Nobody’s perfect

Gus awkward face with snow

So, just in case you think I’m trying to give the impression that Gus is perfect, I thought it was time to set things straight.  He is actually perfect; perfectly normal, as this little story will show.

This morning we were out in the field as usual, and I recognized a familiar face in the distance.  It turned out to be Lydia, a woman I had just met earlier this week.  She was with her two dogs, Sport and Snuggle.  On that earlier day, our conversation had rolled around to my blog because we were talking about getting our dogs to listen.  I had just written the post about communication, so we chatted about it and I was sharing my experiences regarding training Gus, and how far we had come.  In the end, I sent her the link to the blog.   She posted a lovely comment, and has since contacted our trainer to help her with her dogs.

The point in all of this is that, on that day, Gus was in top form.  He was the perfect gentleman; running nicely with the other dogs and coming to sit calmly as soon as he was called.  I left feeling delighted that we had made some lovely new friends, and that we had impressed them with Gus’s excellent training and fine behaviour.

Well, this morning as we approached, Lydia was throwing a ball for one of her dogs.  Gus took off like a shot and grabbed the ball before Sport ever had a chance.  He charged back over to us with the trophy in his mouth; ready to play.  I told Lydia that this was our one touchy issue – Gus loves to play ball so much that he doesn’t care whose ball it is -once he gets it, he thinks that the game is all his.

I barked “sit”  and “drop it” in my most commanding tone, and he did eventually sit and drop the ball at my feet.  Unfortunately, he thought that the game was on, and that I was going to throw it again for him.  When I tried to hand the ball over to Lydia so she could put it away, Gus began to jump for the ball in my hands.  Now, Gus is a big dog, and he has a lot of energy.  Believe it or not, it is possible for 82 pounds of doodle to become airborne vertically!  It’s actually pretty hilarious to see him bouncing up and down for the ball, but today I wasn’t impressed.  I felt like I was losing face as he jumped crazily and dodged for my hands as I tried to pass the ball back to its rightful owner.  Gus was so wound up that he totally stopped listening to my commands.  The final straw was when, on one jump, he crashed into my knee with such force that I began to see stars and I had to stop and put my head down to avoid blacking out in the middle of the field!

At this point Jeff clipped Gus’s leash on, and we were able to calmly hand the ball back.  We said an awkward goodbye, and waved as Lydia and her dogs retreated into the distance.  I thought to myself, “well, there goes that good impression!”

Let’s face it, no one is perfect!  Like Gus, we all manage to learn the rules and perform the tricks most of the time – even better if the right people happen to be watching.  However, just like everything else about real life, things don’t always go as planned.  We all have our moments from time to time.  Even the most wonderful mothers have been known to occasionally lose it and holler at their children like a fishwife.  The most poised and collected people can drop their guard and let it all hang out in certain situations, and the picture perfect children can forget themselves and pick their noses at the dinner table in front of Daddy’s new boss.  It happens.

My saving strategy in these moments is a deep breath, a good laugh (if I can muster it), and a reality check to remind myself that this is what real life is all about.  Being perfect all the time takes a lot of work, and it is exhausting.  It’s a standard that no one should be rigidly held to.  I learned a long time ago that it is healthier to accept and embrace those inevitable imperfections in myself, my family members, and of course, my dog.  In fact, if we are in the right frame of mind, these little quirks can be quite endearing, and they often lead to great stories once we can get a little distance and see them in better perspective.  While I do my best to keep my cool and not get hung up about every little thing, I’m only human, and I do forget from time to time like everyone else.  I guess today Gus felt that I needed a little reminder!

Letting go

So, here we are in Cleveland.  We drove in Wednesday night after taking Gus across the street to stay with our good friend Wendi and her family.  It may be hard to believe, but in three and a half years, this is the first time the whole family has gone away together and left Gus behind!  It wasn’t easy.

Like ridiculous overprotective parents, we packed up and carted over Gus’s food, his water dish, his frisbee, his favourite rubber bone, and his enormous bed.  I laughed and rolled my eyes as Jeff wrote out a full page of instructions, right down to the request that someone snuggle with Gus before he goes to sleep!  Then, when no one was looking,  I quietly took the paper and added a line or two of my own.  Okay, now for the hard truth:  we are only going to be away for three nights!

Why is it so hard to let go?  I know that Wendi and her family will take wonderful care of  Gus, and I have every reason to believe that he will be just fine without us.  We can even call and email from the road to be reassured that all is well.  I think that the worry comes from feeling helpless.  In letting go, we give up control over the events that occur between saying goodbye and reuniting once more.

