Forest Bathing with Your Dog

The Slow Dog Movement has existed as an activity for millennia. Walking at a slower pace and spending relaxed time with our dog companions is not new. Like other ‘slow’ movements, it is individuals who notice that we need a change in focus as a culture. The Slow Dog Movement’s purpose is to shine a light on what is better for dogs and closer to the dog ethogram. We focus on positive images, videos and stories of dogs. These images often show humans enjoying a loose leash walk where the dog is free to sniff at leisure. We can create change in a culture of speed and structure.

Forest Bathing with dogs is like the Slow Dog Movement but with a shift down one or even two gears. The Japanese practice of Forest Bathing means to explore nature through our senses. Doing this with our dogs, includes our well-being into the equation of a traditional dog walk. The Slow Dog Movement for some, may already involve an element of Forest Bathing. Others may have had this practice for years. The idea of Forest Bathing is very profound and yet simple. Its importance may get overlooked while we do a myriad of other activities instead.

I had the idea to do Forest Bathing with dogs two years ago. I bought Dr Qing Li’s book Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing in 2018. At the time, I even told Turid Rugaas, my teacher about this concept. I had come back from one month in British Columbia, Canada. That summer of 2018, I lay on the ground under the Cedars and Douglas Fir on our Canadian property. The wind was very gentle and the sun made the air sweet with tree scent. I thought this would be good for humans and their dogs. Forest Bathing is much like the Slow Dog Movement.  American author Nadine Mazzola published Forest Bathing with your Dog in 2019! I now know that if you have an idea, tell no one and seize the moment!

Mazzola writes:

Imagine for a moment you are a dog slowly strolling down a woodland trail. You have four bare paws on the ground and your nose, a few inches above the forest floor, is filled with the soft woodland scents that are much more alive lower to the ground. Your ears are relaxed but constantly adjusting as they tune in to the rhythms and story of the sounds around you. Your body is filled with the sensations and a knowing that only your senses can bring you. You are bathing in the atmosphere of the forest: alive, curious, noticing, resting, perhaps playing. You become part of the forest.[1]

It is common for people to think that the ‘dog walk’ is only for the dog’s benefit. A bit of a chore at times for some. Many insist on the two walk per day life for their dog. The dog eliminates, exercises and socializes. At times, when dogs are getting along with their environment, things are blissful. Other times are stressful and full of negotiation between human and dog. Thomas Fletcher and Louise Platt wrote a research paper ‘(Just) a walk with the dog? Animal geographies and negotiating walking spaces’.[2] Their paper found that people feel responsibility for their dogs to experience being a ‘real dog’. They call it ‘doggyness’– sniffing, digging, running and chasing animals.

There is nothing wrong with this traditional view of dog walking. But it is often a voyeuristic experience. Humans watch dogs run, chase and cavort. And they often plan where the dog will walk based on what they think the dog likes. Forest Bathing with your dog is an intentional shared experience of nature. Instead of a one-sided, purposeful activity, it is relaxing and symbiotic. At its best, Forest Bathing with your dog can be a healthful and enriching experience.

Japanese culture and nature are inseparable. It seems a paradox in this technological society. The roots of Buddhism and the Shinto religion have kept the value of forests and nature intact. The Science of Forest Bathing (or Shinrin-Yoku) began in the Akasawa Forest in Japan in 1982. Thomohide Akiyama, a Japanese forestry official ‘…stated that the people of Japan were in need of healing through nature’. This ‘…idea was also part of a campaign to protect the forests.’[3] In 2004 scientists started making the link between human health and forests. There are now sixty-two certified forest therapy bases in Japan. We love our dogs and strive to look after them. It is similar to nature and trees healing and looking after us. We must protect our green spaces. Symbiosis in action. Dr Li summarizes the Japanese philosophy on the nature and human life connection:

Shizen – which translates as ‘nature’, or ‘naturalness’ [in Japanese] – is one of the seven principles of Zen aesthetics. The idea behind shizen is that we are all connected to nature, emotionally, spiritually and physically; and that the more closely something relates to nature, the more pleasing it is… Nature is not separate from Mankind in Japanese culture. It is part of us.[4]

There is an avalanche of books and studies about human health and the nature connection. ‘Biophilia is ‘the concept that humans have a biological need to connect with nature.’[5] People and dogs spend way too much time indoors, up to 90% – in houses and cars.[6] People (and dogs) need to immerse themselves in woodlands, forests and the countryside. For health’s sake.

