Life Lessons From My Dog – Part 1

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My dog is an idiot. He has the ability to create such frustration in me that it is not an uncommon scene to find me shouting loudly that he is “such a f*£#ing d!£#!” whilst he just sits there, nonchalantly ignoring anything I am saying. He is also one of my best friends, a cliche I know, standing by me and raising my spirits regardless of the above name calling.

He is my pack brother. And he is one of the wisest souls I have ever met. Like a hirsute Yoda (if Yoda really hated squirrels) he has become one of my most important teachers in this life.

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Like Master Po sometimes his lessons are spoken as riddles to be mused over, only to smack you in the face with how obvious it all is.

And so I feel that it is time his wisdom was shared with the world. What follows are just a few of his teachings; lessons to raise you up in mind, body, and spirit. Like a small furry sage on the mountain top, his teachings are thus.

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Not everyone is a fan of stretching, and for sure, if not done in a safe, effective way could cause us more trouble than good. In general, most people need more mobility and stretching is but one route to getting it.

“You don’t see a lion doing warm up and cool down stretches.” This is a common argument I hear from people that don’t want to do warm ups or mobility work. First up, did you really just compare yourself to the king of the jungle? And secondly you couldn’t be more wrong.

When my dog gets up from a quick power nap, what’s the first thing he does? And I mean without fail? That’s right. He stretches. Every. Single. Time.

Probably the 2 most commonly know yoga postures are Downward Facing Dog (Down Dog) and Upward Facing Dog (Up Dog). The Yogis of old didn’t sit round one day discussing what names to call stuff, they observed their surroundings and spotted the lessons given by the village mutts.

This type of stretching that dogs do is a little different to what people usually do when they stretch. It’s called Pandiculation, and it’s what we do when we wake. Picture the classic clichéd image of someone yawning. They clench their fists, bend their arms, then extend their arms out straight whilst contracting their shoulder blade and maybe bending over to one side. This is very different from say, a classic hamstring stretch.

It’s a stretch that combines both a contraction and a lengthening of not just one, but a whole group of muscles.

This acts like a whole body reset sending a message to the muscles, restoring voluntary, conscious control over our muscles and reducing the muscular tension built up from our period of inactivity. We don’t just have to do this when we wake, we can mimic this type of movement at ant time, especially after inactivity. We are now primed and ready to go get that squirrel.

Shake it off

No, this has nothing to do with Taylor Swift, the dog is more of a Ramones fan. It’s in reference to the physical act of shaking. He doesn’t just do this to plaster my hallway walls with mud, of which he is a grand master, he does it to reset his nervous system after an overly excitable or traumatic encounter.

In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky explains the technique that animals use to dissipate the stress accumulated from traumatic encounters. They literally shake it off.

If you’ve ever had a near miss when crossing the road or nearly falling down the stairs, or if you’ve been subjected to someone confronting you in an aggressive manner, then you’ve likely experienced the trembling, shaking feeling that comes with the fight or flight response. They are called neurogenic tremors and are caused by a huge dump of stress hormones. These hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are there to prime our bodies to either get the hell out of there or fight like a devil. The result in not having to do either is the involuntary firing of muscle fibers; trembling.

Watch a zebra narrowly escape the jaws of a lion and what does it do? It does a full body shake and gets on with it’s day. Humans can do this too.

We’ve all done this involuntarily. When we remember a particularly traumatic, embarrassing, or frightening memory, we often do a little shake at the thought. It’s the same thing.

Shaking has been used by humans as a therapeutic or ecstatic practice since forever. Religious shaking is common throughout the world, it’s why the Shakers and Quakers are named thus. And there is not a Victorian melodrama in existence that doesn’t have some poor character being shaken by a mustachioed misogynist in order to calm them down. I’m not advocating the latter, by the way. It’s not cool.

We can use all this shaking to our advantage to reset the nervous system and dissipate all those hormones. Dancing, gyrating, spinning, jumping, or just a good old full body shake has been shown to work wonders. There is also the system of TRE®, Tension and Trauma Release Exercises, that are specifically designed for this. I also use it in the morning to wake myself, or before a big workout. So shake it, baby!

Live in the moment

It is often stated that dogs do not have a sense of time, but this isn’t quite true. Dogs, like us, follow a circadian rhythm with the sun, knowing when to sleep and when to wake. A dog left alone for 2 hours has been observed to greet it’s human much more emphatically than when left for just half an hour. My own dog knows exactly when it is 9pm and time for his dental stick, but has yet to cotton on to the daylight saving hours of BST.

But what is true is the fact that dogs don’t get bogged down by the trivia of the day, or sit around moping due to a past transgression. Okay that last one is not quite true. My dog ignored me for a full hour after I finished a mountain marathon because I didn’t take him with me. But it is generally true. Every day, every moment is the perfect opportunity to do the thing you love; to play, to rest, to steal stuff out of the compost bin, to sneak into a basket of newly washed clothing despite your cosy bed being right next to it. Why wait until tomorrow? Do it today. Then do it again tomorrow.

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When the opportunity presents itself, go get it. If you wait for ‘the right time’ it may never appear. My dog rarely makes that mistake. So much so that we have to use the code word ‘BAKED POTATO’ instead of walk, because if he hears that word, even in a whisper, he’s up and ready to go, bugging the hell out of us until we take him, even if he has literally just come in from a run.

Pursue your goals (even if they are up a tree)

My dog’s single mindedness to the task ahead is amazing. Whether it’s sniffing out a rogue prawn cracker, stealing food from the pig, or the fanatical pursuit of a grey squirrel, his focus is unrelenting.

He will spend hours barking at a tree harbouring a squirrel. That is if he can find no way of climbing said tree. It’s game over for the squirrel that jumps down and takes it’s chances at ground level.

“The successful warrior is the average man with laser-like focus”

Bruce Lee

If you want something enough your focus must be unwavering, never taking your eyes off the prize, just in case it should jump out of the tree.

Ignore the naysayers, the doomers, and trolls (in this instance it’s me shouting at the dog) and stay on the path. Do not give up until you have exhausted every possible angle and tactic, or until someone drags you away by your harness.

Hold the course and that squirrel will one day be yours.

There is no such thing as bad weather/terrain/timing, only bad mindset

The hound and I have run in just about every condition imaginable; burning sunshine, horizontal rain, hailstones from hell, waist high snow drifts, sandstorms, lethal sheet ice, gale force winds, we even had to swim across a river together once due to my poor route planning. We’ve seen it all.

Never once did the dog show anything other than giddy enthusiasm.

Whether it’s sand dunes, rattling bogs, featureless moors, steep mountains, boring roads, he’s always up for it.

Early mornings, quick lunch breaks, full moon night runs, any time is a good time to run.

He is absolutely the best running partner I have ever had. He never cries off, never complains, never reschedules. If I look like I am going to give in to circumstances, he shoots me a reproachful look and continues on until I catch up.

His tough, go-getter enthusiasm if infectious. The sheer joy he exudes at moving his body seeps into me, so much so that I sometime find myself just laughing whilst I run.

At the start of the year we ran up the local mountain every day for 40 days, regardless of the weather. It felt like a privilege to experience the mountain in such varied conditions, and we experienced it in ways that no one else got to experience it, because we were the only ones on it.

There really is no such thing as a bad run with this boy at your side. And this type of mindset change starts to percolate into all other aspects of your life. Everything becomes an experience, a challenge, an adventure, an opportunity to grow.

So embrace your inner hound and get at it.

Check in again for more golden nuggets of insight straight from the hounds mouth.

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