05 Sep At home with your dog? 3 ways to connect and lift your spirits
It may come as no surprise to dog owners in lockdown, writes Jessica Oliva, but walking the dog can be the highlight of the day.
With exercise being one of the few reasons for leaving the house for millions of Australians, walking the dog clearly benefits both dog owners and their furry friends.
But walking the dog isn’t the only thing you can do to lift your spirits and ease loneliness.
Our study found three things you can do at home with your dog to make you feel better, which your dog will probably love too.
1. You can meditate with your dog
Our study showed it helped to take time out to focus on your dog’s fur or the warmth of their body using “mindfulness meditation”.
This type of meditation involved people listening to a recording that guided them to activate their senses (for instance, touch) as a way of enhance their engagement with the task.
Dog owners who did this for seven minutes once a week or more felt relaxed, calm, enjoyed the process, said they felt more connected to their dog, and helped them focus on the present.
For many dog owners in our study, these effects also lasted for several minutes or hours after stopping the activity.
If you want to try this for yourself, create a space in your home where you are not likely to be interrupted and turn off your phone. Sit comfortably on the floor, on a mat, cushion or blanket and invite your dog to come and sit next to you or on your lap.
Place one or two hands on your dog and sit up tall. Start by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. Be aware of your sense of touch and notice the sensations in your hand and fingertips. Stay with this awareness and if your mind starts to wander, gently escort it back to your feeling of touch and your dog’s fur. Stay with this practice for seven minutes or more.
Although we didn’t specifically measure the impact on dogs, we suspect they appreciate the close, calm and private space this creates for both of you.
2. You can play hide and seek
If mindfulness meditation isn’t your thing, our study showed setting aside seven minutes of undivided playtime with your dog had similar results. This might be an interactive game, such as hide and seek.
Dog owners who did this said they enjoyed this, had a better connection with their dog, and helped them focus on the present. They also thought their dog had fun.
How might this work as well as mindfulness meditation? Mindfulness is simply about being present in the moment. So if we put the phone away, pets can be great facilitators to help bring us into the present and centre our mind on one thing — them.
3. You can talk to your dog
If you really want to increase the connection with your dog, try some
calm and focused interactions. This might be seven undivided minutes of affection with your dog, such as giving them a good belly rub, or spending seven undivided minutes talking to them.
Out of all the activities we tried, these worked best to connect with your dog.
While some people in our study said they felt awkward talking to their dog, our earlier research showed others seem to love it.
For people living alone in lockdown, having a pet dog was an excuse to talk out loud, and this may play an important role in their well-being.
Making time to be affectionate towards your dog also made owners feel relaxed and calm, at similar levels to those who practised mindfulness meditation.
Completely focusing on your dog this way increases the release of molecules associated with relaxation (such as oxytocin) and reward (such as dopamine) in both owner and dog.
Making time for your dog
Not all dog owners are spending their time in lockdown going on long walks with their furry friends. One study found some dog owners walked their dog less often or went on shorter walks during the pandemic.
Whether that’s been your experience, or if you want to try something new, these three types of interactions with your dog don’t take a lot of time. You could even continue them after lockdown’s over.
This might end up become the new highlight of your dog’s day, making the long wait for you to return home from work completely worth it.
Jessica Oliva, Lecturer, Psychology, James Cook University
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