Four lessons a dog can teach you

Harikesh Pushpapathan
7 min readMar 30, 2022

“Learning follows you wherever you go”

Take it literally.

Koda.

Aside from the many regrets I‘ve amassed to this day, nothing has proved more difficult to shake off than my 50kg German Shepherd – Koda.

In the rare moments he’s isn’t ambling behind me or running laps around my toes, Koda’s either eating, sleeping, or distracted by a “new thing”.

Little makes his pupils dilate more than a fresh five dollar, multi-coloured ball from Petbarn.

The irony is, Koda has been exponential to my growth over the past four years, and it seems that as long as he never stops following, my learning won’t either.

Here are the four most important lessons I’ve learnt from Koda thus far and how it’s radically elevated my outlook on life

1. Be more inquisitive than the day before.

You’ve most likely seen this tagline recycled on your LinkedIn feed, but curiosity is needed for both productive and efficient learning.

So how do you break down curiosity? Here’s the formula I use:

Curiosity = Desire for ( Knowledge + Reducing uncertainty)

Desire for knowledge

Everyone possesses an innate desire for knowledge, but it’s the extent of that desire which seems to dictate how much we grow over time.

Every time I call his name, Koda emerges out of a different spot. He’s always in discovery mode, always panting.

At the heart of this is reward circuits: pathways in the brain responsible for mediating incentive learning. Let’s break down what the f*ck this means:

When you ingest new information, information recognised as “rewarding”, the pleasure hormone in your body dopamine is released within the brain.

This in turn tells us that repeating the same behaviour will unlock pleasure , so we do it again and again.

However, the desire will stagnate if what you ingest doesn’t align with what you find rewarding. So find your sweet spot, and the desire will propagate.

Desire for reducing uncertainty

The only way to overcome uncertainty is to both anticipate and seek it.

Dogs are wired this way by evolutionary adaptation, primarily in their sense of smell. On average, they possess up to 350 million olfactory receptors in their noses, which is almost six times that of a human’s, and the area of a dog’s brain devoted to olfaction (smell) is forty times greater than ours.

The point is, Koda has been wired to reduce uncertainty every day, simply because his nose says so.

Any foreign acute smell justifies an opportunity to learn, and an opportunity he won’t think twice about.

As humans, tackling uncertainty is perhaps a bit scarier, but building a muscle to be comfortable navigating ambiguity is a valuable asset.

2. You can’t outsource empathy. Work on it.

To deeply understand others is a difficult task, but I wouldn’t say the same for dogs, especially Koda.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been in and out of hospital and it’s meant a lot of disgruntled hours and self deprecation. I strive to maintain a facade, yet to him, I’m nothing but glass.

Whether I stumble or wince a fraction, I’ll hear his paws scuttle from the other end of the house to my feet in a matter of seconds.

In the past four years, his capacity for empathy has soared to such heights that even words have become unnecessary.

Watching the way Koda looks out for the mood of others has been material to my professional growth so far, and in particular, my current role as a venture investor.

I believe the ability to empathise with founders is what defines a top-quartile investor. It’s why you often see ex-founders flourish as VCs.

They’ve gone through the turbulence of building a business from scratch and it’s equipped them with a genuine respect for the craft.

A couple years ago, I worked on a telehealth startup myself. I‘d spend hours upon hours cold calling government stakeholders, building and re-building the sales strategy, auditing financials, pitching to investors, handling constant rejection, all whilst having to commit to full-time university.

It was certainly taxing, and my health was the first to give way. I made the decision the wind down the company after two years.

Anytime I meet a founder these days, I paint that exact picture in my mind as objectively as possible.

Behind the facade of a polished pitch deck, there are a lot of rough patches.

3. Listening isn’t hearing.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” — Epictetus

Beyond their stupidly good smell, a dog’s hearing is its second-best asset. They can hear sounds of up to 50,000 vibrations a second — more than double the vibrations we can.

In other words, they can comfortably hear frequencies that may appear dead silent to us.

In addition, their ears are far more flexible, recruiting more than 15 muscles for the job. We only have 5, and whilst I can certainly move mine – 80% of the human population can’t.

But Koda doesn’t just have excellent hearing. He’s excellent at active listening.

Here’s how I break it down:

  1. Attention = Eye contact, Posture
  2. Comprehension= Appropriately responds to verbal cues, doesn’t shift the conversation to themselves every two seconds.
  3. Care = % Retention during and after conversation.

When I talk to my friends, colleagues, founders or family, I try to reflect on whether:

a) They are actively listening
b) I am actively listening

Interactions that don’t fall in either a) or b) tend to be far less rewarding, and I try to remove myself from them.

We all have that friend who claims they have a bad memory. The reality is that they didn’t care enough to listen in the first place…

Active listening is something I put into practice from a young age and it wasn’t by choice.

Most five year olds grow out of speech impediments or stutters, I unfortunately didn’t. My family used to coin me the thinker when I was little. As a kid I’d simply watch and listen to everything around me— mouthing little to nothing. I found meaning in understanding others, rather than needing to embarrass myself with my ‘disjointed staccato.’

Speech therapy gave me a voice.

Stuttering gave me communication.

Most of us are culprits of passive listening – especially us Sydney people (incl. myself). We’re so preoccupied with everything but the present, at the expense of rich and meaningful engagement.

I’m certainly not claiming to be perfect, but when I stop to listen to someone, I try to give them the respect they deserve. For me, speech was not a gift, but a skill I had to practice, so I’m especially mindful towards the speech of others.

Next time you engage in dialogue, have this at the back of your mind.

Whether you have satellite-dish ears or regular human ones, there’s no excuse for being a bad listener. Just learn to be present or walk away.

4. Learn to thrive alone.

How comfortable are you eating alone at a restaurant?

For all the socialites, and Myers-Briggs personalities out there beginning with an ‘E’, being around people feels like a pressing need.

For many, it can become a routine distraction from the many duties & concerns of everyday living to the point where it’s unhealthy.

Over time, we may become increasingly reliant on other people (directly and through the internet) to fuel our satisfaction. The risk here is a lot of the people in our lives will be transitory, and only a handful like our family will be alongside us for the long run.

Whilst I’ve sung his praises so far, Koda’s kryptonite is that he cannot thrive alone.

German Shepherds will choose one person in the family that reciprocates their affection the most.

Unfortunately in our family, that’s the person who also spoils him to death: my father. If he’s not throwing a tantrum in the lounge, eating food, harassing me with a half-torn tennis ball or chasing a bird, he’ll be camped right at the door waiting for dad to come home from work.

The minute the doorbell rings, Koda’s cortisol levels fly through the roof. He’s no longer droopy and could run fifty laps around our suburb alone.

Koda’s over-reliance on others is a portrait of the way many of us instinctively fill our time with social media and social gatherings, leaving no room for quiet solo contemplation and the chance to cultivate a positive energy independently.

If you want to take steps towards stronger internal vitality, try this: next time when you’re out, dine by yourself at a restaurant. It’s a ritual that’s helped me to find peace in my own energy without rushing toward others to fill the gap.

Epilogue

As somebody who’s consumed by full-time work and university, the hours spent with Koda are nothing like they once were.

I’m sure my fellow pet owners reading this have battled with the same truth.

Even if these moments now come in passing, I wrote this piece to acknowledge his immense contribution to my personal & professional growth so far.

A dog is a mirror image of its owner. The more you teach them, the more you learn.

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Learn more about me & what I do @ harikeshpushpapathan.com. Feel free to reach out for a chat.

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