Coming Soon: Sea Turtle Adventures

It stayed brutally hot, like 90-degree and 70-percent humidity hot, until mid-October. Three weeks later we woke to snow on the ground and a thermometer reading 13. I write about animals on this blog because everybody needs a focus. But based on current weather patterns, I’d say we should all be concerned, or at least aware of the environment.

Speaking of the environment and animals, I’m excited to announce that I will be traveling to Puntarenas, Costa Rica with sea turtle advocate Honora Gabriel. In December, we’ll spend a few days on the Osa Peninsula volunteering for a sea turtle conservation group.

After interviewing Nora last year, I became so concerned about the sea turtle’s predicament that I decided I wanted to see what’s going on, and Honora agreed to show me. As a refresher, turtles need our help because six out of the seven species are endangered, and we are the primary reason for their withering numbers. Think trash, fishing nets, and pollution. Multiple sources claim only one in 1000 sea turtles live to maturity.

If the Internet allows it, I’ll be doing daily updates on Instagram from the OSA Peninsula starting Dec 7th. If you don’t follow us on Instagram , then why not start now? Just click here.

The Food Thief: A Heist by a Food-Driven Dog

Last spring I caught Floyd in the basement a few times, tongue hanging out, tail wagging. Our basement is unfinished, exposed pipe, concrete floor, and cinderblock walls. It’s not a cozy space, and the dogs rarely hang out in it. So, when I saw him downstairs and so happy about it, I noted it. I remember noting it the second and third time I found him down there too. After a brief investigation, I found nothing suspect and finally guessed Floyd had found some remains our cat had left behind. Floyd has always been extremely food-driven, and he’ll eat anything, so I didn’t put any more thought into it.

We think Floyd is a chow-Lab mix. He’s ten, wears three layers of copper-colored fur, and a spotted tongue. Floyd is the most laid-back dog in our pack. Nothing fazes him, but then again nothing really excites him either. He likes to walk, but he doesn’t love it like Adriana, who races to the door when she hears her leash jingle. He likes car rides, but not as much as Meadow, who acts as if having her head out the window is the equivalent of a ride on Space Mountain. But, there is one thing that gets Floyd riled up and that’s food.

I’ve fostered food-driven dogs before, but Floyd takes it to another universe. We feed the dogs twice a day, morning and late afternoon, and he devours his food so fast there’s no denying his obsession. I timed him once. It takes him 8 seconds to finish ¾ cup of dry dog food, two vitamins, and a dropper of CBD oil. Over the years, we’ve tried everything from training bowls to hiding his food under giant rocks, but nothing slows him down.

And I get it. When we found him, he was living on the street and not doing it very well. He was mangy and emaciated, nothing but rib bones and patchy fur. Ten years later, he still acts like every bowl is his last. Because of his passion for food, we have to monitor his weight, closely. He normally weighs between 45-47 pounds, and it’s important to keep it within that range because he’s had surgery on both rear knees, and arthritis is a continuing problem.

So, imagine our surprise when we took him for his six-month dental checkup and Dr. Dan told us he had gained eight pounds! I hit me right then and there that I hadn’t weighed Floyd the month before. It had been two months since his last weigh-in, and back then, he had been a healthy and lean 47 lbs. I was horrified. Sure, he had looked a little heavier recently, but he still wore his winter coat, and with his three layers of fur, he always looked thicker. But eight pounds?! Mason and I interrogated each other about how many treats we give him daily, then we racked our brains about some other possible food source. But, we couldn’t come up with a single reason for his weight gain. How had it happened?

We found out the reason later that night, when Mason went to the basement to fill up the food bin. For years, we kept the sealed bags stacked on the concrete floor without any problems. We piled them next to a huge Tupperware bin, where we mix up two kinds of food. Mace noticed one bag was extraordinary light, like only half-full light. Guessing I’d already mixed half of it, he checked the top, but it was sealed. He scrutinized the bottom, but it was completely intact. He thought maybe Amazon sent us a defective bag.

Finally, after several more minutes of close examination, he noticed a nickel-sized puncture at the back. The hole blended in with all the dietary information, but it was there and big enough to squeeze out a few pellets at a time.

