I’m sure that for all pet owners, the death of a pet is never easy. I don’t know if you could ever get used to losing an innocent creature who loved you unconditionally, trusted you more than anything else in this world, and gave you so much joy.
Most people don’t know this, but Brodie was my first pet. We never had pets growing up and I got him just a few years after college. In some ways, I feel like I had a bit of a unique experience raising Brodie because everything was new, everything was a lesson, and I experienced it all through the eyes of an adult – not taking anything for granted and always seeking to understand.
I didn’t anticipate how many insights about myself and life lessons I would gain from taking care of Brodie.
My hopes for this article are a bit layered. First, I hope that you take a moment to truly appreciate the people and creatures in your life. Death is around the corner for all of us and we never know when it could happen. So, please give an extra hug to someone and to your pets. Show a little extra love today.
Next, I hope that my first-time experiences and lessons in being a pet owner in adulthood will translate to your life – whether you have or haven’t had a pet.
When I got Brodie, I was scared and determined. I was terrified that I would fuck it up and I was determined to not fuck it up. So, I dove into learning about dog training. I watched every episode of The Dog Whisperer, I read dog training books recommended by friends who worked with service dogs, and I worked with an amazing dog trainer who specializes in rehabilitating rescue dogs.
Like some rescue dogs, Brodie came with a few issues. When he first came home with me, he was visibly terrified. He crouched in a corner for the first few days and would shake with fear. I had to earn his trust.
He also had separation anxiety, which displayed itself as peeing or pooping if I was gone for too long — which sometimes that was a few hours, while other times that was 7 minutes; it just depended on his mood that day.
Thank goodness I had read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and came to peace with the important lesson that “people are more important than things.” And dogs too.
Brodie entered into my life in a very magical way. (More on that in a bit.) So, naturally, I had hoped for a magical relationship, with just as much ease as our first meeting. But, just like any worthwhile relationship, it required work. Namely, a whole bunch of patience on my part.
Things didn’t change overnight. There were struggles and accidents along the way. Getting mad at Brodie was never an option because his little brain didn’t connect his action to why he was in trouble. All it would do would instill fear in him and that would hurt our relationship. So, there was no point. Patience and compassion were the only true options.
And when I used that as a mirror and pointed it towards myself, I wondered, “How often do I get mad at myself? Does it really help? Or am I just instilling more fear?”
By showing Brodie compassion and patience, I learned how to show it to myself more often.
Baby Steps and Celebrations
To help Brodie with his fear and anxiety, I had to learn 2 very important lessons: baby steps and praise.
The first step to help Brodie with his anxiety was to build his confidence. That’s where learning tricks came into play. Dog tricks can be more than just entertainment for us, humans. Tricks help the dog build a sense of security, give them a job to do, and build their confidence. So, I learned how to teach him tricks.
During this process, I learned a pretty big life lesson: Baby steps. Yep, the movie What About Bob got it right.
When starting to train a dog, they need positive reinforcement for even the most minor of incremental steps. That’s how you help wire their brain towards the desired tasks. If I wanted to teach Brodie how to high five, I had to walk him through a series of small tricks in order to get to the desired bigger trick: first move your paw, get a treat; then lift your paw, get a treat; touch your paw to any part of my hand, get a treat; high five my hand, get a treat.
This leads to the second big lesson:
Praise and celebrate small steps because they are the building blocks to the ultimate goal. – Tweet This
I coach entrepreneurs and business leaders of all types. Across the board, they all suck at celebrating wins – both small AND big. I’ll have a client say, “I got 3 times more leads at that conference than any other!” Or, “We landed new funding!” Or, “I just signed 3 new clients!” To which I respond, “Great! What are you doing to celebrate?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about that.”
WHAT?! You just had an amazing achievement and you’re not going to acknowledge it or mark the occasion in some way?
Most hard-working, driven people move on to the next thing. What is the next hill to climb? What’s the next item to check off the list? Go go go. There’s more to achieve. More that needs to be done.
Take a moment to give yourself a freakin’ treat!
And not just for the big wins. We all need to build the practice of praising and celebrating even the little steps we take towards our bigger goals. Treating yourself, even mini-celebrations, helps you enjoy the journey to greatness so much more. Otherwise, it will always feel like work. And if it always feels like work because you don’t mark the small or big wins with some activity or prize, then it’s no wonder why you feel stressed, overwhelmed, and frustrated to the point of burn out. You’re not giving yourself any positive reinforcement. Meanwhile, dogs are ALL ABOUT positive reinforcement.
While raising Brodie, I also noticed that I continuously gave him verbal praise. “Good boy.” “Good job.” “Try again, buddy. … There you go!” Brodie would hear praise a hundred times a day for even the most menial tasks – like going up or down stairs, jumping in or out of the car, coming to me when called, or even just peeing or pooping on our walks. “Good boy!” And as he got older, the praise was given even more freely for even smaller tasks.
I would catch myself and ask, “Am I giving myself even half as much praise as I am to this little dog just for his existence?” NOPE! Not even close. Thanks to Brodie, I started making a conscious effort to give myself little praises for little tasks. “Way to go Sharí!” Sent off that email? Personal high five. Wrote a kick-ass line? Pat myself on the back. Crossed things off my to-do list? Punch the air, Breakfast Club style.
I also tried to bring this into my interactions with others. Give a good “hell yeah” to a friend who shared a small win. Say, “way to go!” when an employee doesn’t expect it.
