What I Learned from Lilly: LIFE Lessons from My First DOG
By Ryan Rice — Originally published in Issue 17 of LIFE+DOG
I remember the day I brought my first dog home. I was 24 years old, single, and beginning my career in public relations. It was an exciting time in my life and I looked forward to sharing it with my very first canine companion. Lilly wasn’t the first dog I had lived with, but she was the first one I was solely responsible for, my first time as a parent, and my first long-term commitment. I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t always so, mostly because of my lack of experience and knowledge. First off, I was unaware of many things at that stage in my life, whether I admitted it or not, and choosing a breed of dog that best fit my lifestyle was one of those things I had not considered. I just saw that cute Beagle face and I was hooked. I had no idea of the challenges and rewards in front of me. But looking back, I see how they helped mold me into the dog-lover and overall person I am today.
As I write this story it has been two weeks since Lilly Pearl, my beloved companion of 15 years, passed away. It is still hard to even think of my life without her, much less write about her being gone. Instead, I want to focus on some of the most important lessons she taught me, and the tremendous positive impact she had on my life and all those who knew and loved her—and there were many. It’s also a bit surreal that as I am typing away, I have one hand on the keyboard and the other dangling a toy for Avery Pearl, our newest addition and tribute to Lilly. Though no animal will ever take her place on this earth, the best way to honor our sweet Lilly Pearl was to find a pup who needed a home and to surround her with people and animals who love her. I know that all I learned from Lilly will help me be an even better doggie dad to Avery, and it makes me very happy and also makes me miss her even more. If I had the chance to tell Lilly anything just one more time, it would be “Thank you!” Thanks for the love, thanks for the years of dedication, and most of all, thanks for the LIFE lessons you taught me, just by being my DOG.
Lesson 1: Patience truly is a virtue.
In my mind, puppies are the cutest things on earth. They run and play with no hesitation, and everything is a new adventure as they explore the house, the yard and their new life. What’s easy to forget is that they are also an incredible amount of work and require a huge amount of attention and care, especially when they are very young. I remember driving Lilly home on our first day together, looking at her and saying, “I don’t have a clue what I am doing but I promise I will do my best.” Just saying that again brings a tear to my eye because that’s what I…we…did. We, together as a team, did our best, and now that I can reflect on our full time together, I think we did an excellent job. It wasn’t always easy though, and that’s what leads me to the first, and probably most important, lesson I learned from Lilly—patience.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Beagles are often very stubborn and can be hard to train. I discovered this firsthand as I set out to teach my puppy even the most basic of tasks, mainly potty training. Living in a loft apartment, I took her on long walks around the neighborhood. We spent what seemed like hours sniffing every blade of grass and inch of pavement, waiting for her to find the perfect spot to do her business. Finally, after no success, we would head back into the house and before I could even get the door closed, she would be relieving herself in the entryway. I would immediately grab her and rush her outside, but by then the deed was done and she thought it was sniff time again. A little later we would try again, usually with no luck, and I would put her in her crate and head out to work. I would come home every day at lunch and we would do this same dance, sometimes in 100+ degree heat and sometimes in the pouring rain, both of which meant I had to change clothes before returning to the office. The hardest part was coming home from work to find her lying in her crate, surrounded by her “accidents,” excitedly staring up at me with those adorable eyes. I would change clothes again, clean her up, take her out and then return to scrub the crate. It was not fun and I would often find myself struggling with feeling sorry for her or being angry with her. But after a few weeks, she slowly started making progress so I patiently proceeded. After nearly a full year—yes, a year!—Lilly was finally 100 percent potty trained. The big and little accidents were a thing of the past and it was such a relief to know that we were moving forward.
Looking back now, I see it completely different than I did then. I see it as the time when we really got to know each other. I started recognizing the things that scared her, excited her and stole her attention. I knew how she liked to walk, how she liked to play and how friendly she was to other people and animals. At the time, all I could think was, “Why aren’t you peeing?” Now I see that she was patiently teaching me about the big world right outside our door. That first year of trials and tribulations led to a lifetime of love and friendship that started as soon as I understood the lesson of patience.
Lesson 2: Friendship is the gift of a lifetime.
Your early 20’s can be a whirlwind of fun, but it’s also a time when you start to value true friendships. You begin to realize it’s not about what people are, it’s who they are. However, sometimes that can be difficult to discern, and you quickly learn that people can be extremely hurtful and break your heart. While I have been fortunate to always have a large core group of lifelong friends that I know and trust wholeheartedly, this didn’t stop me from having my fair share of ended friendships or romantic relationships. But each time something sad happened, I always had the world’s best friend, right at my feet. If people got me down, Lilly cheered me up. She had a knack for reading my emotions and always knew when to snuggle up beside me or give me a sweet kiss.
The defining period of our deep friendship came when we moved to Los Angeles when she was 6 years old. I accepted a position with my company to work in Southern California and couldn’t wait to see what adventures lay before my pup and me. I went ahead to California to start my job and find a place to live while Lilly stayed at her grandparents’ house in Texas. Those first few weeks in L.A. were some of the loneliest in my life. I had left all of my friends and family, was living in a strange city and, though I had several good friends when I arrived, I found it hard to trust new people at first. After finding the perfect place, I returned to Texas to get Lilly and I’ll never forget her reaction when I came into the house. We’d never been apart for that long and when she saw me, she completely lost it. She was screaming with excitement and it made me feel so incredibly special and important.
When we returned together to our new home, I suddenly had someone to share every experience with. I had a dinner date, a hiking companion, someone to watch movies with and someone to remind me of home. Instead of coming home to an empty house, I was coming home to hang out. As we went about our days, Lilly and I together made new friends. We had a group of friends at the dog park and in our building, we had play dates and get-togethers, and life was fun. From that point on, any new friendships I developed were usually tied to my dog. She always accompanied me to friends’ houses and she was a priority that only dog-loving friends could understand. Throughout our time together, I learned the true value of friendship along with the give and take nature of one of life’s most special relationships. I now feel extremely lucky to realize that the power of friendships carries on even after death. I will always know that because of our time together.
Lesson 3: Find your comfort zone.
It goes without saying that dogs provide comfort to their human companions and Lilly definitely was a sense of comfort for me. But I think the lesson she taught me about comfort was not how to receive it, but how to give it. From the time she was a tiny puppy, she struggled with separation anxiety. I could not even walk into the other room without her running after me or screaming because of my absence. Nighttime was particularly tough in our house when she was young. Countless dog parents told me that I shouldn’t let the puppy sleep in bed with me and that crate training was a must. So every night, I got her a treat and placed her in her crate with her favorite toy and her little blanket. I would kiss her forehead (my favorite spot on her sweet face), turn off the lights and climb into bed. About five minutes later the wailing would begin. I mean serious, high-volume, gut-wrenching Beagle screams. I made it several sleepless nights without giving in, but on the fourth night I gave up. I moved her crate next to the bed and hung my hand down beside it so she could smell me and know I was there. That made it worse and in no time, she was in bed with me, mostly because it was the only way she would stop.
I thought this only happened at night until I received a call from a neighbor who said that she and several other neighbors were concerned about Lilly’s screaming throughout the day. I immediately went into a panic, worrying that she was miserable, and feeling like a terrible parent. I know that she was likely using these tactics to get her way, but I didn’t know how to stop her and I couldn’t stand the thought that she was scared. Rather than give in completely and give her the run of the house, I slowly and patiently found ways to comfort her and let her know I would be back, she was safe, and all was well. I began to focus on a routine and experimented with short outings, followed by me rewarding her and playing with her as soon as I came home. It wasn’t long until her crate became her sanctuary and whenever I left, for any length of time, as long as she was in her crate, she was content.
I felt proud to be able to show her that no matter what, I was coming right back and I always would. It enabled us to easily travel together and led to many trips and adventures I will treasure forever. She also taught me how amazing it felt to comfort another being in a way I had yet to experience up to that point. In her final days, I found myself trying to comfort her the best way I could, letting her know it was okay for her to go. For two nights she slept in our arms on the sofa, surrounded by her brothers and sisters, and quietly whined and whimpered. With each breath we held her tighter, up until the end when, together as a family, we watched her go, her paw in my hand and a piece of my heart lost forever. As the impact of my loss settles in, I can’t help but be comforted by the way in which she went and the fact that she knew, no matter what, I loved her and she was a valuable part of my life.
Lesson 4: Share the love.