Mason called me to the basement and showed me the hole.  Around the edges, the puncture had grown a little wider, and the plastic coating had worn away, revealing duller copy. It was the only physical evidence of any heist. That’s when it all came together. Floyd had put on eight pounds in two months because he’d been slowly but consistently stealing pellets from a thirty-pound bag of dog food. He had gotten away with half of it too. That’s why I had found him hanging out in the basement last spring, looking all happy and satisfied.

I don’t know what surprised me the most, his craftiness or his restraint. How did a dog who devours his food bowl in seconds have the restraint to steal pellets so slowly? If he would have ripped the bag open, we would have noticed, but stealing a few pellets at a time never caught our attention. Even after ten years of living with Floyd, he still manages to earn my respect.

Needless to say for the last couple of months, Floyd’s been on a rigid weight-loss routine. Although he’s been happy about the extended walks, he’s been downright grumpy about his diet. So, we are all thrilled to announce that last week at his bi-annual checkup, he weighed a healthy 47 pounds.

 

Farnival Update: Our Nontraditional Family

People often send emails asking about our current pack, so I’ve decided to reintroduce all of them except for Boo, our black cat. I’ll save Boo’s story for another day cause it will take a few pages. For now, let’s just say that at fifteen he still regularly murders innocent wildlife. In other words, he’s perfectly content. So, without further ado, here are the members of our nontraditional family.

Floyd

We found Floyd on a country road with his sister Sara in late October 2009. Our vet guessed they were around six months old. I have no idea what kind of dog Floyd is but I’d bet a chow-Lab mix. He has a spotted tongue, and his copper fur is as thick as carpet. Lately, we’ve been calling him “Old Man Floyd” because he has arthritis in both rear knees, and he’s graying around his eyes. He is, by far, the most laid-back dog in our pack. Nothing fazes him, not other dogs, people, cats, or even squirrels. But he does drop his nonchalant attitude for one thing and one thing only, and that’s food.

Floyd is a certified foodie. He’ll eat anything, even stuff some of our other dogs deny, like strawberries, broccoli, green peppers, raw potatoes, green beans, squash, and spinach. On the greenway, young mothers always love Floyd because he casually saunters to their stroller and gently nudges their baby’s pudgy hands. I don’t have the heart to tell them there’s no special connection. He’s only hoping for a stray cheerio or some mashed banana. Over the years, a lot of people have mistaken Floyd’s chill manner for a certain lack of intelligence. But when it comes to food, he proves time and time again that he’s the smartest gangster in the room.

Sara

Sara is the quiet one, the loner. In the beginning, we thought her aloof nature meant she didn’t really care for people, didn’t really care for us. I used to be surprised and sad when I’d switch on the lights in the bedroom and find her sitting alone in the dark, but now I don’t think twice because I learned that Sara just needs her personal time.

We found her ten years ago living on the roadside with her brother, and neither of them were doing it very well. But Sara had the worst of it. She suffered from starvation, mange, several infected wounds, a broken pelvis and tail. I don’t know what happened to her out there, but a decade later she still has nightmares.

Sara’s fur is so black and full that she earned the nickname Bear. She is an A student, a rule follower, a serious scholar. She always listens to commands, obeys household procedures, and walks perfectly on my right side with a slack leash clearly shaped in a J. Even when she swims, she does it seriously, like an athlete instead of for fun. We saw Sara let loose once at a leash-free beach on St. George Island in Florida, where she splashed in the waves and chased seagulls so far down the coastline that she disappeared into the horizon.

Meadow

We can’t pinpoint Meadow’s age but we guess she’s seven. When her first family received their eviction notice, they loaded up everything they could fit into their pick-up truck and split. Unfortunately, they left behind everything they couldn’t carry, and that included Meadow. It still baffles us how anyone could have abandoned her because she’s an exquisite beast, inside and out. A blend of a Great Pyrenees and a German shepherd, she wears the fur of the former and the snout of the latter.

Her biggest problem is her anxiety. Meadow gets anxious if she’s not with other animals. In the beginning, we couldn’t leave her alone in the house without finding a roll of toilet paper or paper towels shredded into confetti when we returned. But after five years of stability, she’s improved. Now, we occasionally find a  tissue torn into maybe three pieces, but it happens less and less.

