5 Valuable Lessons I Learned From My Dogs

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5 Valuable Lessons I Learned From My Dogs

We could all benefit from "living in the moment" more and our sweet four legged friends may actually be our greatest teachers.


From taking the opportunity to grab a quick nap, surrendering to a heavenly belly rub, simply stretching or spending time in community, dogs know no other way to live than in the moment. Perhaps this is why they are almost always happy?


A few years ago I had the opportunity "thrust upon myself" so to speak, to spend some quality time at home with my dogs...A LOT of quality time. I had been in a car accident and was healing from a badly broken leg and subsequent surgery. Unable to put any weight on my leg for four months after surgery, I was in the company of my then three dogs, day and night for weeks on end. Not only did I find these little guys incredibly comforting while going through this stressful (and painful) experience, but I was in awe of the way they innately take care of themselves and each other on a daily basis!


These five aspects of life and living stood out to me the most and are timeless lessons we humans can benefit from greatly. I am honored to share what I learned from my time in "the pack."


  1. Take Time For Naps

  2. Remember To Breathe Easy

  3. The Importance Of A Good Belly Rub

  4. Stretch Often To Navigate Life

  5. Our Role In Community

Take Time For Naps

Remember the good old days in kindergarten when we got to lie down on our mats after lunch and have a little rest and quiet time? Wouldn't that be wonderful to do at work every day? I distinctly remember the feeling of "calm" I felt as we were allowed to get up and put our mats away. The entire room had changed, the energy was soft and quiet... I liked that feeling! Apparently so do our dogs; they like it a lot and take every opportunity to have their rest.


Dogs don't sleep the way we do, they take a lot of short naps throughout the day. As predators, they are genetically designed this way. These short bursts of sleep help them recharge their energy quickly, so they can be ready to get up and go again. Dogs in the wild have to hunt for their food and this is strenuous work. They also have to be ready to protect their territory and pack from other predators at any moment. Their genes have developed according to these needs.


A body which is deprived of sleep actually harms us in multiple ways, such as an increase in inflammation and interruption of hormone function. Yet, one of the most obvious and bothersome harms we experience is trouble focusing or concentrating when sleep deprived.


Quality sleep provides a lot of health benefits, such as better heart function, hormonal maintenance, cell repair and boosts memory and improves cognitive function. Sleeping gives your body a chance to process and sort through everything that happened during the day as well as repair itself and reset for tomorrow.


Studies of napping have shown improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking and memory performance. We are actually naturally designed to sleep two times per day according to our circadian rhythm. Professor Jim Horne from Loughborough University says that "we’re naturally designed to have two sleeps a day: a long one at night and another one in the early afternoon. Early afternoon is when our energy naturally dips lower than usual and we have a harder time focusing." Sleep experts are finding that daytime naps can help our body in so many ways such as; increase alertness, boost creativity, reduce stress, and improve perception and stamina. Naps improve motor skills and accuracy, enhance your sex life, aid in weight loss, reduce the risk of heart attack, and brighten your mood as well as boost memory.


This lesson from dogs tells us to listen to our body and quiet our ego. No one benefits from trying to "push on" in a state of exhaustion and overwhelm. Never pass up the opportunity to settle down for a nice nap with your pack!


Remember To Breathe Easy

Have you ever seen your dog or any other pet sit or lie down and take a loud and deep sigh or breath? A LOT is going on in their body and brain during that breath.


Dogs can sigh for a variety of reasons and the main reason they sigh is to signal that they are relaxed. Sounds heavenly, doesn't it? The most common sounds of pleasure we hear from dogs are moans and sighs. They can also use whines and growls to communicate happiness. Low-pitched moans are often a sound puppies make and are signs of contentment.


How often do you find yourself taking such a nice, loud and deep sigh or breath?


Some dog trainers say that dogs generally sigh while resting, or when they are 'resigned'. These sighs seem to mark a physiological transition into a deeper state of relaxation.


Why does breathing deeply seem difficult or unnatural to so many of us?


One reason may be that our culture routinely encourages us to stifle anger or unwanted/difficult emotions. I have never seen so many men and women in my life work so hard at not feeling as I have in my years working as a nurse and wellness practitioner. Dogs do not do this! They don't know how to do this. The unfortunate reality in our current world is that most of us are exposed to constant stress, or perceived stressors, such as work, finances, school, relationships and mental illness. Although these are not real life threatening situations like being chased by a tiger, our body is responding as if they are. Our nervous system does not differentiate between the type, or level of stress, it responds and does its job telling the body to "prepare for battle." Our muscles tighten up, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, OUR BREATH becomes short and shallow, digestion slows or stops, and our ability to make clear decisions is altered.


