My family lobbied me for a dog for YEARS before I broke down and agreed to get one. I know it sounds heartless, but I just didn’t think I could be a dog person. The idea of stinky breath in my face, slobber on the sofa, vacuuming fur and picking up poops made me cringe. But then we got Oscar and my life was changed.
Observing my dog’s mindful and compassionate approach to life has helped me make micro adjustments to my own approach. I pause more often and feel myself breathing. Notice the buds on the trees. Observe my kids just as they are. Give more hugs. With each tweak I feel my core of inner calm and capacity for compassion expand.
Here are three major lessons dogs can teach us:
1. Live in the Moment
Dogs are naturally mindful. As each moment unfolds, Oscar is right there in the present. There’s no ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. Every walk is an adventure for a dog. They’re curious, open to new sights, sounds, and smells, and aware of the people and creatures around them. They take in new experiences without expectations and cultivate wonder by noticing the small stuff. Dogs know it feels good to play – and not to think so hard.
2. Practice Acceptance
Dogs accept things as they are. Oscar doesn’t get caught up in judgmental thought spirals, like “I shouldn’t be feeling this way… this isn’t the way life should be.” I don’t see him comparing himself to others or criticizing himself either. Imagine a dog thinking this way: “It seems like that family has never met a struggle… that mama dog is such a better parent… ugh, I’m so stupid for eating that chocolate bar off the coffee table.”
The other day I was feeling kind of low. I was starting to go down a path of negative thinking about how inefficient I am, how little I have to show for my days, how I’d mishandled a conversation with my son… when I thought about trying to be more like Oscar, to be more accepting.
First, I distracted myself by looking at my dog and taking some deep breaths. If Oscar could ever have these thought patterns, I’m pretty sure he’d decide to take a nap or clean his paws until he felt better. I told myself that these were just feelings that would float away eventually. Then I took Oscar out for a quick walk. And guess what? It helped.
3.Seek Connection, Offer Compassion
Dogs are always ready to connect. They wag their tails and move in for a welcome petting no matter what kind of day you’ve had. If you feel exhausted and your tolerance level for tough situations is low, you might benefit from a boost of the love hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin plays a role in maternal bonding, trust, and altruism. It also feels good, enhancing our sense of optimism, trust and self-esteem.
Cuddling with your kid or your partner can get the oxytocin flowing, but you can also generate it by interacting with your dog (if you have one – or can borrow one!). You may have noticed that dogs like to gaze into your eyes. A 2009 study in Japan showed that dog owners who played with their dog and looked into their eyes for more than 2.5 minutes during the play session experienced a 20% boost in oxytocin.
Dogs also have an uncanny sense for who needs their love most. They know who’s in pain and how to be a companion. Dogs will curl up next to the one who feels sad, and they can even sense if a person prefers not to be touched. If someone in the family is being difficult and the rest of the family is all tapped out, dogs still offer a well of compassion.
When I see how disarming Oscar’s love is, it makes me want to be more like him.