8 Lessons I Learned From My Dog On Living My Best Life

I got my first (and only) dog when I was 11 years old. Our extended family was breeding golden retrievers, so my sister, my dad, and I jumped at the chance to bring one home. We were allowed to visit the puppies just a couple weeks after they were born and pick one out, and we visited a few more times before we were finally allowed to take our new puppy home. After much deliberation and a few arguments between me and my sister, we named our new puppy Haley, and she became the queen of the household.

We got her the cutest puppy accessories: a collar, a leash, a comfy doggie bed, special treats –– you name it, she had it. She quickly became our best friend and the talk of all the kids in the neighborhood.

Fast forward to last month, when she was about a week shy of turning 14 years old, and our old girl Haley passed away.

Owning any kind of pet teaches us many practical things: responsibility, how to take care of another living thing on our own, how to cooperate with another human in order to take care of a living thing, etc.

But there was something special about Haley. It sounds cliche, and I’m sure every dog owner says the same, but it’s true. Being close to Haley taught me all of the practical lessons mentioned above, but she taught me so much more about life than I ever could have imagined. Please allow me to write my own short version of “Marley & Me” below.

Haley taught me simplicity.

When we first brought Haley home, we spoiled the heck out of her. Fancy dog beds, bandanas to tie around her neck, and squeaky toys galore. But did she use the fancy dog beds? No. She preferred the old pillow my dad had lying around from his college days. Did she use all the new squeaky toys? Nope, her two favorites were the tennis ball and the Kong. Did she let us tie the bandanas around her neck? Sure, but they were always shaken off during playtime within five minutes.

Haley didn’t need much to be happy – she just wanted our love and companionship along with some treats every once in a while. We could get her all the new toys in the world and she would still play with the same stuff she’d had since she was a puppy, right up until the end. Eventually, we learned to stop buying her new stuff because, frankly, it was a waste of money. She didn’t need new stuff. She was perfectly content with the basics, as we all should strive to be.

Haley taught me creativity.

So how do people who are content with the basics, like Haley was, stay happy? They get creative with the basics.

One of her favorite toys was the tennis ball. Well, Haley could play more than just your average game of fetch with that ball. Haley could play keepaway; Haley could race the tennis ball; Haley could dribble the tennis ball like a soccer star. But her real claim to the creativity hall of fame is her “nose the tennis ball” game. There’s a video of her playing this game with my ex and it will always be a favorite of mine. There they are, lying on their stomachs on the ground facing each other just a few feet apart, using their noses to push the ball back and forth between the two of them, as if trying to score goals by getting it past the other’s nose. The pure joy and excitement on her face says it all.

And this is just one example. The amount of “games” she invented with the simplest things always shocked me. She was one creative, resourceful pup, and I aim to be the same.

Haley taught me loyalty and companionship.

When I first became a puppy owner, I was young and stupid. I used to accidentally bully my dog. When I discovered she shied away from the vacuum cleaner, I was surprised, so I followed her around with it trying to chase her fear away. Thinking back, that wasn’t very nice of me. But was I forgiven a mere half hour later? Of course I was. Because Haley was the most loyal dog I’d ever met.

She was constantly by my side or at my feet, no matter where in the house I was. When I went to bed every night, she would lay at the top of the stairs, guarding all the bedroom doors. When I opened my door every morning, I would find that she had moved to lay directly in front of it. Sometimes she was leaning so heavily against my door that she would accidentally roll over when I opened it. Taking a shower? She’s made herself comfortable right outside the bathroom. Going to get the mail? Waiting at the front door for me to come back. On a walk? Happily prancing up ahead, but looking back every couple of minutes to make sure I was still there.

No matter what I did, whether I accidentally stepped on her, ignored her for too long, forgot to let her back inside (the things all dog owners do but prefer not to admit) –– all was fixed with a goofy smile and a chin scratch. If only human friendships could be so pure.

Haley taught me enthusiasm.

Haley was always excited about everything. She had fun no matter what. She was always pumped about car rides, even during her last few trips to the vet she would try to jump up into the trunk, which had become impossible for her old joints several years back. Treats, snow, sunshine, walks –– you name it, she was happy about it.

Of course, a favorite of every dog owner is the greeting you get when you come home. I used to accidentally hit Haley with the front door on my way in because she had heard the car pull into the driveway and had gotten too close. And of course, my mistake could always be rectified with a treat and a chin scratch.

