Lessons My Puppy Taught Me

We just bought a puppy. I have named him Leo because he is courageous and looks like a lion cub. While Leo may be new to the planet, he did arrive with a significant amount of instinctual knowledge. We commonly refer to instincts in slightly derogatory terms (“they are just animal instincts”). But there is a lot we can learn from these behaviours, honed over millions of years, so I’ve been watching Leo closely. Here’s five things I’ve learned so far.

  1. He takes a break when he needs it. On his second day home Leo took himself off to the bathroom, pulled a towel from the washing basket, curled up on it and went to sleep. I was concerned he might be sick. My mother, who was visiting, said I shouldn’t worry, he was just having some quiet time alone. She was right as he has continued this daily habit of going somewhere quiet for a rest when he needs to. Why don’t we have the good sense to stop and take a rest when we need to? Research suggests a 20 minute nap or meditative rest in the middle of the day is a great way to recharge our batteries.
  2. He is cautious, respectful and friendly with new relationships. When I first took Leo to the park, two very large dogs ran toward him. Sizing up the situation, he crouched down and rolled on his back with his tail wagging. He was letting them know he was not a threat and wanted to be their friend. Only after they had sniffed him and given him a lick of approval did he jump up and let his natural enthusiasm show. I am a raging extrovert and have been known to create awkwardness in others by being prematurely forward. Leo’s respectful, friendly cautiousness has been a useful reminder on the natural art of relationship building.
  3. He is intensely curious. Last year I invited Dr Bob Dick, a respected psychologist and mentor of mine, to address the FRI team on the topic of strategic thinking. When asked for a tip to enhance our strategic thinking ability, Bob simply said, “Cultivate the habit of being intensely curious.” I know I do my best work when I practise this and Leo is certainly a good role model. To him the world is a continuous source of wonder. So while curiosity may have killed the cat, it would appear to be very good for the dog and human brains!
  4. He does stretching exercises every morning. When I posted a photo of Leo sitting by a statue of the Buddha, a friend jokingly asked if I had taught him the Downward Dog Yoga posture. The truth is Leo has been doing this and other stretching exercises every morning since I’ve known him. The original Yoga authorities actually developed many of the postures by observing the instinctual behaviour of animals. Not only does Leo do a stretching routine every morning, when he feels he needs to exercise he runs up and down the hallway, or around and around the backyard. And he enjoys it. Now there’s a lesson for all of us.
  5. Like ours, his brain is largely a social organ. Whenever Leo realises we are going to leave him alone, his yelps and screams are so intense, it sounds like we are torturing him. This is because a large part of the human and dog brain is devoted to social relationships. Indeed, the social pain brought on by rejection, humiliation, abandonment or betrayal, stimulates the same centres in the brain as physical pain. This is known as the SPOT or social pain overlap theory. However social pain is worse because it is re-triggered when we remember the painful experience. Leo’s cries remind me of how the quality of our relationships significantly impact on the quality of our lives.

Leo may have strong instincts, but so do all of us. They are a gift from our ancestors to help us survive and live more in tune with nature. Perhaps if we trusted the wisdom of our instincts a bit more, we would see less phoniness and more of the authentic behaviours we talk so much about these days. And when you think about it, isn’t it the raw honesty of a puppy that makes them so loveable?


Greg Nathan is a psychologist, author and an international expert on the franchise relationship. Connect with him on Google+ or Linkedin.

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