Meditation and Dog Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

When I was a child I imagined I could communicate telepathically with my dog, Casper. I wanted to know what he was thinking and what he was trying to say to me, so I imagined it. I spent hours with him and told myself stories about what it all meant. There’s a lot of nostalgia there – a boy and his dog. And, if you’re waiting for a “but,” there isn’t one.

This is what we humans do. We tell stories, all 7.4 billion of us. There isn’t a human being on the planet who doesn’t speak and think in at least one language. We think in words and words are what fill our brains every waking hour and some of our sleeping hours as well. They are powerful things, these wordy thoughts. Powerful good. Powerful bad sometimes, too.

IMG_7901Even now as adults I know we all still create stories about what our dogs are thinking and what they’re trying to say to us. We’re only human, after all. I wrote a blog a few years ago called Positive Thinking – Positive Training about how our thoughts and stories about our dogs can get in the way of good training. We keep tripping over our brains, crowded with words. My dog is jealous of me – My dog thinks he’s alpha – He’s stubborn or defiant. Then we slip and fall into even worse thinking. I need to show him who’s boss – this is hopeless – I can’t anymore.

It’s a curse of being human. We can’t always think our way out of problems, but we can almost always think our way into them. In our worst moments our thoughts spiral and loop back on themselves. We become anxious or depressed. We make bad decisions or become too paralyzed to act. Things get worse.

How can we tame our minds and slow down these damaging thoughts? I mentioned Aaron Beck in my Positive Thinking blog post. He’s credited with pioneering Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a great tool for helping us humans to think better about the stories we tell ourselves. I also recommend the writing of Steven Hayes who developed Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which helps us notice thoughts without struggling against them. The book The Happiness Trap is a great introduction to ACT.

And, none of this is new. Buddhist teachers have been helping folks tame their minds for millennia. Mindfulness is something of a catchword these days but it has a deep history. When we are aware and present (mindful) we can see our brain chatter from a different perspective – almost like we’re an observer. Hmm, I’m having some thoughts. Author and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön writes about not getting hooked by those thoughts. We notice them, but we don’t engage them – we don’t get sucked into the spiral or the word loop in our heads. How? Meditation.

What does meditation have to do with dog training? Everything. It’s where we practice patiently and gently settling our own minds. Chödrön and others frequently refer to our “monkey brain” – fast moving thoughts coming at us nonstop. The 8th Century Monk, Shantideva, refers to it as the “elephant mind;” the thoughts are sometimes strong and pressing. When we meditate, we are learning to tame our thinking –  the fast moving monkey and the pressing elephant. We acknowledge thoughts but then release them. Thinking. There is it. Off it goes. Breathe. We don’t judge. We simply notice and let them go. We then return our focus to our breathing. You’ve heard about breathing in meditation. It keeps us in the present moment. It’s where we put our attention when we feel like we’re getting hooked by a thought or two – or fifty. I highly recommend Chödrön’s book, How to Meditate, for more information.

Here’s how it relates to our work with our dogs. Meditation sessions are brain training. We learn how to see thoughts, many of them potentially damaging, and then set them aside. We don’t get hooked. We don’t act on them. We return to the breathing and relax into the right-now. Later, though, in our daily lives we can use these same skills. In a teaching session with our dog we might have a thought like, oh he’s never going to be able to do this. But, we don’t have to believe it. We don’t have to become paralyzed by it. We’re not hooked. We can notice the thought and then let it go – returning to the present moment with our dog. Yes, we’ll observe our dog’s behavior. And, yes we’ll adjust the learning session to help him succeed with the task at hand (that’s all thinking of a sort). But with our new clearer minds we won’t be stymied by useless or destructive thoughts.

So often in dog training we talk about starting with our own behavior. Our actions affect the choices our dog’s make.  Now we’re taking one extra step back to look not just at our actions but our thoughts. Is our wordy brain chatter leading us to poor choices with our dogs? Or, is our clear thinking helping us both? Let’s see our thoughts for what they are. Let’s tame them. Let’s set the ones aside that we don’t need and come back to the ones we do. Let’s think and act better. And breathe. And simply be. Be human with a delightful brain full of stories. But be present and mindful, too. And most certainly, be right here right now in this moment with your dog.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He helps families whose dogs behave  aggressively and fearfully.

Dogs are Good

Back in graduate school for becoming a counselor we had to write a position paper that addressed a pivotal question. Are people inherently good or are we flawed, destined by our very nature to ill will, crime, and other malfeasance? We then had to explore how the answer to that one question would likely shape our approaches to being a counselor and our techniques with our clients. It turns out I didn’t become a counselor. Still, the question resonates with me to this day, and it applies to our work with dogs.

Houston-Dog-Trainer-Stewie-CuddleAre our dogs, all dogs, inherently good? Or is their nature flawed, dooming them to misbehavior and conflict with us humans? I’ll skip to the end here. People: good. Dogs: also good.

But let me explain this thinking a bit further.  I’m not talking about good versus evil. In the movies dogs are cast as moral icons. For a lot of people that image is comforting, dogs as spiritual exemplars. That’s a shame, though, and a disservice to dogs who are natural thinking and feeling beings. Like all beings (even human beings) they make choices – they choose behaviors that keep them safe and serve their needs. We like many of the choices our dogs make (and we call them good choices). Some we don’t. But none of that has any bearing on the goodness of dogs, born of dogs into our human world. It’s not up to us to assign any higher value to them. The dog is what he is and that’s enough. Good enough.

Dogs think (and learn). They feel. They perceive. They communicate. They engage their bodies with the world around them in work, play, and rest. All good.

