5 Lessons Dogs Can Teach Us About Being Human
Doggone Smart and Loyal, Too
Dogs and the Meaning of Unconditional Love
Until you've been loved by a wet-nosed, tail wagging, slobbery smooching dog, you really haven't known unconditional love. Dogs don't simply greet you at the door after a long day at work. They celebrate your homecoming. Who else truly does that?
And no matter what others think of you, the dog in your life sees you as someone surrounded by an aura of awesomeness. Dogs don't judge you by the amount of money in your bank account, your street cred, or the labels on your clothes. They don't critique your grammar, your manners, or your housekeeping. Like any true friend, they look past all that and simply see . . . just you.
Dogs can turn a car ride into a Zen moment as the wind slaps at their jowls. They gladly take the blame for passed gas and always share the remote. They understand your troubles better than any therapist and won't charge you a dime for the session (cue the head tilt and comforting nuzzle).
Dogs are our exercise partners, playmates, traveling partners, bedmates, and four-legged children. But did you know they are also teachers? Yep, they have life lessons to share, if you are willing to listen.
A Toy in Every Field: Just Add Friends
How are you most like a dog?
Play well with others.
An Agreeable Friend
Ah, the joy of simply being with friends! Having descended from pack-dwelling grey wolves at least 15,000 years ago, dogs embrace companionship.1 It is believed that inquisitive wolves once searched through human trash sites looking for food. Humans since adopted and tamed wolf pups, and a legendary friendship was born.
If there's one characteristic that describes man's best friend, it's agreeable. Dogs have the unique ability to get along with others so well. As a personality trait, those who are agreeable are
- empathic and
- appreciative of their interpersonal relationships.
Any dog owner can tell you that dogs seem to genuinely care how you are feeling. One study found that dogs are more likely to approach a person who is crying than one who is talking or humming. Dogs respond uniquely to tears in an attempt to comfort us.2 They often seem to be more tuned in to humans than we are to each other.
Research has also shown that dogs can read human intentions by carefully honing in on our eye movements.3 Dogs are so adept at this "doggie ESP" that their skills rival that of children aged six months to two years. Perhaps that is why so many people treat dogs as their offspring.
Humans trust dogs' caring and perceptiveness enough to use them in various service capacities, including
assistance dogs for the visually and hearing impaired ... although interestingly, dogs are effectively red-green colorblind themselves, seeing the world in shades of yellows, blues, and grays4
- seizure alert dogs for sensing their owners' seizures 30 seconds to 45 minutes in advance5 and
- emotional support dogs for veterans and others experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, or other disabilities.
Humans and the Multiple Benefits of Playing Well With Others
Humans who play well with others may realize many benefits of being agreeable:
- Being agreeable affects how we respond to medication: One study found that agreeable people benefited more from the placebo effect in response to physical pain.6 A placebo is a substance that objectively does not produce pain relief or other results itself. Instead, the patient's expectations produce desired effects. It is believed that the desire to feel better leads to the release of endorphins, thus creating genuine relief.
- Agreeable people are happier and more popular: Highly agreeable people are usually happier and have more pleasant everyday lives than those who are less agreeable.7 This includes being happier at work. Not surprisingly, agreeable people are also more popular, as the personality factor involves valuing social harmony above both self-interest and being objective or "correct" in decision making.
- More agreeable people make more supportive parents: Agreeableness is related to a more positive parenting style—warm, responsive, and nurturing—rather than a power assertive, negatively controlling parenting style.10 Also, agreeable teens are more likely to elicit these reactions from their parents rather than over-reactive parental responses of anger, frustration, meanness, and irritation. (The savvy teen would put this knowledge nugget to work for himself/herself!)
- Agreeable people are less likely to be obese: Multiple studies have found associations between low agreeableness and the risk for obesity across the adult life span.8 Specifically, agreeable people are less likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome, a potentially deadly combination of obesity plus any two of the following:9
- high triglycerides
- reduced HDL cholesterol ("good" cholesterol)
- high blood pressure and
- high fasting glucose.
Are You Agreeable?
A person who is more agreeable is more likely to endorse the following personality statements:
I am interested in people.
I feel others' feelings.
I have a soft heart.
I make people feel at ease.
I sympathize with others’ feelings.
I take time out for others.
I am interested in other people’s problems.
I am really interested in others.
I feel concerns for others.
I don't insult people.
I don't like being isolated.
Downside of Agreeableness
Before you get your tail wagging in constant agreement with the rest of the pack, you should know that being a nice guy does have its limitations, however. Rover would want me to me honest with you.
A primary downside of agreeableness is that agreeable men earn less at work. (There is no significant effect, however, for women.) Across a variety of occupations, agreeable men earn substantially less, compared with their disagreeable coworkers who are self-serving and criticize others' ideas. The less agreeable among us are more likely to challenge existing practices at work and persuade others to the value of their ideas and contributions.
This translates into a significant income advantage. On average, less agreeable men earn more than $10,000 more per year than their more agreeable male peers.11
Consider: "What Would Rover Do?"
