“Oh no, you’re not one of those, are you?!”
We all know the phrase “crazy cat lady,” conjuring images of bathrobed bitties sprinkling cat chow into bowls as hordes of filthy yowling tabbies descend. And we hear more and more of “crazy cat guys” too. But there’s not much talk of crazy dog ladies or crazy dog guys. It’s not associated as a red flag on a first date – or so we think. But I have learned the hard way – too much dog talk can send a date running for the door. So it’s time for all us cat-maniacs and dogophiles to admit we’re not as different as we thought, and that, when it comes to dating, we all need the same specific tools for survival.
A) They say they don’t like those animals around, so you have to accept that, however charming, beautiful, and smokin’ hot they are, this isn’t going to work as a romance.
Or B) If they effusively erupt with “Oh I love them! I have three already!” then fall on your knees and propose right then – you’ve found the perfect mate and, as the old theme song sang, “This group must somehow form a family.” And accept that now you’ll have to start dealing with all the potential flaws this heaven-sent mate has so far hidden – far more successfully than you have yours!
One added note: While I was writing this article, I met a couple. The wife had grown up with big dogs, and the husband had always had a few cats. They fell in love and married, without once discussing pets. Once the conversation began, she didn’t want cats, and their small condo couldn’t handle a big dog even if he wanted one. So they compromised.
Today they have six Chihuahua mixes, the joys of their lives. Down from the nine they used to have.
So, in dating, first look for someone who can love, and whom you can love. Love will likely work out the rest – in ways neither of you could have foreseen.
As all cats and dogs know perfectly.
Another Valentine’s Day is upon us – a day when it often appears that everyone else in the world has a perfectly happy committed relationship based in deep, abiding, and playful love.
In other words, a day when most of us writhe in disappointment.
It’s not that we’re saying we’re not loved at all, or that we don’t love, or that we’ve never tasted love. The frustration I hear most (in my office, in the media, and from friends) is that, “No one loves me the way I need to be loved.” And sure enough, as spring blooms, scads of those happy couples around us will break up, and even divorce, for just this reason – at least one member didn’t feel adequately adored.
As an interesting experiment, if someone in your life is saying this, ask them if they’ve ever felt loved in the right way. Even by an animal.
“Oh!,” you’re bound to hear, “Well sure, my dog loves me unconditionally! But no person can do that.”
Really? Ask a four-year-old how they feel about their mother. You won’t hear a lot of conditions. Or, more relevantly, ask a parent how they feel about their teething six-month-old at 3:15 a.m. after the brat screams bloody murder in their face for two straight hours, completely ignoring their soft urging to “shhhhhhh.” Do they think about trading this life for their pre-baby freedom and scream-less sleeps? Absolutely.
Would they actually make that trade and give up their bundle of joy? I’m sure any new parent would say, “No way!”
Why not? Because their love is unconditional.
Everyone reading this has experienced unconditional love from humans in one way or another. And most of us have felt and given that love too – to babies, to children, even to whiny demanding teens.
So why are we so damnably bad at giving it to each other?
From what I’ve seen in my practice, it’s because of a lethal mixture of two curses: Scoreboards and Entitlements.
From the time we turned about five years old, we started caring enormously about whether any peer relationship we’re in is “fair.” This extends from how long you’re allowed the handball on the playground, to deep hurt about grades on seventh-grade homework, to an enormously complex Scoreboard in romantic relationships, where, “Did he respond to my text within three minutes?” equates to “Did she clean up after her dinner last night?” equates to “Am I the only one who wants to become a parent?” equates to “Does this person love me?” And all equate to the timeless query, “Will you still love me tomorrow?” (Note, I emphasize that this only applies to peer relationships. When that infant is screaming in our arms, we accept that our relationship with said baby will be a one-sided deal for at least a while – or that a cheerful smile or hug is payment enough.)
This Scoreboard mindset would be bad enough, but then throw in Entitlement, and things get far worse.
Imagine a couple, with a woman who always returns texts immediately but is a bit messy at home, and a man who’s a neatnik in the house, but sees no reason to respond to a question until he has some convenient time for it.
Now, she doesn’t see her promptness as anything special, while he feels the same way about dishwashing. Therefore, both feel egregiously insulted when the other doesn’t naturally do the same as they would. They consider their behavior “normal,” and believe that anyone in any relationship should be entitled to their partner behaving this way.
These two concepts – the Scoreboard and the Entitlement – added together, create a mindset that could never allow unconditional love, because each partner is constantly fighting to be treated fairly, by someone who puts a different value on every action either takes.