If ever there was a dog who loved unconditionally, it was Lilly. She loved everybody and everything. She was the happiest, sweetest and most affectionate creature, and she shared that with everyone she knew. Coming home from a tough day, all I needed to feel better was to take her on a walk and watch her happily play at the dog park. As dogs so often do for us humans, Lilly taught me to focus on living in the moment and to love each new day for the opportunity that it is. If she could have spoken, I know she would have told me how much she loved me; fortunately, she didn’t have to because I could feel it. I felt it every day for more than 15 years and thanks to her, I will feel it for all the dogs I welcome into my family during my life.
Throughout our time together I also learned what it meant and felt like to love something unconditionally. Lilly was not a perfect pup by any stretch, but she was perfect for me. All of the accidents, chewed up chair legs and occasional stubbornness were part of our journey. I can still see that innocent look after an incident and I remember thinking, “How can I be mad at that face?” She wasn’t trying to get into trouble; she was being a dog. Just as happens with parents of children, my love of her and her antics always prevailed and those times of frustration led me to love her even more.
It’s not every day that you find a soul who can completely turn your world around.
You tell them things that you’ve never shared with anyone and they seem to absorb and understand everything you say. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved, and the many disappointments life throws your way. When something amazing happens, you can’t wait to share it with them, knowing they will delight in your excitement. Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough. Instead, they show you all the things about yourself that make you special. They make you feel needed, appreciated and respected. There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition, but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You open your heart knowing that it will be broken one day and in doing so, you experience a love and joy that you never dreamed possible. You find strength in knowing you have a true friend and soul mate who will remain loyal to the end. I can’t imagine my life without dogs and it’s because of Lilly that my love of dogs began and continues to grow. She opened a part of my heart I didn’t know existed, and she provided me with endless love and support that helped shape the person I am today. I will never forget all of the profound things she taught me about life; but the way in which she taught me to love so unconditionally is something that will serve as her legacy, and benefit countless canines and humans alike for as long as I live.
Lesson 5: Remember and celebrate the good times.
One lesson Lilly taught me—something I had never even thought about until after she was gone—is to remember and celebrate the good times. Bad times will happen, but the happy moments make the journey worth it and serve as a reminder that good times are just around the corner. As I sit here reflecting, a slideshow of moments are popping into my head. I remember the first time she went swimming, our first hike in Runyon Canyon, our first Christmas and the first time she got sick. It’s amazing how thinking about these things leads to so many more happy and funny memories that bring both a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.
Perhaps the most bittersweet part is that most of it only resides in my brain. Camera phones didn’t come around until well into Lilly’s life and I wasn’t much of a photo taker before the digital era so there are nowhere near as many photos as I would like. The day she died, I frantically looked through old photos and computer files trying to find every image I could. After wading through the many thousands of my doggie supermodel Isabella, who has had a camera in her face since she was 2 months old, I stared blankly at the computer screen and began to feel regret for not having the physical proof of her 15 years of fun. But then I began to remember the actual events, and suddenly I was watching a movie of our life in my mind. I feel as if I could almost replay that entire 15 years, moment by moment in my head. I know I don’t need a photo to remind me; I have the memory, which is so much stronger and so much more vivid.
The memory of her final days will always be with me, and because I didn’t chronicle it through photos, I will remember the way it felt, rather than looked. I will remember her snuggling with her favorite brother, putting her arm around him as if to comfort him as she was dying. I will remember taking her to our new home site where she will be with us forever, under the trees near a gently flowing creek in the country. I know that she knew she was home, and I know that she knew she always would be. I feel so blessed to have all of these memories to revisit when I may become down, and I’m going to make a concerted effort to look at all of my relationships and experiences this way, especially as it pertains to living with and loving my dogs.
Now as I sit here watching my new puppy Avery Pearl playing with a huge plush toy, running all around the house experiencing her first adventures, I can’t help but reflect on my sweet girl Lilly and how much of her I see in her new sister. It feels as if a piece of her is with me in Avery and I am excited to learn all these lessons all over again! Once again, I am exercising patience as we potty train. Once again, I am comforting and reassuring my puppy that she will have a great life, void of fear and pain. And once again, I am remembering and celebrating each moment, because it is gone before you know it.
This article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Ryan Rice.
To read more from Ryan, visit his blog on our site.