I wasn’t always a dog lover. I used to be a dog-liker and most of the time a dog-tolerator. I never understood why people would get bumper stickers with their favorite dog breed and I cringed a little when I heard the phrase “he’s part of our family.” But I’ve become that guy. I have the bumper sticker. I refer to Jasmine as “a part of our family,” and yes, I even have pictures of her on my phone.
I’m now a dog person. More specifically, I’m a greyhound guy. Here’s why.
A year ago, we decided to adopt a retired racing greyhound. We knew we wanted a dog that was lower energy, more introverted, and less likely to bark. We had done our research ahead of time and we knew she would be a good choice for our family. Unfortunately, Jasmine got really sick and they couldn’t adopt her out to us. But then, midway through the year, she turned a corner and we adopted her. Contrary to popular belief, most retired racers are 2-5 years old. Jasmine was about two and a half when we got her.
She was a bit aloof at first and even somewhat timid. However, after a few weeks of socialization, we grew closer and closer. She started to cuddle up next to us.
Something happened. I fell in love with this dog. So did my family.
Along the way, she has taught me some important lessons about teaching and creativity.
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Eight Lessons from an Adopted Greyhound
I get it. If you’re not a dog person, you might be tempted to roll your eyes at this post. However, as I look back on this year, I realize that I have learned a ton from my experience of adopting a greyhound.
1. Learning requires risk-taking.
Our dog hated the stairs at first. She was terrified when we tried to coax her upstairs. However, we knew that she needed to figure it out. We used treats and verbal affirmation. We focused on the affective side of learning as she slowly moved each paw forward. It was a visual reminder for me that learning is often terrifying. Exciting, yes, but also nerve-wracking.
I mention this because I really struggled with a statistics class this semester. There were moments when it was scary and I wanted to give up. But ultimately, as I struggled through the content, I actually became more empathetic toward the pre-service teachers that I work with each week. This is why I believe teachers should learn things that take them outside of their comfort zones and outside their areas of expertise.
2. Spend more time outside.
We once had a Scottish Terrier who would get high strung if you didn’t walk her. She would sprint through the house barking if she didn’t expend her energy. But our greyhound isn’t like that. She’s pretty chill with or without a walk. And yet, because she’s a sighthound and we don’t have a fenced in yard, I still need to take her outside a few times a day. This means, I’ve taken her out late at night and early in the morning. Jasmine loves listening to the sounds, staring off at a distant movement, and taking in the scents all around her. Here, she’s reminded me of the need to slow down and take in the natural world. I’ve rediscovered the wonder of staring out at the stars. We live in an area without street lights, which means on the cool summer evenings, I would often take our dog for a stroll and stare out at wonder at the vast canvas at the universe.
I’ve also started taking random short walks in the middle of the day when I’m feeling mentally stuck as I try to solve a problem. It turns out, nature walks are vital for creativity because they allow you to make connections between ideas. There’s a certain mind-wandering boredom that leads to divergent thinking (an idea I explored here). Meanwhile, the natural world often inspires better design through the process of biomimicry.
3. It’s okay to be an introvert.
My dog is also an introvert. I didn’t realize that was possible with dogs, but it is. She likes to have “me time.” If things get too loud and crazy, she will walk into the other room. When she meets other dogs and they start wrestling around with each other, she will quietly move out of the way. Watching her has been a reminder for me that it’s okay to be introverted. It’s not a bad thing that I love spending hours alone during the day reading and writing and making stuff. Yes, I miss teaching eighth grade, but my job as a professor allows me to work out of my introverted identity without feeling guilty.
For what it’s worth, I actually think it’s possible to thrive as an introverted classroom teacher as well. You just need to embrace your inner greyhound.
4. Rest is vital.
A few years ago, I read the book Rest and it helped me see the role of napping, playing, and exercise in boosting creative work. And yet, there was a moment, when I over-extended myself this semester. I said yes to too many speaking engagements, took on too many projects, and agreed to too many meetings. I found myself getting about five hours of sleep during most of October.
