21st Jan, 2020
Dogs are more ‘in the moment’ than us and I can’t help but be reminded of this when I’m walking our dogs on a hot day and Rover chooses to simply stop in the shade rather than rushing home. He doesn’t have to get home to get ready to go to work. Dogs are perfectly content to place themselves in the most comfortable situation available to them at that moment – ‘it’s hot, I’ll go under that tree’. Sometimes I truly struggle to imagine that they have no need to worry about the things that we worry about. Do they really not think about climate change, Brexit or whether they have left the kettle on the hob? No! Dogs are drawn to what is enjoyable and comfortable; unless a dog is distressed for some reason, if there is any fun to be had, that is where you will find them.
I believe that this accounts for much of why people choose to keep pets, they provide a connection to nature and a simpler way of being. Pets help us to be more present and being present when interacting with your dog will help you connect with them and yourself more completely.
My understanding is that if a person has a mindfulness practice then they can use their own ‘being present’ to connect better with their dog and in turn, having a dog can help people develop a mindfulness practice as their being more in the moment is contagious.
I have realised through working with animals that there are strong parallels between mindfulness training for humans and the work that I do. Basically, my day job is teaching dogs to teach themselves to relax. This training needs to be started in an environment where both the trainer and the dog are already relaxed, far away from the problem situation, and as a result, certain positions and locations become automatic cues for relaxation.
This is mindfulness for pets – hell, you can even teach a dog to ‘take a breath’! See Karen Overall's 'take a breath' protocol
When space is made and there is time to do nothing, the autonomic nervous system switches to a parasympathetic or relaxed state – ‘rest and digest’. Stopping doing teaches us to teach our bodies to reset and calm physiologically. Quiet time will calm a dog and a person. I once crept into a big dog crate in the kitchen to pet our dog, Daisy and of course, my partner, Tim shut the door. Rather than immediately protesting to get out I thought ‘if I stay here, I will have to do nothing, eventually frustration will give way to resignation and I will calm’. Later that week, I went to see a driven business man, his wife and their two French Bulldogs and suggested that the man spend 45 minutes in a crate every day. His wife thought it a very good idea!
Modern people are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction itself’! This seems to be ever more the case with the internet and smart phones there is almost never a time without constant stimulation.
We need to learn to stop doing and simply be to allow ourselves and our dogs to calm. This, of course, is like peeling an onion and an on-going process. Apart from starting to meditate and learning to come back to the present many, many times a day, if you would like your dog to be more relaxed out and about, it helps to start small.
Many people get their dog to stop and sit at every curb. Why not use this opportunity to connect your feet with the ground, take a breath and bring yourself and your dog back to the moment before setting out on the next step?
In time, the simple action of stopping at the curb will bring you back to the present
Mindfulness and problem dogs: Inevitably, dogs don’t always feel great in every moment or always encourage their owners to relax! Many of my clients, get very stressed in certain situations when with their dogs, perhaps particularly the ones with dogs that are aggressive towards other dogs. Whilst what I’m talking about below is transferable to other situations, it specifically refers to dog aggressive dogs. These dogs’ owners tend to become anxious about what might happen when they meet another dog. They know that their anxiety is likely to communicate with their dog encouraging their dog to be even more likely to react, and this stresses them out still further. Dogs are often aggressive towards unknown dogs because they are fearful and unfortunately, if they detect that their human is anxious, they are unlikely to think that you are anxious because of what they might do, they think you, too, are frightened of other dogs! It can become a vicious circle.
Whilst helping people to understand why their dog is behaving in the way that they are, letting them know what they need to do about it and teaching them to set up situations so that their dog is less likely to react goes a long way towards encouraging the human to be more relaxed (and the dog too as a consequence), many of my clients would like to know how to further communicate to their dog that they are un-concerned by an approaching dog - and indeed even be unconcerned! This is where mindfulness can help.
Mindfulness can help you to notice the way you are feeling and help interrupt stress so that it is less likely to communicate to your dog and make things worse. However, just like for your dog, training will not work if you are over ‘threshold’ and already reacting.
Sending attention to the jaw, then the neck and shoulders, feeling a connection with the ground beneath your feet and remembering to breathe, will ultimately relax the lead arm and transmit calmness and coping to the dog – ‘you are safe with me’. Of course, just like teaching a dog to teach themselves to relax, and just as you would introduce any new training to your dog, you need to start in a quiet, calm environment with few distractions when you are calm and relaxed. This means at home and without even a lead, let alone a dog on it to start with. Only gradually will you be able to transfer the mindful relaxation that this brings to any type of stressful situation with your dog.
- Practice releasing the muscles in your mouth, neck and shoulders when not holding the lead, connect with the ground and breathe
- Then try to remember to do this when you are holding the lead
- Relax the lead arm,
- feel the connection with the ground through your feet
- take a breath
- ….and exhale….
- Once you have the hang of this, attach the dog and repeat many times
Start to do this when you are feeling calm on a walk, in order to transfer the skill set – not when another dog is too close – it won’t be possible. You need to establish a strong ‘habit’ before trying to use the technique in earnest. I often suggest that if possible, my clients take a stress break and avoid the problem situations entirely to give their and their dog’s ‘mindfulness’ training the chance to start to establish a ‘habit’.
There are many resources to help you start a mindfulness practice, I have found jon Kabut zin very useful https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/pages/books-by-jon-kabat-zinn. There are also lots of apps to help you get started and keep going I use the insight timer https://insighttimer.com.