So much of the time, the problem with dogs is ours. It begins in our own heads. We have this idea of good and we try, despite evidence of our folly, to plaster it onto our dogs. Good dogs, we say, think just like us. They jockey for power and adulation, like us. They fall victim to brooding over emotions like us. They see the world like us and understand words (sentences) like us. Their bodies are to be tempered, controlled, as we try (and fail) to control our bodies. It’s how we think of our dogs all too often. All wrong.

There are volumes written about the nature of dogs. I won’t do them justice here. But when we think about the real goodness of dogs, as they are not as we press them to be, then we begin to honor one of the world’s most amazing animals. They think and feel. There is new evidence emerging even now about how vibrant our dogs’ mental and emotional lives might actually be. They take in the world through all their senses, but most especially their noses. It’s a rich perception of the environment we can’t even begin to fully imagine with our ocular and auditory brains. They interact with other species, not just other dogs, with a rich vocabulary of body movements and facial expressions (we’d serve ourselves well to learn this language of dogs). And, they are physical, beautifully physical, athletic, elegantly so – and also calm at times, even languid, eager to cuddle and pleasing to touch.

How can we think of engaging these animals with anything other than deep admiration and respect? Exploring the goodness of dogs always leads back to this. They’re cool. There is so much to them. And the more we look the more we notice how much more there is. Our ideas of good dog and bad dog pale when we begin to see what they really are. And, so our choices are naturally shaped by the goodness at hand.

We teach dogs kindly in a way that honors their intelligence and emotional lives. This is how the question of goodness leads us to how we approach dogs and the techniques we use in teaching and communicating. Shame on us who impose our own damaged view of the world on to them. More shame if that view leads us to hurt them as perhaps we are hurting. We humans are stuck in a constant loop of need, to feel good, to feel in control, to achieve and flaunt. Not so our dogs. Better to take a breath and notice who they are than to put that on them. Listen by watching. Take in how they take in the world. Get lost in their motion, the subtle move of their eyes and ears. Be the quiet primate and move with equal measure of subtlety to a common ground.

The person and the dog, it is the stuff of stories, no dramatic embellishment needed. Here’s to finding our own human goodness, better still shared with another.

How Physical Therapy Helped me Better Understand Dog Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

They call it an impingement, and as rotator cuff injuries go it’s not one of the bad ones. That information by itself inspires the deepest respect for my fellow middle aged weekend warriors who have serious shoulder injuries. I moved my arm the wrong way once and it impingementliterally floored me, took my breath away. I thought I was going to throw up. What kind of pain must the others be shouldering, the dislocations and the tears?

“Doctor, it really hurts when I do this.” I fully expected him to say, “Well, don’t do that anymore.” He actually didn’t say that. It’s an old joke that, when you think about it, is a bit condescending and wholly unsatisfying. And yet, it’s exactly what I’ve told countless clients who are struggling with dog behavior issues. My dog goes crazy when I take him on walks. (Don’t do that anymore). My dog bites me when I pet him (Don’t do that). He growls when I reach for his toy (Don’t). When my daughter’s friends run through the house… (Stop, please).

We trainers know the logic behind this. It’s called antecedent control. If we can shut down what’s triggering the dog, the behavior stops. We get a break. It really is part of the solution. I had stopped doing what really hurt the most long before I went to the doctor – reaching, reaching up and to the side, or bending low and reaching far like the time I tried to get my dog’s ball from under the sofa. That kind of pain makes it hard to get back up. Don’t do that anymore, right?

If you’ve never been, physical therapy is like going to a gym where everyone gets a personal trainer, an assistant personal trainer, and an intern. Insurance pays for it and the weights are pretty light. I liked it right away. It also helped me better understand dog training. Avoiding the shoulder pain was a good idea – just like sequestering a violent dog is a smart move. But it’s a bit unsatisfying. What’s the rest of the solution? The answer kind of surprised me – and I was surprised that it surprised me because of how closely in parallels dog training.

puppy-potty-trainingMany (okay most) of my clients think we are taking their hair-trigger cute-faced biter out into the world on our first visit to “see what happens.” As a trainer, I know that makes no sense. So, why did I think physical therapy for my shoulder was going to involve my shoulder directly – triggering the pain, stretching my arm behind my back, reaching for the peanut butter jar? What silly patient I was.

I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist, but here’s my understanding. Healing an injured joint is all about building the supporting muscles around the joint. Its also about relaxing the joint and creating room for easier motion. And all this involves teaching the body new behaviors, how to fire oft ignored muscles, how to sit and stand with better posture. For my shoulder it was all about working on my back. Go figure.

Sure, this was just a bit confusing at first, but so enlightening too. How odd it must seem to dog training clients when we begin teaching their angry dog obedience cues, impulse control exercises, and relaxation protocols. We know, but do we fully explain, that we’re teaching the dog behaviors that will support them when they feel the most stress or fear?We’re helping them self-regulate and relax so they can make better behavior choices when it matters most. Sometimes it doesn’t look at all like teaching the dog stop lunging, or biting, or growling. It’s about teaching new behavior and loosening the dog up around the problem area. Go figure.

Physical therapy, like dog training, can be challenging. There are regular visits and homework. Lots of homework. All these exercises for my back, teaching my scapula to move correctly, my chest to open up, my spine to curve correctly. In therapy and in dog training both, we break it down into individual tasks and build little by little. The dog attends to his owner more closely, targets the mat and her hand, follows better on leash, sits and lies down and stays. The routine gets boring at times – every day – more practice.

It’s hard sometimes to make the connection between the work and the goal. Maybe you notice, maybe you don’t, one day when your dog stays calm when another dog passes, walks away when you reach for his toy, snores peacefully when your kids’ friends run through the house. Maybe all you think about is that first warm cup when you reach for the coffee grinder, high up on the second shelf. You take your first sip before you realize – it didn’t hurt.