What if there’s a thunderstorm and he is scared?  What if he encounters the nasty dog from around the corner?  Will he eat his food in a different environment?  Will Wendi and her kids know just the right place he loves to be scratched under his chin?  In short, will everything be okay without us??

Of course it will.

Perhaps the real problem is ego.  We can’t imagine that we are replaceable, or that anyone else could possibly fill our shoes while we are away. That may in fact be true, but it doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t able to do what is necessary; just a bit differently.  Even worse, what if  it turns out that Gus doesn’t actually need us as much as we think he does?

We tend to underestimate both the capabilities of those we trust to look after our loved ones, and the adaptability of those we hand over into their care.  Wendi has been a dog owner and trainer for years, and she actually has far more experience than we do.  Gus is, after all, a dog,  and he will tend to live in the present and roll  right along with whatever is right in front of him.  Everything will be just fine.

Throughout our lives we face the challenge of letting go over and over again.  As Labour Day approaches, many parents are preparing to watch their children walk through the doors of new and wonderful places; from kindergarten to high school to university.  We went through it when they were smaller and we left them with babysitters, and now those old feelings are bubbling up to the surface again.  We need to remember to put on a big smile and wave goodbye; telegraphing our confidence in our childrens’ ability to succeed out there.  If we’ve done our job well, then everything will be just fine.

As we come to accept that our charges can manage in new situations without us, we may end up with the bittersweet feeling of being a little less indispensable.  The trade-off, however, is knowing that we can relax and be proud of their independence and ability to stand on their own.  Letting go turns out to be good for everyone.

A walk in the fresh air always makes everything better

You know how it goes.  Take a little basic stress, add in some normal family dynamics; sprinkle with a few messy teenage bedrooms and some laundry pile-ups; season with a pending departure for a few days out of town, and what do you have?  The recipe for a perfect batch of family squabbling!

We are supposed to leave today for a mini-road trip with our kids.  It’s nothing major; just a much-needed few days away together to laugh, chill and generally hang out as a family.  Unfortunately, my Dad has been quite sick in hospital, so we really didn’t think we were going to want to be away, and we had left the final decision until this morning.  I’m happy to say that he is doing much better, and he has joined everyone in insisting that we head out for our little break.  You can understand how the lead-up to today has been very stressful, and we are all exhausted; physically and emotionally.

As we made our decision to go ahead this morning, we roused the kids and told them of our plan.  For some reason, this was the time that we discovered a multitude of neglected chores, messy bedrooms and undone laundry.  It seemed like there was a mountain of work to be done before we were even going to be able to hit the road.  With fuses already short from stress and fatigue, our tempers flared and we all started bickering.  At one point, I announced that it just seemed like too much trouble for a few days, and that we should just skip it altogether and stay home.

Through all of this rising hubub, a large brown dog lay quietly in the corner on the kitchen floor; his soulful eyes moving back and forth between the arguing family members.  I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I know that he could feel the stress level going up.  He always seems to retreat a bit when voices are raised in our house.  I have no doubt that he feels the negative energy, and it clearly affects him as well.

After my final outburst, I looked down at him and announced, “Gus and I are going for a walk!”  And off we went.

It’s beautiful outside today.  The humidity of the past week has cleared, and there was a cool breeze blowing down the street; rustling the leaves as we set out.  This morning’s rain had left everything smelling fresh and renewed, yet there were still a few drops falling from the trees as we passed under them.  The sun danced in and out from behind the clouds, and I felt my tension start to ease up as we headed down the street; falling into our familiar rhythm together.

We walked for almost an hour, and I found myself letting go of the issues that had seemed so important and annoying back in the house.  Do I really care if the kids’ rooms are clean?  So what if there’s laundry waiting for us on Saturday.  Everything will be ok with Dad, and the rest of the family can manage without me for a few days.  At one point, Gus turned back and looked at me with his goofy smile, and I could swear he seemed to be saying “see Mom . . . isn’t everything better once you get outside!”

By the time we rounded the corner to head back towards home, my head felt clearer and my steps were lighter.  I was ready to walk in the door with a smile and move into gear for our family getaway.  As the icing on the cake, a woman suddenly called out and waved to me from across the street.  I could tell she didn’t speak English, because she only made hand gestures, but she waved and pointed at Gus, and then gave me a huge smile and a double thumbs-up sign.  Gus had worked his magic again!

