Most Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills are done alone because they involve our inner thoughts or behaviors. Even the Interpersonal Effectiveness skills are best practiced on your own first. For many of us, our pets are part of our mental health support system. Let's put them to work! The following are DBT skills you can practice together.
You can use both the What and the How skills with your pet. Observe their appearance, the way their fur (or feathers or scales!) feel under your fingers. Watch their behavior without judgment. Try to observe something you've never noticed before. You can even use Describe by putting words to those observations. Participate by focusing fully on your pet. Let distractions pass through your mind without setting up shop.
Observe, Describe, and Participate while being One-Mindful. Focus on the present moment with your pet. That means even avoiding returning to good memories of your pet. It's all about the now. Be Nonjudgmental as well. Avoid placing labels such as 'good' or 'bad' on the experience or your pet. Technically that means staying away from the label 'cute' but we'll give you a pass for that one ;)
Using your five senses with your pet is an amazing way practice the Distress Tolerance skill Self-Soothe. You might even be doing it already if you give your animal a cuddle when you're upset. Sometimes our pets can tell when we're upset and come to us before we turn to them, without being trained as service animals. Many are naturally intuitive.
Give your little friend a pet and focus on how that feels on your hands. Take a careful look at your pet and take in their comforting, familiar appearance. Bury your face into their back and notice their scent. Listen to your cat's purr or you pet's breathing. Only use four of your five senses; we do NOT advise tasting your pet!
Activities (Wise Mind ACCEPTS)
Another thing to do with your pet when you're in distress is do something active. That's the A from the Distress Tolerance skill Wise Mind ACCEPTS- Activities. Get up out of your bed and go walk your dog. Play with your cat or guinea pig or ferret. Feed your frog. If you have an animal that you can't really interact with (a fish, maybe?), you can clean their enclosure. That's not the most fun but it's still using the DBT skill.
A key part of ACCEPTS is using your Wise Mind to determine how long you need to distract for. Distraction can easily turn into avoidance. If you're taking a five-hour walk with your dog, you might be overdoing it.
Cuddling or playing with your pet is a good experience, right? Having a good time regularly is a DBT Emotion Regulation skill! In order to Accumulate Positives, make the pleasant activity a habit. It's like putting happy pennies in the bank. They eventually add up.
Take a moment to pet your animal every time you come home from work. Play with them every day. Dog owners are a little bit ahead here because dogs require walks regularly already. Be Mindful during these experiences so you can recall them during difficult times. If you have trouble remembering to do this because of your emotional state, write it on your to-do list!
Using the Interpersonal Effectiveness skill DEAR MAN with your pet is a little less fun than the previous skills but it can help you a lot. It can be really hard to use the skill to ask for something or say no without practicing in advance. We usually recommend writing the script down but you can take it one step further.
Take the script that you've written for the DEAR MAN you want to do and practice it aloud with your pet. They're a great listener and won't throw any wrenches into your DEAR MAN like a person might. It's a great step towards performing your script with the person you need to.
Pets are hugely beneficial to our mental health in general. Plus, using DBT skills with your pet is a fun way to get closer to your Life Worth Living. Try these out and let us know how it went!