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Pet meditation: Why mindfulness is second nature to animals.

Some mornings I wake up and am about to turn over to look at my phone, but then I realize that my dog, Meerie, is tucked perfectly into the crook of my legs. She's lightly snoring, her rib cage rising and falling. So I wait. I feel her warmth, listen to her breath, realize just how comfortable I am, know that I'm no longer sleeping but that it's okay to just be comfortable and still. 

(Until Meerie realizes I'm awake and jumps up demanding breakfast, of course.) 

Being around pets can promote mindfulness in multiple small ways like this. Even the act of observing animals, especially with the help of a therapist, can nudge us out of our thoughts and into full awareness of the present moment.

"Interacting with an animal, enjoying each other's company, can be an exercise of mindfulness," says Andrea Beetz, a psychologist and ​​professor of inclusive education at the IU International University of Applied Sciences.

Beetz has studiedthe ways dogs, cats, fish, birds, and horses reduce stress in humans. Interacting with animals is known to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate. Physical touch or eye contact with a pet you have a bond with — even including birds! — can prompt your brain to release the calming "cuddle" hormone, oxytocin.

Oxytocin causes stress to recede, promoting feelings of wellbeing and empathy. Of course, you can get oxytocin from human interactions too. But studies suggest animals produce calm and engender trust in a more global, interspecies kind of way. In Beetz' meta-analysis of animal-human interaction studies, human heart rates dropped lower when petting a dog than when chatting with friends. Similarly, the presence of a dog in elder homes reduced loneliness more than just having other people around.

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People have to learn it. Animals do this innately.

Being brought back to the present with your pet can happen in a variety of ways. Maybe you're walking your dog, or listening to your cat's purrs, watching your goldfish swim, your hamster run in its wheel. It's no coincidence that all of these practices — walking, paying attention to repetitive sound and motion, enjoying nature — are all recommended ways to unlock mindful moments.

“The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” Dr. Ann Berger, a National Institutes of Health researcher who teaches mindfulness to people living with pain, told the NIH's News in Health newsletter. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.”

Of course, many of the benefits associated with being around animals comes with the caveat that the animal is calm and well-behaved. For many owners of pets with behavioral issues, having a dog may hamper efforts to bring mindfulness into your life by adding more stressors."It's hard to get our baseline of calm when we have dogs with reactivity," Grisha Stewart, a dog trainer who focuses on positive training methods, said in a recent episode of the popular dog-training podcast Drinking from the Toilet.

But even a challenging animal presents opportunities to practice mindfulness. "Sometimes I'll modulate my breathing so they'll [dogs] relax," Stewart said. "If we learn to observe our breath better, we can observe our dogs better, more closely, and observe what they actually want."

Beetz cautions that we shouldn't expect animals will automatically turn us into mini-Buddhas. "Naturally picking up mindfulness just from the example of an animal certainly can occur," she says. "But humans today are so busy with so many technical things, communication, information, that really taking the time outside in nature or with their pets at home to just be in the moment, unfortunately is not very likely," Beetz said. "Most need to learn mindfulness with some form of support."

After breakfast, on sunny days, Meerie picks a spot on the patio in full sun. She sits with her head erect, clearly paying attention, but also palpably content. If I come out to pet her, I can feel how warm her fur is. I think about what I'm like when I sit in the sun: How often I reach for my phone, or let my mind drift to whether I'm too hot or too cold, or if I should be doing something productive. Do I have enough sunscreen? Is this going to give me spots and wrinkles? My mind is definitely in the future, not enjoying the peace of the present.

Listen, sunscreen is important. But sometimes so is just sitting, with a soft mental focus on nothing in particular, under the sun's rays. That's something I've learned from Meerie. What can your pet teach you today?

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