How Owning A Puppy Teaches You To Maintain Healthy Relationships In Life

A lesson about trust, communcation, boundaries, unconditional love, and long walks.
Lessons dogs can teach you about relationships
Photo credit by Mikhail from Pexels

Dogs have an innate sense of joy, loyalty, and unconditional love that all people can see. Both dogs and humans have a basic need for companionship. The way our dogs relate to us can provide valuable lessons to all of us about our own relationships with our family members, co-workers, spouses, and even with ourselves. 

In November our family of 6 became a family of 7 when a four-legged baby with black curly fur walked his way into our living room and consequently our hearts. As with any relationship, this new black furball and the rest of my family have been trying to navigate our place in the pecking order of life and learning about each other as we go. As it turns out, he is not only teaching me about how to relate to dogs, but also how to show up better as a mother, a wife, and a friend, and how to love myself better too.

In June 2020 we lost our beloved Cat at the age of 20. He was truly a piece of all of our hearts. Because my youngest was allergic to cats he truly was irreplaceable. In talking to the allergist and knowing what the state of my daughter's (one in particular) mental health was headed in, our family took the leap into becoming dog owners. I must confess, I never desired to be a dog owner, and I certainly never dreamed of ever, even when I was little, owning a puppy, but it was the best option for my daughter so I reluctantly agreed.

We thought we had lucked out the first couple of months with this sweet boy. He never barked, I mean never. He was scared of people and other dogs and was afraid even of the wind that he wouldn't go outside to pee on blustery days. A mere three months later and boom. He found his voice and his courage. We were all of a sudden in big trouble.

It was like the blind leading the blind. A gazillion minutes were invested into YouTube training videos and nothing was working. One day he snatched an entire fruit cake off the counter ingesting who knows how many toxic currants and we knew we weren't qualified and YouTube wasn't cutting it. So we hired a trainer. 

This trainer opened our eyes to a way of communication with a dog that we never even heard about before. In all the videos we saw, no one explained it to us as he did. The adventure of relating to our sweet yet determined protecting pup has been a huge eye-opener as to how we should all relate to one another on a humane level, not just with our canine buddy. The key was learning about his wiring and the innate instincts and values of being part of a pack.

Here is what you learn about maintaining healthy relationships after becoming a puppy owner.

1. Boundaries are important and are there to keep both of us safe and secure

Dogs will circle around their territory, making sure no unfamiliar, or untrustworthy cat, or unsuspecting rabbit shall enter. He will stand his ground and defend his den and the people in it without fear and never wavers or is uncertain of where that boundary is. 

We were not giving our pup clear boundaries in the beginning, mostly because we weren't clear on what they should be. Our trainer told us we needed to keep him out of the kitchen full stop. When that boundary became clear to him we reinforced it. The worry of him ingesting the wrong food and the counter surfing was greatly reduced. Clear and concise boundaries took away the fear and made it safer and more secure for both the dog and us. 

In order to have healthy relationships, we have to know what our own boundaries are and respect the boundaries of others. We can hold these boundaries in a gentle way when they are respected. When we bend over backward for everyone else we are constantly breaking down our own boundaries and that is detrimental to ourselves.

It is depleting and not helpful for you or for your spouse. It is the same consequence when your boundaries aren't respected. Have open and honest conversations together about your personal boundaries and work hard to give that gift of security to each other. 

2. Express your needs clearly and authentically

When puppies start sniffing around frantically you instantly know one of two things. They are searching for food, or they need to pee. If they lie on their backs, they are instantly given gratification by someone instinctively rubbing their bellies. If they bark you know they are defending their den. They bow in order to ask you to play. You rarely have to guess what your dog actually needs, they have no hidden agendas. 

Why are we so afraid to communicate to our partners what we need? I’m pretty sure one of my job descriptions as a mother is to be a mind reader. Children don’t always have the words to describe what they are feeling and it requires some detective work. But we shouldn’t have to be mind readers.

When we hum and haw about communicating our needs it takes us down a sneaky tunnel of deception and betrayal. We may resort to manipulation to get our point across or passive-aggressive behavior. We are also betraying ourselves by not fighting for what we need. This sets our partners up for failure in a guessing game that they will never solve. It's a no-win situation. and it can be toxic to our relationships.

Take a lesson from your furry friends and don't be afraid to express your needs clearly. Don't we always want to make our dogs as happy as we can? We all desire to contribute to the happiness of our loved ones as much as we do to our dogs. If we don't let them know what we need, we are denying them the opportunity to help. So don’t be afraid to ask for alone time, for more cuddles, for quality time, for more play. 

