Portrait by artist Joan Lemay

Eulogy for my very good boy

Influencer, co-inventor of mobile habit tracking, embodiment of doggedness, (mostly) a very good boy.

He literally didn’t need a last name because there was no other dog named Eggs in the entire world.

At each of the four vets he’d had in his life you could address him like you’d address a Madonna or a Sting. Just say, “We’re calling about Eggs” and the vet would know exactly who you were talking about. We’d even searched the social network Dogster to confirm that he was the only one.

Uniqueness came down to pluralization. There are plenty of dogs named Egg. In fact, I met one last year walking down our block. That singular Egg was small and round — his parents had given him the name to be descriptive.

To arrive at the plural, Sarah and I had browsed a Mark Bittman book, How to Cook Everything. We were looking for food names that might be a good fit for a dog.

From there, we walked into the Milo Foundation’s old Solano Avenue dog adoption outpost looking for an Eggs Benedict.

What we found was a scared, confused and lost little boy. Scrambled really.

He and his brother had been found in Oregon by elderly farmers. The elderly farmer’s daughter, in San Francisco, had just gotten a dog, and so her farmer parents thought, “Hey, how about you take on two more.”

Of the three dogs, this boy was the odd dog out. The farmer’s daughter gave him to Milo’s shelter, almost full grown, about ten months old. His snout was covered in bite marks from his temporary siblings. He died with those scars still visible.

This soon-to-be-named-Eggs dog had been in his cage in the shelter for maybe an hour when Sarah and I walked in.

We think we’re picky adopters — he wasn’t the first dog we’d laid eyes on. But he was one of the few we thought worth taking for the Test Walk.

Shelters don’t give rigorous guidelines for how to evaluate a dog on the Test Walk. But we think our system is pretty good.

Here’s the system. Each prospective dog parent should find a way to be alone with the dog, i.e. the other parent should go hide around the corner. Then each parent, separately, should sit on the ground. If the dog sits in both your laps, then keep him or her.

We kept him.

To us, he was mesmerizingly handsome. He had the personality of an Australian Shepherd along with that breed’s natural stubby tail. From every angle, he showed a different conglomeration of fur patterns and colors from who-knows-what other breeds.

Eggs Benedict is the name you give a show dog. He was not that. So we shortened it to just Eggs.

In the car outside of the Milo foundation, Sarah and I turned to each other and said, “Now we’re a family.” We’d been together just one and a half years, and Eggs became our family glue for the next twelve and half.

White, tan & black head with speckled paws, multi-colored haunch, grey-to-white-to-black back, mostly white belly, cute stubby tail. Great ears.

Eggs was not universally a good dog.

During an early stint as an office dog, Eggs had an incident with the tech luminary, Tim O’Reilly. It was Tim’s office, with Tim’s last name on the building. But Eggs wasn’t up for grief and there was an incident.

Years later, at a dinner where Tim was hosting the still-mostly-a-book-seller Jeff Bezos, Jeff asked Tim, “Does your company have a dog policy?”

Tim relayed the Eggs incident and the office policy for dogs at Amazon became simply, No. (Of course, that was a terrible policy, Amazon later relented, and the answer is now a resounding Yes.)

Even more years later, the New York Times ran an article on Amazon’s history of bruising work culture, leaving out the period where office dogs had been banned. Eggs got off without blame because the New York Times loved him. He’d been their cover boy two times, gracing the business section to talk about small business blogging and the real estate section to talk about bi-coastal living.

Eggs’ main breed, Australian Shepard, is a working dog bred for herding. If you give this breed a job, they’ll do that job with enthusiasm, and if you don’t give them a job, they’ll make one up for themselves and then do that with enthusiasm. One of Eggs’ first self-appointed jobs was to make and enforce seating charts whenever we had visitors.

That first self-appointed job led our family to dog training and that led us to the incredible dog trainer Sarah Mullen and she led us to the clicker training work of Karen Pryor.

Clicker training is mostly about progressively shaping the behavior you want through positive reinforcement. (Aside: this method is a better alternative to techniques like yanking the leash or physically manipulating your dog. If you’ve ever been inspired by Cesar Milan’s methods, you should at least read this article about the problems with his techniques and the existence of even better alternatives.)

Anyway, in clicker training, the clicker is the communication tool that marks the exact moment your dog has made an incremental move toward the end goal behavior. The clicker screams, “Perfect! Now come get a treat.” (So, obviously, you also need to have treats on hand.)

Eggs loved clicker training because he loved working and he loved food. He learned to sit and down and touch. We cued him to walk backwards with a verbal mimic of a truck backing up, “Beep. Beep. Beep.” One of my favorite incremental successes was him stepping on a book on the ground — later I incrementally raised that book with my hand and then took the book away, leaving behind a perfect “hand shake” behavior.

People often refer to dog training as obedience training, but I think the word obedience misses the point. Dog training is really about creating the epiphany in both of you that communication is possible. When both of you have that epiphany early, you go through your relationship trusting that eventually you’ll figure out what the other “person” is saying. The communication is never easy or crystal clear, but it’s like meeting a foreign tourist and knowing that there’s only a handful of things that they might be trying to communicate with you.

We came to know every look, whether his paws tapping on the floor meant he was thirsty, hungry, or needed to go out, when he was happy to get attention from a stranger and then when he was completely over that attention.

He stared us in our eyes and paid attention to our every word. After a business trip, he’d get in our laps, put his snout right in our faces, and silently deliver a “stern talking to” that would last over a minute. Traveling without me is never ok, he’d say.

