There are three simple mental benefits you can get from your dog:
- Reduced neurotic behavior
- Flexible boundaries
- Responding instead of reacting
If you need some lessons in spiritual love, there is no better teacher than your dog to give it.
At first, I used to associate the word “dharma” with Buddhism. Later, it became an association for the miraculous series “Lost.” If you were a fan of the series, then you would know how the concept of ‘Dharma‘ is involved in the story. In contrast, if you were not a fan, the intermezzo of this TV snippet is almost irrelevant.
How Owning a Dog Can Benefit your Mental Wellbeing: The Dharma of Dogs
My favorite association of dharma is with dogs and the astounding psychological lessons I get from an army of three mischief-makers that live in my backyard. The extent to which they provide therapeutic food is remarkable, both in the healing, balmy way, as well as in the cognitive processing way.
At this point, I really need to address the issue of credit recognition. “The Dharma of Dogs” is a book edited by Tami Simon that contains collected stories about dog wisdom from spiritual teachers, one of which is Eckhart Tolle.
I admit that I haven’t read the book. But I’ve seen Eckhart Tolle’s reference to it, and without delving into too many details, I can vividly imagine how he speaks about the dharma of dogs with his gleeful half-smile/half self-sufficiency grimace. It was a breeze to connect the dots between dog behavior and “Power of Now” or “New Earth”.
Without trying to devalue Eckhart’s priceless work, the three strays became my most advanced spiritual teachers. They’ve set a kingdom in my garden and opened a school of dog psychology. They did this without an invitation are became my master healers.
While I am feeding them with dog food, they are feeding me with dharmic and cathartic lessons that often put me to shame. They are present and intentionless.
What Hanging Out with Strays Taught Me About Myself
I’ve never doubted that dogs have a soul, but many people deny them that kind of depth. Then again, many people deny the soul’s existence in humans, too. I am sure that if they spend enough time with dogs and stay away from humans at least for a while, they will experience a 180-degree turnaround.
From what I have witnessed, dogs are the least neurotic beings. Despite getting boundary training, dogs have an innate sense of boundaries and know how to respond instead of reacting.
From time to time, I think that I know a lot about this behavior. However, when the three dogs effortlessly surpass me in any of these three activities, I feel as mature as three-year-old kiddo throwing a tantrum for having its toy taken. They carry them out with such instinctive ease, it’s impossible to get to their level even after a lifetime of practice.
1. Lack of Neurotic Behavior
If you don’t grasp what I’m talking about here, let me try and illustrate this with an example. My three canines are strays whose dad is living nearby. He doesn’t have a human ‘boss.’ Therefore, he spends most of his time freely wandering through the wilderness and doing dog stuff. Occasionally though, he visits his three heirs. This often happens when I feed them. I decided not to feed him because I wanted to put a limit on how many dogs I am taking care of, and he was on the critical line.
(Update: I later fell prey to his charms, and he is now a loyal part of this bunch).
I am well aware that he is coming for the food. Yet the main point here is how he is reacting when I chase him away. He runs away after doing some negotiating with me. It sometimes takes a simple ‘Go away.’ However, more often than not, it doesn’t work at all, and I have to “threaten” with a pebble.
This usually seals the deal. If I don’t continue with the same activity, the next time he comes, he forgets all about it and starts licking my hands again.
That wild hound doesn’t keep a grudge or a bad memory. He is always present and willing to start communication all over again, as he is seeing me for the first time at any given moment.
Have you ever managed to pull off such behavior? All of a sudden, bearing grudges became less comfortable for me.
2. Flexible Boundaries
Flexible boundaries are a sign of good psychological health. Knowing our boundaries helps us find our place in this big world. Knowing when to tighten and when to expand them is a crucial life skill that can keep us safe. At the same time, it helps us grow and blossom by our own choice and at our own time.
I think I know my boundaries. I know that I am not super flexible. So I’m constantly in awe of the boundary lessons I get from my dogs when I comb them. I use one of those dog flea tick combs with sharp prongs that can be pleasant while doing gentle scratching and painful when taking it rough.
It’s not always easy to assess the right amount of pressure. Sometimes, I go too strong. The way dogs inform me about this is astounding. There is a soft spot below the chin of my dogs – that is the boundary. The moment I cross that boundary, I know. If my touch is gentle, I get soft howls and murmurs. When I push too hard, the dog pulls away. If I try to keep the dog with a grip, it grabs my hand with its teeth and slowly pulls my hand away. The ease by which dogs manage boundaries is so subtle and so proportionate that I am wondering if I will ever be so sophisticated to keep up with the precise dog language.
Dogs don’t use unnecessary force or violence to point out boundaries.
3. Responding Instead of Reacting
A response is not a knee-jerk reaction, impulsive feedback, or uncontrollable emotion. It is the exact opposite. Reacting often assumes coming across to others from a place of fear and pain. It is about getting back with unreasonable force. It’s not a big surprise that people who respond instead of reacting are considered to have good boundaries and less neurotic behavior.
Boundaries and neurotic behavior have plenty to do with each other. They both originate from the ‘now’ and shouldn’t include the psychological garbage that comes along with people acting out of the present moment.
Did you know how my dogs taught me a huge lesson in responding? I unintentionally tested their reaction using the gardening hose while they for having their afternoon nap.
If one of my dogs was a human, the least I would have expected from being splashed in the face with a water hose is a grim face, not to mention the possible cursing through stiff lips. And I don’t even want to think about the worst possible scenario.
Instead, the small barking creatures just leave the garden and move on to the nearby meadow. They keep looking over their shoulders with almost silent reproach. I wonder if they are trying to say: “Hey human, what’s up with you? Why are you acting so weird? Whys are you so rude? This is no good for me. I am leaving.”
And I am left to rest in my ignorance for a while.
A Bonus Lesson in Mental Health from Dogs
Dogs have also taught me a lot about trust and forgiveness. I sometimes wonder if domesticated them only to project our own imperfect ability to trust, set boundaries, stay in the present, and respond accordingly.
Those are the three mental health benefits I enjoy from owning a dog every day.
I think Eckhart Tolle would agree with me.