Unlike humans, dogs live and behave by instinct. They listen to their body and know that relaxation is vital for survival. Humans have learned to by-pass our body's warning signs to fulfill our egos needs. This behavior of constantly reacting to stressors (real or perceived) results in chronic tension patterns. These patterns can be physical, mental, emotional and chemical—or all the above! These chronic tension patterns then create chronic inflammation throughout the body, which then creates DISEASE.


This lesson from dogs is about living in the moment and listening to what your body needs. We ALL NEED TO BREATHE. Breath allows our immune system to work properly, delivers oxygenated blood to our cells for energy, directs our nervous system to power down and drop tension. An amazing side effect of taking a few deep breaths is that IT FEELS GOOD and brings us back to the present moment. As we breathe, we drop tension; as we drop tension, we prevent chronic tension patterns, which helps prevent inflammation; as a result we PREVENT DISEASE.


The Importance Of A Good Belly Rub

A human as well as a dog often show their mental and emotional state through their body and body language. When stressed, a dog or a cat will have an arched or tense back with stiff legs and a stiff neck—a protective stance. Most of us have learned this is not a time to touch or pet an animal. They are, in fact, guarding their body and personal space. This is an instinctual response which we share with our animal friends. Most clients that came through my office years ago when I practiced Maya Abdominal Massage displayed the same protective stance—stiff back, neck and shoulders while leaning forward as if to protect their abdominal region.


Our abdomen is the center of our body and houses most of our vital organs. To say the least, this is a busy place and of great importance to our health and well-being.


Within this center, we have a busy lymphatic system made up of multiple lymph vessels and oval shaped lymph nodes. This is also where the body's largest lymphatic organ, the spleen is located. The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system, and plays an important role in the immune system. A dog's lymphatic system, like ours, is complex and vital to survival. It handles most of the immune functions in their bodies. Also, a dog's lymphatic system runs along their circulatory system (like ours) with the biggest collection of lymph vessels and lymph nodes located within their abdomen and gastrointestinal tract.


As you can see, it makes perfect sense why most dogs welcome a gentle or firm belly rub. Not only does a massage on their tummy stimulate circulation within the immune and digestive system, but also shows that they trust you. Showing their belly is not just a sign of submission but is a special kind of bonding which is linked to social grooming. Like humans, this touch produces oxytocin, the love and security hormone. It also FEELS GOOD and shows that they are relaxed enough to be vulnerable, feel safe, secure and stable. Wouldn't all of us benefit from being relaxed enough to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with another? We ALL need and want to feel safe, secure and that our environment/life is stable.


The way we touch our dogs profoundly impacts the way they view and interact with the world. The same is true for humans. Nurturing touch is vital for normal growth and development and is one sense that is present at birth in both species. Of the five senses dogs and humans possess, touch is the most similar. An infant instinctually turns to his or her mother for comfort, warmth and nourishment (which all equal safety and survival). Similarly, a newborn puppy instinctually nuzzles and paws for milk, turning to its mother for warmth and nourishment.


If you are not ready to have your belly rubbed by someone else, give yourself a nice belly rub in a clockwise direction. This is the direction our digestion lymph follows.


This lesson from dogs reminds us that just like dogs, we KNOW what is good for us. When you feel that "knot" in your tummy, it is a valuable message from your nervous system. Listen! Lay down, gently put your hands on your tummy and allow your body and mind a much needed time out.


Stretching To Navigate Life

I knew that dogs and cats like to stretch a lot, I mean even a yoga asana has been named in their honor—"downward dog." But I was surprised to see my own dogs stretching sometimes up to five times an hour! Their behavior is highly instinctual and linked to their ancestors (wolves); thus almost everything they do has a meaning or purpose. So being the nerdy dog lover I am, I had to look into this further!


As with humans, stretching warms up muscles and gets the blood flowing; it also releases toxins. All of these help out a dog when he is about to perform a strenuous physical activity, or as in the case with my dogs, almost ANY activity. Like our furry companions, humans have evolved from our ancestors (Neanderthals) who had to rely on their physical strength and flexibility to survive on a daily basis. They had to be ready to hunt and/or be hunted at any time; thus our bodies are designed to MOVE OFTEN.


