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10 Valuable Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog

10 Valuable Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog

My beloved Pomeranian, Puff, turned eleven years old this spring. I got her when I was 22, and she’s been a constant through a tumultuous decade (and one cross-country move). Many of us have fond memories of our childhood dogs. I think of Puff as my ‘adulthood dog’ — she’s been there with me as I’ve tried to figure things out, by my side for all kinds of ups and downs. The older both she and I get, the more I realize that I’ve learned from her. Here are 10 of the life lessons that I’ve learned from my dog.

1. Dogs give everybody a chance.

When I first got Puff, I lived in New York City. I didn’t know any of my neighbors because, come on, it’s New York. You don’t just go around talking to strangers. When I’d take Puff out though, she was enthusiastic about greeting everyone, from the wealthy owners of park-side co-ops to homeless people on the subway. Through Puff, I had countless conversations with my fellow New Yorkers, and got to know people who lived in my building and my neighborhood — pretty much none of whom I would have talked to if it weren’t for the furball at the end of the leash tugging her way toward them (and yes, New Yorkers aren’t known for friendliness, but most also can’t resist a cute puppy). People are quick to judge others based on their appearances, but dogs aren’t — and if you close yourself off to strangers, you’re missing out.

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    2. Dogs will try anything once.

    Another classic moment from Puff’s puppyhood: At a pool party on Labor Day weekend, she was frolicking around and running away from me when she fell straight into the pool. To my surprise, she immediately started swimming, and swam the entire length of the pool. A couple of years later, when I first moved to California, I took her to the beach, thinking she might like to wade — nope, she jumped into the water and swam. Pomeranians certainly aren’t known for swimming, but Puff loves it (just smelling the ocean air gets her beyond excited). When you’re considering something new — even if it’s something you don’t think is your style — jump in and give it a try. Worst case scenario, you don’t like it. At least you tried! Best case scenario, you’ve found your new favorite activity.

    3. Dogs connect through touch.

    If Puff wants me to pet her, she will push her nose under my hand until I lift it up high enough for her to fit her head underneath. It works pretty much every time, as does her move many people mistake for “shake” — she’s lifting up her paw to ask you to rub her belly. Puff loves attention and petting, and she’s not alone in that. One reason people have surmised dogs enjoy being petted so much is because it triggers the same feelings of connection they got as puppies being licked by their mothers. Touch makes you feel good. But when you’re busy all the time, it’s easy to ignore this part of your life. Even if you live with your partner, you might not make time for for a shoulder squeeze, a back rub, a quick kiss. Sure, belly rubs aren’t what people usually go for, but why not a hug? It’s an instant, free, mood-boosting way to feel more connected.

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      4. Dogs enjoy the ride.

      Sometimes it seems like Puff’s biggest disappointment is when I leave the house and don’t bring her along. If she gets to come with me though, that’s a whole other story. She doesn’t care where we’re going — sure, it could be the beach or the dog park, but it could also be the vet or just the Starbucks drive-through — she’s just thrilled to be along for the ride. She’s not focusing on where we’re going, and what will happen later. Puff’s got a point here: If you’re just worrying about the outcome, you’re more likely to be upset, frustrated, or angry if things don’t turn out according to plan. Focusing more on the process, and being open to the twists and turns you may encounter along the way, lets you enjoy the journey no matter what your destination.

      5. Dogs make time for a daily workout.

      Even now as she’s getting older, Puff is rambunctious and runs around every single day. Often, she includes me — we go for a walk, or she initiates a game of fetch. If I’ve been working all day, she’ll bring a toy over and bug me until I get up. Other times, she just runs around on her own. No matter what though, she stays active (and she always stretches before and after — her exercise habits are impeccable). Even if it’s just instinct, this is definitely a case where your dog has the right instinct. Staying healthy is all about keeping moving, and the more you make it a habit, the easier it is to motivate yourself to do.

      6. Dogs are always upfront with you.

      When Puff wants something — to go outside, to have a treat, to play — she lets me know. She’ll paw at the door, wag her tail in front of the treat door, bring me a toy. She’s not subtle, and she doesn’t drop hints. She also doesn’t sulk and shut me out if I don’t pick up on what she wants right away. It’s kind of amazing how dogs, who can’t communicate with words, can be much more direct than many people. If you need something from someone, or want them to know how you feel, just tell them! Don’t expect others to be mind readers (and definitely don’t pull an attitude because they lack ESP). Holding in your feelings, being vague, or hoping the other person will figure out what you want will make you less happy and much less likely to get what you’re after.

