I am sure you have heard about cultivating mindfulness practices and being present in the moment. But what does this actually mean, and why is this important when it comes to our dogs?
Being in the present moment, or the “here and now,” means that we are aware and mindful of what is happening in and around us in the current moment. We are not distracted by ruminations of the past or worries about the future, but grounded and focused in the here and now. We are calm but alert to the information coming in through our senses and are able to make clear decisions about our intentions and actions. We are aware of our immediate emotions and feelings, and can easily tune into the emotions of those around us. We feel connected to ourselves, others and the world around us.
Being fully present and focused on what we are doing in the moment is not easy for most of us. There is usually a constant flow of thoughts running through our heads, taking us from the past to the future and back into the present in a relentless cycle. Our to-do-lists have more than we could possibly manage, and multitasking seems to be a skill we strive for. But here’s the thing: Where our focus goes, our energy flows. So, if our focus is dispersed between the gazillion thoughts and tasks we have, then our energy and focus is scattered and dispersed too. And, when this happens we are often missing out on some really important pieces of information that we could be using to make clear, wise and conscious decisions in each moment. You see, in every single moment lies the opportunity for us to make a choice or decision about what we would like to see happen immediately after that, which is what then becomes our future. It’s these moment by moment choices which influence our future. If we are careless about these moment by moment choices, then this may result in making choices we later regret. These regrets then turn into worrisome thoughts which could then become our concerns for the future. Do you see where I am going with this? Let me paint you a picture: I am busy rushing through my day, trying to tick all the items on my to-do-list. But in my busy-ness, I forget to take the healthy lunch meal out of the freezer, which I prepared the week before in order to stick to my plan for a healthy eating / weight loss regime. I don’t have time to prepare a fresh meal, so my choice is to snack on unhealthy food & drinks, just to keep the hunger at bay. At the end of the day I feel exhausted and perhaps slightly moody due to the blood-sugar spikes caused by the junk food and caffeine I consumed earlier. I take my dog out for a quick walk, and during the walk, my mind begins looping thoughts about the things I still didn’t get done, or what needs to be done tomorrow. Totally wrapped up in my thoughts I miss that my dog is lagging behind slightly and is showing signs of concern about another dog and person coming towards us. I continue walking, and suddenly my phone pings and I take it out of my pocket to check my messages. At that moment the other dog and person pass us, a little too close for comfort and that dog comes rushing forward to greet my dog in a rather unfriendly manner. My dog reacts by barking and snapping. As I’m not paying close attention, I am suddenly frightened by my dog’s reaction. I spin around, pulling my dog away and scolding him for his ‘bad manners’. Afterwards I feel bad, because I realised that my dog just needed more space and I know that my dog is not ‘bad’ in any way, and I wish I had been more supportive. I lay in bed that night, thoughts running through my head….I feel guilty that I didn’t honour my healthy eating plan. I feel guilty for snapping at my dog. These thoughts then continue into something like: ‘I will never reach my goal weight, I just don’t have the willpower, I don’t have enough time for everyone / everything, I am a bad dog-mom, I am not good enough, my life is a mess….’ You can see how these thought patterns can become destructive and lead to further bad choices, always affecting my future outcomes. However, if I was more present, mindful and calm, my decisions, choices and actions could have been very different. My day would look very different, and likely the days following that too.
So why is this important in our relationships with our dogs?
We are often missing important pieces of information when not being present and mindful when interacting and spending time with our dogs. Anything from picking up on subtle body language and communication cues, to noticing signs of physical and emotional discomfort. And like anyone, when our needs are not being met and we are not feeling heard, then we tend to go from a whisper to a shout. This means our dogs may feel the need to escalate from a silent body language gesture to more obvious ones like jumping up, barking, lunging, whining or even snapping. Most of the challenging behaviour that we see in our dogs is simply escalated communication and an expression of what our dog is feeling at that moment, whether it be frustration, irritability, discomfort, anger, vulnerability or insecurity. Noticing early signs and acting calmly and mindfully in the present moment, leads to more positive outcomes and fewer problems arising in the future. Cultivating mindfulness and presence is a skill we have to learn and practice. The more we do this, the easier it gets, and the more in-tune we become with ourselves and our dogs. And, our dogs will start to honour us with more attention and focus too. There is no greater feeling than when someone gives us their full and undivided attention, and makes us feel important, loved, heard and understood. Our dogs thrive on this too. Obviously we can’t offer our dogs our full and undivided attention 24/7, but brief moments of being totally present and connecting with them in an intentional way throughout the day, will start to build more attentiveness and presence from both sides. Soon you will find that you both seek out and enjoy that special heart-connection that also comes with being mindfully present with another being.