By Lisa Peacock and Erica Copeland of The Peacock Foundation
My greatest life lessons did not come from any bestselling book, esteemed scholar, or wise mentor. Instead, they came from a cowering, red-furred, Retriever mix named Ricky. He was an incredible dog, but an even better friend.
With an IQ of a toddler, it might be hard to see how my furry pal could be a teacher of anything. Of course, he lacked book smarts. But he made up for it in social smarts. Like many dogs, Ricky had a genuine interest in people and a keen ability to read human emotions to determine how he should respond to them. As a rescue dog, he inspired those he met to remain open to new friendships even in the aftermath of hurt and hardship. Despite many life changes, Ricky consistently showed me patience, love, and unwavering commitment.
Years ago, I realized that others could also learn valuable life lessons from social interactions with pets. As a marriage and family therapist, I have explored how animals and therapists, working together, can teach clients to build positive and beneficial relationships in their lives.
As a result, The Peacock Foundation was born. From the beginning, we adopted a powerful treatment approach called animal-assisted therapy. This involves trained therapists partnering with pets to facilitate safe environments where at-risk youth can talk openly about their emotions and learn to interact constructively with those around them. With the help of animals, we create circumstances in which personal healing can occur in the lives of the children we serve.
The work at the Peacock Foundation is a living example of how animals add a dimension to our lives by sharing in our joys and helping us through our darkest moments. Unfortunately, although many Americans spend a good deal of time around pets, we rarely think of how we can partner with them to educate ourselves, play, learn, and grow.
To encourage us to tap into the power of pets to change lives, I have included three ways that animals can make us better people by teaching us the rules of healthy relationships. If we are smart, we would take these rules and apply them to our relationships with real people.
From the moment we adopt a pet, we begin deciding what rules and boundaries we want to apply to our relationships with the animal. We ponder questions like, can they sleep in our bed or do they sleep outside? Can they sit in the kitchen when we eat or is it a no-fly-zone? Is chewing on old toys alright but chewing on old shoes out of the question? In a similar way, our dogs innately create boundaries themselves. They let us know how they like to be handled, when they want to be comforted, and the kind of playtime they enjoy.
With animals, it seems natural to establish these boundaries. But with people, many of us fail to do so. We enter into relationships with an unclear understanding of what our hard limits are versus our flexible points and non-issues.
With dogs or humans, the key to fruitful relationships is the same: Do your research on the history and characteristics of the pet or person. Consider where they come from. Observe their likes and dislikes. For instance, if you truly want to care for your pet pal, figure out what traits are common to his or her breed. Study animal training and management. Invest the time to producing a beneficial relationship. This is what I did with Ricky and I still cherish our bond today. What’s more, I have learned to carry over those same rules to make me a better daughter, sister, friend, therapist, and leader.
Animals are incredibly body aware. This is important because the verbal communication between animals and humans is very limited. They rely on their ability to read our body language, gestures, and moods. But how good are we at reading our pets in return? Each pet has an individual personality and wants us to be in tune with their moods. Not just the happy ones, but also the moments when they are scared or anxious. Truthfully, animals usually tell us before they act aggressively. It is our job to be active in every moment to best care for our friends.
The same awareness can help us with our human friends. Research shows that, even between humans, about 80% of communication is non-verbal. It’s amazing that we can learn more from watching how people act than from hearing what they say. So pay attention to the people in your life and be ready to interpret their answers, or non-answers, for what they really mean. For instance, a friend might say, “I’m fine” even when they are feeling the opposite. Let’s be sensitive to the needs of those around us and improve our friendships by investing the time to protect and support the ones we love.
Connecting through physical touch can be incredibly beneficial, and humans, like most animals, are hardwired for contact. Pets are great resources to provide us with a comforting touch and bond. In fact, studies suggest that the act of petting a dog or cat has been proved to lower anxiety and stress. And most animals enjoy and seeking out this kind of attention. The relationship with pets and humans is symbiotic.
In our human friendships and romantic relationships we can learn a thing or two from our interaction with pets. Ask yourself if your relationships reduce your stress and anxiety. Do you have contact with enough people who offer you a safe and platonic physical touch? If so, kudos and high fives to you. If you are lacking in this area, I encourage you to take a look at how you show affection and connect with those around you. And remember to choose people who can meet your need for comfortable physical touch.
Building better relationships makes our life a happier and more peaceful. With the small suggestions listed above you can make a big difference. The smallest drop of water can sometimes make the biggest ripples. What do you want your life to look and feel like? This is your chance to start making it the life that you deserve.