What goes around comes around

So, here’s the story:

Several times over the last few months, Gus and I have encountered Fido (names have been changed to protect privacy) and his owner on our morning walks.  The first time we met, I asked Fido’s owner if he was friendly.  “Oh yes,”  she replied.  So Fido and Gus did the requisite “hello” ritual – a bit of sniffing here and there- and generally checked each other out.  Gus is pretty easy going, and in his typical fashion, he eventually took a seat on the sidewalk as the two humans chatted for a bit.

At this point I must point out that Fido is a very small dog -probably 10 or 15 pounds, in contrast to Gus’s 80 or so.  The two dogs chilled on the sidewalk for a minute, and then,  for some reason I cannot explain, Fido suddenly decided to lunge at Gus.  He ran to the edge of his little leash, snarling and yipping, and generally appearing about as ferocious as a little 15 pound white dog can appear.

Gus understandably jumped back out of Fido’s reach, and regarded him with a curious look.  If I had to imagine the text bubble above his head, it would have read, “yo man,  what the heck is your problem??”  I said a quick farewell, and off we went with Fido’s owner apologizing after us.

A similar scenario has played out on several other occasions when we have encountered Fido.  Not wanting to foster ongoing bad relations in the neighbourhood, I have tried to give him a few second chances, but it just doesn’t seem to be worth the effort.  Fido’s behaviour has been pretty consistent.  He always waits for a bit, and then charges at Gus; yapping like crazy.

The last time we encountered them, Gus and I finally decided that we’d made a solid effort, and didn’t need to worry about being social anymore.  We nodded hello, steered a wide path around them on the sidewalk,  and continued on our way.

Well, yesterday morning things were a little different.  For the first time ever, we ran into Fido out in the middle of the field, when both dogs were off-leash.  I decided to let things take their course.  Gus hesitated at first, and then trotted up to Fido to say hello.  (I have to hand it to Gus; he really is so good-natured!).  As I had hoped, something about being off-leash changed the dynamic, and the two dogs seemed content to mill about each other with no obvious drama.   We hung about and chatted for a bit; remarking on how nicely things were going.

Then, as if someone threw a switch, Fido went back into his old mode and suddenly charged at  Gus.  Well, this time Gus must have decided that he’d had enough of this little bully, and he gave it right back!  He didn’t touch Fido, but he snapped back at him with a serious growl as if to say “that’s it!  I’ve had enough of you!”  The humans were a little stunned by the loud noise, and I think Fido was too.  He beat a hasty retreat and promptly sat down at a safe distance; striking a pose like a perfect little stuffed doggy.  I don’t think he’ll bother Gus again!

What I hope that Fido figured out was that everything eventually comes full circle.  The way that you treat someone on a first encounter is usually registered, and filed away for future reference.  Most of us, like Gus, can brush off rude behaviour when it happens, but it leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.  Sooner or later, bullies usually get what they deserve in the end.

Fortunately, I do believe that the opposite is also true.  Positive acts can be even more powerful and lasting in their reach than negative ones.  When we go the extra mile for someone, or extend ourselves with an act of caring or kindness, our actions boomerang back to us eventually; often via some unexpected route.

Communication is much more than simply words

Jeff talking to Gus in the hall

“Come!”  “Sit”  “Paw”  “Leave it!”

A dog’s life is full of the commands that we use in order to convey important information, and to elicit the behaviour we want from them.  Like most new dog owners, we devoted countless hours to practicing these simple commands with Gus when he was a puppy.  He, in turn, rewarded us by dutifully performing on cue -often in front of an attentive audience.  Let’s face it, what good is a dog if you can’t impress your friends and family with his tricks?

As Gus grew up, we began to have trouble with some of his “listening” skills.  We found that he didn’t always respond to our commands consistently anymore, and we began to get frustrated.  I was reduced to tears on a number of occasions as he galloped insanely through the park; ignoring my pleas for him to come to me.  We decided that we needed some help.

Enter Troy; a fabulous trainer who had been discovered by some of our neighbourhood dog people.  Now, I won’t go into all of the details of what Troy did with us, although I will tell you that the kids were convinced that he is part dog (they kept trying to see the tail concealed under his jacket!).  What I will tell you is that, through our “dog training” sessions, Troy helped us to develop a better understanding of ourselves.

It all came down to the fact that we weren’t giving Gus the messages we thought we were when we interacted with him.  Dogs are so finely attuned to what is around them, that they pick up so much from us that has nothing to do with the words we are speaking.  We began to focus on things like our tone of voice, head angle, and body stance when we gave commands to Gus. We came to realize that the total of all our nonverbal cues was overriding the commands we thought we were giving.    These lessons were invaluable.  We began to focus more on how we were delivering our messages,  and by following Troy’s suggestions we soon found a huge improvement in the issues we had been struggling with.

