Awhile ago, I introduced the concept of training mindfully, of being acutely aware of what is happening with the dog and environment in the present moment and suspending all judgment and preconceived notions about what the dog should be doing or what we think the dog is thinking.
By paying attention on purpose, we tap into the fundamentals of good training: Timing, mechanics and learning theory.
When it comes to animal behavior modification, trainer and teacher extraordinaire Bob Bailey is well-known for saying “Think. Plan. Do.”
The “think” portion of this quote hints at the inner, quieter aspects of training. Typically, when discussing mechanics and technique, we think about the physical: Timing of rewards, position of reward delivery, maintaining a quiet body so as not to overshadow or block a dog’s learning.
Mechanics are critical to successful training, but not limited to the physical. Before timing of rewards and application of either operant or classical conditioning comes the awareness inside the trainer. In a word, mindfulness.
Sound too new-agey? Bear with me.
“Even scaffolding needs a foundation upon which to rest. It is not very wise to erect it on shifting sands, or on dirt or clay that could easily turn into mud,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers of bringing mindfulness into the Western world an integrating it with Western medicine, in Coming to Our Senses. “The foundation for mindfulness practice, for all meditative inquiry, lies in ethics and morality, and above all, the motivation of non-harming.”
Myths and incomplete understanding about how dogs learn, a dog’s underlying motivations, and the desire to forcibly control a dog’s behavior place a trainer’s scaffolding on shifting sands.
A foundation of non-harming is critical to force-free training. After all, a trainer can have impeccable timing and mechanics, but use those skills to cause pain, shock, intimidation or injury to a dog. A trainer’s ethical code sets the stage for all training protocols. The science of animal learning and the principle of “do no harm” create a solid foundation for the nuts and bolts of training behaviors.
Through mindfulness, trainers can continually be aware of and reassess how their actions are influencing the behavior of the dogs they train.
The brilliant thing about mindfulness is that if we find ourselves slipping into various myths about dogs, or wandering in the wrong direction during a training protocol, we can catch it sooner because we’re paying attention on purpose. We’re aware of the antecedents, behaviors and consequences that form the feedback loop between dog behavior, the trainer and the environment.
Mindfulness also fosters a force-free community that applies the “do no harm” mantra to humans as well as dogs. It gives people who have used aversive techniques in the past a way forward.
“This willingness to embrace what is and then work with it takes great courage, and presence of mind,” writes Zin. “So, in any moment, whatever is happening, we can always check and see for ourselves.”
In this context, “first, do no harm” really translates to “first, be aware.”
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A 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. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at email@example.com.