What My Dog Taught Me About Boundaries and Meeting My Own Needs

Happy dog lays on the black sand beach, right before sunset, in the golden hour.

As a recovering co-dependent, I have historically struggled with boundaries and saying what I want. Along my healing journey, I have spent years learning mindfulness, meditating and generally trying to be more present in my life. Who knew that all along, I’ve lived with my own non-verbal, and slightly neurotic Yoda. For over a decade, my dog has been teaching me about boundaries and expressing my needs, but it’s only recently I paid enough attention to appreciate them.

Dog looking out the window with her front paws on the window sill, as if she is speaking to her royal subjects, below.

For starters, my dog is a champ at expressing her needs. Food? She has a whine for that. Play? She has a bark for that. Cuddle? She has an ear slant for that. She is communicative in the most simple and direct ways, letting me know exactly what she wants, and more importantly, what she does not.

Cute dog sits on top of a pillow on a stool, in front of the window. Her head is turned, barking at her a noise she heard.

The other day, I was writing on the couch. She sat next to me, flopped on her side, and exposed her belly. I immediately reached over and rubbed it, as if invited. She immediately jerked up and if looks could kill. Let’s just say that her glare made it crystal clear her posture was NOT an invitation. She stood up, gave me a very stern look and moved out of reach. Everything about her non-verbal communication made it abundantly clear I crossed her boundary. She wanted near me, but that did not include touching her, no matter how much I thought she would want or enjoy it. Upon reflection, I can remember uncomfortable moments, after a company happy hour, being met with unwelcome advances and “trying to be nice,” rather than saying “that’s inappropriate,” or just walking away. Frankly, I think there are several lessons here, for many of us.

Happy dog stands facing the camera, with her paws in the black sand that resembles flat black beans.

I grew up in one of those “you need to eat everything on your plate,” families and maybe some of you can relate. I was taught that even if you didn’t like it, you had to eat it, which eventually led to a pattern or eating things I didn’t really like or want. Recently, my doggo and I went to a friend’s place for dinner. Normally, my dog is a furry, walking, garbage disposal, willing to eat any disgusting street snack she can find. However, that night, she was getting treated to all kinds of delicacies like fried fish skin, cured trout flakes and roasted sweet potatoes. When my friend tossed some raw cabbage at her, normally a preferred snack, she snubbed it and looked back, as if to say, “seriously?” It was a comical scene, but she felt zero obligation to eat the cabbage and impatiently waited for course #2. She doesn’t eat what she doesn’t like and has no qualms about asking for more of what she loves. She doesn’t apologize nor does she operate from a place of ego. It’s a simple, “I like it and want more,” or “hard pass.” I imagine how different my younger experience would have been if I felt comfortable to say something as simple as “no, I don’t like that, but thank you,” with no apologies. Now, when someone offers me something I don’t want, I no longer feel obligated to accept it, but rather say, “no thanks,” or “yes, may I have another.” Obviously, this goes far beyond the confines of food.

Happy dog runs through a field, squinting her eyes because the sun is so bright. Her ears and tail are up in excitement.

When it comes to fun, my dog is a master at communicating her needs. When she wants a walk, she hits her leash with her nose. When I’m not done working and she wants to play, she gets in my face, puts her paws on my chest and licks my nose, until I concede. While I don’t recommend licking anyone’s face to communicate your needs (unless that works for you), I strive to be like more like her and say “I want to have some fun and I really hope you will join me.” She’s spontaneous and never makes you guess what she wants. She feels no shame or guilt about expressing her desires. She is my built in reminder to make time for play, whether that is tossing a ball with her, playing a game, or taking an impromptu trip to the beach. She reminds me it’s important to break for something fun, everyday.

Tired dog sleeps in a ball on top of a grey sheepskin.

As luck would have it, my dog is a canine Buddha, which is handy on a self-growth journey to find more presence in your life. She can take a walk and inspect every blade of grass, check every pee-mail and never feel any desire to rush. She savors every walk and reminds me to do the same. She drinks in the scenery, sounds, and smells of her environment. I have learned to slow down, look at the flowers and listen to the birds. She has inspired me to raise my head and appreciate the 3D wonder of my surrounding world.

Dog looking slightly guilty with ears back and eyes wide, cuddled in Mom’s freshly cleaned comforter.

She’s been showing me these lessons all along, but I’m glad I am finally ready to be a better student. There are lessons everywhere, if we take the time to notice. She has shown me it’s OK to say what you want or need, and to ask for it quietly first, and loudly, if necessary. It’s good to slow down and take your time. There is always time for fun, and if you don’t want any more cabbage, just don’t eat it.

Now, can someone please pass the roasted sweet potatoes and cured trout?

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Cathy Kading

Cathy Kading

Healer, Leadership & Wellness Coach, & Future Herbalist