Lessons from animals: How your dog enhances your thinking skills

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We tend to think of education in terms of going to school or completing a skills training course, but the truth is humans are stimulated by and learn from their surrounding environments everyday. Take riding the subway, for example. It involves choosing which train service to take, determining which station to stop and changing trains if necessary, calculating how long it would take to arrange at your destination, and navigating through subway stations. You are processing a tremendous amount of information and learning how to make decisions based on your environment! 

We are also surrounded by informal “teachers” in our day-to-day lives. Do you know that dogs, for instance, can enhance our thinking skills?

Encouraging STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) thinking

Perhaps this may come as a surprise. Unless you work in a biological- or veterinary-related field, how do dogs promote STEM thinking? STEM learning typically involves making observations, analyzing the available data, formulating hypotheses, and experimenting with solutions to determine the best one. 

STEM thinking is, in fact, utilized regularly in pet care. When your dog starts to display erratic behaviors, you may have an inkling that something is wrong. For example, you discovered that your dog is constantly rubbing his face against the wall. Has your dog created a new, albeit rather odd, game? Maybe your dog is trying to sniff the wall? Perhaps your dog is scratching its face? These are all examples of formulating a hypothesis for your observations. You may later realize that this face-rubbing behavior only occurs at a certain time of the day, specifically after meal times. You remember that you had recently changed its diet from cooked chicken to beef. This could lead you to infer that your dog is allergic to beef, and the solution is to change its diet to something else and to observe whether the face-rubbing continues. This entire process is similar to the scientific process employed in STEM. 

If you have different species of pets, you also learn that you cannot care for your pets in the same way your “solutions” will not be the same! Imagine that you have a pet fish, your dog’s best friend. Cleaning up after your dog and your fish will require different solutions. Your pet fish would, for example, require a monthly cleaning of the filter in its aquarium and a change of water that is suitable for it. On the other hand, you probably would want to lay out a pee pad at home or take your dog out on walks for it to do its business outside. If your dog is not toilet trained and you forgot to take it out on a walk, it may make a puddle on the floor. In this case, you might require a pet spray/cleaner to take care of the mess. Pet care may seem intuitive to seasoned pet owners, but it takes a considerable amount of “experimenting” to get it right! 

Enhancing thinking skills through stress management 

Stress is a part of everyday life. A stressful morning commute, reading the news, a long line at the cashier all these small daily stresses can accumulate over time, and too much stress can have a huge negative impact on our physical, mental and emotional health. The effects of stress are not only damaging on a personal level, but comes at a great cost on a societal level. Job-related stress is estimated to cost American companies $300 billion due to healthcare costs, high turnover rates, and absenteeism.  

Dogs are known as man’s best friend because of the love, friendship and companionship they provide. It is well known that our stress levels decrease and we feel happier when we interact with dogs (unless you are afraid of them!). Recent research also suggests that petting dogs increases relaxation and our ability to cope with stress instead of feeling overwhelmed. This in turn enhances our ability to think, and even improves levels of concentration, planning, organizing, and memorising skills. As compared to traditional workshops on stress and anxiety management, petting therapy dogs were found to be longer lasting and more effective at enhancing thinking skills! Simple daily interactions with your dog like petting have calming effects and can be helpful for managing stress and learning. 

Apart from enhancing your thinking skills, interacting with animals has other socio-emotional benefits and teaches us important life skills, such as empathy, compassion, and responsibility. Education is not limited to the classroom. Interacting with people, animals, and your environment is a part of everyday life and might seem intuitive most of the time, yet these experiences involve a lot more learning than you think! Whenever your mind is feeling stuck at work or at school, cuddle your pet or go for a walk to get your brain juices flowing. 

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