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Barking at trees doesn't make the squirrels come down

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

After having to say goodbye to our 15 year old dog Freddie, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from him, and his sister Sky (who is still educating us, bless her!).

Like any dog owner, I could write reams on what my dogs have taught me about unconditional love. It never mattered how bad tempered I was or how little time I had for them, they were always pleased to see me. And that welcome never failed to make me smile, even in the darkest times.

It takes so little to make a dog happy. Walks, food and water, affection and a warm place to sleep: job done. Who can’t learn from that?

The surprising thing that popped into my head, though, was this: barking at trees doesn’t make the squirrels come down.

At first it just made me laugh, remembering all the times I’d left Freddie and Sky barking at a tree in near hysteria, while I wandered off casually, pretending they were nothing to do with me, having shouted myself hoarse at them to no avail.

But it goes deeper than that, I reckon. While barking at trees may (sometimes!) be amusing in dogs, the same metaphorical behaviour in humans is somewhat less entertaining – one definition of insanity (popularly attributed to Einstein) is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Seems to me that there’s another aspect to this little piece of canine wisdom: bemoaning, bewailing and protesting our circumstances – whether internally or externally – achieves nothing, except keeping us focused on what makes us unhappy and on our sense of victimhood.

Don’t get me wrong: letting our feelings out is healthy and cathartic, and I am very much in favour of the occasional sweary outpouring or a damn good cry. But that doesn’t change our circumstances, does it?

If we keep barking at a tree and the squirrel doesn’t come down, then we can either carry on with the pointless barking and achieve nothing, or we can accept that the barking won’t make the squirrel come down, and either devise a new strategy or move on.

My current squirrel is my grief for the smelly, cantankerous, funny, daft, lovable, one-eyed, hairy-arsed old hellhound I’ve spent half my adult life with, and I am unashamedly spending time barking at the tree. But I know I’ll find ways of coping and moving on.

Thanks for everything, Freddie. You made life better, and I miss you.

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