There are twenty-nine Forest Bathing Guides in England, Scotland and Wales. There are eleven in Ireland and two in Northern Ireland. The Institute of Forest Therapy has three institutes representing England, Scotland and Ireland.[7] A certified Forest Therapy Guide helps the participant to become present in the environment by offering ‘invitations’ to experience the woodland or forest in their own unique way. There is no label such as mindfulness or meditation within the practice. A further explanation can be found on the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy website:

Forest therapy walks are not hikes in the traditional sense. An entire walk is typically 2 to 4 hours in duration and often covers no more than a quarter mile distance. In that short distance most people experience contact with nature in a much deeper way than they ever have prior to the walk. On Forest Therapy walks, people have a wide range of experiences, some of which they feel are significant, even profound. Guides are trained in the skills and perspectives needed to be supportive witnesses of these experiences.[8]

While Forest Bathing, the ‘bather’ can find his or her own ‘sit spot’. A place where one can sit and feel calm and in tune with the natural environment around them. This is something I can relate to within my nearby Bluebell Wood in Cornwall. My dog Ted and I have found the perfect rocky outcrop on which to stop and sit. From high up on the hill we can see, hear, smell and sense the woodland. The canopy above us is full of tree branch patterns called fractals. These patterns are ‘…scientifically proven to relax us, no matter how complicated the pattern may become.’[9] Fractals are everywhere in nature. They are the planet’s sacred geometry. Snowflakes, spirals of a shell, flower petals, ocean waves, tree branches and more.

Forest Bathing with your dog is more than a slow walk. It is a meandering, or ‘sauntering’.[10] This is a term that was used by the American Essayist, Henry David Thoreau. A woodland journey where you leave your worries and dog commands behind. Use your five senses with your nose, mouth, eyes, ears, hands and feet as Dr Li would say. Go barefoot when you can. When your dog ‘invites’ you to wade in the stream, consider and, if possible, accept. When you stop and touch a mossy stump, let your dog use her foot pads or nose to sense that velvety texture too. Listen to the wind, bird song and nearby stream. Dogs may eat fresh spring grass and you may want to eat pine tips[11]and ground elder.

In Japan, many Forest Bathers eat ‘forest food’ at Forest Therapy Centre cafes. Forest Bathing Guides perform a tea ceremony at the end of their guided walk for humans. They gather plants from the natural environment to make the tea. Do research beforehand if you are foraging for woodland or forest food. Carry a copy of the Collins Gem: Food for Free.[12] Rhododendron, Foxglove, Dog’s Mercury and Yew Tree are all poisonous to dogs. There are more plants to be wary of but many to enjoy.

There are many things you can do that benefit you and your dog. Inhale the soil microbes (Mycobacterium Vaccae) when walking or sitting.[13] In the Autumn enjoy the scent of dry fallen leaves as you and your dog crunch them underfoot. Expand your lungs to breathe in fresh air containing negative ions. Inhale the volatile organic compounds of green foliage and flowers. In an evergreen forest, enjoy the health benefits of aromatherapy phytoncides. In warmer weather, take off your shoes. The earth has a natural low impulse of electromagnetic energy. These are all enlivening and grounding activities for you and your dog to share.

If you do an extended walk (2 nights, 3 days) in a woodland/forest area the health benefits of are lasting. In one study, the effects lasted up to thirty days. Scientists in Japan found that Forest Bathing increases immunity. NK (Natural Killer) cell activity went up over 50% after a 3 day, 2 night stay in the forest. Dr Li states that

Natural Killer cells are a type of white blood cell and are so called because they can attack and kill unwanted cells, for example, those infected with a virus, or tumour cells.[14]

Humans and dogs share the biological need for time in nature. We can witness how our dog’s senses awaken when out of doors. If in doubt, take note of your dog’s well-being before and after a slow walk. Walk your dog with a harness and loose leash at a sauntering pace. Allow them to sniff at their own speed. A French study has proven that dogs’ heart rates go down when we do this.[15] A study on the American Emerald ash borer disease proved that when trees die, people die. Dr Li explains that ‘…in the places where the trees had been affected by the disease, mortality rates were higher – specifically, the rates of death from cardiovascular and respiratory tract disease…’ [16] And the opposite is true as well. A study at The University of Exeter found that ‘…people who live where there are trees and green spaces are less anxious and depressed…’[17]

And there are even more direct health benefits of Forest Bathing:

  • It boosts the immune system – with an increase in the count of the body’s natural killer (NK) cells[18]
  • Increases energy
  • Decreases anxiety, depression and anger
  • Reduces stress and brings about a state of relaxation
  • Lowers stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline
  • Suppresses the sympathetic or ‘flight or fight’ system
  • Enhances the parasympathetic or ‘rest and recover’ system
  • Improve cardiovascular and metabolic health
  • Lower blood sugar levels
  • Improved concentration and memory
  • Improve pain thresholds
  • Increase anti-cancer protein production
  • Help you lose weight
  • Can help you sleep better
  • Lowers blood pressure and increases heart rate variability[19]

