The Old Dog Taught Me New Tricks: Life Lessons I Learned from Our Pup

If you follow me on social media, you will know at the end of a very long summer, and preparing to count down the days to this holiday season, my husband and I made the agonizingly loving decision to have our Shepherd go to Rainbow Bridge.

As the ER vet put it at the end of the summer, “The stress of the move probably took its toll. Remember, she’s over 100 years old in human years.” And, when she stopped being able to simply stand while watching us around the house, we knew it was time to let her go. She had served us faithfully for many, many years, guiding me through three high risk pregnancies, and stood by “her” babies as they learned to tackle this world.

And, if I’m perfectly honest, I think she mothered me just as much as she did the human pups. I, too, was not just her pack member (or leader, when she lulled me into a false sense of security), but one of “her” babies.

As the first month of her passing comes to a close, I have realized there are a few life lessons she taught me when she was alive, and they are all pretty solid for anyone. So, I wanted to share her wisdom.

Don’t be afraid to try things a new way.

When she was a young pup, we lived in a house with a huge backyard. Squirrels were in abundance North Carolina, and being a shepherd, she could not stand anyone – or anything – touching foot inside her fence line. The first week she realized there were squirrel-invaders, she would light out of the door, barking her head off, hoping to catch a couple of the interlopers. But, the bark obviously scared them away.

Within a week, she had learned.

The rest of the year and half we lived in that house, any time she was let out of the back door to “her” yard, if there were squirrels or birds, there would be silence. But, if you listened, you would hear the thud of paws striking the ground as she flew as fast as her legs would carry her, leaving a trail of dirt in her wake. With the change of her approach, a couple times, she got close to catching a squirrel or bird. 

So, if things are sticky, and an approach isn’t quite working in life, don’t be afraid to analyze a better approach. And, don’t be afraid to implement it. Fine tune the approach that will work best to a problem, or adjust fire to a technique that will work. Even if something has been working a certain way for a long time, don’t be afraid to shake things up, and sometimes try the approach a new way.

Embrace yourself for the person you are, and the work you do.

Have you ever noticed when a dog poos in the grass, they have a tendency to kick the grass over what they left behind? Dog experts agree it has something to do with covering their tracks, to keep them hidden from potential predators. This past summer, as I walked the dogs around the RV park, I realized my shepherd didn’t take the time to cover her tracks. If anything, she seemed to look around, head up, eagerly glancing around to see if she needed to chase anyone away with her big bark. She didn’t care who knew she had come that direction. Quite frankly, she seemed proud to do her job, and didn’t care who knew.

It dawned on me the girl, warts and all, displayed a self-confidence that most of us would love to emulate. Much like a toddler, whose confidence knows no limits, my shepherd knew her worth, she knew her job, and she embraced it.

Too often, we let others dictate who we should be, what we should do, and how we should feel. Yet, while our confidence can take a beating from others, ultimately we are the only one in charge of our sense of worth and the contribution we bring to society. So, embrace the beautiful, unique, incredible person you are, and use your talents to make a contribution to the world around you – to your circle of influence.

Sometimes, there is more than meets the eye, and guarding your heart is necessary.

Before agreeing to date any boy when I was growing up, I had a test – he had to come hang out with my little siblings. In my family, that was no easy feat, and it was a quick way for me to weed out the chaff. My shepherd had her own test for people – if she gave her “big dog bark,” and you flinched, she won. Many times, she gradually warmed to the individual she beat, especially when they ceded to her dominance. But, there were occasionally some individuals who she would continue to side-eye, bark at, and otherwise mistrust.

As we prepared to say our final goodbyes to our girl, I realized I have relied on her too much over the years, because she inadvertently taught me her sense of intuition was far stronger than mine. She had a sixth sense in being able to tell who would be a genuine friend to me, and no matter how good a game someone may have played, she always knew when someone’s friendship should be questioned. One time, I didn’t listen to her subtle cues, and I payed a heavy emotional price for trying to give that person the benefit of the doubt. While I have no doubt that person is a good hearted person, she knew that person would not be a good friend for me. And, she taught me it’s okay to guard my heart when I develop new relationships.

Behind a gruff exterior can sometimes be a golden treasure.

To quote her trainers, our shepherd had, “a big bark for such a little girl.” She sounded rough, tough, and looked as though she’d eat your limb off and thoroughly enjoy every muscle and tendon on the way through the limb. But, as I already mentioned, much of that was an act – it was a test to see if you could hang with her.

And, underneath her exterior was a heart of gold. There was a heart that beat solely for her pack, but was not exclusive. Throughout the years, she added select individuals to her pack – from extended family, to family friends, when she felt you were a good person, she embraced you. 

She worked hard, and sometimes, her hard work had her focused on things other than displaying a pleasant demeanor. But, when she relaxed, she showed her love, her tenderness, and the purely golden treasure of her personality.

Even on our worst days, there is something lovable about each person.

Our shepherd was loyal. We didn’t always see eye to eye, especially as it pertained to dominance. But, she was loyal to us. On even the worst day we had, she was always waiting to interject with a nose tentatively sniffing out a hand to rub her head. No matter how many times she got in trouble for eating the trash or chewing on something she shouldn’t, she was always quietly coming back to apologize with a head placed on a knee or a head cocked to the side listening to the lecture. She did this day in, and day out. Because she knew the anger would subside, she let us have our say. Then, in her own quiet way, would check to see if we were finished. And, then, when we wondered if we’d been too cross, she’d come and remind us that she loved us – even if we had been angry just moments before.

At the end of the day, family helps the heart rest easy.

As humans, we are made for connection… for relationships. Not everyone’s family of origin is healthy, but experts are quick to point out at a certain age, we choose our family – whether biologically related to us, or friendships which become familial in nature. My shepherd was wound around an axel when her family was separated. But, when everyone was under one roof, no matter how noisy or exuberant, she was at her calmest. She was proud of her pack, and took pride in her job of watching her human pups. And, that quiet calm is something I find myself missing as we begin to enter the busy holiday season. 

The baby is now a crawler, and this past week I spent time thinking of our girl – how she would nervously be whining, following him from room to room while he learned to explore in his newfound freedom. I chuckled at the memories of the older two children chasing her, causing her to come whine at my legs because they wouldn’t stop trying to crawl after her. I marveled at how easy it is for me to leave chicken and other food near the edge of the counter now, when I wouldn’t have ever dared to do so just over a month ago – let alone dreamt of coming back to the food in the spot I had left!

All of us are able to find little life lessons in every relationship, if we are willing to look hard enough. I have spent the better part of six months compiling these lessons from my shepherd. Today, the words came together.

The memories are clear. The heartache is real. But, it’s a bittersweet heartache.

She was one of a kind, and boy did she love fiercely!

As our family continues to grow older without her gray muzzle at our side, we will always remember the funnier quirks and stories, but more importantly, the life lessons she imparted through her gentle, canine wisdom.

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