What I’ve Learned from Dogs

My Dog Pack

My Dog Pack: Pinky, Dorje, Sangpo Red, Birdie Jo, Sprocky

I am not just a dog person—I’m a dog sucker. In fact, I’ve had friends and family (honestly, just my cat-person brother) suggest that beyond having too many, I may have an actual problem bordering on obsession when it comes to dogs…but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about what dogs can teach us.

Living with any animal can not only teach us about empathy, compassion, and humility, but can also teach us so much about ourselves, especially things we don’t want to learn.

I’ll admit I’m biased, but dogs seem to possess a nature unlike any other animal we cohabitate with on the planet—maybe because they have lived with us for so long, and have actually evolved to be more like us than we realize.

From their facial expressions, to their active vocabulary, to their cute manipulative ways, dogs are not just man’s best friend, but family. My family—fur, fang, paw, stinky breath and all.

So in honor of National Dog Day and dogs everywhere, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from dogs—both as a dog owner/rescuer/foster, and as a humble yet happy observer.

It’s good to get excited about something, even if it seems silly

Dogs are innate canine optimists, and dwell in happiness if their basic needs are met, not necessarily in this order: food, shelter, discipline, affection, love. What I love about dogs is that they don’t think anything of getting super excited every time you walk through the door (even if you just went to take the garbage out), or when they see you with a leash, or when they think you’re walking deliciously close to the treat jar. They may be well trained and operate from discipline, but they can also just be true to themselves and revel in the moment. If they like something, they don’t hold back, no matter what it might be. So maybe we should just be more dog! (courtesy of fellow dog lover George Couros)

Have fun and play

This one is on lots of recommended work hacking/time hacking/life hacking lists for living a more satisfying, productive, fulfilling life. Seems so obvious that it’s pretty sad in a way that we even need to be reminded to do so. What’s great about dogs is that they don’t sanction a place or a time to have fun and just play—they cavort when the mood strikes them, or should I say when the ball, the stick, the squeak toy, the other dog, or their human suddenly catches their fancy. Sure, dogs may have ADHD, but I’d venture to say that it actually stands for Attention Diversion Happiness Denominator.

Make friends outside your normal pack

Dogs not only don’t hold grudges, they also don’t discriminate on who they will befriend, and there are lots of examples of cross-species friendships involving dogs.

My own pack, however, wasn’t always so open-minded or open to other dogs. One of the benefits of running a dog foster hostel of sorts is the constant change of personalities my own dogs encounter on a regular basis, which no doubt has helped them work on their own social aptitude. One former foster, Maxie (now a very happy and lucky member of a friend’s small family pack), stands out as the most friendliest, good-natured dog I have ever been around to date. When he first came into the pack, he was recovering from mange and was still just a puppy, but during his 8-month stay, he actually helped me socialize three other dogs, one of which happens to be his permanent step-brother, Pinto. Maxie has never meet a dog he didn’t like, no matter who the dog happens to be, or how it reacts to him. In fact, he will seek out other dogs and their owners at the park, just to say “Hey, whazzup!” Through being with Maxie, my own dogs have become more open to newcomers, and it’s made me more willing to take in those who need to learn how to make new friends as well.

Maxie triptych

Don’t be a wimp

My current elder Dorje is a black lab/beagle mix that I adopted immediately after seeing his little puppy face on a student’s cell phone about nine years ago. When thinking of a name for him, I wanted a word that connoted strength, since I figured he may have some karma to work through in this lifetime, being a natural-born tripod (he’s missing a front leg, and in place of a paw dangles a cute little white pom-pom furball). So I decided on Dorje, which means “thunderbolt” in Tibetan. Despite his physical impairment, he’s no wimp, and he doesn’t let it stop him or slow him down. Now that he’s the grandpa dog of the bunch, he’s still as feisty as ever; just last evening he was able to stealthily pull down a chicken carcass I too carelessly left on the stove—my bad, but a sweet little score for my sweet little badass.


Looks really are only fur deep

When Pinky entered my life, my partner at the time found her on the side of the road in a somewhat rough neighborhood. You name it, she had it—mange, giardia, worms, was malnourished, and on top of that, she performed the car trifecta—she barfed, peed and pooped from nerves on her way to the vet. After getting the call about a “surprise” for me, he then brought her over to meet me for the first time; I was underwhelmed, to say the least. She wasn’t much to look at—gawky legs, a pinkish, rat-like muzzle missing hair from mange, she looked like…well, like a big rat. But she was smiling, seemed very happy to meet me, and he was already so enamored with her, what could I do?

Pinky turned out to be not only a beautiful girl, but emerged as the quiet yet demanding alpha of my pack—I call her my ‘land dolphin’ because she’s so smart, I’m guessing due in part from her distinct markings as being part-border collie, mixed with part-who knows what else.


Since Pinky, I have learned that it’s a real shame to ever judge a dog by what it looks like—a beautiful purebred could be a real nutcase dogwise, while the rattiest mutt with ganas could outshine any AKC champion. 