The best that can happen in this situation is compromise. This occurs when each partner communicates well enough to come to an agreement, such as that a clean kitchen “equals” swift texting response time. And this certainly makes for a calmer home. But in a compromise, neither participant feels that they’re being loved unconditionally. Peace, but no rapture.
If only each could learn to love so unconditionally that both believed it all the time, imagine how happy and secure the relationship would feel.
Is that possible? Of course it is. We just need to consult with an expert on unconditional love. Someone who understands it so deeply that they can’t imagine living any other way.
In other words, let’s look at what we can learn from a dog.
1. Never take anything your partner does for granted (within the relationship)
When you feed a dog, it’s thrilled. When you pull out a leash, your pup will dance to put Gene Kelly to shame. When you come home after a long day away, your dog will celebrate the Second Coming.
Yet we hardly ever give our partner the same honor. If your lover brings you flowers, or a case of the flu, do you regard it as a gift, just because it’s from them? When they make mistakes, do you thank them for having tried? Do you thank them for going to work and making a living? Do you thank them for grocery shopping, for taking care of the kids, for just being yours? Do you thank them for eating well, taking vitamins, buttoning up their overcoat, because they’re then taking care of the thing you value most?
Love is an active word. Dogs do “love” all the time, while we do a lot more analysis, scoring, judgment, resentment, and taking-for-granted. Whichever anyone does, the more they’re likely to find themselves getting the same in return.
2. Know that when your partner acts in a way that makes no sense to you, it makes sense to them.
The core of “unconditional” is in not judging. We don’t look at a dog chasing its tail as doing something wrong, and a dog doesn’t look at us spending hours staring at a glowing box as stupid.
If Jane loves to shop while Jim loves baseball statistics…so WHAT! Why complain? Enjoy their quirks, habits, obsessions for what they are! Or, as the old Sinatra tune crooned, “I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain…why try to change me now?”
3. Always try to give more than your partner can ever return, and let them do the same.
The Golden Rule says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Any mutt would hear it and scoff, “Amateurs! That rule still has a scoreboard!” How about treating others better than you would ever treat yourself?
A dog devotes herself to protecting her family, giving constant love, entertaining them, and yet offering them full and consistent obedience. How about using that as a role model, instead of the latest Cosmo questionnaire.
Now the Golden Rule does imply that the ideal is to do this to all sorts of others, not just the significant variety. But when it comes to your nearest and dearest, the Golden Retriever Rule begins where the just-Golden one ends.
4. Forget your shame!
The greatest advantage dogs have over humans is their lack of shame. Their smaller brains lack self-consciousness, so Fido will never judge himself the way you will.
Think of how it felt when your teenage crush rejected you. I’m sure it felt like you’d been pushed off a cliff and, as you fell, you relived every awful feeling you’d ever had about yourself. The closest a dog gets to that is, “Maybe I can’t trust them anymore.” They don’t absorb a single belief about themselves! Their brains just can’t go there.
So how does that affect their ability to unconditionally love? It enables it by making loving so much easier!
If you’re beloved says they’re too busy to talk to you right now, see that as their issue; maybe they’re working too hard, or are too stressed. And maybe you can do something to help them through that. If you curl up on your partner’s lap and they push you off, just know that they can’t deal with you right now and try again later. Maybe they’re in a terrible mood, maybe they’re ill, maybe they’re in pain. Whatever it is, your making it about you will only make things worse!
Feel free to be annoyed at your beloved’s behavior (any mutt would), but always fight against any voices inside you telling you why they did it, especially if that voice says it’s because of something wrong with you.
5. Last but not least, always remember, even a dog will run away from a human who abuses it too much.
Unconditional love means that you love fully and with an open heart. When someone takes advantage of that, or simply treats you too horribly, you don’t need to stay. Even if you still love them unconditionally. Love doesn’t equal taking abuse. And you need to treat yourself with unconditional love (as dogs do) before you can truly give it to someone else.
Love isn’t easy. At least not for us homo sapiens. Our self-conscious, oversized brains make it an endless trial. But if you just follow these suggestions, you can gather a bit of “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn,” as promised in the old song: “Just to love, and be loved in return.”
And, if you need further Valentines coaching, your local animal shelter should have some great professors. They’re just begging to help you all they can.
How would you like you like to spend 2016 as contented, as centered, as… your dog?