The old adage that "Nice guys finish last" is thus really only partially true. Given all the evidence on agreeableness and its impact on health, wealth, and happiness, you thus have a choice regarding how to approach your life.
Next time you're faced with a situation, think about what is most important to you, and then ask yourself, "What Would Rover Do?"
Don't pretend to be something you're not.
Over 56.7 million American households are lucky enough to have a family dog, and we spend an average of $1,710 annually on their grooming, boarding, food, toys, and food.12 And then there's the canine costuming! Some breeds such as Greyhounds and Whippets are naturally bony and require the warmth of an extra layer. Other dogs that are old, very small, bald, or ill require waterproofing or insulation to protect them from the elements.
But then there's Halloween, the second biggest commercial holiday in the United States, and poor Fido finds himself dressed as a ballerina, superhero, or Elvis. Neighbors chuckle, strangers point, and "pawsitively" adorable photos are shared all over Facebook. Oh, the humiliations our four-legged friends endure for a few extra treats!
For all the fun and games, however, dogs would tell you that it's hard to communicate with other dogs when they're wearing clothing. And try doing your "business" in a cape or tutu, or eating with a wig on—especially when your hands are paws.
Dogs live by the motto of "don't pretend to be something you're not." They are unapologetically unpretentious. In case you haven't noticed, they sniff each others' anuses, roll in dead things, and hump legs. Not that humans should take these things up as hobbies, mind you, but we could learn a few things about authenticity.
We humans are a pretentious bunch with our name brand goods proclaiming our self-worth. Maybe we should just "Leave It," and concentrate instead on building our relationships, living our values, and enjoying the simple beauty of life—just like dogs do! There are some things only Man's Best Friend can tell you without you getting all "hot under the collar" about it. Now go do it!
If you're the type to hang on to a grudge like a dog guards his favorite toy, consider letting go for your own sake. That's right ... Stop! Drop it! Good boy (or girl)! You won't find dogs holding grudges. While it's possible some things cannot or should not be forgiven, consider this: the offending act hurt you once, but ruminating about it hurts you over and over again.
Sh*t Happens: Pick It Up and Move On
Health Effects of Unforgiveness
Unforgiveness refers to dwelling on a transgression, and that rumination is associated with anger and hostility. Simply thinking about the offense triggers a chronic stress response. It raises your blood pressure and heart rate, cause you to sweat more and increase your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).13 It can also make you feel angry, sad, anxious, and less in control.
Over time, persistent resentment can contribute to cardiovascular disease, chronic low-grade inflammation, and poor mental health. For example, an inability to forgive yourself for your own transgressions can lead to depressive symptoms in later life.
Such unforgiveness can also put you at greater risk for alcohol and substance abuse, plus other unhealthy coping behaviors. Forgiveness typically increases with age, with older adults forgiving more easily than middle age and younger adults.
In addition to benefits to your physical health, research shows that forgiveness can
- increase self-esteem
- improve mood and
- enhance relationship satisfaction.
So why not try forgiveness for your own sake?
Forgiveness Can Provide a New Leash on Life
The Path Forward Starts With One Step
Anyone who has struggled with a major interpersonal conflict in their lives knows this: an offense can occur in an instant, but forgiveness is a journey. Ultimately, forgiveness involves wishing the other well.
To help yourself along this path, both dogs and the experts would recommend the following:
- Keep an open mind and heart, recalling incidents when you hurt others and were granted forgiveness. Recall the impact and how that felt.
- Try to broaden your perspective by considering the situation from the other person's point of view.
- Change your inner dialog from one of victimization and wrongdoing to one of survivorship and moving forward. The story you tell yourself makes all the difference.
- If you are the one needing forgiveness, provide a heartfelt apology. Both genuine expressions of remorse and restitution have been shown to promote forgiveness, whereas shallow apologies can actually make matters worse.
Good luck and happy "heeling"!
Yo Dog, Sorry . . .
Characteristics of Good vs. Bad Apologies (If You're the One Who Needs to Apologize)
make clear who the offender is and who is offended
address the wrong party or apologize for the wrong offense
clearly and completely acknowledge the offense
vague and incomplete ("for whatever I did"); use passive language ("mistakes were made"); make the apology conditional ("if I did something to offend you"); question whether the victim was damaged or minimize the offense ("to the extent that hurt you")
provide an explanation (if there is one) showing the offense was neither intentional nor personal and is unlikely to recur
involve a shallow or fraudulent explanation ("I just snapped" or "I wasn't thinking")
show contrition; recognize the suffering of the party you have hurt
paint yourself as the real victim ("I feel misunderstood")
suggest reparations, tangible and/or symbolic
involve no reparations to restore the relationship or make the party whole
The Nose Knows
Sniff it out.
When it comes to their noses, dogs are super sniffers. The part of a dog's brain that specializes in detecting scent is 40 times larger than ours, proportionately speaking.14
And with as many as 300 million olfactory receptors compared to humans' 5 million, dogs' sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute. As a result, dogs can detect some odors in parts per trillion, which is like catching the scent of one rotten apple in two million barrels!