Life is all about communication.  Every day we have thousands of interactions with those around us.  How much of what we think we are saying ends up as the real message read by the person on the receiving end?  Simply changing our tone of voice and posture can give an entirely different meaning to a phrase as simple as “what are you doing?”

We humans aren’t as skilled as our canine friends, but we sure can read the subtle cues conveyed by arms tightly folded across a chest, a tip of the head, or a sarcastic tone at the end of a sentence.  The subtext may become the headline; and the impact of our words may not be at all what we intended.

When we run into problems with one another, more often than not it’s a result of signals getting crossed, or messages being muddled.  Focusing on all the components of the message we are sending makes it much more likely that our true meaning will come across as intended, and that we will see our desired response.  Imagine that. . .

Surround yourself with the things that make you happy

Gus loves balls.  It’s that simple.  Tennis balls, rubber balls, soccer balls; it really doesn’t matter.  He loves to carry them in his mouth when he walks.  He loves to run and fetch a ball if you’ll throw it for him.  He even loves to lie on the floor with a ball in his mouth and just roll it around.  This is what makes him happy.  As you can see from the picture, he’s in his element just being surrounded by what he loves.Gus with tennis ballsWe all have our own little things that make us happy.  For me, it’s my morning cup of coffee in my faded mug, the smell of freesia, and of course the endless bounty of colourful vegetables at a farmer’s market!  Jeff knows that if we are ever out in the country and we come upon a market, we absolutely have to stop.  It’s my happy place.

When you know what makes you smile, don’t skimp.  Serve your dinner on a beautiful plate.  Splurge on a single decadent chocolate truffle. Put on your softest cotton pj’s and curl up with the latest electronics flyers.  Life demands that we spend so much time looking after the needs of others that we often forget to take a minute and indulge ourselves.  Never underestimate how much pleasure you can get from something incredibly simple.  Give it a try!

Warm Fuzzies

True wisdom means knowing that, on some days, the right thing to do is to just stop thinking about everything,  and relax with something warm and cozy.

This little video is my treat for you all.  (Josh made it and posted it on Youtube the week that Gus joined our family)

Thank you so much to everyone for all the incredible support and encouragement I have received this week.

Enjoy!

-Janet

Keep your eyes on the prize

Gus tractor beamOk, I’ll admit it.  In the three and a half years that we’ve had Gus, I have failed to pick up his poop twice.

As a dog owner and a neighbourhood dweller, I know that this is the ultimate sin.  No one wants to stumble upon a little treasure in the grass, and frankly, it’s just bad manners.  So, what’s the deal?

It hit me just now as Gus and I came in from the park beside our house.    Since he is fine off-leash, he is often far ahead of me in a field when he chooses the perfect spot to do his thing.  I have invented a little ritual I call the “tracker beam,” where I fix my gaze on him, and then stride directly over to where he has been, without ever taking my eyes off that spot.  I do my duty, and off we go.  It’s usually no big deal.

Well, it  happened on those two occasions that I must have let the tracker beam waver, and by the time I crossed the field I simply just could not find that poop.  People out in the park must’ve thought I was crazy, because I actually marked out a grid and paced back and forth for 10 minutes over where I thought it was.  Remarkable as it seems, that poop just seemed to vanish!  I felt terrible leaving it behind, but at least I was confident in knowing that I had tried my best to find it.

In every stage of life, our energies are always directed towards some particular goal.  At first it may be tying our shoes, and then we begin to aim for different things like high marks in school, buying  a house, losing weight or reaching a new position at work.  When we keep the tracker beam riveted on our objective, it always seems that our goals move within reach.

Reflecting on the goals that I have set for myself but never attained, I can now see clearly that I let that beam waver.  It’s so easy to get distracted by other things in the field, and then when we get to where we think we were headed, the prize just isn’t there anymore.  The surest route to any target is to mark out a direct path, and then to keep marching towards it, without ever letting it move from our line of sight.

Always travel with your own sunshine

Gus in sunshine in the backyardGus has the ability to light up any place.  His amazing disposition is a combination of unconditional love, puppy-like spontaneity and unbridled enthusiasm.  Of course he always makes us happy, but we’ve witnessed the effect he has on other people time and time again  (see “small moments can have big impact”).  If he’s sitting in the car while we’re driving, we often see smiles light up in other cars around us.  I’ve already mentioned how his greetings can instantly lift anyone’s mood.  He just has this amazing ability to brighten things up.

