The Zen Pack Leader

Greta’s trot is even, but the nails on her left forepaw are longer than the rest of her nails. I can hear them clicking on the pavement.

Her gait is really even. I can’t feel any limp at all. Her shoulder is so much stronger than it was a year ago.What if she trips on those longer nails/ What if she puts her shoulder out again? Our next chiropractic appointment isn’t until October!

Ah, I’m distracted. Back to Greta.

I can feel her looking to the left because the motion of her neck translates into her shoulder, into the back strap of the harness, and up the handle into my hand. She’s looking straight again. I’ll reward her.

Her saliva is thin, she’s not stressed. I’ll wipe my hand off on her head so she gets a pet and I get a fuzzy towel.

She’s slowing down but I don’t sense an obstacle ahead. Ah, she’s pushing me gently away from the curb. There must be an obstacle I can’t sense. Maybe a low pile of brush. This house always has brush in front of it. Oh, I should call the city and find out what their yard debris removal schedule for my neighborhood is. I’ll do that after I get back. No, I need to feed Greta, then start laundry, then do dishes and make a smoothie, then call the city…

I’m distracted again. I’ll just let all that go and focus on Greta.

She’s slowing down again. We’re near the street corner. I need to decide which route to take. She feels perky today. We can use a longer walk. I’ll go left, and maybe we’ll get to practice walking by that house with the dogs that run up to the fence and bark. I need to have a treat ready to praise her. What if she doesn’t handle it well? It’ll be chaotic and loud and I’ll have to try to redirect her focus and if I can’t get her to redirect I might have to force her away. That means we haven’t made as much progress as I’d thought, and the trainer’s coming next week. Is it really worth it? Are we making progress/ Am I wasting time and money?

I’m distracted again. I’ll focus on Greta.

She’s slower on this street. I can feel the uneven-ness of the slope of the street into the gutter. She’s picking her paws up higher. I’m not sure how I can sense that but I’m aware of it. She’s picking her paws up over grass growing through cracks in the pavement. She’s nudging me right to circle around a car parked along the side of the street so I’ll turn with her. She makes very smooth, tight turns.

This is what successfully applying mindful awareness looks like when walking a dog.

“But your mind is all over the place!” you protest. “That doesn’t look like mindfulness to me…”

The lecturer hosting The Great Courses; Practicing Mindfulness uses training a puppy as a metaphor to explain mindfulness. It’s an example I really relate to! When training a puppy to sit, you place the puppy in the “sit’ posture, then reward it. When it inevitably gets up you don’t yell at the puppy, you don’t get mad, you just put the puppy back into “sit” and reward it again.

No matter how old you are, your brain is still a puppy. It responds far better to encouragement and boundaries than self-criticism. Training it to return to a particular thought or mental posture takes just as much time, and patience, as teaching basic obedience skills to a dog.

The point isn’t to keep my mind on Greta 100% of the time. In fact, I’m fairly certain that would be very dangerous. Our attention is meant to wander, just a little. The point is that I return to her every time I get distracted. I notice my thoughts, and then go back to thinking about Greta without judging myself for distraction or scolding myself for imperfection.

I’ve begun practicing this meditation technique to help me control my concerns about Greta’s Post High-School Stress Disorder, and to help me be patient with the slow, yet thorough route we’re on to total pack wellness.

Rehabilitating Greta isn’t just about re-affirming her skills and training her to ignore distractions. It involves teaching her to redirect her distracted puppy-brain to me, and training me to redirect my distracted puppy-brain to her. With an inward, ongoing, nonjudgmental focus on our function as a pack Greta and I will be able to cruise through the most chaotic, triggering environments imaginable.

A note of caution regarding mindful awareness.

As I mentioned above, our minds are designed to wander a little. It’s part of situational awareness, a necessary survival skill. My brain flits to the sound of a big truck turning onto the street behind me. The street has no sidewalk, so Greta and I step into a nearby driveway to let the big metal beast rumble past at a safe distance. My brain picks up on locational cues and reminds me that a dog has been loose in the yard of a house on the next street and I need to remember to take a different route home.

If I’d simply noticed the sounds and smells and other cues that alerted me to changes in my environment, discarded them, and refocused on Greta we might’ve wound up in trouble. Safety trumps mindfulness, every time.

But brains aren’t infallible. They can pick up on cues and determine that those cues are, in fact serious threats when they’re really not. My brain is absolutely 100% convinced that an enormous lilac bush leaning slightly over the curb and swarming with honeybees is the most dangerous thing in the universe. It once prompted me to drag Greta across the street to circle it at a distance no closer than 30 feet! I think 5 would’ve been sufficient for the bees and me to co-exist without bothering each other, but my brain says otherwise.

Mindful awareness, however, would allow me to make a more accurate distinction between “big truck behind me” and “disinterested honeybees” threat levels. I expect I’ll do better next time we encounter that ominous lilac bush.

Mindful awareness can be applied to almost every activity imaginable, from cooking to coding, sight-seeing to sex, and so much more. It’s a gateway into that coveted “flow state” that breeds creativity and accomplishment and satisfaction so easily. Greta and I haven’t flowed together in over 2 years, and I miss that feeling of contented oneness as we travel expertly through our chaotic environment together. I got a glimpse of it, though, on a recent walk, and I can paw-sitively say our hard work is paying off.

10 thoughts on “The Zen Pack Leader

    1. That’s a great question. Imagine if you never trimmed your toenails. How long would they get before you started feeling pain or tripping ont hem or they’d catch on everything from socks to bedsheets? Healthy nail length depends, of course, on dog size and breed. I use the basic rule of thumb “if I can hear them clicking on the pavement, they need attention.’ It keeps us on a fairly regular schedule. But for your dog, I recommend asking a professional groomer or vet to get a personalized recommendation, and if necessary, a rehabilitation plan for getting extra-long nails back down to a healthy length.

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    1. i’m glad you were able to join this part of our journey. I used to be intimidated by mindfulness training, feeling like if I didn’t practice it a lot every single day I’d never see any effects. Turns out you can reap benefits practicing 3-4 times a week for no more than 20 minutes at a time. Do you practice any kind of meditation?

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    1. Thank you 🙂 You’re more than welcome to continue following along. And, of course, if there’re any particular topics or questions about service dogs, blindness, or disability issues, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I’m always looking for new content ideas.

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