THE DOG’S GUIDE TO YOUR HAPPINESS by Gary McDaniel & Sharon Massen (Book Excerpt)


Garry tells the following story: “It’s a Saturday afternoon, and Panda is lying on the floor, on the verge of falling asleep, while I am reading a book. To an outside observer, it would appear that he is oblivious to the world. When I reach the end of the chapter, I stop, watch Panda dozing, and then softly say, ‘Walk?’ At the sound of the word, Panda transforms from a seemingly catatonic state to one of pure enthusiasm. His eyes pop open, he leaps to his feet, and he dashes to the front door, where he barks at me to hurry up. As he watches me get my coat and reach for the leash, his excitement level goes up by a factor of ten. Panda begins to whirl in circles and dance on his back feet while pawing the air with his front paws. His eyes shine, and he sports the biggest grin he can manage. Panda knows we are going outside to play!”

Remember when you were a kid and could transform that quickly when your friends showed up and announced they were going to play a game of baseball, soccer, or hide-and-seek? Can you recall the sheer joy of riding all over the neighborhood on your bike, playing football in the street, or running to play tag with a bunch of friends? Did you have a tree house to which you could escape and where playful mischief abounded? Maybe you loved to play cowboy and gallop around the yard on a pretend stallion, or you went to the swimming pool and played “Marco Polo” until you were exhausted.

Ah, those were the days, weren’t they? The question you need to ask yourself is: What are you doing to reconnect with your inner puppy? In this chapter, we are going to explore what you can do to stay in touch with your inner sense of play
and adventure.

Humans are born to play, and we often describe “playing” as times in our lives when we feel most alive, yet we often take the value of play for granted. Joe Robinson, author of Don’t Miss Your Life (Wiley, 2010), stresses that playfulness is not a character defect; rather, it is how we build character and develop persistence, competence, and social skills that push us beyond our perceived limits. From this point of view, play is not a luxury; it is an absolute necessity for enhancing our ongoing development from the time we are kids, through adulthood, and even into our elderly years. Playing is how we learn, how we expand our bodies and minds, and often how we express ourselves. Through play, we learn important lessons about life as well as how to free our energy, joyfulness, and imaginations.

Despite the amazing value and power of play, somewhere between childhood and adulthood, many of us stop playing. We exchange the joy of play we experienced as children for the world of work and responsibility. When we do have some leisure time, we are often inclined to simply become passive receptors of entertainment by watching television or a movie. During our travels, we often see people “on vacation” who simply can’t tear themselves away from the office. You can go to the most wonderful tropical paradise, wander out to the cabana, and see a dozen people pounding away on their laptops, answering emails, and talking to the office on their cell phones while everyone else is having a great time in the pool or at the beach, only yards away. You have heard the excuses: “I don’t have anyone back in the office I can count on,” or “If I don’t stay in touch, I will have a million emails and voicemails when I get back.” Loehr and Schwartz, in their book, The Power of Full Engagement (Free Press, 2003), reflect on this paradox, stating, “We live in a world that celebrates work and activity, ignores renewal and recovery, and fails to recognize that both are necessary for sustained high performance.”

Having said this, it is perhaps important to note that there are some people who work on vacation or elsewhere when not at the office because they enjoy this quiet time for doing work. They feel happy at having accomplished a lot more at home or away than they may have at the office on a general day because, at the office, last-minute tasks and emergencies seem to crop up unannounced.

On the other hand, dogs appear to understand the value of a balanced life, which includes eating, sleeping, work, and play. Unfortunately, as we grow up, it appears that, for many of us, a balanced life that includes an appropriate level of renewal, or play, is becoming a thing of the past because, as adults, we think we should act more responsibly. We put away our toys and favorite games to get on with our lives of working for a living, feeding our families, paying the bills, and parenting. Soon, we begin to think that play is “just for kids,” and our days of joyful abandon become nothing more than a sweet memory. But for those of us with dogs, we have a constant reminder that play is a wondrous way to reconnect with the puppy inside of us, too!

Dogs at Play

“A Great Dane, at its shoulders the height of a small horse, spots his target across the lawn: a 6-pound Chihuahua almost hidden in the high grass. With one languorous leap, his ears perked, the Dane arrives in front of the trembling Chihuahua. He lowers his head and bows to the little dog, raising his rear end up in the air and wagging his tail. Instead of fleeing, the Chihuahua mirrors this pose in return and leaps onto the head of the Dane, embracing his nose with her tiny paws. They begin to play.”

This moving description of the ritual behaviors that dogs display to communicate their desire to play was written by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, Director of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in New York City. It is easy to picture the apprehension that the tiny Chihuahua must have felt at the approach of the enormous Great Dane. Imagine how you would react if a full-grown bull elephant approached you, indicating in some way that it wanted to play, and you, recognizing the intention, leapt onto its trunk with the sense of security that you would not be squashed like a pancake.

