Effect of mindfulness exercises with animals

Do animal-assisted mindfulness exercises have an effect on humans and animals?  There are now some studies on this. 

 

Mindfulness practice has its origins in ancient Buddhist teachings that promote awareness of the present moment and acceptance of what is being experienced from a non-judgmental perspective. The general guiding principle of mindfulness is to focus on the now and not tend to ruminate on past events or worry about future events. 

 

During the Covid 19 pandemic, researchers conducted a study with dog owners who were instructed to perform various mindfulness exercises with their animals. The goal was to find out if these, and if so what form, would improve the well-being of dogs and owners. Previous studies by other researchers had shown that interactions between owners and dogs in which "the human's attention was focused entirely on the dog" increased the release of molecules associated with relaxation and reward in both parties. The current study was designed to investigate this effect in more detail. 

Techniques from mindfulness practice were studied as well as ordinary interactions with the dogs. For this, participants were divided into two groups, a dog interaction group and a dog-assisted mindfulness group.

In week 1, one group played hide-and-seek with the dogs while the other touched the animals' fur and focused fully on the sensation that accompanied it. In week 2, group one played "follow the leash" while group two focused on the dog's breath. In week 3, group one played outside with the dogs while group two repeated and intensified the mindfulness exercises from the previous weeks. In week 4, group one was to simply focus on the dog's presence for 7 minutes. Group two was to repeat and intensify the mindfulness exercises.

The results of this study suggest that both mindfulness practices and interactions with dogs are effective techniques for self-management of well-being. The researchers found that involving dogs in mindfulness practice did not add benefits in terms of reducing symptoms of psychological distress or acquiring mindfulness skills compared to mindfulness practice alone; however, participants in the dog-assisted mindfulness group reported higher ratings of the training and were more supportive of future participation. Considering how difficult it can be to learn and maintain mindfulness practices, the presence of a dog could help participants stick with a mindfulness program and/or increase motivation and engagement. Participants in the other group participated in simple dog interactions, which are commonly known activities such as hide-and-seek. There was also an exercise where participants were asked to actively talk to their dogs. Participants in the dog-assisted mindfulness group were instructed to create a space where they could sit undisturbed and to turn off their phones. Before the exercise began, they were asked to invite their dog to sit either next to them on a blanket or bed or on their lap. During the final week, they were asked to complete the task in the absence of their dog. Participants were asked to engage their inner sense of touch, this time with their dog outside the room, focusing on the dog's body image. They were instructed to close their eyes and engage with this inner sense using their memory/imagination while mentally tracing an outline of their dog in their mind's eye, using/imagining their hand, and connecting with any feelings of warmth if they were present.

The results of the study revealed that a quarter of the dog owners felt uncomfortable during "talk time": "This task seemed a little strange to me. I do talk to the dog, but usually just for fun or commands," and 19% said their dog was restless during this task. In comparison, 53% of respondents indicated that their dog was restless during the "picture time" task. In the mindfulness group, the "dog fur" mindfulness task was perceived as pleasurable for the dog by 11% in week 1 and 23% in week 3: "My dog was in heaven." This highlights important differences between tasks and their relative effects on owners and dogs in each group.

Interestingly, and somewhat disturbingly, the researchers found it unusual for some participants to spend 7 minutes of undivided attention with their dogs, even when many of them were working from home during that time. While owners may enrich their dogs' lives in other ways (e.g., by providing them with toys, problem-solving tasks, or time outdoors), the results of an Australian public perception study showed that companion dogs' satisfaction depends on whether they spend sufficient time with their owners.

The researchers were pleased with regard to well-being on the "dog fur" mindfulness task. Here, there was a uniquely high agreement for "dog pleasure." This suggests that this particular mindfulness task could be beneficial to both the owner and the dog, unlike the other mindfulness tasks that seemed to be more beneficial to the owner than the dog.

Visualization exercises of the dog, especially when the dog was not in the same room, seemed difficult for many. Challenges were also apparent in the "watch the dog's breath" exercise. Some owners tried to tune into the dog's breathing rhythm, which did not help relaxation.

