Two summers ago we got a dog. Two weeks after that we got another dog. This story is about our first dog, Shasta, and the life lessons she’s taught us.
I decided on a Rhodesian Ridgeback because of their ability to run long distances. After many episodes of The Dog Whisperer and a return from a long road trip out West, the time was right. I pulled up the SPCA website and saw a photo of a six month old female Ridgeback. I talked Michael into going “just to check it out” and we came home an hour later with Pepsi, whose name we changed to Shasta– after the mountain, not the drink.
She was smart. The first night in her new home I told her to sit, and she did. I pointed to her new dog mat in the corner of the bedroom and told her to go to sleep, and she did. We were amazed. She learned things very quickly and was eager to please.
She was also a very high energy, confident, strong-willed dog. We later learned that Ridgebacks are considered “power breeds,” right up there with Rottweilers and Dobermans. Michael worked with her all summer and she came to respect him. Within the pack, the pecking order quickly became: #1-Michael, #2-Shasta, #3-Me, #4-Nevada. Eventually she gave in and decided to share the #2 spot with me. After two years and another summer at home with the dogs, I think I may finally have won the #2 spot. Sometimes.
Michael and I have certainly learned a lot about ourselves through training Shasta. Michael has learned to be much more assertive. All he has to do is snap his fingers and Shasta straightens right up. I’ve also had to learn to be more self-confident and take the leader position, especially on our walks. I’ve had to learn to assert that I’m in charge and she doesn’t call the shots. She’s walking with me, not the other way around.
We’ve also learned a lot about life through both of our dogs. Even though she’s a dog, Shasta has a certain joy-of-life way of living that translates well into the human world. Our other dog, Nevada, is very different from Shasta and has her own life lessons to teach (those will be in my next post). Here are the top ten life lessons Shasta has to teach us humans.
SHASTA’S RULES TO LIVE BY:
1. Welcome each new day with joy and excitement, and always be ready for an adventure. From the moment she wakes up, Shasta is “on.” She comes over to each side of our bed to give us our good morning licks, wags her tail excitedly, and lets us know that’s she awake and ready to start the day. If we want to walk her, she’s ready. If we want to feed her first, she’s ready for that, too. If a cat or squirrel wants to be chased, she’s more than ready for that!
2. Make your own fun wherever you can. Anytime we let Shasta outside in the backyard she has a little routine she follows: first she has to check to make sure everything is still where it was the last time she was there, then she lets out a few barks just to let the world know hey, I’m here! If there are no squirrels to taunt her and be barked at, she usually throws herself on the ground and rolls around on her back with all four legs in the air, like a wallowing buffalo. Sometimes she pulls a log or a long stick from the woodpile and drags it around, or sometimes she’ll dig a hole, but if we’re not around to play with her Shasta definitely knows how to make her own fun.
3. Enter a new area as if you own the place. Dog park, strange house, Home Depot, wherever. Shasta, Queen of the World, teaches us to always enter strange surroundings with confidence, no fear, and the knowledge that you’re where you need to be.
4. Don’t fear the big stuff. Even though she is generally fearless, she does have a tendency to fear silly things that don’t matter, such as blue pipes, frisbees, toys with bells inside, certain small dogs, and walking through a concrete tube that’s twice your size.
5. Treat everyone as a friend, unless they give you reason not to. Shasta goes out of her way to greet everyone who comes within a half mile radius of her presence. If she likes you, get ready for a Shasta Tongue Bath (and yes, it’s as gross as it sounds). If you have nefarious reasons for getting too close, she will let you know that you’re not welcome and to back off.
6. Be calm, even if you have to fake it. Shasta’s energy level can go from 0 to 100 in seconds. We’ve worked very hard these past two years to train her that there are no rewards for excitability and out of control high energy. If she wants something, she needs to be calm and not pushy. She fakes it–a lot–but that’s okay.
7. No problem or disappointment is so large that a nice long nap won’t fix. Shasta’s had to learn she doesn’t always get her way. That’s life, even in the dog world. She’s learned that long naps are a lovely thing and can facilitate fresh perspectives upon awakening.
8. Get your needs met. Even though we’ve taught her to be calm, Shasta is very good at getting her needs met. She lets us know when she wants to go out, when she wants to go for a walk, when she’s bored, and when she’s hungry, but she’s learned to do so with calm assertiveness that isn’t pushy or too irritating.
9. Never chew on the stuff you’re not supposed to chew on. In other words, don’t worry about things that aren’t worth your time. Shasta pretty much keeps to Nylabones and sticks outside when she wants to chew and has learned that chewing on the wrong things has bad consequences and just isn’t worth it.
10. Love unconditionally. Shasta’s a very loyal dog. Now that I’m home all day she is my constant, daily shadow. At my desk, in the bathroom, watching TV, or in the backyard, she’s always right next to me. She doesn’t ask for anything in return, really, just a little food, a walk around the block, and an occasional belly rub. Over and over, day in, day out, Shasta is happy to be with us.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Shasta? Slow down and just be. There’s nowhere else you need to be, nothing else you need to do, than just be here, now, loving life and the people around you. It really is that simple.