Beagle with treat
Illustration: Pierre Le-Tan
The thing about giving advice for a living is that you start to see it everywhere. Shakespeare must have been in his self-help phase when he wrote that there were "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones." I find life lessons in everything from showering to origami. Walking my dogs, which I've just done, leaves me bursting with insights. Since my loved ones have heard far more advice than anyone should have to take, I'm going to foist this dog-walking wisdom on you.

Step 1: You Cannot Feed a Beagle All It Wants

My beagle, Cookie, is wild about the golf course, where desert dog walkers like me go to avoid cacti. Cookie knows that the course is frequented by a kindly lady who gives out dog biscuits. This sends him into a warbling tap dance of anticipatory joy, as he lusts for food the way...well, the way a beagle lusts for food. There's no hyperbole more extreme than that. Beagles are genetically wired to be opportunistic eaters. This is why Cookie, at 14, is basically a manatee with paws. He invariably finds more calories than he exercises away.

Sure enough, Cookie sees the Biscuit Lady! He heads toward her at a breakneck waddle, begging. "Please, missus!" he pleads, in the tremulous voice of a fat Dickensian orphan, "please, anything..." Biscuit Lady tosses him a treat, hoping to satisfy him. Dream on. I've seen Cookie inhale a pound cake the size of his own torso and swear with his next breath that he's never, ever been fed. He simply cannot be satisfied.

Remind you of anyone?

There are among us people I call human beagles. They can't get enough—enough love, praise, attention, control. Psychologists categorize them as borderline personalities, narcissists, etc., etc., but all you need to remember is this: You cannot satiate them. Don't even try.

Human beagles can be identified by a sensation that I think of as drain-strain. Sometimes it registers slowly, as though you're a maple tree tapped for its syrup. Sometimes you can feel your energy being cannibalized in great, horrifying mouthfuls. Either way, drain-strain's signature combination of exhaustion, aversion, and resentment means you're throwing resources into an insatiable gullet. It's bad for both you and the human beagles. They can feel satisfied only by creating an inner supply of happiness and empowerment. "Feeding" them leaves both of you weaker and hungrier.

Step 2: We Should All Work Like Dogs, All the Time

In Cookie's case, perpetual ravenousness is a breed trait. This makes beagles wonderful airport food-sniffers, though they won't sniff anything else. Golden retrievers, on the other hand, are offshoots of the pointer breeds, which are bred to lift one front paw and point at game. Our household golden, Bjorn, raises his paw in a Teutonic salute so often, I fear he may have picked up Nazi sympathies from a reprobate gang of skinhead German pointers. Fortunately, this never distracts Cole (our Labrador retriever) from his God-given assignment of obsessively fetching his toy duck from the pool, swimming with paws that are webbed for just such a purpose.

This is what I mean by "we should all work like dogs": We should do what comes most naturally, reflexively, effortlessly. Many of my clients initially see this as irresponsible. They believe virtuous work means getting all tensed up and doing things they loathe. This is simply unsound marketing. My first and last sales principle is this: Love sells better than hate. Find a way to package what you can't stop doing, as in "Look! I love to raise my paw! So I'll use it to point out game, and we'll both be happy!"

One of the best life coaches I've ever trained started on her career path not knowing there was such a profession. She had just one objective—to get paid for reading self-help books. Her joy and intelligence make her a brilliant problem solver. I've used her myself—she's wildly expensive and worth every penny.

Use the work-like-a-dog principle to make your career and time-budgeting decisions. Should you go back to school? Only if it makes you salivate with desire. Should you stay home with your children? Yes—if the thought makes you feel as though someone's rubbing your tummy. Would you rather have a job? Don't apologize, just go ahead and work. Like a dog.

Step 3: See Every Effort as an Opportunity to Relax

One of my favorite fictional characters is a parrot from Tom Robbins's Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. The parrot speaks words only once in a great while, and he says just one thing: "People of the world: Relax!"

