Life Lessons from Piper the Pup
Written by Michele Dial, M.Ed, LPC
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at my girl Piper and marveled at her perspective on life, at least as I perceive it. I often think she has it all together and I could learn a thing or two from her. After all, her life is pretty simple and pretty fulfilled. She’s not nearly as stretched out or stressed out as I get sometimes. So, with New Year’s resolutions right around the corner, this year I’m taking my cues from Piper. Make sure to scroll to the bottom to see all of Piper’s photos!
Oftentimes, exercise is viewed begrudgingly as work, necessity. And when these obligatory drives are connected to external fulfillment, i.e. outward appearance or the approval of others, the burden can feel even heavier. Not so for Piper. She’s not burdened by the idea of exercise. She is lean, strong and full of energy. And it’s not because society tells her she needs to be. She’s trim and muscular because she LOVES to play. One of her favorite games is chase. She loves to chase and be chased, even if it’s just around the dining room table. A few minutes in, I’m winded and she’s just getting started. On a cool, crisp day, she can play with her neighborhood buddies for an hour or two without flinching. And I can assure you Piper is not running her buns off to fit into a pair of jeans or attract a certain someone. She’s just having a blast and reaping all the benefits of exercise in the process. Mental stimulation, physical exertion, heart health, adrenaline, endorphins – it’s all a part of the package, and something she craves daily without any sense of obligation. To Piper, exercise is JOYFUL.
HUMAN TRANSLATION: Instead of mustering up the willpower to pursue a form of exercise that has you watching the clock, find a game, sport or program that excites you and brings you joy. I’m currently exploring novice tennis and volleyball meetups in lieu of a stale gym routine. For the days when I do need indoor options, I find myself grinning all the way through a zumba class as I try to salsa dance my way to good health. Salsa is not one of my skills, so I get a good laugh at myself as an added bonus to the workout.
Pups are masters of rest, right? Cats probably give them a run for their money in this category, but dogs can hold their own. After a good wrestle and chase in the neighborhood dog park, Piper crashes almost immediately and naps for a good hour or two. This girl knows about balance. After a good meal, she rests. After a bout of tug-of-war with her people and her favorite toys, she rests. After a bath, she spazzes out first, then rests. I never have to convince Piper to make sure she gets enough rest to recharge for the next day. Despite all her youthful, two-year-old energy, she has no problem checking out for nap, and going to sleep at a reasonable hour each night.
HUMAN TRANSLATION: Why come home exhausted and push ourselves to complete depletion? Granted, I don’t have time to take a two-hour nap every time I work out – after all, I barely have time to squeeze in exercise as it is. But I can spare enough time take a warm shower and sit down long enough to refuel with a snack before I get up and go again. And I am capable of turning off my gadgets and my mind a little earlier each night to get sound, sufficient sleep. I just have to make myself do it. And why is it a forced effort? Rest and hydration continually top the list of ways to maintain health and wellbeing. Instead of viewing sleep as an interruption of productivity, instead of fighting sleep in favor of checking off more boxes on a list, I’m going to take a page from Piper’s book and embrace rest.
Pups are the epitome of vulnerability. They don't know what it means to be guarded and insecure. They throw themselves headlong into love and trust and companionship with reckless abandon. They have no fear of rejection or loss, or if they do, they don’t seem to hold back because of it. They give their whole hearts freely, complete with wagging tails and sloppy kisses, certain that the recipient will respond in kind. Piper is a rescue, abandoned at birth along with her whole litter and their mother. Despite living on the streets, being mistreated, and becoming severely ill, Piper still loves wholeheartedly. Her twirling tail is her telltale sign that she is diving in with no hesitation, willing to shower her potential adopters and future friends with all the affection she has to give, and truly believing they will return her gestures with equal enthusiasm. Why wouldn’t they? Why would anyone withhold reciprocal affection?
HUMAN TRANSLATION: As humans with a little life experience under our belts, we know the answer to that question all too well – because somewhere along the way, someone has hurt us. Whether intentionally or accidentally, the hurt is real. And if we forget it, and act on hope, we run the risk of being hurt again. So we sometimes choose not to invest in friendships or romance as a means of protection. And that works to an extent, but at what cost? If we don't fully invest in new relationships, we run the risk of missing out on all the joy, affection, and enrichment we can reap from giving openly of ourselves. As I look at areas of hesitation in my life, where I avoid investment and potential risk, I will channel my inner Piper and try to approach scary opportunities with bravery, optimism, and an open heart. Or maybe it’s oblivion. Either way, it feels more enjoyable than fear and anxiousness.
I asked my 14-year-old stepdaughter what lessons she learns from Piper. In her infinite teenage wisdom she said to me, “That I’m not the center of the universe. Her needs have to come before mine.” I may be biased, but I think she’s brilliant. Piper will never be able to open the food bin and fill her own bowl, or turn on the faucet and get herself a drink. As a domesticated pup, she will always be dependent on her people for her nourishment and other basic needs. And no matter how young and dependent my stepdaughter is, she is aware that she has the ability and responsibility to take care of the needs of those who need her, whether it’s a pet, a friend, a family member, or even the community.
HUMAN TRANSLATION: In my role as therapist, I’m walking a fine line here, because I often encourage my clients to do more to take care of themselves, rather than putting everyone else first. It’s not that I want people to be selfish. It’s because someone has to look out for those who continually deny their own needs to care for others. Balance is key here. In order to take care of all of our responsibilities (work, home, spouse, children, parents, etc, etc), it is crucial to ensure that we keep our own health and wellbeing in check (see above for the importance of exercise and rest). There’s no question we can better care for others if we put on our oxygen masks first. However, when I find myself feeling cynical, cheated, or struggling for direction or purpose, helping others can shift my perspective from feeling entitled or wronged to feeling full and grateful with plenty to give. My stepdaughter is a giver by nature, and she’s mastering the artful balance of self-care and care of others like a champ.
Piper finds joy in the simple things in life – chewing on a good stick, ripping cardboard boxes to shreds, gazing out the window at passersby, a stroll around the neighborhood. She doesn’t require complex entertainment to be content. She gets excited at the mere mention of a walk. Sure, she is thrilled by an extended trip to the ginormous dog park across town, but if she never went again, I don’t think she’d notice. She lives in the present moment, and enjoys the options right in front of her.
HUMAN TRANSLATION: There’s nothing wrong with working towards and planning for extraordinary life experiences. They provide wonderful memories we can hold onto for a lifetime. But in the gaps between extraordinary experiences, there are a million little wonders along the way that sustain me. A smile spreads across my face when I walk into my house and am greeted with the sound of kids singing show tunes at the top of the lungs. I can’t help laughing at my husband’s ridiculous dad jokes at the dinner table. Sometimes I do get bored with my day-to-day routine. But Piper reminds me that I don’t need big things to experience joy – it’s all around me every day. All I need is a warm embrace or good chase around the dining room table to lift my spirits and quiet my worries, at least in this moment.