Meadow understands us so well that sometimes I think she knows English. She wears a leash because of county laws and our respect to other dog owners, but she doesn’t need one. Once, we were hiking in the woods behind our house, and a deer broke through the forest less than thirty yards away. Meadow’s eyes widened. She brandished her tail and reared back, as though she was about to hurtle herself after the wild animal. I called her name in a curt tone, the one that meant business. Her reaction was immediate. She obeyed, yet her drooped tail and tucked ears clearly signaled her disappointment, which lasted less than two seconds. Moments later she was happily following me in the opposite direction.

 

Adriana La Cerva

Adriana was born under a bramble patch in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Springfield, Tennessee. When she was two weeks old, I pulled her out of that bramble patch, and she’s been a part of our family ever since. Ade is five, the youngest in our pack. Her fur is blond and wiry and sheds faster than I can sweep it. She definitely has  some Labrador in her genes. but I’m pretty sure she has some breed of hunting dog in her too. She’s smallish, only thirty-five pounds, with floppy ears and a nose that never stops working.

Ade doesn’t only like to walk, but she needs it. On average, we walk thirty miles a week. Together, we’ve walked on greenways and parks all over Tennessee. We’ve hiked on the Oregon Coast, through the California Redwoods, and on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We’ve walked along the Mississippi, Cumberland, French Broad, and Ohio Rivers. And we’ve explored every inch of Nashville, including Vanderbilt University, Sylvan Park, Belle Meade, Centennial Park, Music Row, Germantown, Broadway, the Farmer’s Market, Printer’s Alley, and the Bicentennial Mall. But, no matter how many miles we walk and how much she experiences, Ade still acts excessively timid and shy when anyone invades her personal space.

Several times daily she moves past people and other animals without any reaction at all. But, the moment a dog or stranger shows any interest in her, she barks, and it sounds really mean. A dog behaviorist once told me that I took her away from her mother too early. And although I have no problem with her theory, I also know that back then I didn’t have a choice. If I would have left her in that weed patch, she might never have made it to maturity.

Like people, all of my freaks have issues. They have baggage. Yet, this doesn’t make me love them any less. If anything it proves how much dogs feel, know, and understand. It proves the complexity of their personalities.

Have you ever heard the cliché, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure?” There is some truth in any time-tested cliché, and for me, there’s a lot in this one. All of our dogs were either abandoned or born stray, which means they were worthless to the majority of humans who knew them. But, for us, life without them is unthinkable. They aren’t only valued family members, but they are needed family members.

When We Broke the Law to Save a Dog

Mason and I started rescuing dogs almost twenty years ago this winter. Over those two decades, we’ve rescued and rehomed fifty dogs. But even after all those mutts, the day we saved our first dog, a Doberman called Puff, remains in my mind as clearly as this morning for two reasons. For one thing, it revealed my life’s work. And secondly, we broke the law.

I met Puff only a few months after Mason and I had moved in together. We were renting an apartment in Nashville, right off West End Avenue. One drizzly winter day, our buddy Larry Penning* called. Larry had recently moved to Tennessee from Kentucky. He was temporarily living with Brian Rose, a childhood friend, until he found his own place.

Brian Rose was wealthy, really wealthy and had plenty of space. Back then, Brian was a racecar driver and traveled from track to track in a motor coach bigger than our apartment.

“Brian’s dog looks bad,” Larry said. “I think there’s something wrong with her.”

“What can we do?” I asked. At that time, Mason and I had two dogs in our own pack and often watched our friends’ canines. On any afternoon, anywhere from three to nine dogs could be found wrestling in our living room. Even back then, my affinity wasn’t a secret.

“The key is under a gnome on the front porch,” Larry said. “The dog is in the backyard, so could you take a look?”

***

Brian Rose lived in Smyrna, a suburb twenty minutes south of our apartment, in a mansion that sat in a row of identical-looking mansions. I tipped the gnome, red hat and blue vest, found the key, and unlocked the front door.

