I love to watch my dog, Felix. He’s a Border Collie mix—probably a “Borador,” part Border and part Labrador—with butterscotch eyes that are alternately sweetly soulful and laser sharp. He can go from dopey cute to high alert in an instant. He’s characteristically single-handler focused, so he checks in with me frequently, watching my movements across a room, staring me down to tell me he wants to go outside or to catch a piece of whatever food I’m eating. When we go for a walk in the neighborhood, he turns his head to look up at me. He can get so distracted that he’ll walk into a tree or shrub if I don’t direct him to walk straight. So, at the least, Felix is entertaining. But there’s much more to his character than that.
Acknowledging that “dog world” is different from “human world,” I can’t experience the natural environment exactly as he does. But I try to learn from his habits. We have a lot in common already: Both of us can be brave and tough, as well as fearful and skittish. I have compassion for the traumas he suffered before I fostered and then adopted him. After two years of living together, he functions quite well in everyday life, yet certain stimuli will frighten him back into primal fear and defensiveness. In his doggie way, he’s sensitive to my own moods and need for affection and active play. He’s my “emotional support animal,” and I’m his “emotional support human.”
Testing the Environment
I’ve read that the postures and movements of yoga and Tai Chi are inspired by the choreography of animals. Aside from being elegant and graceful, some of these behaviors embody intelligence about moving through space and potential dangers. For instance, before Felix steps outside, I can see his ears turning like radar to hear what or who is active out there. His nostrils sniff busily to smell the presence of other animals, people, or leavings from the night. His front paws step warily out the door with his butt and glorious tail slowly following. In other words, he “stops, looks, and listens” before throwing himself into an unchecked space. It is good advice for me to do the same.
Listening for the Unusual
When we’re indoors, Felix and I hear lots of sounds: cars, trucks, birds, squirrels, dogs barking, refrigerator humming, people talking as they pass by, dog collars jangling, cats meowing, crickets chirping. And yet, there are only certain sounds—very often inaudible to me—that instantly rouse Felix from his quiet thoughts, make his ears prick up, and produce a wild-eyed alarm-barking response, along with instant racing toward the source and frantic looks toward me to let me outside to challenge the potential intruder.
Stretching and Stretching
Several times throughout the day, Felix reaches forward with his front paws, butt lifted into the air, then counter-stretches with his back legs dragging behind him. The funniest version of this two-way stretch is when he’s been sitting, curled up in a circle, on his favorite mini-Papa-San chair: First his front paws step down onto the floor, then he walks forward with his rear legs fully elongated on the seat of the chair, sliding them finally onto the floor to join the rest of his body. It’s so easy for us humans to rush from activity to activity without checking in with our bodies. Dogs instinctively know to pause and stretch after lying down for awhile, before taking a walk, of just because they feel stiff. Note to self to do the same!
Sniffing Before Eating
A friend of mine who was a lifelong smoker couldn’t tell if food left in the refrigerator was safe to eat. He’d sometimes ask me to sniff it for him to make sure it was edible. My overly sensitive nose would usually say, “Eeeuww! Throw it out!” Now that he’s using electronic cigarettes, my friend can smell-test his own food. As food-driven as Felix is, whenever I reach down to give him a taste of whatever I’m about to eat, he sniffs it first, to make sure it’s something he should eat. If kings could have their personal food tasters, Felix and I deserve no less!
Being Wary of Strangers
When we’re out for a walk, especially at night, Felix will sometimes stop suddenly. He won’t budge. Often, the source of his caution is invisible to me. But, since he’s my protector as well as my friend, I trust that something got his attention and I, too, stop to look, listen, and smell for what potential threat is out there. Usually, it’s nothing—the movement of a small animal, the flutter of a bird’s wings, or an unfamiliar dog’s bark. If nothing else, it’s fun to interrupt our forward motion with a quiet moment to look up at the stars, feel the cool of an evening breeze, and be grateful that we can share the time together.
Somewhere along his journey, Felix learned not to follow the instructions of strangers or to get into strange cars. Just like we teach our children to know where home is and who “their people” are, Felix has a clear sense of who’s got his interests at heart and who may lead him out of his safe zone and into danger.
The most important lesson I learn from watching animals is to pay attention to what my eyes, ears, and instincts tell me. Because we are blessed by a higher level brain that rationalizes what our senses tell us, we humans can miss important cues from our environment and from our bodies. My favorite example of this is familiar to everyone: I get ready to leave the house, turn the key in the door, feel like I’ve forgotten something, tell myself “it’s nothing,” step away from the house, and then remember “my glasses” or “my keys” or “the package to take to the post office.” In fact, I’ve never had that, “Uh oh, what did I forget?” feeling and not actually forgotten something.
Watching Felix reminds me to listen to my entire body at every moment. Sometimes I remember; sometimes I choose to forget, but at my own peril.