Going to the Dogs: Life Lessons from Holly and Harmony

Photo by Stewart Black - http://flic.kr/p/9DuQQo

We can learn a lot from dogs. In a situation filled with the chasing and seeking of rabbits, two dogs taught me more about the wisdom of being mindful and letting go of preconceived notions.

If you’re open to it, you can learn things from the strangest situations. Case in point: I just grasped two valuable life lessons while walking my dog. My sister and I walk our dogs almost daily and she never fails to be annoyed when her dog, the misnamed Harmony, stops to look under a concrete drain for a rabbit that she once glimpsed there over a year ago. I guess elephants are not the only animals with good memories, but my sister thinks it’s ridiculous. My dog, Holly, does not participate in Harmony’s hopeful search but runs ahead to see what’s out there.

The other day, Holly was around the corner while Harmony was hunting for rabbits when Holly discovered, quite by accident, a live rabbit. She started chasing the poor bunny who hopped madly away from her, unfortunately in Harmony’s direction. My sister and I held our breath because, if Harmony looked up and saw the rabbit, tragedy was likely to follow. However, Harmony was too busy looking under the drain to notice the real rabbit and Holly was not fast enough to catch it. The rabbit got away and Harmony was never the wiser about its presence. I laughed for a good five minutes at Harmony’s failure to notice what she so diligently seeks. It was only later that I thought about the life lessons encapsulated in such a silly situation.

Life Lesson #1: Be more mindful.

Holly’s exciting chase of the rabbit was a perfect illustration of a concept I am constantly talking about: mindfulness. Research has shown that mindfulness is a strategy that can be helpful to people suffering from chronic pain, stress, depression and anxiety. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Jon Kabat-Zinn (a well-known teacher of mindfulness) said, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Simply put, mindfulness is using your five senses to realize what is going on around you. Yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but hopefully you get the drift. For example, in this circumstance, Harmony was fruitlessly living in the past while Holly was being mindful. Consequently, Holly enjoyed the moment while Harmony missed out.

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Life Lesson #2: Get rid of the shoulds.

Harmony also provided a clear example in that her cluelessness showed how searching so hard for something you think should be there can lead to missing what is right in front of you. Numerous movies, books and television plots have been written from this premise (one of the more famous examples is When Harry Met Sally but you can fill in your own favorite) because it is such a common occurrence. Trivial examples abound, as we all have stories about searching for a lost item when it was within our sight the entire time, but there are more serious applications as well. There are the examples of people being friends with or dating those they “should” want to be with instead of recognizing the rightness of the people already present in their lives. Or there are the jobs people “should” have versus the ones for which they are already perfect.

But one of the most disturbing demonstrations of this failure to see only our preconceived notions is with self-esteem. Social psychological research has repeatedly shown that, when it comes to how people see themselves, we tend to confirm our bias (either positive or negative) while ignoring evidence to the contrary. People who are convinced that they’re ugly see only their flabby thighs or big ears instead of their beautiful eyes or strong arms. People who believe that they are stupid may point to their poor grades in school instead of looking for evidence of their intelligence and then blaming external forces, like poverty or a learning disability, for their struggles. And the opposite is true as well. People who are convinced of their awesomeness may disregard the constructive feedback they need to improve. For example, many gifted people see failure as something that is contrary to talent, so they take great care to avoid it instead of using it as a learning opportunity.

While this tendency to see only what we think we already know is difficult to combat, it’s not impossible to stop, and it starts with getting rid of the shoulds. In order to see the world as it actually is instead of how we think it should be, we must be open to different perspectives. For example, if Harmony had only realized that rabbits can be found in many different places (versus just underneath a drain), she might have actually seen the object of her desire instead of empty space. The same is true of people’s perceptions of themselves. How different would our world be if we all accepted that there are different ways to be beautiful and everyone fits at least one definition of those? What if instead of seeing failure as something of negative significance (as in, you’re not smart if you fail a test or you’re not talented if you don’t win an award), we saw it as something that will help us become better? Or, what if instead of believing that something will always be true, we accept that things change and we sometimes need to listen to others? In other words, what if we see things as they actually are versus how we think we should? If all of this were true, surely we can all agree that the world would be quite a different and better place. As such, it seems like we should work toward that goal.

Letting go of our preconceived notions can be difficult but it is doable; we just have to want to do it. So, whether we heed this life lesson is up to us. As for Harmony, I doubt she’s going to change anytime soon. Consequently, unless they start hanging out under the drain again, I think the rabbits are safe.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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