In 2007 I was living in Southampton. Away from my friends and family, in a bad marriage, miserable and depressed. It’s no secret that I was desperately unhappy with the choices I had made and at that moment in time I was paying the price. From the outside it would appear I had it all. The biggest house on the street. Two beautiful daughters and no money worries. We were all fit and healthy and I had a comfortable life. From the outside my life appeared idyllic.
By 2007 I had been seeing a counsellor for around 3 years and had started to make progress. Looking back, I believe it was this ‘progress’ that triggered many of the events that followed. One of which was Jack.
Feeling that I was emotionally pulling away from our marriage in a desperate attempt to claw me back in, my then husband suggested we get a dog. Now to be clear I had mentioned having a dog in the past as a kind of ‘looks like it might be fun’ kind of way but had never truly considered it. I knew from the ‘hamster debacle’ that I would end up looking after it when the kids lost interest. And I swore I wouldn’t do it again.
But in a moment of weakness, I agreed to go and visit a breeder that had just advertised a litter of chocolate brown labs. Still apprehensive and not realising what I was letting myself in for, we arrived at the breeder’s house to be greeted by a rather dodgy looking bloke. The floors were covered in newspaper and there were stair gates everywhere. The ‘mum’ of the litter made a bee line for me and immediately sat on my foot nudging into my leg begging to be stroked.
We carried on along the corridor to a room at the back of the house and there he was, sat cowering in the corner trying to stay out of the way of the other 5 dogs all barking and running around chasing and playing with each other.
I had never felt so sad and so overwhelmed in my life as I did in that moment. “he’s the only boy” announced the breeder. “They are all named after brown drinks, and he is Jack Daniels”. My hearted skipped a beat. Jack was my grandfather’s name and without a son, I would never be able to pass on the name. Here was my chance. I scooped him up into my arms and that was it. Looking back my feelings were probably not so much love but more desperation and fear. I wanted to take him with me there and then, but he was still too young to be taken away from him mum.
We agreed to a date of the 18th December. A week before Christmas and we were getting a puppy. I had 23 people for dinner that year. I don’t remember much about that Christmas, except being on my hands and knees at 5am Christmas morning scrubbing the inside of a dog crate thinking “I cannot believe I agreed to this”.
Despite my many reservations. And I will be honest, there have been times over the last 12 years that I have wondered how things might be different had I not had Jack to consider. I stepped up to the challenge of having a dog in pretty much the same way as I step up to every challenge in my life and I went ‘all in’.
I went straight to my go to behaviours for panic …. Gather all the information you can. Ask as many questions as you can. Organise, plan and power through regardless. And this is exactly what I did. I watched video’s, read books and asked other dog owners what they did. I was determined to make sure that Jack was well behaved. I knew I had been duped and ironically it worked. I devoted every waking moment in to training and looking after him. I walked him for hours and put his needs way before my own and my kids and I treated him like a mission.
People would often comment on how well behaved he was, and my answer was always the same…. “I didn’t really fuss over him all that much at the start so to be fair, he got treated like a dog and not a toy and I think that worked”
Focus Attention, build confidence, shape behaviours...
It was at about the same time as I got Jack that I was also starting my own journey of self-discovery. My marriage was failing, and I was subconsciously powering up for what was to come. I was attending regular counselling sessions and they were helping me to focus my attention inwardly. To take back control of my mind and helping me to make far more resourceful and positive decisions.
Mindfulness played a huge part in this. I had learnt a variety of visualisation techniques that helped reduce anxiety and over thinking as it cropped up. Also practicing the techniques of bringing my attention back to me and responding with calm curiosity rather than reacting impulsively. Through positive reinforcement I was learning how to notice the good stuff and let the bad bits slide away.
I started to see how my own practice was similar to the strategies I was using with Jack. Reinforcing the good stuff. Projecting a calmer energy and responding rather than reacting. This was helping me to build confidence in myself as well as confidence as a dog owner.
