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Life Lessons from a Dog: Learning to Be Present

A golden retriever teaches her owner how to embrace the moment, The Great Now.

Edward Grinnan and Gracie
Credit: Katye Martens Brier

A cold gray rain drifts down onto a carpet of fallen leaves in our yard. The few remaining ones clinging to their barren branches glisten like old stained glass. It’s been an exceptionally prolonged peak this year, the result of a dry summer, the Berkshire Eagle reports. I’m just happy we’ve had these extra days to witness this cathedral of color.

Alert stands Gracie at the window, ears perked, tail erect, shifting her weight impatiently. At dawn she cleared the yard of turkey buzzards and the deer family who are perpetually purloining the apples from beneath her tree, chasing them up into the woods, barking sharply. What she would do with a deer if she ever caught up with one is a mystery I pray never gets solved.

Now she comes over to me and sits, tail swishing. Most of us are familiar with that intense look of canine expectation. Bred for the cold and damp of the Scottish Highlands, a golden retriever hardly views a little autumn drizzle as a deterrent to a hike in the woods. But I’m not quite up to slipping and sliding on the Appalachian Trail or the Mount Wilcox loop at Beartown, not this morning. My knee is still sore from earlier when I slipped on a hidden wet rock and went down hard, Gracie staring reproachfully as if to say, “All fours are better, dummy.”

I give her a pat behind the ear and say, “Not now. Maybe later if it clears a little. I’ve got work to do.”  She turns smartly and retrieves Bobo, a dingy old toy long since divested of its stuffing. It droops from her mouth like a rag. One of her favorites, God knows why. She deposits Bobo at my feet. “Here, I bring you a thing of value in exchange for what I want. Fair?” I toss Bobo across the room thinking she might be distracted by an invitation to a little indoor fetch. She glances indifferently over her shoulder and returns her gaze to me. Dogs are relentless negotiators.

“Maybe later,” I say, getting up and moving toward the spare room I’ve used as an office during this pandemic interregnum, tucked up here in the old hills of western Massachusetts waiting for a vaccine, a treatment, a miraculous cure, something to magically appear and make everything like it once was. But there is no later for a dog. Dogs are creatures of The Great Now, focused on the moment. What they feel. What they want. What they need. Patience not a virtue. The future only a vague notion perpetuated by humans.

I feel her eyes on me as I move then hear her soft padding as she follows. I sit at my computer and she springs up on the couch and settles with a sigh of canine resignation. People! Soon she discovers a chew bone under a pillow and gnaws on it contentedly. “Hey…take a sad song and make it better,” as Paul sang to Jude.

I soon find myself not working but thinking about The Great Now. How often do I diverge from the moment by pushing it into the future, procrastinating reality when I really should be more like Gracie and experiencing the moment? Specifically, have I spent these pandemic months putting my life on hold and not seizing it as an opportunity for growth or at least contemplation instead of just waiting for it to end? By ignoring The Great Now have I rejected the opportunity to grow closer to God, to feel God all around? Waiting rather than living? Hoping rather than acting?

I’m convinced Gracie can read my mind because suddenly she is parked at my feet with a look of renewed determination. I smile. Rainy day hikes in the tranquil, misty woods are what field jackets and stout boots are made for. I’m not on all fours yet.

“I give up!” I tell Gracie, going for her leash. But it feels more like victory.

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