Watching Gus spread sunshine has made me more aware of others who have the same effect.  This morning I had to take Sarah to the orthodontist.  Now, Dr. Parker’s is a wonderful place to go if you need your teeth straightened, but I always love being there because of his incredible team at the front desk.  Annette, Norene and Cindi are three wonderful women who manage the patients, the parents, and the steady flow of traffic.   They always manage to keep the atmosphere professional, yet at the same time upbeat, welcoming and friendly.  This morning I had a chat with Cindi that left me inspired to write this post.

It’s been 3 1/2 years since Sarah got her braces on.  With appointments starting out biweekly, and now down to monthly, you can figure out how many times we have been in that office.  I can honestly tell you that, in all of this time, I have never seen Cindi in any  mode other than smiling, bubbly and warm to everyone she deals with.  We have a lot to talk about because she also has a dog that she loves, but she chats with everyone, and always leaves them feeling important.  The thing that many people don’t seem to know is that Cindi is in severe pain all of the time.  You’d never know it, unless you notice her hesitate as she moves to get up from her chair.

Why is it that some people are so sunny, while others seem like Eyore, with a permanent rain cloud hovering above their head?  Some say that people are just born that way, but I believe that a lot of it is personal choice.   When I told Cindi today that I thought she was an inspiration, she said that she had just decided a long time ago that there was no use in being any other way.

If we really think about the atmosphere we are creating by our attitude, our words and our interactions with others, it’s amazing how we truly can bring about a change in the weather.  Haven’t we already had enough rain this summer?

It’s been one of those days. . .

Gus tired outHad a really long and exhausting day today.  Too tired to even go into it.  Gonna go crash now.

Respect warning signs

An unusual thing happened today when Gus and I were walking.  We headed up to the big field where I often let him off leash for a run.  I unclipped him and jogged down the hill onto the field as I do every morning.  When I looked back to see if he was following, I was surprised to see that he was still right where I’d left him.  He was pacing back and forth with his nose down; sniffing intently at an area of the grass.

I called out for him to come; expecting him to charge towards me across the field.  Instead, he simply sat down and looked at me from the distance.  After several more attempts to call him, I finally gave up and walked back to where he was sitting.  He looked up at me as if to say, “I”m not going past this point.”

Remembering the advice of dog trainers to “be the pack leader,” I clipped his leash back on and gave it an assertive yank to indicate that we were going this way, and there was no doubt about it.  No such luck.  If you have ever tried to budge a sitting, 82 pound labradoodle, you know what I mean.

I finally decided that I just wasn’t in the mood for a struggle, and I set out back in the direction of home.  Gus happily trotted along beside me as if nothing had happened.  When we came to a part of the street that backs onto a huge ravine, he simply refused to keep walking on the sidewalk, and started pulling me to cross the road.  Again, not being up for a battle, I took the path of least resistance and we headed along the other side of the street,  straight for home.

What was it that caused him to behave this way?  I’m not sure that I’ll ever know.  It reminded me of the time when we were up at our friend Mark‘s cottage, and Gus pulled something similar; refusing to walk up the road to do his business.  After we were home, Mark called to tell us that they discovered a bear in the woods nearby.  Apparently Gus knew all along.

Animals have keenly developed senses that alert them to the warning signs of danger. They are hard-wired to respond to those signs.   As I witnessed today, Gus’s instincts told him that there was a good reason to avoid the field and the sidewalk near the ravine, even though I couldn’t find anything to be wary of.

It made me think about the various signs of trouble that we humans often dismiss.  We brush off new aches and pains as the inevitable cost of aging; often neglecting to check things out until problems are advanced.  We fail to deal with troubled relationships; reassuring ourselves that things will pass, or aren’t as bad as they seem.  We watch the needle slide past empty on the gas tank, and end up hauling gas down a deserted road when the tank runs dry.

Responding to early warning signs of any kind usually helps us to avoid problems before they happen, or at least allows us deal with issues before they become too serious. Gus seems to instinctively know that this is the way to be.  I think it’s a good model to follow.

