Training Mindfully

You’re walking your dog. You pass another person and a dog on the sidewalk. Upon seeing them approach, your dog barks, lunges, and pulls at the leash. Imagine this is a scene from a movie that you’re watching on TV and you press the “pause” button. What thoughts circulate your mind at this moment?

– “My dog is being dominant.” (He’s not.)

– “That other person thinks I’m a bad dog owner.” (They might.)

– “My dog wants to attack that other dog.” (Possible, but highly improbable.)

– “I have a bad dog.” (You don’t.)

– “I’m so embarrassed.” (Understandable.)

The point of this exercise is this: Our thoughts, perceptions and judgments are inextricably linked to our observations of our dogs’ behavior. It’s not wrong and it doesn’t make us terrible dog owners. But it does get in the way of our becoming effective trainers.

The more I work with dog owners and counsel them on how to train their dogs, and the more I train dogs myself, the more importance I see in training mindfully.

What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”

This quote is from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The concept of mindfulness has gained traction in Western culture and medicine, yielding scientific research on its benefits and effectiveness .

The point of training the brain to pay attention is to preserve what Maria Konnikova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia, terms our limited “neural real estate” on the task at hand, minimizing the noise and distractions of our minds and the outside environment.

Konnikova writes, “Mindfulness training has even been shown to affect the brain’s default network — the network of connections that remains active when we are in a so-called resting state — with regular meditators exhibiting increased resting-state functional connectivity and increased connectivity generally. After a dose of mindfulness, the default network has greater consistent access to information about our internal states and an enhanced ability to monitor the surrounding environment. These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention.”

So what?

So, the science checks out. And science is something competent dog trainers must abide by. How does this apply to dog training?

Let’s return to Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s concept of paying attention on purpose and refraining from judgment.

Think of the ways we judge ourselves, and our dogs when they misbehave. We place pressure on ourselves to appear as responsible dog owners. We often expect our dogs to behave in ways that are contradictory to their nature (i.e., not barking at strangers, not growling at a scary stimulus, not scavenging for food on the street.) We focus on our interpretation of events, rather than the more scientifically sound observation of events (a major scientific faux pas).

Training Mindfully

When working with a dog on a behavior problem, it’s easy to react to the series of events using our own judgments and interpretations. But what if we were to train mindfully? What would that look like?

First, we would pay attention on purpose. We would pay attention to our observations of the behavior, the antecedents and consequences of the behavior, and the dog’s body language. This is the competent way to determine why a dog is behaving a certain way. It creates a roadmap of solutions for the behavior problem.

Returning to the leash reactive dog example, what would paying attention on purpose look like?

– The observations: The dog growled, barked and lunged on leash when approaching the other dog and woman head-on.

– The antecedents and consequences: The dog saw the dog and woman and, when 10 feet away, started the behavior. Following the behavior, the dog received a verbal reprimand from the owner and was placed into a sit with a tight leash.

– The body language: The whites of the dog’s eye were visible, the lips were contracted into a snarl, the ears were pinned back, and the dog’s hackles were visible.

These observations provide a much clearer picture of the dog’s behavior, as well as how to proceed, than interpretations of so-called dominance, or statements like “the dog was trying to kill the other dog.”

This leads into the other part of training mindfully: avoiding judgment.

Training dogs can be emotional. It’s embarrassing when our dogs snarl and growl in public, even if they’re snarling and growling for a very good reason. It’s also easy to view our dogs’ behavior through the lens of human perception. Doing so leads to false statements like: Fido is stubborn, Fido is dominant, Fido needs a stronger leader, and so on. None of these statements would hold up in dog science court, but we make them all the same.

But if we were to train mindfully, to train without preconceived notions of how a dog should behave in public, to train without inserting our own thoughts and emotions into the dog’s behavior, we would better serve our dogs and solve behavior problems more effectively and efficiently.

It’s not easy. It takes training. But to be able to look at our dogs’ behavior objectively, as it happens in the present moment, helps us adhere to the principles of science and animal learning. The principles of competent training.