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Animals Teach Us How to Live and Love

Today is National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day. To celebrate, I want to share the latest article that I published to Elephant Journal as part of the writing course I enrolled in recently. You can read it below. If you enjoy it, I would appreciate it if you can give the article a like and/or comment on Elephant Journal to help boost it. Here's the link.

10 Life Lessons from a Shelter Dog who Became Queen

Animals have a lot to teach us about being present, living life to the fullest, and loving unconditionally. I’m fortunate that animals have been a part of my life from the time I was born. I always loved the many cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, and dogs that I was blessed to have as members of the family. However, one dog in particular touched my soul in a way that no other had before. She came into my life at a critical time, about a year and a half after moving to Colorado without knowing anyone. I was living alone when fate brought this spunky shelter dog into my life. When I meet Ella (who was named Lassie at the time), she was a curious, five-month old mixed breed with almond-shaped eyes, rich, dark brown fur with a white-speckled chest and socks, and floppy ears that changed position depending on her mood. She immediately clung to my side as I jogged around the enclosure at the shelter where we met. I knew she would make a good sidekick for the many adventures I had planned. My mountain dog found her voice shortly after she recovered from kennel cough and settled into her new home with me and my cat. She used her many tones of whines and barks to request whatever she needed, and placed me under her spell with her sad eyes. I could tell a million stories about Ella, the dog who had more personality than any I had met before her, or have met since. We spent over 15 years adventuring together – hiking, camping, running, paddle boarding, and traveling around the country. Boyfriends came and went, but Ella was always there to lick my tears when relationships went south. She helped keep my spirits up after two knee surgeries, a heart attack at a young age, and job changes. She was there through a decade and a half of my evolution. Ella assumed the position of big sister again when I added two kittens and a puppy to our family when she was eight years old. She happily welcomed the third boyfriend with the name John, who later became my husband. (Dogs do have a sense about people, and she was right about this John being a keeper). Throughout all of the changes, Ella always looked out for the members of our family, but made it clear that she was the boss. We lovingly referred to her as the Queen. In August 2021, Ella had grown weary of her battle with degenerative myelopathy (DM), and at 15 years and 8 months old her soul was ready to leave her ailing body. We said goodbye as I sat by her side on her bed in the living room – the one and only time she didn’t give me that look of “why are you on my bed?”

Here are my top 10 favorite lessons that Ella taught me.

  1. Don’t simply express your joy; unleash it wholeheartedly! When dogs find something that they love, they bound around joyfully. For Ella, it was running. If we were out for a hike and someone jogged by, Ella would pick up the pace to a trot, and look back at me as if to say, “Aren’t you coming? This is so fun!”

  2. Be curious about the world around you, and live in the present moment. There was a particular vista on one of our usual hikes where you could look out over the trail that came up the other side of the mountain. Without fail, Ella would stop at that spot and watch for a few moments before I could coax her to continue. As Gene Baur put it in his book Farm Sanctuary, animals are “always engaged in the world around them…they are connected to the physical world in a way that humans seem to have lost…animals show us the enjoyment of simple pleasures and of being in the moment.”

  3. Love unconditionally. I don’t think anyone knows how to love quite like a dog does. Whenever I came back from a trip, Ella would wrap her paws around my arm as if to hold me there. Upon my return home, even if I was gone for only a few minutes, my dogs have always greeted me with enthusiasm. Their tails wag uncontrollably, they bark excitedly, and run around me as though they thought they were never going to see me again.

  4. Set your sights on the goal, but take time to enjoy the journey. From the beginning, Ella loved hiking. But despite being eager to summit, she always took her time to stop and enjoy the views along the way. She reminded me to appreciate the process of working towards my goals.

  5. Be in awe of the world around you. While Ella wasn’t super happy about sleeping in a tent, there were other aspects of camping and road trips that she appreciated – like watching the sun set over the lake, going for hikes in wild places, and experiencing the natural world in destinations like Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, and Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun road.

  6. Get plenty of sleep and stretch when you rise. When the day is over, Ella loved heading to her bed. She would snore the night away, and would stretch upon waking. Ella also enjoyed doing neck stretches while sitting in the lawn chair in the back yard.

  7. Trust your instincts. According to Ella, if a dog or person doesn’t seem friendly, approach with caution. If a storm is coming, seek shelter – the bathtub is a great place to hide out during a thunder storm. Cats have claws, so if one hisses at you, hide under the bed, even if it’s just a kitten.

  8. If you want something, keep at it until you get it. But, don’t get too attached. Ella would work on ripping open her toys until she managed to get the squeaker out, but then it was on to the next thing. Unfortunately for Ella, sometimes she managed to get into things that weren’t good for her. Like the time she unzipped a friend's backpack to find a full bag of chocolate-covered raisins, or opened a drawer to find the box of protein bars that were hidden there.

  9. You’re never too old to learn new tricks. Ella was eight years old when she started catching things that you tossed her way. She started paddle boarding with me when she was almost 11 years old, and continued to join me out on the water up until her final days. When she stopped being able to use her back right leg due to the DM, Ella learned to use her Walkin’ Wheels to go for walks.

  10. Be yourself without apology. We’re all unique and special, and don’t need to modify who we are just to please others. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Words that Ella certainly lived by, as we all should. Ella knew exactly who she was, and no one was going to change her.

I will forever cherish the unconditional love that Ella gave me, and will never forget her spunk and determination. While this list doesn’t even come close to expressing how much Ella meant to me, these lessons provide a glimpse into the ways she touched my life, and made me a better person for having been lucky enough for fate to bring us together.

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