On the ride, I had tried conjuring a sick dog, the kind who forced Larry to ask for a favor. He wasn’t a close friend, so his call surprised me, but it also meant that animal must have been in trouble. In retrospect, no imagery could have prepared me for my first encounter with an abused animal. Sure, I watched the same newscasts and horror flicks as everybody else, but seeing cruelty in real-life is so much different. Above all, there’s no separation, no screen, no off button, no chance for disbelief whatsoever.

The temperature teetered at freezing. A heavy mist fell from the slate sky. The moment after I saw Puff, I closed my eyes, tilted my face, and focused on the rain coating my cheeks. I inhaled so intently I smelled the hydrogen atoms in the thick wet air. It was as if I was trying to stretch out each second, as if I was trying to find the off button that didn’t exist, not in Brian’s backyard.

But, I couldn’t look away any longer. The Doberman, maybe six months old, hunkered in the corner of a twelve-foot privacy fence. The fence hid her emaciated body from any neighbor’s view. If she could talk, she could have called for help, but without words and behind that fence, she was invisible.

I knew she was a dog, yet she didn’t look like one. She looked more like a dragon, and I named her Puff, after a character in Puff the Magic Dragon, a childhood picture book. Her coloring was gray, like the mist falling around her. The rain painted her coat in the same metallic sheen as a dragon’s. Her ribs, spine, and hipbones jutted through her skin like dragon-size scales, each bone so vivid they could be counted. Her ears were geometrically opposed, one stood straight up, the other pointed straight out. A substance thicker than urine dripped from her vagina.

Either she wasn’t a fighter or he’d beat the fight out of her because she let us approach without showing an ounce of aggression. As I stood and stared at that pathetic animal, I digested the reality of a starving dog living with a rich man, a man who owned a mansion. The incongruity of it infuriated me.

Mason lifted Puff into his arms, retraced our steps through the house, and out to the car. I locked the front door behind us and replaced the key under the gnome. It was as simple as that. We never discussed taking her or not taking her. We simply reacted. Who would do anything differently?

In retrospect, that’s the moment when my idealism turned into action. I’d been an idealist since childhood and had always lived with a need to help others, but I never knew how to direct my angst. Before Puff, that uncertainty caused a lot of guilt, but after I knew I’d spend the rest of my life giving voice to those who don’t speak our language.

***

We drove straight to the Murphy Road Animal Hospital. Dr. Lewis said some sort of hard blow had permanently damaged the cartilage in Puff’s ear, and she had a urinary-tract infection. She was obviously suffering from starvation. Dr. Lewis, thirtyish and tall with long blond hair, cried when she fed Puff a handful of food, gave her an antibiotic shot, and wrapped a diaper around her backend. She advised feeding Puff small quantities every couple of hours. A week of medicine would cure her infection. Dr. Lewis didn’t charge us for the visit or the medication.

Our next stop was at the Davidson County Animal Control office. Mason carried Puff into Officer Janet Cooper’s* cubicle and sat her on the tile floor. Puff slid to the ground. With her diaper and cloudy, medicated eyes, she looked even more pitiful than she had in Brian’s backyard. She was all the proof we needed.

“He’s rich. And he did this.” My voice trembled with anger. Brian’s wealth exacerbated his crime a thousand percent, and I still feel the same way. I have compassion for people who love dogs but underestimate the high cost of feeding and vetting them. I understand how the love of an animal overcomes fiscal sense, and how fundamentally unfair it is that having a healthy animal is becoming a middle-class privilege. But Brian was different. He had paid for a purebred Doberman, yet he treated her without an ounce of empathy. He had the resources to give Puff a healthy life, but instead he starved her behind a privacy fence. In my eyes, that equals torture.

Officer Cooper touched Puff’s bent ear and sighed. She had short dark hair, stocky build, wore a green uniform with creases ironed down the legs.

“How did you get into his house again?” she asked.

“His roommate told me the key was under the gnome,” I said.

“The owner didn’t give you permission to enter his house?”

I shook my head.

“In the state of Tennessee, dogs are considered property. Basically, the way the law reads you broke into this man’s house without his permission and stole his property,” Officer Cooper said.

“We did something wrong?” Mason sounded incredulous.

“According to the law, you did,” Officer Cooper said.

