On Things I Learned from My Days with Dogs

As an evening grad student, I used to walk dogs during the daytime hours to support myself. Much as I loved the actual work that I did, having the less than prestigious professional title of “Dog Walker” definitely brought on its fair share of mental battles. Sometimes I found myself unbearably frustrated that, with all the hard work I put in to earning my Bachelor’s degrees, I was  unable to find more gainful, challenging, or stimulating employment. I worried too much about what my clients would think of me, and the thoughts of my friends, my family, my old classmates.

But on the other hand, walking dogs was preferable to some of the other lowly employment options that the miserable economic state made available to me. Dog walking offered me exercise, vitamin D, companionship, ample opportunities for meditation, and a decent enough paycheck. It kept me active and healthy and engaged with some of the most joyful and pleasant creatures I could hope to encounter. I just had to work on letting that be enough.

As I struggled with the negative feelings I sometimes had and believed that others have toward my work, I found myself trying to focus on the positives as much as possible. And, in addition to all the things listed above, I can also point to quite a few positive life lessons that we can learn from our canine friends. They may not be the most eye-opening or life-shattering observations, but they kept me going on each and every walk each and every day.

1. Nature is meant to be explored with all of our senses. In a day and age where our sense are inundated with creatively placed advertisements, perpetual sound, media infiltration, and near-constant connectivity, it is easy to lose sight of the more natural world that simply exists all around us. Dogs never hesitate to sniff, taste, and listen to everything in their line of sight. Each blade of grass holds the possibility of endless exploration and every route taken holds the possibility of exciting new sensations. Though the canine senses of scent and sound far exceed our human capabilities in these departments, we can learn much from their eagerness to utilize every last scent in their arsenal to explore the world around them.

2. Attention-seeking is a primary motivation behind all of our actions. For most of the dogs I walked, I think that the most exciting part of their day is not so much when we go on a walk as when I arrive for that walk. Nothing produces more tail wagging, jumping, and licking then the simple arrival of an interested individual. Speaking a dog’s name in a sing-song voice, petting her, and taking her for a walk all are met with joyful and enthusiastic responses. At the end of the day, dogs just want someone to pay attention to them, and I think the same goes for their human counterparts. We just want someone to notice us, love us, spend time with us, be kind to us. Even something as simple as exchanging pleasantries with a stranger (which often occurs on a walk) can bring a smile to one’s face. There is no reason why attention and kindness can’t be shared, especially when the impact of such small actions can be so vast.

3. Never underestimate the power of play and exercise. When Louie is misbehaving, rambunctious, or out of sorts, the best medicine that Mike and I know is a good long walk. Usually her bad behavior is a product of listlessness, idleness, and boredom. Playing with her or getting her good and tired out helps bring her back to that good dog equilibrium for which we constantly aim. And I’ve noticed that the same pattern holds true in my own life. When I have something I need to work out mentally or emotionally, a good run does wonders for easing my mind and sorting out my worries. Other days when I’m not feeling my best, I can work in a little outdoor exercise to wake my body up and get myself back on track. The power of a little exercise is quite formidable but also universal.

4. There is nothing quite like the simple joy of food. Most dogs are overjoyed to receive treats, no matter how much you make them go through to earn it, no matter how small the reward actually is. The joy derived from that delicious taste is enough to force them to do nearly anything you, as an owner, please. And mealtime is a celebratory event in itself. Much as I know Louie is excited to see us every morning after a night spent in separate parts of the house, I think much of her excitement can also be attributed to the prospect of an imminent breakfast. Meals are devoured voraciously as though each one could be her last. Though food is a vessel for fueling our bodies, there is another reason it tastes good – it’s meant to be enjoyed. Every bite is worthy of savoring, every meal an opportunity for pleasure and enjoyment. And there’s nothing wrong with a little something sweet every once in a while!

5. Communication does not only occur verbally. One of the things I learned a lot about while reading up on dog training was canine expression and body language. Far too often people rely solely upon their powers of verbal communication to send messages to one another and their pets. But dogs are expressive creatures, as are humans, and both of us are able to relay and interpret messages through other means. While this may seem a blatantly obvious and elementary point, I think we often forget about how much we can say to one another with speaking a word. Simply touching someone, making expressive facial gestures, or providing a smile can do wonders to reinforce how we feel. And though we often don’t realize that it’s so, we are constantly interpreting these visual messages from others. So put on a positive air, offer a cheesy smile, and be cognizant of what your body language is saying – and if it truly aligns with what you’re trying to say.

6. We all need praise. For most dogs, praise is enough to get them to comply with whatever it is you’re trying for. Some of the dogs I walked won’t start moving their feet until I get down to their level, lure them over, and shower them with praise and love. Others won’t make a move toward their kennel until I encourage them with a simple “good dog” and a treat. Positive feedback fuels so many canine actions because it offers such a basic and elemental good feeling for them. This corresponds with #2 quite well – we want to feel good just like dogs do and more than anything positive attention brings those much-desired good vibes. Dogs need that constant reinforcement which we’re not always so likely to give to each another, even when we recognize one another doing good. So give someone some thanks, acknowledgement, or even a reward for their thoughtfulness, kindness, talent, or positive impact. I don’t think anyone could find themselves feeling any worse for receiving a little bit of praise.

7. Vegetables are best eaten straight out of the ground. Louie loves nothing more than to tear up my garden and nibble on some broccoli and peas. While this caused me a bit of stress and frustration, I also can’t blame her for eating so healthy and enjoying food as fresh as it comes. Next year, I hope to model her behavior all season long, after fencing off the garden to keep her out of it!

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