Training with a beginner’s mind

11863411_10104608205121877_1956146338604029029_n.jpg“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Suzuki Roshi

The more I train dogs and the more I learn about animal behavior, the less I know. Perhaps it’s a cliche. Perhaps it’s taboo to admit, particularly when there are so many self-proclaimed “whisperers” in the dog world who claim to have a guaranteed solution for every behavior question, and a rigid prescription for every type of behavior problem. “Expertosis” is inevitable in any field.

But in the dog training industry, it’s important not to confuse expertise with rigidity.

I’ve been studying mindfulness for several years, and continually find parallels between mindfulness and training, particularly training with fearful dogs. Lately, the phrase “beginner’s mind” has been particularly relevant.

“Beginners come to new experiences not knowing so much and therefore open. This openness is very creative. It is an innate characteristic of the mind. The trick is never to lose it. That would require that you stay in the ever- emerging wonder of the present moment, which is always fresh. Of course you will lose beginner’s mind in one way, when you cease to be a beginner. But if you can remember from time to time that each moment is fresh and new, maybe, just maybe, what you know will not get in the way of being open to what you don’t know, which is always a larger field. Then a beginner’s mind will be available in any moment you are open to it.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Beginner’s mind means being acutely aware of what’s happening during the training session: Your mechanics, your timing, your location, as well as the dog’s internal state.

Beginner’s mind means being fluid during the sessions and adjusting based on your observations; training the dog in front of you, even if that dog is different from the dog you had been anticipating going into the training session.

Beginner’s mind also means pulling back if the dog isn’t ready, accepting if a dog isn’t yet comfortable to push ahead in the training plan, and going at the dog’s pace to ensure the dog is safe and comfortable each step of the way.

–  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  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

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