As somebody who grew up with cats, I never thought I'd ever be a "dog person." However, after developing an asthmatic allergy to cats in my forties (dastardly tricks of the body!), the decision was made for me. I couldn't see myself (or my family) without a pet, and so...enter the dog. And a whole new way of living. Unlike cats, who can stay indoors happily, curled up in the ultra-coziest spots in the house, dogs need to get outdoors--in any weather (even the first stages of hurricanes, although those outings are far less leisurely).
My dog (the lovely Delilah, featured in the photos here) has literally changed my life, urging me to get outside five times a day, for four half-mile walks around our hilly neighborhood and one nighttime lawn visit, in which I can look up at the vast ceiling of stars with almost the same wonder as when I was a child. The brisk walks are great aerobic substitutes for the sterile and boring Stairmaster--unlike staring at a TV screen while exercising, there's something different to behold practically every day.
Today's morning walk featured a 19-degree temperature and a chilling wind, but onward we marched, regardless. My friends from Chicago and Minnesota have taught me that if you bundle up in enough layers, you can temporarily trick yourself into thinking it's not sub-zero weather. We paused to observe a leafless tree filling up with chatty little blackbirds, decorating it like ornaments. We stopped to greet neighbors and their own dogs. (While Delilah's greeting is full-on, exuberant sniffing and jumping, my own greeting is a tad more restrained.) "Cat people" do not have these daily occasions for neighborly chats. In fact, my husband (also a lifelong cat person) and I both found it a bit jarring at first. (Pssst...People can be friendly!) While the New Yorker in me previously would have been happy to charge ahead without as much as a greeting (let alone a glancing acknowledgement), the dog owner in me now makes time for these small pleasantries. It's downright civil.
About a year ago, I'm sorry to say that we had one of those hidden electrical fences installed, thinking it would add some enjoyment to our outdoor time by letting our dog romp around the yard with the kids. Instead, it added $6,000 in electrical damage to our house when the system was struck by lightning a couple of months later. (If you google electrical dog fences and lightning strikes, you'll find this scenario is alarmingly common. But it makes sense, when you consider that you're encircling your house with a live electrical current.) We're lucky our whole house didn't go up in flames. After pulling up all of the fried and shredded wires around our yard and painting over the scorch marks in the garage, we didn't have the fence repaired and reactivated. It was good riddance--I never cottoned to the idea of shocking the poor dog, even though the fence company assured us it was a perfectly safe training method. Besides, the dog gets better exercise on the half-mile walks, as do we. I know some people swear by those hidden dog fences, but I felt like (for us, anyway) our fence was the "lazy way out" of exercising our dog. (And one of our neighbors recently lost their dog for a night, when it bounded beyond its electrical fence to charge after a fox. Some temptations are just too great. We also have black bears and coyotes in our neighborhood, and there's no hidden fence to keep those guys out--I don't want to let our dog outside unsupervised.) If you've already got an electrical fence for your dog and you're sold on its merits, I would strongly advise that, at the very least, you switch it off when you hear an approaching thunderstorm, and when you go away for the summer.
But back to more pleasant thoughts. Here's what I've learned so far from the velvety, delightful Delilah:
- Cuddling with a warm, snoozy hound is more emotionally fulfilling than anything you could buy in a store or anything you could watch on TV.
- Take time to really smell the fresh air, the food on your plate, your children's just-washed hair, even your family members first thing in the morning.
- Never mind Facebook--go out of your way to greet your friends face-to-face. (Of course, Delilah prefers nose-to-tail.)
- I can multi-task by picking up litter while walking the dog. It makes the next walk more pleasant and less annoying to not see the same styrofoam coffee cup in the gutter, or candy wrappers on the lawn.
- As the bumper sticker says: Wag more. Bark less.
- Stop to really listen. You might be surprised to find what's out-and-about, within your range of vision.
- The years are short and fleeting, so make time each day to be peaceful and mindful, healthy and happy, affectionate and cuddle-worthy, loyal and truthful, eager and adventurous, but above all: kind-hearted.
Food for thought: What have you learned from your pet? From wildlife?
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