Meanwhile, my greyhound sleeps all the time. Seriously, all the time. My mom gave me a hard time about the fact that I have texted her tons of pictures (she won’t get on Instagram) and she’s sleeping in every single shot. And yet, when we take Jasmine to the dog park, she will take off sprinting in a way that is breathtaking.
Over the last few months, my dog taught me to slow down. Say “no” more often. Take naps. Go on walks. Because creative work can drain you of your energy and you need rest to restore you and help you enter into deep work.
5. Play every day.
Although our dog is not very energetic, she will spend about fifteen minutes a day playing. She first played with my daughter and later with my two sons. I kept wanting her to play with me but instead, she would roll over and expect me to pet her. Finally, after a few months of playing with the kids, she began to play with me. And I realized something important. I was trying to make it happen. But play isn’t like that. It’s not something you force. It’s something you allow.
Although I’ve always believed that play is vital to creative work, I sometimes find myself treating it like a luxury rather than a necessity. However, my dog has reminded me that there’s always time each day to play. For me, this has meant carving out a little extra time to make goofy little video writing prompts:
But it’s also meant playing catch more often in the backyard and playing Set more often inside. It’s meant choosing to read books I want to read rather than ones that will connect to my professional learning. At one point in the year, it meant setting aside a new education book I was trying to force and instead writing a fictional story about Violet Bolt, a girl who works as an apprentice making superhero gadgets and suddenly finds herself in a superhero competition where she has to use her creativity to make it to the end.
6. Empathy is about actions as much as words.
There was a period this year when one of our kids was struggling. It wasn’t tragic but it was still very real. While I found myself trying to speak into my son’s life and offer the perfect words of wisdom, our dog walked up to him and licked his hands and nuzzled her face into his chest. For the next few hours, she followed him, silently staying with him, knowing that a member of her pack was hurting.
It has me thinking about empathy and design thinking. Designers often use interviews and surveys to try and build empathy with an audience. But I wonder if what we really need is more time. More listening. More silence. More observations. More trust-building. I wonder if we sometimes short-circuit true empathy when we focus on words rather than actions.
7. There’s power in the positive.
We’ve taught Jasmine how to sit, shake, and come to us when we ask her to. However, we have stuck entirely to praise and treats and she has responded really well. I remember one time when she peed on the carpet and I wanted to yell at her and my wife reminded me of our plan to use positive reinforcements. It worked. Our dog came around within a few days.
Now, I get it. Humans aren’t the same. In the past, I’ve railed against behaviorism and the manipulative use of punishments and rewards to change behavior. However, I recently read the book Finish by Jon Acuff (one of my favorite reads of 2019) and he talked about the need to give yourself rewards when you hit certain benchmarks on creative work and I found that this was often true for me this year. When I finished a rough draft on a book, I gave myself the permission to take a day and binge-watch The Great British Bake-Off. When I finished a challenging semester, I went with the whole family to see the new Spider-Man movie (and it was probably the best movie I saw all year). The point is, I’m starting to see that positive rewards have a place in life.
But it goes deeper than that. There’s a lot of negativity in the world. And, while I see the value of critical voices in education and social media, I’m reminded that there’s a value in optimism. As odd as this sounds, my greyhound is reminding me that it’s okay to be optimistic. It doesn’t mean you ignore the negative but that you choose to embrace the positive around you.
8. Be open to new experiences.
Greyhounds are creatures of habit. They prefer routines. When I moved her bed to put up the Christmas tree, she paced around the room in confusion. And yet, her year has been one full of changes. She is new to our family and new to life outside of a racetrack. But once she got over the initial hurdles, she has become a member of our family. During Christmas Break, Jasmine spent the week at a friend’s house (who also has a retired racer) and when we arrived at the door, she was barking, jumping, and spinning in circles — which is rare for the typically understated demeanor of a greyhound.
It was a reminder to be open to new ideas, to new perspectives, to new experiences, and to new relationships. The last few years have been amazing because of the changes – a new job, a new state, a new community. I’m naturally averse to change. But as I think about the New Year, I am reminded of the value of embracing the new, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable.
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