Late one November evening in my fourth year out of veterinary school, while tending to the first wave of patients who had flocked to our clinic for emergency care, a single dog in an unconscious haze forever changed the course of my career: Pongo, a 2-year-old flat-coated retriever struck by a pickup speeding by his front door, lay before me on a blanket. He was no better for all that modern medicine and my training had offered him; his vital signs ebbed fatefully weaker than when he’d arrived several hours before. Worn from the onslaught of all the night’s cases, I surrendered to a wave of frustration and sank exhausted to the floor, with little else left to offer Pongo except for my arm draped across his chest, a soft word spoken, and a gentle touch. Yet, from this simple act of caring, in less than an hour, I watched him fully recover in body and spirit.
For the past 20 years, since that night with Pongo, I’ve spent most of my working hours studying animals and the profound connections we share with them. As a specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine, I’ve delved into the inner lives of creatures from whales, wolves, and leopards to mice, dogs, and cats, and immersed myself in the world from their perspective. In my book, The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, I consider key truths I have learned through the years about animals and our relationships with them—basic traits we share in common, ways we differ, and how, by perceiving the world as they do, we can enrich our own appreciation of life. Inspired by the animals I’ve come to know through the years, as well as the people they have touched, the book journeys into the lives of our fellow creatures to discover we can learn from time with them.
Below are 10 lessons animals offer us that we can apply to our lives right now:
1. Savor the moment.
Animals, by their very nature, live focused on the moment, while we, as humans, far too often are distracted by thoughts about the past and future—a fight with a friend last night, the performance review with our boss tomorrow, or our growing to do list for the coming week. By taking our cue from animals and noticing more of each present moment, we can find a chance to more fully appreciate what is happening right now in our lives.
2. Heed your instincts.
Alert and attentive to each of their senses, animals respond to cues about the world around them by trusting their instincts and acting on them. When we rationalize in our human minds what our instincts may tell us to take notice of—or ignore what our senses are conveying to us—we risk dismissing important signals about events, circumstances, and the people around us. As we attend to our senses and acknowledge our instincts, we open ourselves to new choices and opportunities.
3. Keep focused on what’s most important.
On those days when it seems everything has gone wrong and we come home exhausted and spent, our animal companions devotedly greet us with unfailing offers of love and affection. Even those times we may speak harshly toward them or ignore them completely as we walk in the door, they wait in the wings for the moment to come when we, at last, turn our attention to them. And in their patient devotion, they serve as reminders of how much we value connecting with others and sharing our hearts.
4. Don’t get bogged down on words.
As we communicate with family and friends, most often we think of relying on words. Yet we often neglect to consider the many other ways that we portray our inner world. The tone of our voice, our facial expressions, our posture, our movements, scents released by our skin to waft through the air communicate our thoughts, emotions, and intentions, often more reliably than the words we choose.
5. Take time to rest.
In the hurried pace of our daily routines, it’s all too easy to fill our days with a steady stream of activities—places to be, people to meet, tasks to accomplish before it’s too late. But, taking a cue from our dogs and cats, the lions at the zoo, a hawk perched in a tree overlooking the road that we glimpse from the car, we can take quiet moments to rest for a bit and give ourselves time to relax and reflect.
6. Remember to play.
6. Remember to play.
In the midst of our day, when we feel the pressures from work or at home, a well-deserved break—even just a few moments—from the task at hand can lighten our load and help ease our concerns. From Labradors to Bengals and timber wolves to leopards, the creatures around us routinely play to invent, discover, and bring joy to their day.
7. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Whether rolling in catnip or pouncing on strings, our cats jump to play fully absorbed in their game without worries about how they may appear to us or others watching them. Likewise our dogs while chasing a ball, sniffing at lampposts, or gnawing a bone relish their pastimes without concern for how they may look to passersby. Letting go of our inner critic and the judgments of others, we can more fully embrace those times we enjoy.
8. Let go of attachment to being right or wrong.
Evolution favors those creatures that focus on what matters most—finding food, remaining healthy, resting, breeding, and caring for young. When we defer to our sense of pride and self-importance, we risk losing the outcomes and results we want most. Letting go of our attachment to being right or wrong frees us to align ourselves with what we value most.
9. Practice forgiveness.
While animals, certainly, suffer grief, misfortune, and misery, they move past them with greater poise than we humans often do. The continuity of their lives takes precedence over reliving the past. When words and deeds come back to play in our minds, like the creatures around us, we can give as before with grace and equanimity.
10. Love unconditionally.
In the silent presence of the creatures around us—all alone on the sofa with our dog by our side or cat resting cozily curled in our lap—we sense their regard for our thoughts and feelings, and we respond in kind without reserve. If we choose, we can do so, as well, with each other.