If there's one thing that makes my heart swell with love, it's dogs. Their happy, go-lucky attitude, unconditional love, and endless curiosity is infectious and just so darn sweet.
Some of you may have heard me talk about Mariposa (just a little bit😬). I've never met a dog so appreciative of everything. She's the happiest pup with the simplest things — from chewing on an ice cube (her temporary treat since the vet suggested she lose a pound or two) to getting a new toy (or playing with the old ones that no longer have limbs or stuffing) to greeting every dog and human on the street (we joke that she's trying to be the Mayor of Atlanta). She's the happiest girl. I call her my little sunshine because she's like a ray of sunshine that lights me up each morning.
However, she wasn't this happy when we first fostered her. She came from the shelter hairless, only 9 pounds (she's more-than-healthy now at 17 pounds), and lifeless with a severe bought of pneumonia. She almost didn't survive and staying in a shelter environment would have only made it worse. In fact, she probably wouldn't have survived if she was left to recover in the shelter. We couldn't wait to give her a comfy place to rest, good food, and lots of love. It took over a month for her to transform from her lethargic state and, when she did, her personality shined through. This is when we started to call her sunshine and knew we couldn't let her go.
She went from the street to the shelter to our home, where she finally thrived, and, now, she shows gratitude daily for the simplest things. There is something about a rescue dog that is really special. They know that they've made it when they simply have a roof over their head, a cozy bed, and food to eat each day. Add a little love into that mix and their life is complete (plus, maybe a treat or two — ask Mariposa). Dogs are great examples of how the simplest things in life can also be the greatest joys of life. Here are just a handful of things I've learned from Mariposa and the shelter dogs we have fostered over the years.
How to stay healthy and happy, in the eyes of a rescue dog:
1. Get outside and soak up the sunshine. When the sun is shining, Mariposa takes a moment to go outside and lay in the grass. Sometimes it's only 5 minutes, but it appears to be enough to lift her spirits. Takeaway: Pause for a few minutes out of each day to soak up some sunshine. Getting some sunshine can help to produce vitamin D, boost mood, sleep better, and reset the mind.
2. Roll down the windows and let the wind blow in your face. This is probably every dog's favorite activity! There's nothing better then riding in the car and allowing some fresh air into the space. Takeaway: When you need a little pick-me-up, walk outside or roll down the car windows to let the fresh air awaken your senses and help you feel more alert.
3. Listen. Ever notice how a dog's ears perk up with every sound or how their head tilts when you talk to them? Their listening skills are on point (along with their sniffers)! Takeaway: Listen to others and be present while they're talking. Even when you're not in conversation, intentionally notice the sounds in your environment. You might notice your neighborhood sounds, the refrigerator making noise, or perhaps it's just the sound of silence. Taking a moment of silence and intimately noticing sounds in your environment can also transform you into a state of meditation.
4. Discover a new city by walking and exploring. I don't know if this is every dog's dream, but Mariposa loves to visit new cities and can't walk fast enough to see all the things. She's a natural explorer at heart, which I think is the case for many dogs (and some cats!). Takeaway: Explore different cities (or even your own neighborhood) through a good walk to get some movement and to activate your brain by discovering new things. This article about the benefits of exploring new spaces is excellent if you're interested in knowing more about how exploring can benefit your mental health.
5. Be curious. Have you ever caught your dog with their nose into something that they probably shouldn't be into? I'm guessing yes and, while our natural reaction is typically to tell them "no," consider the thought of allowing them to be curious as long as it's not harmful to them. Curiosity opens up new worlds and possibilities for dogs and humans alike. It's associated with happiness, health, longevity, and healthy relationships. Takeaway: Be curious! Ask questions, listen without judgment, be in the moment, and don't be afraid to say, "I don't know."
6. Roll around in the grass. Okay, so maybe don't mimic this exact activity unless you're trying to scare away the neighbors, but there is something we can take away from dogs rolling around in the grass. You can see from the dog's expression when they roll that they are getting a big hit of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that is in both dogs and humans. Dogs have a goofy, happy smile on their face with each roll. Takeaway: Take your shoes off to feel the grass underneath your feet. There is something called earthing — walking barefoot in the grass, soil, or sand — that actually has some science merit. Walking barefoot in the grass may help to boost antioxidants, reduce inflammation, regulate hormones, and improve sleep.
7. Greet strangers with a tail wag. Definitely don't shake your booty when you see a stranger, that might be strange. But, you can certainly smile, which is equivalent to a tail wag. Takeaway: Smiling at strangers, smiling at loved ones (even when you're mad), and smiling in general, can help to boost feel-good hormones. Ron Gutman, the author of, Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, said, “researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate.” Smiling has also been shown to improve relationships, productivity at work, ability to handle stress, and increase lifespan. Wow! Now that's something to smile about.
