Meaningful Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog
Pets as unsung mentors of meaning.
I watched the movie, “Marley & Me,” which is based on The New York Times bestselling autobiographical book, Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog, by journalist John Grogan for a second time recently. Just in case you are unfamiliar with either the book or movie, this is the sentimental story of a newlywed couple who learns important, meaningful life lessons from their adorable, but naughty, neurotic, and very much out-of-control, dog, Marley, a yellow Labrador Retriever. Described as the “world’s worst dog,” Marley nonetheless grows, both literally and figuratively, into one of the most important “people” in the Grogan family.
Not long ago I had a dog and, like Marley, he was also very special and one of the most important members of my family. However, he was not “yeller,” nor was he naughty, neurotic (at least not too much!), or out-of-control. I’m talking about Bouvie, a black-dark gray, Dutch-bred Bouvier des Flandres, who was born to “royalty” in Europe with the official name, Tynan Inca van de Duca Vallei. Since many people are unfamiliar with the Bouvier breed, the household name Bouvie stuck with him even before he arrived at only nine weeks old (and could be held in one of my hands!) in North America as a way to help them remember it.
Also like Marley, Bouvie, without question, taught me many important, meaningful life lessons over the years (thirteen years in total). Among other things, he was trained, unlike the incorrigible Marley, as a therapy dog and proved his weight in gold working closely with Alzheimer’s patients; that is, he provided affection and comfort to them. This gives you a good idea of Bouvie’s temperament, since a good therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, at ease in all situations, and gentle. Moreover, they must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily and aggressively.
Bouvie’s influence on me and others, however, went well beyond his official role as a working therapy dog. Like the key messages conveyed in both the book and movie “Marley & Me,” life with Bouvie was filled with many meaning moments. Indeed, while only a dog to some, Bouvie was much more than Man’s Best Friend to me. Over and over again, he’s established himself to be an exceptionally wise mentor and confidant, during good times and not-so-good times.
Importantly, he demonstrated that too often I, like many others, become so focused on the many tasks that need to be accomplished day to day that I lose touch with the so-called simple things in life. Indeed, it is always great to have someone in your life, like Bouvie, who can help you slow down to remain aware of what really matters in life, as well as to enjoy life’s blessings and meaningful moments. This kind of relationship, like the one between Bouvie and me, is itself an important source of meaning!
To be sure, I’ve learned a great deal from Bouvie. Among other things, I know that he helped to keep me grounded when the complexity of life in all of its dimensions began to overwhelm me. As my mentor, he constantly reminded me to appreciate what I have and not fret so much over what I don’t have. And as my personal trainer and therapy dog, Bouvie always stood ready to coach and guide me to live a simple, healthy, and meaningful life. Of course, it was totally up to me to listen to his cues and do something about them.
I would now like to share with you some of the important life lessons that I learned from Bouvie during the time we had together. To show my respect for Bouvie’s innate wisdom, as well as to honor his memory, I call these key lessons for living with meaning the “Tao” of Bouvie.
THE “TAO” OF BOUVIE:
* Start each day with a happy attitude
* Greet each person you meet with enthusiasm
* Delight in the simple joy of a long walk
* Don’t be afraid to stick your head out of the window
* Don’t hold grudges for very long
* Support those in need of a friend
* Explore everything as you walk through the day
* When someone is having a bad day, be supportive
* Take plenty of rests to re-energize so that you are ready for the next adventure
* Loyalty is a virtue, so be loyal
* Play is good
* Food is better (appreciate every meal like it is your last)
* A ball is all you need to feel fulfilled
* Relieve yourself regularly to help reduce stress
* Set your limits by marking your spot
* Accept treats and a kind pat on the head whenever they are offered
* Protect those you love and who love you
* Show your passion and enthusiasm with gusto
* When you see loved ones, act as if you haven’t seen them for years
* Be your authentic self
* Display love unconditionally
The real challenge for me, and I suspect for most people, is to act upon and manifest these meaningful guidelines in my own life with consistency and integrity, that is, to walk them not just talk about them. In this connection, I recall a bumper sticker I came across years ago that read, “Be the kind of person that your dog thinks you are!” The late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, in a similar vein, wrote the following in his foreword to our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work(link is external):
To learn something but not to do is really not to learn.
To know something but not to do is really not to know.1
So now, what about you? What are you learning from your dog? Or from any other kind of pet that may be a significant part of your life? What things would you add to the above list? Importantly, with what you learn and know, what are you doing with these life lessons in order to live with meaning?
1. Pattakos, A., and Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work(link is external), 3rd editon. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. xiv-xv.