Dogs mirror our emotional state. They absorb stress from cortisol levels in our hair. It makes sense that when our health and mood state rises, so too is that of our dog.[20] Think about taking elements of Forest Bathing and including them in your ‘slow’ walks. Then do a longer ‘bathe’ once per week or month. The ideal length of time for humans is 2 hours per day of Forest Bathing. Within that time frame, the person would have only walked 2.5km. This may be too long for some dogs. If your dog stops, do the same. Give them an appropriate chew. Try to ask your dog to stop with you when you find your favourite ‘sit spot’ and reward with a chew.

Forest Bathing has many health and well being benefits for your dog as well:[21]

  • The Woodland/Forest floor is low impact – good for older dogs and dogs with limited mobility
  • The silence (I suggest also being silent with your dog as much as possible) of the woodland/forest is calming for you dog
  • Reduces fear in some dogs (rescue dogs) who are nervous around people – gives them ‘time out’ from ‘social fear’[22]
  • Is a bonding experience for human and dog
  • Positive ions from inhaling fresh air – an escape from our often polluted indoor air quality
  • ‘Grounding’ by feeling low electromagnetic impulse from earth/soil
  • Soil microbes for dog health – let them dig a hole, if it is not too destructive
  • Stress relief and relaxation from deep sniffing
  • Low impact parkour from climbing onto fallen logs, rocks and stumps, and walking over fallen sticks and crevasses
  • Sunlight provides Vitamin D
  • Confidence building from discovering new ways to navigate the natural environment
  • All the above positive benefits for humans!

According to Dr Li, the ‘ideal’ Forest Bathing environment should have some of these criteria (or all, if you are lucky):[23]

  • Gentle slopes
  • Wide paths
  • Well-maintained, well-marked trails
  • Free from pollutants
  • Far from the noise of traffic
  • A stream or waterfall, pond or lake
  • Wide variety of plants
  • Good luminescence, not too dark
  • At least 5km in length
  • Plenty of trees, especially evergreens
  • Guides or therapists, or forest managers
  • Toilet facilities

This is a wish list extraordinaire! Many people live in the city and must rely on parks during the week. Others may nature bathe near the sea. The best experience is to be in a woodland or forest and to have enough space to take your time. I would have to piece together two to three woodlands to make a good Forest Bathing experience in my area. It is important to embody the spirit of Forest Bathing rather than being dogmatic about it. No pun intended!

Try to tick as many of the ‘wish list’ elements as you can. The point is to slow down. Use your senses. Notice the natural world around you. Follow your intuition and body. Take cues from your dog and share a rest spot with your canine companion when possible. When your dog pauses or stops, so should you. Walk without an agenda or plan. Let the natural world envelope you both.

Cedar and fir trees

Watch over dog, child and Mum

While maple leaves fall

Getting ready for a Forest Bathing experience is much like a ‘slow’ walk. I recommend a harness and long, loose leash, at least 5 metres long. In Nadine Mazzola’s Forest Bathing with your Dog book, she uses a 20 foot nylon training lead. Use correct body language when wanting your dog to follow your course or pace. Face the direction you want to walk with confident posture. You may want to stop to take in some rays of sunlight through the trees or sit down. Mazzola says, ‘Let them [dogs] sense where you are putting your attention’. Dogs watch our every move and are more in tune with our facial expressions than you may think.[24]

Try to relax and use few commands. Turid Rugaas explains leash work in more detail in her book ‘My Dog Pulls, What do I do?’ [25] If you wish to have your dog off leash, for all or some of the walk, make sure that your dog has excellent recall. If you feel stress over how your dog will react towards other people, dogs or wild or farm animals nearby, use a leash. Try to let your dog choose what direction he or she would like to meander in when possible. This is a cooperative and beneficial experience for you both. And very bonding for humans and dogs.

Wear layers for warmth and if it is hot, bring a hat. Always bring water for yourself and your dog. Take along a snack for yourself, and an appropriate chew for your dog.[26] If the ground is damp, bring something to sit on for you and a mat or blanket for your dog to lie down on. Leave your phone at home if possible. Or bring your charged phone for an emergency but turn it off.

Check in with your dog. As this may be a new way of being together, your dog may wonder what is going on. Use the ‘hand signal’: ‘…(a relaxed palm facing the dog low down – not a ‘stop’ or ‘sit’ signal). This tells the dog that there is nothing to worry about so he does not need to move.’[27] If your dog is exhibiting stress over an unfamiliar object or sound. If you feel like you need to resume your regular pace and habit of walking with your dog, do so. Try to introduce this new way of being together next time.