Eat locally

Gus discovers that eating locally starts in your own backyard

Gus discovers that eating locally starts in your own backyard

The trend to eat locally grown food is a hot one this year.  We have been supporting it in several ways.  We are taking part in a community supported agriculture program through a fabulous local organic farm called The Cutting Veg.  I also try, whenever possible, to buy food that is locally grown, whether at one of the several farmer’s markets in the area, or right in our own grocery stores.  Finally, I have experimented with growing a few small crops at home this year.  We have enjoyed peas, onions, rhubarb, tomatoes, herbs and zucchini through the fruits of my (somewhat inconsistent) labour.  While I wouldn’t exactly call my harvest plentiful, it has certainly been a great learning experience, and a lot of fun!

Gus has been terrific as a backyard farm dog.  He has been respectful of the plants in the garden and on the deck, although he occasionally checks them out with great interest.  This morning, for some unknown reason, he decided that it was time to get in on the locavore trend.  I caught him in the act- stealing some of my prized cherry tomatoes.  I guess he decided that enough was enough, and they just looked too good!

IMG_0796

Small moments can have big impact

Last night we went to the Unionville Jazz Festival.  The night was beautiful and warm – the kind we just haven’t had enough of this year.  We debated about whether to bring Gus along.  Unionville is a very dog-friendly district, but we knew it would be crowded, and it’s sometimes hard to navigate with 82 pounds of labradoodle checking out every new sight and smell.  In the end, we just couldn’t bear to leave him home alone on such a lovely night, so off we all went.

As expected, the street and sidewalk were crowded, and the music was great.  We worked our way  from corner to corner, taking in the jazz and trying to keep Gus from getting in everyone’s way.  To be fair, he was really well-behaved, but there were just so many people eating so many delicious smelling ice cream cones. . . and well, let’s just say he was a bit distracted.  We started to wonder whether it had been a good idea to bring him along after all.  It really wasn’t turning out to be a relaxing evening stroll.

At one point we stopped to hear a fabulous group we remembered from last year.  There was a bit more space on the sidewalk, so we settled in for a bit, and Gus finally sat down by our feet.  As we listened to the music I started to relax, and found myself thinking that this was more like what I had in mind.

After a while, Jeff nudged me and pointed across the sidewalk.  On the other side of the crowd there was a young woman in a wheelchair.  She was leaning over in her seat and waving her arms.  We realized that she was gesturing to Gus!  Jeff walked him over to say hi, and the effect was transformational.  She seemed to have difficulty talking, but her face lit up in a beaming smile as she leaned over and patted him.  She was grinning from ear to ear as they shared a private moment in the middle of the crowd.  When we chatted with her father, we learned that they had had two dogs of their own when she was younger.

We left for home shortly after that, but on reflection, I’m not sure which part of the evening will stay with me longer:  the warm summer air; the mellow jazz; or the beaming smile that Gus brought to a young woman’s face.

Kids need to get off-leash too

Every day when Gus and I head out on our walk we follow pretty much the same routine.  I don’t put the leash on him at the beginning, because we are right beside a huge park.  Gus first checks to see if I’m behind him, and then he runs into the park to check out the day’s news.  He will gallop across the field, making the rounds of all the trees he regularly pees on, and sniffing all the spots where his neighbourhood friends have already left their marks.

After we have made our way through the park and schoolyard, our path takes us close to a busy street.  I always call Gus to “come”, and he will trot up to me and sit while I clip on his leash.  At this point we often set out on our serious walk, making our way together through the streets of our neighbourhood.

Today after I clipped on his leash, I was musing about the fact that he always comes to me willingly after running so freely in the park.  It struck me that, while he loves to be off-leash and free, he is also happy to be connected to me while we walk along the sidewalk.  He still occasionally pulls on the leash, but for the most part he is content to have 6 feet as the maximum distance between us.

Gus has figured out the concept of on- and off-leash. He handles his freedom to run and roam, yet is content to be connected when the situation requires it. He seems to have figured out that there is a time for running ahead and a time for walking by my side. I honestly believe that he feels secure when we are connected, and he knows that he will be allowed to run free again when the time and place are right.

On Sunday, Josh and Sarah, my two younger kids, are coming home from summer camp. Josh has been away for 8 weeks, and Sarah for almost 4. In my children’s world, overnight camp is about as off-leash as you can get when you are 14 or 16. There are plenty of adults in supervisory roles, but they are not your parents, and there is freedom to explore, to grow and to escape the routines and responsibilities of home. This is exactly why Jeff and I have made it a priority to offer our kids this wonderful experience.

We have had a window into our kids’ summer adventures due to Bunk1 -a brilliant innovation that posts candid photos from the camp online for parents to view. We have seen photos of Josh in a leadership role, leading music and worship, and being team captain for a huge camp-wide colour war.  We have seen numerous images of Sarah with her arms thrown around her friends, walking down a forest path or hanging out by the swim docks. It is clear that they have been having a wonderful time.

