Friday, 15 November 2013

My Dog as Mindfulness Therapist

"I think your dog will be important in your recovery" I'm a reflector and I really took some time to absorb what my DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy)Therapist was telling me about the resource right under my nose. At the time I was new to dog owning, having received a little bundle of white fluff as a Christmas present about a year before I started my DBT Therapy. Initially, I think I could be described as a 'helicopter' dog owner, I so didn't want to mess up this little creature that was so dependent on me. Dog walking was a tense affair with me guarding against her 'annoying' others and reflecting badly on me. It was only when I started to use mindfulness skills that I really began to enjoy the time I spend with her.

So let me introduce her. She is a cross between a Malamute and a Samoid - a fluffy Husky - or 'Siberian Wolf' as a number of people have characterised her! She is big, but thinks she is no bigger than a chihuahua and therefore plays with gay abandon with all sizes of dogs. She is a highly sociable animal and leads me into a lot of really positive conversations with strangers. Her name is Smilla (for those who ask I can tell you this was inspired by the novel 'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow'). She is my companion - I miss her when I go on holiday and she goes to her favourite 'pet hotel'. She can read my moods - which change frequently. I love it when I am lying on my sofa and suddenly a massive paw lands on my tummy to assure me that she is there for a cuddle when needed. Above all, she is dependent on me in a way that I have never allowed any human being to be for fear of letting them down. This ball of fluff relies on me for all her needs - and yet she is supremely chilled about this fact - she trusts me to look after her. That is strangely liberating.

After more than a year of DBT skills training Smilla has become an integral part of my mindfulness practice. She is a skilled coach in the following Mindfulness skills:

1) Just Notice - Smilla is nosy. She stops to smell everything of interest, including, people, small animals, birds, plants, trees etc, etc. Through her I have discovered that there is a wealth of wildlife very close to my home. One day a small vole was deposited at my feet in a macabre 'show and tell' and I noticed! I wasn't distracted by any internal ruminating in that moment.
2) Live in the moment. The benefit of being a dog is that there is no future or past there is only what is literally in front of their nose. A dog biscuit brings great joy because it is enjoyed exactly as it is in that moment - a little bit of bliss which is bestowed with unconditional love. I am capable of loving another creature without fear of abandonment and rejection, because our relationship is not full of the past or future fears and hurts.

3) Participate. Smilla engages entirely in every activity. From the tip of her nose to the very end of her fluffy tail every part of Smilla demonstrates her enjoyment of playing with her friend Farai (a Black Lab). When asked to sit the whole of her body holds itself in readiness for the expected praise and in that moment every part of her is invested in the task of sitting. How often do I do things 'mindfully' without fully engaging and therefore miss out on the benefits of the mindful experience?
4)Acceptance. Smilla greets each day with enthusiasm. However, she accepts her owner and life for that day, as it is. Occasionally, she tries to change her owner by subtle (what I call) 'chunnering'. Any Malamute owner will tell you that barking is not a natural default, but a kind of have yowl, half talk is. Sometimes, morning exchanges follow this pattern:

Smilla: Yar, yar, yar (large paw banged on knee)
Me: Oh dear, I'm so tired - do you think I'm being lazy?
Smilla: Yar.
Me: Should I get up and out of bed.
Smilla: Yar, yar, yar - (while moving to stand at the door of the bedroom)
Me: Right then.... up I get.
Smilla: Yar, yar, yar, yar (as she exits the room with tail wagging).

Some days this doesn't work, the environment is too strong for her to change. So she accepts and she adapts her expectations for the day. I love her for her acceptance of me on my worst days, when she would really rather be taking me for a long, exciting walk. On those days, she accepts the quick out and in round the block that is necessary.

I have realised that my DBT Therapist was right - Smilla is an essential part of my life, but she is a reminder to live in the moment and to enjoy the moments I can enjoy without letting the past or the future rob me of that joy.