Category Archives: Things I learned from my dog

Lessons from my dog

Ode to Sadie

Belgium’s greatest gift to the world,

I used to think,

was chocolate,

rich and sweet,

an explosion of flavor

melting on my tongue.

And then I met Sadie,

a Belgian Malinois,

as sweet as chocolate and so much more.

She was bred to herd sheep,

but with no sheep in sight,

she now shepherds me,

walking by my side,

in case I think to wander,

keeping me line and in sight,

making sure I am safe.

Smart, strong, fearless, loyal,

lots of energy and anxious to play,

risking everything for a mid-air catch,

heedless of any danger,

running as fast as the wind.

So much fun to watch,

as I pop another

Belgium chocolate into my mouth.


Asking for what I want or need

My dog Detroit is very good at letting me know when someone is at the door or the phone is ringing or there is a squirrel in the yard. Even though I assure her that I know these things and she does not need to bark, it does no good. She will bark incessantly until I answer the door or the phone—or let her out to chase the squirrel.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilityShe seems to think it is her job to warn me of these perceived threats.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilityBut in other situations, Detroit is likely to sit quietly and wait for me to intuit what she wants. Sometimes, I find her lying by the back door waiting to go out or sitting by the pantry that holds her treats. Then I say to her, “Use your words.”

It seems to me that she is good at telling me when she thinks I am in danger, but not so good about telling me what she needs or wants.

I wonder if she learned that from me. Has she watched me sit home waiting for someone to ask me to go out? Is she tired of being hugged because I am afraid to ask for a hug from anyone else?

Sometimes on Saturday mornings when I am cleaning the house, I turn on pop music and dance while I clean. If Detroit comes into the room, I might pick her up and dance with her. I can almost hear her say, Get a life.

I admit it: I am not good at using my words to ask for what I need or want.

What words do I use to let someone know I want a treat—whether it is something sweet or a hug or an affirmation? How do I ask to go out, to be with others and have some fun?affirmation-dog-vulnerabilitySince moving to Michigan four years ago, and leaving behind people who knew me very well, I have been even more challenged to ask for what I want or need. Admitting I need or want anything makes me feel vulnerable, and feeling vulnerable is one of my least favorite things.

After I was here for about two years, my spiritual director commented that it didn’t seem that I was initiating social contacts. She was right. My grief and sadness at all I had lost or left behind had incapacitated me from initiating. I just did not have the energy to risk rejection.

And I could see how harmful that was. I was spiraling deeper and deeper into myself; it was a grand pity party.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilitySince then, I have pushed myself to ask friends to go to concerts or out to dinner, and I do more things on my own, like visiting art galleries.

But, I know I have a ways to go in asking for what I need or want. Telling Detroit to use her words is a great prompt for me look at how well I am doing at using my words.


Tips for a relaxing staycation

I am taking a staycation—my first real vacation in almost two years. There are many positive aspects to staying home, but one fear I have is that the many projects around the house begging for my attention will take up all my time and I will be as tired at the end as I am at the beginning. So instead of following my own inclinations, I am going to try to follow the schedule of someone whose life is an extended staycation—my dog, Detroit.


Dogs seem to have a handle on how to live a good life. Detroit’s days are made up of five main activities: food, exercise, sleep, work and play.

Food. I think Detroit loves food more than anything else. My sister says I feed Detroit too often, which may be true, but I am a grazer, and so it makes sense that my dog would be a grazer, too. In between meals, Detroit likes lots of little treats—me, too.

Exercise. Every morning we go for a long walk, and Detroit checks out her surroundings, greets neighborhood dogs, leaves little messages for dogs who will come along later, stalks squirrels until they run up trees and generally enjoys the fresh air. Although I impose this walk on her, Detroit seems to enjoy it. For me, though this walk is more stroll than exercise, so on my staycation, I plan to take extra walks and maybe even ride my bike.

Sleep. When we get back from our morning walk, Detroit stretches out on my lap and within a few seconds, her body is totally limp and she is sound asleep. I will follow her lead and take a nap.

Work. Waking up refreshed, Detroit gets to work. Her job is to patrol the backyard, keeping it free of squirrels, rabbits, cats and birds. It is an important job, and she can spend an hour or so clearing out all the undesirables.

detroit in yard


She also likes to take some time to sit and admire her work. IMG_3513

After a nap, I will tackle some house project. The list is long, and I will alternate between chores that are more and less enjoyable. More enjoyable projects for me include working in the yard, sewing and painting furniture; less enjoyable ones include washing windows, cleaning out the freezer and dusting. After work, it is time for another nap.

