Let Me Give Thanks: For 5 Life Lessons Learned From My Dogs

At Thanksgiving, I reflect on all I've learned from the dogs who've shared my life.


I’ve shared my life with a lot of dogs, probably because they had so many lessons they needed to teach me and I can be so very stubborn that the dogs kept appearing until I learned what each one had in store for me.

As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I can’t help but thank my four-legged teachers for all that they have given me in terms of Life’s Important Lessons.

1. Cricket taught me to check in with the people I love

My first dog, a German ShepherdHound mix named Cricket, followed my school bus and met me as I stepped off the bus nearly every day. He’d do his own thing while I was in school, often visiting me during recess. He had to cross a four-lane highway to come and find me, and he somehow always did so safely. He taught me about love and how to demonstrate it by doing something so remarkable as following a little girl’s bus to school. He also taught me about the “check-in.” I still check in on those whom I love often because Cricket checked in on me so many times.

2. Wylie taught me how to trust the people who care

I did something dumb while I was in college (who hasn’t?): I got a Rottweiler puppy I had no time to train. He bit several people. Okay, fine: He bit everyone I knew. Wylie’s bites were just little nips here and there, but his teeth had a big lesson for me: I was angry at my chaotic and unloving upbringing, so I learned to glare at others to keep them at bay so they wouldn’t be able to hurt me again.

From Wylie I learned that there are indeed some sorry humans who need a bite from me, but like my dog I bristled at all the wrong people. I had to learn to trust the caring sort of human again and so did Wylie. I would become his coach, the first dog I ever coached to trust people. I also learned that I have amazing friends because all of those people he bit are still in my life and call me a friend.

3. Zeke taught me how to be responsible

I’ve lived with many German Shepherds, both mixed and purebreds. I am strongly attracted to this breed for many reasons, but one in particular is because they tend to be on the reserved side when meeting new people. They have a propensity to bond and bond hard with one person. I am the same way. They also have a lot of muscle and big teeth, but they have to learn when and where to use them or to not use them at all. I needed to learn the very same lessons.

One of my Shepherds was an escape artist. We’d only rescued him from the kill shelter just a few weeks before I learned of his propensity to get out of tightly fenced yards. He was dumped at the shelter for killing chickens, something we weren’t told at the time. I came home late from work one evening and he was gone. I heard my neighbor’s gun go off, and then my sweet Zeke yelped. Two shots, two yelps. Zeke was in the goat pen next door with two dead goats, but he didn’t deserve to die for what he did. The sheriff’s deputy neighbor who shot him declined to press charges against me, which I learned he had every legal right to do because the goats had more rights than my dog.

From Zeke I learned to be hyper-responsible for my dog’s welfare. Not one dog after Zeke ever got out of my yard again. I needed to learn faster to not spew so much hate onto my neighbor and to accept the fact that Zeke got out of my yard and that I had ownership of that, even though I didn’t know at the time about his history of digging under fences. I never completely forgave the guy for shooting him (I would have bought him more goats), but I did learn to not hang on to anger, even anger at myself.

4. Duncan taught me that every day is precious

I was so emotionally beaten down after the shooting incident that I bought the first German Shepherd puppy I heard about (a rash decision, I know). He was the last puppy left in the AKC litter, and just as the Rottweiler breeder tried to convince me that Wylie was the pick of his litter, I knew neither dog was. It was okay because I loved them as though they were.

I noticed at the breeder’s home that the sire looked terribly thin. I asked about that and was informed that he “ran all day long on the ranch.” The thinness was related to a much more severe problem, one that veterinarians back then didn’t know much about. We would learn months later that my beloved little puppy had mega-esophagus, meaning that his throat was flimsy and too big. Once we had a diagnosis, the veterinarian said he wouldn’t live past two.

Duncan defied the odds. He lived until he was five. He followed me everywhere, and he was the best dog I’ve known, hands down. He was my soul mate in canine form. He never felt sorry for his condition as far as I could tell. He patiently sat up on the edge of the couch for 20 minutes after each meal as we were instructed to help him move the food down his throat. Duncan was a big, goofy German Shepherd who taught me that every day is precious. He deserved to live a long, happy life, but that’s not what he got. I learned acceptance in his early death, though this is a life lesson I struggle with the most. (I still can cry just hearing the name Duncan.)

5. My current pack brings unique lessons as well

My brother-and-sister Border Collies teach me that with human guidance and kindness, dogs can overcome so very much, even a nearly feral beginning to life.

My “country dog,” Monster, teaches me a lot of patience because he was a mess of a puppy — so messy that perhaps that’s why he was dumped out in the country, where I found him digging in a trash pile.

Monster is a jokester, and he makes us laugh with his antics. He was a trash dog to some fool who has no idea of the joy they missed out on by throwing him away. He is still a chow hound; I think he remembers being a starving puppy. Monster lives in abundance with my husband and me, and we get love abundance and silly antics in return.

My 12-year-old foster failure, Lacy, shows me that it’s important to get up and out for a daily walk, even if your old bones hurt along the way. On some days, Lacy doesn’t want to walk all the way down to our pond, and that’s fine. I trust her to know what she can handle and what she can’t.

I have many life lessons still to learn, but today I am thankful for all that my dogs have taught me so far. I plan on being a slow learner so that I can always have many dogs in my house and so that their teaching can continue. After all, my big-hearted dogs demonstrate how to allow my own heart to grow. With luck, I can even learn to forgive as quickly as my dogs do and to love everybody until I have a valid reason not to.

What lessons have your dog taught you? What are you thankful for in your dogs? Tell us in the comment section below — and Happy Thanksgiving!

Read more about spending Thanksgiving with dogs:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with her everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Phenix generally leaves her six donkeys at home on the ranch . . . but she is thinking about clicker training those little hairy hee-hawers as well.

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