The researchers further elaborated on the meaning of meditation. They said that a deeper spiritual practice could not be achieved through these tasks, as too much focus was placed on a task or meditation object. However, if the purpose of the mindfulness exercise was to lead owners and animals to greater well-being and to encourage more mindful interaction with animals, then the mindfulness exercises would have a meaningful place.

 

In addition to this study described in detail, other researchers conducted research on the supportive effects of animals during mindfulness interventions in the psychotherapeutic setting. While the previous study focused on the well-being of humans and animals, these studies focused on the therapeutic benefits for humans. The question was whether the inclusion of animals, could improve mindfulness practices and thus contribute to better therapeutic outcomes.

 

Mindfulness practices have been incorporated into various psychotherapeutic settings. Mindfulness practices originated in the Buddhist tradition. Mindfulness is "the self-regulation of attention and the ability to hold attention to one's experience in the present moment." It is a moment-to-moment awareness of ever-changing phenomena, including perceptions, thoughts and feelings. Practicing mindfulness involves focusing attention on a single point, often the breath, as a means of increasing awareness of the present moment. As individuals focus on their breathing, their thoughts naturally wander to memories of the past or fantasies about the future. These thoughts lead to a variety of emotions and body sensations. When mindfulness practitioners place their attention on their breathing, their awareness of the present moment is heightened. In a psychotherapy setting, for example, this can reduce feelings of anxiety.

 

Although mindfulness-based therapies show promise in treating a range of mental disorders, there remain limitations in defining mindfulness and in helping clients establish a consistent mindfulness practice. In other words, mindfulness is effective, but it is often difficult to maintain the practice and even more difficult to encourage patients to continue doing it. Researchers suggest that including animals in mindfulness practice may improve motivation, acceptance, and persistence of mindfulness practices.

 

The animal-assisted mindfulness intervention in one study was as follows. The client was asked to indicate his anxiety level on a number scale. Then the therapist instructed the client to breathe deeply for 5 minutes while simultaneously paying attention to the natural interaction between himself (the client) and the animal. The therapist instructed the client to tune in to any changes that occurred during the interaction between client and therapy animal (e.g., emotional, physical). This was followed by 5 minutes of mindfulness practice toward the outside world. The client was free to interact with the animal. This could include touch, sight, smell, and sound. The therapist instructed the client to tune into his or her senses while tuning in with the therapy animal. This was followed by an exercise of empathy for the therapy animal for 5 minutes. The client was to empathize with any feelings toward the therapy animal. This could include positive or negative emotional or cognitive experiences that arose during the interaction with the therapy animal. This was followed by a 5 minute debriefing session during which the anxiety level was again asked on the number scale. Finally, the therapist helped the client draw connections between the interaction between himself (the client) and therapy animal and stress reduction techniques and stress reduction techniques that can be applied outside the session.

 

To date, studies of this type have been sporadic. A similar study examined the benefits of canine-assisted mindfulness in a therapeutic context. This was a randomized controlled trial that examined the psychological and physiological effects of adding animal-assisted therapy (AAT) to a modified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program in clients with mental health problems. The hypothesis was that AAT would complement mindfulness-based interventions because the therapy dog would focus attention on current experience and model acceptance and "being," thereby promoting understanding and practice of key aspects of mindfulness. It should be noted that by their formulation, the researchers show that they assumed animals were always living in the here and now and were always in acceptance with the present moment. The focus of the study was on the benefits to humans.

 

During each session, participants' mindfulness states and characteristics, psychological distress, blood pressure, and heart rate were measured. Results indicated that all participants showed fewer anxiety and depression symptoms, lower psychological distress, and improved mindfulness skills as a result of the mindfulness exercises compared to before and after treatment. In addition, anxiety levels, blood pressure, and heart rate decreased within the sessions. No significant difference was found between the control and experimental groups, suggesting that interaction with a therapy dog in the current study had no effect on symptom reduction, skill acquisition, or client satisfaction.