Play. Every day includes at least one extended play time when Detroit will get a toy and bring it to me for a game of tug-of-war or some fetching.

Detroit running

During my staycation, I plan to spend more time writing, praying and studying Polish. My play time will also include reading, gardening and perhaps exploring some nearby towns to poke around in shops or maybe go to a museum or two.

I figure if I pace myself and adhere to Detroit’s schedule, my staycation will be somewhat productive but much more restful and relaxing.

What Detroit taught me about grief

Grief was not something we talked about when I was growing up. We were more of a “suck it up” and “move on” kind of family.

But at my grandmother’s funeral, when I was eleven years old, I watched my father grieve his mother’s passing. It was my first funeral and the first time I had seen my dad cry. I remember being shocked and confused. There was my dad showing emotion; he was sad, weeping, grieving.

After the funeral, we didn’t speak about it—not my grandmother’s death nor my father’s feelings about it. The message was clear: even if we feel something, we don’t talk about it. We get over it; we move on.

In my work at a cancer support center, loss and grief are common topics of discussion.

Recently, I was talking with a woman who is in treatment for cancer. She said she is very emotional and is easily moved to tears. We talked about the losses she has experienced because of the cancer and how she is processing her grief.

I told her I had learned about using ritual to process grief—from an unexpected source.

When my friend Jim was sick, his dog Detroit was by his side throughout his illness, and she was with him when he died. While his body was being taken from the house, I took her for a walk. When we got home, she ran to his room and just sat at the foot of his bed. She was grieving.

The next morning, she went into his room and again sat at the foot of his bed. She looked up at the bed and then at me, as if she was asking, “Where is he?” It broke my heart to have to tell her he was gone. Her sad eyes mirrored my own.

Every morning for the next few weeks, Detroit started her day by going into Jim’s room and sitting at the foot of his bed. She would look up at the bed and then at me. I would do my part for her ritual and tell her that Jim was gone.

Then one day when she entered his room, she did not stop at the foot of the bed, but walked the length of the room, turned around and walked out. “Just checking?” I asked, and I knew she had moved to a different place in her grief. This new ritual—entering the room, walking the length, turning and walking out—continued for months.

And then one day she walked to the doorway of his room, paused, and then moved on. Her grieving period was over.

She still occasionally entered his room at random times, but the ritual had accomplished its purpose—she had mourned and now she was getting on with her life.

During those months, I watched in wonder at how Detroit instinctively honored her grief by creating a ritual and then adapting the ritual to fit her changing needs. I was in awe of how she mourned and processed her grief.

Crossing Over

My dog loves to cross the street, any and every street. At driveways or corners, she often pauses and looks longingly toward the other side. The wider the street, the more wistfully she seems to eye it. “Do you want to cross?” I will ask, and then follow as she merrily runs across.

I recently had a dream about crossing a street—a very wide street like Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia. In some spots, Roosevelt Boulevard has five lanes in each direction, broken up into outer service drives of two lanes, and the main road of three lanes each way. Crossing it can take a long time and can be very dangerous.

In my dream, I was aware of how wide the road was and how dangerous. I approached the crossing in segments—first the service drive, then three lanes in one direction, three in the other and the other service drive. I was relieved when I made it to the curb on the other side.

Walking Detroit this morning and watching her eye the street for possible places to cross reminded me of the dream and the potential dangers in crossing to another side.

The past few years have had a number of crossing-over experiences for me in terms of relationships, jobs and where I live. Each time I reach a plateau, some sense of familiarity and comfort, I have a sense of accomplishment—I experience it as having crossed over. I am no longer on that side, but now I am on this side. The difference is tangible.

Recently, the crossings have felt like they are bringing me closer and closer to myself, to the “me” I used to be before Jim got sick and everything turned upside down—but with a twist. All that I have been through these past few years has changed me so that my new self is somehow a bit different from my old.

I now have a clearer sense of my inner strength, of what I am capable of doing and of what really matters to me. I am more aware of the importance of being centered and staying centered; and I think I catch myself more quickly when I am veering away from my true north.

I can look back to how life used to be and where I once was, and remember it with fondness. But now I live on the other side of the street. The grass is not any greener, but I did not expect it would be. What is different is that I am becoming more comfortable, more familiar with what is on this side of the street, and it is feeling more like home.