Dogs love to play and, as with humans, this behavior arises early in their lives. One of Dr. Horowitz’s colleagues at the cognition lab, Julie Hecht, observed that at about three weeks of age, puppies begin a series of behaviors, including rolling over their littermates, nipping, rearing up, and chasing each other. Through these play behaviors, the puppies begin to learn and practice skills they will use throughout their lives. Researchers like Julie and Dr. Horowitz are discovering that play in puppies is a rehearsal for adult behaviors that prepare the dog for the interactions he or she will have in the years ahead. Dr. Nicholas Dodman says that in nature, dogs who have played as puppies may even have an edge over their counterparts who may be “still struggling to learn the Ps and Qs and the rudiments of the chase.” Dodman notes that play, by definition, is fun. I think we would all agree that dogs love to have fun!

Recall from the last chapter that dogs have clear behavioral cues they follow to communicate their intentions. When it comes to play, dogs have unique behaviors such as the play bow, in which they go down on their elbows with their rear ends elevated and their tails raised and usually wagging. In this posture, dogs generally have on their “let’s play” faces, with their mouths open, tongues hanging out, and ears pricked forward. To these behaviors, they may also add barking and dancing around to signal their desire to play.

Family and Personal Play

Some of our sweetest memories come from childhood play—board games, tree climbing, hide-and-seek, kick the can, playing house, street football, and the list goes on. It was through play that we learned to be responsible, and play is the foundation of a healthy, happy child.

Great things also happen when families play together. You have surely heard the saying “the family that plays together, stays together” (or something like that). Having fun together is a crucial characteristic of happy, healthy families. Our children certainly need to go to school and do their chores, and they need appropriate care, but what they need just as much is the opportunity to engage with their parents in an exciting game of tag, Monopoly, or kickball or to go with their parents to the swimming pool or on a nature walk. Families make memories and share inside jokes, work stress melts away, and bonds become stronger. For many families, good old-fashioned play is the glue that keeps it all together.

But, somewhere along the line, we either forgot how to play or simply found ourselves overwhelmed by the demands of busy lives. We became adults with huge responsibilities, such as families to provide for, house payments to make, career ladders to climb—it never stops. We are reluctant to play because we are afraid we will look silly. It is no wonder we are a stressed-out, worn-out population. And, for some reason, society views adult play as being irresponsible because there are a million more constructive things to accomplish.

Our canine friends are experts when it comes to play. They seem to naturally perceive that fun is important, and dogs don’t care how we look. What happens when you pick up your dog’s favorite toy? How does he react to the squeak he hears from that toy? His ears perk up, his eyes brighten, he is on full alert, and he is ready to play! A dog’s desire to play is a barometer of his health and well-being. It is no different for you and your family. Consider these correlations between child play and dog play.

Children play pretend to discover their roles in the world, to try out adult behaviors, and to hone social skills, which are the same reasons puppies play shortly after birth. Kids love to play ball games, run, chase, and jump, all the while strengthening their physical health. Puppies play to strengthen their bones and muscles even though they don’t realize it.

Playing with other children is very important for a child to learn about roles in life, how to get along with others, and social skills. Dogs who play with other dogs grow up healthier and better adjusted, too.

Southwest Airlines, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Google, LinkedIn, and the Pike Place Fish Market are just a few of the companies that have realized that play in the workplace pays off big. The idea that a joyful working space creates healthy benefits for employees is catching on. One of the best cases for ensuring greater fun on the job comes from the Great Place to Work Institute. At the companies ranked by the institute as being among the Top 100 Great Places to Work, employees responded overwhelmingly that they work in a fun environment. Amy Lyman, cofounder of the institute, says that it would be very unusual for a company to be on the list of the top 100 companies and not earn a high score for being a fun workplace. Research on these and other top companies makes it very clear that if people are having fun, they work harder, stay longer, and maintain their composure better during times of stress. Plus, employees who are having fun are also more innovative and creative; they solve problems and work more effectively with others.

Just take it from the dog—play is important for good mental, emotional, and physical health. We need to look closely at our canine friends to understand that play is vital to our well-being in all aspects of life. Society could benefit greatly if we could learn how to play again as adults. Having fun brings an endless list of benefits that will make us better people, parents, employers, employees, and family members. Just look at our four-legged furry friends, who never forget how to play and who enjoy life no matter how old they are.

Garry McDaniel is an award-winning professor and has written books on leadership strategy, conflict management, and is a frequent speaker  on leadership development, employee engagement, personal and organizational change, life balance, and what humans and businesses can learn from dogs.  Sharon Massen is a professor teaching writing and communication. She is the author of two books, many articles, and a frequent speaker on topics including business communication, office management and what humans can learn from dogs to become better workers and managers.  For information on the book, click HERE.