3. The Importance of Speaking their Language

Last I checked dogs do not communicate with one another using words strung together in sentences. They bark and howl, whine and yelp, growl and yip. But never have I heard a dog actually speak words. They also communicate with their bodies. Looking to how they hold their tails, ears, and even the way they show their teeth or positions they sleep in can all be ways dogs communicate their needs. 

One of the first lessons our trainer taught us was how to growl, like a dog. Trust me I still feel a bit ridiculous walking my puppy and the second he squirrels on something I start growling, my ego takes a hit every time, but it is working. As a mother, I would instantly snap a quick "STOP" when my kids show signs of instigating and unwanted behavior like a dart into the road or pick something up to throw.

But he is a pup and if his mother was around she would growl at him for his behavior. My puppy doesn't understand stop (yet) so growling is what stops him in his tracks. Communicating on his level is such a mind-expanding and heart-opening thing. 

Sometimes we can feel like our partners are a different species at times too. I can't even recall how many times my husband and I have both been present for the same conversation and we both have completely different understandings of what was said.

If we took the time to investigate each other on a deeper level what motivates us, what our core values are, understanding how we were raised and taught and how that affects our interpretations of the world. It opens up our communication on a whole new level.

 Since we have gotten our dog, I have learned that my husband operates from a core value of keeping the peace. He does not engage in any drama because he says he will not feed into that fire. He doesn't even try to defuse it, he just completely ignores it.

I used to interpret this as he didn't care and even that he wouldn't defend or stand up for me when I felt I was under attack,( and there were times I desperately wanted him to rescue and defend me.) By knowing this core value of his, and even understanding that it is to an extreme when the stress of conflict at any level can shut him right down, allows me to see these types of situations in a whole new light.

Communication in a peaceful manner is going to have a better outcome for both of us. Understanding each other's core values and methods of operation are foundational if you wish to speak each other's languages. It is eye-opening and necessary for attaining a deeper connection.

4. The Importance of Building and Maintaining Trust

Tenderness, gentle strength, the ability to hold safe spaces for one another, and most importantly making sure your actions are consistent with your words are necessary for developing connections with our furry pals. They are also foundational to building trust. 

As I said before our pup loved to counter surf. After the third time, this mongrel ingested toxic things my husband and I resorted to figuring out the whole hydrogen peroxide method of making him spill his guts instead of another trip to the emergency animal clinic. My trusting puppy came up to that water bowl of "medicine" and drank it instantly.

Well, I'm not going to lie, after all, we are talking about trust here. The peroxide did its job and we averted a trip to the vet, however the next time I placed a water bowl in front of him, he didn't run up to it. He didn't trust what I was giving him, he looked at me questioning it this time. My heart truly sank. Thankfully with a little encouragement, praise, and patience he came to me and drank the water.

Building trust with humans is a little more difficult but the same techniques apply. You must be consistent in your words and your actions in order to build up trust with anyone (or any being). How often have our words of promise been given, often just in an attempt to get to the end of the conversation, and then our actions fall short?

This is not showing integrity or honesty. Either we are lying about our intentions or we have an inability to honor our words. Trust is instantly broken when our actions and our words are not consistent. Our pup has reminded us of how important keeping your word and speaking the truth is when it comes to maintaining trust in our relationships. Be accountable when you mess up, own it and try again.

5. How to truly listen not just with our ears, but our eyes and hearts too

Because dogs don't speak English they look to other ways to understand us. Our fur babies read our body language, our facial expressions, our gestures, our intonation, our verbal, our nonverbal, and lesser-known perhaps, they can interpret our energetics. Dogs seek to understand before being understood. If they misinterpret they try again.

I absolutely love it when we are in the middle of something and my dog tilts his head to the side as if to say "What?" It's one of my favorite expressions of his. But I can see the concentration on his face and the intense way he is trying to listen and make sense of my human jibberish. He is present, he is focused and he is really doing his best to understand. 

If our two species can learn to communicate quite well, why do humans have such difficulties? In general, because the majority of us communicate to be heard and validated, but rarely do we communicate with the purpose to understand.

In order to effectively communicate with the ones we love we must learn how to actively listen. When someone you love comes to you needing to be heard and validated, actively take in all the expressive, verbal, and non-verbal cues they may be using. For the sake of all relationships, hold that tongue and open your senses. Be present, be focused, and listen to understand. 

6. How to forgive and let go 

Dogs, like children, seem to be innately wired to forgive. They do not seem capable of harboring the resentment and anger we adults seem to when mistakes are made. Dogs don’t hold grudges or carry guilt, they are designed to live and love at the moment and let go of the rest. They do not carry a wound around for days, weeks, even years on end like we do as adults.

