This blog will be about life and relationships; mostly, from what I’ve learned from my two companion animals, Dali and Oskar. Sometimes I’ll post other types of resources and anecdotes. I hope what I share is helpful or at least fun.
I remember when Dali first joined our family, we lived in a downtown area. She was about six months old, maybe close to a year and filled with energy. She loved saying hello to people, all people. She would go up to everyone and greet them. And most people responded in kind, although there were always some who were busy or didn’t want to be bothered, which was no problem for Dali. She would just move on to the next person. Though she is nearing 14 years old, she still goes out of her way to greet people and it is clear how happy this interaction makes her.
Social interaction makes a big difference in our health. It is as important as eating healthy and exercising.
In this seven-minute segment, Shankar Vedantam focuses on the health impacts of social isolation for men, but it has good information for everyone.
Researchers Examine What Social Isolation Can Do To Men’s Health
Take time to connect with other people. Say hello to others on the bus or subway. Or when you’re on line. Strike up a conversation with a bank teller or cashier. I know from my experience, though brief, these interactions can boost my mood.
He will stand at the top of the stairs and push a tennis ball to me at the bottom. When I get it, I throw it back – down the hall – so he has to run and get it. He’ll go back to the top of the stairs and wait for me to sit down on the couch and then he will push the ball down the stairs again, so I hear a thump, thump, thump as the ball bounces down the stairs.
As he grew up in our family, and I would give a chew treat to both him and Dali. He would hide his treat when I wasn’t looking and then give me this look like something happened to his chewy and he didn’t know what it was. I was thinking maybe Dali was taking it so I’d give him another. Until one day, I don’t remember why, I thought to look around the house and saw that he was hiding them. When he realized I was on to him, he stopped his prank.
There are other things he does in the moment and I find myself cracking up. I look at him and he has a big smile on his face. We connect over the moment of playfulness and I feel lighter and joyful.
Laughing boosts the immune system and relieves stress, depression, anxiety, pain and social conflict. Be sure to watch a funny video, movie, spend time with friends who make you laugh, or find other things that make you LOL on a regular basis.
Dali is one of the most strong-willed individuals that I know. She pursues what she wants with every ounce of energy that she has. When I had to take my other dog, Oskar, to the emergency clinic, Dali snuck out the front door so as not to be left behind. On walks, she sits, unmovable, when she doesn’t want to go the way I want to go. When she desires a neck rub, she sits by my feet and communicates with body language that says it is time. And there is no alternative for me but to massage her neck.
Pretty good for a 20-pound dog.
Though Dali is getter older and the hot, humid summer is hard on her, she still is clear on what she wants. She lets me know when it is time to go home. She makes it clear when she wants to sit and soak in the sun. And she determines when it is time for her, at least, daily neck rub.
In her honor, I am taking steps to go after what I want. I am doing art every day, whether painting or writing poetry, even for a few minutes a day. Taking this first step gave me more energy to do more of the things that are important to me. I started a Google Group that I’ve thought about for at least a year and am taking a bike ride at least once a week. I feel better about myself and more competent.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” Thomas Jefferson
I am sitting on the couch with Oskar, next to me and he moves to get more comfortable and drapes his leg across my leg. It is comforting to me and I imagine comforting for Oskar since he put his leg there.
This was after Dali and Oskar and I went to a local park. exploring woods we hadn’t been to before. We all enjoyed the adventure and I felt closer to my companion animals.
According to research, physical affection and doing new things together are qualities of a long-term love.
In your relationships, human and nonhuman, make time for contact comfort and exploring the world together.
I joke around that Oskar is my boyfriend (who could resist that face?). If I go upstairs, Oskar goes upstairs. If I go downstairs, Oskar goes downstairs. When he comes in from a walk that I haven’t taken him on, the first thing he does is run to find me. He’s very attached to me and that’s why I was so surprised that he went to bite me when I was wiping his paws after he was out in the snow, ice and salt that they put down to prevent people from falling, but if it is not dog friendly, can really hurt their paws.
Oskar didn’t actually bite me. He just went to bite me, but I scolded him more from being so startled that he would actually try to hurt me. He looked so sheepish afterward. Maybe it was from being misunderstood, I don’t know, but the way he looked got me thinking. I knew he didn’t want to hurt me and I realized that he must have been hurting and wanted me to stop and it was the only way he had to tell me.
Something similar happened on one of our walks. A small rock got in between his paw pads and he couldn’t walk without hurting. So I went to take it out but was only using one hand because it was so cold out I didn’t want to take off my other glove. I didn’t realize at the time that in only using one hand, I was rubbing the rock against his pads while trying to remove it. In a flash, he turned his head around and put his teeth on my hands.
This time, I didn’t scold him. This time, I apologized and said to him he must be hurting and I realized I needed two hands to make sure I didn’t cause him any more pain. He gave me a kiss.
