How to Take Your Dog On a Mindful Nature Walk
Wellness experts and animal trainers agree: a tuned-in spring outing can be restorative for both people and pets.
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No matter where you live, spring always brings plenty of vibrant colors and shapes for you to see — and smells for your dog to sniff. This makes it the perfect season to recommit to spending more time outdoors together. For some added encouragement and inspiration, we asked the experts — from a certified animal behaviorist to a certified forest therapy guide — for a few ways to take your daily nature outings from meh to mesmerizing this spring.
1. Let your dog set the tone.
Most dogs will naturally want to linger and fully take in the environment they’re walking through, especially in spring when there’s so much new life to see. By rushing them along from one place to the next, we’re cutting this exploration short, which could breed unnecessary stress and anxiety. Nadine Mazzola, a Certified Forest Therapy Guide, notes that instead, it’s essential to “let our dogs be dogs” and give them the freedom to follow their innate curiosity.
“Walking half a block and smelling everything that they want to smell will be much more beneficial for your dog's nervous system than going five times that distance [quickly],” Mazzola notes.
Allowing your dog to take their time exploring their surroundings will also help you find new sources of pleasure and surprise. So the next time your pup is busy sniffing the flowers or rolling in the grass, take the moment to observe your own surroundings. “You'd be amazed by what you discover just pausing and looking around,” Mazzola adds. Dogs can be wonderful mindfulness teachers, it turns out, when we just let them lead the way.
2. Explore a new area.
While your street will always provide something new to see (especially when approached with a mindful curiosity), Hannah Overeem, the founder of Hiking Dogs Co., sees value in exploring new areas too. She encourages pet parents to “think beyond the backyard fetch session” and regularly seek out different routes, parks, or short trails to mix things up and keep their dogs more mentally stimulated.
Caroline Wilkinson, a certified animal behaviorist and founder of virtual pet coaching service Barket Place, echoes that visiting new areas can also help you experience more awe in your day-to-day. Awe, the humbling emotion that we feel in the presence of something vast or incomprehensible, “has been proven in studies to boost happiness, along with reducing feelings of stress and overwhelm,” she notes, so it’s worth pursuing by mixing up your daily routine.
3. Engage your senses with a Shinrin-yoku-inspired walk.
Shinrin-yoku, which loosely translates to “forest bathing” in English, is the Japanese practice of walking through a forest slowly and mindfully, with the intention of engaging all five senses as you go. It’s been shown to help people will everything from stress reduction to immune support — and Mazzola notes that it can be restorative for dogs as well.
Try it out for yourself by simply slowing down on the next walk you take with your dog through a forest (or any area that has trees). Instead of reaching a certain destination, make your goal to simply observe the landscape around you together — from the patterns of light that trickle through the leaf canopy to the invigorating scents of your local trees. You’ll likely find that your dog can show you sides of it you would have otherwise missed.
Listen to your breathing. If it’s shallow or uneven, take a few deep abdominal breaths, exhaling twice as long as inhaling. As you relax, you may start to notice a slight pause at the exchange between the inhale and the exhale. Rest in that pause. Let thoughts flow. Don’t stress about silencing your mind.
Mazzola, whose book Forest Bathing With Your Dog provides a detailed guide to getting started with the practice, notes that every time she and her pup Juliet return from a forest bath together, they feel infinitely more relaxed, regulated, and connected to one another.
4. Go on an extended exploration with other dogs.
For those who prefer a faster-paced activity, Overeem says that taking your dog on a more traditional hike can also be a wonderful experience. Through her organization, which organizes free group nature outings for dogs and their owners, she’s found that hiking with pets can make the healthy activity much easier to stick with.
“You enjoy it so much more because you see how much your dog enjoys it,” she says. “It's great for you. And it's great for your dog.” Synching up with other dogs and dog owners can make your next spring hike even more rewarding for both of you. “The more you hang out with people and do things to be active, the better you're going to feel. I think dogs can be very similar,” she adds.
Before you head out, just make sure that your hike will be safe for your pet and the ground they walk on. Overeem recommends packing a dog first aid kit and twice the amount of food you think you and your furry friend will need, just in case. Use extra precautions when it’s hot outside, and double-check that the trail you want to visit is dog-friendly. Overeem notes that the Alltrails app will usually tell you. Once you arrive, encourage your dog to stay on the designated path so they don’t trample any native vegetation or disturb wildlife. (Instagram may love that shot of your dog in the wildflowers, but the plants won’t!)
Ultimately, any springtime walk will be memorable when you appreciate it for what it is: an opportunity to explore the world with your favorite companion by your side. As Wilkinson says, “To feel humbled and inspired by the world around us just adds an extra layer to an already incredible adventure — time with our dog.”
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Emma is a writer, editor, and environmentalist based in New York City. She is the senior sustainability editor at mindbodygreen, the author of Return To Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us (April 2022), and the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self-Care. While she doesn’t have any pets of her own, she is a loving dog aunt to Pip the pup.