The Dog as Mindfulness Bell
By: Judith Toy
We made pets of our dogs as early as 15,000 years ago. More recent evidence puts it at 33,000 years past. In the US today, we “own” about 78.2 million dogs. According to the US Humane Society, 30% of US households have at least one dog, and 28% have two dogs (that’s us). Doggy companionship is in our blood. Most of us “owners” are, frankly, “owned.” And at best, we are hopeless philocynics—those who love dogs.
I love to remember all of my dogs since birth. There was Rocky Wee Duchess of Colchester, Bootsie, Brooke, Dorcas, Dundee, Joshie, Kodo, Pepperoni, Bill, Charlie, Dharma, Lulu, and now Cairn Terrier mix Angel Euphoria Toy, aka Angeloni, and full blooded Cairn Terrier Marshall Chewbacca Toy, aka Marshalicious, both rescues.
They teach us by example to relax. Small dogs get into a position called squirreling, by spreading their front paws in front of them, their back paws behind, and their bellies flat on the grass, for total relaxation. We like to emulate them in yoga class—as in, for instance, “downward-facing dog.” Our pups meditate with us every morning. After we trot up to the meditation room, Marshall scales a big stack of square black cushions at the back of the room for his meditation, while Angel, the queen, prefers her own private cushion next to mine. They know all the bells. When my husband invites three bell sounds at the end of meditation, Angel does not yet move. Only when she hears the final signal of the small bell, she stretches with us. These dogs are dedicated.
Which has not necessarily made them calm. Angel didn’t bark much until Marshall came along. He is, alas, what is commonly known as “yappy.” Angel joins him now. So thank you, Zen author Toni Bernhard and her dog blog, for the brilliant idea of using the dogs’ barking as a mindfulness bell. In the past, to come back to the present moment, I had used stop lights, sirens and grocery lines. But never the bark. And thank you, Marshall. I had only thought to be annoyed by you, particularly when I’m on the phone and you start. Anything sets you off—a bird, a squirrel, a chipmunk, (I’ve seen you bark at a dead leaf and a black plastic bag) and always at a cat or another of your species who wanders in. Now I’m grateful when you bark. You bark; I breathe deeply. The door to mindfulness of the present moment opens: you remind me to be still and serene.
Out on the trails, our dogs teach us to stop and smell the roses—or to stop and pee when need be. They teach us to rest our bones. They’re very zen: eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired. They teach us the importance—no, the necessity —of taking time out to play. They teach us to drop our incessant use of language—to just be.
They unwittingly give us the tactile joys of rubbing and petting fur, which happily reduces our blood pressure. And without dogs, how we would get any calming aerobic exercise? At our house, we’re in trouble if we’re late for The Daily Hike. Marshall gets in my face and neurotically pants until I fetch the leash.
They entertain us: the back-scratch hula, running into walls with the plastic pumpkin on the head at Halloween, the ability to jump straight up in the air on all four legs out of the ivy patch, the peanut-butter-in-the-mouth-nose-licking contests, the bummy scooches, the wading in in the birdbath for a drink. Laughter heals.
Queen Angel actually comes to me in the middle of the night, stands, staring until I wake and lift the covers, so she can crawl underneath. After a while, she scooches to the top of the covers, places her head on the pillow, and finishes the night at my side, sleeping like a nun.
Dogs teach us to enjoy frequent social interactions. They stop in the woods to meet other dogs, affording us the opportunity to meet their people.. There is always a conversation-starter—our canines. We talk; they summarily sniff butts. I have even known humans who exploit the irresistible cuteness of their dogs on leash to meet prospective romantic partners. Say it isn’t so.
Dogs can be expensive. Recently, they raised the price of our dog chewies $2 a package. That’s almost $14 in dog money. Robert Benchley said a kid can learn a lot from a dog: “…obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.”
My hat’s off to cats. (Cat lovers are known as ailurophiles.) They, too, provide a non-judgmental influence on our lives. Let’s say something awful happens: the refrigerator breaks in July. The dog or cat just calmly continues being a dog or cat. Meanwhile, we’re acting like possessed ninnies. A threat can be reduced to a challenge. We tend to calm down when there’s a four-footed in the room.
Pets do not work for everyone, said Psychologist Karen Allen, at an American Heart Association meeting in November. “If you treat a pet as a piece of furniture, you will derive roughly as much benefit as you would from a sofa.” Sorry, Dr. Allen, but you have it upside-down. We humans purchase pieces of furniture for our dogs, most recently the steps to our bed for the aging Queen. And how could we treat as a piece of furniture that very being who most in the world is ecstatic to see us come home.
Website for Judith’s book is: www.murderasacalltolove.com.
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. –Mark Twain.