I made a huge mistake. I yelled, wait not yelled, exploded the wrath of fury onto my sweet four-legged soul. The entire contents of my mantle fell onto my seven years old and before even knowing what actually happened, my already overridden nervous system kicked into a panic attack and all hell came out of my mouth and landed face-first on my new puppy.

This sweet ball of fur who ran to me and curled up in a ball to have a wee nap in my lap started shaking like a leaf and went straight to his bed with his tail between his legs terrified of me. Oh, the guilt.

He wouldn’t come near me for almost 24 hours after that. I gave him his space and continued to reach out to reconnect and he did when he was ready. Once he made up his mind he was ready to forgive me. It was completely behind him and it's now like nothing ever happened. I’m still beating myself up for it, but he has forgotten about it completely and we are the best of friends again.

We all make mistakes. We must learn to forgive each other and ourselves. Mistakes can hurt and the ones that sting the most and the hardest require time to recover from. Rather than lumping his mistakes in with his personality and labeling him as bad, I learned to focus on that sweet personality my pup has and separate it from his mistakes.

I can see them instead as a process of his learning. What a gift that would be to my husband or my children to not focus on mistakes, practice forgiveness, and love them even in their imperfectness. What a gift it would be to receive that kind of love. It truly is unconditional. 

7. Let go of expectations of yourself and others

An animal doesn't appear to have the true capacity to be anything but true to its innate nature. Dogs do not judge your motivations or ask for explanations when you make mistakes. They do not place expectations on us or ask for us to change. They truly just love and accept us for who we are.

Why are humans constantly trying to be somebody they are not? We are judgmental of ourselves and others and it just always getting us into trouble when we relate to others. We have expectations for our children, our spouses and partners, our co-workers, and our parents and siblings. Rarely do we come to the table with no expectations. Dogs are the complete opposite. 

Never have I ever expected my dog to be anything other than a dog. Once I had this thought I had to just sit with it for a minute. I love him just as he is. His personality is sweet, loving, he is over the top patient with my children. If I could hone in on this can you imagine how that would make me an overall better human to be around? 

8. Practice and allow for self-care

Dogs need exercise and time to run off steam. If we don't feed, or walk, or play with our dogs they don't throw angry barking fireballs in our direction should we not meet these needs every day. They become more mischievous, more naughty so to speak because they require this outlet for energy. But that is how they look after themselves. They do what they need to do in the only way they know-how. and I couldn't hold him responsible for that. He was meeting his needs. 

With online learning off and on this year, there were days I just couldn't give my dog the attention he needed. Our puppy would counter surf more, nip more in an attempt to communicate he needed to play, and I couldn't hold him responsible for that. He was doing his best to meet his needs. This was a sign to me to let him out in the backyard and give him the freedom he needed 

For some reason, women especially, need permission to look after themselves. When our needs aren't being met we have a tendency to push through them and ignore our needs. We humans too become the worst version of ourselves when our needs aren't being met, but often we don't recognize it. When our needs are met and we practice our own self-care, we become better partners, better parents, and better friends. 

9. How to be Fully Present in the Moment

Have you ever noticed that your dog responds to you when you cry, or when your child screams he's the first one on the scene? Dogs seem to know exactly how you are feeling and what you need without being told. How is that even possible? Dogs read our energetics. We emit a certain emotional frequency that they pick up on and they show a level of empathy that is something we can all aspire to.

When we are sad they don’t try to solve a thing, they just sit with us until the emotion passes. If you are in trouble they will defend you until the threat of your tickle monster father backs off. When you are sad or in need of defending they drop everything and show you they are there no matter what. They are constantly present, and their presence means the world to us. 

Today's world has our phones, and our schedules constantly pulling our focus away from what truly matters. It is causing us to disconnect from each other. The more we prioritize being truly and fully present for one another the stronger our bonds. The stronger our bonds are the more safety and security we can give to each other.

Being fully present is the best gift our fur babies give us. It is the best gift we can give to the ones we love. Put down the phones, let go of the agendas and schedules, and if you have to add to your to-do list and check-in with your spouse, your mother, your children into your phone, then do so.

Ask how was your day? Then truly listen to their answer. Make time for cuddles on the couch. Drop everything when you see your partner struggling with something. By allowing each person the safe space to express our emotions rather than repress them, you can avoid arguments, but also be each other’s biggest support system. That includes emotionally. We all long to be in supportive relationships. So turn towards each other and practice presence daily.

