Given my deep love for dogs (especially my little guy, Phin), a friend of mine sent me this story. My friend doesn’t know the author and I searched online to no avail. It’s a beautiful story about a veterinarian and an amazing little boy as he confronts losing his faithful pup, Belker.
“Why Dogs Don’t Live as Long as People. Answer of a 6-Year-Old.”
Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.
I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.
As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.
The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker ‘s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.
The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.
Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, ”I know why.”
Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. It has changed the way I try and live.
He said,”People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?” The 6-year-old continued,
”Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”
Remember, if a dog was the teacher you would learn things like:
When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride.
Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
Stretch before rising.
Run, romp, and play daily.
Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass.
On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.
When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
Never pretend to be something you’re not.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.
Enjoy every moment of every day!”
I’ve often written on this blog about my favorite happy, fuzzy pal, Phin. He is an amazing dog whom I rescued over two years ago from the Humane Society. While mostly perfect out of the box, he has struggled with separation anxiety off and on.
His latest bout has lasted for 3 months and I have tried many remedies from extra sessions with our trainer to medication. And just when it seems he has turned a corner, he is plunged back down into the depths of anxiety. His anxiety has begun to make him sick. He never touches a thing in the apartment; he just cries when I leave for any amount of time – an awful, sad, lonely cry. My neighbors are complaining every day. Despite all of the time I spend with him, he needs a home that has more companionship than what I can offer him as a single, working person.
My beautiful, kind, gracious, dog-loving mother has offered to take Phin into her home in Florida until I figure out a better living situation that will work for him. We now live in a tiny studio in a noisy city. My mom and stepfather are retired and are around most of the time. They have a beautiful home with a screened-in porch and a backyard with grass and a garden. They have plenty of sunshine and warmth, inside and outside their home.
Though I know that this is the best short-term situation for Phineas, I am completely heart-broken. He is my constant companion and a champion snuggler. No matter how tough a day I have, he is always there for me with a waggly tail and plenty of smooches. He thinks I am the best person on Earth.
I’m not sure what these next few months hold. I’ll bring Phin down to Florida on Tuesday when I visit my family for the holidays and if all goes well, he’ll be taking up residence there while I sort out a more conducive (read: quiet) environment for him. It is an awful decision to make. My eyes are puffy, my nose is runny, and I feel like a failure.
Life is like that sometimes. We have to make decisions that hurt. Despite our best efforts, things don’t always go the way that we hope they will. I just keep reminding myself to trust the process, to understand that everything is temporary, that fortune can be reversed, that light can and will return even though we are surrounded by darkness. I know this is the best decision to make in the current circumstances, but it’s not easy and it certainly doesn’t feel good.
Native Americans believe that when a soul comes into our lives it is because it has something to teach us and when we lose someone close to us it is a signal we learned all we could from them.
I believe in both philosophies.
A year ago, my dog, Phineas, came into my life unexpectedly. He was found in the woods, abandoned by his owner and starving. He is perfectly trained in every way except one – he has horrible separation anxiety. He isn’t destructive in any physical way – he just cries a lot when I leave the apartment. He will go long stretches of time without making a peep when I leave, but then goes through terrible spurts of discomfort and stress.
On Saturday, I enlisted the help of a trainer through the company Barkbusters. Though pricier than other trainers, I chose them because they specialize in separation anxiety and they come with a lifetime guarantee. Yes, you read that correctly. A lifetime guarantee – they will return as often as I need them to for the remainder of Phineas’s life and help with any behavior challenge we may have wherever we may live. And my trainer is available at any time, day or night, by email or phone. A worthwhile investment. My only wish is that I had found them sooner, though finding them now, at this point in my own healing journey, brought home a very important realization that only now can I understand and appreciate.
I thought Phineas’s anxiety was from the fear that once I left I may never come back. And while that’s the base fear, here’s the nuance that our trainer taught me: Phineas isn’t worried for himself; he’s worried for me.
He’s on security detail and as such, he feels that he needs to protect me and keep me safe so that way I can continue to take care of him. When I go out into the big, scary world, he’s worried I will be harmed because he isn’t there to protect me. He has no way to control the situation and that lack of control mixed with fear is causing his anxiety. He’s taken on the job of being my body-guard and it’s not a role he is equipped for, nor a burden he should be responsible to bear. He hates this job, but he thinks it’s the only way he can assure that he won’t be abandoned again.
Isn’t that wild?!
