What do you think about when you walk your dog? Are you just in a hurry to get home? While I’ve always tried to enjoy walks with my dog, Axle, I can’t say that our walks have ever been particularly relaxing. Often, I’m just happy the chore is done.
G. Ray Sullivan, photographer and author of Zen and the Art of Dog Walking, however, sees walking his dog as more than a task — it’s closer to a zen experience. We caught up with Ray and his dog, Bo, to learn five ways we can make our dog walks more zen.
When Ray takes Bo for a walk, he doesn’t like to keep track of time. “Ideally, we have no time limits,” he says. “Most of the time it is dictated by the path we choose to take.” He adds, “Stop every now and then and be as still as possible. Take it all in, really take it all in, listening and smelling.”
For dogs, who can identify scents many times better than we humans can, sniffing is probably the highlight of their walk. While you may not be able to smell the “news” that your dog can, you can smell things like freshly mowed grass, blooming flowers, or maybe food cooking nearby. That may seem silly to do at first, but taking in the smells around you can help you feel more present in your surroundings.
For Ray, walking without distraction has become a learned behavior. “It’s obvious from my book that most times I take a camera along. Early on, it was a bit of a distraction because I was documenting Bo and his experience,” Ray says. “Then I turned a corner and started photographing our environment, and that led to an awareness of many different elements of our environment, most of which I had just blown by before. I’m looking at our surroundings with a much more curious eye.”
While the camera has become a complementary part of Ray and Bo’s walks, the ever-present cellphone has presented the biggest challenge. Ray keeps his cellphone with him in case of an emergency, but otherwise he tries not to use it. “You really do have to separate yourself from it,” he says. Place your phone on silent, put it in your pocket, and vow to only use it in case of an emergency.
One things all dogs seem to have in common is a never-ending supply of curiosity. Even if you walk the same path every day, subtle things will change. New plants will be growing, or maybe the leaves are changing colors. The neighbor changed her decor, or maybe you’re walking in the city and the window displays have changed. “If you open your eyes, it’s amazing what you end up seeing,” says Ray. “Whether you are walking around the block or walking in a park or walking out in the country, take it all in; that’s what your dog is doing.”
Ray’s favorite time during a walk is when they take a rest. “Sometimes we stop together and are just quiet,” he says. “Those are the most amazing times, when we both stop and are still, be it in the woods, on the shore of the lake, or sitting on a dock. Those are the times that most affect me.”
Taking that time to rest and still your body and mind takes you away from yourself and whatever issues you may be facing. During that rest, there is nothing else but what is going on in your surroundings. Those moments of peace can serve as pleasant memories and something to look forward to once you get back to the toll of daily activities.
Going off-leash is a very controversial practice among dog owners. For some, their off-leash time can be enjoyed at a dog park or in a private fenced yard. For Ray, he and his dog have many acres of wooded land to explore without the dangers of oncoming vehicles and strange dogs or people. He began training Bo to walk off-leash as a young puppy, using very short distances and high-reward treats.
For those who do not have access to areas their dog can safely walk off-leash, you can still take certain steps to help make the walks more enjoyable for both of you. Use a walking setup that reduces leash-pulling, such as the Easy Walk harness, and use Ray’s trick of keeping high-value treats in your pocket to reward your dog’s desirable behaviors.
Regardless of your location, simply being more aware of your surroundings and present in the moment can make your dog walks more zen and less of a chore.
“I think you can find peace with your dog in most environments,” says Ray. “This time spent with Bo has opened my eyes to a whole new appreciation and engagement with our surroundings in my environment.”
I hope to apply some of Ray’s tips to my future dog walks and just enjoy being out with my dog more.
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About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it’s in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of Toby (cat) and Axle (dog). I’m a former quiet nerd who’s turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.