Case in point—my most recent doggy addition was a totally unexpected foster-fail who came to me with entropic eyelids and a textbook underbite, a total ugly dogling; but dog sucker that I am, Sprocky McDougal melted my heart with his quirky demeanor and dreamy gaze; he’s a total pretty boy to me. C’mon, admit it—his face isn’t just one only a mother could love, is it??


Be spontaneous; or be ready for the unexpected

I didn’t intentionally decide to rescue, foster and adopt out dogs. It just basically happened, in a somewhat snowball domino effect, but nonetheless it has enriched my life beyond anything I could have initiated on my own. But I didn’t always feel this way about it. In fact, as recently as last spring, I really questioned my own sanity, when through an unexpected turn of events via a very unusual neighbor-acquaintance-turned dog lover comrade, I begrudgingly became temporary dog mom to a litter of five and a very odd mom dog named Allie who were living under a shed in an alley (hence her name) behind my then-temporary rental. Looong story short, all the dogs are now in great homes (four of the five pups have teacher families!). I like to think of Life as a box of fuzzy chocolates—you never know which ones will pick you. 

Faces don’t lie

Dogs are pretty great at not only smelling out how we feel, but they can read our faces better than we think, according to various studies. Whether they’re using us to socially reference how to act, or looking into our eyes to deepen a bond, our faces can tell the whole story whether we want them to or not, at least to a dog. Supposedly they’ve even adapted this trait of mimicking emotions through facial expressions, becoming more like us than we realize. As humans we may not be as fluent in reading faces as our canine companions are, but after learning about how much they do see in ours, and observing mine watching mine, it’s made me more aware of what my face and thus my attitude is saying to others. And it does feel so good when they look at you like they do, oxytocin or not!


Follow your instincts (or stick to your gut even if others poo poo it)

Looking back on some of the decisions I’ve made in regards to dog rescue could seem a bit nutty and even dangerous; even so, I have never regretted or begrudged the extreme inconvenience, huge time suck, exhaustion and intense duress I’ve experienced because of them. All I have to do is look in the eyes of my own rescue dog Sangpo Red to feel extreme validation that my efforts will never be in vain, no matter how crazy or challenging they may come across to others. Red’s 5-month rescue saga is too long to go into here, but suffice it to say, I am so happy that I lived up to my own promise to rescue him the moment I saw him—despite all the numerous setbacks, sleepless nights, dog communicator conversations, and flower essences (for him and for me!). Plus, Pinky now has the most handsome boyfriend ever!

Red Triptych

Shedding is natural; shedding is good

A little dog hair isn’t the end of the world, I’ve come to acknowledge and accept, despite the never-ending and mind-numbing (not quite daily) cycle of: furminate, vacuum, wash, repeat. Dogs, just like other animals, molt on a regular basis to make way for new growth—fur, feathers, hair, skin. Luckily domestic dogs supposedly only molt once a year, but in the summer, it seems like it’s an hourly occurrence. I may not like the shedding, but I have to accept it as part and parcel of living with dogs. I could try to make a connection between the shedding off of old perceptions to make way for new ones, but dogs don’t think about growth mindset when they shed. They just shed, and we have to deal with it. How we shed is totally our own deal.

It’s okay to let go

When people find out I foster dogs, they often ask, “How can you? Don’t you get attached?” The answer is yes, I do, but I know that ultimately what I do for them can help them find better forever homes than if I simply just made connections between people interested in adopting them and the dogs looking for humans to love them. Of course, I have had a few rescues and fosters who have really tempted me to rethink it all, but it’s not about me, it’s about them. Misplaced attachment can be a form of selfishness, and doesn’t do me or the dogs any favors if it keeps them ultimately from being their true dog selves with their human soul mates. 

It’s not about what you didn’t do, but what you did do

When I first realized my dog rescue “hobby” was turning into a compulsive habit, I literally drove by a scrappy pack camping out behind a Pizza Hut one morning on the way to work. Over several weeks spanning into months, I tried all sorts of methods to get close to the “El Montan Pack” as I grew to call them. After recruiting a group of friends to unsuccessfully capture the skittish adult dogs one morning, we were able to uncover two litters of puppies hidden by the mothers. As we were loading the litters into my car to transport to a local no-kill shelter, the one male I’d grown most fond of walked right up to my car, wagging his tail. Now Juneau lives out in Colorado with his forever human. I was never able to rescue the other adult dogs, and lost track of them after they migrated to other places. I beat myself up about that for awhile afterward, but it’s not only beyond my control at this point, it’s defeatist and counterproductive.

Two can be better than one

Dogs are very social creatures, and because of that affinity for being around other living beings, it’s almost always better to have at least two to keep each other company. So for you singleton dog owners out there…it may be time to paw up, look in your furry friend’s face and read what it says…you may be happy you did.

More Fun Dog Stuff

Be More Dog Video (shared via fellow dog lover George Couros)

DIY Dog Pallet Beds

Brain Scans Reveal What Dogs Really Think of Us

Projekt 100 Hunde

To Foster a Love of Reading, Bring an Animal to the Classroom

Slo-Mo Video of Labs Playfighting, set to Game of Thrones

My Dog Rescue Hero: Eldad Hagar

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