The Mindful Mutt

The Mindful Mutt December 14, 2017

I feel like I’ve been going a dozen different directions this Advent, trying to be ready for the holidays and catch up on everything neglected while I was focused on immigration stuff in November.

Then, in the midst of this nuttiness, we added a new layer of crazy and brought home a puppy.

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I’ll be honest–I was enthusiastic about getting a dog, but not particularly excited.

That sounds confusing, doesn’t it?  It’s really fairly simple. I am not a dog person. For years, I’ve been saying that I have my hands full already keeping the humans I’m responsible for happy and healthy. I am ambivalent about dogs and cats and other house pets.

I have a son who loves dogs. I mean, LOVES dogs. He has to stop and pet every dog he meets–and even shy, trembling rescues warm up to him in short order. Pascal is pretty much a puppy himself–he craves contact, is equally happy cuddling or wrestling, has occasional fits of hilarious but sometimes destructive energy, and feels the need to poke and prod and touch everything in his environment. (And then there’s Boy Smell, which might actually be worse than Dog Smell).

This is a Boy that needs a Dog.

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I became enthusiastic over getting a dog because I am enthusiastic about seeing the people I love happy. And I love people who love dogs.

But I wasn’t excited about it for myself. No matter the promises and pledges, I knew the bulk of the dog care was likely to fall to me, simply because I am home all day, and I already manage the routine for my three kids. I knew a pet would disrupt my routines and interrupt the flow of my day with yet another living creature’s needs.

And I was right. We picked up the puppy on a Thursday, and my next three days were a blur of exhaustion and frustrated tears. We’d brought her home impulsively upon meeting her, so we weren’t at all prepared–there was no plan for house training, no research into introducing a dog into a family, no crate or feeding dish or collar or leash.

Brynn, as we named her, trembled non-stop for the first day and ignored the puppy pads I put down to instead pee directly in front of the kitchen doorway–repeatedly. She whined at night when put in the laundry room, which was the only space I felt I could leave a chewing, piddling, untrained puppy overnight. But it turns out I can’t sleep through sad puppy wails any more than I was able to sleep through baby cries–which is not at all. So this is how I spent my first night as a dog owner.

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It was overwhelming. I couldn’t focus on anything else. Between exhaustion and the distraction of a crash course in puppy care, anything requiring any focus at all just fell completely off the map of the possible.

There were redeeming moments in those first few days. My sister-in-law is in mourning for her mother, who died last month after two years battle with cancer. She hasn’t had many moments of self-forgetful joy for a long while. And she is one of the people I love who Loves Dogs, in caps.

When I told my sister-in-law we’d brought home a puppy, she came straight over and for a while, romping and cuddling this little white-and-tan toddler of a dog, I saw the worries of the world fall off her shoulders.

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As the weekend wore on, I read books and consulted websites and got a bit of a mental handle on puppy care, and some of the weight lifted from my shoulders as well.

Monday, I picked up a crate–which Brynn took to immediately, eliminating the middle-of-the-night abandonment whining–and took advantage of the quiet while the kids were in school to do some dedicated house training. It’s not that different from potty training, really–it works best when there are no distractions, and you multiply opportunities to succeed and be rewarded. In the puppy’s case, that meant feeding her than spending a lot of time outside, despite her shivers and plaintive eyes, until she succeeded in making a deposit.

Somewhere in the hours of standing outside, encouraging Brynn to pee and poop, an unexpected peace crept over me, and I remembered being yanked out of my day by small children needing to burn off energy outside, needing to be taught to use the bathroom, needing me to feed them and do for them, needing me to pay attention to them.

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It’s hard. Paying attention is hard for me. Being interrupted is hard for me.

Ideally, I like my day to contain chunks of 3 or 4 hours of silence and stillness to get my thoughts in order and hit that sweet spot of productive flow. I write at night, or midday when my kids are at school. I make clay models in the evening when they are in bed, sometimes staying up until the wee hours of the morning without any sense of the time. When I am in that flow state, anything that interrupts it is an interloper, an enemy in my constant battle to grab hold of the strands of thought and follow them to their intersections, untangling each thread until they form a pattern that sings in my head and flows out my fingers.

But Monday, I spent much of my day watching and waiting, not able to start or finish any task without interruption and the distraction of this puppy and her needs, this small creature discovering everything, sniffing everything, testing everything for taste and smell and mouthfeel. I found myself, as tired as I was, floating into a state of surrender to the demands of the moment.

And a funny thing happened, because today, with our new routine established and the two of us alone together, understanding each other, I was able to work. I was motivated to dive in to the tasks of the day earlier, be less distracted by social media and Youtube clips and interesting links, knowing the interruptions would come at some point. My day rearranged itself and chunked itself around the structure of Brynn’s needs.

And in between these chunks of productivity, I walked Brynn and fed her, played with her and stood in the cold with her, waiting for a chance to praise her and clean up after her. I couldn’t wander through those moments distracted, still working out projects in my head. I had to experience the world through Brynn’s eyes to help her navigate the challenges of her new home and routine. I had to stay in the moment with her.

Wendell Berry has a line in the poem The Peace of Wild Things,

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

They do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.

I’ve thought of this line often as an invitation to step into and dwell in the present moment, leaving behind the past and the future for brief spells of mindfulness.

Brynn does not tax herself with forethought of grief or expectation of punishment. Her puppyhood has been unmarred by cruelty or erratic instruction. She doesn’t slink with guilt when she is caught doing something she shouldn’t–she merely sits up intently watching to figure out what is expected of her.

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Every moment is still a new, fresh beginning for Brynn, and it makes her a quick study. She’s unencumbered by shame because she learns, not from her mistakes, but from her successes–and she is always alert to the next success, the next chance to give and receive affirmation and affection.

What if we were more like that….

(This post continues at The Personalist Project)

 

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