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Robert Leahy, Ph.D. Headshot

It's a Dog's Life: Eat, Play, Love

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We were walking our dog, Jane, along a country path the other day when we met an older man, his wife and their beautiful chocolate lab. Wagging his tail, looking up, begging to be petted, the lab and Jane made instant friends. I thought, "Dogs have so much to teach us." The man's hand, holding the leash, trembled -- he has Parkinson's -- and I realized that the hand that pet the dog was from a man who had the capacity to love -- like a dog. Tails wagging, noses touching, enjoying every moment. That's a dog's life.

Dogs have the wisdom of the moment. Every day is a celebration. Eat, play, love. People who have dogs are often less depressed, their blood pressure improves, they lose weight, they are more sociable. They say, "Dogs are man's best friend," and they are right. But I hope that we are their best friend, too. How could we ever measure up to what they are to us? We try. We try.

The man with the lab told me that their dog had died a few months ago -- after six years -- too short a time for a dog, much too short. This chocolate lab was a rescue dog, "from Georgia," he said -- with pride. I said, "That explains his accent."

"Sit," another treat, another wag. The lab looked up, filled with joy. This was the pack. We are together. Yes. Now is a wonderful time to be in.

Our Jane is a rescue dog. From the Cross-Bronx Expressway. All she wanted was a home. She found us. She rescued us.

Jane watched, with that dog smile in her eyes. This was another one of those wonderful, joyful moments in her life. But just six weeks ago our vet told us, "She has terminal cancer."

"How long?" we asked, holding back the tears. "Maybe two months."

Jane doesn't know. She lives in that special dog world filled with all the virtues that we aspire to. Courage, loyalty, love. She wakes in the morning and coughs as she gets up. But then she is ready for her morning walk. Eat, play, love. She still tugs at the pull-toy, plays "find the Milkbone," ravishes her food, smiles when we pet her. When you pet a dog it releases a soothing chemical in your brain -- oxytocin. And it releases the same chemical in the dog's brain. Mutual satisfaction. A dog is always there, always one second away from being in your face, wanting attention, giving attention.

There was a survey I recall, saying half of people who have dogs admit to talking to them. The other half are lying. What are we saying? They listen, head tilted, trying to feel what is behind those mysterious words. They get us.

She listens. She senses what you feel. When you are sad, she lies down, her brown eyes staring up, looking at your eyes. "I'm here. Always."

We were ecstatic, too, when she chased a squirrel the other day, her legs kicking out -- the "old Jane." She doesn't know there is an end in sight. She loves the chase. She's going for it. It's now, she's here. That's all she needs to know.

Last year she decided to chase a porcupine. Came back with about 50 quills in her face and on her chest. As the "emergency" vet pulled the last quill from her nose she said, "She's a stoic dog." Courage. Strength. Endurance. You can lie next to her and hold her and feel her love even when she is in pain. It's always there. I asked the vet, "Do they learn not to chase porcupines?" She said, "No, they just keep going after them. Too much fun, I guess."

What if you went through today -- one day -- living your life the way a dog sees it? Thrilled to go for a short walk, ecstatic over meeting another dog, happy as can be just to feel someone's touch, playing with the simplest toys. Yes, be your own dog -- for a day. Appreciating every moment. Loyal to those who love you. Courage to defend what needs to be defended. Eating with appreciation. Looking with awe at a pigeon. It's a dog's life.

What if you had a tail you could wag? Would you wag it? I would.

We spend our lives fearing death. Jane doesn't know about dying. She lives every moment of every day. She only knows about living. She has courage, she's loyal, your friends are her friends. "Thank you for that Milkbone. I appreciate it. Are there more?"

Yes, keep teaching us. Show us what is important. Until the last minute. Show us.

For more by Robert Leahy, Ph.D., click here.

For more on pet health, click here.

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