As they come off the bus on Sunday and into our waiting hugs, they may well feel like the leash is being clipped back on. I hope that, like Gus, they will be warm and secure to be back in the embrace of our family ties. I know that they value and respect the bonds that connect us, and I hope that the routines of home won’t seem too constraining after the freedom of camp. My experience tells me that they may pull on the leash a bit as they settle back in, but I know that we’ll all work together to strike the right balance.   After all, next summer isn’t that far away!

Sometimes you just have to choose

Gus with two balls

So here’s how it goes.  Most days when we walk, Gus brings a ball along.  There’s always at least some part of our journey when we are in an open field.  I throw and he fetches for a while, and for the rest of the time he loves to carry his ball in his mouth.  He is, after all, part retriever.

Gus is very attached to his ball, and he will run back and search for it if he’s dropped it in the grass.  Even when he is panting, he will carry his ball in his mouth for the rest of the walk, despite the fact that this limits his ability to cool off properly.

Every once in a while, something interesting happens.  We might be out in the middle of the field or at the park, and Gus will discover another abandoned ball lying in the grass.  He’ll drop his original ball and stand over the new discovery for a while.  Sometimes I can almost hear his thoughts as he looks at the two balls, trying to decide what to do.  He clearly weighs the merits of each one, and often looks up at me as if to ask, “which one should I choose?”

On rare occasions, he will try to pick up both balls in his mouth.  This is hilarious and usually doesn’t last for very long -it makes for very difficult breathing!  Most often he will make his choice, and pick up one of the balls to carry for the rest of the walk, leaving the other one in the grass.  I’m always amazed because he will usually abandon his own ball; the one he was originally so committed to, in favour of the new discovery.

So, I guess you’re wondering what this all has to do with me.  Well, if you’re following my blog, you will have noticed my original commitment to post something every day.  You might be thinking that I’ve already fallen off the wagon -not having made a post yesterday, after only three days!  Now, maybe this is just me justifying my failure to post, but it kind of happened like Gus with the ball.  I had to make a choice.

My original intent was to sit down and write after dinner.  My very special cousins came over for dinner, and we had a lovely visit, including dessert with my Mom & Dad.  I had mentioned that I wanted it to be an early night, as I had some work and blogging to do.  After dinner, my cousins and I, along with two of our grown-up daughters, sat around the table chatting for a long time.  They kept offering to leave, but I encouraged them to stay.  We don’t get together like that often enough, and we were having such a great time catching up, and talking about life, blogging, passion, and following your creative dreams.  It was an energizing conversation, and it encouraged me to believe that I have started something worth pursuing.  The only catch was that by the time they left and I cleaned up, it was very late.

I finished some work that I had to do, and by the time I sat down to write the post that had been percolating in my head, it was well past midnight.  I wrote for a while, but I could really see that I was not at my best.  I felt like Gus, weighing the merits of the two balls.  Ball one: stay up even later, finish writing, and post something that I wasn’t really proud of, just to meet my commitment.  Ball two: accept that I had chosen instead to spend some special time with very special people, pack it in and miss a day of posting.

Well, I guess you can see the choice I made.

A big smile and a sloppy kiss can work magic

Today was kind of aggravating.  Now, I really love the work I do teaching, and usually I come home tired but energized – sort of like after a performance.  Somehow today was different.   For whatever reason, my lectures seemed to really drag and I felt like Jerry Seinfeld on a bad night at the improv.  You know; the sound of one hand clapping in the audience.  To top it off, I had a student challenge me in front of the class, and I had to be politically correct and give a snappy comeback while still staying professional and respectful. It annoyed me that I had to deal with that when I try so hard and put in  so much effort for my students.

Let’s just say that by the time I rolled into the driveway, I had been mulling things over and I was feeling pretty rotten.  I was in one of those moods where I just wanted to get in the door, make a cup of tea, and slump by myself for a bit so I wouldn’t whine and complain to anyone else.

I opened the door  to do this, and instead was greeted by 82 pounds of bouncing labradoodle in full body wag.  Now let me tell you, when Gus is really happy, he actually smiles. He was so happy to see me that he was grinning from ear to ear (that’s really big!) and he pranced around in front of me  before  diving in to place a big sloppy dog-kiss all over my face!  Sorry for all you germophobes, but I absolutely  loved every minute of it!