Humans don't have that kind of ability, so we have to rely more heavily on our critical thinking skills. But how?
Dogs Are Super Sniffers
Number of Scent Receptors
How They Are Historically Valued By Humans
scent, chase, and flush out badgers and other small burrow-dwelling animals
flush foxes out of their hiding places during hunts
tracking small game, detecting prohibited agriculture and food
search and rescue, cadaver and narcotic searches, military roles, acting
used by law enforcement to track human beings over large distances (even several days after the person goes missing)
How to Stop Jumping to Conclusions
Dogs are extraordinary investigators, super sleuths -- even snoops. While we don't have their super sniffers, we can hone our critical thinking skills.
Rather than jumping to conclusions and "using your gut," take the time to make more reasoned inferences. Ask yourself questions such as these:
- What are my assumptions? Are they correct? How do I know? Why am I making them?
- Am I reaching the "right" conclusion? What evidence is there of this? Why is this is the "right" thing to do? Is this conclusion based on all the facts?
- Are other options available? What have been others' experiences with this situation?
- Why do other people believe what they do? What reasons support their differing points of view? How did they "get there"?
By developing better critical thinking skills, we can foster better relationships, promote multiple solutions and spinoff ideas, and make better quality decisions overall. Dogs would approve!
God Made a Dog (Heartfelt Video)
Make time for the important stuff.
The average lifespan in dogs is 10-12 years, depending on the breed. Compare that with the average lifespan of 67.2 years for people worldwide (78.2 years for those in the United States).15 While it may seem like you have all the time in the world, some day you'll look back and realize it just wasn't enough.
Make the most out of the time you have by enjoying the simple pleasures, as dogs do — a good belly rub, a game of Frisbee, long walks with a friend, good conversation even if you don't say a word. Dogs really do have it figured out. They are doggone smart, Man's Best Friend, and the best teachers indeed.
Ahhh! Belly Rubs Are Very Important
Great Dog Quotes
- "There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face."—Ben Williams, American novelist
- "The dog is the only animal that has seen his god."—Author Unknown
- "One reason a dog can be such a comfort when you're feeling blue is that he doesn't try to find out why."—Author Unknown
- "Scratch a dog and you'll find a permanent job."—Franklin P. Jones, American Humorist
- "If you think dogs can't count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Fido only two of them."—Phil Pastoret, American cartoonist
- "To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs."—Aldous Huxley, English writer
- "They never talk about themselves but listen to you while you talk about yourself, and keep up an appearance of being interested in the conversation."—Jerome K. Jerome, English humorist
- "The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue."—Author Unknown
- "If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience."—Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States
- "Children are for people who can't have dogs."—Author Unknown
1McGrath, Jane. "The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship: Canine Domestication." HowStuffWorks. Accessed October 10, 2013. http://science.howstuffworks.com/zoology/all-about-animals/animal-domestication3.htm.
2Pappas, Stephanie. "Canine Comfort: Do Dogs Know When You're Sad?" LiveScience.com. Last modified June 7, 2012.
3Viegas, Jennifer. "Can Dogs Read Minds? Not Exactly." Discovery News. Last modified January 5, 2012. http://news.discovery.com/animals/zoo-animals/how-dogs-predict-intent-120105.htm.
4Hoyt, Alia. "HowStuffWorks "Can a dog really predict an epileptic seizure?" HowStuffWorks. Accessed October 10, 2013. http://science.howstuffworks.com/zoology/mammals/dog-predict-seizure.htm.
5Davis, Jennifer. "Vision in Dogs & People." University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Last modified 1998. http://www4.uwsp.edu/psych/dog/la/davis2.htm.
6Gowin, Joshua. "Agreeable? You’re More Likely to Benefit From Placebo." Psychology Today. Last modified January 26, 2013. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/you-illuminated/201302/agreeable-you-re-more-likely-benefit-placebo.
7Gullotta, Thomas P., and Martin Bloom. "
8Beck, Judith S. "How Personality Can Influence Your Weight." The Huffington Post. Last modified December 21, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-s-beck-phd/overweight_b_1158559.html.
9Sutin, A R., P. T. Costa, M. Uda, L. Ferrucci, D. Schlessinger, and A. Terracciano. "Personality and metabolic syndrome." Age 32, no. 4 (2010): 513-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20567927.
10The Berkeley Science Review. "The importance of being agreeable." Last modified June 6, 2012. http://sciencereview.berkeley.edu/the-importance-of-being-agreeable/.
11Markman, Art. "The Upside and Downside of Being Nice at Work." The Huffington Post. Last modified January 29, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/art-markman-phd/nice-people_b_1223492.html.
12American Pet Products Association (APPA). "Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics." Last modified 2013. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp.
13Worthington Jr., Everett L. "The New Science of Forgiveness." Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Last modified 2004. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_new_science_of_forgiveness.
14Tyson, Peter. "Dogs' Dazzling Sense of Smell." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Last modified October 4, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/dogs-sense-of-smell.html.
15Wikipedia. "List of countries by life expectancy." Last modified October 15, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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