Mindful animal care and training

Mindfulness and its application to animal care and training 

You may have heard of mindfulness before but how exactly does it relate to your work as an animal care professional? Whether you’re an animal attendant, trainer, behaviour consultant or veterinary professional, mindfulness can be applied to your work. It can increase both your effectiveness and your wellbeing. In this article, I will explain just what mindfulness is and how it can be applied to your work.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness refers to the ability to pay attention non-judgementally, on purpose, in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). To pay attention on purpose means that we are aware of where our attention is, we intentionally focus our attention on where it needs to be and we can sustain this attention for however long it needs to stay there (Hassed & Chambers, 2014). The non-judgemental aspect of mindfulness refers to the idea that mindfulness is about practicing acceptance, openness, and curiosity as opposed to holding on to or denying feelings, ideas or events.

I’m going to emphasise the non-judgemental aspect here because I think it’s the clincher. Sometimes the work of an animal care professional can mean you’re witnessing animal or human suffering and loss, sometimes you may see trauma and sometimes you might be involved with cases of neglect. Mindfulness may just offer you some peace. It’s accepting both the negative and positive aspects of work with animals. By this I’m not saying agree with animal welfare issues, neglect or mistreatment more just not holding on to the horror of it or being suffocated by the anger or on the flip side turning away from it and denying it by saying you don’t care.

Applying the non-judgemental aspect of mindfulness to animal care work can also mean being more open to the good. Being open to the times when a successful adoption has occurred or times when an animal has been successfully rehabilitated.

It also means being curious as opposed to perhaps being angry or resentful. For example, adopting curiosity to work may mean the difference between reacting with anger towards someone who has relinquished an animal to wondering what might have led them to make this decision in the first place. Or it may mean the difference between reacting with anger towards other groups in the animal welfare space and instead being curious as to what their motivations and values may be then perhaps engaging in respectful dialogue. It may also mean the difference between criticizing ourselves for our own failures and setbacks and instead being more accepting and kind to ourselves. As you can see, mindfulness is so much more than daily meditation – although this is, of course, a big part of it.

To further appreciate what mindfulness is, think about a moment when you were so absorbed in an activity that you were not aware of the time, were not replaying conversations, regretting past decisions,  or worrying about the future. This could have been cleaning kennels, engaging in a conversation with someone, during an obedience class or during surgery. This, in itself, is mindfulness and it is during these moments when we are happiest and when we perform at our very best (Hassed, 2014; McKenzie & Hassed, 2012).

Why is mindfulness important?

You may be beginning to understand just why mindfulness is important. To emphasise the importance further, it is useful to think about the times when we are not mindful. When we are not mindful, when we are not fully focused on the present moment, we may, for example, miss the subtle signs of discomfort in a dog we’re working with or we may only half-listen to a client or owner and miss important information about a case or fail to establish a good working relationship with the owner or with the animal. Not being mindful then, can have negative impacts on our performance as animal care professionals.

Another consequence of not being mindful is that we may worry about upcoming consultations, or ruminate about past consultations, or compare ourselves unfavourably to others. It is during these times we can become vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and compassion fatigue. Further, when we are not mindful we may hold on so tightly to our opinions that we may become angry at others for believing differently.  Not being mindful then, can have a negative impact on our stress levels, our relationships with others, our ability to switch off as well as our performance.

What’s the flip side of this? The flipside, of course, is mindfulness. Practicing non-judgemental present moment awareness can lead to a number of physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual benefits (Gonzalo, Ausiàs, & Joaquim, 2016; Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004). Mindfulness is linked with decreased levels of compassion fatigue (Decker, Brown, Ong, & Stiney-Ziskind, 2015) and job-related emotional exhaustion (Galantino, Baime, Maguire, Szapary, & Farrar, 2005; Hülsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013). Regular mindfulness meditation is also linked with growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, emotion regulation, and perspective-taking (Davidson et al., 2003; Holzel et al., 2011). For an extensive review of the benefits of mindfulness as it applies to work, see Good et al. (2016) and Hyland, Lee, and Mills (2015).

Cultivating mindfulness  

It is my hope that you may be curious to learn more about cultivating mindfulness in your life. Here are some informal and formal ways to practice mindfulness.

Informal practice

Informal practice of mindfulness can be cultivated in everyday life. For example, when you get up in the morning and have a shower you may like to pay attention to the sounds of the water, the warmth of the water on your skin and the feeling of the warm water hitting the top of your head. As you drink a coffee, you may become aware of the smell of the coffee, the sensation of the coffee as it touches your lips or the warmth of the coffee cup in your hands.

Informal practice of mindfulness can also be applied to your work with animals. At work, when you’re speaking with a client or colleague, practice mindful listening. Listen to them without judgment, without interrupting and without anticipating their next sentence or thinking about what you will say in response. Notice the effect this has on your ability to recall the conversation, the working relationship you have with the person, your level of compassion and appreciation for their situation as well as on your level of understanding and compassion for the animal you’re working with.

When you’re working with an animal, focus your attention on them without distraction. Focus on their breathing, body posture, facial expression and their orientation in space. Next, expand your attention to the immediate environment, including what you can see, hear, smell and feel. Then, expand your attention beyond the immediate environment. This awareness on the present moment can give you a lot of information about why an animal is behaving in a certain way. In this way you will be able to interpret the event as it is rather than interpreting it in ways which may be biased to another person’s opinion, your own past encounters with similar people or animals, learned habitual responses, or future predictions. This is not to say that your knowledge and practical experience cannot be used to interpret the event but knowing the difference between what is reality and what is filtered by your perception, another’s perceptions and past experience is important. The applications of mindfulness to everyday life are endless.

Formal practice

Mindfulness is best cultivated through mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation may sometimes be confused with relaxation meditation, however, while relaxation is often a reported side effect of practice, mindfulness meditation is best understood as attention training.

To this end, as you practice mindfulness you will find that your mind will wander. In fact, research shows that the mind wonders almost 50 percent of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010)! This is normal and the key is that each time you notice your attention wander, without judgment, gently bring your attention back. You may also become aware of other, perhaps uncomfortable sensations, feelings or thoughts too. For example, you may become aware of how tired you feel or how stressed you are, or perhaps how self-critical you may be towards yourself. This too is normal. If, however, you find your symptoms are persistent and distressing, please seek advice from a health professional.

To practice mindfulness, there are a number of mindfulness apps, websites, workshops, and books available on mindfulness meditation. These include Smiling Mind, Calm and Headspace as well as the work by Tara Brach and Jon Kabat-Zinn. There are also free online courses on Mindfulness that can be accessed through Futurelearn. These courses have been developed by Assoc. Prof Craig Hassed and Dr Richard Chambers from Monash University. They are easily accessible and well researched.

Face to face workshops which consist of discussions on what mindfulness is and what it is not as well as discussion and reflections on your own practice are highly recommended. So why not see what’s available in your local area.

Anyone can practice mindfulness. Like weight training, aim to start small and practice mindfulness meditation for 5 minutes or 10 minutes at a time. To practice mindfulness meditation and receive the benefits, consistency is the key. Make a commitment to practice mindfulness meditation every day for 12 weeks and see what happens. Just like starting a regular gym routine can be difficult to begin with, mindfulness meditation may not always be comfortable or easy. It is, nonetheless, well worth the effort both for your professional life and your own health and wellbeing.


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