“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” ~ Will Rogers
I never learned my people skills from people.
By and large, what I discovered throughout my school years, is that people can be pretty mean.
Sure, schoolyard bullying is something we’ve all gone through to various degrees, and in many senses, my decades of being the one my peers found it fun to emotionally kick around has made me who I am—for better and for worse.
I’m now a resilient person. I have unwavering loyalty to those I call friends and family, and a select few who’ve witnessed this at its peak have called it frightening. As an only child with very few friends, I learned to be on my own. I find peace in silence and stillness easily, whilst others I know find it more and more difficult to relax without distraction as they get older. I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff too much, because at the end of the day if I’m still breathing, I can fix the rest.
I’m also a liar. I learned to lie to avoid conflict. I learned that if I could just keep my head down and stay out of the way, I could lead a relatively calm life—and if I appeased the people who weren’t mistreating me, even if I was lying through my teeth to do it, I could maintain those relationships. I learned that if I were to upset people, to disappoint people, there would be no forgiveness or overlooking that wasn’t hard won. I learned that if I stopped being entertaining, even for a moment, the people who I believed loved me would begin to see the qualities I tried so hard to hide in plain sight. That they would see me for the below-average accessory that I was sure I was. That they would leave.
But when I went home, I was in a whole different world.
From a very early age I’ve been surrounded by animals. Our house was a menagerie. We had everything from sheep, ducks, and dogs to resident bachelor peacocks and a carpet python longer than my bed. I spent my mornings and afternoons being protected by a Doberman, bowled over by a ram, loved on by a rooster, and shown true freedom by a horse. In school, I escaped reality by diving into my work—but at home, reality came rushing at me in technicolour.
As I grew up and it was time for me to be an #adult, I felt deeply the emptiness of a home not brimming with life—but what I noticed less was the slow degradation of all of the wonderful qualities that living with and loving animals had taught me. The world of people began to wear me down.
Then this year, after some of the hardest months I had ever endured, I got a dog.
My dog is huge—in stature and in personality. He is also one of the kindest beings in my life, and his sense of humour has grabbed my heart strings and played me like a puppet.
My dog is the dog that everyone sees on the street and arcs their circle a little wider as they pass us. My dog is the dog who was left for dead in the forest by some some gaggle of dudebro’s who wanted to see blood spilled and hadn’t gotten to. My dog is the dog that makes parents clutch their children’s arms just a little tighter.
This is my dog.
In a matter of weeks, my dog has healed wounds I have carried with me for years, and has made decent headway to transforming me into a Good Person. I don’t meditate, I don’t do yoga, and the concept of vegetable juice makes me dry heave—but I don’t need any of that.
Dogs are magic, pure and simple. They seem as if they’ve been woven by Mother Nature herself out of threads of absolute goodness. There’s a reason that dogs are used to rehabilitate the hardest of criminals, and soothe the sickest in the hospital: they’re ambassadors for greatness. And if you let them, they’ll show you the way.
This is number one because, if you got a dog for all the right reasons, this is the first and the last thing they teach us.
In order to communicate with our dogs, we first need to learn to understand how they feel and who (not what) they are. There has been study after study to show that humans are inherently awful at this, and many a dog owner has gone through their entire lives thinking their dogs feel happy when in fact they’re completely miserable.
As a species, we’ve gotten great at facial recognition. Humans communicate the most with their facial expressions. This has its downsides when we want to communicate with other animals, and the dog has been the unwitting victim of the brunt of this confusion. When dog owners first begin to learn about their dogs, they start to notice a different style of communication, and we almost need to learn a new language entirely. This process requires us to put ourselves in our dog’s paws, and consider how certain situations may make them think and feel—not as humans, but as an entirely different and autonomous being. This requirement quickly becomes a personality trait all its own.
Empathy takes the focus away from the self, and gives it to the other—a process many humans need to engage in more often.
You want to be part of the mindfulness movement? Go to your local shelter and get a dog.
Nothing will make you as aware of your own behaviour as training an animal, and no animal will make you so intensely aware as a dog.
Dogs have literally evolved to read human faces, body language, and tone. This has had such a pronounced effect that they have developed extra muscles in their faces in order to mimic human facial expressions and communicate better with their human pack. There is nothing on the planet that is more attuned to understanding you than your dog. Not even your mother.
Studies have shown that unless words of praise are accompanied by a happy tone of voice the pleasure centres in a dog’s brain will not respond. Further studies have shown that, when given a choice between a photo of a happy face and a photo of an angry face, and played various recordings of simple praises, commands and scoldings in a language the dogs do not understand, dogs will prefer to look at the happy face—but that they can also accurately pair the correct tone of voice and facial expression. And in the most embarrassingly frightening study for dog owners, a dog’s learning has been shown to be significantly slower after being exposed to anger or other negative emotions. Think about all of those times we’ve scolded our dogs in an effort to teach them something. The irony.