I started to see more and more similarities and began to facilitate a parallel process between myself and Jack. Walks were focussed and I would use the time to reflect and process the thoughts in my head. As he and I walked calmly through the forest I would be mindful of the surroundings just as Jack was. As he trotted from bush to tree to river to rocks sniffing and exploring taking in his surroundings through all of his 5 senses, I would do the same.
These long mindful walks were some of the happiest times of my life. I was much fitter physically back then and thankfully now I am much stronger mentally.
Now I am not suggesting that to be calm or mindful you should rush out and buy a puppy – ABSOLUTELY this is not what I am suggesting at all. Dogs and particularly puppies are hard work. They are a huge responsibility financially, practically and emotionally they are a big commitment.
They do also bring a huge amount of joy and I do not for one moment regret the time and the sacrifices I made for Jack. I believe he was sent to me for a reason and that was to ground me.
Lock down was a god send for Jack as it meant that we were here for him 24/7. He loved having everyone around and I was enjoying not having the pressure of trying to navigate appointments around his ever-increasing needs.
If you a have a dog or puppy then you will know just how important daily exercise is for them. And thank goodness for dog walkers and sitters. Awesome locally run firms such as Nathans Paw Trails are a life saver. If you can’t be there to walk your dog every day, be sure to include some fun walks at the weekends or extra ones during the week. Walking your dog is one of the best parts of owning a dog and it is where you and your pet can really bond. So, don’t miss out.
Dogs can bring so much joy and they teach us so much about the simplicity of being in the moment. Jack taught me how to bring myself back. He was like an anchor so whenever I began to drift he would hold me steady.
When the time came to say goodbye to Jack my heart was broken. Looking after him had become the biggest test of my mental resilience and making the decision to let him go was devastating. I am so grateful for the practices I had done over the years to build my mental strength. And although sad and heart breaking I was not broken. So, when the day came to make the decision, I did so calmly and with purpose.
Jack was now unable to climb the 2 steps to the grass and we were having to lift him up (all 37kilos of him) on to the grass for a wee. He was falling into things and at times he was completely unable to move. I was feeding him his food by hand as he was unable to stand long enough to eat.
I went to the vet that day and booked the appointment for the Monday. We spent the weekend receiving an entourage of visitors into the garden, all socially distanced of course. They each came to spend some time with our boy and to say their goodbye’s. He loved it. He was so happy and excited to see everyone. He put on a great show for everyone wagging his tail with such excitement, even though he couldn’t stand up.
Monday came and I was on autopilot. Dave and I lifted him into the car, and we drove to the vets. Within the hour our boy was gone.
I have processed many emotions since that day, and it will take time to grieve. But even with Jack gone I am still able to use his memory as an anchor. Although feelings and emotions are still raw and that anchor is often accompanied by tears, I still walk mindfully every day, using this time to reflect and respond – sorting my thoughts and gathering my focus and remembering my beautiful boy and everything he taught me.
Top Tips for Mindful Dog Walking…
Mindful walking is awesome I can highly recommend it for both you and your dog. Here are a few of my tips on how to enjoy the moment and exercise both your body and your mind.
1. Try to walk in different locations as much as possible. Dogs love variety as do we and they will get bored on the same walk each day. Notice your surroundings. Listen. Smell. Look. Touch. Taste, just as your dog will.
2. If your dog behaves off lead and it is safe to do so, try walking at a slower pace. Feel the energy of the connection between you and your dog. Use eye and body movements to communicate rather than shouting instructions.
3. Start to centre your thoughts only into this moment. Concentrate on your steps. Your surroundings. If busy thoughts come into your head allow them in then let them go. Come back to the moment.
4. Avoid using your mobile phone while you walk. Resist the urge to check messages. Give yourself permission to be ‘off grid’ for the duration of the walk. If you have to let people know you are doing this beforehand then do.
5. Practice exercise discipline affection for yourself and your dog. Like an overactive mind an excited dog can be a problem. Dogs, like our mind, love instructions so be sure to take control. Practice makes perfect and repetition will work not only for your pet but for you too.
For more information on building mental resilience check out my blog; https://nowwatchmefly.co.uk/how-to-build-mental-resilience/
Abbie Broad – Mindset Coach