Mindfulness for Pet Dogs
Unsurprisingly, a search of the academic literature reveals that there has been little (if any) scientific investigation into whether dogs can be taught mindfulness. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that teaching dogs mindfulness is taking things too far and that it is another example of how ancient mindfulness teachings are being misappropriated in modern society. However, based on personal experience, it’s our view that under certain conditions and to a certain extent, some dogs can learn to practise a form of mindfulness. In this post we present the cases of Vajra, Tara, and Zeus – three beautiful dogs with whom we are fortunate to have shared our lives – and share how they have each come to embody a form of mindfulness practice.
Vajra was a medium sized mixed-breed male dog who lived with us at a Buddhist monastery and retreat centre that we ran in North Wales. Vajra (pictured above) was fawn coloured and his weight as an adult was approximately 18kg. Vajra came to us as a puppy from a dog rescue centre. He grew up in the monastery and met new people on a day-to-day basis. The monastery followed a daily routine of meditation practice involving formal seated meditations in the morning and evenings as well as periods of silence, walking meditation, working meditation, study, and chanting. At various times throughout the day, the monastery bell would sound in order to invite people to a particular practice or to remind them to stop, breathe, and remember that they are alive.
When Vajra was two years old, of his own accord he would come and lie in the meditation hall during the formal meditation sessions. To begin with, he would often just go to sleep and he could sometimes be heard snoring when people were trying to meditate. However, from the time Vajra reached three years of age, rather than lay on his side and go to sleep during meditation, he would assume a squatting position whereby he was still effectively lying down, but was upright and sat directly over his front paws. When sat in this manner, Vajra would hold his head off the ground and in addition to remaining alert, he would stay still and as quiet as a mouse. We suppose this posture would be similar to that which professionally trained dogs assume when they are given the “platz” command.
As mentioned above, walking meditation was practised on a daily basis at the monastery and this involved participants walking very slowly, in single file, and remaining meditatively aware of all that they experienced during each moment of every step. When he was young, Vajra would ignore the people practising walking meditation and would use the practice as an opportunity to play, sniff, and run around. However, as he grew older, Vajra started to join in with the walking meditation; he would take his place in the line of participants and place one foot in front of the other in a slow and focussed manner.
Of course, it is impossible for us to know what was going through Vajra’s mind when he exhibited these behaviours and it could be that all along, he was thinking about what he would receive for dinner or was just unconsciously mimicking our behaviour. However, many of the visitors to the monastery commented on Vajra’s calm nature and we like to think that in his own way, Vajra had learned to practice a form of meditation.
Tara (pictured above) is a toy Jack Russel Terrier. She weighs about 5kg in adulthood and came to us as a puppy. Like many Jack Russel Terriers, for the first few years of her life, Tara was somewhat naughty. Despite almost being small enough to sit in the palm of a person’s hand, it seemed Tara thought that she was a Rottweiler and she would even try to dominate dogs that were ten times her size. Also, Tara had a habit of climbing trees and getting stuck high up in the branches such that in order to bring her down, we had to perform acrobatic manoeuvres that easily exceeded our tree-climbing capabilities. It’s fair to say that Tara was hard-headed and despite understanding fully our commands, she would frequently test how far she could cross the line.
However, when Tara turned four years old, she began to settle down and assume a much calmer demeanour. The house that we lived in with Tara was visited by a large number of practicing Buddhists (as well as spiritual practitioners from non-Buddhist traditions). In the house, there was a chiming clock that was used as a mindfulness reminder. When the clock chimed to announce the turn of the hour, people in the house were invited to stop whatever they were doing in order to return to awareness of their breathing and awareness of their being. Each time she heard the clock chime, Tara would freeze her position and remain perfectly still and quiet. In fact, there reached a point when not only would Tara take a moment of pause when the clock chimed, but if – as was frequently the case – visitors ignored the chiming clock, Tara would bark at them to remind them to stop and be present. Therefore, in the house at that time a system of a ‘double mindfulness reminder’ was in place; Tara reminded people to remember to be mindful of the mindfulness reminder!
Zeus is approximately one-year-old and his current weight is 42kg. Zeus was abandoned when he was five months old and as a stray dog, he roamed the countryside and streets for about three months. Zeus has been with us for four months and we are informed by the vet and a dog breeding specialist that Zeus is an American Mastiff. It is expected that Zeus will reach a weight of 50-60kg. Zeus is highly protective of us and through training, we are attempting to temper some of his protective instincts. He is making exceptionally good progress and we think that although his time in the wild has been difficult, it has helped him to think for himself and perhaps even to understand something about the nature of suffering.
Zeus appears to really enjoy joining in with meditation and related forms of spiritual practice. For example, when we practice chanting, Zeus makes deep humming and groaning noises, and if he hears the gong sound to announce the start of a meditation session, he comes running in from the land and sits in a relaxed but attentive manner at our side. When Zeus is practising canine meditation in this manner, if somebody throws him a treat or ball to fetch, he remains completely undistracted and won’t retrieve it until after the meditation session has concluded. Zeus has adopted these behaviours of his own accord and several individuals have commented that Zeus sometimes appears to exude an air of wisdom and elegance.
We have shared our lives with other dogs in addition to Vajra, Tara, and Zues. For example, in addition to mixed-breed and cross-breed dogs, family members have included a Border Collie, German Shepard, and Rottweiler. All of these dogs have been beautiful companions in their own right but it is only Vajra, Tara, and Zeus in whom we feel there was some genuine form of meditative practice. We have always attempted to obedience train any dog that has lived with us and to do so in such a manner that the dog enjoys the training and feels loved and cared for. However, we have never specifically sought to teach mindfulness to a dog and have found that just by practising mindfulness ourselves, most dogs gradually assume a calmer demeanour but a minority of dogs actually go onto practice what appears to be a canine form of meditation.
It should be noted that the type of canine mindfulness we are referring to here is very different from the high level of concentration exhibited by a working dog that is following their handler’s commands. As we have discussed in previous posts, mindfulness is not simply about being alert or concentrating in a focussed manner. It is more about being aware of one’s being and about the nature and dance of the present moment. There is no doubt in our mind that being in an environment or family where people practice mindfulness is of benefit to dogs and that in turn, the dog’s calmer demeanour is of benefit to family members. However, in the absence of empirical research, it is difficult to know what factors predispose a dog to learning mindfulness and, just as with humans, it could be that some dogs are simply more spiritually inclined than others. Empirical research to investigate some of these knowledge gaps would be both welcomed and interesting.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
Carbonell, H. J., Waite, D., & Jackson-Grossblat, A. (2016). The therapeutic effects upon dog owners who interact with their dogs in a mindful way. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 56, 144-170.
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