“There’s nothing we can do to him?” I couldn’t comprehend it. I’d been convinced Brian would spend a night behind bars, have his mug shot published in the paper, at least get a ticket. A clock signaled the changing hour. Officer Cooper’s gold badge glimmered with authority. It all clicked together. Mason and I were criminals for rescuing Puff, and the man who starved and beat her was the victim.

The officer cleared her throat. “Look, you have stolen property in your possession, but as far as I’m concerned this dog is dead. She got out of the fence and got hit by a car. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

The silence that filled her cubicle was weightless.

“This dog is dead. Do you understand?” she repeated.

I was too shocked to comprehend that Officer Cooper was doing us a favor, so I left her cubicle without a thank you or a goodbye. Now, I understand she helped save Puff’s life.

***

I changed in two fundamental ways the day we rescued Puff. One, I discovered a direction for all my idealistic angst. Secondly, I learned that our laws don’t protect our animals, and unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. Even twenty years later, the laws in the United States still fail to reflect our growing awareness of their emotional capacity.

Granted, some statutes have changed. There are now anti-cruelty laws in all 50 states, and some states even recognize domestic animals in custody battles. But in most, dogs are still defined as property, right alongside credit cards and furnishings. Until our laws accept dogs as sentient beings, people like Brian Rose can continue to buy and abuse as many as he can afford.

I hated Brian Rose for a long time after I met Puff, but my feelings have slightly softened. I’m still angry about the disparity between his wealth and Puff’s abuse, but I’ve been able to find some pity for him. Brian Rose wasn’t a happy man. No happy person could have done that to an animal. Last I heard Brian had been indicted on fraud charges.

After all Puff went through in that backyard, we expected her to have emotional issues, but she turned into the sweetest creature. It took her a few weeks to physically heal and put on weight. Once she did, we found her a home with a family who named her Sweet Sara Puff I.

Mason and I saw Puff for the last time right before we moved to Robertson County. She was walking down a sidewalk in Sylvan Park with her family. Her ears were still cockeyed, one standing straight up and the other out, but she wasn’t shivering and starving. Instead, she looked healthy, wearing a Doberman’s silhouette and the goofiest grin, tongue unfurled and all. There was no mistaking her for a dragon any longer because Puff was unmistakably a dog.

 

*Larry Penning and Janet Cooper’s names were changed to protect identities. Dr. Lewis, Murphy Road Animal Hospital, Davidson County Animal Control, and Brian Rose’s names weren’t changed.

The Wonka’s: A Case Study on Dogs and Minimalism

Mason and I walk our four dogs twice a day, which means driving to Springfield once in the am and once in the pm. In the last quarter-mile of our ride, we pass a small pink house that we ignored for years. For one thing, they didn’t have any animals. For another, it’s a beat-down home with a muddy, junk-filled backyard. The only remarkable feature is its color, a dingy pink but pink nonetheless.

In retrospect, I’m sure I didn’t pay attention to the house because without consciously realizing it, I judged it and the family who lived there. And I’m sure my judgment was based on the capitalist conviction that being poor is bad. But, just like so many times before, a dog set me straight. Dogs are the Buddha’s of minimalism because they don’t see external wealth. They only see what’s on the inside.

We first spotted the mutt at the pink house two years ago. He was sleeping on their porch under a sign reading, “Beware of Dog.” Disregarding his blissful pose, he looked like the kind of dog who causes wariness. A beast, he must weigh 90 pounds. His coloring, brown and black, suggests a Rottweiler and Labrador mix. So does his physique because he has the brawn of the former and the snout of the latter.

The sight of that brute napping so peacefully under that sign was so funny we started paying attention to the pink house, so much so that the family even earned a nickname. Two grandfathers, a youngish couple, and three girls, ages 5 to 10-ish, live in a space that can’t be more than 800 square feet. Because of their crowded living circumstances, we couldn’t help but think about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, thus they became the Wonka’s.

Now, we call the dog Mr. Wonka, and “check in” on him every time we ride to town. One of the first things I noticed is that he’s never leashed and doesn’t wear a collar. At any moment, he could run away and leave the pink house, its slumped roof, and grimy walls behind, but he doesn’t. And why would he? Completely unaware of his social status, that damn mutt is undeniably happy. From his swinging tail to his slobbering smile, his body language reads like a neon sign glowing, “Welcome Home.”

