For the majority of pet owners, the first time it's necessary to board an animal is a very big deal. So when we dropped off our 1-year-old standard poodle, Aspen C., at our veterinarian for a 10-day stay, I felt like it would be an eternity. The anxious expression on my face when we returned to pick him up prompted the doctor to offer what appeared to be a routine response: "Don't worry, dogs don't have a concept of time like humans do." Relieved of both the guilt and possible recrimination from Aspen, we proceeded to get down to the business at hand -- a romp-and-roll family reunion.
That was six years ago.
We've since brought a second standard poodle, Spencer T., now 2 years old, into the family, and I've learned a great deal observing how the dogs adapt to daily, often abrupt, changes in their routine, and as such, I challenge the assertion that dogs do not have the capacity to process or track time. Their magnificent expression of living large each and every day is a concept of time that I, for one, would like to adopt.
I believe our canine companions, like us, have a specific language and code to communicate a mission statement, a marking of time, and a legacy. Life is too short for our dogs. I think they sense it. How else to explain the determination and pure expression of joy in their daily behavior, beginning with The Walk?
The dogs and I cover a lot of ground during our rounds. But what I see and what my dogs see and seek are worlds apart. Nothing is routine or inconsequential to them. The ground offers such a rich bouquet of scents that they must stop, linger, and take it all in with full measure. This inspires a sniff, a lift and a mark: a deliberate mark -- a mark of distinction, a calling card or business card. The diligent alpha male relies on ground coverage as the link to his world and guide to climbing the corporate canine ladder. Veteran dog trainer Todd Stewart suggests this is no mindless exercise.
"Every five feet of a walk is equivalent to reading a page of newsprint with endless copy the dog wants to read cover to cover," says Stewart. First the dog sniffs, he says, then he reads, turns the page and once he's finished reading the fine print, he soils the paper. I also learned from Stewart that the marking is a sign of friendship, and each dog acknowledges the other by sending a message of reply, a choreography known only in the dog world. So the next time patience wanes during what seems like an endless nose-to-the-ground routine, consider that this ritual is a very important part of your dog's day.
Where else but the animal kingdom can one sniff a butt in search of truth and friendship and get away with it? Observe an afternoon mixer at the neighborhood Bark Park and watch the true definition of natural selection unfold. I've often wondered, if we adopted the same process, would we choose our friends more wisely?
Aspen and Spencer have taught me a great deal about unleashing my own inner dog and focusing my attention on how I use and often squander time. I'm grateful that with a high-five paw, a nuzzle by a moist snout, Aspen and Spencer can capture my attention, bring me back down to Earth and force me to not take myself so seriously. They make me feel like top dog in their book.
I'm grateful that while humans are forever trying to change, orchestrate and control our world, dogs are generous with their love, acceptance and devotion. That when they've done something wrong, they're not too proud to at least look guilty. That if available, they'd just as soon eat the whole cake, not just a slice. That they always take risks, no matter how high the stakes, tracking down anything with a spring in its step, from a rabbit under thick brush to my FedEx delivery man behind tall packages. That they have ample emotional bandwidth to breathe life and goodness into a world in desperate need of laughter and recovery.
The canine-human connection continues to be one of the most enduring and satisfying partnerships remaining on the planet. Our "best friends" have a lot to teach us about using time wisely, living large, with true joie de vivre while cultivating the art of contentment and simplicity, because while we're busy rushing around, they know that time marches on.