How pets can help with daily mindfulness

Mark Vette Animal Behaviourist, Zoologist and Trainer

In this fast-paced world, finding moments of tranquillity is essential for our overall wellbeing. Mindfulness is one of the most transformative changes you can make in your life, and one unexpected source of mindful practice is our pets!

People are often surprised that I’m both an Animal Behaviourist and a Zen Buddhist practitioner – but there’s really nothing more aligned in my mind.

So today my insights for you come from both my 40+ years studying and training animals, AND my 40+ years of Zen practice under the guidance of the great Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

The Proven Benefits of Mindfulness
If proactive mindfulness isn’t yet a part of your daily routine, you might be wondering if it’s worth the effort…allow me to present an argument in favour of it!

Mindfulness has been shown to…

  • Reduce stress, anxiety and depression
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve sleep
  • Help people cope with pain
  • Increase focus and concentration
  • Support better relationships
  • Build resilience and self-compassion
  • Enhance creativity and problem solving

Would anything on this list improve an aspect of your life? I’m willing to bet it would!

Do You Need to Sit and Meditate in Silence?
No! Silent seated meditation is fantastic, but mindfulness is essentially just being in the present moment, so you do not need to commit to that type of meditation to incorporate mindfulness into your life. So if finding the time or patience for meditation has put you off in the past, don’t worry – mindfulness can be a part of every single thing you do in your day, and I’ve found that pets are a brilliant prompt.

Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experience moment to moment.” (Dan Siegel)

Lessons About Mindfulness From Our Pets

“I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.” (Eckhart Tolle)

There is so much we can learn about natural mindfulness through observing our pets.

Living in the Present

Dogs and cats are naturals – they have an innate ability to live in the present moment, they don’t dwell on past mistakes or anxiously anticipate the future. When walking your dog, is your mind busy with your to-do list and what ifs? Your dog is simply observing nature, taking in the sights, sounds and smells, accepting each new sensation as it emerges. Dogs are much more in their bodies and senses and this is a great role model for us as we are often in the future or the past.

Cultivating Awareness

Pets have a heightened sense of awareness, they are effortlessly attuned to their surroundings, always observing and taking everything in, then letting it pass by without further angst.

Non-Judgemental Acceptance

Our pets accept us unconditionally, without any judgement. They remind us to let go of our inner critic and practise self-compassion, accepting ourselves and others as we are.

Appreciation & Gratitude

If you’ve ever seen a labrador at dinnertime, you’ll understand the appreciation our pets can show! Our pets relish the simple things in life – a meal, a walk in nature, a lazy evening in front of the fire.

Easy Mindful Practices You Can Incorporate Into Your Life With Your Pet
Here are three easy ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your day with your pet. I think you’ll find these will also have a positive impact on your pet’s temperament and behaviour – they feed off our energy and state of mind and are always reading our body language and pheromones!

A nice way to start any mindful activity is to use Thich Nhat Hanh’s three breath practice. For three breaths just notice fully each in breath and out breath. You might like to say to yourself…breathing in I know I am breathing in…breathing out I know I am breathing out…in, out, in, out. This is all you need to come back to the present moment.

Mindful Walk

Instead of walking your pet on autopilot, make it a mindful experience. Pay attention to the environment, the feel of the leash in your hand, your pet’s joyful exploration of their surroundings. Follow your pet’s lead – wait peacefully and patiently if they stop to investigate a smell, release your expectations of how much distance you’re going to cover, how fast you’re going to go, or what specific route you’ll take. However keep your “situational awareness” about you so you can anticipate any issues in the area you are in.

Mindful Contact

Spend 10 minutes giving your pet totally focused contact. With your pet on your lap or lying beside you as you sit on the couch or floor, run your hand slowly down their body. Place your entire attention to the way their fur feels under your hand, become acutely aware of every tiny sensation on the palm of your hand. Notice the warmth of their body to your touch, the way their body gently rises and falls with the rhythm of their breathing, listen to the sound of their breath, Notice what you are feeling and expand your empathy to sense how they are feeling. Running your hand down the dorsal muscles relaxes them by activating their calming nervous system too – so you are both becoming calmer together.

Mindful Observation

Spend 10 minutes just observing your pet, really trying to understand the way they see and experience the world. Watch them have a meal, play with a favourite toy, prowl around a window or even watch them as THEY watch the world go by. Bonus, if you spend some time having soft eye contact with your pet, this will release oxytocin in both of you which will make both of you feel warm, loved and connected. Notice the little dopamine hits you get each time you interact positively with your pet.

Mindfulness in Dog Training
Mindfulness is actually a requirement of effective dog training!

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a consultation with someone who’s having issues with their dog, and the minute I take over, the dog suddenly calms down and pays more attention (much to the owner’s frustration!). I place a great deal of importance on the energy we exude when training and handling dogs.

Our dogs are acutely aware of how we’re feeling. Our posture, voice tone, body tone and pheromones are speaking to our dog all the time, so if you’re anxious, stressed, frustrated, angry or even just distracted, they sense that and they’ll take their lead from you – a dog that is heightened will be difficult or impossible to train. To train well, you need to be in the present moment, non-judgement and loving – like your dog is.

It’s hard to fool a dog as their postural communication skills and olfactory acuity are much better than ours so when you’re training, take a deep breath. Get yourself calm and focused. If you’re feeling worked up, step back and leave it until you are relaxed and mindful – go back to your three breath practice and you can cultivate that state more quickly.

To train your dog mindfully:

  • Let go of your expectations and judgement
  • Cultivate an understanding awareness towards your dog
  • Take three mindful breaths to ground yourself in the present moment
  • Review your purpose (what am I trying to train?)
  • Review your situational awareness (am I in a calm, distraction-free environment to set my dog up for success?)
  • Scan your emotional state (am I kind, calm and focused, not anxious, angry or distracted?)
  • Focus on the task at hand (5 minutes of calm, focused training is better than 30 minutes distracted). Don’t overwork your dog or they will sour in their work.
  • Practise patience (your dog is not perfect, nor are you – this is okay)
  • Appreciate your dog (what an amazing, unconditionally loving family member)

By doing this, you will train your dog more effectively, and you will feel better for it too.

Enjoy the benefits!
By being more deliberately mindful in your interactions with your pet, you are reshaping your brain into a healthier, clearer, happier you while at the same time shaping your pet’s brain to create a happier, more aware and calmer pet as well.

I find this a truly beautiful part of working with animals!

Want To Explore Mindfulness Further?
If you’re interested in the origins and deep practice of mindfulness, my teacher Thich That Hanh’s book A Miracle of Mindfulness is a good place to start. Or if you’re more interested in the scientific pursuit of mindfulness, look up Jon Kabat Zinn’s research or The Mindful Brain by Dan Siegel. The beauty of mindfulness is you can learn this skill through just observing life!
If you’re interested in the origins and deep practice of mindfulness, my teacher Thich That Hanh’s book A Miracle of Mindfulness is a good place to start. Or if you’re more interested in the scientific pursuit of mindfulness, look up Jon Kabat Zinn’s research or The Mindful Brain by Dan Siegel. The beauty of mindfulness is you can learn this skill through just observing life!

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