Teaching Dogs

In my extensive work with dogs and in living with them for more than 40 years, I’ve learned a lot about what the human/canine relationship is about.  When training (or re-training) a dog, one must first teach the dog what commands it is to obey, then teach their human counterpart the same language so that the dog is not confused by what it’s being told.  When watching a dog and human interact, sometimes it’s obvious where the shortcomings lie, and almost invariably it’s with the human, not the dog.  Dogs have a finite capacity for learning, though those boundaries are being stretched to near-unbelievability as we learn more about them.

Over the years, I’ve read numerous articles, essays, and blog posts about the things that dogs teach us humans.  Many times, those writings are inspired by the passing of a beloved pet rather than in celebration of the life currently shared.  So in that spirit, here are some of the things dogs have taught me, and continue to teach me, leading the way by example.

  • No matter how much time you spend with a dog on Monday, it will expect the same amount of time from you on Tuesday and every day of the week.  It doesn’t matter if you’re not feeling well or if you’re stressing out over something in your life.  Dogs are there for us, and while it may seem that we’re doing them a favor by lavishing our attention on them, it’s truly the other way round.  By allowing us to make extended physical contact, we satisfy some deep-seated need in ourselves to connect with other living beings. So rather than thinking of it as “dog time,” consider it shared “me time.”
  • Sometimes it’s okay to lounge on the sofa, half napping, half reading.  We don’t always need to be in motion to consider ourselves “useful.”  The idea that movement equals accomplishment is severely flawed and only serves to put more stress upon our already stress-filled lives.  Naps are underrated, especially if one gets less than eight hours of restful sleep a night.  Every once in awhile, allow yourself time to do nothing.  You’ll be surprised at how refreshed you’ll feel, and how clear your mind is afterward.
  • We’re told in so many ways by so many people other than ourselves how we “should” spend our time, whether it be at work or in leisure.  Be more spontaneous in your life.  Choose a time during the week or on a weekend to do something you want to do rather than something youhave to do.  Dogs tend to do exactly as they please, not because we humans believe it’s wrong and they’re seeking some kind of negative attention, but because they live purely by instinct, and if that inner voice is telling them to snatch the chicken off the counter because it smells delicious, then that’s what they do, and damn the consequences.  While I don’t advocate irresponsible behavior disguised as spontaneity, it is sometimes freeing to simply let go of schedules and do something unplanned for a change.
  • It’s sometimes okay to voice our dissent or dislike of a situation, a person, or an action that someone else has performed.  We often get so caught up in trying to fit in through “politically correct” language, that we forget that we’re individuals, not replicas.  We don’t necessarily subscribe to the “hive mind” of groups or committees or conferences.  My dog Yaz is very vocal about her likes or dislikes, and has no qualms about sharing her viewpoint with the world.  Prior to her coming to live with us, she was kept in an overly full kennel with numerous other dogs, and the only way she could be heard was to constantly bark bark bark.  Now that she’s become part of our family, she rarely barks…except when she’s in a situation that makes her uncomfortable.  Typically, that means at the dog park where she is forced to share her “person” with other dogs.  To counteract this, I call her over to me whenever she begins her incessant and loud voicing of her displeasure, lavishing her with attention, telling her what a good girl she is.  Her doggie smile is quite satisfied, and she’s gotten the message over time that she needn’t worry about being ignored or forgotten in a strange place.  It’s her form of temporary separation anxiety.  The technique has worked over the months, in that now Yaz will bark once, then trot over to where I’m standing to reassure herself that I’m still there with her, and I never fail to acknowledge her effort to find the reassurance she needs.
  • It’s not required that we like everyone we meet.  For reasons that I have yet to figure out, my dogs don’t always choose to play with certain other dogs.  I have not yet noticed any overt reasons for their decisions – and those choices may change from one day to the next.  Perhaps they’re just not in a playful mood, or maybe they’re having a quiet day.  We humans are a lot like that, as well.  We’re forced to interact with other humans every day, whether we want to or not.  In those interactions, we may encounter someone who immediately rubs us the wrong way, or does something that offends us.  No need to bark at them, but neither is there a need to automatically like them or befriend them or encourage them to interact with us.  My dogs will either simply walk away, or growl just enough to get the message across: Back off.  Otherwise, spend more time with those who support and fulfill you in some meaningful way.  Life’s short enough as it is without wasting time on people who’d rather drag you down to their level rather than lift you up or see you fulfill your true potential.
  • There’s always room on the bed for one more dog.  If there are no dogs on the bed when it’s time to retire for the day, actively invite one (or more) with you to sleep.  Even when there are more than one human, dogs bring us a feeling of comfort, peace, and security when they’re close by.  We have one dog who has to sleep alone or he gets grumpy and complains aloud.  The others, however, find solace by pressing as much of their furry bodies as possible against ours.  In spite of the fact that our dogs are considered giant breeds, we accommodate them by buying a larger-than-needed bed so everyone fits.
  • No matter how old you are, if you feel up to it, find time in your day for a bit of play, whatever that means to you.  Our Black Lab, Malai, is going on twelve years, and she’s more active now than she was even several years ago, and shows no signs of slowing down.  Currently, she pretty much runs circles around the other, younger dogs.  I take my cue from her.  Some days I “feel old,” and don’t want to over exert myself.  Other days, though, are ripe for a long walk, a hike, or some other activity that I enjoy.  Just because I ache today, it doesn’t mean that I’ll still feel that way in a day or two days.
  • There’s no harm in sharing the water that has accumulated on your fur with anyone standing nearby.  Rather than waste it on the ground, always shake yourself dry near a group.  It’s much more fun to watch their reactions.