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        7. Dogs live for the moment.

        Dogs live in the present tense. Sure, Puff remembers big stuff (what time she eats, where I keep the food) as well as lots of little stuff (like a surprisingly wide range of words), but for the most part, she’s a dog. She doesn’t dwell on the past, she’s not worrying about the future — that’s just how their brains work. It’s not always practical: The time Puff opened Christmas presents until eventually, on a shelf behind the tree, she found (and ate) a bunch of chocolate was super-fun while she was doing it, but the aftermath wasn’t. But if something makes you happy, and it’s not going to make you really sick later, just let go and enjoy it! Drop your anxieties and revel in what’s happening right now.

        8. Dogs happily accept compliments.

        Dogs seek out our praise and attention, and Puff is certainly no exception to that rule. She’s thrilled when both friends and strangers pet her and tell her she’s a good girl — it’s never something she shrinks away from, if anything, she’s more likely to ham it up. Her tail will wag harder, and she’ll lean in for a snuggle. People, on the other hand, are often made uncomfortable by compliments. It can feel easier to try to deflect praise, but if you’ve done something well, you should go ahead and own it! Instead of shying away from a compliment, say “thank you” and accept it. Acknowledging your own accomplishments, and being thankful when others do so, gives your self-esteem a rock-solid (and totally legit) foundation.

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        9. Dogs forgive and move on.

        I do plenty of things Puff doesn’t like. Some of them I have to do (like going to work), some are just what I feel like (like if I have a headache and don’t want to play fetch), and others are for her own good (like keeping her out of the trash). No matter what I do though, Puff always — always — forgives me. She might mope for a few minutes, but soon enough she’ll be right back by my side. She’s made me become more adaptable, too, because I always have to forgive her (and in her puppy years, she was astonishingly destructive for a 10-pound dog). In the end, the little day-to-day annoyances like those chewed-up books and sweaters don’t matter; it’s the larger bond and all the happiness she’s brought me that count. Puff doesn’t articulate it, but I think it’s the same on her end. Holding a grudge magnifies what was in all likelihood an unimportant issue, and minimizes the much more significant relationship. Being willing to forgive frees you to enjoy all that you share with those around you.

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          10. Dogs adapt and thrive.

          A few months ago, we adopted a second Pomeranian, Rico, from our local animal control shelter. Puff’s never lived with another dog, and at first she was not too pleased about her new “brother.” We gave Rico a pet bed Puff had never shown interest in, and as soon as we made it his, guess who wanted to sleep in it. But as the weeks and months passed, she warmed up to Rico. When an emergency illness made him extremely sick, she stayed by his side. Where she used to growl at him, now Puff is almost always the one who initiates playtime. I had been worried that having been solo for more than a decade, Puff wouldn’t adjust to sharing her owners with another pet, but I was wrong — she adapted beautifully, and she’s happy having a canine compadre. When there’s an unexpected change in your life — even one that seems scary at first — there’s so much you can gain by embracing it.

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          Last Updated on November 11, 2019

          Can a Dysfunctional Family Become Functional?

          Can a Dysfunctional Family Become Functional?

          A dysfunctional family is more than disagreement or constant arguments. Anything from plain neglect, to abuse and even verbal and physical violence is the everyday experience of those who are part of a dysfunctional family.

          You know how this looks:

          • Parents constantly comparing children.
          • Siblings in conflict because of tolerated bullying.
          • Domestic violence.
          • Adultery…
          • And many others.

          For all the members, this will mean emotional pain and even trauma; which, in case it doesn’t get resolved, will have a detrimental effect on the individual’s personality and development.

          Needless to say, the younger members are the most vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean the parents are out of danger, as most commonly the parents play the roles of abuser-codependent, and in some cases, both parts inflicting pain on one another.

          Most like to think these problems stem from deep-seated issues, and that therefore it’s pretty much impossible to deal with them.

          This is only true for families not willing to do what it takes, for if only a single member is determined and knows how to do it, the whole family can do a lot of progress.

