If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.- Woodrow Wilson
The Humane Society reports that approximately 47% of U.S households own at least one dog, and when we refer to the dog as man’s best friend, we mean it so sincerely that according to clinical psychologist Dr. Suzanne Phillips, we treat our dogs better than our spouses: “What is interesting in my work with couples is that although couples may disagree vehemently on most topics, they usually both soften in tone and manner to agree that the dog, cat, bird, or horse is great.” As much as we love our four-legged, furry friends, they demand a lot of responsibility; they need food, shelter, medical care, and attention, but when they chew holes in our favorite pair of high-heels or toss their biscuits all over the newly-cleaned carpet, we forgive them.
The reason why we sometimes seem to develop stronger relationships with our dogs than with the humans in our lives is so simple that we easily overlook it. Dogs operate on the Golden Rule; they treat us the way we want to be treated, and we respond in kind. Here are 10 things our dogs can teach us about healthy communication in our relationships.
1. They don’t hold grudges
According to a recent study led by ethologist Johan Lind at Stockholm University in Sweden, dogs’ short-term memory span is approximately 27 seconds. This might explain why your dog has no recollection of that vigorous game of tug you just played fifteen minutes ago and insists on whacking you around the legs with his rope for another go at it. On the other hand, this can actually work to our advantage. No matter what we do, whether it’s coming home late from work, snapping at them for wanting to play fetch when we’d rather watch TV, or boarding them at the vet for two weeks while we go on a family vacation, they still love us. A dog will never turn his back on you or withhold a snuggle, even when every other human in the vicinity declares you to be the most unlikable person they’ve had to deal with all day. Our dogs know we aren’t perfect, and because of this, they forgive our mistakes. IF we can learn one thing from this, let it be to never let the sun set on our anger. Our dogs certainly never do.
2. They always remember to say “I love you.”
One of the things I love most about my dog is his demonstrative displays of affection; tail-wagging, nuzzling, and licking are all ways to let me know he loves me. More than this, I love that I never have to ask him for it. Not only does he forgive me for being an absolute pain in the butt (which happens more often than I feel comfortable admitting), he reminds me that, however imperfect we are, we’re always worthy of love. Never miss an opportunity to tell a friend or family member you love them. It might be said that too much of a good thing is dangerous, but if we can learn anything from our dogs, it’s that this rule doesn’t apply to love.
3. They value quality time
Does your dog jump up eagerly every time he sees his leash or his favorite fetch toy? Does he nudge his nose between your hand and the laptop keyboard as you frantically type away, racing to meet a deadline? This is his way of reminding you that sometimes, work can wait. When we take fifteen minutes to jog around the block with our dogs or throw the Frisbee in the back-yard, we should also challenge ourselves to think about how we can transfer this practice to the relationships we cultivate with other people. Take a few minutes on your lunch-break to text your best friend and ask how her day is going. Stop by your girlfriend’s apartment after work with Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine and enjoy a few hours in her company. Time with our loved ones is finite, and since we can never know how much of it we have left, it’s a luxury we can’t afford to squander.
4. They always listen to our problems
I love those classic sitcom or movie scenes with an angst-ridden teenage girl, sitting on the porch with her Golden Retriever, asking why the boy at school whom she’s convinced is her soulmate won’t give her a second look. In response, the dog simply wags his tail and licks her face, as if to say, “Whatever. He’s an idiot. I still love you.” Your dog will never roll his eyes at you when you complain about a coworker for the tenth time or wonder why your ex still seems to have you dancing on a string. Your dog also won’t tell you to just cut the cord yourself and stop replying to his texts, because that’s not what you want to hear. He just offers his big floppy ears as a vessel for your frustrations without complaint.
Think about this the next time you find yourself serving as a sounding board for someone else’s problems. Pretend, just for a few minutes, to be your dog, as if you can do nothing but listen sympathetically and nod. (Just don’t lick anyone’s face. It probably won’t end well).
5. They’re always happy to see a friend
Whether it’s been five seconds, five minutes, or five years, our dogs always greet us with a yip and a wagging tail. This likely has to do with that so-called short-term memory problem I mentioned earlier, but again, this works in our favor. A dog treats each time he sees someone he loves as an opportunity to rejoice and reunite. Imagine how much sweeter our interpersonal relationships would be if we treated each other that way.
6. They teach us about sharing
We share our food, our beds, and our spot on the couch with them, and never once do we complain. If we do, it’s a half-hearted complaint while the dog casually raises his head from his position in the middle of the bed, gives a look that, roughly interpreted, means “Yeah, right,” and goes back to sleep. WE share the spaces in our homes and our hearts with our dogs not under a sense of obligation, but simply because we want to. Our willingness to reach out to other people in our lives, physically and emotionally, can be just as rewarding because we have the mutually beneficial experience of sharing our resources and making a connection with someone who might one day return the favor. No one is meant to walk through life alone.
7. They force us to listen
In addition to being great listeners themselves, our dogs force us to listen in order to understand their way of communicating. The yips, the whines, the barks, and the howls are all nuances of the canine vocabulary, and we learn whether Sparky is happy, sad, frightened, or feeling threatened based on the tenor of his bark. We can similarly improve our communication with others just by listening to their tone of voice, learning to recognize shades of emotion that can help us to show more sensitivity toward one another’s feelings.
8. They teach us about trust
When we take our dogs into our homes, they simply trust that we’ll treat them with love and kindness. They trust that we’ll feed them, walk them, and care for them when they’re sick because, having been domesticated, they’ve learned to depend on humans for survival. In doing so, they hold us accountable. They remind us that we need to show others with our actions that we’re worthy of their trust and respect. I sometimes think that if people saw in me whatever my dog does, I’d have a lot more friends.
9. They remind us of the importance of physical contact
In this increasingly technological world, virtual is something of a buzz-word, but as convenient as having the world at our fingertips can be sometimes, it also eliminates a lot of the need for human contact. Even in the digital age, our dogs crave physical touch. They need pets, belly rubs, and scratches behind the ears as affirmation of our affection, and they reward us with licks and snuggles. Texts are great, but according to the National Institute of Health, our brains crave hugs. The release of oxytocin that hugs trigger creates feelings of pleasure by lowering blood pressure and stress hormones.
10. They teach us to read body language
While dogs communicate verbally by barking, they also use body language, much as humans do, to tell us how they feel. A wagging tail might indicate happiness, while a drooping tail and ears might indicate fear or sadness. I used to have a Labrador who would pace incessantly whenever he heard a crying baby. This was his way of alerting us to something unsettling that he knew required attention.
Recognizing these signs in our dogs’ nonverbal communication is easily transferable in our human relationships as well. Noticing posture, facial expressions, or hand gestures can help us to read between the lines in our conversations and gain a deeper understanding of each other’s emotions.