Last week, during a particularly challenging yoga sequence, the instructor reminded the class that one of the goals of the practice was to place the oneself in challenging poses and teach the mind and body to be “less reactive, more responsive.”
The concept of being “less reactive, more responsive” at first seemed unattainable during that particular class, when I found my body contorted into a pretzel, balancing precariously on one leg. But various tools taught over years of practice, introduced during less complicated poses and carried as a theme throughout each class, helped my body relax into the pose and, ultimately, find a deeper stretch, a deeper twist, and more strength.
Frequent readers of my blog will not be surprised by the fact that I draw inspiration for my writing and approach to dog training from yoga and mindfulness. Remaining calm and breathing steadily during a challenging pose serves as a useful metaphor when training fearful, reactive dogs. Many dogs are fearful and reactive because they find themselves in a type of challenging yoga pose, except for them, the pose isn’t comprised of balancing or twisting, but walking on leash, encountering other dogs, living among lots of people, or any number of stimuli that dogs might perceive as unsafe.
It’s no coincidence that classical conditioning, the procedure used to help change a dog’s emotion to a particular event or stimuli, is also called “respondent conditioning.” By pairing a previously neutral or previously scary stimulus with a positive event, we can change the dog’s response. Less reactive, more responsive.
The environment, just like a complicated yoga pose, is stressful for many dogs. The goal a fearful or reactive dogs’ training plan is to change a that dog’s emotional response to various stimuli. Without the paralysis of fear, a dog can remain responsive but be less reactive. In other words, with training, dogs can develop and use coping skills to help them remain focused and calm in an often noisy, sometimes unpredictable world.
In yoga, because the body and mind do not always relax willingly into challenging poses, practitioners hone various coping skills to change the body’s response, like breath work and mindfulness. Students practice these skills in less challenging poses before moving onto more challenging sets, ensuring their skill set is strong before attempting to remain less reactive and more responsive in a more challenging posture.
I guide my training clients through a similar process with their dogs. In addition to installing strong positive emotional responses to a dog’s various triggers through classical conditioning, I help them teach their dogs various coping skills that will help them react less and respond more in real life. These skills vary depending on the dog’s behavioral makeup. Examples include making frequent eye contact with the owner on a busy street, learning to target the owner’s hand or turn and go on cue when on leash, or look at the owner and move in the opposite direction as opposed in the presence of a skateboard.
These coping skills take practice, just as it takes practice to relax and breathe while holding an arm balancing pose on a yoga mat. I instruct clients to teach their dogs these behaviors in low distraction environments first, all the while continuing their classical conditioning work to help their dogs feel safe. Once their dogs are proficient, we gradually bring these coping skills into more distracting environments, just as yogis gradually move into more challenging poses once their bodies and minds are ready.
While we can’t always control our dog’s environment, we can give them the coping skills so that when life throws triggers their way, they can respond in ways that are less fearful and less reactive.
Less reactive, more responsive.
– 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 and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.