          In this article, I’ll break down for you the basic steps of fixing a dysfunctional family. Although it may seem hopeless, it is possible to turn things around.

          If you have ever felt in this position, or if you know somebody who is, this article is for you.

          How to fix a dysfunctional family

          In a few words the solution for a dysfunctional family lies in dropping the ego, focusing on the solution, switching blame for responsibility and doing the work as a unity, for the good of the whole family.

          And this will accomplish things you once only saw as a dream.

          Dropping the ego? Switching blame for responsibility? Doing the work? What does all this mean?

          It’s simple. In a nutshell, it’s that which will allow you to turn a dysfunctional family into a functional one.

          Let’s take a look at how exactly this can be done. And near the end we will also talk about what you can do in a dysfunctional family with cynical traits.

          Dysfunctional families where not only problems are well-known, but also nobody seems to want a fix or openly decide to perpetuate the harmful behaviors. Such as the case of abuse and physical violence.

          There is also a solution for these, it’s just not what you are expecting…

          Dysfunctional… Or just average?

          Most families are dysfunctional, though at varying degrees of dysfunctionality.

          The milder cases, are just marked by “typical” comically-shrouded bullying or lack of interest in other members’ development or wellbeing.

          You can know a family is dysfunctional if their interactions are anything different than cooperation, solidarity, care and support. But let’s get more specific…

          A dysfunctional family is one in which members directly or indirectly suffer emotional and/or physical harm inflicted by other members of their family. Most commonly, perpetrated by the parents.

          Even harmful actions as “passive” as neglect, which is inflicted by inaction rather than action, signifies a dysfunction within the family.

          Dysfunctional families have conflicts such as:

          • Unrealistic expectations
          • Lack of interest and time spent together
          • Sexism
          • Utilitarianism
          • Lack of empathy
          • Unequal or unfair treatment
          • Disrespect towards boundaries
          • Control Issues
          • Jealousy
          • Verbal and physical abuse
          • Violence and even sexual misconduct or abuse

          You may think a dysfunctional family has very little or nothing to do with personal productivity, but you would be wrong in thinking this way…

          If a person is not emotionally well, she will not be able to perform as desired, as the emotional harm that has been inflicted will hinder everyday performance in the way of inability to concentrate, lack of mental clarity and low levels of inspiration, motivation and discipline.

          Having a functional family does exactly the opposite: It creates productive members with no emotional baggage.

          How to turn it around

          When you’re part of a dysfunctional family you know it. You can quickly identify in other members the behaviors and conflicts that create the dysfunction.

          But just in case you’re having trouble telling functional from dysfunctional I will tell you the following:

          One of the easiest ways you can recognize if you are in a dysfunctional family is to survey your won feelings.

          We often overlook this, but have you stopped to ask yourself how you feel?

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          As cheesy as it may sound it really sheds a lot of light on the subject.

          What behaviors, actions and attitudes in your family you wish were better?

          Do you think certain behaviors and actions from your family marked you in the past?

          Sadly, we cannot go back to the past to correct it. But we can do a lot in the present…

          Correction is possible

          In order to fix a dysfunctional family, you must start by putting an end to the behaviors and actions that are affecting you.

          Verbalize it.

          All members of the dysfunctional family have one issue in common: They don’t put a stop to the harm.

          Whenever you feel your boundaries being overstepped there is just one single word you have to remember: STOP.

          This is the door to a better, more functional family, because after this, comes the fix.

          But first you have to identify and make others know where exactly lies the problem.

          So go ahead and fearlessly start with “Stop”, followed by your expression of dissatisfaction.

          Putting it to work in real life

          In real life it would be something like this:

          “OK, stop! Every time you belittle me I feel you don’t care. I need attention and respect, and it is your responsibility as my family to provide them to me”

          Or:

          “Stop. When you compare me with my cousin it hurts, I feel like I don’t matter and that’s not ok. I ask you to stop doing it.

          Or:

          “Please stop. When you start yelling all respect is lost and it turns into a battle of who can do it louder. Don’t raise your voice and let’s work this out the way humans do”.

          As you can see, here you start by putting a stop to the toxic behavior when it arises. And afterwards you verbalize why it’s wrong and what needs of you need to be fulfilled.

          This is what you have to remember:

          1-Stop.

          2-Why it’s wrong?

