mindfulness and pets
3rd Dec, 2018
Minfulness: 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. Being present when interacting with your dog will help you connect with them more completely.
However, dogs don’t always feel great in every moment or always encourage their owners to relax! Many of my clients, perhaps particularly where their dog is aggressive towards other dogs, get stressed themselves. They become anxious about what might happen if they meet another dog. My clients know that their anxiety is likely to communicate with their dog making them even more likely to react. Dogs are often aggressive towards unknown dogs because they are fearful, when 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 by other dogs – it’s a vicious circle!
Helping people to understand why their dog is behaving in the way that they are, letting them know what they need to do and setting up situations so that the dog is less likely to react goes a long way towards encouraging the human to be more relaxed. However, many of my clients would like to know how to further communicate to their dog that they are un concerned and indeed be unconcerned! This is where mindfulness can help.
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.
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 can help to start small. Sending attention to the jaw, then the neck and shoulders, feeling a connection with the ground beneath your feet and taking note of your breath, 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. This is likely to be at home and without even a lead let alone a dog on it to start with! Only gradually would one 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.
- Then try to remember to do this when you are.
- Relax the lead arm,
- feel the connection with the ground through your feet
- - and take a breath
- ….and exhale….
Start to do this when you are feeling calm on a walk – not when there is another dog on the horizon!
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?
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. If this training is started in an environment where both the trainer and the dog are 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’!
When space is made, time to do nothing, the autonomic nervous system switches to a parasympathetic or relaxed state. Stopping doing will teach you to teach your body 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 husband shut the door. Rather than immediately protesting to get out I thought ‘if I stay here I would 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.
Of course, mindfulness is like peeling an onion, my current thoughts revolve around how our dogs can help us connect with us a little too well. I am a sucker, and our dogs inculcate a sense of guilt in me without any difficulty. Isn’t it time for a walk? What about a little game? Fetch? Tug? Searching? Tickle? And before I know it, I am drawn in. If I am present when I am interacting with the dogs then this time will count more, for both them and myself and maybe this might begin counteract the guilt!