As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time dealing with people and our big-brained problems. On most issues, like how to create a telephone that uses 3D touch to show birds catapulting into pigs, we are just brilliant. But we leave a lot to be desired in such areas as how to deal with each other, and how to live… Those “human” quandaries.
So a few years back, I started watching my dog, Shirelle, to see how she avoids all these problems. And I’ve tried to pass on what I’ve learned.
Now, many people have this idea, that you should only improve your lives once a year, when the calendar changes. A dog would say that’s crazy. If Shirelle found an imperfection in her squirrel-chasing technique in March, she wouldn’t wait ten months to adjust it – but oh well, that’s what makes us human.
So I have here some New Years Resolutions, for us sapiens. Not to improve you so much, as to just make you happier – which, of course, is what dogs crave to their cores.
Wise people will tell you to “live in the moment.” Pooches do that all the time; that’s why no dog ever needed a yoga class. But let’s face it – our jumbo-tron brains are too powerful not to constantly refocus on tomorrow, next summer, and yesterday.
However, we can pause that time-traveling, for moments. Try checking in right now. Treat this second as the only point that exists. What do you have, what do you need (right now, not for dinner or your retirement), what feels good, what hurts? And once you’re done, go back to your regular mind.
Try this a few times a day. And if you already do it, add a few more. And just see how it resets you.
Even the least selfish person often has trouble relating to others. How many of us sing about brotherhood, but the second we click onto our beloved Social Media, rant that anyone who disagrees with us about a tax rate is uglier than a naked mole rat?
So when you’re positive someone else’s point of view is evil and insane, try to admit, instead, that we all have similar brains and figure out what led them there. Once you do, you can still disagree with them, but you’ll have lost the unhealthy prejudice.
After all, dogs mostly find us folks incomprehensible, but they still love us and try to follow our thinking. If you can do this same for others, your humility might make you as lovable as … okay, not quite as lovable as Marley, but closer than you are now.
All animals pollute. But humans are the only ones brilliant enough to create materials that don’t serve the earth at all. So when you throw a plastic bag out, or dump millions of gallons of toxins into an ocean, you can’t just kick some dirt over it and make your mess okay, the way mutts can.
A dog would suggest, and request, that you simply improve. If you’re a lazy slob, and you just start recycling your beer bottles, that will help things a bit. And if you already re-use paper, save your shower water, and drive an electric car charged by the sun… maybe you could also buy more locally-grown food? Every bit helps!
And just to clarify, animals don’t really notice which individual humans or corporations do the polluting. As far as they’re concerned, all us humans left that trash there, and all us humans haven’t cleaned it up.
So please, go a little out of your pathway and pick up that can, or try to help a river not turn to poison. It’ll make you feel good. And the stray pup out on the street would do it too if he could. Just for the feeling.
When you open your front door in the morning, what’s going though your head? Lateness? Upcoming traffic? Some argument you had over breakfast?
You know what goes through a dog’s? The smells! The hit of fresh air with an unexpected temperature! Hundreds of sounds suddenly so clear! And – even though her eyes are nowhere near as powerful as yours – millions of things to see!
Do you take in the sky? Do you count the stalks of grass? Do you check to see if there are any squirrels or ants or bees or lizards or even cats in sight?
And that’s only one moment. Each day has 86,400 seconds in it. Do you spend even one just rolling in what is? Or do you rush to media, to hear some pundit tell you whether the day was worth living or not?
Right now, pick a leaf off an interesting tree, look it over carefully, sniff it, run your fingers over it with your eyes closed, and chew it. Feels like being a kid, doesn’t it? Back when you did such things by instinct – the way a pup does all the time.
Scientists estimate that dogs sleep twelve to fourteen hours a day on average. Which means some snooze a lot more.
I’m not suggesting you go that extreme, but one reason dogs tend to be so healthy and active is that they grab z’s whenever they can. So what if you found a way to go to bed just a half hour earlier tonight? Or to take a nap this afternoon?
Maybe record that TV show, curl up, count sheep… and see what happens to your mood, your skin, your work skills, and even how others treat you.
People say dogs are clowns, for the way they act when they see a leash, or the signs of oncoming dinner. But what’s wrong with that?
Silliness isn’t just a part of life; it’s a core of it, a celebration of it. Now if you are great at telling naughty jokes at dinner parties, that’s fine. But when’s the last time you ran around in a sprinkler on a hot day? Sang so loud you hurt your vocal cords? Or barked in conversation with a dog?
