Close your eyes with me. Just for a moment. Close your eyes and imagine a day like this:
The morning birds are chattering outside the window as you awaken naturally at dawn—you don’t need an alarm clock to tell you when to start your day. The moment the sunlight hits your eyes, you are filled with a mingled sense of excitement, joy, and anticipation. You go seamlessly into your morning yoga routine, stretching and loosening up every muscle in your body before you hurry outside for your morning exercise.
Walking through your neighborhood and reveling in your good health, you take every possible moment to breathe in the fresh air, the scent of the flowers, grass, and trees all around you. Though this is the same walk you take every day, you appreciate it all as if you’re experiencing it for the very first time. You see your friends and neighbors, and you linger to greet them enthusiastically, as they, in return, greet you. They, too, are excited about the day that lies ahead.
When you return home for breakfast, your family awaits you. You greet them with even more joy and unbounded love than you did your neighbors. You embrace them, kiss them, and let them know how much you adore and appreciate them before you all rush into the yard and playfully celebrate another day you all get to be together. This is your morning routine every day—because what is life for, if not to share this incredible sense of wonder and gratitude you feel with the ones you love the most?
When it’s time to go to work, you arrive with anticipation—you love what you do for a living! It gives you a great sense of pride and self-esteem. You greet each of your colleagues warmly. Even though they are all so very different from you on the outside—different heights and weights, colors, races, religions—you share the understanding that you’re all one species with one common purpose. You respect all the people you work with, from the ones with the most menial jobs to the CEO. And even the CEO shares this accepting attitude. Your company’s philosophy is that everyone has a vital role to play in the work you do, and everyone should share fairly in the proceeds.
Every once in a while, you have a disagreement with someone at work. They might have something you want, or perhaps they do something that you don’t agree with. But there’s no backstabbing in your company—no silent plots, no whispering at the water cooler. No: When you and a colleague don’t see eye-to-eye, you speak your mind right away, even if it means a short dust up between the two of you. It’ll be over within minutes, the matter will be decided, and you’ll go on with your day without rancor or resentment.
Sounds like a perfect world, doesn’t it? And probably an impossible one—more like an urban fairy tale.
But not necessarily. The scenario I just outlined is a snapshot of what life could be like if humans approached life the way dogs do.
Dogs show us the best we can be.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve written six books on the subject of canine behavior, nearly all of them New York Times bestsellers. All contain stories of the many dogs I’ve rehabilitated over the years and the techniques I’ve used to help them. In those books, I was the teacher. But this book is very different. In this book, the dogs are not the students; they are the teachers. Our teachers. In the pages that follow, I will share for the first time some of the most important lessons that the dogs in my life have taught me.
Our dogs are right in front of us every day, showing us with their every action a better way to live. All too often, we don’t pay attention. We take them for granted, thinking we know so much more about life than they do and believing that we have far more to teach them than they could possibly teach us.
In fact, we invest an enormous amount of energy trying to get our dogs to become more like us! We teach them to understand our language—often without even bothering to learn theirs. We teach them to sit, stay, come, and heel for our convenience, not theirs. We pamper them like children (when they really don’t care about who has the prettiest toys), and we dress them in couture outfits (when they couldn’t give a hoot about fashion).
None of that makes sense to me. Here we are teaching our dogs to behave as we do even while many of us struggle to find happy relationships with members of our own species. Dogs are designed by nature to value qualities like honor, respect, ritual, compassion, honesty, trust, loyalty, and compassion. They instinctually understand the importance of pack hierarchy and mutually beneficial relationships. So instead of teaching them what we think they should learn from us, what if we took the opportunity to learn from them?
I’m writing this book because I believe it’s time that we start looking at our dogs as our teachers. Dogs have all the qualities we say we want, but we never seem to be able to attain. Every day of their lives, dogs actually live the moral code that humans only aspire to. And I believe dogs often understand us better than we understand ourselves.
Socrates said, “Know thyself.” I have my own variation on that adage: If you want to know yourself, know your dog! After all, in a way, your dog knows you—the real you—better than most people in your life do. Your dog knows your routines. Your dog understands how to read your body language and your emotions—probably far better than you do yourself. Your dog reveals your hidden subconscious thoughts and is a mirror of your deepest soul.
No philosophers so thoroughly comprehend us as dogs and horses.
The Evolution of a Teacher
Dogs have become our best teachers because, out of necessity, they have been diligent students of human behavior for centuries. Through millennia of evolution, they have learned to study our species to be able to successfully live alongside and cooperate with us.
Think about it: Dogs have migrated with our species over thousands upon thousands of miles. They have hunted with us; they have herded our livestock and defended our territories. They have walked beside us and adapted along with us at every stage of our journey, following us as we changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers to industrialized city dwellers.
Over these many years, dogs have come to know our habits almost as well as they know their own. They’ve learned to read our body postures and to understand our vocal nuances. In order to survive, they’ve become the world’s foremost experts on every type of human behavior. I am convinced that if dogs could speak our language, they would be our best psychologists, as well as our best friends and teachers.
There are more than 400 million dogs in the world. Approximately one in every four families in the United States has a dog. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, religious or atheist, or if you live in a big city or on a small ranch in the country. Dogs know how to cooperate and live anywhere with any of us.
Because they are so adaptive, dogs are among the only animals that have been able to coexist happily with humans for tens of thousands of years. In their eye-opening book The Genius of Dogs, research scientists Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods theorize that when prehistoric wolves first began to evolve into the animal we know today, they “domesticated” humans as much as we domesticated them. They learned quickly that if they helped us hunt, herd our sheep, and protect our homes, there would be a reward for them, too: food and shelter, which eventually evolved into a unique cross-species affection.