Not really. I understand that feeling all too well. Dogs and children process information in such a similar way.
When I was a very young child, I was very aware that my father would never be able to take care of me. I knew that my mother was the only one in our household equipped to take care of me until I got big enough to take of myself. I worried constantly that something terrible would happen to my mother and that I’d be left with my father, which effectively meant I’d be on my own to take care of myself before I was ready.
It was a horrible burden to bear – I developed insomnia, headaches, and intense stress. I did my very best to compensate and cope, but as a young child there was no way for me to logically process my fears. I didn’t have the skills to do that. So I worked very hard in school because I linked doing well in school with getting a good job that would give me the income to provide for myself. I fought very hard to become as independent as possible as soon as I could. And while to the outside world I was a wonderfully adapted and well-adjusted child, I would argue that this adaptation and adjustment came at a very dear price. A price I still pay though am now able to articulate, understand, and repay as I heal. My yoga and meditation practices went a long toward than end. They still do.
Phineas and I are in the same boat – different cause, same effect. And if I can help him heal, really heal on a very deep level, then that will go a very long way toward healing my own inner child who still worries that she’ll be abandoned and still struggles to believe that I will always be able to take care of myself. Truly believing this last piece is the key to the confidence it takes to leap into entrepreneurship. Phineas was part of the Universe’s great plan for me and my work.
I thought by adopting Phineas that I was changing his life, and I certainly am doing just that. But he’s also changing mine, far more than he knows. As I watch him at this very moment sleeping peacefully in his bed, I’m even more determined to help him if for no other reason than to thank him for his soul’s incredible sacrifice for the sake of my soul’s healing.
Cesar Millan is famous for saying that he rehabilitates dogs and he trains people. This is certainly the case for me and for Phin. The calmer and more confident I can become through my own yoga and mediation practice, the more I can help him. And his healing will speed my healing. It’s a virtuous cycle that I am finally ready to begin.
Today is Phineas’s designated 2nd birthday (he was roughly a year when I got him) and our anniversary. As this day approached, it was hard to believe that a year has gone by since I adopted Phineas from the Humane Society and then I reflected on all that’s happened in the past year. Last Fall, I spent a lot of time getting him used to my schedule and his new city neighborhood; he was found abandoned in the woods so city sights and sounds were all new for him. We wrestled through separation anxiety; Click here for that collection of posts and the remedies we came up with thanks to our incredible trainer and friend, Gregg. And I got used to rejiggering my schedule and budget to take care of my new furry pal.
I thought about developing some variation of a top 10 list of the things Phin has taught me this year though that idea seemed overdone and truly there is just one huge lesson that Phineas has taught me that makes all of the countless others pale in comparison – Love Heals.
I’ve often heard it said that time heals all wounds, but I actually think love is a more complete and efficient healer than time. Time is a finite gift; the amount of love we can take in and give away is infinite. The only limit love knows is our desire to give and receive. Phineas can never get enough and can never give enough. He’s a wonderful role model of courage and bravery, for believing that life can always get better no matter how far down in the doldrums we are. Love is what helps us make that journey.
A year ago, he was starving and lonely, abandoned in the woods. Today, he sleeps in a warm, down-filled bed in a (cozy) penthouse apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, has a bottomless bowl of organic food, and laps up buckets of overflowing love that are showered on him every day. He let go of his past and moved on so that he could appreciate all the love available to him in his new life.
We should all be as appreciative as he is of the gift of another day. And we can be. All we have to do is give love, receive love, and revel in the exchange. Happy birthday, Phin!
A lot of people ask me how I can live such a varied life with so many interests that don’t necessarily fit together in a logical way. I like being a Renaissance woman; I love figuring just how all the pieces come together, even if on the surface they seem to have nothing to do with each other. I am a firm believer in connections and relationships.
I’ve struggled a bit to come up with a good answer for people who truly want to know how I fit it all in, how all these subjects and activities can live side-by-side in my brain. Part of it is my training – I’ve been on a vertical learning curve all my life, so much so that it’s where I’m most comfortable and engaged. I like having a challenge nip at me until I crack the code. For me, that’s play.
But people don’t like that answer. It’s not enough of a silver bullet. And then it dawned on me (in the lady’s room, if you must know!): most people don’t give a hoot how I fit it all in and maintain so many simultaneous interests. They want to know how THEY can do that. They want “the how” that they can replicate. Now I’ve got a bit of a better answer to their question.
