6th Oct, 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 a tree’. Sometimes I truly struggle to imagine that they have no need to worry about the things that I worry about. Do they really not think about climate change, Covid 19 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. They would naturally choose to gravitate towards what makes them feel good not what makes them feel bad.
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. I think this helps explain the ‘covid phenomenon’ and why seemingly everyone suddenly wants a dog, with the price of a puppy doubling and the rescue centres emptying.
Developing a mindfulness practice for yourself and your dog will have immense benefits for all of us and 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 dogs being more in the moment is contagious. Secular mindfulness guru, Jon Kibbut Zinn specifically suggests being ‘present’ when interacting with your dog in his lovely little book for people who don’t like to be told what to do ‘wherever you go, there you are’.
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 dog are already relaxed, far away from any problem situation. People too, need to start to learn to relax in situations where they too are already relaxed, not in situations where we ae already feeling stressed, such as just before a job interview!
Teaching dogs to teach themselves how to be relaxed is only going to be effective if the dog parent sets them up to succeed by providing for their dogs needs within a predictable routine. I ask clients to praise their dogs many times a day when they appear settled and relaxed thereby ‘shaping’ more settled and relaxed behaviour. As a result, certain positions and locations become automatic cues for relaxation through capitalising on the process of ‘classical conditioning’ whereby dogs develop a ‘positive emotional response’ to these locations and positions. This is why I call my ‘go to your bed’ exercise the ‘magic mat’. If the bed it introduced so as the dog makes a positive emotional response, then the simple act of going to the bed will trigger physiological and psychological relaxation. Any exercise that you practice where your dog is happy and relaxed will engender a ‘positive emotional response’, I remember working with this little dog in a field and she was too stressed to take a treat but when I asked her to ‘sit’, because she knew how to do this and associated it with being at home where she was happy, the action of sitting relaxed her enough for her to be able to eat.
This is mindfulness for pets – hell, you can even teach a dog to ‘take a breath’. See Karen Overall's 'take a breath'
When space is made and there is time to do nothing, the autonomic nervous system switches to ‘rest and digest’. Stopping doing, paying attention and noticing what is happening in the moment teaches us to teach our bodies (and our dogs 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, 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 long working hours, the internet and smart phones leaving almost no time without constant stimulation. We need to learn to stop doing and simply be to allow ourselves and our dogs to calm. ‘Noticing’ what is going on in the moment leads to self-awareness and with it the ability to change our thought patterns and behaviour. This, of course, is like peeling an onion and an on-going process, but engaging in mindfulness practice will our nervous systems to reset resulting in correspondingly positive emotional states.
The role of neurotransmitters is so complex it makes my head spin, but in simple terms we need to move towards what feels good and away from what doesn’t, just as our dogs would naturally choose. Mindfulness can facilitate this by helps us recognise what’s important and move both ourselves, and our dogs towards serotonin and happiness. Modern society and it’s addiction to feel good consumerism relies heavily on dopamine with its reward hits and corresponding crashes, resulting in dire consequences for ourselves, our dogs and the planet.
Apart from starting to meditate and learning to come back to the present and noticing the moment many, many times a day, if you would like your dog to be more relaxed 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, feel into your body, check your lead arm and connection to your dog, pay attention to what’s going on around you, take a breath and bring yourself and your dog back to the moment before setting out on the next step? Over time, via learning the simple act of reaching the curb (going up stairs, cleaning our teeth, feeding the dog) will bring us back to the moment where we can connect with ourselves and ‘notice’ what is going on for us and our dogs.
Mindfulness and problem dogs: I have noticed that there are some, chill dogs who reduce their dog parents stress and there are some not so chill dogs that increase their dog parents stress. Many of my clients, get very stressed in certain situations when with their dogs, particularly the ones with dogs that react negatively towards other dogs they meet on walks. This behaviour is very embarrassing. Whilst what I’m talking about below is transferable to other situations, it specifically refers to these ‘dog reactive dogs’. These dogs’ owners tend to become anxious about what might happen when they meet another dog. They intuitively know that their anxiety will communicate to their dog making it even more likely that their dog will react, and this stresses the dog parent out still further. What they probably don’t know is that their intuition corresponds with the science. Basically, mammalian nervous systems will synch with other mammalian nervous systems that are nearby, including those of our dogs. This is known as co-regulation when the nervous systems that are synching are in a positive emotional state and co-dis-regulation when the synching nervous systems are in a stressed state. More often than not, dogs react negatively towards unknown dogs because they are afraid and unfortunately, when they detect that their dog parent is anxious, they jump to the conclusion that you, too, are frightened of the other dog, and hey presto, it becomes a vicious circle. In fact, some dogs only react to other dogs because of their owner’s anxiety! If you have a dog like this, notice how it feels in your body when they kick off and notice how it feels for you when you avoid a confrontation.
My work is about helping people to understand why their dog is behaving in the way that they are, letting them know what to do about it and teaching them to set up situations so that their dog is less likely to go ‘over threshold’ and react. This goes a long way towards helping the dog parent to be more relaxed and as a consequence the dog too, however, 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 the stress response so that it is less likely to communicate down the lead and make things worse. However, just like for your dog, training will not work if you are over ‘threshold’ and already reacting.
If dog parents can learn to relax the lead arm and transmit calmness and coping to the dog – ‘you are safe with me’ then the dog will be less likely to react. 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 environment with few distractions when you are already calm and relaxed. This means at home and without even a lead, or on a walk without your dog. Only gradually will you be able to transfer the mindful relaxation that this brings to any type of stressful situation with your dog.
When not holding the lead:
- send attention to the jaw, then the tongue, then the neck and shoulders and practice releasing the muscles
- feel into your body, check in with the sights and sounds of the moment
- feel the connection with the ground through your feet
- take a breath
- ….and exhale….
Then repeat when you are holding the lead but without the dog:
- Relax the lead arm,
- Hold the lead lightly
Once you have the hang of this, attach the dog and repeat many times
Only start this work when you are feeling calm, you need to establish a strong ‘habit’ before having a hope in hell of using the technique in earnest. It will probably be best try a stress break and avoid the problem situations entirely in the short term and only exercise your dog where you know you won’t see any other dogs. Sometimes this even involves not walking their dog at all for a while or by taking them somewhere really, quiet (The environmentalist in me can’t believe that I sometimes suggest people drive somewhere quiet) to give their ‘mindfulness’ training the chance to start to establish a ‘habit’. This will also allow the dog’s nervous system to re-set to relax too.
Over time (perhaps a long time), the skill set will transfer and you will find yourself to be more relaxed in proximity to other dogs and this will help your dog to relax too.
Dogs would naturally indulge in mindfulness and turn towards what feels good and away from what doesn’t - but they live with us! Slow down, notice, practice, have quiet times. Mindfulness helps reset the nervous systems of dogs and people thereby cultivating positive neurotransmitters like serotonin and engendering immersion in the more positive emotional states.