After a few months of paying attention, I began to realize the people in that house are as happy as their dog. The Wonka’s are a family-oriented bunch. Every morning, the grandfathers, dad, and all three girls stand outside to wait for the school bus. And Mr. Wonka is right there with them. He escorts the kids to the bus, then meanders back to grandpa, so they can watch the sunrise in Robertson County.

On weekends, the porch is never empty. Mom and dad are usually holding court with the neighbors. The grandpa’s are grilling on the hibachi or drinking beer from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Apparently, the Wonka girls didn’t get the memo that kids don’t play outside anymore. Over the years, they have built forts, rode bikes, raced relay-style, and sloshed through mud puddles, all while dressed in bedazzled pink dresses. Nobody in that family ever looks sad, angry, dejected or any of the subconscious feelings I associate with poverty. Instead, their body language mirrors Mr. Wonka’s, as though everybody is exactly where they want to be.

Last week, I got stopped behind a garbage truck and sat in front of the pink house for a solid three minutes. The girls were standing in a kiddie pool. With clasped hands, they were surrounding Mr. Wonka and giggling. Uncontrollably. When I saw that mutt, I started giggling too. Looking perfectly content, he wore a blue cape and a magician’s hat complete with a tassel on top. He was big enough to plow through those girls and shred his cape within seconds, but he didn’t. Instead, he sat there as though wearing Dumbledore-type attire was completely normal. I circled the block twice so I could see that silly, happy dog again and again.

Overcoming subconscious social prejudices is a constant struggle for me. Minimalism is a lifestyle but it’s also a belief system that strives to strip away consumerism and all its superficial connotations. When I first saw the pink house, I disregarded it because what can be fun about being poor? But, when I stopped seeing the home through the lens of materialism and started seeing it through the eyes of a dog, I realized the Wonka’s have something way more important than material wealth. They have happiness. They have each other.

Now, Mason and I wave when we pass the pink house, and they wave to us, probably wondering, “Who are those crazy people with four dogs hanging out of a Civic?”

One day, I plan on telling them they are my daily inspiration.

Minimalist Lessons from Your Dog

(Adriana, four years ago)

Want to be a minimalist? Or at least learn about minimalist values? My best advice is to use your dog as a mentor.

People define minimalism in many different ways. The most hardcore define it as owning 100 possessions or less. Even under these admirable guidelines, dogs easily qualify, but this isn’t the kind I’m talking about. For my family, minimalism means finding happiness in simplicity. And simplicity is programmed into a dog’s DNA.

Simplify Your Toys

One summer afternoon a few years ago, I watched Adriana La Cerva investigate the front yard. She had still been a puppy, floppy ears, pink paws, nothing but cuteness. At one point, she found a mammoth sunflower I’d thrown near the tree line. The flower’s head was wider than her front half, the stalk longer than her length, nose to tail.

The sunflower was still alive but wilting after a storm had bent its stem. Adriana didn’t care. She acted as though she’d discovered Escobar’s hidden stash. Clutching that flower in her tiny maw, she wrestled and sprinted and leaped and even flipped ass over teakettle a few times. She was downright giddy, and it was all because of a sunflower.

When she exhausted herself, she pranced through the front door, holding her prize high, so the rest of her pack could admire it. And they did. Colorful balls, braided ropes, and stuffed squeaky toys were scattered across our house, but that flower was the only thing our dogs cared about for the rest of the afternoon. At the time I didn’t understand what I was witnessing, but in retrospect I realize it was a lesson from my dog, a lesson about finding happiness in simplicity.

To this day, Ade feels the same way about sticks, nuts, cornhusks, and pinecones. She’ll discard any manmade toy in an instant for a natural one. In the most obvious way possible, dogs embody minimalism because they don’t care (at all) about material possessions. In fact, I bought every dog bed, collar, leash, and toy that my dogs own. The canine industry makes billions of dollars a year because of people like me, not Adriana. If Ade had her choice, life would be filled with sunflowers and sticks. In her world, nature would always come first.