Celebrations and consistent positive reinforcement help us wire our brains to remember all the positive steps we’ve taken, which is very important because our brains want to remember all the bad stuff that happens and the list of things that we haven’t gotten done. Without marking steps taken towards a goal, those moments get consumed by our survival brain, which is always in threat-assessment mode.
Learn from your furry friends.
Do you treat yourself with the same kindness and celebration as you do our four-legged buddies?
Live in the Now
Every dog owner will likely tell you that this is the biggest lesson that we learn from having a dog in our lives.
Dogs only know the present moment. They don’t sit and think about their past. They aren’t worried about their future. All they know is this moment, right now. And that’s why they are so damn happy!
I found it odd when I noticed other rescue dog owners hold on to their dog’s tragic background. At a dog park, I’d be chatting with fellow dog moms and dads and I would ask, “What’s your dog’s name?” They’d say, “That’s Lola. She’s a rescue. We found her in a dumpster off Lankershim. She was battered and bruised. Someone tortured her and tossed her in the garbage.”
Of course, I feel for that poor little dog. No creature should have to go through anything like that. But the truth of the matter is, that dog doesn’t hold on to that story like her owners clearly have. They answer the question “what’s your dog’s name?” with her horrible past. Maybe the owners want the accolades for being such great people for rehabilitating this dog. Maybe they think that sharing their dog’s troubled past it’s a reflection on them and how wonderful a person they are. Who knows.
But here’s the thing. The dog has long forgotten about that experience. She’s as happy as can be being outside and playing with her new pals. She will also be her happiest ever when she gets her next meal. And after that, she will be her next happiest ever snuggling with her owner before bedtime. That’s a dog’s life. Moment to moment. All there is is now.
Us humans have to learn this skill. I’ve had to read The Power of Now five times so far to get this lesson ingrained in me. And it’s still a daily practice and struggle.
The only person who holds on to the dog’s past is its owner. I’ve even seen a number of dogs be held back in their rehabilitation because the owner is operating out of the dog’s past, and not the dog’s present.
Brodie had a difficult beginning. He was a purebred puppy-mill dog. The runt of his litter. He was discarded. And he struggled with cages and crates because of it. It was the source of his separation anxiety. But no one ever knew that part of Brodie’s story, unless they directly asked. There was no need to share it. He was a happy, confident (sometimes kinda weird) little guy. That’s all anyone needed to know about him.
If he didn’t hold on to his story, why should I? And what unnecessary stories am I holding on to for myself? How can I be in the now…. right now? How about you?
Trust in Magic
I consider myself a logical person. I have a skeptical mind. I’ve often been told that “you’re too smart for your own good” – usually meaning that I can outthink myself into “logical” conclusions, even if they might not be aligned with other important factors – like emotions and gut feelings.
But, over the years I’ve gotten much better about listening to my inner compass and finding my peace with certain beliefs that might not be purely logical.
How Brodie came into and left my life were both pretty magical. How he left is still very personal and difficult for me to talk about, so I hope you’re ok with me just sharing how he entered into my life.
I was living in Oklahoma and had spent about a week on PetFinder.com looking at dogs available for adoption. There was a puppy schnauzer with blue eyes that I wanted to meet. I just knew that I was going to get that puppy, but wanted to make sure it felt right when I met him first. And it didn’t. I can’t explain it, but I just knew that he wasn’t my dog. So, I decided to sit on the floor and play with the other dogs to see if anything clicked.
I wasn’t sitting for more than two minutes when this white furball from the other side of the room got up. He’d been sitting under his foster mom’s chair, not engaging with anyone or any other dog. He walked straight toward me for about 15 feet. He came up, walked onto my lap, licked my nose, turned in a circle twice, and laid down right in my lap. The moment was so magical. I said to the volunteer next to me, “I guess I might have to take this one.” The moment became even more magical when the volunteer looked gobsmacked and said, “Oh, you definitely have to. You don’t understand. That woman over there is my wife and we’ve been fostering this dog for a few weeks. He never leaves her side. Ever. We’ve been concerned that he wouldn’t get adopted because he doesn’t engage much.” I looked over at the woman sitting in the chair and her jaw was open in astonishment, as was her husband’s. “He has chosen you. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And there it was. A few days later after filling out some paperwork, I was driving home a smush-faced dog that was some breed I had never even heard of. But it didn’t matter. We’d figure it out. I truly believe that Brodie knew that I was the right fit for him.
And I couldn’t be happier that he made the decision to spend the rest of his life with me.
Look, there is so much in this world that chips away at us. Stresses, pains, ailments, fights, prejudice, doubt, worry, loss. But sometimes, we get lucky enough to experience a little bit of magic. A little bit of the unexplained. Something that sparks a beautiful belief and enhances our experience – our existence.
If you have a skeptical mind like me, it’s possible that you shut yourself off from those moments more often than you should. Sure, if you could create a story or belief that later scientifically gets proven to be bunk (I’m talking to you, flat-earthers), then, of course, to change your mind in the face of new evidence. But there’s nothing wrong with seeing more magic in this world.
With how kismet Brodie both came in my life and left it, I feel that he opened me up to see more possibilities. To being ok with, “I can’t explain it, but I feel this to be true for me.” That is a feeling I’ve since learned to carry over into my love life, my business, and my meditative spiritual life.
It’s easy to see the bad and negative things. We don’t have to work hard for that. So, don’t let those magic moments pass you by. You can be a skeptic and still feel magic at the same time. It is possible. And it makes for a much more enjoyable journey for this short life that we get to live.