I later thought to myself if I can be so understanding toward Oskar and why he might lash out at me, maybe I could be understanding with myself when I get angry with friends or family when I’m hurting. That happened to me the other idea. I felt rejected and instead of telling my friend I was feeling hurt, I got angry with him. And then I felt terrible for getting angry and putting him on the defensive and feeling rejected.
After the now infamous Oskar incident, I was able to be compassionate with myself and know that I was not a bad person for getting angry, my anger came from a genuine place of feeling hurt. That helped to let go of the shame I was feeling. What a relief! Afterward, I also felt more capable of being vulnerable and telling my friend straight-up the next time I was feeling hurt. It’s a lot easier that way.
Sara Bareilles song, Brave, captures the theme of this post beautifully and with a lot of flare. I hope you enjoy dancing to this as much as I do.
Well, I ended up taking Dali to the vet because I felt like she was walking slower than she should even with aging. Maybe she had arthritis that could be relieved with pain medicine. I noticed her being careful about walking up and down curbs. I watched as she chose to walk down where there was a gentle slope to the street for wheel chairs. The vet said Dali is experiencing some lumbar pain and we’re waiting to get blood test results to see if the discomfort is associated with some other problem.
I decided to make an appointment with the vets after a particularly slow walk. Oskar was pulling me to go faster and Dali was clearly doing the best she could. Oskar turned around a couple of times to see what was going on with Dali. Interestingly, after a bit, Oskar retreated from the lead and chose to walk side-by-side with Dali. I imagine he recognized that Dali was not just being obstinate, as she can be, but picked up on her discomfort. How astute and kind of Oskar. And I sensed Dali took in his support.
I don’t know how much of an active choice Oskar made to give up his desire to go at his pace and instead be compassionate, but we have a choice. Research shows our first instinct, as adults or children, is to help others, not compete with them. Unfortunately, cultural factors get in the way of our innate desire to be compassionate. Research also shows that when we are kind to others, we are mentally and physical healthier.
I know for myself, whenever I choose the Golden Rule, whether it is with nonhuman animals (animals) or people, I always feel better about myself. Just this morning, my husband, Irwin, and I started to get into an argument. I thought he was being ridiculous. And I thought of this quote by a child that I read recently. I can’t remember it exactly, but it is something like: When I’m acting badly I need your compassion the most. So I put my arm around Irwin and said I knew he was tired and had been working so hard and done so much for the family. He hugged me back. Compassion turned a moment of disconnect into a moment of connection. I’d say we both felt better.
What is a time when you acting compassionately and you noticed feeling happier or good about yourself?
I never thought Dali would ever slow down, but she is. She’s nine now and doesn’t have the energy she used to. Some days, we can still go for a 2 hour walk in the morning and other days it’s a slow half-hour walk. Some of it is the heat and humidity, I’m sure, but Oskar could keep going if Dali were willing.
Barring anything unforeseen, I am sure that I have many more years with Dali. Her signs of aging impact me, though. Dali is a willful individual and it’s like I’m being let in on her secret. Her vulnerability and fragility are peeking through her indomitable spirit.
One day, I made the mistake of insisting that I pick her up to help her make the walk. She struggled in my arms until I put her down. Now, I just pretend that I don’t notice that we’re walking slowly or shorter distances. I want to give Dali her dignity.
Oskar has to adjust, too. He doesn’t always have his partner to run with and chase squirrels. When I can, I take him out by himself. Sometimes he’ll go with me and interestingly, sometimes he wants to stay back with Dali. Even though I don’t think they would have picked each other as friends, they have developed a bond and look out for each other.
Recognizing and honoring the losses, as well as remaining flexible in the face of change, helps us all find our way together through this new phase of our lives.
What has helped you get through some of your life transitions?
Years ago, The Washington Post ran a series called Life is Short: Autobiography as Haiku. I don’t remember reading that section religiously, but I sure am glad I read Lynda Van Kuren’s piece. I cut it out and have had it on my refrigerator ever since it was published on August 19, 2007. I’m sharing it here because I think it has some good life lessons for us all and it brings a smile to my face every time I read it. Here is the picture that is featured beside the haiku:
And here is the poem:
I loved her with all my heart. Little did I know that this little dog was my teacher, showing me how to negotiate life’s journey. Shana’s lessons:
Hang out with the people you love, and get as close to them as you can.
Always be ready to play.
If someone doesn’t like you, don’t worry about it. Lots of others do. Spend your time with them.
Don’t spend a lot of time being sad. Find something to do that makes you happy.
If someone upsets the one you love most, pee on their side of the bed.
When we realize we are inter-connected, we can learn life lessons from all animals. Maybe that is one of the most important lessons. To keep our hearts open to other living beings.
Dali and Oskar can have strong opinions about where they want to go for a walk. Most of the time I will go the way they want because I want them to be happy and be able to make some choices in their lives (I am well aware that I decide much of what happens in their lives, but that is for another blog post). Sometimes, though, I am clear within myself that I am not going to go the way Dali and Oskar want and have another direction I want to take.
