Recently someone asked me to describe a time when I was a protégé and what that experience felt like. I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had some amazing mentors in my life. In fact, I think we can’t have enough mentors. Life is difficult and any help we can get that enables us to become our best selves should be welcomed and appreciated, even when the source is unexpected.
My best experience as a protégé, however, has come from two mentors I’ve known only since 2017. Both have taught me the same lessons, but these mentors aren’t very traditional. In fact, they’re covered in fur. They have four legs each. And, they wiggle and wag at the drop of a hat. My most recent (and best) mentors? Our family dogs: Molly and Winston, our grand-pups.
Molly is a two-year-old mixed-breed rescue. Part St. Bernard and part Lab, she looks mostly like a Lab. She has reddish brown fur and loves to scout trails, wade in shallow water, and have her belly rubbed. She’s happiest when she’s running in the woods. She’s a dedicated chaser of squirrels and chipmunks – although she hasn’t caught one yet. And, she loves everyone – she’s very popular in her Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood. Molly knows her own mind and is definitely the alpha in any pack.
Winston is a one-year-old pure-bred yellow English Lab. Winston is wise to the city because he lives in Chicago, but he has a taste of the country in his blood. He loves swimming (whether it’s Lake Michigan or a backyard pond), getting as muddy as possible, and being the center of attention. He also has never met a stick he doesn’t like. His dog walker is a college student and he often smells like the perfumes of the girls who hug him when he visits campus.
Molly and Winston have both come to stay with us for several days at a time. Our typically quiet household changes a lot when they’re here but believe me when I say that we absolutely love having them. They are pure joy and we can’t get enough of either one – muddy paws, nose prints, messes, and all.
How can a dog be a mentor? When I stop and think about it, I’ve been humbled by their brilliance and the sheer simplicity of their approach.
Here are the six most profound lessons I’ve learned from Molly and Winston.
1. Be present over perfect. Have you ever noticed that dogs tend to live-in-the-moment? It’s kind of funny, when their basic needs for food and safety are met, they simply enjoy life without reservation. See an ant crawling across the sidewalk? Let’s study that until it disappears. Hear a knock at the door? Let’s make sure to bark to keep everyone safe (or to invite whoever is knocking in to play). Getting in the car to go to the vet? Let’s stick our nose out the window and sniff all the good smells along the way completely oblivious to what might happen next. The life lesson for me is to be intentional about being present in the many moments of my day. Presence can’t be scheduled. A person is either present or not. Achieving presence is often hard work because I'm usually thinking about a lot of things at once. What I know for sure is that when I focus in-the-moment, I truly connect with others and I'm better for it.
2. Trust and loyalty go hand in hand. When a dog loves you, he’ll give you his unconditional devotion forever. It’s a friendship that never ends. Just when I think my bad day can’t get any worse, Winston and Molly show up offering friendship and devotion, no questions asked. They wag their tails. They offer a hug. They snuggle up for a pat on the head. What has this taught me? It’s easy to be in relationship with someone when things are going well. It’s much harder when times get tough. True friends show up, every time.
3. Forgiveness moves us forward. If I refuse to give Winston or Molly a treat, even after they’ve begged me to, they don’t hold it against me. They’re usually happy a few moments after they’ve been denied. We all have two options when things don’t go our way: hold grudges or forgive. It’s OK to be angry or hurt but holding grudges can be unhealthy physically and mentally. It weighs us down and prevents us from being our best selves. I’ve learned that forgiveness – while often the harder choice – helps me get rid of negative energy and offers me the best path to move forward.
4. Play every day. When is the last time you took time to play with abandon? To my grand-pups, there’s nothing quite like chasing balls, retrieving sticks, wrestling, or chewing on squeaky toys. When they play, they’re all in. Life might not be one big recess period, but it can offer a lot of different playgrounds for us if we just take the time to look. As a protégé of play, I’m happy to report that I’m always reminded that every day has at least a few minutes I can carve out to embrace some kind of play.
5. Greet everyone with genuine enthusiasm. Have you ever come home from a long day, entered your home, and felt all alone, even though your family was present? No one calls out “Hi.” No one comes in to give you a hug. No one offers to carry your briefcase, your purse, your backpack, or the groceries? It’s kind of a lonely feeling. Molly and Winston can hardly contain their excitement when we come home. They run toward the door wagging their whole bodies and focus their sole attention on us. This happens every time we come in the door. They’re just as excited to see us on the fifth trip in from the car as they were on the first. Their greeting says “I missed you. You matter.” I try to greet people intentionally because I truly want them to know that I’m glad to see them in that exact moment. Molly and Winston make my day and make me smile when they greet me. By greeting strangers and friends with intentional enthusiasm, I honor them and reinforce to them that they matter.
6. Be yourself. A dog is a dog no matter how they feel at any moment. They don’t care how they look or smell. They get excited about the simple pleasures of eating, snuggling, going for a walk, or playing ball. They don’t harbor negative thoughts that hold them back from being their authentic selves. In the true spirit of mentorship, Molly and Winston remind me that I am enough just as I am. Celebrating my uniqueness gives me peace of mind and sets me up to share my gifts with others. I just need to be me.
Mentorship can come in many different forms. As a protégé, I’ve benefitted from some mentors whose time and support have helped me in ways I’m still discovering. When it comes right down to it; however, my greatest mentors have been two living beings who embrace each moment as if it’s their last. Their methods may be simple, but their motives are pure. And, if I hadn’t been looking, I’d have missed out on some of my life’s greatest lessons.