Here’s where Eggs changed my life and created a career for me.

Many people thought the habit tracker I’d built (originally called Lift, now part of Coach.me) was based on the habit work of BJ Fogg, and it was, a little. But the actual moment where the idea crystalized came with Eggs.

I saw how much Eggs loved the clicker training and thought, “If only someone would care enough to clicker train me, then I’d finally make something of myself.”

Over a long weekend, we co-invented the idea of an app to apply positive reinforcement to humans. This was basically clicker training for habits. That was one of the happiest times of my life. Sitting by the fire, with me coding next to him, that period was merely run-of-the-mill happy for Eggs. He lived almost his entire life co-working with at least one of his parents.

There’s one family member who shared an important personality trait with Eggs, my grandfather on my mother’s side.

This is a little grim as anecdotes go, but it fits into the topic of eulogies. At one point my grandfather sent out an email to some people in the family mentioning his three different cancers, none of which we’d heard about before.

There was the one cancer he was about to start treatment on (yikes!), the cancer he’d had treated the year before (say what?), and the cancer he didn’t think was worth bothering with yet (double yikes!!).

The line from this email that showed the shared personality trait was just a completely matter-of-fact ending. The first part of my grandfather’s email read like a death sentence (and it was), but it ended with this:

Actually, after talking to the doctor I think I can beat this thing. I just have to work at it.”

There are three related words: grit, persistence, doggedness. But they are all subtly different. Grit implies pushing through suffering. Persistence implies pushing through a difficulty.

My grandfather didn’t seem to be acknowledging either the difficulty or the suffering of his predicament.

What Eggs helped me understand is that doggedness is the zen cousin of persistence and grit, where suffering and difficulty are irrelevant concepts. You do the work that’s required without obsessing over past failures or future chances of success.

When Eggs was young we took him to the edge of Lake Tahoe and threw a stick in the water. He’d never been in the water and was afraid to go fetch it.

So for twenty minutes, Eggs pawed at the edge of the lake, his paw reaching about one foot out, with the stick floating about five feet out. He’d reposition, trying to find an angle that would work, then reposition again. Over and over.

That was 20 minutes of uninterrupted attempts to fetch the stick, blocked by 20 minutes of refusal to get in the water. Then, all other options thoroughly investigated, he got in, swam to the stick, fetched it and brought it to shore. He’d be an enthusiastic swimmer for the rest of his life.

That is an expansion of the concept of doggedness — success doesn’t require blind bravery or genius insight. He just kept working through his list of ideas. Try the easiest or least scary ones first, obviously. But never let difficulty or fear keep you from attempting your work.

Eggs carried this doggedness all the way into old age, never giving up on his jobs, even when his body had started to decline. We saw that he’d stopped being a super athlete (for athleticism, watch him climb this vertical boat ladder), but I never saw him show that his lessened ability bothered him.

A couple in our apartment building lost all three of their dogs last year. Each passing was a sudden, tragic surprise. For us, Eggs passing is sad, but not tragic. He’d led a long and full life. But for our neighbors, these were tragic passings.

And so I learned a thing about human grief by talking to these loving dog parents, the father in particular.

Let’s call this dog father, Barney.

After losing his third dog I said something completely trite to him, “This is the best case scenario.” In hindsight, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut and just given him a hug.

However, he understood what I was getting at. We adopt a dog hoping for a deep and long lasting relationship. If we get that, then we experience grief when the dog passes. The deepness of the grief tracks with the depth of the relationship. In the twisted, overly-logical mind of a former computer programmer (me): more grief is better.

Barney waived me off and said, tears streaming down his face, “It’s too painful. I’m never going to get another dog again.”

When a person makes a proclamation like that while crying, it’s hard not to take them seriously. In the moment, knowing that our dog Eggs was nearing his end, I had worries that the grief would be too much.

And so, it gave me comfort in the last week of Egg’s life that Barney had adopted a new dog just three months after his telling me he couldn’t stand ever losing another.

In truth, Eggs was ready to leave a week ago. In his last week he didn’t experience any deep misery, but he also didn’t experience a single moment of joy. It was just a constant grey for him.

Yet, he dutifully went about performing his self-appointed jobs. And for that his parents thank him. Especially, I thank him because a week ago I was the one who wasn’t ready.

His decline had me thinking over and over of Sarah and I’s first realization about him: “He makes us a family.”

It took that final week of Egg’s life to move off of my unhelpful thoughts of resisting the future, “What’s our family going to be like without him?” and into more helpful thoughts of gratitude that our grief represents “the best possible outcome” and that knowing the quality of the future is irrelevant to the dogged work of getting there.

Just photos below.

Ears in the breeze.
Giving me a stern lecture on the need for Sarah to come back from her trip.
Portrait of both dogs practicing a core competency: napping in cute ways.
Key skill: drinking from a water bottle. (Don’t worry, it was a dog-only bottle)
Eggs over easy. Get it?
Enthusiastic eater.
Pair programming session.
Dogs in motion. @throw_me_a_bone_sf is an all time great dog photographer and one of Eggs’ best friends.
Combo kiss for mom plus stern talking to meant: let’s come to this beach again.
Eggs’ last day. For me, now, probably the saddest picture. Missing this good boy.

Human potential busy body. Founded @coachdotme, @bttrHumans, @bttrMarketing. Helped @medium @calm. Current work focus: Habit Coach Certification.

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