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“Just then, though, I began to realise that there was something in my field of vision that hadn’t been there before. … It was probably nothing, so I said nothing, but kept looking. That’s what the keen-eyed naturalists say. Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.”

“Sightlines” by Kathleen Jamie

Last week, I visited a friend and her three dogs. Under the guise of vacation, I allowed myself the luxury of simply observing her dogs’ behavior. I’m not unused to the activity; as a dog trainer, you might say I do it for a living. But to have the opportunity to watch her dogs, with no constraints on time, client needs, or agendas felt like a precious gift – and one I realize I need to indulge in more often.

I was an avid birdwatcher as a child. I would spend hours sitting outside watching what was occurring in my field of vision. Of course, this was before I had to worry about smart phones, schedules, and training plans, so I had more mental real estate available to simply watch. Despite physically inactive, birdwatching was an intense mental activity. Observing the peripheral limits of my vision, understanding changes in the environment, connecting sound to movement to sight, required skill. Whenever I dip back into birdwatching, I need to allow my brain some time to reacquire my “watching” skills. At first, I’m slow, not as perceptive, and fidgety.

As a society, we rarely refer to “dogwatching” as an activity. We train dogs, exercise dogs, work with dogs – we use active verbs to describe what we’re doing. On the plane ride back from visiting my friend, I read a passage from the book Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, quoted at the beginning of this post. She was describing the moment she saw orcas along the horizon while watching gannets during breeding season in the outer Hebrides.

Perhaps it was because I had just spent the past couple of days “dogwatching” with my friend, but this passage jumped out at me as a key ingredient I need to remember to focus on in my own training practice, as well as cultivate in my clients. If we don’t watch our dogs, we won’t recognize their normal patterns of behavior, we won’t notice when those patterns deviate, and we’ll miss out on a key ingredient to healthy training and relationships: Understanding.

Of course, going “dogwatching” is easier said than done, but here are some simple ways to hone your watching skills in your daily life:

  • Video your training sessions – and your play sessions! – with your dog. The gift of being able to watch and re-watch your interactions with your dog is invaluable.
  • Use the slow-motion feature on your smartphone. You’ll be amazed at the minutiae of behavior your naked eye misses.
  • Set aside some time to sit with your dog and watch. No training plan, no behavior goal, no structured activity. Just interact with your dog, and watch.
  • Keep a little journal. You can add as much or as little detail as you want. Full sentences, bullet points, illustrations, one-word notes. Whatever motivates you to continue watching.

If this feels foreign to you, it’s ok! Keep at it. Get in touch with your inner birdwatcher. Keep looking. 

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.