Two Lessons I Learned from My Labrador

Bo knows tennis balls

Dear Daughters,

As you know, every day since he was just a few months old, I’ve walked our Labrador, Bo. Most days I walk him twice, and we average around three miles together per day, every day, rain or shine.

We’ve walked over all sorts of ice and snow, through ankle deep mud and overflowing streams, into sleet and hail and wind and darkest night. We’ve discovered dead animals, been pursued by angry foxes, terrorized countless squirrels, and met a wide range of other dogs, from pimped out Pomeranians to scruffy strays.

Along the way, I’ve taught Bo some nifty tricks–like how to walk off a leash, fetch a ball, and (most importantly) come back when your best friend calls. Meanwhile, he’s taught me a couple of crucial life lessons.

Lesson #1 – If you assume that people will like you, you’ll usually be right

Bo has never met a stranger, as my grandmother used to say. He assumes that every person he comes across will inevitably want to be his new best friend. Right off the bat, he wags his tail, smiles, and offers to share his slobber-soaked tennis ball.

Because he greets the world so openly, Bo’s assumption that people will want to be friends is usually right. And when it isn’t–when someone responds to him suspiciously or nastily–well, that says something about them, doesn’t it?

Occasionally, it even brings out the deep-throated growl that lurks beneath Bo’s otherwise smiling jowls. Bo knows that being friendly and open to others is perfectly compatible with showing your teeth if you have to.

But he’d tell you that you won’t often have to. Because despite our insecurities and assorted emotional baggage, most people want to make friends every bit as much as Bo does. They just aren’t sure how to start. Bo would point out that it’s often as simple as saying “Hi!”–even if you can’t actually speak.

Lesson #2 – Shared miles build shared understanding

Bo is not the world’s smartest dog. He can’t follow complex instructions or even anticipate what will happen if he walks around a tree while wearing a leash. But he’s learned to read me like a book when we’re in the woods.

If I whistle, he’ll look up. If I point to a spot, he’ll run to it. If I say the word “settle,” he’ll stop where he is and sit. Because sheer repetition of each of those gestures, in hundreds of different contexts over thousands of miles, has explained what I want far more completely than words ever could.

During Bo’s first year, walking him took energy and focus and continual correction from me. But I’ve been mostly enjoying the fruits of that labor since. Now, having covered some six thousand miles together, Bo and I cooperate almost wordlessly. We move as a miniature pack, to put it in terms he might use if he could.

And there’s a lesson here, of course. Time and energy are precious, so you want to spend them carefully–but that doesn’t always mean taking the easiest or the shortest route. A year of walking (and working hard with) a dog may sound like a big investment. But if you’re lucky, it will give you back ten years of comparative ease and enjoyment–not to mention a deep bond with a furry friend who stays by your side no matter how dark or cold or lonely the walk of life otherwise gets.

In sum, our walks are good for both of us. Bo helps me unwind and “unmediate,” even as I help him stretch his legs and follow his nose. But perhaps most importantly, walking Bo has helped me to understand the simple two-step that makes a great friendship:

  1. Start with a smile.
  2. Put in the miles.



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