10. The importance of remaining Loyal 

Dogs are unwavering in their loyalty. It truly is a beautiful thing in a dog. They are innately wired as loyal beings. Ironically enough loyalty has been a bit questionable in my family for generations. I did get interested in why dogs were so intensely loyal. and I learned a lot. There was a great article written on the innate loyalty of dogs and it states;

"Loyalty in a pack is crucial. In order for a pack to survive in the wild, its members must work together to overcome dangers. Trusting, co-operating, and putting the pack’s interests first are all a natural part of surviving. It would explain why dogs often put their own lives in danger to protect their owners; their pack instincts require it of them."

 Humans are wired for connection too, so why do we struggling with the loyalty thing. We have forgotten largely how to work together and become divided in our beliefs and often our values. Within a family unit as we grow and change in life often these things change too. We are often more focused on our own individual growth than on holding our pack together and growing stronger together even when our values change. That's a tricky thing to navigate indeed.

Loyalty comes from the heart, not the mind. We have forgotten how to be heart-based and often allow the mind to take over. We don't always have to agree in order to remain loyal to one another. 

11. How to practice presence and hold space

Dogs are always there by your side. No matter what. They are steadfast in their attempt to help you when you are upset. They are present, they hold space. Dogs do not respond with solutions and words or stories of their own.

I have noticed that when our children are distressed my dog often senses it before I do. He responds to their distress by positioning himself as close to them as possible. He does not try to tell them their feelings are irrational or try to solve the problem. He merely absorbs what you are expressing as a message that you need his body beside you and gives his furry coat over to a pet to help soothe you. 

When the people we love are sad, hurt, or stressed it often is triggering to us too. Big emotions especially can cause us to become stressed ourselves. We become reactive and try to solve their problems, stop their emotions, and get as quickly as we can back to a more comfortable space.

Most often what the people we love need is a safe space to feel what they are feeling and time to process things without judgment. This is what our dogs do! They show us that the mere act of just being there, silently and lovingly, is in fact enough.

12. Fully embracing your Joyfulness 

Dogs are great at maintaining a high level of happiness. They jump and play and truly embrace a good time. They never hold back their feelings of Joy, but rather embrace it in its fullness. 

This is something I struggle with. I have learned over the last little while that I withhold my outward expression of joy. I too love to skip, and tend to get a little giddy when I express my joy. I have learned to withhold it because of the feedback I've been given when I have. I have been told things like "You're such a child" or "You just love all eyes on you don't you". My expression of joyfulness was too exuberant for many to handle, so I reined it in thinking it wasn't acceptable. 

Watching our dog jump and play and run, it is hard not to have that joyfulness he expresses be transferred to my children and my husband when he does. He immediately lightens the spirit and relieves stress at the end of the day when we play with him.

If his authentic joy can spread to others, mine should too. Those who are uncomfortable with my expression of joy are projecting their own lack of ability in embracing it. My buddy has taught me not to care about such things and share my joyful moments rather than taking on the negative projections of others who misinterpret me. 

13. The Importance of a good walk

Dogs require exercise and play. Especially in the puppy stage. You see this with children too. They seem to have endless amounts of energy and when they are tired they will just crash on the couch and fall asleep as fast and as hard as they play. We all need ways to blow of energy and steam. 

If our pup doesn’t get his daily walk-in, all hell breaks loose. You can see the difference in his behavior, it seems to be directly correlated with his walks, the longer, the better. Why? Because he needs his exercise as we all do. No one likes to be cooped up all day.

This one in particular relates to my relationship with myself. I find walks truly helpful. I have come to depend on walks to help me regulate my emotions. Walking brings me a sense of peace. It's a place I can dump my thoughts and focus on the songbirds around me, the warmth of the sun, and the gentle breeze among the trees. 

I can let go of the mile-long chore list that can be picked up once I’m home again and I can truly give my pup what he needs during this time together. It is also a mini date for me and my husband.

On the rare occasion we can walk together without kids it gets us into some great conversations and we can walk in sync, hand in hand. I treasure these walks. Walking encourages connection for all of us, whether it's with each other, ourselves, or this beautiful world we live in.

In the end, having a puppy is hard work indeed. It requires constant attention and tending to. It requires effort and patience. When we put in the work we are rewarded with intense loyalty and true unconditional love.

If we put the same amount of attention, care, and love into all our relationships can you imagine how your life would change? Owning a dog is not a partnership we step into lightly, neither should love.

But when we take that leap it requires effort and deserves all the effort we can pour into strengthening that bond. By better understanding the pack mentality and learning more about their innate survival techniques we opened ourselves up to more than just understanding our relationship with our dog.

Mother of four. Nature lover, Gardener, crafter, and certified soul coach.

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