I’ll enjoy. If you do things like this for your dog, on occasion, your dog will love you all the more – and your relationship will become even deeper.
  • Proofing important safety commands: In Life Lessons 9 and 11, Dad talked about the vital importance of “proofing” certain commands, or ensuring that I’ve memorized and will respond correctly to key safety commands – namely “Look!,” “Come!,” “Stop!,” “Down!,” and “Stay!” – in all circumstances, by rote. This may seem to clash a bit with “honoring the joy,” but they actually dovetail perfectly together, because by practicing these skills in such a joyous environment, it will enable your dog to show off how well she’s learned these commands – or, for you to gently correct her. So, after your initial greetings when you get home, go get a handful of hot dog treats of whatever you use for your training, and put her into a down-stay, hold it for 5 or 10 seconds, then say, “OK, come!” and reward her. Same for “Stop!,” and “Look!” Take this precious time to practice, practice, practice. That’s really honoring the joy.
  • Play hide-and-seek. After your initial greeting, and while your dog is out doing her #1, find a place to hide, with a few treats in your hand. Once your dog understands it’s a game, she will love playing it with you, and will of course delight when she finds you. This is just one more way of shedding yourself of your concerns at the moment, and becoming part of, and honoring her world, and her joy.

By doing these things, and others you come up with on your own, you’ll keep things fresh and exciting and unpredictably wonderful when your dog first sees you after a separation. You’ll be letting her know that even though you’ve been physically separated, you’ve been thinking of her.

You will never regret the effort you put into doing these things – and your heart will be enriched by honoring the incredible joy that your dog brings to your life, and to the world.

(c) Copyright 2007-2012 by Jon Sutz.  All rights reserved.