On our daily walks, my dog Detroit and I usually pass by Lucy, a small, brown dog who lives a few blocks away. Lucy always greets Detroit the same way— racing back and forth along the fence, barking, baring her teeth and growling. Friday morning was no exception.

“She looks how I feel,” I thought, all agitated and angry.

Then I remembered the Native American story of the two wolves that live within me. One is good and does no harm. She lives in harmony with everyone around her and takes no offense when none was intended. She is joy, peace, serenity, hope, love, kindness and compassion.

The other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will set her off in a fit of rage. She fights anyone, any time, for no reason. She is full of envy, greed, anger, regret, self-pity, false pride and resentment.

The two wolves vie for my attention and energy; whichever one I feed will dominate. Seeing Lucy reminded me that last week I had been feeding the angry wolf.

A series of unexpected events marked the week; each day brought new challenges—schedule changes, phone calls and emails to communicate among family members, and lots of uncertainty. I was frustrated, angry, concerned and scared. It was a week where I was reminded of how little control I actually have.

Unanticipated events are not new for me; I have had lots of them over the course of my life—opportunities to practice adjusting my expectations and letting go. I would say I am better at it now than when I was young, but I still have a long way to go.

One thing I have learned about unanticipated events is that I can make a choice in how I react. I can resist the change and hold onto how I think things should have been—and become an angry, resentful pile of self-pity. Or I can let go and accept that things have changed and I need to adjust my expectations.

A downside of choosing the former is that while I am focused on what I cannot change, I can I miss the good things that are happening right in front of me.

For example, on Friday evening, my mother invited me for dinner and gave me some things I need for my house. And when I got home from dinner, a package greeted me—a gift from my friend Michele who is living in Japan. Gratitude triumphed over self-pity. Agitation and snarling were replaced by appreciation and delight.

In the midst of upheaval, gifts continue to be offered. I need to let go of my expectations, live in the moment and be grateful—or else I may end up like Lucy.

The Uninvited Visitor

As I was coming home yesterday, a cat greeted me in the driveway. It started to walk with me toward the house, as if it planned to enter, and it occurred to me that this cat may have visited the previous owner of the house. I shooed it away and closed the gate.

A few minutes later, I let Detroit out, noticing too late that the cat was sitting on top of the gate, ready to re-enter the yard. Detroit took care of that, running toward the gate, barking like a banshee. The cat ran and Detroit entered her yard, sniffing for telltale signs of the cat’s visit.

A few hours later, I let Detroit out again to play in the yard, not thinking that the cat may have returned. But it had, and it was hiding under the hedge that runs along the fence between my next-door neighbor’s house and mine.

Detroit ran straight to it, and she and the cat engaged in battle. The cat had strategically situated itself against the trunk of a shrub so that Detroit could not reach it from behind. Undeterred, Detroit approached from the front.

Each time Detroit advanced, the cat took a swipe and Detroit momentarily retreated, only to regroup and jump back into the fray—a regular Rocky Balboa. She and the cat sparred for a while, neither willing to give up.

I was frantically trying to get Detroit to come out from under the bushes and get her into the house. I feared that the cat might get the better of Detroit—it was the bigger of the two and its gimpy hind leg told me this was not its first fight.

Unsuccessful at separating them, I finally cried to the heavens in exasperation, “I can’t take this!”

Just then, my neighbor came home, and I explained what was happening. “It’s probably here for the birds,” he speculated.

Ah, yes, the birds.

A robin was sitting in a nest under the eaves of my garage. I had noticed the nest when I moved in last summer, and had intended to take it down, but never got around to it. Before the snow had completely melted this spring, the robin had taken up residence; the cat was keeping vigil, waiting for baby birds to fly.

As I pondered the situation, I wondered if this cat had claimed this territory last year (and maybe for many prior years), unaware that this year, there was a new sheriff in town named Detroit who now claimed this yard as her own. Detroit intended to defend her property against all intruders and had been practicing on squirrels and birds. This was her first cat intruder. She was ready and undaunted.

I finally got Detroit into the house and am not letting her roam freely, just in case the cat is lurking in the hedge. I know that once the baby birds are gone, the cat will leave, and I will take down the nest—and Detroit can once again patrol her property.



Bucket of Love

“Bucket of love” was one of the nicknames Jim had for Detroit.

Since Jim died and she has become my dog, I have been getting to know her better, and I can see why he called her that. She is full of love. She is very affectionate and loves to be in close proximity, a true lap dog. Every morning, she showers me with kisses.

When we are out walking, she is especially fond of greeting little children and giving them kisses (ok, she is really licking any residual food from their fingers, but they think she is kissing them).