Here’s my definition of silliness: Any action, the doing of which would normally make you blush in embarrassment. So every silly act actually helps you overcome your fear and shame. Every dog lives it, and any good doctor would prescribe it often.
Here’s where canines most excel. When you come home at the end of a long day, do you tell your family how happy you are to see them, and that they even exist? What about at your job – do you find ways to express your feelings about your coworkers?
The most common deathbed regrets humans report are not having spent more time with those they love, and not having let them know it. And that’s dumb, because nothing is easier! Just let it out!
Jump on a friend and kiss the top of their head. Yell across a business networking confab, “I have the best assistant in the world!” And call your mother and tell her you’re grateful.
No one can control what the world does to them, but these tools all help making living whatever hand you’re dealt more enjoyable. And in all my years of watching dogs, if there’s a way to do too much of any of these, I haven’t seen it.
So try them, and good luck. May this be the year your tail learns how to wag.
The word is out. There’s something wrong with Thanksgiving.
As with so many other holidays, we have ruined its original concept with enforced “traditions:” Macy’s parade, turkey stuffing and pumpkin pie, televised football (Don’t get me wrong – I like all these – I just don’t know what any have to do with gratitude, or with immigrants thanking locals for helping them survive).
And now, appallingly, we’re making it worse, with Black Friday’s ever-creeping shadow. Will we soon raise children to believe that once a year we gather together to give thanks for discount sales?
The secret to re-legitimizing the day isn’t the food, or even family. It’s the name. Can we return to actually giving thanks?
To find a way, I turn to the greatest teachers on gratitude I’ve ever known – dogs. Never unselfish, but habitually giving credit whenever they see it due.
So, from their pure integrity, here are some canine keys to a true Thanksgiving:
A clever pooch knows this is the best place to relax. He can watch
everything going on outside, while poised to jump if any food should drop. And it’s a perfect first stop on the gratitude trail.
What sort of home do you have? Do you rent, own, squat? Does the doorway reveal a Downton Abbey landscape or a parking lot?
Whichever, sit on that threshold and find twenty things you appreciate about your shelter and the astounding world outside it; if you can’t, you’re not looking hard enough.
We laugh at the enthusiasm pups show over the simplest things – their human, a treat or leash. But only because we take those sights for granted. What if you never assumed the one who’d cared for you would come home? What if you harbored doubts about ever tasting another cookie?
Then look at your present relationships. Your parents, your spouse, your friends, even your dog. Take a moment to ask what your life would be like with any of them not there – or not caring about you.
Scary? Then take it further; focus on your love for them. Feel it till your heart could burst. That appreciation, that pain, is what dogs feel for us all the time. When they’re staring up from the floor, unable to intellectualize their feelings as we do.
That’s being alive.
Dogs lack dogma. Their brains aren’t big enough to perceive a rationale for the universe. Dogs are neither theist nor atheist, sectarian nor agnostic.
Instead, they just appreciate. Do any of us honor the sun like a pup who shifts her sleeping to follow the rays? Do we run out after rains to absorb every enhanced scent?
Take a breath, close your eyes, and forget all that you believe about why the world is. And when you free your brain from the “why,” let it all roll over you: The enormity of outer space, the miracle of an ant, the luck of our proximity to the sun, the breathtaking complexity of your own body…
And just try not to feel grateful.
Have we ever been told as often that our world, our leaders, our lives are horrible? News channels screaming, rants on Facebook, forcing us to focus on lousiness. And then all the great people who’ve died, all the pollution, and get a load of what the kids listen to – it’s just garbage!
But if we put aside that all these worst-politicians-ever just lie and cheat, maybe we could remember that most of them, most of the time, are trying to do their best, and often get things right.
And are you happy about anyone who was born this last year? And how many new inventions reduce pollution? And have you noticed that all the music you like is still around, and maybe you’ve actually enjoyed one new song? So then, things are better, right?
Okay, maybe that argument doesn’t hold; but just give a moment to thanking the few things that you can agree have improved.
And if you can’t think of any, then admit that you have less brain than any dumb mutt – who has no trouble saying, “Right now, at this moment, that mushroom gravy I smell from two houses down is the most glorious creation ever!”
True gratitude should glow, not just in feeling thanks, but in expressing it, as dogs do every waking moment.
Now that doesn’t mean jumping onto the white dresses of frightened strangers. Own your social intelligence, like an obedience-school graduate, and treat people as you believe they would wish.
