From one side of our neighborhood’s hill, there’s a near 25-mile arc view, north to south. It stops at a long stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including the pass where armies crossed into the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. On my daily walks with Rico, my Labrador/ Rottweiler mix, I would mentally recreate what that view looked like back then, to the point that I could almost see a line of armed men descending into the valley for battle.
I had plenty of time to think about this since Rico would be embroiled in a narrative of his own: Who already peed on the post today?
Every day he explores this mystery at each mailbox, shrub and wildflower. Sometimes even at thicker patches of grass. As our walks have gotten shorter, they actually take longer. Much longer. I had tried passing the time by musing over that view, which is beautiful and haunting. It also became a little monotonous. Unlike mailbox posts, apparently.
This isn’t how I imagined our walks. My childhood dog stayed pretty active his whole life. No matter how far we were from home, we could shout “Hyah!” and he’d take off running until we reached the door.
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As an adult, I needed more exercise and an excuse to get outdoors. Naturally, I thought I’d find both in a dog.
Instead, I found Rico. His kennel card noted that his family left him at the animal shelter for chasing chickens, and that he was eighteen months old. Perfect.
Except “perfect” didn’t last long. Fast-forward about a year, and his body had already started deteriorating. Shoulder surgery, residual nerve pain and early onset arthritis afflicted his prime years. At times, a 20-foot walk proved challenging for him. Yet he managed to recover after each setback and we could at least meander for a mile again.
We dutifully kept up with therapy in addition to daily walks to keep his body mobile, but time is an ailment from which it’s much harder to bounce back. Rico slipped into his golden years unnoticed thanks to the many troubles he endured at such a young age. His pace began to crawl again, and I became frustrated. As we poked along, my brain ran an endless loop of all the things I still needed to do, could be doing, wished I had time to do. Each time anxiety crept in, I’d hurry him along.
Finally, one morning I looked down at him and asked, “What is it this time?” He looked up at me with his gaping smile. That’s when I finally noticed the white hairs highlighting his Herman Munster–masked face. In a blink, he went from being a rehabilitated four-year-old to a mature senior.
Some well-meaning friends have suggested that Rico might not need walks anymore. That would be convenient, especially when I’m trying to wrangle my restless thoughts. Whenever I get anywhere near his leash, though, his enormous brown eyes light up like a lighthouse, beckoning my soul.
Since walking him isn’t optional, I decided to experiment. Several years ago, I tried a walking-innature meditation class. Twelve of us zombie-walked across open terrain. The teacher, whose voice was like a satin ribbon, prompted us when to pay attention to muscular movements; uneven ground; and sights, smells or brushes of air.
Lovely though it was, without that ribbon tying it all together, I couldn’t practice on my own. At least, not until Rico’s slow stroll became my meditation. His pace provides ample time to dive into the physical sensations of moving. His frequent pauses to sniff become a timer for absorbing any view without judgment or commentary— just as I want to accept our walks without judgment. This new approach makes our outings far more interesting than anything my imagination conjures up. In fact, once I got the hang of it, walking with Rico has become a respite from the tireless chatter in my head. We’ve simply become two friends enjoying our environment together. Now when I reach for his leash, we both light up.
Because keeping your cool during chaos is the real goal of mindfulness practice—whether that chaos is bouncing around your feet or in your head—you don’t need a quiet atmosphere to benefit. In fact, your dog offers plenty of chances to practice throughout the day. From slowed seniors to rambunctious puppies, dogs make the best timekeepers. Follow these tips any time your dog’s sniffing on walks or behaving boisterously: before setting down the food bowl, leashing up for a walk, entering or exiting the house, throwing a favorite toy for fetch, or giving treats or affection.
1. Focus on yourself. Even if he’s acting up, don’t give him the attention that rewards his excitement. Instead, stand upright, head straight, eyes closed or gazing forward, and scan your body for tension. Consciously let tense muscles melt.
2. Listen to your breathing. If it’s shallow or uneven, take a few deep abdominal breaths, exhaling twice as long as inhaling. As you relax, you may start to notice a slight pause at the exchange between the inhale and the exhale. Rest in that pause.
3. Notice your surroundings. Absorb what’s in front of you without judging, including whatever your dog is doing. If he’s circling like a figure skater, raise your gaze and focus on something else until he stops.
4. Let thoughts flow. Don’t stress about silencing your mind. Instead, approach it as you might a concert, where you hear the audience, but you’re focused on the music. Let your thoughts be the ambient noise and your breath, your music.
As you practice meditating with your dog, you’ll start to notice that you’re both more calm and relaxed.