 

Another study, which again also focused on animal well-being and placed more emphasis on human-animal interaction, showed benefits of animal-assisted mindfulness practice. The study involved people with depression. For relapse prevention in depression, traditional mindfulness programs such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have been shown to be useful, but are often difficult to learn and lead to high dropout rates in high-risk patients. For this patient population, teaching mindfulness skills was facilitated through the use of sheep in an open-label pilot study. Six partially or unstably remitted patients with early trauma participated in eight group sessions of nature- and animal-based mindfulness training. The approach was feasible and well received by participants. There were no dropouts from the study. Results showed a decrease in depressive symptoms and rumination, an improvement in overall mindfulness skills, but not in acceptance skills. The researchers emphasized the need for further studies.

 

In a later study last-described scientists showed that mindfulness programs with animals would be particularly appropriate for patients with early life trauma. In this group of patients, depression would occur frequently. As relapse prevention of depression, conventional mindfulness programs such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy would have proven useful. However, early life trauma is a risk factor for adverse experiences during meditation, they said. Difficulties and unpleasant reactions may occur during meditation. As a result, mindfulness skills are often difficult to learn for this patient population. By using animals and a natural environment, the researchers saw a significant facilitation in performing the mindfulness techniques.

The purpose of the study was to examine the preventive effectiveness of a nature- and animal-based mindfulness (NAM) program over a one-year period in unstable or partially remitted depressed patients with a history of early childhood trauma. The program included 8 group sessions of 150 minutes each, duration over 8 weeks, and a booster session. Sixty-seven participants were randomized. The primary outcome was depression diagnosis over 12 months after completion of treatment.

Analyses revealed significant differences in relapse rates and the number of depressed weeks during the course in favor of the nature- and animal-based mindfulness program. In addition, global quality of life improved significantly more in the NAM group. Satisfaction with the program was high, and the dropout rate was low at 6%. The vast majority of participants felt safe practicing mindfulness in nature and found the support of sheep helpful and motivating. The researchers concluded that a nature- and animal-based mindfulness program proved to be feasible, highly acceptable, and more effective than standard treatment for preventing relapse in recurrent depressed patients who had been maltreated in childhood. In particular, the choice of sheep was shown to be favorable in this study because they were escape and social animals. As animals, they attributed to them a great capacity for mindfulness. Sheep, as intelligent, complex and sentient individuals, would sense emotions and moods of people and respond accordingly.

Focusing on the here and now, they said, makes it easier to cope with musings and worries that are common among abused individuals. Practicing a nonjudgmental attitude can be an antidote to feelings of shame, guilt, and anger. Cultivating compassion and especially self-compassion reduces self-blame and low self-esteem. The researchers emphasized that the animals do not create a therapeutic process per se, but rather support the change processes intended by the therapist. The researchers hoped for further study with a larger randomized sample.

 

Accordingly, further research on mindfulness practices together with animals seem to have potential to reveal ways to increase well-being in humans and in animals, and even to be supportive in the therapeutic setting.

 

 

Sources:

- Henry and Crowley (2015) The Psychological and Physiological Effects of Using a Therapy Dog in Mindfulness Training, Anthrozoös, 28 (3) 385-402.

- Lee Oliva and Green (2021) Dog Tales: Mindful Dog Interactions Evoke Similar Experiences to Dog Assisted Mindfulness Meditations. Animals (Basel). 2021 Jul;11(7): 2104.

- Leigh Atherton et al. (2016) Animal-Assisted Therapy as a Complementary Intervention for Mindfulness-Based Therapies, Ideas and Research You Can Use: VISTAS 2016

- Schramm et al. (2015) From animal behavior to human health: An animal-assisted mindfulness intervention for recurrent depression. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 223(3), 192–200.

- Schramm et al (2022) Effectiveness of Nature- and Animal Assisted Mindfulness for Relapse Prevention in Depressed Patients With a History of Childhood Maltreatment. Front Psychiatry. 2022; 13: 899318.