The parrot doesn't need to include "dogs of the world" because they're relaxed already. Cookie, for example, is now writhing on his back in the grass, emitting small grunts of pleasure, without the slightest hint of concern that his chubby tummy and exquisite enjoyment are on display. I know people who've spent thousands of dollars on sex therapy trying to do that. Meanwhile, Cole is chasing a Frisbee, leaping into the air to make his catches more spectacular. I notice that when he's getting ready to run, his body doesn't tighten—it loosens. At full speed, his muscles seem as fluid as running water.

Here's one of the very few generalizations I believe unconditionally: There is not one useful thing we can do that we don't do better when we're relaxed. The harder, scarier, and more important the task you're undertaking, the more you'll benefit from relaxation. Are you speaking before a crowd of thousands? Relax! Sitting in a job interview? Relax! Being physically attacked? Any black belt will tell you that the first thing you should do, against all instinct, is relax, relax, relax!

One day—a day that has lingered in my memory despite countless attempts to repress it—I went skiing with a group of expert athletes in blizzard conditions. My friends wanted to ski runs with names like Panic Attack and Months in Traction, while I preferred Pokey Li'l Pony and Easy Does It. At first, my friends ribbed me good-naturedly. Then they realized I was serious, and became silently ashamed for me. Of course, I tensed up. After my third face-plant, the best skier in the group told me gently, "Martha, every scary obstacle is just an invitation to relax." I wish this invitation came with horse tranquilizers, but I took it to heart. Breathing deeply, I pictured my dogs dashing along the golf course. The image helped me relax enough to get my body down the mountain intact. If I could've relaxed like a Labrador retriever, my pride might have survived, too.

Step 4: Get the Ball on the Green

Please understand: I do not golf. I don't know why the music for televised tournaments sounds like the score for a film biography of God. I can't tell the difference between a putter, a chipper, a whacker, or whatever. However, as I walk the fairway, even I end up thinking in golf metaphors.

Most of my clients focus all their dreams on hitting one fabulous hole in one. If they could just get their novel published, or nab a role in a movie, or find true love, they tell me, they'd be set for life.

It doesn't work like that.

You could hit a hole in one and still lose a golf tournament, and you could win without ever hitting a hole in one. A great golfer is someone who usually gets the ball somewhat closer to the hole than most other people. Almost everything in life functions this way. No break is big enough to end all your problems, but consistently getting reasonably close to your objective, task after task, will put you far ahead of most other people. So dream of the hole in one, but know you can be a champion just by getting it on the green. On all 62 holes. Or whatever.

Step 5: Once You Trust Yourself, You Can Trust Everyone

When my dogs meet friends, canine or human, they squeal and frolic with joy. But other people evoke a very different response. For example, we pass a bulldog named Chunky whose human frequently screams at and threatens other humans—not to mention poor Chunky. They go by in a cloud of weird, the man trying violently to make Chunky obey, Chunky straining furiously to escape. Everyone, canine and human, avoids them.

Last week, Chunky's human went into a violent tirade at another dog walker for no apparent reason. Today he waves and smiles, as though everyone who saw the event isn't mentally scarred. I wave and smile back, thinking, "I hope Chunky kills him in his sleep." I'm pretending that Chunky's human doesn't give me the creeps, which may be courteous, but it's also dangerous—or would be, if I acted "socially appropriate" while stifling the inner voice that was telling me someone shouldn't be trusted.

Dogs don't make this mistake. They trust their instincts, their bodies, their feelings. And this means they can trust all others—to be exactly what they are. Trusting yourself means you know what, and who, is authentic. You can trust liars to lie, cheaters to cheat, abusers to abuse, crazy makers to go on making you crazy. This trust will be based on what you actually sense and believe, rather than polite words and social pressure, and that's the only kind of trust you can always trust.

I'm perpetually surprised that people ask my advice when ordinary life is so crammed with useful lessons. I don't know about Shakespeare's trees, brooks, and stones, but I definitely find tongues in beagles, books in the running Labradors, and sermons in Scotties. Maybe your life teachers aren't dogs; maybe they're cats, or children, or shopping malls. Open your eyes and mind, and you'll see them everywhere. If not, you can always come walk my dogs. Just make sure you bring a little something for Cookie, because he's starving.

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