Sink or Swim: Life lessons from a Puppy

In life, we often find ourselves powerless to avoid crisis, disappointment, and disillusionment. Still, we DO have a choice in how we react/respond to these hurtful interruptions that take up residence in our lives or turn it upside down. We’re tempted to give up, experience depression, or even lash out at the very people we love most. That’s when we decide if we will sink or swim. And its a lesson I’ve learned quite often from my dogs. One such experience occurred during a “first swimming lesson” in our pond on a hot, sunny day in July with a puppy named “Skye.”

(Above: approaching the “fun!”)

I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons from observing and interacting with literally hundreds of dogs over the past 30+ years. I’ve studied wolf packs, read books on animal socialization, and observed my own dog pack–they fascinate me! I just LOVE the insight that dog trainers have as well. I have always been intrigued by their vast knowledge and intuitiveness as to what they have learned from dogs. Some of these life lessons still linger today and stay to remind me of the attributes God put in his creation to remind us of His ways, His promises, and the call to be more like HIM and to be a better human. (You may, perhaps, call it your Higher Power–I just happen to call him God)

(Above: That looks like an enthusiastic run to me!)

Dogs are, in most situations, adaptable. Although anthropomorphism continues to infiltrate our ideas of what dogs think and feel (and let us not get “too” carried away with that), what we do know is that they have a natural tendency to make the best of a situation if given a safe opportunity of choice. Now, I’ve owned labs for over 30 years, so I cannot speak to every type of breed that’s out there—but hey—it’s a Lab blog, right??? But I’ve been amazed at how my dogs will adapt to different environments, people, and the accidental “trip-ups”/slip-ups on the part of us humans (yes, that’s me, Ms. Klutsy—flying over Labrador speed bumps in my house constantly!). Oh! Watch out for those black labs in the bedroom in the middle of the night, too! May I introduce to you:  The Night Light. (You’re welcome). LOL.

So when things go sideways, can you adapt? Can you bend? Can you adjust yourself instead of forcing others to adapt to you? What lessons can we learn from our adaptable canine companions in these crazy days?

Dogs are so forgiving. Now, don’t get me wrong, some don’t forget a THING! They are intelligent enough to know to avoid an uncomfortable situation when they experience something that rattles them, and they can even know what person to avoid. But do they hold a grudge? Do they go and gossip about how difficult you are to live with? Do they seek revenge? Nope. They go on, they “forgive” (sometimes even forget!) in their own way, and they adapt (there is that word again). They even, often, give us a second chance (those times make me tear up–they are SO trustful and so vulnerable, and it is our responsibility to protect them). So, y’all, just hear me here–can we give each other the benefit of the doubt more often??? That’s certainly one thing I’ve learned and tried to apply, especially when faced with angry, frustrated, unhappy people. Sometimes our human “wag,” or SMILE, can turn someone’s day around–maybe even give them hope in humankind again. Boy, we all need some of that. Be kind. I’ll say it again…be kind…but be wise–another couple of things we can learn from our “labby loves.”

***(Please note, I am not bringing rescue or traumatized dogs into this blog as it an entirely different blog to be written!)

When socializing dogs and puppies, I’m very, very careful to take things in stride. I’m not overprotective, and I expose them to as much as possible so they will be CONFIDENT dogs. One such situation that frequently arises at our place is the opportunity to swim in our “labrador lake” (actually, it’s a VERY large pond). But the FIRST time has everything to do with making it a good experience out of one that many dogs never adapt to, or develop a fear of. Our goal of the day is not to sink, but swim!

Two days ago, our family took a little 14-week old yellow lab pup, SKYE, to the pond for his first swim (a new addition to our kennel and related to our REIGN–a half-brother). If you take a look at my Youtube video, I explain the steps we always take when we teach this new, exciting skill, natural to the Labrador Retriever. And Skye took to it perfectly. There were no high-pitched “cooing” phrases like “Its OKaaayyyyy…” or “it’s going to be alriiiight…” because, if it doesn’t go right, your dog will always get nervous when they hear “that voice” (dog trainers—feel free to chime in—I have never deemed myself an animal behaviorist or trainer!). I take the leash (me facing forward, at a regular stride), and I walk forward with the dog. Even if they hesitate, I still coax–I’ll use treats out in front if needed. But we are going somewhere, and they sense my relaxed focus. I did so with Skye that day.

(Don’t even bother with another leash–ENGLISH LEADS ROCK!!! I’ll never use another leash again–GOODNESS–THIS IS MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE–psst—you may have to hide it from family members–SERIOUSLY!). It is a great slip lead, very sturdy, and fends off stinky leashes and collars too. YUCK. And it leaves no “ring around the neck” look. It dries out fast after getting wet!

If not leash trained, do that FIRST, then use this method when you want to build confidence in your dog while going somewhere on a leash. Go into Petco without a word of “oh, its ok, baby….” But make it “this is what we do, and there’s nothing to be scared of” in your body language and lack of words (except the occasional “good boy,” Skye, etc…–but only if he is responding to your direction. Don’t say “good boy” if he’s not or it will ingrain the opposite behavior). Give treats to random people in the store (or wherever you are training) and have them give them to your dog when you purposely run into them–and wallah–Petco is now MECCA for your dog! 🙂 AND…everyone is his FRIEND! 🙂  ALWAYS add positive things that motivate your dog, whether that be toys or food (yes, with Labs, it is usually FOOD!), but dispense of them once the skill is mastered. No need to have a dog that will only “work” for food! 🙂 —Yes, that’s you, Labradors!– LOL

(Above: ODIN and SKYE–you may notice the streams of water flying off of Odin! Two SOAKED dogs!)

Let’s go to the Pond:  So off to the pond we went (SKYE curled up at my feed in the ATV—adorable, but hadn’t planned on that) and we took Reign with us—our “partner in training”, and enthusiastic simmer!! In our case, we needed no coaxing or treats whatsoever. ODIN also joined in, and SKYE surprisingly followed him, instead of Reign, and waded along the banks with him, then tumbled over some grass into the water, and training had begun! I was so pleased to see him let his feet leave the bottom of the pond within mere minutes of gently falling in, even though Odin was setting a less than stellar example. But all the while, REIGN swam around us all, showing SKYE this was a FUN GAME!!! He’s hooked! (Just in case you wondered). I surely wanted it to be a successful day and that he wouldn’t sink, but swim. And guess what—that first tumble he took over the long grass into the pond could have kept him from trying again, but he didn’t give up. He even went under and sunk just a bit, but bobbed to the surface, legs moving-fluidly, eyes wide with excitement at his newfound game. And of course, he had the collective cheers and encouragement from all of us, and it showed that he was as pleased with his new skill as were we! Remember those around you who are hurting—sinking–cheer them on. Help when you can, and encourage those who are struggling or adjusting to the “new normal.” Right now, many could use some cheer. Remember that one time your dog sat by your side and stared deeply into your eyes as if they just knew? They were there because they knew you needed their presence. Let’s be there for people.

This brings me to my last point. Dogs learn easily and eagerly if allowed to learn in a positive, rewarding atmosphere. In some ways, it is so similar to raising children. And then—to our delight—our dogs repeat the silly little tricks they’ve learned over and over for us– either to please us or just because they are embracing and enjoying life—something they remind me to do much more of. Remember that in life, no matter where you go, you can carry a positive attitude and a “can-do” spirit. Our dogs certainly do!

God surely did make a great “man’s best friend” when he made “DOG” …and I’m so thankful for it. He not only made a great companion but a great demonstration of some of His best traits (I’ll let you fill them in because you know them! –too many to cover here…)

With love to my fellow dog lovers,




Leave A Comment