Generally, this is how time works in my brain:
In the morning, I am in list mode. I jot down everything I need to do for the day, in no particular order. I add to it throughout the day, though most of my to-do’s strike right when I wake up.
Some time between 5:30am and 6:30am I head out for a walk with my pup, Phineas. You might think this is a time suck because I walk him for a full hour and I don’t multi-task when I walk him. Trust me, I need it as much as he does. It clears my head to walk Phin and I find that the whole rest of my day is much more productive after I get some exercise with him. I often return with a mental list full of writing ideas and people I need to contact later on.
After my favorite meal, breakfast (another time when I don’t multi-task – I just focus on chewing), I plow through as much individual work (at home or at the office) as I can before noon because I’m a morning person and a late night person. I’m not so much of an afternoon person. (I blame my European roots for this!) If I’m commuting to work, I use the subway ride to flip through emails and read the top news stories, again making notes in my to-do list as they arise from my reading.
Then lunch rolls around and I usually read through lunch. Again, I check the news, get through some of my to-do list, and invariably add more to my to-do list. (I’ve noticed recently that I have a tendency to mindless gulp my lunch – I need to focus a bit more on my chewing this meal.)
Afternoons are for listening and gathering information. I try to have all of my meetings and phone calls in the afternoon. I’m sure there’s a brain study here, just waiting to happen. (Now adding this research to my to-do list!)
Most of the time I have plans after work, whether I’m teaching a class, taking a class, or seeing friends. That’s down time for me and recharges me for the evening. If I don’t have plans, then I take the time for myself at home.
When I arrive home, I play with Phin for a bit and read the note from his dog walker to see how he did in the afternoon. Sometimes we take a little jaunt around the block, depending upon how we’re both feeling.
I do some yoga and an 18-minute meditation every night. No matter what. I set get out my mat and bolster, set my timer, and get it done. No compromises.
Then I write, usually with Phineas sitting next to me. The writing part of my brain kicks in when the sun goes down. I’m not sure why – perhaps because the distractions of the day have fallen away by then. I feel like way up on the 17th floor, I can be alone with my thoughts when it’s dark outside. All the listening and gathering I’ve done throughout the day has had time to gel.
Yoga, meditation, and all of the personal work I’ve done over the last two years have paid off by banishing my lifetime of insomnia. Occasionally I toss and turn, though most of the time sleep finds me pretty easily. I take Phin out for a last quick minute (literally) and then I try to shut off the lights just after I catch the top stories of the 11pm news.
That’s an average work day for me. So far, it’s working though I’m always open to changing it up as needed. How does your day map out? How do you get it all done?
I’ve now boarded Phin twice, one for a business trip and once to visit my friends in DC. Boarding him felt like such an enormous decision. Would they take good care of him? Would he be safe, fed, and exercised properly? The team at Biscuits and Bath has been wonderful with him, giving him lots of attention and play time, though each time I’ve left him there’s a little part of me that feels hollow. And while I was briefly free of the obligation to take care for him at all times while I was away, it felt strange to not have him with me, as if something was not quite right with the world until I would pick him up.
This is the lesson of change that Phin has taught me: change takes adjustment. When I first got him, I had to reconfigure my schedule to wake up earlier to get a long morning walk in and adjust my weekends so I would also be around in the afternoon for his walk. I had to find a dog walker so he would have company during the day and so I could go out after work without having to rush home every night. It was a financial adjustment, too, securing pet insurance, medical appointments, high quality food, and regular medications as needed. We also had separation anxiety to sort through, and a routine to establish his security when I did have to leave him on his own at home. And above all, we needed to bond as a pair to enrich both of our lives.
It’s a lot of work to have a dog, particularly in a city and on my own. Much more work than I ever thought it would be. And yet, I cannot imagine what I ever did without little Phin. He’s become so much a part of my life in every way that I feel strange without his energy in my home. It’s as if I can’t be wholly me unless I know he’s safe and sound in our home.
Animals have this magical way of finding their way into our hearts just by being. Phin and I don’t speak the same language and yet we certainly understand each other. Just when I need a hug, he climbs out of his bed, does his little yoga stretches and makes his way over to my lap. When I need to get some work done, he toddles over to his toys and is more than happy to play independently. All without me saying a word. His innate comprehension on an emotional level is astounding.