Christmas especially was a fun time for Haley. Wrapping paper was always her thing, and we could trust her not to actually eat it. She loved to chase and rip and tear it, and jump at it when we threw it up in the air, but in the end, it was just a plaything and not a snack.

I’ve been told that I’m pretty excitable, but I’m definitely not as excitable as Haley was –– and I work on that every day because she was the happiest pup I knew.

Haley taught me energy.

No matter what, Haley was always ready to party. And by party, I mean play and jump around. A puppy party. People used to laugh at me because I referred to her as a puppy up until the day she died. I did that because she always had the energy of a puppy and she never acted her age.

We could have just gotten back from a 20-minute walk and she would drink some water, go outside, come back in, and lay down. But if I stomped on the floor too hard and she thought I was playing, she was up and at ‘em right away.

She would be jumping, wagging her butt in the air, trying her best to bark (she was never very good at that), and running in circles around me. Half the time I tired out quicker than she did, and I always envied her for that.

Haley taught me perseverance and positivity.

Haley was a lot of things, but she was definitely not a quitter. Shortly after we got her, she started having health problems. For a while it was her ears –– and if we didn’t take care of them properly she could have gone deaf. While she never liked having hear ears cleaned and we had to smoke her out of obscure corners to get this done, once we had her in our clutches she whined a bit, but never tried to get away.

As she grew older and developed arthritis, the stairs became her biggest obstacle. And she hated not being able to follow us upstairs at night. First, we got her some painkillers for the arthritis and that did the trick for a while. Then, her fatty lumps got bigger and the painkillers didn’t work as well anymore. But this was not something to stand between Haley and her human companions at bedtime, oh no.

I would walk up the stairs and turn around to see her watching me from the bottom. I would call her to follow me and she would give a little hop, then walk in a circle around the whole downstairs and end up at the bottom again, staring at me. She did this a few times until finally she had a bit of a running start and gained enough momentum to make it all the way up. She never gave up, no matter how many times she had to walk in circles to gain her momentum.

Eventually she had to have surgery to remove those fatty lumps. Did she give up after the surgery? Nope. She had staples all down her side, and she was still the same happy-go-lucky pup as soon as she was able to move normally again. She didn’t let anything get her down, and I find that to be an incredible quality, especially for an old dog who had every excuse to be lazy at that point.

Haley taught me that it’s okay to be scared.

Put simply: Haley was a coward. We would encounter small dachshunds or chihuahuas during our walks around the neighborhood and she would cower behind my legs. I remember taking her to her first obedience class and the instructor telling us to let the puppies loose so they could socialize in the middle of the circle we created with our chairs. Instead of socializing, Haley crawled underneath one of the chairs and slunk beneath them on her belly around the entire circle by herself.

We had to make sure we shut our bedroom doors if there was a thunderstorm coming so she wouldn’t rip apart our bedding. We had to hug her every summer night at 10 when the local amusement park set off their fireworks.

Taking her to the vet was an even bigger adventure. She was always excited to jump into the car, but as soon as we pulled into the parking lot, her entire body shook and she started to whine. She refused to jump out of the car and when we finally got her out, she would try to walk clear in the opposite direction of the building. Once inside, her body continued to shake violently and she wouldn’t leave our sides without force. We just laughed along and tried to soothe her fear.

The moral of these stories is that it’s okay to be scared and to need the people you trust. We were always there to get her through and to support her, and that made all the difference.

Haley taught me how to genuinely miss someone.

When I was growing up, it seemed that Haley was genuinely afraid to lose us. Of course she was, as we were the ones who took care of her. But it seemed deeper than that. If we were hurt, even if it was just a scrape, she was at our side, that goofy smile of hers replaced with a mature face of concern. If Dad was out late, she stood by the front door and looked at me, as if she was asking where he was. She would eventually return to her favorite spot behind the couch, only to get up a few minutes later and repeat the whole cycle.

Then, it became time for me to go off to college. As Haley got older, it became progressively harder to leave her, and for her to let me leave. I was packing my car up to leave for my senior year of college in North Carolina, an 8-hour drive from home. She followed me closely from my room, down the stairs, outside to the trunk of the car, and back. Every single trip I took up and down, she was right there.

Finally, after finishing packing, I opened the driver’s side door and was saying goodbye to my dad in the driveway before I left. After I had hugged my dad goodbye, I turned to get in the car, but Haley beat me to it.

