Lessons My Dog Taught Me: A Golden Legacy

When my wife and I were 44, and our children were 12 and nearly 10 years old, we adopted a golden retriever through Minnesota’s Golden Rescue Organization, www.ragom.org. He was two and a half years old and beautiful in body and spirit when we met him, just outside Minneapolis. We took him into our home and into our hearts. He came with the name Webster, a beautiful name ripe for nicknames; Webby, Webomatic, Sir Webbington, and, when he had to wear the “cone of shame,” Prince Webulac from the Planet WebStar. He had a dog bed that I called his “website.” He liked to surf the counters.

Webster taught me so much.

Webster reminded me to be curious about the world, to never believe that I know what will happen next or what’s inside a bag. It could be a treat, even though it might be a package of batteries. But if you’re curious, you’ll look inside the bag, even if Mom & Dad have told you that you shouldn’t look inside the bag—because it’s on the counter and the counter is not for dogs. But maybe, just maybe, sometimes it’s important to look inside the bag and let curiosity drive you to go to the place that’s just outside of reach.

Webster reminded me to be present. Don’t worry that I might get muddy—let’s go out and play now. Don’t worry that there are dishes to be washed—let’s enjoy the stars on our walk. When we moved from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, the humans among us were worried about our move. Webster wasn’t. He leaped into the back of the van, happy to be with his family. When we got to our new home, he raced out of the van and into the house. Webster was instantly home. Webster was with his family. Wherever we were, as long as we were together, we were home.

Webster reminded me to communicate. He howled with joy and his tail beat the floor like a drum with happiness. Once in fact, he wagged his tail so hard, he wagged it against the corner of two walls and the end split open. He never seemed to mind as we took him to the vet to get his wound taken care of. He was with his people, so everything was fine. He reminded us that joy is meant to be shared—that we all need to communicate with our family and friends to share our joy with them; howling our own songs and beating our own drums.

Webster demonstrated compassion. He sensed when any one of our family of four was upset or sad and presented himself to be pet. “You have hands,” as if to say, “and I have these spots behind my ears that like to be scratched. I have a belly that likes to be rubbed. You should scratch and rub and you’ll feel better.” He’d walk over to one of us and put his head in our lap or, if we were lying down on the couch, right on our chests, demanding that we touch him. And it worked; petting him helped each of us feel better.

Webster always knew he was part of a community. Whenever we went for a walk in the dog park, he would be concerned if any one of our family lagged behind. He’d run back and forth between all of us and the one who had lagged behind, reminding us that we have to stick together. He was a pack animal, we were his pack, and he never let us forget it. Webster experienced community inside and outside of his pack. At the dog park, he played with all the dogs, purebreds and mutts, big and little, male and female. Webster also made sure to connect with every one of their humans, too. Webster brought people together, when I felt shy at the dog park, he was always there ready to make an introduction.

Once my daughter and I took him to the dog park. Webster, of course, was running around and happy. My daughter and I noticed a little girl, probably around 3 years old, walking unattended. I was concerned that a dog, perhaps even Webster, could unintentionally run into her and knock her into the ground. Just at that moment Webster trotted up to her and sat down in front of her. His head was a little bit taller than she was standing. He bowed his head down below her and waited. A few seconds later, she patted him on the head. Her gave her hand a little kiss, carefully got up, and trotted away.

Webster reminded me of the importance of carpe diem, and not just to seize the day, but also to let the day seize me. He taught me again and again that I spend too much time thinking about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or next year and that in doing so, I’m missing an amazing rainbow, or the smell of the grass after a light spring rain, or how great it feels just to run with another dog. In short, there’s no excuse not to make one’s own happiness.

And Webster taught me something else that’s very important. You see, Webster was born a Golden Retriever. But he hated to play fetch. Just wasn’t interested. If I threw a ball, he’d look at me as if to say, “Now why did you do that. Are you going to go get it now? I certainly have no interest in it.” He’d run with other dogs who might be running after a ball, or after a squirrel, but he would never deign to run after an inanimate object. Where’s the fun in that? So one day our family had a meeting. We decided that we would no longer refer to him as a “Golden Retriever.” Webster, we learned, was actually, simply “Golden.” So that lesson was clear—I need to accept that others may not fit so neatly into the boxes we were raised to expect to find them in.

Webster lived a long life for a Golden. He crossed the Rainbow Bridge after 11 fun-filled years, lying in my lap, feeling me scratch that special spot behind his ears, hearing my daughter and me sing his name softly. He loved us, lived surrounded by our love, brought joy to everyone he met (both canine and human), and passed away in a loving embrace. He left behind a legacy of lessons to live by. We should all be so lucky.

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This essay is based on my “Last Lecture,” given at The College of New Jersey in March 2014 at the request of TCNJ students.

You can read more about Webster, see photographs and a few short videoclips of him at his website. You can read an interview with Webster at TCNJ’s Student Newspaper here.

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