Ellie my Labrador seems to have become my ‘Mindfulness Detection Dog’, with her behaviour showing my degree of mindfulness or presence.

Now this could all be coincidence, but I have started to notice a certain pattern out on our walks and I don’t think it’s down to poor training …

Keeping her distance

As I’m walking through the fields with Ellie, I like most, am usually lost in thought, thinking about emails, conversations, planning, yesterday, tomorrow, etc. When I do finally notice my distraction and return back to the present moment and look around, Ellie is usually far behind me sniffing in the hedge, doing her dog thing. But I’ve begun to notice that as soon as I’ve returned back to the present moment, out of daydreaming, becoming aware again of myself, my surroundings, the sky, the birdsong, the weather, etc then she catches up and rejoins me, without me even asking and we happily potter along together.

Now this is an impossible one to test, because the moment you think about being lost in thought, you are no longer lost in thought. But it does seem that when I’m mentally awake, aware and present, she’s close by.
But when my mind drifts off, so does she.
She becomes as oblivious to me, as I am to my surroundings.

Sense of disconnect

This isn’t a skill Ellie has been trained in, but like most dogs she is a naturally keen observer of her environment and is sensitive to her humans.

But is this a skill unique to dogs? If you were to walk alongside someone who was completely engrossed in a phone call, unaware of anything except the call, including you, then you might have a sense of detachment, indifference or remoteness. You probably don’t exist in that person’s focus and you might feel that sense of disconnect quite clearly. Is this what Ellie senses when I’m lost in thought? Her owner is there physically but not mentally, with many key senses temporarily shut down. She might as well be walking on her own. No wonder the twigs in the hedge are of more interest.

Why does awareness matter?

According to the researchers “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” (Killingsworth) and that’s because it often wanders in a negative direction, with habitual, often inaccurate views of reality. Learning to recognise when we have got lost in the drama of our thoughts and knowing that thoughts are just thoughts and not us or reality, means we can learn to let go of them, leading to improvements in our mental and physical well-being. But more importantly, when we’re lost in thought we’re missing out on experiencing life.

Other uses of a meditation cushion

Other uses of a meditation cushion

Holding up the mirror

Of course, kids and dogs are great teachers in the art of being mindful, living fully in the moment, with interest, curiosity and their senses fully engaged. You don’t often see them out on a walk, eyes glazed, lost in thought, walking along on autopilot.

But more than that, perhaps they can also hold up the mirror to us. To help us see our mindfulness or mindlessness more clearly. Just as Ellie is doing. So I can use her distance from me as a measure of how mindful I have been in the last few minutes. Or I can use her nearby presence as a reminder to remain in the present moment for as long as possible and not get carried away by my thoughts.

So thinking about your own life, who mirrors your degree of presence by their behaviour? A child, a pet, a partner, family member or friend perhaps? How do they respond when you’re mindful and fully present with them? How they respond when you’re mindless and distracted or lost in thought? Perhaps they ignore you, play up, do things to get your attention? How does their behaviour change?

Now I’m all for meditation apps, mindfulness classes, mindful phone reminders and all of the various other ways we can bring more mindfulness into our lives, but I do wonder if there might be simpler ways of reminding ourselves. Ways that perhaps have been right under our noses all along.

So could you consider using the responses of your loved ones as an indicator of your current state of mindfulness? Perhaps reminding you to be more mindful, keeping you out of that autopilot and staying in the present longer?

And Ellie like all dogs, probably has it right. The present moment is a much more interesting place to be.


Debbie is Chief Thinking Officer at ThinkingSpace, providing self-delivered team training on the mind at work www.ThinkingSpace.training

Ellie is a withdrawn guide dog, is now Head of Catering Surveillance at Thinking Space and a visiting hospice therapy dog. She briefly features in some of the Mindfulness at Work e-Course videos