Dogs. See. Everything.
That hot chip you fed him, thinking he didn’t see that you took it from your own plate? Yeah, he got that.
That time you were too late in praising her for doing that thing you’re trying to teach her to do, and she did a hundred other behaviours while she was waiting? She saw that.
The times you said “come here!” and he did and you got mad at him for something else? Mmhm. That too.
Although we’ll never experience that level of scrutiny from other humans, just watch this hyper-aware attitude seep into everything that you do. I found that my memory improved, my listening skills improved, and my ability to stop ego-driven behaviours, like projecting emotions or assuming the motives of others, started to melt away.
This is a big one.
If you’ve ever come home to find that your dog has ripped the sofa apart (me, circa earlier this week), or spent a half hour training your dog to sit in the kitchen only to take him to the park and discover he’s forgotten what human words are, then you know what I’m talking about.
For crazy-aware animals, dogs can often appear pretty dim. So used to our cosy world of complete comprehension are we, that we often forget that being a dog is a lot like being captured by aliens and having them take you to a strictly ritualised dinner party, full of rules and customs that you don’t know explained to you in a language you don’t understand. And being expected to extrapolate those rules and customs, mysteriously, to some situations but not to others.
There’s been such a culture created around having a Good Dog that we often forget what kind of a learning curve dogs are faced with their entire lives. This is the reason and the way many dogs end up abused, given to shelters as “problem dogs”, or being trained with stupidly forceful methods like Alpha Training and Balance Training that have no basis in either modern science or basic decency.
Once the responsibility of being in charge of an entire life really hits home, this understanding often encourages patience to flow out like a geyser. No-one with even a sliver of a heart could not learn patience for a being with such a constant academic and cultural learning challenge. And once patience—real patience, like when you don’t want to be patient and you have to actually find it somewhere—is felt, there’s no going back. It’s one of those emotions that seems to feed on itself and grow like stalactites.
4. Positivity and Being Genuine.
Remember when I said that a dog’s pleasure centres don’t respond to praise unless it’s given in a happy tone?
That means, despite your dad making fun of the family dog by calling it stupid names and telling it it was the worst in a high pitched baby voice (no? Just me?…huh), dogs know when you’re lying.
You can’t train a dog properly when you’re mad. You can’t take your dog to the dog park scared and anxious and expect it to behave. You can’t just say “good boy” and not mean it.
Living with a dog teaches you that good things rarely grow in bad conditions. When I want the best out of my dog, I have to dig deep and find something to be happy about. And, really, dogs are the most accomplished animals in the world at doing this so I’m learning from the best.
I hate using the word dog owner.
I do it, because that’s the way most people have conceptualised this thing they’re doing where the have a dog stay in their house and eat their stuff. But no one really “owns” anyone here, not truly.
What is actually happening is a relationship. There’s a reason why lots of people with pets have jokes made up about them having pets instead of romantic relationships. “Cat lady”, anyone? I was once called a cat lady, simply for having a cat whilst also managing to exist without a boyfriend.
Those were dark days, guys. I’m so glad I was not saved by a man because being single is not a chore.
Having pets, however, is a commitment that better involve some level of love otherwise please send your pets to me. I will pay for postage.
So often in our lives we seek dominion over others. We’re encouraged to compete against one another, to show “strength”, to beat others somehow. We forget that no one gets out of here alive, and everything great we’ve ever done, we’ve done together. Our whole legacy is standing on the shoulders of giants.
When your dog learns something, if you’re doing it right, you should be hit by this wave of admiration for you both as a team. You muscled through the hard stuff together, you puzzled through the moments of miscommunication, you made fools of yourself trying to get your point across like that time you played drunk charades and no one understood that sticking two fingers out of your mouth and rolling on the floor was clearly Snakes on a Plane. Idiots.
Seeing a difficult process full of frustration as a chance to learn and achieve, rather than a blame game, sets us up for success in all kinds of situations. I found that my ability to productively work with colleagues increased, and I was much more likely to view a group setback as something to be fixed than as a moment to highlight other’s flaws.
I’ve never met a good dog owner who was consistently hair-brained or careless.
Dogs are entirely reliant on humans for almost everything that makes them happy. If you have a dog, and have not at one point or another being on the verge of an emotional breakdown when thinking about how easy it is to screw up their lives with your human follies, I question your commitment to dog ownership.
All of the above categories are things that dogs can help us learn to improve, and as such, they’re also things that—by nature or nurture—we have become particularly bad at. That means they’re also things that can regularly and unwittingly cause harm to your dog.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day about education systems. I was furious because while he grew up on the other side of the world and had an amazing education, I watched my parents scrimp and save and fight to get me into the best schools they could, only for us all to find out that the whole system is rotten. This changed the trajectory of my life entirely.
