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My Dog Is My Measure of Success

When life brings you down, reach for a paw for affirmation


Not long ago, my God-given gift of melancholy morphed into something much, much worse. If I were to describe it in musical terms, I’d say it was like the deejay in my head had taken off Nickelback’s “Someday” and replaced it with that shingles-inducing remake of “Lady Marmalade.” Yes, it was that bad. My thoughts constantly seemed to circle around the middle-aged idea that I was a complete and total fraud.

Whatever outward signs of success I may have sported, whatever compliments about my work people tossed my way, it seemed like they were going to be immediately followed by the words “Just kidding,” and laughter from a pack of rhesus monkeys.

So I sought professional help.

“Have you ever heard of ‘Imposter Syndrome?’” a psychiatrist asked me a week later. “It pertains to individuals who have an inability to internalize their accomplishments.”

I stared back at him with the same post-lobotomy patient’s look I often displayed in geometry class. The shrink then clarified. “In other words, it means you often feel like you’re faking it. You’re a phony,” he said. Okay, got it. Unfortunately though, it seemed there was no cure for this midlife nightmare. I’d just have to continue pretending that I had done well.

But then I realized there was one creature I’ve never had to pretend with: My dog, Sam.

At least once a day, my black lab/pitbull mix makes me feel rich, handsome and artistically brilliant — which is much better than the rest of the time when I go around feeling so inadequate and guilty that I’ve apologized for everything from the crash of the Hindenburg to The Real Housewives of New York City.

Happiness Is a Warm Puppy

One of the great things about dogs is that it’s so simple to make them happy. Which, in turn, gives their owner the warm glow of success.

For instance, consider the paw. (Go ahead, I’ll wait.) When I first got Sam, he was very hesitant about handing his over. When he finally did, though, I felt wonderful. I felt like I had fixed the national debt ceiling.

The author, Peter Gerstenzang, with his dog, Sam.

Of course, then Sam started giving me his paw when I didn’t ask for it. Like the time he woke me up at 3 a.m. to give me his paw. Still, a trick is a trick. And, as I learned in therapy, it’s not good to examine these things too closely. You might become neurotic!

Sam doesn’t care whether I’m flush or broke. Happy or sad. Whether I’m slim enough to fit into my tightest Levis or having trouble buttoning my pajama jeans. He only needs to be fed, walked and given the occasional hug and he’s insane with delight.

Cat people will tell you this is because dogs aren’t very bright. That their intelligence peaks at the level of a two year old. But I have enough challenges in life. It’s great that I have someone who is astonished that I can get up in the morning and put my slippers on without having to write “L” and “R” on them.

Dog Ownership’s Rewards

Sometimes it’s a game of fetch, sometimes it’s when I get Sam to high-five me. It all goes to my sweet spot. As I age and my ideas of feeling successful change as often as the lead singer in Van Halen, having this half-breed pup gets more and more precious. Unlike so many activities in life, what I put into dog ownership always comes back in spades.

Last week, I really hit the jackpot. And it came right on the heels of rejection.

A movie producer read a comic screenplay I’d written and said on the humor scale it had more laughs than Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra but not as many Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This left me deeply depressed, feeling like a failure. I exited his office and somehow made my way home. Then things changed.

I found Sam as he finished peeing on a rubber plant. For some reason, this brightened my day. But what turned it around completely? The dog saw me and started to wag his tail.

I don’t know whether he did this to ingratiate himself to me after this act of urinary insurrection or because he was genuinely glad to see me. But I chuckled and chose the latter.

My adopted dog stared at his master and kept wagging and goofily smiling. At that moment I forgot the movie producer, my age, my failures and how much my knees hurt when it rained.

Sam came over and rubbed against my legs. And I was certain, right then, right there, that as a writer, a guy, a person on the planet? That all was well. And that I most definitely had it made.

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