If only people could be so attuned to their environments. Imagine how much more we could be there for each other, how much more comfort and concern we could provide in exactly the right amount, at exactly the right time. No wonder so many say that dogs are more than companions; they are our greatest teachers, too.
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut as quoted by Fmr. Captain Luis Carlos Montalván
I have read a handful of books in my life that have reached down into my soul and taken root. Fmr. Captain Luis Carlos Montalván’s book, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him, is one of those books. Exquisitely written, Montalván and his beloved service dog, Tuesday, made me laugh, cry, and slam my fists on the table. I read much of it with Phineas, my own canine pal, in my lap, and the book made me hug Phineas even tighter than I usually do.
I picked up the book after seeing Montalván and Tuesday on Letterman. I usually miss the show because it’s on past my bedtime, but for some reason I was awake that night with the TV on. Montalván’s story is tremendously important to me on a number of levels, and so immediately went out the next day and got the book.
Helping returning vets
With Compass Yoga, I am very focused on helping returning veterans, their families, and caregivers. Montalván taught me so much about war and the toll it takes on a person. His story is at points devastating and my heart felt crushed for all he endured, in Iraq and then once he returned from his tours of duty. The challenges of vets and those who are care for them are complex and messy, and Montalván writes about them in such searing detail that I sometimes felt myself right beside him. It’s a situation I very much need to understand if I am going to be of service to vets when they return home. The book reaffirmed my commitment to them.
Championing the healing power of animals
Tuesday is clearly an exquisite animal, inside and out. Though I’ve never met him, I certainly fell in love with him and his story over the course of the 252-page book. I have been a dog lover all my life. Our family dogs were an enormous part of my childhood – the very best part of it. I adopted my rescue pup, Phineas, a year ago and rehabilitating him has been one of the proudest and happiest achievement of my life. Even on my saddest days, he is a little ray of light in my life and to everyone who meets him. He is not without his challenges, though he has now become so engrained in my life that I can’t imagine being without him. That is the magic of animals, and dogs in particular – just by showing up they teach us about commitment, devotion, love, loyalty, and empathy – all of the things that make us human. They bring out the very best in all of us. I decided to enroll us in therapy dog training this Fall so I can bring him to schools and hospitals to visit. Goodness like Phin’s needs to be shared with the world – Tuesday taught me that.We need more Tuesdays, especially for veterans.
Writing honestly to achieve understanding
Montalván is a master storyteller, and what I so respect and admire most about him is his ability to write so candidly about painful and joyful parts of his life. It took great courage to put pen to page to write this story. He is not a perfect man, and in his honest writing he teaches us that we can’t expect ourselves to be perfect either. He writes about forgiveness and authenticity. He speaks with confidence, grace, wisdom, and strength. He inspired me to continue my own personal writing, particularly about my father, which is a painful and tragic part of my past. Montalván taught me that there is so much redemption available to us through honest and thoughtful writing. He taught me just how mighty the pen can be, and just how capable we are of forgiving ourselves and others.
Until Tuesday is a truly beautiful book, a great gift that I am so grateful to receive. And so I pass the recommendation on to you – let Tuesday into your heart and he will change the way you see the world.
Just inside the restaurant a couple watched us through the window, looking on us with a great deal of pity. The man got up from the table and opened the door.
“We have two little dachshunds at home and we know how much they hate the rain. Take our umbrella so you can get your little guy home,” he said.
“But I can’t take your umbrella. How will I get it back to you?” I asked him.
“You don’t have to. We’re going to stay here until the rain stops and we’ve got plenty of umbrellas at home. Really – take it,” he said.
I thanked him profusely and Phineas in his tired / scared state gave him a smooch. Away we went. People often think of New Yorkers as pushy, arrogant, and self-centered. And maybe we are or can be from time to time. Though I must say that after 12 years of living in this city on and off, I’ve had more kind, generous, and selfless interactions right here in New York than I have anywhere else in the world. This was one of those times.
The wind whipped us around a bit on the way home and the umbrella didn’t keep us completely dry but it did a good enough job to get home before the next batch of really heavy rain started pelting down. The umbrella partially busted along the way, but I just didn’t have the heart to toss it in the trash can at the corner of our block. I’m going to hang on to it for a bit as a reminder of just how much good there is flowing through the streets of New York, at least if you have a dachshund in hand.