          3-What you need.

          And this will also work well in case you need to do it for another family member.

          It’s a family thing

          A dysfunctional family cannot be fixed by one member alone.

          Yes, a single member can initiate progress and be the leader of the change. But in order to completely become functional all members must contribute to the solution.

          In other words, you will need cooperation…

          So don’t be afraid of asking for it!

          Approach your family member and ask to be listened.

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          We sometimes feel our needs are “not that important” or we simply believe they won’t listen. But thinking like this would be like being defeated at an unfought battle.

          You will be amazed by how much people listen when you voice your needs, especially if it implies showing yourself open, vulnerable and in need.

          It’s not a free-for-all battle

          In order to get your family to cooperate, first you must fix your individual relationships with every member of the family. Remember: Relationships are always between two people, and two people only.

          No matter how complex, the quality of a multi-member relationship (like a family) will always depend on the quality of the individual relationships.

          Once you have straightened the relationship with every member of the dysfunctional family you will be able to better communicate with other members and help in the betterment of their individual relationship.

          And this is where we will talk about the fix itself. The one I mentioned in the introduction…

          The method

          1. Drop the ego

          Wherever there is conflict there is ego.

          You cannot fix a relationship where there is ego, because the ego will want to win. Always. Yours and the other person.

          Ego craves control and satisfaction, and in many cases, to establish dominance.

          What does this have to do with a dysfunctional family? Everything. Ego will interfere with every plan you have to fix it.

          It will make people suborn and defensive. And it will also make them drop responsibility. This is why, the first step is to drop the ego.

          After you make sure you are not going to allow your ego to interfere you must work to make the other person do the same. How? By speaking from the heart…

          Tell the other person how important all this is to you.

          Tell the other person that it’s not a matter of arguing, but just working things out together.

          Point out how it is not possible for you to do it alone.

          And ask for sincere attention without any desire of opposition, because what you are doing is by no means in the hopes of harming the other person, but just to better the relationship and stop the damage being dealt to you.

          You will have to point out the mistakes you need corrected, that’s for sure. And that leads me to the next point…

          2. Not blame, but responsibility

          When talking about others’ mistakes we often use an accusatory tone. And that’s natural, it’s what things should be like if ego was not present.

          But since we are all creatures of ego, this immediately brings the shields up. And then unsheathes the swords…

          When we blame others they automatically enter a defensive state, and this only leads to a failed negotiation.

          What you need to do is to shift from blame to responsibility. And even that will have to be done carefully!

          Instead of telling them off or demanding change or complaining, calmly point what the problem with their behavior is.

          As much as this feels contradictory, also make them feel understood. You know how difficult it is to accept a mistake, so just make them feel it’s no big fuzz… which does not mean it’s ok, but it takes tension off.

          You will do something like this:

          “Hello dad. Can I talk with you for a minute? I really need to tell you something.

          I have been feeling pretty sad lately and I know this is something you do care about.

          You see, whenever I talk about my accomplishments you mention something else that makes my achievement pale in comparison.

          I know you don’t do this intentionally and I know you might have not realized this until now, but I want to let you know this really brings me down.

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          It would mean a lot to me if you could stop doing it, and it would help better our relationship, because this has already forced me to distance myself from you. And I don’t want that, I want a good, healthy relationship with you”

          What happened here?

          We started off with making it something important, something that needs both time and attention. Then we openly show ourselves vulnerable, just as we are.

          We also mention why he should listen, and shove our feelings there again, because they are important.

          We describe the issue with no attachment and with no hostile intention. It’s just a description.

          And then we take the blame off. Just before we assign responsibility without actually saying it.

          You are not blaming him directly, but you are pointing out the inevitable fact that his actions are causing a dysfunctionality. He is now responsible for changing.

          This is what “switching blame for responsibility” means. What comes next? Doing the work!

          3. Doing the work

          What would any of this mean if, in the end, nothing changes? Exactly, nothing!

          This is why you must follow up with every change that needs to be done.

          Do so in a manner that is not hostile. Bring it up in a casual manner, and emphasizing how you both reached an agreement and how that is important to the family.

          If the person doesn’t follow up don’t hesitate to bring it up again, and tell them you feel disappointed that your honest try at it was not listened.

          It may even be a subject in itself, and therefore the need for another conversation.