When my son, Henry, was small, I would take him and our Westie, Bonnie, to the forest close to our house in Canada. We would saunter. We found what Mazzola calls ‘forest rooms’. Meandering through the standing giants of trees made us intimate with the forest. My son and dog would recognize their favourite places and sit or play. The forest was an extension of our own home. My Mum passed away last September. When we were on Gabriola Island last year for her wake, we went into our woods. Henry (aged 16) found the ‘gnome house’ we built in a mound of earth. The gnome house is still standing after eleven years but Bonnie is long gone now. Those forest bathing moments are still fresh in our family consciousness. Precious.

Growing up this way, has made Henry into a young person who cares about the natural environment. He wants to buy a woodland. I do too! If you care about somewhere, you can be a steward of your local woodland or forest. You can pick up rubbish from the beach or watch the health of trees you know. We must do this with our dogs too. In fact, Turid Rugaas called it the ‘M.O.T.’ Once a day, check your dog all over. Look at his/her feet, eyes, teeth, ears etc. It is a cliché, but true: ‘Health is Wealth’!

I invite you to find a wooded area near you home today. If you live in a city, choose a wooded park. No trees near you? Find a peaceful, nature filled environment if you can. Fill your rucksack with all you need and embark on a Forest Bathing journey with your dog. Build on your experience each time you venture out.

If you want to learn more about Forest Bathing and find a guide or centre near you, I have listed some resources at the end of this blog.

Stay tuned to The Slow Dog Movement blog for more ideas. Join me in creating a sea change – an evolution revolution for dogs. Where ‘less is more’ and seeing things from a dog’s point of view makes life easier for you too!

#slowdogmovement #fortheloveofdogs #forestbathingwithyourdog #forestbathing #biophilia #biophiliac #trees #fortheloveoftrees #woodland #forest #savetheplanet #savetrees #slowmovement #shizen #shinrinyoku


RESOURCES:

https://foresttherapyinstitute.com/

https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/

https://www.forestholidays.co.uk/activities/forest-bathing/benefits/ (dog friendly)

[1] Nadine Mazzola, Forest Bathing with your Dog (Blue Cloud Books:2019)19-20

[2] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14649365.2016.1274047

[3] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing (Penguin Random House UK:2018)

[4] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku, 23

[5] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku, 14

[6] https://www.opinium.co.uk/brits-spend-time-indoors/

[7] https://foresttherapyinstitute.com/find-a-guide/ and https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/membership/guide-directory#!directory/map

[8] https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/guide-training/training

[9] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku 175-178

[10] Nadine Mazzola, Forest Bathing with your Dog, 54

[11] https://honest-food.net/edible-pine-tree-nuts-pollen-tips/?fbclid=IwAR01EbpIB1GwJCNRKJSJ8GOG0OwWP2Sn6PeMd-PkYLti02QhCt-Io7dDJfs

[12] Collins Gem: Food for Free, (Harper Collins Books:2003)

[13] https://qz.com/993258/dirt-has-a-microbiome-and-it-may-double-as-an-antidepressant/

[14] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku, 83

[15] http://www.dogfieldstudy.com/en/pulse-study/at-the-heart-of-the-walk

[16] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku, 113-116

[17] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku, 113-116

[18] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793341/

[19] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku, 38, 62-67, 82-83

[20] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43851-x and https://phys.org/news/2019-06-dogs-mirror-owner-stress.html

[21] https://animalwellnessmagazine.com/5-reasons-to-get-outdoors/

[22] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/canine-corner/202004/are-city-dogs-more-anxious-country-dogs

[23] Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku, 137

[24] https://www.springer.com/gp/about-springer/media/research-news/all-english-research-news/dogs-understand-what-s-written-all-over-your-face/15835462

[25] https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Dog-Pulls-What-Do/dp/1929242239

[26] JR Pet Products, Wales: https://www.jrpetproducts.com/?v=79cba1185463

[27] https://www.pdte.eu/post/2015/05/11/stress-series-what-can-we-do-about-stress-part-3-of-3

Watch my ‘Forest Bathing with Your Dog’ interview with Pennie Clayton.

3 Replies to “Forest Bathing with Your Dog”

  1. I only discovered Shinrin Yoku yesterday. On preparing for my first walk this morning I looked at my trusty freind who comes down the woods with me regularly and thought surly this can be done with her too. Thank you for the guidance and advice. I’m away now to slow walk with my buddy !!!! Thank you Mark

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