I found it interesting that dogs stretch for many reasons. One common reason is that they want to play. Athletes will stretch to go out and play the big game; Similarly, dogs realize that stretching prepares them for physical activity. They will also stretch before hunting and mating as our ancestors probably did. These were activities in which they had to compete with others for food or a mate as well as defending their territory. Through evolution, they knew that if they didn’t stretch, they risked losing a fight over territory or not getting food, which resulted in the possible death of their pups and mates.


Although today most domesticated dogs do not have to rely on hunting and fighting for survival, they still have the deep, embedded, natural instinct to stretch. You would think that humans would still have the same natural instinct, yet as we have evolved, we move less and less. We don't need to be active to eat or find a mate or secure shelter. We have become more sedentary, which equates to less need to engage our muscles on a daily basis as we were designed to. This lack of movement creates tight, stiff, shortened and weak muscles, which leads to a host of problems with our mental, physical and physiologic health.


Dogs also stretch to relax. After all, stretching feels good, and calms our nervous system. This is similar to the way we humans stretch after a long drive or at the end of a long day. Instinctually, dogs stretch after sleeping, as their bodies have been inactive for a long period. This SHOULD be instinctual for humans, yet we have egos and extraneous activities of life which force us out of bed and into action. Often without giving our body the time and respect it needs to work optimally and take us through our busy, stressful days with ease.


This lesson from dogs reminds us we could all be more dog-like by listening to our body's needs. Follow our instincts to pause, show respect to ourselves and our body and STRETCH for our lives! Evolution favors the prepared, and they know this. We think we are the brighter ones, yet often choose ego over instinct and our bodies and lives suffer the consequences.


The Role Of Community

I thank my dad for my love of animals and especially my connection to dogs. I feel as though I have always understood them and that is no surprise as they considered me and my family part of their pack. We were all communicating without words on a regular basis, and this was normal for us. My siblings and I grew up learning to recognize and appreciate the amazing sensitivity and sense of structure/community dogs have.


Dogs and humans have similar social and emotional brains. Like us, they seek order and security in a community or pack. In a pack, the distinct leader is in the front of the pack and helps the pack hunt for food and water and find shelter. The middle dogs are generally the most easy going and are mediators for the pack. The back of the pack consists of the most sensitive dogs and their job is to alert the pack about danger. Dogs derive their behavior from their ancestors (wolves) dating back 14,000 years ago, and a pack of dogs or wolves is actually a family unit. The pack or family is very important and must have order for all members to survive and thrive. This pack is much like a neighborhood, household or workplace. They are all communities and all individual members of the community are important for the survival of the group. We all have distinct roles and responsibilities, much like the leader and the back of the pack.


Humans, like dogs, are social animals and are hardwired to interact with others, especially during times of stress. When we experience a trying ordeal alone, lack of emotional support and friendship can increase anxiety and hinder coping ability. A similar scenario occurs when a dog is feeling threatened and alone; it may become aggressive and attack out of anxiety and fear. In human behavior, this can show up as violence, domestic abuse and crime.


When we are not part of a community not only do we lack support and a sense of belonging. We also experience increased depression and anxiety. We have increased levels of stress hormones, experience poor sleep, a compromised immune system and cognitive decline.


This lesson from dogs reminds us to create and foster communities around us! It is indeed necessary for our survival AND growth, just like dogs. Community can mean anything from the people in your backyard to the surrounding ecosystem, your workplace, family or your local schools and hospitals. For so many of us, this sense of connection is what makes us thrive physically, mentally and emotionally.


Every day I continue to watch and learn from my dogs. They make the most of every moment of every day. They listen to their body and intuition, lie down or sleep when they are tired, move and stretch regularly because they know it is good for their body, watch out and take care of everyone in their pack, and finally, they give and receive love unconditionally and with grace. Not a bad way to live if I do say so myself.



Lisa Adams

Lisa Adams, an experienced nurse and health & wellness coach, helps overwhelmed professionals and health care providers recognize and manage the effects of chronic stress—the leading cause of disease, poor work performance and life dissatisfaction. Lisa provides simple, life-long and practical tools to help employees understand how the body functions, how to recognize and address chronic stress, and finally, how to facilitate healing and create lasting change.


Learn more about Lisa, her educational workshops, corporate wellness programs and individual coaching services at www.spiritofnamaste.com



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