I’ve learned a lot from my dachshund Al, who doesn’t realize he’s such a good teacher. In fact, he doesn’t realize much, which is why he’s such a treasure trove of object lessons. Every once in a while you’ll see those chain emails that your mom, or that one friend, always forwards you, detailing how dogs live in the moment and love with abandon. That’s great and all, but what I’ve learned from my dog has had much more tangible results.
Lesson 1: You are always the biggest dog.
My dachshund Al does not know he is a dachshund. He is quite sure he is an Irish wolfhound, or a German shepherd. Or maybe he just thinks that dachshunds are five feet tall. Whatever his reasoning, he has never been afraid to run with the big dogs, quite literally. On our five acre farm, we have three “outdoor” dogs–two labradoodles and one standard poodle–who will bowl over anything not anchored to the ground. When they run across the property, bounding through our apricot orchard, Al makes a valiant attempt to keep up, his little legs churning as fast as they can, taking thirty strides for every one of theirs.
When I think back about my time on the rowing team, I can’t help but notice the similarities between myself and Al. All through high school, I’d never considered myself particularly athletic. The cross-country team made me feel slightly queasy, and a mile seemed like an insurmountable distance. Though I played field hockey for two seasons, I still saw myself as spectacularly untalented in any type of athletics.
When I went away to college, I inexplicably found myself on the crew team. I can’t help but think it was fate that lead me there, because I don’t know why else I would be insane enough to try rowing, a notoriously grueling sport. I stayed on the team for two years and constantly surprised myself with the fact that, actually, I was in pretty good shape. I learned that, up until crew, my major beef with exercising had been mental, not physical. Once I learned to shut my mind down, I realized just how far my body could take me.
A little while ago, I ran the Great Race in Pittsburgh. I signed up for the 10K (roughly 6 miles), and I never thought I’d see the day when I actually paid money to run for distances more than a few yards. But I did, and the sick thing is, I enjoyed it too. Even though I vomited on some poor runner’s shoes five feet from the finish line. The point is, I’ve learned to do what Al was born knowing: to forget my size (or shape or ability or any other reason for failure) and let myself find out what I’m capable of.
Lesson 2: If at first you don’t succeed, you’re probably not doing it with enough gusto.
My dachshund Al would love nothing more than to live permanently on my parents’ bed. The only problem is, it’s about three and a half feet off the ground, and he’s less than a foot tall. At least once a week, as my mom lays doing her sudoku before sleep, Al will make it his mission to get on the bed if it kills him. Starting in the doorway, he jettisons himself across the room and launches himself into the air, flinging himself headfirst into the side of the bed. He slides to the floor, shakes himself off, and does it again. And again. And again. The one time he actually made it up on to the bed (with extensive help from my mother), he was so excited he pooped. Since then, all bed privileges have been revoked.
Obviously, the most important life lesson here is, don’t poop on the the bed.
But besides that helpful hint, Al’s devotion to his goals is very admirable. While he’s not the smartest (or most logical) dog, he is immune to failure. It’s easy to get discouraged when you keep trying for something and continue to fail, but Al has never let himself be disappointed. After a while, he realizes he won’t make it up onto the bed (or just gets distracted by something shiny) and goes off to find some leftover kibble that’s rolled under the table, or to take a nap in the sun. For him, not achieving his goals isn’t something bad, it’s just an excuse to go find someone else to pet him.
Lesson 3: Love even those who hate you.
My dachshund Al is about seven, and I would estimate that for about the first five years of his life, I couldn’t stand him. He yipped to go out onto the patio, then yipped to come back in (for literally hours at a time). He pooped in my doorway, he pooped in the living room, he pooped in the family room, he pooped on my clean laundry. He would slither out the front door and dash across the yard, his ears flying like banners behind him, and my mother would make me sprint after him to keep him from running away. He barked at spiders, at the dog in the oven (his own reflection), at the gardener each week.
He found unique ways of making me apoplectic. For Christmas one year my mom gave me a large chocolate penguin. Within hours, Al had penguin-napped it from my desk and eaten part of it, leaving the beheaded penguin in my doorway and bits of plastic strewn across the room.
Al, in his older years, has calmed down a bit. Now his muzzle has flecks of gray hair, and he’s content to snuggle with you on the couch (although he snores so loudly you can hear it from the next room). And despite my ceaseless exasperation through his puppy years, Al loves me just as much as he always has. He is single-minded in his devotion to our whole family, and though he’s ridiculous and irritating I can’t help but love him the way he loves me.