8. Practice patience. Have you ever thought about the amount of patience a dog naturally embodies? They only get fed once or twice a day and that feeding depends on your schedule. They have to ask to go to the bathroom (well, outside) then patiently wait for you to finish your activity at hand. They excitedly come to you with a toy only to learn that you are busy in a meeting and they'll have to wait until you're finished. They patiently wait All.Day.Long for you to get home from work or shopping to receive the love they so desperately crave. That all takes an insurmountable level of patience! Takeaway: First, we can all honor our pets and thank them for their patience. Second, cultivating a patience practice can result in magnificent health benefits. Patient people have been shown to be less depressed and experience more positive emotions. Those who are patient have also been shown to be more forgiving and empathetic. Patience has also been shown to improve relationships, achieve goals, and make thoughtful decisions.
9. Be grateful for the simple things. As I mentioned above, a home, bed, and meals — as well as a couple of toys and belly rubs — are enough to make a dog happy. Takeaway: Research shows that practicing gratitude can offer several health benefits. Feeling grateful can improve relationships (and start new ones!), lead to positive emotions, reduce pain and inflammation, dissolve angry emotions, improve sleep habits, boost self esteem, and build resiliency.
10. Relish in the act of doing nothing. Ever notice a dog sigh with relief as they lay next to you when you finally sit from a busy day? For dogs, lying next to their favorite human might be the single, most fulfilling activity (next to getting treats). That sigh symbolizes a breath of relaxation and the release of any tension they were feeling as they were patiently waiting for you to just be with them. During this "just being" activity, there's no talking, no doing, no fussing involved — just simply being. Takeaway: Practice moments of "just being" with no to-do list, no phone, no computer, no busyness. Just be with yourself (or your pet), take some deep breaths and sigh out the busyness of the day. Sighing, or taking a deep breath, is a way to cleanse the body and the mind.
11. Engage in playtime. Who knows playtime better than a dog? Uh, no one! I don't know about you, but I know that I take myself way too seriously way too often. At times, I find myself stressing out over the silliest things, rather than laughing them off and learning from them. Takeaway: Remember to laugh a lot, carve out space for playtime, don't take yourself so seriously, and keep things light and playful for a stress-less and happy life.
12. Let it go and keep it moving forward. Dogs get over things quickly. If you've ever disciplined a dog for having an accident in the house or pulling out the entire roll of toilet paper (in Mara's case it was chewing the corners of every single one of our pillows), you may have noticed that, in most cases, they take the discipline then move on. They let it go quickly and are ready to have fun, play, cuddle, and do all of the things that make make happy again. Takeaway: Holding onto negative emotions and stress isn't healthy for the body or the mind. Address things that need to be fixed or corrected quickly then let it go and move on.
13. Give unlimited love, hugs and kisses. If dogs had a job, it would be loving, hugging (a hugging dog is real, y'all), and kissing. They would be like, "sign me up for overtime!" Maybe hugging and kissing isn't your thing (if you ever visit my Italian family, be prepared to get ALL the hugs and kisses, even if it's your first time meeting them. And then you'll sit at the dinner table and eat — even if you don't want it — another sign of love.😄). Even if you don't feel comfortable with hugging or kissing, love is something that nourishes all of us. It's a basic fundamental need for health and happiness. Whether it's showing love to yourself, getting love from a pet, exchanging love with a family member, or falling in love with a partner, love is the foundation for life. Takeaway: Love yourself with positive affirmations; lead with love before starting a conversation (especially if it's an uncomfortable one); say hello to strangers with love; volunteer your services to help others (an act of love); donate to your favorite organizations; send love to those who you feel may need it. As you can see, there are many ways to feel, share and express love. Give love, share love, and be love — and watch those happy hormones soar.
And now for the fun part (as if you weren't just having the best time!😂) ... below are some of the foster pups who have taught me how to have more patience, be more curious, create space for playtime, soak up the outdoors and sunshine, listen more, and love more. I hope their sweet faces bring some happiness your way and that you'll be able to see the wide variety of amazing shelter dogs available, if shelter pups are new to you.
Finally, here's a video of Mariposa teasing our foster, Ghost, who was very intimated by her. He did not realize that he was much bigger!
P.S. Not to end this on a sad note, but more about awareness, in case you haven't heard: There is a shelter crisis happening across the country (and in many places around the world) where there are thousands and thousands of homeless pets (cats and dogs alike) who are looking for foster homes and permanent homes. Shelters are beyond capacity, which results in many wonderful, family-friendly dogs succumbing to shelters' only option — euthanasia. Please visit your local animal shelter or rescue if you have space for a short term foster pet or are looking for a new family member. One website that is great for searching the perfect fit for your family is PetFinder.com. If you're unable to foster or adopt, spreading the word is also a great way to help shelter pets. Thank you for fostering, adopting, and spreading the word!