by Carole Duff
Heathcliff nuzzled my hand, a reminder that it was time for his late afternoon walk and “hurry-up,” our term for him to relieve himself. I saved the file I’d been working on and closed my laptop.
“Go for a walk?” I asked. His ears perked, and he shifted his weight left and right on his paws. When I stood, he jumped toward me. I rolled my body away and said, “Off,” mimicking the doggie Charm School instructors. Heathcliff had graduated number one in his class—because he was the only dog to attend all the classes and graduate. He wanted to please his master, but distraction was more in his character than obedience.
I faced him again. “Sit.” I used the ‘up’ hand signal. Heathcliff’s rump brushed the tile floor long enough for me to leash him. “Good boy, Heathcliff, good boy.” I stroked his velvet-soft ears.
After grabbing treats, house keys, and poop bags, I opened the front door. Heathcliff rushed outside with me in tow. “Practice,” I sighed, yanking his leash.
There’s an old saying among dog trainers: Lead or be led. When Keith and I adopted eight-month-old Heathcliff several years ago, I questioned my ability to lead a black-lab mix weighing almost as much as I do. Even with my God-given gift of leadership, Heathcliff’s natural therapy-dog instinct, and the shelter’s good basic training, our puppy was a handful. He struggled with waiting, especially for food, and whined and groaned his impatience. We persevered with our perennial-adolescent. If we didn’t lead, he could pull us all into danger.
What does it take to be a better leader, or pack leader in this case? Confidence, Growth, Practice, and Perseverance. Growth in training, for both the dog and the owner, requires study and discipline—to become a disciple. The word disciple (one who follows) is from the Latin word discere (to learn). Leadership also requires obedience, from the Latin obedire (listen to) and regular practice: a lifelong commitment to a daily routine of walks, training, and playtime. Perseverance.
Like Heathcliff, when I try to take the lead in my life—putting myself first before God, which I most often do in my distraction—I quickly find myself grappling with the sins of selfishness: self-centeredness (it’s all about me), self-righteousness (I’m right and you’re wrong), self-indulgence (my pleasures come first), and self-sufficiency (I’m independent, need no one, and am proud of it). Self, self, self, self. Lord, forgive me.
Successful leaders and followers should not fixate on self. What it takes to be a better leader is the same as what it takes to be a good follower: trust, confidence, growth, practice, and perseverance. For me that includes studying the Word and the discipline of daily prayer, obedience in listening to the Spirit and following in faith, for as long as I live.
After moving from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains when Heathcliff was four, we adopted another shelter dog, similar in size and age by the looks of her. Though she lacked his natural therapy-dog gift, Freya was very obedient and very smart—understanding almost everything we said to her the first time. Together, our two dogs played, guarded the house, sat for their food, walked on leash down the mountain to the mailbox, “hurried up” in the morning and before bedtime, and grew old. Last year, we adopted a maybe year-old pup who needed a home. Heathcliff modeled routine for the undisciplined Cato and gave him the tour while Freya nipped him into pack rules obedience.
Heathcliff is thirteen now—the equivalent of ninety-one in human years—and sugar-muzzled, as is Freya. She has some health issues, and he has many: deafness, arthritis, less kidney, liver, and thyroid function, and a large sarcoma that would require amputating his leg for treatment. There’s only so much physical therapy, medication, special food, and loving care can do to ease the challenges of aging. He sits and gets up with effort, plays less, doesn’t walk as long or as far, and needs to “hurry up” more often during the day and in the middle of the night. Even though he waits for our command to eat—standing and impatient—he sometimes walks away from his food, uneaten. His vet gives him six months or less.
And yet, he perseveres. He greets each morning with a wide smile as if saying, This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24 (ESV) He gets back up when he stumbles and falls, which happens a lot these days; he guards and comforts us. He’s probably lived longer because of his new mission: leading Cato, a perennial adolescent much like himself. The old dog instructs the young one.
When the time comes, we will ask our vet to help Heathcliff leave this life; we won’t let him suffer. As for us humans, we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3b-4 (NIV) So, Keith and I—both of us sugar-muzzled—persevere, practicing every day to build character, grow our hope, and pursue our missions.
There’s another saying among dog trainers: You can’t become a better trainer without becoming a better human being. In faith, we can’t become better human beings without becoming better trainees. As with our dogs, we’re being led by the master first, then leading others with confidence.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Building a House and Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her at: https://caroleduff.com. Her Twitter feed can be found here.