Anissa Bell, LMFT
Clarity on Mindfulness: What can you learn from your dog?
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
You may have heard the term “mindfulness” in one form or another in recent years. The current buzz is all about practicing mindfulness, being more mindful, learning mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), utilizing mindful eating, engaging in mindful walking. So what’s this all about? Mindfulness is the practice of awareness, in which you bring intense focus to what you are sensing and feeling in the moment, without providing any interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness can help improve inner peace, happiness, overall sense of calmness, and has led to an explosion of mindfulness-based practices to improve our general well-being. These practices may involve meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises, thought observations, grounding tools, and many other techniques for helping individuals to stay present.
As our global anxiety has increased, the desire to find methods of managing anxiety has also increased. With concern over the growing use of pharmaceutical interventions, many are looking to alternative “natural” solutions to combat stress and help with mood regulation. For those that struggle with anxiety, developing the skill of staying in the present is an incredibly useful tool since anxiety typically stems from perception of future events. Research has shown that mindfulness can improve our well-being by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increased healthy emotional regulation is an important reason for the positive effects of this practice. In addition to helping with stress reduction, other benefits of practicing mindfulness may include decreased emotional reactivity, enhanced working memory, improved focus and attention, and increased immune system functioning.
So what does your dog have to do with any of this? The way dogs exist is really a perfect representation of what mindfulness looks like. Here’s how your dog can help you understand this practice and be a daily signal to be mindful:
1) LIVE IN THE PRESENT Dogs "live in the moment" like no other! They are equally excited every time they see their person at the end of the work day, are overcome with enthusiasm when the dinner bowl is filled, and have intense curiosity on daily walks as they stop to sniff each flower and scent of another being that has traveled on the path they are walking. Dogs are fully with you, in that moment, ready to make the most of each day.
2) EXPRESS GRATITUDE Our canines are grateful for what they receive each day, no matter how simple – for each meal, snack, walk, ear scratch, ball throw, car ride, cuddle, head pat, and generally any interaction with their human. There's no hesitation to express gratitude! They show this appreciation openly with tail wags, face licks, eye contact, pursuit of close physical proximity, and the overwhelming unconditional love they give to humans.
3) PRACTICE FORGIVENESS We often hear of unfortunate stories of dogs living in a shelter having difficulty finding a home or enduring horrific abuse from humans, yet they still are open to accepting happiness and joy when an opportunity comes along. On a more basic level, even when we ignore them because we are too busy or leave them for days to go on vacation, they forgive us and appear happy when we bring our attention back to them. The focus is on what is happening now versus what happened in the past.
4) DISPLAY EMOTIONS Our furry friends are not afraid to openly show emotions. There’s no holding back the excitement of the moment, no fear of rejection when making an introduction to a new friend, no filter on letting you know how much they want to be with you. Although we don’t actually know what dogs are thinking, it appears as if they act on their feelings immediately, without hesitation, or need to avoid expressions of love.
5) KEEP A DAILY ROUTINE Generally speaking, a dog wakes up at the same time every day, let’s you know it's time for dinner at the same time every day, eats the same amount of food most days, falls asleep in the same spots, and probably even leads the way on the same daily walking route. A dog responds to his/her body's current needs when it comes to nourishment and rest, and is able to follow a routine. Humans also function well with routine and becoming more aware of our body signals that indicate it is time to eat or sleep. Keeping routine with regular meal times and meal portions is part of a healthy lifestyle. Sticking to regular bedtime helps improve sleep quality and can prevent the development of insomnia.
6) WALK MINDFULLY If you are in hurry on your walk with your dog, the pausing stopping and sniffing can be a frustrating process. However, if you can learn to lean into it and mindfully walk alongside your dog, this can be a totally different experience. Watch how your dog stops to take in every smell on the ground, gathering valuable information about the other dogs that have passed through the neighborhood. It’s kind of the canine version of people watching. Their slow pace allows you to also move slowly and take in your surroundings. Look at the flowers and the trees along your path, feel the breeze, smell the fresh cut grass, listen to the birds. Allow all of your senses to experience the walk so that your entire being is fully present.
7) GROUND YOURSELF Dogs can serve as a grounding force when worries get the best of us. Our senses bring us back into the moment and our “furry friends” have a great tool to help us out – their fur! Petting your dog is a mutually beneficial experience. They love the attention, and the feeling of that fur and repetitive movement is calming to humans. Try bringing even more attention to the feel of the fur, the texture, the cold nose, the hard nails. They are a great tactile source of grounding to draw your focus to the present.
Aside from all of these ways that our dogs can help us with the practice of mindfulness, there’s also the fact that their mere presence is a reminder to be in the moment. Think about this when you see your dog in the morning, excited to start the day, with no concern about what happened yesterday and no distress about what might happen tomorrow -- just pure interest and enthusiasm for what is happening now. This ability to stay present, that dogs demonstrate so beautifully every day, is a great example to humans and a daily reminder of how to live a more balanced life.