Dog training: On mindfulness, unrelenting kindness, and working with ‘what is’

DSC06058Last, week, I wrote about viewing work with behavior change in dogs through a mindful lens, in lieu of attempting to fix something that is broken.

This week’s post continues on that trend, taking inspiration from another quote from a recent yoga class:

“We don’t try to force out or change anything. We try to move with ‘what is.’”

Just like most people discover yoga in an effort to find and cultivate some wort of change, most dog guardians contact a trainer because something feels out of sync. Rarely do I get a call from someone who says “Things are going great, I just want to do more training!” (Although I certainly welcome it whenever someone does!) Usually, people call me because they want change, whether change within their relationship with their dog or change in their dog’s behavior. They also call when their dog is going through change, whether it be the addition of a baby, a change in their dog’s temperament, or a change in environment.

The knee-jerk response to someone asking for change is to look for what’s wrong and immediately fix it. While there’s nothing wrong with this paradigm, it fosters a rigidity that is not always helpful, particularly with dogs with fear and anxiety.

Working with the ‘what is’

Sometimes, the hardest thing for dog guardians is accepting that they have a fearful dog. For many, the fact that they live with a dog with a genetic predisposition toward fear-based behavior is a tough pill to swallow. Even tougher is the realization that they may have neglected seeking help sooner, or tried methods that actually caused the fear to worsen.

I often tell people who have used aversives in the past, or who realize their responses to their dog in the past may have worsened the problem, that hindsight is cruel. It has the power to paralyze and prevent change from occurring because we get stuck in the ‘what ifs’ as opposed to the ‘what is.’

So what is this “what is” that I keep referring to? In training, it can refer to:

  • An undersocialized dog
  • A dog with a fearful genetic load
  • A dog with a history of aversive-based training
  • A dog who underwent a traumatic experience
  • A dog whose breed makes it difficult to manage and cope with its current living environment

And any number of things that cause a breakdown in a dog’s relationship with his humans.

Science shows us that forcing change does not work, whether it be for dogs or humans.

When I work with clients, I help them see how fighting against the ‘what is’ leads them further away from change. After all, they can’t change the past, they can’t change genetics, and they certainly can’t control what happened to a dog prior to his coming into their care. But they can move and work with the ‘what is’ in order to build more positive associations, more trust, and improve their training protocols to foster behavior change.

This process takes time. Sometimes, working with the ‘what is’ starts with something as simple as ceasing to scare a dog or place him in situations known to cause him stress. (Although ceasing to scare or cause stress isn’t that simple, is it, especially if it’s  been in one’s lexicon and paradigm for years?) Once we lay the foundation, working with the ‘what is’ can get more nuanced, focusing on classical conditioning, teaching the dog coping skills, and refining technique or mechanics.

Each dog owner, and each dog, is at a different point on this continuum. And that’s OK. What’s not OK is becoming paralyzed in ‘what ifs’ and forcing change, whether change in humans or dogs. As long as dogs and their humans are moving with the ‘what is,’ they’re moving toward longer lasting behavior change, less force, more trust, and an unrelenting kindness toward both themselves and their dogs. And for me, that’s enough.

–  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.