Aired 3/7/17 on KPBS News.
Meditation is becoming more common in helping people learn to calm down and worry less. But a six-week Wellbeing for Dogs + Their Humans class in La Jolla is taking the practice a step further, teaching meditation to dogs alongside their human companions.
Meditators sat on the wooden floor in a tranquil room. They were quiet. They were peaceful. They were resting in the present moment, with no thoughts of the past or future distracting them.
They were also dogs.
«Breath in, and out,» instructor Amanda Ringnalda said softly. «Open your eyes whenever you’re ready.»
A few of the dogs kept their eyes closed, apparently having drifted off to sleep.
Meditation practice is becoming more and more common to help people from all religious backgrounds, or with no religion at all, learn to calm down and worry less.
The class meets in the Balanced Mind Meditation Center at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. Julie Potiker built the meditation room and brought the dog classes to the center.
She’s also attending with her big shaggy briard, Madeline, and said she gets quite a reaction when she tells people about the class.
«They think it’s a riot and it’s super cool, and then they want to do it, too,» she said.
Potiker said the class has helped her be more calm, and that Madeline and her other dogs then pick up on her energy.
«If they’re running to the door and they’re barking, instead of just yelling at them, I think, oh is it anxiety, are you nervous, are you trying to protect me? What’s going on?» she said. «I think it’s just more of a humane, lovely way to be an animal owner.»
The class is meant to help humans better understand their animals and learn how to care for them by understanding their body, mind and spirit, said Ringnalda. She said meditation and mindfulness practice is key to that understanding.
«To open people up to a more expanded understanding of wellbeing for themselves and their dogs,» she said. «You can’t underestimate the impact and the power of that relationship.»
During one recent class, she instructed participants on how to identify their dogs’ doshas, or three different energies, or constitutions, believed to govern the body and mind.
«I have no idea what Elloise’s dosha is, because she’s just whackadoo,» Potiker said.
Knowing their dog’s energy means humans can provide them with the sounds, smells and foods that best fit their needs, Ringnalda explained.
She demonstrated by allowing the dogs to sniff frankincense, sandalwood and lavender to see what they responded to best. One little dachshund named Noodle turned her nose away from the last two, but licked the paper covered with frankincense, suggesting she may find that aroma balancing for her constitution.
Owners also learned to massage their dogs, which Ringnalda’s rescue dog Pepper seemed to especially enjoy.
When it comes to meditation, Ringnalda said dogs are naturals.
«Dogs are kind of in a natural state of presence, because ultimately that’s what meditation really is, is having your mind fully in this present moment, releasing any memories of the past and thoughts or apprehensions of the future, but instead just be fully in the present moment,» she said. «And dogs are so good and natural and instinctively able to do that.»
The dogs in the class were often so present and relaxed that they spent much of the time slowly drifting off to sleep.
But when the dachshund Noodle joined the class late, the dogs’ meditative trance was broken. They all got up to sniff Noodle while she made her rounds in the room, checking out the meditation cushions and anything else left on the floor.
Ringnalda said breaks in the dogs’ meditative states are also a part of being present.
If a dog starts barking or whining during class, «we just go with it, just like any other thought during your meditation,» she said.
«I sometimes joke that if our minds would let us just emote more, like dogs would, we would all be barking in class,» she added with a laugh. «We’ve just been taught to be more proper.»
She said she’s seen big changes in the canine attendees in just the short time they’ve been meeting.
«I’ve seen them go from quite reluctant and shy and reserved to much more comfortable in this setting, more comfortable with people coming up to them,» she said. «The dogs have been really receptive and open to these new experiences in their life, and you’ve just seen a calmness come.»
But really, the class is more about helping the humans to be calmer, and teaching them to recognize how much influence they have over their dogs behavior and health, Ringnalda said.
Julie Potiker, the human companion to the big shaggy Madeline, said it’s boosted their bond.
«It helps me to remember to respect her as a being, as a sentient being,» she said.
By the end of class, all the sentient beings, human and canine alike, had explored their senses and sat in the present moment. No one barked or whined, and everybody seemed very calm.
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