Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

How a Pet Can Sharpen Your Mindfulness Skills

My hound dog heightens my sensory awareness and keeps me in the present moment.

Rusty
I just discovered that there's a word for what I am: a philocynic. No, I'm not a cynic. I'm "one who loves dogs." When I was ten years-old, my father was dying of leukemia. Back then, children were kept in the dark about such matters. He had been in the hospital for several weeks. I missed him terribly, but just thought he was sick with the flu or something like it and would be home soon.

During this time, I came home from school one day to find a beagle puppy waiting for me. A week later, I came home from school to my mother's heartbreaking news that my father had died. Years later, she shared with me that a therapist had told her to get me a puppy to help with the suffering that was to come. I bonded something fierce with that beagle and, ever since, I've been a philocynic. I'm one who loves dogs.

My lop-eared, sleek-furred hound dog, Rusty, is my tenth dog (Chocolate, Pretzel, Sassy, Connie, Cymbal, Moze, Dover, Dopple, Winnie, Rusty). His nickname is Rust, although we often call him Ruts because that's how my youngest granddaughter first pronounced his name.

Rusty is my mindfulness guide for living in the present moment. He doesn't ruminate about the past. He doesn't worry about the future. Sure, he's experienced fear, like when our vet comes at him with the otoscope to look in his ears. But once the moment has passed, he doesn't harbor resentment toward her, nor does he live in fear of their next encounter. And, his attention to the present moment isn't distracted by negative self-talk, such as, "I'm wasting my life lying at the front window all day."

I like to watch him for a few minutes after I let him out into the backyard. His eyes get wide and his nose goes to work. Rusty is a scent hound and it's amazing to watch his olfactory system engage. His nostrils flare and his nose twitches back and forth as he goes into a series of short and quick inhales and exhales, too shallow for the oxygen to even reach his lungs. His cheeks puff out slightly with each exhale. I'm told this scent hound behavior is called "popping." At these moments, he's a model of mindful awareness.

Don't get me wrong. I'd rather be a human being. I do not wish to have Rusty's brain: I like having the ability to read and write as well as to make moral and ethical choices like refraining from buying the Ebony Inlaid Custom Dog Bed in favor of giving the money to Doctors Without Borders. Nor do I wish to be confined to Rusty's cuisine. But he's helped me hone the skill of being fully present in my surroundings.

Mindfulness Bell at Thich Naht Hanh's Plum Village
Recently I've been using the sound of his bark as a mindfulness bell. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh devised this idea of a mindfulness bell. On retreats, a temple bell is struck every hour. When people hear it, they stop and take three conscious breaths to bring themselves into the present moment. At home or at work, some people use a  computer application that rings a bell at set or at random intervals as a reminder to become fully present with what they're doing.

You can use any sound in your house as a mindfulness bell—the ring of a telephone, the purr of a cat. I use Rusty's bark. I used to react with aversion to his barking. Now, it's my signal to bring my attention to the present moment. Whenever possible, I stop what I'm doing and take a few conscious breaths, feeling the sensation of the breath going in and out of my body. As I do this, I take in all that's happening around me, from the deep bay of a hound dog, to the odor of food wafting from the kitchen, to a physical sensation in my body, to a rush of emotion in my mind. Having taken it all in—feeling fully connected in mind and body to the world around me—I return to the task at hand. 

Thank you Ruts (that's Ruts as in Rust, as in Rusty).

Note: The discussion of mindfulness bells is expanded on in Chapter 8 ("Tools for Sharpening Your Mindfulness Skills") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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