The Mindfulness of a Dog: Learning to Smell the Roses

Part II of III: What I learned from my dog, Freya.

Posted Jan 17, 2021

Continued from The Mindfulness of a Dog, Part I

5 Mindfulness Lessons from Freya:

  • Morning Glory: For most of my life, I have not generally been a morning person, particularly before I have that first cup of coffee. But some people are, and you know the type; they wake up bubbling excitement like an over-poured champagne flute. They can be, quite frankly, incredibly annoying – particularly before that first cup of coffee. Freya was that way too chipper, first thing in the morning office mate that greets you as you trudge into work.

And with happy persistence, she reframed the whole event for me. As soon as those first rays of light – often a good hour before actual sunrise –peeked through the window at the end of the night but not quite yet morning between and betwixt time, she would arise. And in her true authentic fashion (see Express Yourself to follow) she never did anything quietly or delicately. She would shake her head louder than an alarm clock, give an “isn’t this a great day!” grunt, and proceed to do a jig that would make Michael Flatley look like a flat-footed leprechaun strung out on downers. All this meant it’s time to walk the dog. And with the exception of icy cold precipitation, that eagerness translated into at least 20 minutes of checking the latest pee mail.

Over time, she taught me to engage in these moments. It became something I would look forward to. Living in the northern latitudes of Montana, the seasons express themselves quite differently in the morning hours.

In the winter months, the stars were often still bright in the sky. I would notice not only the phases of the moon, but its rising and setting; particularly as the moon hung like a huge painting when I would catch it rising over the mountains in the east. It was often still and quiet, and I would hear the crunch of snow under my feet or Freya’s deep inhalations as she investigated a world of smells, for the most part completely invisible to me. I would breathe the cold to clean air and enjoy the sensation and pleasure of a simple sip of hot coffee.

With the cool but pleasant spring mornings, the coffee took on an entirely different flavor and sensation. With the gentle light, pockets of green and explosions of color would arise as spring blooms would make themselves noticed. Warmer winds would brush my cheeks and gently rustle the trees of the forest, making the whole mountain sigh, as if arising from a slumber.

By summer, Freya would disappear into the tall grasses between the copses of pine. The songbirds were back, and they provided a background chorus for the squirrels that would chatter at her from the branches above. She blissfully ignored them, for a proper toilet spot demanded full focus and lengthy consideration.

In the fall there was an exception to such routine when a rafter of wild turkeys made their appearance. Apparently, deep deliberation was given to the merits regarding the effort required to chase and procure a wild turkey versus lying next to the table and having such scraps hand-delivered. Inevitably, a decision was reached favoring the latter.

Today I look forward to rising just before the sun. I still need my cup of coffee and grab it before I head outside into the betwixt and between. Here I take a few moments to notice and connect to the elements, just as she did. I breathe, feel, listen, and am grateful.

  • Sunbeams Are Good:  In studies looking at whether sunny days actually do make people happier, the results are: to a point. If there are a number of consecutive days of inclement weather the people are happier when the sun comes out. However, after several days of sunshine, the initial joy quickly drops into the background and disappears.

Not so for Freya. She cherished every sunbeam. Having grown up around dogs my entire lifetime, I can say with confidence that I’ve never seen a dog enjoy a sunbeam as much as she did. Human beings are burdened with something called a “Negativity Bias” that is an unfortunate result of our cerebral evolution.

The negativity bias occurs when confronted with things or experiences of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect than neutral or positive things. In other words, a positive experience like feeling the warmth of the sunbeam as you step outside has less of an impact than something negative like stepping outside and seeing the flower beds need weeding.

Unencumbered by such evolutionary baggage, Freya would simply grab and ride that sunbeam like a surfer at The Pipeline on Oahu. It didn’t matter where and when. Summertime, out on the deck. In winter, catch that golden shaft as it came through the window, particularly after it warmed up the sheepskin to a gentle toasty. And when she was grinning that grin, snug in the Sun God’s warm embrace; you couldn’t help but want to jump right in and be part of that.

Practicing mindfulness helps us work through our genetically gifted anxieties and neuroses. So I’ve taken a cue, and let my evolutionary processes go to the dogs. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the truism that in our modern society, naps are highly underrated. Scientific research clearly demonstrates the multitude of positive benefits associated with napping, as any parent of a toddler can tell you. Thanks to Freya, I know the secret that sunbeams are the cherry on top of a good nap.

  • Smell the Flowers: There was one seasonal exercise that Freya had to accomplish before attending to the sunbeams. In the spring and summer until mid-autumn, the back deck would be awash with pots and planters full of herbs, grasses, and flowers of all shapes and sizes. No matter what else was going on, the first thing that she would do when the back door was open was to make complete rounds on all the plants and flowers. 
Copyright Red Tail Productions / Used with Permission
Freya says, " Stop and Smell The Flowers!"
Source: Copyright Red Tail Productions / Used with Permission

I don’t mean a vague trotting about with a few deep inhales. I mean walking up to each and every flower pot and container and attentively taking inventory; detailed and intensive rounds that would put Marcus Welby to shame. She also put me to shame because she never missed an appointment or hurried through the affair. Because when I was with her and followed her lead, I realized how often I neglected to take the time to stop and smell the flowers.

Stop and smell the flowers has become a bit of a cliché, but research confirms it is fragrant advice for finding satisfaction and happiness in our lives. A study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences suggested that such appreciation of things plays a large role in our overall happiness.

Appreciation is distinct from gratitude, in that it “acknowledges the value and meaning of something – an event, a behavior, an object – and engenders a positive feeling of emotional connection to it” Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, has pointed out that “gratitude isn’t just about acknowledging the goodness in one’s life but also recognizing that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”

I was taught many years ago in my study of martial arts that flowers are not concerned with other flowers. Each simply grows and flourishes to the best of their ability without concern for what other flowers are up to; a flower doesn’t fail to blossom because it is concerned its bloom is not bright enough, or pretty enough, or fragrant enough.

Who really knows what a dog thinks? But I like to think she immersed herself in that moment, in a deep and hidden world of scents and smells, and appreciated the flower. She certainly seemed to take not just enjoyment, but inspiration from that simple act. And I in turn appreciated the opportunity to be there in the twinkling with her.

Next: The Conclusion