If you’ve ever been around a dog, you know that their excitement knows no bounds! They wear their enthusiasm and happiness all over their bodies. Dogs are probably not the best example of regulating emotions, but they can teach us a lot about co-regulation. Have you noticed how you feel around a dog? Or how your emotions are experienced differently around an animal?
These aren’t just your subjective experiences. Evidence has shown that the Human-Animal relationship has great psychological, physiological, and social impacts on humans! In fact, this became even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people adopted pets in order to emotionally soothe themselves.
So, what is it about being around animals that affects us so greatly? And what do animals teach us about regulation?
What Animals Do For Us
Before the relationship between you and your pet best friend even becomes relevant, your body is responding to being around an animal!
Research shows that interacting physically with an animal directly influences blood pressure, heart rate, and hormones related with emotional regulation and well-being. Think oxytocin and dopamine! These hormones slow heart rate and breathing, inhibit stress hormones, and create a sense of calm.
You also will have noticed the desire to cuddle with your pet when you feel sad or low. This is because animals have also been shown to provide emotional and social support that buffers us from stress and fosters resilience. Animals also feel inherently less judgemental than other people, and the level of acceptance in the relationship feels unconditional.
In fact, the impact animals have on us is so profound that we have successfully involved them in mental health care and treatment as part of animal-assisted therapies; everything from Equine Assisted Therapy to therapy dogs and cats.
There is a wealth of research exploring the impact animals have on the development of children, and the ways in which a loving, caring relationship with an animal helps develop core social and emotional skills.
This is not even commenting on the fact that our animals impact us behaviourally as well! If you are a pet owner, you know the joy of coming back home to a pet or regulating the frustration you feel when they rip yet another cushion. However, besides this, animals also teach us by example. Curious yet?
What Do Animals Teach Us?!
The behaviours animals display around their bodies and regulating their own emotions are incredibly evolved.
Unlike any other animal, humans spend a significant amount of time thinking about what is NOT happening. Going over everything from incidents from the past, events that can occur in the future, or situations that will never be at all. Not animals!
Dogs are the best example of mindfully engaging with every moment. No animal can teach us better about mindfulness than dogs. They embody mindfulness; being non-judgmentally present in the moment. In fact, part of what makes being around animals feel so good, is that when they are present with us, they simply are. They have no worries for the future and no fears of the past. Other animals are similar, but we can all agree no one does it better than dogs!
Not only will dogs be hyper focussed on only what they are doing at the moment, they will also do everything to involve you in what they are doing! Doesn’t matter if you are busy with a deadline, have had a painful break-up, or are in the middle of a heated debate; your dog will want to involve you in everything. To the point of absurdity.
Therein lies a valuable lesson; the ability to pull away from our own internal world to focus on our physical world and bodies. It also teaches us the art of asking and giving in relationships, uninhibited.
Animals are natural masters of body positivity and radical self-acceptance. They do not feel remorse for what or how much they eat. They also do not find themselves preoccupied about parts of their body; a flabby stomach, a scar, or a patch of funny looking hair. And we mirror this towards our pets! We love them no matter what they look like! You may have preferences on breeds, but do you find yourself nitpicking your dog’s appearance? Likely not.
Animals are masters of forgiveness. We’ve all accidentally stepped on a dog’s paw or a cat’s tail and immediately overcome with guilt and regret! Now they might be hurt and they might need medical intervention, and they heal or they simply move on. But here we are, feeling awful, and all the while, the animal’s long forgotten. No grudge, no bitter feelings. Isn’t that a lesson humans can benefit from learning?
Most animals, especially dogs, are always so excited to meet people, to face a new day, to take another walk, to eat another meal, and everything in between. What is it about this gentle curiosity about the future that makes it such a universal trait in animals? Is this something that can help make our day-to-day a little brighter?