Our house abounds with more energy than usual these days. We adopted a mixed-breed puppy five months ago. She’s jet black with white patches, and we named her Flower. Two little boys, a puppy, and two elderly cats make for a special brand of pandemonium — and a lot of joy.
I grew up with dogs, but I’ve spent 15 years with feline companions. So Flower astounds me. “She listens! She seems to like us! We can actually train her not to do something!” Our cats, quintessential introverts, have no interest in such things.
Pets are a huge responsibility and expense. Americans spend 60 billion dollars a year on them. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what we get from these intimate inter-species relationships. Here are a few of the lessons Flower is teaching (or reminding us of) these days.
You don’t need words to communicate
Dogs are experts at reading non-verbal cues and tone of voice. They watch us nearly as closely as our own infants and can supposedly read us better than chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest primate relatives. Scientists say humans and dogs evolved as companions over tens of thousands of years, and some theorize that wild dogs instigated the inter-species relationship by learning to understand our gestures.
For a long time, people assumed dogs were not as highly sensitive as they seem but were learning to recognize a cue, such as an angry voice. However, a more recent study suggests dogs categorize humans’ varied emotional responses, which helps them attune to our moods. And the ability seems to be intrinsic (not learned). In any case, spending time with a dog is an amazing lesson in how much we communicate without opening our mouths and how much we can learn about people by paying attention.
Empathy is powerful
One afternoon on the way to the dog park, Flower was a bundle of energy. It had just rained and the winding trail was slippery. As we rounded a curve, Flower saw the gate to the park, lunged for it, and pulled me down. What happened next surprised me. Flower forgot all about the dog park. She turned around, ran to me, curled into my lap, and started licking my face.
I spend a lot of time with two little boys who are still learning the ins and outs of empathy — “It doesn’t matter if you’re sad, right Mommy?” But empathy seems to come naturally to Flower. And she’s not unusual in the canine world. A dog is more likely to approach someone who’s crying than someone who is humming or talking, according to one study. Let’s face it, relationships — human or canine — can be challenging. A little empathy sure goes a long way.
Movement is fun
Dogs are excellent movement coaches. Flower never puts exercise on the end of her to-do list after a litany of chores. Moving is one of her favorite things, second only to food, and she never takes for granted the simple joy of walking or running or playing ball. Her zeal for moving helps us all add more of it to our days. Moreover, she reminds us that it can be our favorite part of the day.
Categories Don’t Always Fit
Adopting a dog can supposedly ward off loneliness, not only because you have the dog as a companion, but because the dog invites more social interaction with other people. It’s true. Our walks these days are filled with happy conversations with strangers. People love dogs.
Many passersby are curious about what breed Flower is. She is about as mixed-breed as dogs get. We usually list off a few of the breeds we’re relatively certain she has — English Pointer, Australian Shepherd, etc. But that answer usually does not suffice. Quite a few people are convinced they know what category she’s actually in. From Jack Russell Terrier to Bulldog to Border Collie, we’ve heard lots of different ideas. We humans sure like our categories, don’t we? Flower’s a good reminder that dogs (and people) don’t always fit in one.
I loved having a dog companion when I was a kid, and it’s fun to see how much my boys already love Flower. (Unfortunately, our cats are not such huge fans.) Training a puppy is not easy, but it has a way of reminding us what’s important. Besides, watching Flower chase her tail never gets old.