I want to tell you a story about facing a challenge. It’s a dog’s story. Specifically, the story of how my rescue dog Gartholomew faced the challenge of moving to a house with a flight of stairs.

Now, there’s a few things you should know about this particular challenge: First, in the 10-12 years of his life, Garth has never lived in a house with stairs. Second, in the soon to be 9 years since Garth came to us from Stray Hearts Shelter in Taos, he has never not slept with me. “That dog is glued to your hip,” my ex says. The last thing you should know goes back to the first: Garth is anywhere from 10-12 years old. And you know what they say: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Certainly, that’s the way this challenge started.

On that day that Garth and I moved into the house, he took one look at the stairs, looked at me, and walked over to his bed. His downstairs bed (one of three downstairs beds he has). I called him back to the stairs. “Come on, old boy,” I said, “you can do this.”

And he did.

Gingerly, hesitatingly, begrudgingly.

Make it up all 15 stairs.

But when he turned to come back down, his paw slipped and he took a tumble.

Bouncing and sliding all the way down to the first floor.

For the next few days, Garth simply ignored the stairs. You know the old saying: If at first you fail, never ever try again.

But this really work because, when night came and I went upstairs to sleep, Garth stayed downstairs.


For hours.

Al allone.

And unglued.

From my hip.

This didn’t make either of us happy.

So, I decided to just make the challenge go away.

By moving downstairs and sleeping on the couch.

This made Garth happy.

But not me.

After a night or two, I tried Plan B. I bought some adhesive stair pads, installed them and said to Garth, “OK, let’s try this.”

He did.

He wasn’t exactly thrilled about having to use the stairs to get to my bedroom, but the pads made the challenge less ominous.

More possible.

Garth was happy. I was happy.

Until the next morning.

When Garth refused to go back downstairs.

Stair pads or no stair pads, he looked at me as if I had lost my mind when I said, “Come on, old boy, let’s go downstairs.”

Instead, he started that panicked panting that dogs do and backed all the way down the hall.

Into the guest bathroom.

Looking at him, all wide-eyed and panting with his butt pressed up against the guest bathtub, I decided that my sweet old boy had had enough of this challenge.

He had met the challenge halfway by (begrudgingly, but successfully) going up the stairs. I would do the rest by simply carrying him downstairs.

Each morning.

I’m not sure if I mentioned this, but (a) Garth weighs 40 pounds, (b) I have lousy knees, (c) there are fifteen stairs and (d) I am not at all functional until I have a swallow of coffee.

From the coffee pot.

That is downstairs.

I carried Garth down those stairs for three mornings. It wasn’t too bad.

I guess I am saying that because (a) I did not drop the dog, (b) my knees did not blow out and (c) I still got my coffee.

I guess it was actually kinda bad for Garth because, on the fourth morning, he started squirming in my arms about four steps from the bottom.

I put him down.

He looked at me. I looked at him.

I tried the original approach again.

“Come on old boy, you can do this.”

And he did.

He made it down the last four stairs all by himself.

That’s when I came up with Plan C. A plan whereby I told myself I’d teach Garth to come down the stairs a few at a time. You know, we’d spend a few days with him going down the last four by himself. Then we’d try the last seven.

And so on.

I figured it would take a week, maybe ten days, before he could do all fifteen stairs.

And then another month or two before he, um, tolerated it.

Garth, however, had another plan in mind.

Plan Chow-Chow.

It went like this: At around 4:45 the afternoon of the day I came up with Plan C, Garth came up the stairs to interrupt my writing.

He wasn’t happy about doing so, but he wasn’t scared either.

What he was.

Was hungry.

I simply took this as a good sign that he would, indeed, learn to come up the stairs on his own.

When we got to the top of the stairs and I went to pick him up, he instead

Started down the stairs.

Not the bottom four.

But all fifteen.

On his own.

He was definitely still tentative and a little unsteady.

But he was also very focused.

On eating his “chow-chow.”

That was about a week ago.

Garth now routinely goes up and down the stairs multiple times a day.

Sometimes he even playfully jumps down the last few and slides across the hardwood floor.

Almost always, his tail is in the air.


Why am I telling you this?

Because all of us face challenges in our lives. If we are lucky, we will have people who try to help us solve those challenges.

But, ultimately, each of us has to look beyond the plans and tips and tools others may have for us.

And tap into whatever inner motivation.

Will allow us to face the challenge.

And get through it.

On our own.

The Practice of Being Alive is a collection of stories about getting through this thing called life.