06/28/2012 07:55 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2012

Lessons I've Learned From My 2- and 3-Legged Dogs


Two special guys are in my life: my dogs, Festus and Cyrus. Festus is a three-legged pit bull/Rottweiler. Cyrus is a tiny terrier born without front legs. Both dogs have been trained and certified as therapy dogs, and they volunteer and visit patients in hospitals each week. These dogs are my greatest teachers. Here are some of the simple lessons that I have learned from them:

  1. Be Yourself. Festus has an unusual gait. Cyrus uses a wheeled cart to walk. People stare and point at them wherever they go, as if they were freaks in a circus. But being different is not something that the dogs recognize or care about. If someone gawks, it does not affect them in any way. These dogs are perfect as they are. They do not care what other people think of them.

  • Slow Down. Although the dogs can go almost anywhere, it takes them a bit longer to get there. When I walk with them, I have learned to slow my pace and to enjoy the journey. If I focus on the destination, I ignore my surroundings and can miss so much. If we get there five or ten minutes late, no one really minds and I feel less anxious.
  • Let Nothing Stop You. When Festus was trapped on the streets as a stray puppy, he chewed off his own right front paw to free himself (a full surgical amputation followed, once he was found). He also lost a toe on his left leg, lost part of his ear, had pneumonia and an upper respiratory infection. Grisly, yes, but the point here is that, once he was healed, he never looked back. He lives "in the moment." His past has no effect on the present.
  • Be Happy. On a daily basis, I hear "Oh, poor thing!" or "How sad!" when people see my dogs. There is nothing remotely sad about them. Festus wears a collar that reads "Be Happy Be Happy Be Happy" and he will gladly give you a kiss/lick upon meeting you. Cyrus walks about in his cart with his tail wagging giddily. If they could understand, they would be baffled as to why people would define them as poor or sad.
  • Treat People Equally. Dogs do not discriminate. No matter who they meet, they treat everyone the same: male, female, young, old, black, white, gay, straight, sick, healthy, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Muslim, tall, short, round, thin, poor, wealthy, one-legged, two-legged, doctor, patient, the guy that cleans the floors. If a dog is fearful or aggressive toward any particular type of person, that is learned behavior. My dogs treat everyone with respect and, in return, they receive attention and love almost everywhere they go.
  • Engage With Your World. When my dogs visit a patient in the hospital, they sit patiently to be petted, they look into the patient's eyes, and they are not distracted. I find it increasingly difficult to find people who will act the same way nowadays. People are focused on checking phones, email, texts and tweets. They cannot sit still and have a conversation with the people right in front of them. I have learned that life can be more fulfilling if you are "present" when you meet other people and engage with them without distraction.
  • Do Not Feel Sorry for Yourself. Festus and Cyrus do not lament their lack of limbs. They focus on what they do have and take full advantage of what they were given.
  • Sleep More. Walking takes extra effort for these dogs and, after a shift of visiting, they sleep deeply and contentedly. We may find it difficult to stop and rejuvenate in our fast-paced world, but they do not have this problem. Sufficient sleep is essential.
  • Live in the Moment. I know, I stated this in a different section. But, you read that earlier. Since this -- now - is the moment that you are in, the message bears repeating.
  • Nurses Have Treats. This advice is not for human beings. If you are a dog, listen up: Nurses always have dog treats hidden somewhere and will hand them over freely. Nurses are incredibly caring, hard-working people who give of themselves selflessly. These men and women are vital parts of our health care system and are underpaid and under-appreciated. But Festus and Cyrus love them especially!
  • For more by Domenick Scudera, click here.

    For more on pet health, click here.