          “When you go back to old habits it shows that you didn’t really care about what I said. But back in real life you just reinforce how much contempt you show towards me and my feelings.

          I talk with you because I care. Because although it would be easier for me to just distance myself from you I rather do my part in nurturing this relationship.

          But there is just so much I can do, if you refuse to do your part I can do nothing else.”

          You need very clear and positive communication in order to make this work.

          Love is all you need

          You must remember that in order for a dysfunctional family to become functional, all the work needs to stem from love.

          That is the single one requirement for all this to work: Love.

          And what happens if it simply is not there?

          What happens if, nobody is willing to do what it takes?

          What happens if a member of the family refuses to change and is happy with the harm he or she is dealing?

          There is only one thing you can do:

          To break away.

          Let’s be honest, people, especially adults, are very difficult to change.

          There is a Jewish proverb that I love, which sums it up like this:

          “We spend the rest of our lives trying to unlearn what we learned before we were 7”

          If you find it very hard to change the very traits that make your family dysfunctional or if it’s simply impossible, you still have a card up your sleeve…

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          Although nobody likes to beak away from family members, we must remember we have a responsibility with ourselves as individuals, before any relationship with anyone.

          You have the responsibility of making yourself happy and free. Because you matter as an individual, regardless of any relationships you have, be it family, friendship or romantic.

          Putting distance

          So in case you are dealing with a family member who is simply unwilling to change take both physical and emotional distance.

          What do I mean?

          Learn, first, to take their damage in a detached manner.

          Don’t let it hurt you further. Instead take a deep breath and distance yourself emotionally.

          Don’t be attached to feelings such as “Why doesn’t she love me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or “If he wasn’t like that my life would be perfect”.

          Simply refuse to keep participating in the emotional downward spiral and accept, even if it’s painful” that there is nothing you can do. Accept that even without that relationship you are whole, you are worthy of love and respect.

          They are their responsibility and you are yours. So decide what is best for you.

          Realize it only comes down to two possibilities:

          I keep the relationship and therefore accept the abuse. Or…

          I choose my peace of mind.

          And don’t let your mind fool you. We often think that since we all are imperfect, we must take the good and the bad behaviors of people. And we are especially forgiving towards our family…

          Well, guess what? We are also responsible adults who are aware and must own to their acts. Never excuse abuse or violence or transgression towards you or anybody else.

          Choose your happiness and if possible, also distance yourself physically, as it will increase your peace of mind tenfold.

          How to prevent it

          There are two key concepts you must bear in mind in order to prevent the dysfunctionality of a family:

          • To be completely aware of one’s own mistakes and not allow them to impact others and…
          • To make sure our SO’s are also on the same channel before creating a family (i.e. having children)

          Dysfunctional families are the product of irresponsible paternity, for the decades-long unresolved emotional conflict ends up surfacing in the family inevitably, and it will for sure harm those who least deserve it: Innocent children.

          You may notice we went from talking about family, to talking about individual relationships, to talking about you. We went from “them” to “us” to “me”.

          Why? Because in the end you have the power to fix a dysfunctional family. To correct the mistakes you have in yours and to prevent dysfunctionalities if you don’t have a family but plan to create one.

          Priorities and clear thought

          You may be part of a dysfunctional family, but that does not mean you are powerless or that you have to suffer the consequences.

          You learned today how it’s all a matter of priorities and thinking clearly.

          You learned that, if love exists, everything is possible. You learned that even when there is no love and no fix for your dysfunctional family, there are still things you can do. It’s a matter of choosing your peace, because you deserve it.

          Everything will be better if you apply this knowledge. If you talk to that problematic family member. If you help them see the harm they are doing. If you make sure they do change and treat you the way you need to be treated…

          If you choose yourself over that toxic family member. If you refuse to justify the harm that others can do to yourself. If you realize the most important relationship you have is with yourself.

          And lastly, that you also have to be aware of your actions and be open to criticism. Because we might be unknowingly harming others. And that would be us creating a dysfunctionality. Don’t allow it to happen.

          Dysfunctional families are not impossible to fix. It just takes love, cooperation and responsibility.

          But if you tried and those elements are not present, just choose yourself instead.

          Featured photo credit: Xavier Mouton Photographie via unsplash.com

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