She had jumped up into the driver’s seat and was standing there, wagging her tail frantically and looking at me. When I called her to get out of the car, she sat instead. Just planted her butt in my driver’s seat and looked first at the steering wheel, and then at me. Clearly, she didn’t want me to leave… or she wanted to come with me. I then proceeded to beg my dad to let me take her with me to school. Eventually, we had to physically remove Haley from my car so that I could leave.

The way she handled that situation––so innocent and genuine––touched my heart and made me laugh in a way nothing else had before.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m living abroad. The longer I stayed abroad the more I worried about her. I knew she was getting old and each time I came home to visit, I was worried it would be the last time I saw her. This made coming home so exciting for me, but it made leaving again exponentially more difficult.

I was home in May last year for two weeks and on the day I left my dad had to take her to the vet for pneumonia. I was worried sick the whole journey back to Prague. A week later, though, and I was told she was fine. “Phew,” I thought, “so she’ll be around for Christmas.”

Every time I FaceTimed home, I asked to see her. My sister sent videos and photos every time she got a haircut or did something extraordinarily cute (which was basically all the time) and my dad held the camera up to her face. Haley never quite grasped the concept of a camera and ignored the phone every time he did this, but it was enough that I could see her and know that she could hear my voice.

Then, I came home for the holiday season last year for two months. I worked from home every day and she was always there so I could pet her during the generous breaks I gave myself. I walked her when it wasn’t too cold for her arthritis. We had our regular photoshoot at Christmastime with her in front of the tree (she’s always been my favorite model) and we stayed at home alone together while Dad went on business trips. I made an effort to be more present with her simply because I didn’t know when I would be home next after that trip. And wow, am I glad I did.

While I was at home, she developed some new lumps. After a few tests, we learned that it was not cancer, thank goodness, but that her mobility and her quality of life would continue to decline if she didn’t undergo surgery to remove the growths. She was almost 14. This was not an easy decision.

Now, don’t get me wrong: leaving home and family is always hard. But leaving Haley, knowing that the old girl was about to undergo major surgery and a long recovery process that she may or may not survive at her age, was devastating.

I laid on the floor with her on my last day at home until the last possible second before I had to leave for the airport. “You better be here the next time I come home,” I told her as I hugged her one last time. She stared back at me with that goofy smile and licked my face and my hands. I held back tears as I pulled out of the driveway, and again as I left my dad to go through security at the airport. “Wow, you do a lot more saying goodbye to Haley than you do for the rest of us,” he said. All I could do was shrug my shoulders.

A week later, Haley went through surgery. She came out fine and my dad took her home. He sent pictures as she recovered and she seemed to return to her normal self much more quickly than anyone had expected. She was the happy, resilient pup we had always known. I stopped worrying about her so much and got the occasional update from my family as she recovered, but as far as I was concerned, the worst was over.


Fast forward to last month, when she caught another bout of pneumonia, unrelated to the surgery, and was in the doggie hospital again. This didn’t worry me, as she had been through this before.

Then one Tuesday afternoon I got a message from my while I was at work, asking me to call. Haley wasn’t responding to treatment and the doctors didn’t think she was going to make it. I got on FaceTime as quickly as I could and saw how the poor girl was doing. Lying on the ground with no energy except to lift her head up, the goofy smile had been reduced to a solemn expression with concerned, tired eyes. I had never seen her like that before. They had chosen to put her down, as she wasn’t responding to treatments, able to take in any nutrition, or able to move around. It was either this, or let her waste away slowly. The decision had been made.

I’m so thankful for FaceTime because without it, I would not have been able to say goodbye to Haley that day. I still don’t feel like I was able to say goodbye properly, though. I remember asking my dad if it was possible to get a bereavement flight for a dog and if they could wait until I got there to put her down. My dad and my sister kept me on FaceTime with her up until the doctors came in. I was in shambles.

At this point, I can only hope that she wasn’t scared and that she wasn’t in pain. And I hope she knows that I love her and miss her and that I care, even though I wasn’t able to be there in person for her last moments. And I’m terrified to go back home next time and experience what life is like without her.

Throughout her 14 years of life and through all these other lessons, Haley taught me most importantly to be present, to not take anything for granted, and to love unconditionally, because the most unexpected things can be around the corner. After the surgery and recovery went well, we had all been under the impression that she had a good while left to live. We were wrong.

When we brought her home when I was 11, it was impossible for me to know the kind of impact she would have on myself and on my family. I only hope she realizes how much she did for us and how much we loved her. Haley was the best puppy I’ve ever known, and she will stay in my heart for as long as I live.

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