Imagine the moment some 34,000 years ago when that first clever wolf/protodog figured out that all its life’s needs would be taken care of if it simply helped this strange, upright creature do what wolves naturally did every day: hunting, scouting, tracking, and protecting their families. Wolves who did not fear or threaten humans suddenly had an advantage that their “wilder” cousins didn’t have. It was a win-win situation that has continued to this day.
While our dogs have strived to understand us in order to fit into our world, we haven’t always shown them the same courtesy. Most of my clients come to me thinking a dog’s issues have nothing to do with them. In nearly every case, a dog’s problems begin with its owners. Whatever their profession or cultural background, the people I work with all have a similar plea: “Cesar, please, please help my dog!” What I have to teach them all to understand is that before I can help their dog, they have to learn how to help themselves.
The Evolution of a Best Friend
Dogs have been by our sides, observing us and reading our energy, during every phase of our evolution. When we needed protection, they figured out how to communicate with us, to warn us of oncoming danger. When we needed transportation, they gamely agreed to pull our sleds and wagons. And when we needed companionship, they stepped up and learned how to become our best friends.
As human civilization evolved, we eventually didn’t need dogs for most of the physical chores they once performed. But even today, they are still adapting to our newest dilemmas. Dogs help us detect disease, aid us in search-and-rescue missions, offer comfort therapy in hospitals, and bring companionship and cheer at home.
Our relationship with dogs has always involved a deeper connection than does our relationship with other pets like goldfish, ferrets, farm animals, or even cats. Perhaps because we are both social species, humans and dogs have a shared understanding of and appreciation for what it means to both rely on and care about others.
Over time, dogs have graduated from being our helpers to our companions to our full-fledged family members. Their deceptively simple perspective on life offers us an ideal glimpse of what trust, respect, devotion, and loyalty in relationships should look like. It makes sense that in their next evolutionary role, they should become our greatest teachers.
I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive.
The Most Important Lessons in Life
As a child, I learned about respect from the dogs that roamed our farm, soaking up their lessons of nonconfrontational conflict resolution and social self-awareness. I learned serenity by observing the peaceful cooperation of the pack. I learned honesty and integrity by absorbing the simple and direct way these animals communicated with each other. Dogs were my role models, and dogs helped me become who I am today. They continue to make me want to be a better man: a better companion, friend, father, and teacher.
Between home and the Dog Psychology Center, I am surrounded by an ever growing pack of beautiful dogs.
To learn from dogs, we first must connect with them—and not from a place of superiority. We need to humble ourselves and be open to a different kind of communication. To learn from dogs—or from any animal, for that matter—we must first understand their world by trying to see life through their eyes.
Our lives are so complicated these days. While we rightfully take pride in the revolutionary technology society has to offer, we forget that it can also lead us further and further away from our instinctual natures. For us, stressful jobs, long commutes, and hours spent hunched over our computers seem normal. Our children have more homework than playtime. They don’t relax by climbing trees anymore; instead, they stay inside, glued to a pulsing video screen. We have houses to clean, errands to run, debts to settle, bills to pay. If we let ourselves get too lost in those details, we’ll never have the chance to see the world and all its precious moments—the way that a dog does naturally.
Given all this, I believe that the secret to inner peace and happiness lies in the instinctual world, where dogs live 24-7. We are animals first and foremost, and we know when something doesn’t feel right in our lives. So we read self-help books and self-medicate with food, drink, drugs, gambling, and shopping—all in a desperate attempt to shut out the noise and find peace. But it turns out that we have the best role models in the world living right beside us in our homes.
Dogs can teach us so many life lessons—for example, about trust, loyalty, serenity, and unconditional love. I touch on all of these in the pages that follow. But above all, I want to share with you eight specific lessons that some very special dogs in my life have taught me about respect, freedom, confidence, authenticity, forgiveness, wisdom, resilience, and acceptance. I have learned these lessons from my beloved pit bulls Daddy and Junior; from a proud and honorable farm dog named Paloma; from a couple of massive Rottweilers named Cain and Cycle; and even from a little French bulldog named Simon. So many dogs have passed through my life, but each has left an indelible mark. As you’ll see, each chapter represents a concrete, inspiring step on a journey to self-discovery based on the lessons our dogs can teach us.
I’ve talked for many years about leaders and followers. But I think it’s high time for us to “follow” dogs by adopting their worldview, their lifestyle, and their values (which are the social values of the pack). A dog lives his life unselfishly, always putting the welfare of the pack ahead of his own interests. Living in the moment, dogs do not get lost in the trees before first experiencing all the beauty of the forest.
In this moment in human history, it’s imperative that we adopt this pack-oriented worldview. We need to go back to common sense, to simplicity, and to gratitude for what we have. We postpone the most important things in life: family, health, joy, and balance. Dogs do not. When they sense an imbalance—in an environment, in a situation, or in a person—they don’t think about what they’re going to do to fix it. They simply react, much in the same way we might recoil from touching a hot flame. And when it comes to figuring out what’s going on with a human’s volatile emotions, dogs are virtuosos.
If we watch them more closely and listen more carefully, our beloved pets can be the keys to our personal growth and self-knowledge. The wisdom of dogs is medicine for the soul—but in our species’ self-centered world, we often forget to pay attention.
So come with me on a journey that will reveal a new way of living our lives—based on the unique and insightful lessons we can learn from our dogs.