Whenever I take a walk in the woods, I try not to have a destination in mind. When I am able to calm my body down and walk slowly, I find I can use my senses to truly immerse myself in the natural world. Without knowing it, I have been engaging in the therapeutic Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing.
While researching forest bathing, I stumbled upon certified nature therapy guide Kimberly Knight's work leading people on forest bathing excursions with their dogs. While I don't own a dog, I delight in pet sitting for my friends, which gives me the opportunity to learn from dogs how to slow down, sniff, and just be.
I connected with Knight to see what I could learn from her work as a certified guide with The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs (ANFT). Knight combined her background in divinity school and instructional technology to help people search for spirituality and meaning-making in online spaces. Once COVID hit, Knight developed a deep aversion to “online” spirituality, and she found herself drawn to the outdoors where she formed a relationship with nature.
One of the reasons she was interested in leading forest bathing walks was the practice's notion of omnipartiality. "Everyone's stories they bring are equally beautiful and valid, and their experience of the forest is their own," she opines.
Why Forest Bathe With Your Dog?
Inspired by Nadine Mazzola's book, Forest Bathing With Your Dog, dog lover Knight began to explore how to include her pups Snookie and Louie in this experience. Unlike walking a dog on a set schedule with a destination in mind, forest bathing with a dog is more intentional. By getting your dog into a natural setting, you eliminate or significantly reduce the sounds and the smells of urban environments that can excite but also overstimulate them. This freedom allows your dog to open up more of their senses and lowers their stress.
Knight cautions against taking to your dog to the forest with the expectation that you're going to meditate and immediately have a Zen experience. "Just let them be themselves,” she reflects. “Trust the forest to trust the dog.” Whether your dog is slow, fast, anxious, or calm, just be with them, and let the experience emerge organically.
Forest bathing can be healing for both humans and our animal companions, as Knight observed in her own life. After Louie died from cancer, she observed how Snookie found joy in long, lumbering walks through the woods.
Tips for Forest Bathing With Your Dog
To ensure a mutually beneficial experience for you and your dog, Knight offers these pointers:
Resist the temptation to play meditations, soothing music, or other mindful sounds. Instead, tune to the sounds of nature, and the sounds your dog makes during the walk.
If you choose to go off-leash with your dog, be mindful of them out of respect for nature, other dogs, and people.
Your dog should experience the ground directly on their paws to receive the greatest benefit from forest bathing, so refrain from carrying them in your arms or a backpack. However, consider bringing along soft pads for their paws if you will be hiking in rocky areas.
Going on a Guided Forest Bathing Trip
While you certainly can forest bathe with your dog on your own, a guide certified by ANFT—such as Knight—will have extensive wilderness emergency training and a deep understanding of how to partner with the forest to facilitate healing. "It's often said at ANFT that the forest is a therapist, and the guide simply opens the doors.”
Rather than seeing herself as a missionary evangelizing folks to the joys of being in nature, Knight views herself as a "permissionary," a term she learned from Ben Page, one of her teachers from ANFT. “It is from him that I first heard the term ‘permissionary’ and fell in love with that concept. Ben is a gifted ANFT Guide, one of the core founders of what the Association is today, and one of the most generous and rigorous teachers I have encountered in my learning life."
"On a guided walk, I'm creating a safe container and giving you permission to not do, and just be," she reflects. She encourages people to know their dog before booking a group outing. If your dog tends to get agitated around other animals, she recommends booking a one-on-one session with a guide.
Those who do not live in Amsterdam where Knight is based can select from one of over 800 ANFT guides from around the world who are listed on the website for the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. Knight's forthcoming book, Wildwood Wisdom, published by Wildhouse Publications, will offer further reflections on how to connect spiritually to nature.
Read more about the magic of forest bathing here.