Six lessons from woman's best friend.
Earlier this year, my family lost our dog.
Like most family dogs, ours was loyal and he loved playing fetch. In his younger days, he thought he’d figured out how to jump over a hedge in the front yard in pursuit of a tennis ball—really, he was jumping through it, but that didn’t stop him. He aimed to please, especially if there was a snack at stake. He preferred Pop-Tarts to Milkbones and the crunchy noodles from a Chinese takeout order to kibble. He could always be counted on to get sick in the car—no head-out-the-window-with-his-tongue-out bliss for that guy—which meant that his 15 years of life were more or less contained to the acre-or-so of land on which our home is built. He liked it that way, though. He liked being near us more than fetch and Pop-Tarts and crunchy noodles and jumping over the hedge all put together.
This year, we’ll celebrate our first holiday in more than a decade without Jake. While we shared a special bond with our golden retriever year-round, we feel his absence more as we approach a season that’s so special for all of us, a season that used to get his tail wagging a little extra, too. Anyone who’s ever had a family pet will be as quick as I am to ignore the phrase “just a dog.” Jake left a special (smelly, constantly-shedding) mark on our lives. This time of the year, more than any other, I’m also reminded of the things he had to teach us. Here’s what we learned about the holiday season from our dog.
Don’t get jaded about family traditions.
It’s easy to take for granted the process of decorating the tree or to forget just how delicious your grandmother’s cookie recipe is—especially when you’ve been rolling out dough for two hours. Jake, however, never grew tired of our standard holiday celebrations. He was just as happy to spend the day in the kitchen sniffing roast beef one Christmas as he’d been the last, and a stocking full of new rawhide toys never got old from one year to the next.
Calories don’t count. Even if they do, they just make things more delicious.
I know I already mentioned the roast beef, but it’s worth noting again simply because it was more or less the sun around which the rest of Jake’s holiday season rotated. He would also gladly accept edible offerings of other kinds and post-meal crumbs wherever he could get them. Did he worry about whether or not he’d be looking a little plumper than usual come January? Nope. And maybe we shouldn’t, either.
It’s OK not to leave the house.
Due to his aforementioned issue with carsickness, Jake never left our property except for the occasional trip to the vet. He understood that the home and backyard was a full, buzzing world unto itself, an attitude that we can all learn from in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. While it’s tempting to find any excuse to run from one place to the next in preparation for and in celebration of the December festivities, what’s really important often happens right at home. Car travel is often unavoidable during the holiday season, but maybe there are extra trips—to the mall or to an open house at the home of a neighbor you barely know—that can be eliminated in favor of a little more time on your favorite couch cushion with your favorite people.
Allow the season to boost your spirits—not bring you down.
Two years before we ultimately lost him, Jake had a close call on Christmas Eve. He barely ate for two days, and for the first time in his life, he refused to go outside. I cried myself to sleep that night, an adult woman silently bargaining with Santa. “I don’t want any presents,” I thought. “Just let my dog be OK!” On Christmas morning, my sisters and I sat on the floor with Jake, feeding him rice by the grain from our hands in front of the decorated tree. He was reluctant at first, but as he looked around and saw the traditional trappings of our family Christmas, it was as if he got a burst of energy, and he started eating more quickly. By the end of the day, he was outside again, slowly chasing his favorite tennis ball. It’s easy to let the stress of the holidays overwhelm us, but Jake’s example has stuck with me. We should all take a little extra life from this season instead of dreading it.
Make it your mission to be part of every family memory.
For the past few years, we’ve set up the Christmas tree in one of the nicer rooms of our house, a room with the kind of rug that should never see dog paws and that’s therefore equipped with a doggie gate to prevent unwanted four-legged intruders. This didn’t sit well with Jake. He’d spend most of Christmas morning crying outside the gate, begging with his sweet puppy eyes to be allowed into the room with us, to sniff out the discarded wrapping paper and snuggle in our laps. He was relentless in his efforts to be a part of each of our memories. Maybe we should do the same for each other in the years to come.
Be happy to see your family—and don’t be afraid to show them.
Like most golden retrievers, Jake was endlessly excited about every person who walked through the door, but his tail would wag especially fast when he saw a family member arriving. Whether he’d missed that person for one hour or for three months, he was just happy to have them back—and he definitely didn’t worry about whether or not it would make him look sappy to show it. This is a healthy reminder for us humans, who can easily let preexisting family tensions cloud the way we act at holiday reunions. Instead let's show our loved ones some, well, love.