The way of the dachshund
They are a temperamental breed to be sure. They are born with plenty of personality despite their small stature and with that can come a lot of anxiousness. Over the past weeks Phin has had some trouble with separation anxiety. He doesn’t destroy anything in the house; he just barks a lot when I leave. It is something that he wrestles with on and off, and though he’s mostly settled in now to our home (I’ve had him for almost 8 months) on occasion he still has some tough days. Most of my neighbors are dog owners and are very supportive. One is not, and is quite vocal about it. Though I’ve apologized profusely in the past for any disturbance Phin causes from time to time, she never lets up. He sneezes and I get a text message about it – so much so that I finally blocked her from being able to text or call me. Thankfully she’s moving in a few short months.
A tough week leads to further action
I knew Phin was safe in the apartment. I just didn’t know how to get him through his latest spell of separation anxiety, which is the hardest behavior to help a dog get past. At the last Dachshund Festival we met Gregg Karl, who is a professional dog trainer who specializes in dachshunds. (He has 2 of his own). He’s become a friend and invaluable resource over the last few months. On Tuesday I gave him a call because I was really worried about Phin’s latest bout of anxiety. To be fair, we’ve had painters in our hallways all week and we went out of town over the weekend, two things that certainly set off Phin’s anxiety. Still, he seemed more anxious than he would normally be even under these stressful circumstances.
Gregg Karl, our dog trainer, comes to the rescue
Gregg was full of tips including:
- He also had me start teaching Phin the “Stay” command and practicing coming and going out of the house many, many times. “Stay” he mastered beautifully. The coming and going exercise is not so easy. I noticed Phin’s anxiety has increased over the week after we began the training and panicked a little. Gregg assured me that this is also extremely normal. Once they begin formal training, almost all dogs will be confused and anxious until they learn that the training is no big deal. Phin is only at the very early stages.
Friends Trish and Janet lend a hand, too
My friend, Trish, an animal behaviorist, recommended that I try lavender spray to calm him down and give the apartment a relaxed feel. That seemed to help some, too. My friend, Janet, another one of my dog whisperers, recommended mixing up Phin’s walking routing to stimulate his mind and taking him for short trips around the city (like the one to the dachshund festival!) to help ease any anxiety he has after a trip. That also seemed to help him this week. I’m so grateful for their advice!
Up the exercise
I gave up running a few years ago as my yoga practice deepened. I need to have these knees of mine as long as possible and running seemed to be wearing on them. This was a big change for me as I used to run regularly and in 2001 ran the Chicago marathon. Now that the weather is getting nicer (finally!), I’ve noticed Phin has much more energy and a walk does not tire him out. One of the best remedies to separation anxiety is to exercise a dog so that he is very tired every time you leave. With all of his anxious energy gone, you’ll walk out the door and he’ll go to sleep. So, it’s back to running with Phin as my running buddy. So far this fix has worked beautifully. He loves the run and is thoroughly exhausted by the time we get home. It’s good for my health to get some more cardio and it’s good for Phin, too. Win-win.
I was previously scheduling my dog walker to just take him in the middle of the day when I couldn’t get home right after work. Now, I’ve asked her to come by every day I go to work no matter what time I’ll be home. This gets him used to being with someone else who cares for him more often and he gets to see his canine pals more often which always has a very pacifying affect on him.
A new vet helps us, too
I’ve been rather unhappy with our vet. He doesn’t have much of a bedside manner and Phin is a special dog with special issues and we need a vet who understands that. In the park I met several people who recommended Westside Veterinary Clinic and we went to see them last weekend. Dr. Lewis was very happy to hear about Gregg’s tips, and she suggested that while he’s getting through this latest bout it may be a good idea to put him on a very, very low dose medicine to help ease the anxiety. I was worried about taking this step though I have to say that Phin is much calmer with the medicine and his quality of life is much higher. Plus, the dose is so low that he hasn’t lost any of his personality. The medicine cuts the anxiety without inducing any other side effects.
It takes a village to raise a dachshund
Gregg, Janet, Trish, my dog walker, and my vet continue to assure me that getting a dog through separation anxiety requires confidence and patience in boatloads. They promised me that Phin would come around, and eventually would become a well-adjusted, relaxed pup no matter what circumstances he’s in. Trauma reveals itself in stages, whether we’re talking about trauma in people or in animals.
It feels more like I’m raising a dog than training a dog, and I’ve learned so much along this road. Thank goodness for my village of advisors. No matter how much I want to speed through the process, I remind myself that in every phase of this journey Phin and I have much to learn, and we’ll both be better off for it.