We hear this word, 'mindfulness', thrown around a lot these days. It seems to be everywhere; from ads on our social media, to Youtube videos about improving your life, in your daily yoga practice, and in the article you just read about eating well. But what does it mean?
Mindfulness can be described as a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
It sounds pretty straightforward. Seems to be the way we should be comporting ourselves in our every day life. Makes sense, and if we want to be happy, well-rounded individuals, it would follow that the ability to be mindful might make up a big part of the equation.
But wait a minute, Camille, you might be thinking. This is a blog on dog training. So why are we talking about mental techniques to achieve a better life?
Have you ever noticed how your dog is incapable of worrying about the future? Or fretting about the past? Your dog is not concerned about the big hydro bill due at the end of the week, or what his buddy at the dog park thought about his hairstyle that day. Your dog is focused on one thing and one thing only. The present moment.
I believe this is a large part of why we are so fascinated by our canine pals. Their ability to accept their reality in the here-and-now and to live joyously. The way they are enraptured by the simplest of life's little moments and pleasures. They have a complete disregard for what happened in the past or what may happen in the future, revealing a mindfulness that we crave and acknowledge as a critical part of what it means to be fulfilled as living creatures. We watch and we marvel at their merriment on our every arrival home. We long for the sense of wonderment they experience at every mealtime. What's more, with each passing day, their feelings on these matters never diminish. They remain, as strong and as rooted as the undeniable life our dogs possess.
As dog trainers (and make no mistake - every dog owner is a dog trainer to some extent - what you do every day with your dog informs what comes next in terms of behavioral expectations) this ability to live and operate in the present moment when working with the dogs in our care is essential to effect positive and lasting behavioral change. A canine handler distracted by things outside of the immediate is a handler out of touch with their working partner (the dog). The distracted/worried/preoccupied handler cannot relate to what the dog sees and experiences with his or her senses at any given moment. It is therefore impossible for the human counterpart in this particular relationship to do any effective work. Mindfulness must be part of the equation.
How do we cultivate mindfulness when working with our dogs?
1. Pay attention to your environment.
Take in the smells, sights, and sounds all around you. Identify their sources, and notice that your dog is doing the same as well as an aspect of his basic nature. This is simply a part of what it is to be alive for him or her, and believe it or not, it is for you too!
2. Take notice of the physical sensations associated with what you are doing.
Feel the wind on your face, and the heat of the sun. Is the ground under your feet soft and yielding, or is it hard, uneven? Notice the cadence of your feet if you are in motion, and the rhythm of your breath. How do these things make you feel?
3. Take note of your emotions.
Are you feeling anxious about something unrelated to the present moment? Perhaps it's the activity itself causing this feeling. Are you angry? Or feeling calm and contented? Identify the emotion, but don't put any weight or stock in any imagined outcome. Simply acknowledge the
feeling and recognize that these emotions are derivative of what you've experienced. They are not what you are. In the same way you know that, for example, your dog's reactivity to sudden noises is not what he is. This simple act of acknowledgement will enable you to react to anything you encounter with your dog in this moment in a more productive way.
By practicing these three simple elements of mindfulness in your work with your dog, whether as an animal professional or a pet parent, you will find an immediate improvement in your ability to enjoy your time together because you are able to focus your attention and accept the present moment as it is, not how you think it should be. And for those of us with dogs whose behaviors are less than what we might consider ideal, this practice is even more important to avoid getting caught up in what's wrong, and to zero in on everything that's right.
If you're like me, you may have a dog who is a little afraid of new people. The causes of this fear are manifold: from a lack of socialization during that critical puppy imprinting period, to a traumatic experience in the past, and sometimes even genetics come into play. What's important to know is that dogs who are a little anxious around new people need gentle, gradual introductions and a whole lot of understanding. Let's talk about best practices on introducing your shy, possibly fearful dog to new people.
1. Go slow
When introducing your shy or fearful dog to new people, take your time. There's no need for your guests or new friend to overwhelm the dog with attention, eye contact, and touch. Instead, have your guest pay the dog no mind. If you want to accelerate the process, the guest can toss treats onto the floor for your pup. However, do NOT have them hand feed your dog for any reason. This can sensitize your dog to new people even further, worsening the fearful/anxious response.
2. Offer an alternative
Bring your dog to your side and ask him or her for an alternative behavior to the stress and anxiety he or she is experiencing. This can be as simple as a shake-paw, a sit, or a down. Allow your dog to be comforted by your presence, and don't worry about making your dog's fear worse by comforting him or her. Fear doesn't work that way, and if you push your dog away, you can give them even more cause for their anxious feelings.
3. Keep the visits short, at first
Instead of flooding your dog with all the smells, sounds, and activities a new guest has to offer all at once, keep the meetings short at first, and positive. You'll find in time that your dog's response to this new person changes with gradual certainty if you handle the introductions will skill and mindfulness at each interaction.
4. Take a walk together
A really nice, enriching way for your dog to associate your new friend with good things is to do what your dog likes best altogether - go for a walk! Keep the dog with you at your side, and explore the areas you know your dog loves to sniff and enjoy. Do this a few times before bringing your new guest over and watch your dog welcome this person with overwhelming happiness in no time at all.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.