It’s often said that we don’t rescue our pets, they rescue us—but it’s a mantra that you don’t fully realize until it happens to you. Whether you own a dog or volunteer at an animal shelter, the lessons animals teach us are far wiser than what we often experience in daily living. For me, my dog saved me because he provided therapy when I was suffering at the deepest depths of alcoholism. He’s a source of recovery from substance abuse, and a path to freedom I never realized until he led me down it.
At shelters, reunions with owners are the top priority, but of course, there are also rescue cases, protective custody cases, and ultimately “up for adoption” cases. At many of these no-kill shelters, during the first week an animal arrives, they’re placed in no man’s land, a private row of kennels that only veterinarians and qualified personnel are allowed to enter. They receive the best in care, but are given the quiet, space and relative solitude necessary to get best acquainted to a brand new, shocking, and likely scary environment (yes, even scary for those who come from the most neglectful and abusive of places).
It’s amazing how quickly some of the animals make a turnaround—and how quickly they begin to guide us. This isn’t the case for all, and it shouldn’t be expected, but it’s not uncommon for a dog who’s been neglected and abused his entire life to respond unbelievably well to just one week of quality food, “home” and kindness.
We can learn a great deal about kindness, to both ourselves and others, from some of these temporary residents. Here are six lessons I’ve experienced or witnessed in relationships with man’s best friend:
- Let others know if and when you trust them. For cats, it’s relatively easy (if you speak cat language). Showing their belly isn’t always an invitation to rub it, as anyone who’s tried knows. Instead, it’s their way of saying, “I trust you.” For dogs, it’s always about belly rubs. If only it were that easy for us to communicate that to one another.
Fear doesn’t always look the same. Particularly with dogs, most people can quickly point out the ones who are “obviously afraid.” They’re the ones cowering in the corner with their tail tucked between their legs. However, aggressive behavior including jumping, barking, and snapping are almost always indicative of fear, too. Like humans, dogs all show fear differently and aggression is a defensive response. Recognizing fear, and knowing how to address it, can work miracles to avoid misunderstandings.
- Stop rewarding behavior you don’t like. It’s very natural for a lot of humans to think it’s cute when dogs jump on them with excitement. “He missed me!” or “He likes me!” is the first thought. They’re rewarded with kind words and pets. It’s not always easy to reward the behavior you really want (like a dog happily greeting you without jumping) or ignore the behavior you don’t want (again, ignoring those jumps instead of feeding into it or admonishing them) takes real effort and doesn’t come easily.
Ultimately, this teaches us to learn to love and let go. My partner and I, after dog sitting for a week, had been talking in earnest about possibly getting a pet. They’ve never had one, and I grew up on the equivalent of a mini farm. In other words, I know how much work and heartache is involved. I asked them, “Are you sure you want to love something you know you’ll watch die?” because, as blunt as that sounds, that’s how it usually goes. Most pet owners will say yes, the pain is more than worth it. Learning to love knowing you’ll have to let go is a big part of life—especially when you’re regularly falling in love with pets.
- Stretch, play, form bonds and eat the good food. Sometimes it really is that simple. Stay curious, but not reckless. Many animals are very interested in us and blindly trust that we won’t hurt them. Still, one movement too fast on our part or strange sound sends some of them rushing to protect themselves.
- Who or what’s in the cage is all relative. To stray dogs or wild animals, I imagine they think to themselves, “Let’s go by that one house and see what the caged humans are doing.” No wonder it’s terrifying if we go outside when they’re present. They likely think we’ve escaped. Reserve your most aggressive defense for last. Contrary to popular belief, it takes a lot to get most stray dogs to attack you. That’s their only serious defense against a threat that’s their size or larger, but they have other strategies to try first—like growls and running. You don’t want to start out with all guns blazing. Learning this lesson can literally save your life.
- Just because there’s a shortcut doesn’t mean you have to take it. Some dogs will create desire paths, common trails, in their yard. Yet some of them still choose to go a seemingly roundabout way for reasons we can’t comprehend. Sometimes saving ourselves simply requires exploration.
- Don’t eat just because food’s there. Many dogs are very picky about what they eat. I don’t know why. Eat the good stuff, and the items you like. Come early, stay late. That’s when the most interesting things happen (and why you’ll often get woken up early and find them snoozing mid-day). Finally, know that pizza is worth fighting over. Once, and only once, we let them him have a bite of leftover pizza. It was the only time he jerked his head away when we reached for him, certain the prize was going to get taken. Yes, pizza saves.
Having a pet or volunteering with animals is a great way to build more kindness in your life. Numerous studies have shown that simply being around animals has tremendous health benefits for humans, too. Who knew therapy was free?