Simplify Your Experiences

Another minimalist value that dogs have mastered is living in the moment. If my dogs listed their favorite activities, it would look something like this: long walks (rain or shine), car rides with windows down (also rain or shine), napping in warm laundry, sunbathing, running in the woods, swimming in the creek, and long wrestling sessions. Full disclosure: I’ve tried all of them, and none disappoint. Plus, they don’t cost much more than a little gas or electricity.

These experiences share another commonality. They all engage multiple senses, meaning they aren’t passive but visceral activities. Dogs are really good at living in individual moments because each one is an sensory explosion. They don’t only see their surroundings, but they listen to it, taste it, touch it, and of course, smell it. Have you ever seen your dog throw back her head, stick her nose in the air, and take a giant sniff? Have you ever imitated her? Well, I have. Sure, sometimes I get a whiff of manure or something dead, but other times it’s the scent of wild honeysuckle, fresh-cut grass, or an impending thunderstorm.

A few days ago Adriana and I were walking through the historic section of Springfield. I was lost in my mind, mulling over work gossip, my current read, my mother’s mental health, giving my dogs a bath, and a phone bill I needed to pay. Suddenly, Adriana halted, and I was jolted right back to Oak Street.

Following the direction of her snout, I saw three baby chickens rooting in someone’s yard. The peeps were too busy to notice a dog and a human, so they didn’t scatter, but kept working while we kept watching. And we watched those fuzzy yellow babies for a solid five minutes. I knew, even then, that without Adriana, I would have passed those three chicks without ever seeing them. Without Adriana, that walk would have dissolved into every other one. Instead, she made it into a memory.

This happens all the time on our walks. While I’m busy muddling through my human thoughts, my dogs are busy living in the moment. Whenever I do pay attention to them, when I emulate them, all sorts of treasures appear. Besides baby chicks, my dogs have pointed out deer, ducks, herons, beavers, snapping turtles, rabbits, frogs, fish, snakes, hawks, river otters (!) and turkeys.

Sometimes, they point out unsavory things too, like dirty diapers or empty fast food bags. Other times, they tell me necessary information, like a runner is approaching or a stray dog is off leash. The bottom line is whenever I imitate my dogs and engage my senses, I discover something beautiful, surprising, or at the very least interesting.

Simplify Your Emotions

I could write twenty pages about what a dog’s capacity to love can teach us, minimalist or not. Across the board, dog people attest to their animal’s unconditional love. And personally, dogs have cured my broken heart more times than I can count. But, what makes their love a minimalist value is its purity.

Dogs teach us how to love without labels. I’ve never met a creature who cared less about social status or categories than a dog. If they could read, they’d scoff at Thorsten Veblen and his theories about conspicuous consumption. Dogs don’t care if we are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, overweight or skinny, outgoing or reserved, Muslim, Christian, or atheist. They don’t care if our skin is black, brown, or white, or if we are gay, straight, male, female, or any sex in between. A dog’s love is socially uncontaminated. Label free. Simple.

They also know how to make forgiveness simple. Last Tuesday I was tired. I spent all of June and most of July traveling for work. I had cramps and only two days at home before I had to catch another flight. Ade wanted to walk. I could tell because every time I moved towards the door, she followed.

It was a glorious summer evening, and normally, we would walk. We would jump into the Honda and head to town for our two-mile evening stroll. But, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and binge watch British crime dramas. At one point, Ade was staring at me so intently that I could clearly hear her thoughts, “I’ve barely seen you for a month. The least you can do is walk me.” And she was right.

But, my exhaustion won out. I turned on my heating pad, spooned out a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and streamed Acorn TV. Ade shot me one recriminating glance before she jumped on the bed and cuddled close. She forgave me within seconds. She always does. And the most remarkable part is that she does it without holding a grudge. When dogs forgive, they also forget.

Of all the lessons my dogs teach me about minimalism, simplifying my emotions is the hardest one I’m still trying to learn. But I have four great teachers, who love me unconditionally, ugly parts and all. All minimalists have different definitions for their lifestyle. But, at its core, minimalism is the belief that happiness can be found in simplicity. And there is no better example than your dog (s).