The 5 Simple Life Lessons I Learned From Dogs

Tom Stevenson
Photo by Julian Schiemann on Unsplash

One of my favourite students, when I was teaching English in Barcelona, was Guillem. Every Wednesday afternoon, I’d head to his house to teach him and his brother, in between conversations about the fortunes of FC Barcelona and my football team, Liverpool.

The first few visits were eventful, not because Guillem or his brother were troublesome. No, they were eventful because of their dog, Rita.

Every time I rang the buzzer to their apartment, Rita would start howling and barking non-stop. On my first few visits, Rita was cautious towards me. She didn’t know who I was, and she was wary of accepting someone into her territory.

However, as the weeks wore on, she warmed towards me. The barking after I rang the buzzer didn’t stop, but once Guillem opened the door to their apartment, instead of hanging back, Rita would jump all over me while her tail wagged back and forth like a metronome.

I don’t know if this change in attitude was due to her getting used to me, or the fact I used to show her a lot of affection while I was in Guillem’s apartment.

Either way, it was nice to know Rita was fond of me and had grown to enjoy my company. These encounters got me thinking about dogs and how they not only interact with us, but with each other.

Dogs are known as man’s best friend for a reason. They’re loyal, friendly and loving creatures. You could leave your dog alone in your apartment for a whole day and they’d be happy to see you walk through the door regardless.

It may seem strange, but those encounters with Rita taught me a lot about how dogs see the world and what we can learn from them. We may see dogs as creatures that are beneath us, but there’s a surprising amount we can learn from them, if only we chose to.

How Important Play Is

My apartment in Barcelona faced out onto a small park in between the sprawl of buildings. Every day, I’d see owners take their dogs for a walk, which in most cases, turned into the dogs chasing each other around the park.

The more I watched the more I realised that dogs love to play with each other. They sniff each other’s butts, chase after each other and play fight to their heart’s content.

The only time they seemed to stop was when their owners decided they’d had enough and wanted to go back to their apartments. Left to their own devices, the dogs would carry on playing until the early hours, of that I’m sure.

When it comes to our own lives, play and enjoyment is something that can be lacking. I remember the fun of playing a wide variety of games when I was a child. Even playing football with my friends in my early adult years was a regular occurrence, now I’m lucky if it happens at all.

As we get older, our priorities change and we slowly move away from the activities that used to give us joy. Watching the dogs scurry around the park, I was reminded about how vital play and a bit of fun is in life. Without it, life can feel hollow.

Pursuing our goals and making a better life for ourselves is important, but if we don’t make time to have some fun, let go, and play it can feel empty at times.

How to Live in the Moment

When I was living in Barcelona, our next-door neighbour let us look after his beagle, Rocky when he was out and about for the day. Rocky was a cool dog and looking after him while he was in our flat made me realise something about dogs.

Most of the time, if not all the time, they are in the moment. They remain in the present. They do not pine for the past, they do not look ahead to the future, they are firmly entrenched in what is happening at that moment.

This is something that we often forget to do. The gift of humanity is that we can look back to the past and dream of the future. The problem is that we tend to do either of those and neglect to concentrate on the present moment.

It’s this flaw that causes us to become depressed, agitated and uneasy. Instead of enjoying the moment, we’re thinking about something that happened a while ago or imagining a future that may or may not happen.

Watching Rocky sniffing every inch of our apartment when we looked after him, I couldn’t fail to notice how engaged he was in the moment. He was determined to follow his nose and seek out what he could smell, which often lead him to the kitchen!

There was no thought of the past, no inclination to look to the future, he was enjoying himself at that moment. Fully engaged in it. The cause of a lot of our misery is our inability to focus on the here and now. In that sense, Rocky and his canine friends have it right.

How to Let Go of Grudges

Sometimes our neighbour would leave his apartment without bringing Rocky to our flat. This happened when all of us were out, or when he was only away for a few hours.

Most days I taught a lesson in the morning and came home for a few hours before heading back out again in the afternoon. If my neighbour was out of his apartment when I got back I knew about it because Rocky would whimper and howl for him to come back.

This happened a lot, and I always felt sad for Rocky because it was clear he loved and missed his owner a lot. However, the amazing thing was that no matter how often this happened, when our neighbour came back Rocky stopped.

The noise that had reverberated around the building beforehand was replaced by silence. Without fail, Rocky would forgive his owner for leaving him by himself and just be happy to see him.

Anyone that has owned a dog appreciates what I’ve just written. Dogs are forgiving creatures. We could leave them in a house for two to three days and they’d still love us when we returned. With humans, it’s not so clear cut.

We hold grudges, we refuse to forgive others from time to time. We can struggle to let bygones be bygones. Sometimes, this is legitimate, but often it’s not.

If we should learn anything from this, it’s that we should all be more forgiving of each other. We all make mistakes, holding them against each other indefinitely is just silly.

How to Show Your True Emotions

Whenever I went around to Guillem’s apartment after the first few weeks, Rita would not leave me alone. She’d jump all over me as I walked through the door and then follow me to the table as I sat down.

Then she’d place herself right next to my hand and knock it until I stroked her back. She was direct about what she wanted! Whenever I stopped stroking her, she repeated the trick and after a while, I’d cave in and stroke her back again.

Dogs are not shy about showing their true emotions. They’re quick to demand affection, they make it clear when they want to be fed and we know when they are excited and annoyed.

The same can’t be said for humans. Somewhere in between childhood and our teenage years, we learn to conceal our true emotions and mask how we really feel.

Some of us are taught that the outward expression of emotion is a weakness and that we should practice a stiff upper lip as we go forward in life. While this can be useful at times, if taken too far, this attitude can lead to depression and serious issues later on.

Observing Rita it was clear what her mood was whenever I was at Guillem’s apartment. Her face would always light up when I came in and she always used to lick her lips when I was eating my food.

Instead of bottling up our emotions all the time, we should embrace them. We’re not robots who can’t feel anything, we’re humans with feelings and desires. Suppressing them only makes us more miserable. As Rita showed me, sometimes it’s ok to bear your heart in the open.

How to be Content

One of the things that I observed the most when I looked out my window at the dog’s playing in the park was how happy they were with the simplest of things.

Whether it was chasing one another, sniffing the trees, or chasing after a ball, the majority of the dogs were content with whatever they were doing. If you observed a group of humans in a park or cafe, I can’t imagine the same would be true.

Too often, we’re preoccupied with what we want rather than what we have. Adverts declaring that we won’t be happy until we buy the latest and greatest gadget convince us this is the case. Once we get that gadget, we soon realise it doesn’t fill the void and we go off in search of fulfilment once more.

When you look at dog’s they need very little to be happy. Food, love and daily walks are all it takes for them to be happy. It’s remarkable how little they need to be happy and how much we consume, buy, or desire for us to get to the same place.

Gadgets, cars or fancy clothes will not make us happy, they’ll just paper over the cracks. To be happy, we need very little. Friendship, love and health that’s all we need to lead a good life. Everything else is just a bonus.

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