The Surprising Importance of an After-Dinner Mint

Dottie was supposed to be a hospice dog. A 15-year old Dalmatian, she was surrendered to our local shelter by a woman who was clearly shattered about it but had run out of options. She was heading into a homeless shelter herself. Selfishly, I thought Dottie would be a good transition dog for me—one I could lavish love and caring on for the last six months of her life. And she could help me work through the pain of losing my heart dog, Harley.

Everything felt right. Except Dottie wasn’t a hospice dog. What I thought would be six months stretched into four years. It seemed that what she had to teach me needed more time. Either that or I was a very slow learner. I believe every dog has something to teach me if I’m open to listening and learning.

Dottie’s lessons focused on finding joy and returning to that joyful place as often as possible.

Specifically, Dottie loved to eat and enjoyed the rituals that came with mealtime. She learned quickly that meal preparations started with the spin of the vittles vault lid, a swift scoop of the plastic measuring cup, and the splendid sound of kibble cascading into the ceramic bowls. The bowls were then whisked away to the table for the addition of pills, powders, and potions that supported gut and joint health. Finally, after a bit of water was added to each bowl, the procession to the feed stations commenced. Dottie was always the first to assume what we called her “good girl” position: a strong, square sit just in front of her food stand. She tilted her head upward, round brown eyes soft but expectant, and offered her snout for the “muzzle up!” command. I would graciously accept it by wrapping my hands lightly around her white-and-black spotted mouth. The split second I released the gentle pressure, her head sunk into that food bowl.

Dottie loved her food, but I think it was just a single stop on that joyful ride toward what she really wanted: her after-dinner mint. It was a simple glucosamine chondroitin chew—nothing fancy, no special flavor or challenge to eat. But to Dottie, the meal wasn’t complete until she’d secured this chew.

After licking her bowl clean, she stalked over to the low cabinet that housed the valued chews. We were usually cleaning up after dinner, clearing the table, cleaning the stovetop when we’d see her plant herself in front of this cabinet—her sit anxious, her front paws tapping the floor, her butt barely able to keep contact with the ground. She’d look at us then quickly to the bag of chews and back to us. If she could talk, she’d have said, “Hey, it’s time for my chew and the bag’s right there. Grab it, would ya?” If we didn’t move toward the bag immediately, she’d tap her front paws with more urgency, her butt popping off the floor then back down, and her head tilted back, practically throwing her eyes toward that coveted bag.

Once we finally headed toward the cabinet and the bag, she’d sit-scoot closer, I’m sure, so it would be easier for us to get her the chew as fast as possible. By this time, her pupils were so dilated, we couldn’t see the warm brown of her eyes. Her mouth was open with her white teeth and a pink tongue waiting expectantly for the meal-culminating chew. One of us would open the bag and fish out a cocca-colored chew. Dottie sat straighter than I thought any 18-year-old dog could and took the chew—quickly but gently. She waited in hope of getting a second one that never came, but she always hesitated, just in case.

I had never thought of joy as a process. Her joy stretched from the spin of the vittles vault lid through the thorough dispatching of her meal to the conferring of that meal-culminating chew. Like many people, I thought all the joy was in the consuming, in the treat itself. But Dottie made it clear her joy was in the waiting, in the earning, in the spaces between the offer and the acceptance. She loved the process, and I loved being a part of it.

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