My fascination with dogs as a species began about half a decade ago when I first began studying the phenomena of domestication. Dogs you see, are considered the first species to have been domesticated — though just when this happened is still the subject of significant debate. at least amongst the small circle of folks who research this sort of thing. Those who use the more traditional fossil evidence to look for clues suggest a domestication timeline of about 10,000 - 11,000 years, though those using the more modern methods of genetics suggest a much larger timeline, one stretching back perhaps as far as 100,000 years.
What is universally agreed upon is that all domesticated dogs are a subspecies of but one animal — Canis lupus, the Grey Wolf. It is likely that the earliest “dogs” were grey wolves that had become synanthropic — these are wild species who learn to benefit from the local ecology of humans, and include animals like pigeons and many plants like dandelions — living on the outskirts of early human encampments. These dogs likely continued to resemble their grey wolf ancestors until more recent history — in particular the last 10,000 years when humans began shifting from the semi-nomadic life of foragers to the more sedentary village lives of agriculturalists. It is at about this time that the fossil record begins to indicate changes in the direction of what we think of as modern dogs.
When we say “Man’s Best Friend” we don’t mean “Jim's”, “Larry’s”, or “Jed’s” best friend, we mean “man” in its older asexual sense — we mean “human’s best friend”. Dogs are our oldest non-human ally.
I have been Kaina’s human for a couple of years now, and she has been my dog. At about 80 pounds, she is a black and tan Catahoula Leopard Dog — and though many people (Yankees at least) haven’t usually heard of them, they are considered the first post-colonial dog breed of N. America, being a mix of the native village dogs and European war dogs. I dubbed her “Kaina” in celebration of her species scientific name — Canis lupus familiaris — and as a reminder of our two species unique and longstanding kinship.
As you can imagine, over these last two years she and I have taught each other many things, and some of the lessons she has imparted to me are starting to take hold. Here are a few that might remind you of your own relationship with a Canis lupus familiaris, and may even be of value to your own health and wellbeing.
1 Take yourself for a walk daily
Humans may have been “Born to Run”, but we most definitely live to walk. We humans have spent nearly our entire evolutionary history in bipedal locomotion, only recently achieving a kind of pathological sedentism that is literally unraveling peoples health. The benefits of walking are far more than just cardiovascular exercise — our fluid bodies are adapted to the rhythmic pulse of walking and running, our lower leg muscles pump the fluids that accumulate in our legs back into the main-lines of our hydraulic system, and our geo-spatial awareness is developed as we explore the environment around us. Kaina gets really bored and depressed if she doesn’t walk, hike, or run every day. It took her showing me that so do I!
Dogs may be man’s best friend, but according to Hippocrates “Walking is Man’s best medicine”. If you are only going to do one thing for yourself today, take a walk!
2 Develop consistent routines
Kaina thrives in an environment where there are consistent routines. She likes to start her day around the same time every morning — she wakes me up to go outside, relieves herself, comes in and joins me for a snuggle, then goes downstairs to nap until I get up. Once I’m up she sits patiently waiting for me to prepare our breakfasts. We do our morning routines together. She knows just when the blender will start to make my morning drinks and where to hangout during my physical training sessions. We do this nearly everyday (leaving room for the unknown!), and she and I thrive by using the power of routine to incorporate all the things we love to do into our day. If you have lots of health practices you would like to make daily habits you can utilize the power of routine to make it happen!
3 Become a body language master
You — just like a dog — are already are a master of communicating with your body language, whether you know it or not. You may think that you are disguising your inner world from those around you — but even the tiniest uncontrollable micro-expressions on your face reveals the truth of your inner feelings, your intentions, and even your worldview. Learning to read the body language of others is a supremely valuable skill — and learning how to communicate with your body language can dramatically increase your effectiveness as a communicator. Dogs are masters of both, effortlessly reading your body language and communicating with their own. I love trying to disguise my intention to take a walk from Kaina for as long as I can — which usually isn’t long — she can see right through my subterfuge — knowing what I intend even when I attempt to conceal it. Humans are the same way, though most of us have not yet brought this inborn skill from the subconscious to the conscious.
4. Follow your nose
Dogs interrupt their world through their sense of smell in much the same way we use our vision. While most of us come standard equipped with excellent olfactory sensation — few of us ever really develop this sense or use it to navigate through our world. Smells indicate much about the safety and health of our environment and can help us to steer clear of foods that have started to spoil or places where there are injurious chemicals. My nose clearly indicates when to avoid walking through the cleaning products aisle of a department store or the acrid smelling alley of some city backstreet. It alerts me with information about the freshness of fruits and fishes, and the health of a friend or lover. My mother taught me when I was young how to smell a fever on someones breath — a distinct smell that I use to navigate around people who might be contagiously ill.
Here’s a paper on how developed the human sense of smell actually is http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC406401/
5. Sleep whenever theres a dull moment
Ever notice how dogs seem to use any downtime they have in their day to grab a nap? Ever feel like you wish you could do the same but just can’t seem to “find the time”? The saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” could be restated as “I’m dead if I don’t sleep”. Although many of us know the tremendous benefits of getting sufficient rest and sleep, most of us still feel guilty about giving ourselves this much needed “nutrient”. I know first hand how easy it is to put more emphasis on doing than being, and sleep is something that sometimes requires a touch of discipline to get enough of. Here’s one suggestion, set a daily date with yourself to be in bed and asleep by midnight. For many of us, it's unlikely that we’ll be able to — or even want to — do it every night, but if we keep even 75% of these appointments we will be on the road to much better rest and health. Make it a point to sleep until you really want to get up every day that you can.
6. Everything we do is training
Everything we do with our dogs is training — we are ultimately either encouraging or discouraging future behaviors. Ever heard of the famous Pavlov’s Dog Experiment?
We, just like our dogs, are very easily conditioned, which is to say we can be trained to respond to stimuli very predictably. Just observe your mental and physical response next time your mobile phone rings or receives a text. Notice how even if you don’t reach for it, there is a strong response in you that makes you want to reach for it. How about when someone calls your name — next time pay very close attention to how you respond — usually before you even think to. This is conditioning. We can take conscious control of our conditioning to develop really good, health-promoting habits or we can use conditioning to undermine our confidence, commitment, and ultimately our health.
Be sure to reward yourself when you perform an action you would like to repeat in the future - lets say an exercise routine for example. After allow the good feelings of the success roll over you, and you can even reinforce this with a treat, like a snack you love perhaps. However, be very cautious about rewarding yourself for behaviors you do not want to repeat. For example if you intend to exercise and then decide not to and instead give yourself some comfort food or other treat, you are actually rewarding this behavior. Be a good trainer — reward your preferred behaviors!
Do any of these lessons resonate with you? What lessons have you learned from your canine friends? Share in the comments below!