Fetch: How a Classic Game for Dogs Taught Me About Mindfulness
Our routine goes something like this: It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I’ve accomplished about five percent of my goals as the weekend wanes. Perhaps I’m making another halfhearted attempt to clean the living room or trying to squeeze in social obligations that I put off during the week because I’m too tired. I’m folding laundry while my mind is somewhere else, scolding myself for not waking earlier or worrying about whether I’ll have time to get groceries before the market closes.
I feel a presence enter the room, and I turn around to see that Ace has awoken from one of her many weekend naps. My heart sinks as I take in her energetic stretching. I can hear her request for outdoor fun as clearly as if she had spoken to me. I take another longing look at my half-folded pile of laundry, sigh, and begrudgingly pick up her leash. I’m rescheduling the remainder of my Saturday tasks while we walk a few blocks to the local off-leash dog park.
But once we reach the park, my mental state completely shifts. I hear the crunch of dirt under my feet, inhale the heavy doggy scent, and turn my face towards the soft breeze that rolls off the hills. As we play fetch, I lose track of time, focusing my full attention on the ripple of Ace’s muscles, the way she drives her small body like a rocket across the park, the triumphant cock of her head as she trots back to me with her prize. I also notice my comforting, repetitive movements as I bend and throw. I’m startled when I check my watch and it is later than I expected. I leave the park feeling a sense of calm, ready to tackle the rest of Saturday.
During many of my interactions with Ace, but especially when we play fetch, I strive to put aside my regrets and worries and focus on the present. This experience is an example of the practice of "mindfulness," a concept based on Buddhist meditation. Mindfulness helps people with a variety of difficulties, from those wishing to reduce the effects of daily stressors to individuals experiencing psychiatric disorders or chronic pain.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn is a scientist whose research on mindfulness has informed the development of treatment for such conditions. He defines mindfulness as purposeful attention, a state of awareness and acceptance of your thoughts and feelings in the present. We spend much of our time on “automatic pilot,” worrying about the past or the future without much attention to the present moment. By paying attention, we can learn more about ourselves.
Mindfulness must be practiced. One popular exercise is mindful breathing, where you pay attention to how your body feels while breathing in and out. Another exercise involves eating an orange slowly and deliberately, using all of your senses to examine its skin, peel it, and finally eat it. I enjoy engaging in a similar mindfulness exercise that focuses on Ace: I sit next to a calm, sleepy Ace or hold her in my lap. As I slowly pet her, I train all my senses on her. I notice her body, how she feels in my hands, the little noises she makes when she breathes, and even her scent.
In his book Full Catastrophe Living, Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains that we can practice mindfulness during simple daily tasks: “If you are able to be present while doing routine daily activities, if you are willing to remember that those moments can be moments of calm and alert attention as well as times of doing things that have to be done, you may find that not only do you enjoy the process more but you are also more likely to have insights into yourself and your life.”
While doing the dishes or folding laundry can provide opportunities to practice mindfulness, I have found it easier for me to be mindful during periods of play and rest with Ace. This doesn’t mean that being mindful with your dog is easy or comes naturally. How many of us use our time with our dogs to make a phone call, check email, or otherwise engage in activities that take us away from the present? Sometimes this is necessary given our busy lives, but I’ve found that allowing myself to be solely focused on Ace when we are together is refreshing and renewing.
Another reason I suspect dogs are helpful in practicing mindfulness is that they appear to inherently engage in some aspects of mindfulness. Ace can truly, fully appreciate the moment. When she is playing fetch, the task of catching and retrieving the ball the only thing that exists. When she is cuddled up on my lap and I am scratching that sweet spot behind her ear, she is completely focused on the touch. She’s not regretting the past or worrying about the future –- she is present. We can learn from our dogs to slow down and fully attend to sniffing every plant in our path.
Combined with other important factors such as behavioral training, good nutrition, and stimulating exercise, I believe making an effort to maintain mindful awareness in my moments with Ace has made her a happy, healthy dog. We have been taking care of each other for two years, and I know I have made the most of our time because I have been able to enjoy the little things, like all those games of fetch. I carry this gift of a sense of connection and appreciation into other areas of my life
About the Author: This East Coast transplant enjoys the bounty of San Francisco, including its microclimates, farmers' markets, and secret stairway walks. When she's not walking with, talking about, or kissing the face of her Boston Terrier, Ace, she blogs about Ace's adventures. Product reviews writer and guinea pig at Dogster.