For decades, dogs were an absent referent in my spiritual practice—they were there, but not really there. Each morning, as I took to my yoga mat, I returned again and again to downward dog. But this pose remained more about stretching my hamstring and calf muscles than about anything having to do with huskies or Labradors.
All this changed when I became an animal chaplain, and I started wondering if animals could be included in my practices rather than merely invoked.
Benefits of Human-Canine Mindfulness
A growing body of research indicates that involving animals in our spirituality can have many advantages for both humans and animals. For example, one study suggests that practicing mindfulness in the presence of dogs—or using a dog’s presence as the focus of one’s mindfulness—can lead to feelings of happiness and relaxation. It can also help increase focus. Moreover, research suggests that spending time with dogs can even help us regulate the intensity of our negative emotions.
Numerous studies have shown that interactions with animals can lead to the development of empathy for animals and other humans. When researchers observed kids engaged in Dog-Assisted Mindfulness (DAM) activities, they noticed some children would ask others around them to “reduce the volume in the room, worrying that it was too loud for the dog.” So including kids and dogs in our practices might help us all behave better in our homes.
How should we meditate with dogs?
Try this practice:
First, remove barriers to meditation. Turn off your phone and other potential noisemakers in your environment. Likewise, close any curtains to avoid potential distractions (such as random squirrel sightings) for your dog.
Be still. Sit down near your pet while also allowing them plenty of room. Don’t ever force an animal to settle. Instead, focus on settling yourself.
Bring your attention to your breath. Notice air moving in and out of your body. Follow your inhales and exhales. If you have trouble concentrating, consider slowly counting to five a few times or repeating a phrase such as I am peaceful.
Now bring your attention to an attribute of your animal companion. It could be the softness of their fur. Or you could focus on their inhalations and exhalations expanding and contracting their belly. If your dog is still moving around, hone in on the sound of their paws on the ground or notice the swish of their tail.
Continue focusing for 5–10 minutes. While your dog may not settle immediately, as you lower your energy level, they may lower theirs. Avoid verbalizing or trying to force your dog to sit. Also, don’t try to bribe them with food or treats. (That said, it can be helpful to do this practice shortly after feeding time rather than directly before it!)
Thank your partner. At the end of the practice, thank your animal companion with some soft words or gentle pats.
If your dog has problems settling, try one or more of these tips.
Place yourself between the dog and anything that seems to be making them anxious. This action lets the dog know that you are not concerned about the situation (or strange thing in the house) and may help them settle down.
Direct the phrase You can be peaceful in their direction.
Play classical music for auditory enrichment.
There’s a good reason spiritual practices are called practices. The more we do them, the more likely we are to feel benefits beyond the activity itself.
Practicing interspecies mindfulness can help us increase the ability to live in a state of non-anxious presence. That’s helpful when stressors appear. Rather than being reactive in those moments, we can tune into our breath—and our dog’s breath—to calmly do the next right thing.
Want more interspecies meditation? Read “How Macaques, Birds, and Cats Can Improve Your Meditation”