The thing about dogs is not just that they are man’s best friend. It is that, to them, you are your friend’s best man.
I’m not one for mindfulness. I’m convinced it has a place, but I haven’t set aside the time to learn that new skill, and my stoic northern English/ Roman phenotype has an inbuilt allergy to the idea. What I do set aside time for is, on most days, to take my dog Doug to the beach for an hour. And, what a glorious hour it is. An hour of concentrating on someone whose happiness is dependent on you giving unselfishly. Someone whose smile, as he returns the ball, allows no distraction – you’re bonded, eye to eye, with someone who has a desire for your full attention, your hope, your words, your gestures. You’re making someone deliriously happy for an hour per day – fortunately his boredom threshold is refreshingly pure, the ball retaining its ability to excite every time it’s thrown. You’re paying attention, rather than receiving – you’re meditating in practice, rather than in cross-legged silence. And, as a side effect of all of this stress-busting, mood-elevating time out, you happen to hit 10,000 steps without once thinking of it as exercise…
That dogs as companions have health benefits is increasingly well-evidenced, with effects on cardiovascular mortality, decreased allergy and asthma, stress resilience and more. That dogs can also fulfil medical care roles is a wonderful trend to grow out of the seeing-eye dog legacy, with charities like Medical Detection Dogs in the UK pioneering both alert roles for dogs, and bio-detection of cancer and other diseases, harnessing their remarkable sense of smell and their intelligence. However, for me, there is something in the simple but deep bond with a good dog – they encourage an accidental mindfulness, one where simple pleasures are all, where re-centering is to take you out of your own head, to divert your attention from yourself. That you spend an hour smiling while watching your friend enjoy himself elevates mood and allows all of those alpha waves to flood in. There’s nothing better than breaking a day’s work in two, taking something tough to ponder to the beach with Doug’s orange football, and finding that you bring home both a salty, wet and tired dog, and a potential solution to the challenge. Yes, a power nap might achieve one of those goals, but it would come with zero exercise and an unhappy dog watching your snooze. When your dog says ‘walk with me’, it is a way of walking and talking to someone who’ll listen to anything you want to discuss, without judgment, and perhaps help you to discover the answers that were in your head already.
There is a wonderful and growing body of evidence on the specialness of dogs, but perhaps it is critical to think about your role, too. Making time to focus on your dog’s happiness as a daily routine may be a direct and indirect part of your own physical and mental health discipline, to be thought of in the same way as sleep – not as a chore, but as a way to thrive.
(I’m aware that my opening is not gender-neutral… The ‘man’s best friend’ phrase is one thing, but ‘friend’s best man’ is not meant to exclude, but to pun. Doug loves pretty much everyone, but I think I qualify as his best ‘man’ by a couple of percentage points…)