To rest and trust in our own loving, connected presence is the essence of practicing self-compassion. It is the experience of tapping into our inner resources of wisdom and kindness and giving ourselves what we need to the best of our current capacity. Self-compassion is available to us at any moment by pausing and remembering all that is within us. Yet, there are many times when the demands of life get in the way of remembering this truth. Our busy, rushed schedules can lead us to go about our days feeling distracted and disconnected, and self-compassion can feel more like a distant idea than an intimate reality.
New research suggests that being a dog owner may be a way to access and cultivate the warmth and comfort provided by self-compassion through connecting with the loving presence of a canine friend. A recent study examined the effects of dog ownership on veterans with symptoms of post-traumatic stress (1). Veterans in the study participated in a program that gives veterans the opportunity to care for and train a dog that they ultimately adopt. The program focuses primarily on the healing experience of human-animal interaction. Results from the study demonstrated notable benefits for the veterans who engaged in the dog training program compared to veterans who were on a wait-list. In fact, veterans reported significantly fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms and significantly greater self-compassion compared to the wait-list group. Additionally, dog ownership did not increase veterans’ perceived stress levels. It seems that the benefits of companionship outweigh the responsibilities and potential challenges of caring for an animal.
The results from this study may not surprise many of us who have had the honor and pleasure of owning a dog. Dogs are master teachers of self-compassion in the way they invite us to be present and savor the delights of this moment. Dogs’ unconditional acceptance of us just as we are can reflect back to us our inherent worthiness, no matter how we feel or what we’re going through. Whether we have a dog or not, we can learn from the wisdom offered by dogs and integrate small, ordinary shifts in our lifestyle to slow down, pause, meet ourselves fresh in each moment, and remember our interconnectedness with life around us.
Maybe they’re sniffing a pile of gunk in the sewer, or maybe they’re relieving themselves. Either way, dogs invite us to pause frequently as we move about our day and notice the fullness of what is here, now. Dogs keep us mindful and present as we respond to their needs in the moment.
Whether we take our dogs on walks, to the park, or just let them out into our own backyard, dogs bring us closer to nature. With our dogs, we might find ourselves standing under the sky, basking in the sunshine (or becoming drenched in the rain), watching the trees and flowers, and feeling the breeze. These simple moments of touching the elements of nature can remind us of our interconnection with the earth and allow us see beauty that we might otherwise overlook.
When we get home from a rough day, there’s nothing quite like the warm welcome of a dog greeting us at the front door. No matter how many hours it’s been or what happened last time we were home, our dogs meet us with fresh eyes, full hearts, and unconditional joy and love.
Isolation can be a major barrier to remembering self-compassion. Even if no one else is around, being in the nonjudgmental presence of our dog can open us up to a bigger perspective and remind us we are not alone in times of difficulty. Without saying anything, dogs show us the healing power of radically accepting ourselves just as we are.
One of the ways we can practice self-compassion is to find a soothing gesture of placing our hands on our heart or anywhere on our bodies that is comforting to our nervous system. Stroking the soft fur of a pet is another way we can regulate our nervous system and activate the release of oxytocin, a hormone that gives us a feeling of connection and love (2).
Caring for dogs is not always about playing fetch and snuggling. Dog ownership means picking up after them, whether it’s lint-rolling dog hair off our clothes or picking up their poo off the grass. It often means rearranging our schedules so we make sure they are fed and walked. Sometimes we face expensive vet bills or have to deal with fleas. And of course there is the heartbreaking reality of someday saying goodbye to our beloved dogs at the end of their lives. All difficulties aside, the path of owning a dog shows us the depth of our generosity and the expanse of our hearts. Loving a dog can reveal to us how big our hearts truly are and how much love we have to offer. Dogs give us the gift of knowing our own limitless capacity to give and receive love.