Before I knew it, my grumpy mood had completely dissolved as I bathed (literally) in this enthusiastic welcome.

A little later when I did have the chance to sit and reflect, I started to think about how I usually greet the members of my family when they come in the door at the end of the day.  Sometimes I don’t even look up from what I’m doing – I just call out “hi” from another room.  I realized how the reception you get when you come in the door can have such a huge impact, and  how it can do wonders to erase the effects of a difficult day.

I’m having this flash to a scene I recall from some 1950’s homemaker’s magazine where women are instructed to meet their husbands at the door “in a fresh dress, with a martini ready for him” -don’t worry, this isn’t what I mean (although the martini sounds like a nice touch!).  I guess I’m just thinking of making a bit of an extra effort to show how genuinely happy I am to see the people I love when they come in the door.  I’m going to try it and see what happens.

Use Your Nose

Did you know that a mid-August morning smells different than a mid-July morning?

Every day when Gus and I head out for our walk, the first thing he does is to stop on the porch, lift his nose up in the air, and SMELL.  He uses his whole body; deeply breathing in the air and reading all its unique scents and stories.

This morning in the middle of the field I stopped and did the same thing.  It was incredible.  I could smell last night’s heavy thunderstorms, still hanging thickly in the air.  That familiar heavy, humid feeling with the strong scent of pine and cedar transported me back to memories of the forests of Algonquin Park and summer camp when I was younger.  The sun began emerging through the clouds, and I noticed a subtle change in the scents on the air.  Just as the sun causes colours to reflect differently, so did it “colour” the scents I was breathing in; brightening them somehow as they warmed in the light.

I closed my eyes and took another deep sniff – then I noticed another note in the air:  freshly cut grass.  Sure enough, far in the distance another field was being mowed.  There is nothing that says “summer” more than the smell of cut grass, yet it was unbelievable how this time it clearly said “summer’s winding down” as it mingled with the other distinct scents of mid-August.

Several strides across the field and both Gus and I stopped to sniff again.  This time there was a new, acrid, top note added to the mix.  The very faint smell of skunk wafted on the breeze, causing both of us to stiffen just a bit.  I’m sure it was just a remnant of last night’s adventures, but I put Gus on leash nevertheless, just to avoid any potential trouble.

Every day when we walk, Gus and I go through this ritual several times.  While there is no doubt that a dog’s sense of smell is infinitely more developed than ours, I feel that most of us rarely take advantage of the complexity we can detect if we just stop, breathe deeply and concentrate on what’s in the air.

It has been said that our sense of smell can trigger memory more powerfully than any other sense.  My kids roll their eyes at me, but I often get them to stop, smell, and “make a memory” when we are together and something smells particularly wonderful.  Whether it is the warm earthy smell of worms in early April or the crisp wood smoke and frost of December, or even the tantalizing aroma of freshly baking bread before dinner, these memories are richly embedded in our brains, and they will stay with us for a lifetime.

Give it a try!

Hello world!

Things happen for a reason.

I’ve always believed that, but now I’m sure.  We just came in from seeing Julie and Julia – a fabulous feel-good movie.  On the surface it’s about the true story of a woman who cooks her way through Julia Child’s cookbook in a year and blogs about it.  In reality it is about following your heart and getting up off the couch and acting on what you are passionate about.

So it’s 10:30 on a rainy Saturday night, and here I am.

For about 3 years I’ve been telling people that I’m working on this book called “Lessons From Gus.”  I have been working, but most of what I have to show for it is  still in my head.  At some point every day I have an “aha” moment where some reality about the world is drawn into sharper focus through my experiences with Gus – my 82 pound Labradoodle.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not here to blog about doggie life or pet care.  The lessons that Gus has taught me in the past 3 1/2 years are about my life, and how to live it. The subtitle of the book is “Essential life wisdom for people.”

I’ve kept track of all the “big lessons” and I’ve compiled them into the table of contents and a few short pieces for my fledgling book.  It’s sort of a cross between Marley and Me, Tuesdays with Morrie, and Life’s Little Instruction Book – all 3 of which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read them.

So anyways, I think I’m starting to ramble a bit, which I think is a bit of a blogging “no-no”.  Here’s the bottom line:  I am making a commitment to myself to write some piece for the book every day until the end of the year.  I’m going to do it through this blog, and then by January 1, 2010 I should have something worthy of moving forward with.

Along the way, I hope to share some of my passion and hopefully a little of what I believe is wisdom for life.  Maybe I’ll even touch some like-minded souls out there.  I guess you’ll let me know…