A friend who is a professed non-animal-lover tried to ignore her the first time he met her, but she sensed a tender core under that crusty exterior and jumped into his lap. “Your dog is on me,” he said. “She sees through you,” I suggested. Although he could not be persuaded to pet her (at least not in my presence), she leaned into him and made herself comfortable—and he let her.

My niece stayed with Detroit while I was on retreat recently. Detroit had been a bit under the weather before I left, and I was worried about her while I was away. “They bonded,” my sister reported when I got home. “And I have lots of pictures to prove it. Detroit on her lap, Detroit kissing her, Detroit playing with her toys.”  I worried for naught.

I used to think the song “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” was a rationalization for bad behavior, but Detroit is helping me to see it differently. She was made to love, and she pours out that love on whomever she happens to be with.

She reminds me of St. Paul’s claim, “I am already being poured out like a libation.” (2 Timothy 4:6)

Her love is not diminished by sharing, but rather the bucket just keeps getting refilled each time she pours herself out.

She offers her love freely to anyone who will accept it and even with those who claim they don’t want it, she will still try.

She was born to love—but weren’t we all.

detroit 12 13





Detroit loves to investigate. She sniffs the lawns as she walks and sometimes stops to root down deep, parting the blades of grass or searching below fallen leaves. Occasionally, she comes across something unpleasant and her whole body reacts, springing away from the offending object. I can’t tell what it was that caused her to jump into the air and then run away, but I imagine it is something pungent or prickly.

Once she has moved away from whatever offended her, she never looks back; she just moves ahead, onto exploring the hidden mysteries and treasures of the next lawn.

This scenario played out the other day and I thought, “Note to self; run away from whatever is pungent or prickly, and don’t look back.”

Of course, the pungent, prickly things in my life are usually associated with people, and I often find it difficult to disengage completely. I don’t want to seem rude and I don’t want to offend by just moving away.

I’ve recently come into a prickly situation. Some friends have suggested I fight for what I want, but after the stress and loss of the last few years, I don’t have much fight left in me. My priorities have realigned and what might have seemed worth fighting for a few years ago does not seem worth the effort now. I’d rather pack up my toys and move to another sandbox.

The other day as I was pondering my current dilemma, Kenny Rogers’ lyrics came to mind:

“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run…”  Of course, the problem is in knowing when to hold, fold, walk away or run.

I think that dogs have it easy. Life is much more straight-forward for them. Sniff and like or sniff and run away.





When we took Detroit to puppy class, we were told that dogs want to please us, and they will know they are pleasing us by our praise. We were told dogs needed to hear “good girl” or “good boy” often and that a little pat on the head or scratch behind the ear would reinforce the message. It reminded me of an old Amy Grant song about how we all need to hear an “atta girl” or “atta boy” from time to time.

My walks with Detroit became running monologues of what a good girl she is. I would tell her she was a good walker, pee-er, poop-er, squirrel hunter, etc. I would tell her she was the best dog in town. “Good ‘leave it,’” I would say when she actually responded to the command, or “good ‘sit/stay’” when she sat at a corner waiting for me to release her and continue our walk.

At some point during these walks, I became aware that while it might be good for Detroit to be praised, it was also good for me to praise her. I realized that praise was not a habit I had, and I decided to change that.

I made a commitment to praise someone at work every day and to pay a random compliment to a stranger at least once a day.

It was easy to praise people at work because our students, volunteers and staff were always doing good things, a fact I had known, but now I was committed to acknowledging it. I tried to be specific in my praise so that people knew I was truly seeing them and commenting on something they did. I soon found myself being more positive about work and more optimistic in general.

The random compliments part of the commitment was even easier. I would compliment store employees for how the store looked or tell the deli workers what a great job they did in making my sandwich. I would compliment people on their clothes or hair. I would tell people the difference they were making in my life just by doing what they were doing—my car mechanic or the customer service representative or restaurant staff.

I had long been aware of people who love what they do and would often comment on it, but not usually to the person. Now I was acknowledging when someone seemed well-suited to their work. And to the people who clearly did not love what they were doing, I would try to find a way to encourage them or at least empathize with them in their mismatched situation.

I learned that people like to be noticed. Even noticing that someone got a haircut would get a “thank you” in response; “thank you for noticing me” is what the person was saying.

Maybe, like our dogs, we really do want to please others, and maybe Amy Gant was right when she sang that we all need to hear an “atta girl” or “atta boy” from time to time.