This happened the other day. Dali and Oskar wanted to head downtown and I did not. I said “let’s go” and headed the way I wanted to go, but they stayed put and turned away from me, looking in the direction that they wanted to walk. Very clear, nonverbal communication. 🙂 Sometimes I will get frustrated and simply go my way. Typically, Dali will sulk the rest of the walk. She will walk so slowly it feels like she is walking backwards. And she will stop to smell every blade of grass. Oskar is much more flexible and will make the best of the situation.
Instead of going down their route, I said to them, “I know you want to go downtown. I can see that. I know it is disappointing for you, but we can’t do that today. There is going to be a lot of salt and that is going to hurt your paws and we’ll be too far from home for mommy to carry you home and I can’t carry both of you. So, we need to go this way.” They intensely looked at me and then turned and willingly headed in the direction I wanted to go. (Interestingly, research shows that dogs are more capable of understanding things from a human perspective than previously thought (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21411249).)
People – and other animals – need to feel that someone else hears and understands them before change is possible. As a therapist, I know how true this is. My experience is that if change is to happen, my client and I need to understand together how much it makes sense where he or she is at presently. Then we can start to see doors to open for something different. I also see this in my relationship with my husband. If I feel he understands me, then I can soften to understand him and then we can move forward. And vice versa.
In fact, understanding another’s perspective is one of Dale Carnegie’s principles in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. He quotes Henry Ford, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
When we’re calm and relaxed, it’s easier for all of us to do this. It can take a lot of practice to be able to see things from another’s perspective in the heat of the moment. The more I work on slowing myself down, the more fulfilling relationships I have with my husband, my dogs, my friends and family, and my community. I believe it is worth the effort.
Years ago, soon after we welcomed Oskar to our home and before he knew all of our rituals, I took Dali and Oskar to the airport to pick up my husband, Irwin. We were waiting for him in the baggage area and after I received his call, I knew to keep a look-out. When I saw Irwin, I alerted Dali and Oskar: “Who sees Daddy?” Dali looked around, spotted Irwin and started running towards him. She had a goal. Oskar ran along with Dali. He was so much in the moment, simply joyous to be running with his buddy. Oskar was in a moment of play. Running just because it was fun. He ran right past his Daddy.
Sometimes Dali and Oskar will rough and tumble play. Dali doesn’t play as much as Oskar would like and I feel bad about that, but when they do, it is so much fun to watch. It is like they are in their own world. And that is part of play, too. Play participants are in a state of abandon, a zone.
According to play expert Dr. Stuart Brown (what a fun job he has!), play is important throughout our life. There are many different types of play and the basis of human trust is established through play signals. Play helps with our emotional regulation, cognitive and physical development, innovation and creativity, and bonding and closeness. Nothing lights up the brain like play does. All species seem to be able to play and there is a very powerful and deep signaling system that exists between various species.
In his TEDTalk, Dr. Brown gives this example of a polar bear coming upon chained sled dogs. The polar bear is in a predatory approach with eyes fixed, stalking movements, and claws extended. One of the sled dogs gives a play bow and when the polar bear receives the message, everything changes. Their interaction becomes good-natured and trusting.
I’ve certainly experienced this with Oskar. Oskar can be very playful. He can make me laugh out loud. One time, I was at the foot of the stairs calling to Oskar at the top of the stairs to bring the ball-ie. He doesn’t like to bring the ball. He likes me to chase him. I don’t like to chase him. He just stood motionless and so after a couple of tries, I left my post and walked away. Moments later, I hear the ball hitting each step. I started to laugh. Oskar had pushed the ball down the stairs to lure me back, but he found a way to do so without bringing the ball to me.
Although hard to define because it is pre-verbal, play is voluntary, fun for its own sake and seems purposeless. It can be active. It can also be imaginative and inward. Some of my favorite times have been walking in the woods with Dali and Oskar. I explore places and climb in and out of small creek beds I never would if I weren’t with them. And I daydream. I hadn’t understood these times to be a form of play until listening to Dr. Brown.
It is important to bring play in to our lives. It is important for our well-being. Play deprivation results in rigidness, lack of optimism, a negative view on life and depression. It is important for each of us to be true to our own temperament to find the activities of play that fit us best. This will help us be more effective in work and different areas of our life. I recently started painting and found my anxiety decreased dramatically. I love using a lot of paint and because I enjoy the gooey feel I sometimes use my hands to cover the canvas and mix paint. Doing this brought up memories of photos I had seen of myself as a toddler playing in the mud. Perhaps a trait I was born with was to enjoy exploring through a sense of touch and physical movement.
Play is also important in our couple relationships. If we neglect the fun side of our relationship, this can trigger a spiral of distress. Each couple needs to incorporate their ways of play into their lives and so some things together just because it is fun.
The video at the top of this blog post always makes me smile. My mirror neurons probably fire watching the dog and sheep play tag. I hope they and my blog inspire you to find ways to play that fit who you are.