The Zen Pup: Mindfulness And Your Dog

Ever google “Mindfulness for dogs?” I was surprised by the usefulness of the results.

I really wanted a list of bizarre articles about how people tried to teach their dogs to chant “om” or sit with their paws crossed or something like that to share with you, but instead, I found my own experience with mindfulness for dogs presented in a wide variety of YouTube videos, blog posts, and research papers. It turns out that teaching your dog to focus on a single thing in the present is actually easier than teaching your own brain to do it.

A 4-second video clip of Obi-Wan admonishing Anakin Skywalker to be mindful of his thoughts, taken from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

My first exposure to the concept of mindfulness was through Star Wars, in the year 2002. I didn’t think about that word “mindful” at all until I tried meditating for the first time in my junior year of college. I found this video, a guided meditation, that helped me achieve a state of calm I hadn’t realized I needed.

The Summer Meadow by The Honest Guys

This, however, is not a mindfulness meditation. It is considered guided imagery, a form of meditation. While I do practice mindfulness meditation, one of my favorite ways to unwind after a busy day is through guided imagery, mostly from this channel. Read to the end to find out my favorite guided meditation video.

“Mindfulness” and “meditation” are often used interchangeably in today’s vernacular, so let’s define our terms so we’re all on the same page, at least for the duration of this post.

Mindfulness: the state of awareness maintained through conscious choice on a single element of the present moment.

This definition is one I generated myself by more or less taking the average of several definitions of mindfulness that I found across 3 dictionaries, 5 mindfulness research center websites, and 2 blogs on the subject.

Meditate: think deeply or focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.

So, as you can see, mindfulness is a form of meditation, but not all meditations are mindfulness meditations.

The purpose of this post is to discuss how I use mindfulness to address Greta’s behavioral problems. But if you would like to hear more of my thoughts and explanations of meditation, mindfulness, and other wellbeing buzzwords, let me know in the comments.

So, Greta meditates. Sort of. I am teaching her to become mindful of me in moments of stress. Thanks to Kim’s excellent instruction (read This post to meet Kim), we’re making decent progress despite egregious delays due to bacterial infections, food allergies, and hair loss issues making it hard to wear a harness.

How does it work?

In This previous post I described how Greta’s misbehavior isn’t caused by a lack of training or forgetfulness, but rather how the internal noise of stress inhibits her ability to focus on her training. This is common in people, too, by the way. It’s the core of anxiety both as a symptom and a disorder. So in order to turn down the internal volume Greta needs to establish strong connections between her training and rewards, a connection strong enough that the anticipation of reward will drown out the fear.

Kim started us off with a simple exercise. I stood in the kitchen with a clicker in one hand and a bag of treats in the other. Greta sat at my feet, leashed for the first exercise so I could keep her from getting distracted and wandering off, and also use as a gentle reminder of what she’s supposed to do. Greta looked at me eagerly, and I clicked and gave her a treat. Step 1, “charging the clicker.”

I click-treated in rapid succession for about 10-15 clicks to make sure she knew that ‘click” meant “treat.” This is part of a broader field of behavioral science called Classical Conditioning. Once the association was set, we got started.

At first, Kim did nothing. She told me to click and treat whenever Greta looked at me, and Kim just stood there observing. The first real hurdle was learning how to tell when Greta was looking at me. Being blind, I couldn’t see her turn her head. But I learned very quickly how to feel minute changes in her posture as they were translated from her neck to her collar, up the leash, and to my hand. And while I was learning this, greta learned that looking at me produced treats.

Treats, or any kind of desirable food, precipitate the production of calming endorphins in dogs. It’s the culmination of their “migrate” instinct, the completion of a task or journey ought to end in “food.” That’s the whole point of migrating. The act of eating satisfies the dog, and the body prepares for rest so it can expend energy to migrate and get more food the next day (ref. Cesar’s Way, 2006)..

In other words, what was going on inside Greta was “click, treat, relax.” And she was associating this process with looking at me. “Aha!” her little fuzzy brain concludes, “looking at my partner makes me feel good!”

Time to up the challenge. Kim started wandering around the kitchen and living room banging on things. She’d knock on the wall, drop a heavy book on the floor (carefully so as not to damage the book), bang on a pot in the drying rack, jump around the corner at Greta. Greta, naturally startled by these noises, would get up, spin around, trying to find the source of the noises. Sometimes she barked. But every time I felt her head swing back toward me, “click-treat.”

With the leash on, Greta couldn’t run off to find Kim and herd her back into the kitchen where Greta could keep an eye on her. Eventually, she experienced enough repetition of “look, click, treat” that she returned to sitting in front of me. She still whipped her head around at every disturbance, but came right back to me, intent on earning those treats.

By the end of our first hour together Greta was able to keep her attention fixed on me for periods of up to three minutes while Kim banged and jumped and slammed and carried on as distractingly as possible. She helped to identify that Greta felt anxious when people other than me stood too close to her, too, and gave me some suggestions for working on that.

The goal of this initial exercise was to teach both me and greta the skill of directing Greta’s attention to me under stress. We started off with only mildly stressful things – banging on walls – in a familiar, safe environment, our kitchen. Practicing this repeatedly, then slowly introducing more stressors and practicing in more stressful environments.

We took our show on the road, practicing in our quiet neighborhood and the nearby park. We’d begun to consider the park “completed” when the health issues derailed our progress. So, we’ll backtrack a little to the neighborhood, then the park, and then downtown where it’s busy, noisy, and full of dogs and people to test our new-found zen.

By repeatedly establishing a simple pathway to a sense of calm I hope to help Greta’s brain reorganize itself for improved focus on her work. She is learning to maintain her focus, by conscious choice aided by instinct, on a single element of the present moment, me. I am literally teaching my dog to meditate on me.

We didn’t just stop all of this while Greta was out of commission, however. Even when her stomach was raw with lesions or her shoulder hurt so that she wouldn’t play tug-of-war, any time she got startled she started looking at me, and I learned very quickly to capitalize on this by carrying a treat bag and clicker around at home as often as I could.

The real key is consistency, though. I have believed for a long time that I’m not capable of consistent, habitual behavior. It’s one of the beliefs I formed about myself during six years of depression, which you can read more about Here. Greta and I haven’t made as much progress in the past year as I would like because I’ve also been rewiring my own brain, proving to myself in other areas that I can indeed form persistent healthy habits.

Each change in schedule, from grad school to book editing, from editing to job hunting, from job hunting to starting work, publishing a book, and so on, has required that I form new habits just as I got used to the old ones. But it’s getting easier as I’ve reframed these “resets” as successes I can build upon, rather than chances at success snatched away from me by the chaotic nature of life.

Greta still barks at doorbells because I haven’t achieved a regular habit of having treats on hand when I know people are coming over. But she’s a lot more responsive to my command “go to your place,” because sometimes I did have the treats on hand.

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you to be mindful of your successes at least as often as you are of your failures. Failure is a point through which we travel to success. And as promised, below is my favorite guided meditation video.

The Zen Room by The Honest Guys

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: