Five Reasons Why Your Pet May Be Smarter Than You

Motivation science reveals why pet behavior is a model for well-being.

Posted Feb 07, 2019

Rebecca Winters/used with permission
Daisy, hard at play
Source: Rebecca Winters/used with permission

In the wave of alleged gender toxicity, governmental dysfunction, and the glorification of celebrity misconduct, I often wonder if our definitions of intelligence and success are appropriately grounded. Based on recent research, a large portion of the population is plagued with anxiety, stress, poor health, anger, and aggression toward others. Clearly, the world is in a period of turbulence and conflict. I often wonder what the future holds, as I watch my (grand)dog wrestling with a rope with seemingly not a care in the world. Which of us is actually better off?

While being a well-kept animal has its drawbacks, including limited autonomy, dependence on others, and involuntary sterilization, in many ways our animals can serve as role models and train us to be better people. Motivation research reveals at least five evidence-based strategies that dogs and many other pets regularly use, approaches that are often elusive and sporadic for their human owners. When the tactics described below are properly applied, they contribute to constructive human relationships, result in positive evaluations of personal well-being, and lead to becoming a highly-functional human . . . exactly what your pet expects of you!

Pets realize that multi-tasking doesn’t work

One of the most pervasive and enduring myths of cognitive science is that humans are capable of effectively multi-tasking, performing two or more cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously. While some tasks, like brushing your teeth or walking, function on auto-pilot for most of us, it is physiologically impossible to focus on two complex tasks simultaneously. Take a look at any pet, and you will see that when they are engaged in an activity, they are not focused on anything else. All attention and effort is driven in a singular direction. Whether it is eating, playing, or just plain old pooping, Fido strives to be most successful at the specific task s/he has at hand (or paw, as it were!) and effectively ignores everything else that is a distraction!

Pets don’t have polarizing, relationship-busting beliefs

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

Unlike some of us, your pet doesn’t get into heated social media battles with others based upon differences in politics, religion, ethnicity, or any other hot topic. Our loyal, four-legged followers won’t “unfriend” us and don’t care what you believe in. Pets remain loyal and give their undivided attention whether or not you send a donation to PETA. They behave the same way toward you, ignoring the color of your skin, the deity you do or do not worship, and support you, regardless of whether you are wealthy or poor. Most importantly, they don’t care if you embellish your Instagram account or fail to post a doggy selfie on Facebook! They accept and love you unconditionally, even when you stay out late or are seen indiscreetly petting other animals.

Pets practice self-regulation

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

Humans often defy common sense when it comes to planning, monitoring, and reflecting upon their own behavior — often referred to as demonstrating self-regulation. At times we act impulsively, consciously engage in risky activities, and sometimes fail to learn from our mistakes. Some examples of unregulated behavior include procrastinating when a task seems overwhelming or annoying, driving too fast, eating or drinking too much, not getting enough sleep, and over-extending unhealthy employment and personal relationships, despite conscious dissatisfaction. On the other hand, hit a dog once with a newspaper, and they will fear the daily news forever! Your pet doesn’t feel guilty about taking a nap when tired, will not eat unless hungry, and will avoid any situation that seems dangerous or potentially harmful. In other words, our feline and canine friends consciously monitor their experience-based decisions that are designed to achieve an overall sense of well-being.

Pets focus on the present

I once took my teenage daughter on vacation to see the magnificent Grand Canyon in Arizona. While Rebecca seemed engaged and awed about seeing a natural wonder, less than five minutes later, she was nagging me about where we were going for lunch and what were we going to do next. Rebecca’s focus was often not in the moment and was frequently geared toward the future. Unlike many humans, your pet doesn’t worry that you might leave them for someone else, won’t ruminate about tomorrow, and never questions their own mortality. Instead, animals focus on the present, caring only about the here and now and enjoying the moment, irrespective of the activity or what might come next. While a future-time perspective is helpful for human motivation and well-being, a balanced-time perspective that avoids a future fixation or dwelling on the past is positively correlated with life satisfaction, general purpose, and overall happiness.

Pets express themselves freely

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

If you pick up any self-help book, you can read all about how you are supposed to think and act according to the experts. Based on the titles of the best-selling “success” books, we should be able to “win friends and influence people,” be “highly effective,” “think and grow rich,” “have unlimited power,” “know when to say “yes” and “no,” and among other things strive to be a “badass” and “not give a f*ck.” I don’t know about you, but I have rarely seen a dog or cat with low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, or one that has any notion of dissatisfaction with who they are or who they prefer to be. Pets don’t act gender appropriate, don’t care what people think of their breed or heritage, and never have bad hair days. In other words, they don’t compare themselves to others and maintain unbridled enthusiasm for who they are and what they do. Even if animals could talk, I doubt you would ever hear your dog say, “Did you see what that Dachshund down the street was wearing today? It was horrific!”

What your pet wants you to know

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

We are unnecessarily constrained by self-imposed anxiety and often create and sustain our own stress by reacting negatively to the inevitable ups and downs of life. We sometimes lament about the demands and expectations of others, yet often lack the courage or motivation to change. We can be excessively judgmental and often succumb to the misconception that how we navigate the world is the best and only way to think and behave. Despite our ability to influence outcomes and improve our lives, we can become apathetic, indifferent, or even worse, depressed.

However, your dog and most other pets do nothing to limit their own happiness. Our pets happily navigate their world each day based only on personal experience and are not arbitrarily judgmental. They take pleasure in simple things (have you ever seen a dog’s excitement about discovering a random stick in the street?) and embrace the comfort of merely being physically close to their masters. They rarely initiate conflict and never operate under the misconception that certain people, places, and beliefs are inferior, distorted, or unlike their own. Regardless of our fluctuating moods and emotions, and despite how we might look or act, they love us unconditionally. The next time things aren’t going your way, take a lesson from your dog or cat — wag your tail and keep on going, take time to smell the roses, and remember not everyone needs to be your best friend.

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