Creating new pathways for your dog’s “monkey mind”

monkeymine“Mind monkey,” xinyuan in Chinese and shin-en in Sino-Japanese, is a term drawn from Buddhist teachings that describes a restless mind, one that is unsettled, confused, indecisive, uncontrollable. Buddha described the human mind as a drunken monkey, leaping about, carrying on, chattering. Among the drunken monkeys mucking about and causing disruption and disability are fear and anxiety.

Recently, author Daniel Smith used this metaphor as the title of his book “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.” It’s a heartfelt, humorous, at times tragic account of how the human mind can run amok, cause fear, and be taken over by the “drunken monkeys” creating ceaseless chatter and debilitating emotions.

In an interview with NPR last year following the release of his book, Smith told listeners, “We all have these pathways that we’ve set for ourselves, and mine happens to be an anxious pathway. And … my thoughts always slip back into those ruts unless every day I try to carve out new pathways.”

As a dog trainer, I’m constantly searching for metaphors to help owners understand their dogs’ emotions, and to help them understand the role of training in their dogs’ lives.  When I heard Smith compare his journey through the monkey mind to creating a new pathway, I immediately thought of the parallels between Smith’s pathways, and how we can help fearful and anxious dogs.

As Smith explains in his book, his anxiety is a compound of his temperament, the natural tendencies of his thoughts, and his experiences. These things don’t change. What changes is the pathways he takes for coping and recovery.

Similarly, fear and anxiety in a dog is a compound of genetics and environment. A dog may have an anxious genetic load when she comes into the world, and may also have had a series of negative experiences along the way. We as owners and trainers cannot change these things.

For example, if you adopt a dog from a rescue, you’re adopting a dog with a potentially long history of negative associations with various things in her environment. She may have missed out on the key puppy socialization period. She may have been abused. She may have been a backyard dog and had years of rehearsal barking at everything that passed by the fence. She has certain set pathways that she is accustomed to navigating. These pathways could be barking and lunging at strangers, cowering in fear at the sound of city noises, or baring teeth at the sight of a man with a beard.

In treating human anxiety, it does little good to punish and shame people for their pathways. Shouting at someone for having a panic attack will likely make the attack worse. Expecting someone to “get over it” won’t work either – it’s not how the mind works, and it’s unreasonable to expect the mind to kick out the “drunken monkeys” with the wave of a hand.

The same can be said for dogs. Punishing the behaviors that are the result of fear and anxiety (barking, lunging, teeth baring) will only serve to strengthen the negative association the dog has formed with a particular stimulus. If a dog snarls at a bearded man, and the bearded man always yells back, you can be sure that dog will continue being afraid of him. Similarly, we cannot expect dogs to change their emotions and their behavior with ease .

Fearful pathways are deep, strong and rehearsed. Carving out new pathways – new ways for dogs to behave, to feel about the environment – takes effort, consistency and compassion.

In writing this post, I thought of ways we can help our anxious and fearful dogs find new pathways for behaving. Many are comparable to creating new pathways in our own lives. Here’s what I came up with:

– Show your dog better ways to cope. If your dog barks and lunges at dogs on leash, teach her to sit and watch you for an enticing treat. If your dog consistently gets too close for comfort when guests come to the house, teach her to lie down on her bed and receive treats, a comfortable distance away.

– Build the pathway gradually. Start with a few stones, a dirt road, before going for a paved highway. If a dog has separation anxiety, don’t start out with a half hour absence. Touch the doorknob. Leave the house for one second. Don’t place another pebble on the road until your dog is completely comfortable. This ensures that your dog is comfortable with each inch of the new pathway you’re creating – and ensures your dog feels safe the entire way.

– Be consistent. If you’re leading your dog on a new pathway of behaving and learning, don’t waver. Don’t go down the new pathway some days and other days resort to the old, unhealthy one. Behavior change is difficult. Really difficult. It’s even more difficult if your dog is confused or unsure of which pathway to choose.

– Give your dog plenty of road signs. When learning any new behavior, expect your dog to need some help. Prevent your dog from getting lost on the new pathway by reinforcing behavior you want to see more often and gradually guiding your dog toward the end goal. Don’t panic if some days seem easier than others. Humans have good days and bad, and so do dogs. Just stay on the new path.

– Don’t forget the importance of maintenance. Once you’ve set your dog on a new pathway, you need to make an effort to keep her there. Remember, your dog’s genetic load and past experiences are still part of her. Keep reinforcing desirable behaviors and providing road signs, even when your dog appears to have achieved solid behavior change. Keep the new pathways consistently stronger, and more alluring, than the old ones.

– Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at

2 thoughts on “Creating new pathways for your dog’s “monkey mind”

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