Life is a challenge. And if you approach it correctly, you should be looking for ways to meet those challenges. You should be looking for ways to be a better person and have a better life.
There are endless opportunities to learn from others and the world around us. But often those opportunities are a bit opaque or clouded by inconsistency. No role model is perfect, no lesson from the universe is clear. With one exception: dogs.
A movie came out not that long ago called, ‘The Purpose of a Dog.’ It was a two-tissue, tug-on-your-heartstrings story about the lessons a dog can teach us at all stages of life, theirs and ours. But, you might think, why dogs, why not cats? I’ll admit that while I love all animals, I’m totally on team canine.
The fact that dogs can have a positive effect on humans is one of evolution’s greatest successes. In 2019, researchers sought to find the secret to this success, and their work was published in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, “Evolution of Facial Muscle Anatomy in Dogs.” In that paper, the investigators posited that the acquired ability of dogs to raise their inner eyebrow, specifically the levator anguli oculi medialis, in a more human (paedomorphic) manner generated a positive hormonal response in humans, leading to canine domestication. I’ve seen this facial expression in action, and I call it the ‘worried Lab look.’
Tobey, my 6-year-old Labrador retriever, is my worried Lab. He’s my fourth in a series over the past 25 years—and perhaps the best. Those of you who are dog people know what I’m saying. Those who don’t, let me explain. Tobey, like most dogs, has a lot to teach us, if only we would pay attention. Usually, we’re spending our time trying to teach them how to control themselves so they don’t soil the house or jump on visitors, to restrain their energies and many of their natural instincts. This training enables them to live within our constrained and controlled world, and I certainly support a well-trained pup. But, while we’re busy training them, are we missing the lessons they can teach us?
There is no end to the internet memes that list the advice our dogs could give; we all see them and chuckle. But really, we need to take these dog aphorisms more seriously: “Don’t hold grudges”; “love unconditionally”; “loyalty is a virtue”; and “delight in the simple,” just to name a few. But most importantly, “have a happy attitude.” Tobey is always happy. Happy to see me, and happy to see you if you visit. Happy to get fed, or to curl up next to me to take a nap. He’s just happy, with no perseverating on the past. No harboring of resentment, insults or injury. It’s a much less stressful way to live. And when I come home, I feel the simplicity of his life. It cuts through the layers of crazy I’ve fought through all day, and it undoubtedly lowers my blood pressure, probably as much as my medications do. (But maybe not as much as a martini.) However, while I do like my martini, it can’t compare to the loyalty and quiet companionship of Tobey.
Tobey’s constant state of good humor is even more inspiring when you learn that he’s deaf. He was likely born deaf, though we didn’t realize that until he was 2. At that time, we had an older Lab, Cassie, who was very well trained and well behaved. Tobey did everything she did. He watched her, and us, very carefully. Since he couldn’t hear he had to see, to watch our every move. This has made for a bond between us like no other, especially since Cassie is no longer here. Tobey carries on, however, teaching me to trust my instincts, accept who I am and enjoy the journey. Oh, and to drink more water. Definitely drink more water.
Dr. Blecher is an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital.