Lessons from Salem

For just about every year that I’ve been here on this earth, a dog has been in my life (thank God). And from all of those dogs, I’ve learned something.

First there was George, the fox terrier, who taught me the importance of boundaries and that even the grouchiest of souls are capable of love.

Then came Gracie, the black lab/hound, who taught me that appearances can be deceiving and that the key to a long life is having something worth living for.

Somewhere in the Gracie years came Abby, the dalmatian, who taught me patience, responsibility and the importance of being present when it’s needed most.

Then the terrible twosome, Chance and Lillie, who are still teaching me about Voice (fun fact: Chance sings on the other side of the shower door if you start into anything from The Sound of Music).

And Bella, the spaniel, who teaches me time and again that sometimes, to be happy, you have to (no, GET to), break some rules. Case in point: jumping on/over/into the couch when being asked about going for a W-A-L-K.

But most recently, Salem. Salem came to live with us about a month ago, and at eight (nine?) months old, it’s quite clear that she has life all figured out. If only I were as lucky. But since I’m not, I’ll just have to brag on her for the next few examples.

Here you go, mutt, an ode to your infinite wisdom:

1. Be clear about your needs. Everything from “I’m hungry” to “Please, cuddles?” and “I’d like to have some me time” – she’s got them all down, and she’s not afraid to vocalize what it is she’s after. We like to think Salem’s helping us out. She probably thinks she runs us.

Either way, life is easier. How else are we supposed to prioritize her “Breakfast? Now? Yes? There is food in the kitchen, yes? And my bowl is also still in the kitchen, yes? And you will fill it, yes?” against my just as strong, but much less human “NEED. COFFEE.” at exactly 7:00am?

2. Listening matters. When she’s not telling us about the neighbors making too much noise (she bays – there’s got to be some beagle in her) or about something she needs, Salem is a patient and attentive listener. If you sit to tell her about your day, chances are she will tilt her head in the moments between your phrases – and if you pause too long, her paw will nudge you to continue. Then, when you’ve finished whatever it is she’s listening to, she waits for your next story or direction, and all is right in the world.

Unless, of course, there is food somewhere else. If there is food, you can bet that your story is no longer important. But even when that happens, the validation you would otherwise feel is inevitably replaced by your laughter, so what’s there to lose (except maybe whatever meat you have defrosting on the counter)?

3. Naps fix a lot of things. Feeling grumpy? Take a nap. Feeling bored? Take a nap. Ate your favorite chew toy and now you don’t have that fun squeaky noise to make? You got it.

Naps fix a lot of things. And, more often than not, your problems don’t seem so bad when you wake up. Ok, so this is actually a lesson about putting some distance between yourself and frustration – but regardless, Salem and I both like naps. She just looks cuter when she does it.

4. Get out there and live. Salem spends most of her day in a few hundred square feet. And she handles it really, really well (most of the time). Because she is a saint. And because she is low-maintenance. But mostly because she has her bone. That’s not the point though.

The very minute we make it out the front door, Salem’s first priority is to find something or someone to investigate. Our neighborhood is small and relatively unchanging as far as NYC goes, but I swear she finds something new about it Every. Single. Day.

Aside from other lessons in “not everyone in New York wants to be social, dog” (that’s an entirely separate post), Salem would meet every neighbor – and every neighbor’s dog, cat, kid, bird, whatever – if we let her. She’s just that interested, genuinely. Her unmitigated joy in living is something I really admire. And it’s something I’ve been working on rediscovering for the last six months, myself – um, hello blog tag line? Pfft, to think we only became roommates a month ago. This girl’s got my back. She knows what I’m working towards – and whether or not she’s really listening when I tell her about my goals, I feel like she just gets it.

Thanks, Salem, for helping me become a better version of myself.

You might wake me up before I’m ready,

keep me out longer than I’d like,

make more noise than our neighbors were ready for,

and use crowded elevators as an excuse to bump into strangers for attention … accidentally, on purpose …

but this year, you’re also the best thing I never knew I needed.

and I love you, mutt –

at least until you eat another one of my magazines.

Ryan Vale McGonigle

Comments on the Featured ImageThis photo captures what Salem does best – waiting for attention between her two favorite places. For those of you keeping track at home, we’re talking about the kitchen, because that’s where the food is, and the front door, because that’s where the people who feed her come from. 

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