Greet that work colleague with a warm handshake and smile, embrace that chic friend with a peck-almost-on-the-cheek, that child with a warm hug, and your significant other with the passion you’ve stifled since Labor Day.
And who knows? Maybe these actions will give you more to be thankful for next year.
Now these canine behaviors create their own rewards, but there’s a higher goal here, too. And again, I learned it from a dog.
My pooch had a fatal cancer, and was supposed to have died already; I lived in fear every time I left her for even a few hours. So this Thanksgiving, I gently took her with me to the home of some neighbors, for their family celebration.
This couple had lost their own dog a couple of years before, and had embraced mine with an openness like grandparents. And she adored them, always lunged toward their door on our walks. I’d wondered why.
After chatting with some of their relatives, I realized the dog was missing. I checked room after room, until finally looking across at the open doorway to the kitchen.
There stood “Grandpa,” carving the turkey, with my big mutt sitting oh-so-politely at attention next to him. And he carved slowly, methodically, putting one slice onto a platter for the family, handing the next slice to her, the next slice to the family, the next slice to her… Spoiling the being I loved most just rotten.
Months of emotion welled up in my eyes – it was too goofy, too beautiful. He was thankful for her and she was thankful for him and I was thankful for both and for their gratitude to each other…
That should be our goal for the day. For thanks to go all the way around –everyone beholden to everyone – and the emotion overwhelming with its simplicity.
To where you realize that this is really the way the whole world should be –
all of life should be.
And maybe, perhaps, a moment like that can keep you from despising the entire human race through the pushy, demanding, forced-cheer insanity the next month promises to dump upon us all.
Douglas Green is a psychotherapist and writer. His book The Teachings of Shirelle: Life Lessons from a Divine Knucklehead, will be released in November.
I don’t think anyone who glanced at the newspaper comics on New Year’s Eve, 1995, will ever forget that day’s Calvin and Hobbes. The last strip that amazing strip would ever post. The boy and the tiger trek through deep fresh snow, thrilled at the new, open world greeting them: “A day full of possibilities!” Then sailing on their sled into a giant frame of whiteness, exclaiming, “Let’s go exploring!”
We know those moments. The instances that inspire us to journey into an unknown. In fact, the only quality about them that is known is that we’ll end up learning a lot on the way. Moments like stepping into a new school, or falling in love, or seeing a car head into yours in flashing slow-motion. Or buying a new puppy, for that matter.
I lived one of those moments a few years back. I was glancing at a bestseller list, and a thought came to me. That over the years, certain sorts of books have always appeared on the (nonfiction) lists: new insights about someone famous by a noted scholar; in-depth studies of current events; autobiographies by important politicians. But fads also appear, and leave. And in this past decade, three specific genres had done extremely well – better than at any time in the past.
First was what, for lack of a better word, I’d call Guru Books. Ancient timeless wisdom, rewritten into an easily-digestible format for the mass audience. Such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, and the works of Eckhart Tolle.
Second would be books about what one knows at the end of life. Mithc Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie and Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, for example.
And third were animal books. Of course these stories have always been popular, through Lassie Come Home and The Call of the Wild, back to Aesop. But this recent trend was more specific. John Grogan’s Marley and Me was the giant, but it seemed every new list sported some other book about a dog or cat.
Duly noted. And I shrugged and went on with my day.
But that thought kept coming back to me. And at some point, another joined it. “Isn’t it, then, ironic that the greatest teacher of timeless wisdom I ever knew, especially with issues about the end of life, was a dog?”
And this thought also kept returning. And nagged at me until my eyes opened in realization: “Uh oh. I think there’s something I have to do.”
As with so many journeys into the unknown, if I had known back then how much effort this excursion would take, I would have balked at it. But that’s the beauty of not knowing.
The many months it took to create the first draft; years of struggles – to rewrite the book into something worthwhile, to create an audience to interest a publisher, to move past that into the new and terrifying world of self-publishing, and to dive off a cliff into the pitch-blackness of publicity… all lay ahead.
A couple of months ago, I told someone a tiny bit of this and she responded, “Such a labor of love.” And it hit me how perfect those words were.
First, that this has involved so much more labor, and so much more love, than I’d ever imagined.
And second that there’s that other meaning of the word “labor.” At least the way we hope it goes: We “make love” and that leads to “labor,” which leads to encountering something we love altogether newly.
Years ago, a bratty puppy cussed at me with her first bark. My heart melted, and everything in my world changed forever. Up to and including now.
Thanks for joining me here today. I couldn’t be happier to have your company.
Let’s go exploring!