One of the greatest miracles of life is motherhood. It’s the reason that almost all advanced animal life survives: one generation gives birth to the next, and then sees it to adulthood. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
As humans, we know that we should take care of our children by making sure that they’re well-fed, live in a safe environment, and get an education so that they can go on to become productive adults. This is part of our culture, but it isn’t very different from what mother dogs do without any society telling them to do it.
So how do mother dogs know what to do? The same way that human mothers do, but it has nothing to do with what society expects.
During pregnancy and after birth, a female dog’s body and brain are flooded with hormones of various kinds, particularly oxytocin. Often called the “bonding hormone,” it is what inspires a dog that has just given birth to form an attachment with her pups and do what she has to in order to keep them alive: feed them, keep them warm, and teach them the rules.
If a dog gives birth too early, oxytocin levels may be too low and she may shun her pups, but if the levels are right, she will instinctively know exactly what to do from the moment she starts delivering, including nipping the birth sac off, licking the puppy to stimulate it to breathe, and biting off the umbilical cord.
Puppies are born blind and deaf, but they find their mother with their sense of smell, and the mother guides them in to nurse. When they’re sleeping, she keeps them warm and, once they can see and hear, she begins to correct their misbehaviors and guide them toward appropriate behavior.
Mother dogs have done this for tens of thousands of years, and none of them have needed to read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” or keep pregnancy journals, or take birthing classes. They know because their instincts tell them as soon as the oxytocin and other hormones kick in.
And human mothers are no different, except in that we often over-intellectualize the process. Given no instructions and no help at all, a human woman would likely be able to go through the process of giving birth and nurturing her child, because the changing chemistry in her brain would allow her instincts to take over. Oxytocin creates a very powerful bond, not only between parent and offspring, but between species — dogs and humans trigger the release of oxytocin in each other as well.
Nature has provided for each species to be able to survive and reproduce through generations. Humans are the only animals who can and often do lose sight of the instinctive side of childbirth and parenthood — and life.
The lesson that canine mothers have to teach us is this: Even something that we sometimes look upon as one of the most difficult and complicated parts of life is, in fact, not. As I like to say, “Life is simple. We make it complicated.”
Now, if something like giving birth can be accomplished by humans by instinct, think of all the much simpler things that seem daunting only because we try to deal with them intellectually and emotionally.
On this Mother’s Day, as we remember and honor the women who have given us life and shared their hearts with us, don’t forget to listen to your own hearts and that inner feeling that just knows what to do. That is instinct, and learning how to recognize and follow it is the greatest gift that dogs have to give us.
Stay calm, and keep it simple!