This is what life is like for your dog, with you.
In one moment, you can change that dog forever. A dog can go from being an inherently friendly, loving being to an anxious, fearful and aggressive one in a matter of minutes. We’re not bad people, but in many cases, it is our fault.
After four weeks of being an excited, obsessive, annoyingly Instagrammy dog mum, I have been morphed from a forgetful person who spent a good third of her life looking for that thing she put down literally five minutes ago, to someone who can remember the tea preferences of more than three people at a time. For me, that’s a feat of unnatural proportions.
7. Planning and Organisation.
Danger lurks everywhere.
Everything in this world is specifically designed to get your dog.
Your training will be undermined, your dog will be injured, and you will be labeled the town Bad Dog Owner.
Or, at least, that’s what it feels like sometimes.
Dog owners who do their due diligence learn to think ten steps ahead, map out all possible scenarios, and assume that the worst of those will be their reality. Then they plan accordingly and walk straight up to it with a smile and a spring in their step.
You can’t be regularly disorganised or faraway when you’re training a dog. You can’t go on your training walk and forget your treats all the time. You can’t round a bend in the path with your dog pulling your arm off and just hope there isn’t a strange dog on the other side of that corner. You can’t open the door with your dog standing behind you and pray to the almighty canine lords that your lad or lass resists the urge to dash past you and after your neighbours’ cat.
Dogs also thrive on predictability in a lot of ways. Dogs work best when they get exercise, food, brain games, and rest at regular and consistent times. Things in a dog’s life may sometimes look a little haywire—and in many areas, throwing a spanner in the works now and then is not only good for their training, but is an enjoyable level of pressure that allows dogs to challenge themselves—but a sense of structure is something that can turn a bored and anxious dog into a well-rounded person that actually enjoys their life.
My dog came into my life just as I was planning to move about 1700 kilometres away, so, organisation skills began manifesting fairly quickly in completely un-dog areas of my life. My panic and anxiety regarding big decisions or situations that would require a lot of forethought didn’t send me into my usual tailspin, and overall my world is a more organised—and therefore calmer—place.
8. The Hanged Man.
For those of you who muck around with tarot cards, I know your ears just pricked up a little. For those who don’t, The Hanged Man is a picture of a dude hanging upside down by one leg and printed on cardboard that the rest of us Fools (tarot humour, you wouldn’t get it) spend stupid amounts of money on.
He’s also the representative of a seismic shift in perspective, usually brought about by some sort of sacrifice.
Dogs get stressed and worried and scared just as much as humans do, but they tend to exhaust all other more positive possibilities first. This is why dogs who have been through sickening things can, in many cases, find love and trust again at seemingly the speed of light.
To a dog, a “problem” is an adventure first and a problem if that approach doesn’t work out. What humans often go ham over, dogs will smile at and run after to see if it wants to play.
The first few days of puppy parenting are overwhelming. Once the excitement wears off, there’s a wonderful stage affectionately referred to as the What The F*ck Have I Done Why Am I Here Please Help Me I’m Dying time.
This is where our learning begins, young padawans.
At this stage, everything is a problem. This is hard to describe to people who haven’t gone through this. Let me put it in perspective for you: during this phase I created five spreadsheets, I emailed 11 dog trainers, I friended almost 20 other dog trainers on Instagram, and I’m fairly sure I fell in love with one for at least a couple of hours.
Oh, yeah, I also considered taking my dog back to the sterile little shelter cubicle he came from and driving away to order a cocktail with one of those little umbrellas.
This is normal. Apparently.
It’s towards the tail end of this stage that we start to notice, hopefully, that our dog isn’t freaking out anywhere near as much as we are. Actually, they seem annoyingly happy. Yes, that was my shoe—clearly, now, it is a delightful chew toy from the gods.
After I resolved that I was not taking my dog back to the pound and we were both just going to have to live with this incredibly irresponsible decision, I started seeing things differently. The times of trepidation started to feel a little more like opportunities to get to know my dog better. Who even is this fluffball thing? How does he learn? How does he see the world? Moments of frustration were now times in which my dog and I could bond over a mutual enemy—The Evil Harness.
Before long, this switch in perspective became infectious. No problem was too big for me or my abilities, even if everyone else said they were. If the four legged guy with his head on my chest could figure out how to sniff out my phone in less than an hour, I could do whatever anyone else said I couldn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I like humans. I just wish we could all learn to be dogs.
Author: Erin Lawson
Image: Author’s own; Flickr/LuAnn Snawder Photography
Editor: Deb Jarrett