My relationship with the word training is a messy one, especially when it comes to animals. To wit: Recently, a kind-looking person introduced herself to me as a dog trainer. I immediately felt my pulse quicken, took a step backward, and felt “on-guard,” envisioning ouchy prong collars
and stressful e-collars.
Was my snap judgment fair? Nope. Because while much harm has been done in the name of training, many dog behaviorists help improve life for canines and their human roommates alike.
The Problem With Dog “Training”
It’s essential to learn whether a modality is in a dog’s best interest. Sadly, some trainers still use pain-based methods, physical punishment, or other problematic techniques such as negative reinforcement. Some of these techniques can actually increase a dog’s problematic behavior and cause health problems.
At the same time, the concept of training isn’t necessarily detrimental. After all, here at S&H, we’ve written about the benefits of sauna training and training our human brains to prevent cognitive impairment. Without batting an eye, I easily congratulate friends on completing yoga teacher training. So what’s the difference?
Upon close inspection, I realize that we non-human animals choose to train, or we consent to being trained by others. However, consent remains a slippery word when it comes to other-than-human animals. Can a dog consent to being trained?
The Enlightened Dog Training Alternative
Enter Jesse Sternberg, a mindfulness and meditation instructor who also happens to be a dog trainer and the founder of the Peaceful Alpha Project. His book, Enlightened Dog Training: Become the Peaceful Alpha Your Dog Needs and Respects, auspiciously arrived in my mailbox this month.
Sternberg suggests that to solve troublesome dog behavior—such as lunging, jumping, whining, or excessive barking—we don’t need to train dogs so much as we need to solve problematic human behavior. “Our dogs are literally our reflections; they absorb our unconscious ‘baggage,’” Sternberg asserts. “If we’re anxious, they’re anxious. If we’re stressed, they’re afraid something is wrong. If we’re loud, looking at our phones, or tuned out, they lose faith in our ability to keep them feeling safe.”
And so, Sternberg suggests, we may be the ones who need to be trained—especially to behave in ways that earn a dog’s respect. This necessitates learning what a dog is communicating and, perhaps more importantly, what we are unknowingly communicating to a dog. Because while we humans are usually obsessed with our eloquence, most of what we communicate is not through words.
What Your Dog Is Trying to Tell You
Sternberg proposes that canines frequently communicate one of three things to us that we miss:
- I want to calm down.
- You need to calm down.
- Something in our environment needs to calm down.
A dog communicates these phrases through so-called “calming signals.” (A term developed by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugass.) Yet, we humans often misjudge these somatic signs.
[Read: “What’s Your Doggie’s Dosha?”]
For example, dogs look away from us when they are peaceful. Yet, we can read this as a sign that they aren’t paying attention and so we try to force them into looking at us. Further, since direct eye contact is threatening for many animals, our insistence that they look directly at us can just feel scary to them.
Other calming signals include yawning, scratching, lying down, raising a paw, and so on. Yet, the meanings of these movements aren’t always readily apparent to us. Dogs yawn to release pent-up anxious energy—not to suggest sleepiness. And lip licking can signal, “You can trust me!”
Sternberg suggests that since most behavioral issues are emotionally based—usually stemming from a too-excited or too-scared pup—learning to read a dog’s body language is crucial. By responding to their needs, we can help them balance their emotions. This, in turn, helps alleviate the original behavioral issue.
What You Might (Unconsciously) Be Telling a Dog
On the flip side, how we position and use our bodies communicates a lot as well. Sternberg suggests that you:
- Strive to be fully present and peaceful in your body. And watch your tone of voice. If you want your dog to calm down, you may need to calm down first.
- Use direct eye contact sparingly. Understand that straightforward looks communicate power—not love—in dog language. Reserve direct eye-to-eye engagement for when it is needed, for example to communicate: “Not ok. Stop that.” Paradoxically, a dog will acknowledge understanding your message by looking away. This takes some getting used to. We often want dogs to focus on us, but Sternberg suggests they are most peaceful when they aren’t making direct eye contact.
- Also be mindful about where you look in general. A dog takes directional cues by looking at what you are looking at. This tip is especially helpful when dog walking! Focus on where you want to go and avoid gazing distractedly around or at your phone. Stay mindfully present to the walking.
- When a dog is scared or excited, place yourself in the “angle of protection.” This means making direct eye contact with whatever object your dog fears while simultaneously placing yourself in front of your dog. This communicates that the situation is under control.
Sternberg also suggests we humans rely far too much on words when confident silence may be a better tactic. He explains, “When we are noisy, our dogs, friends, colleagues, and loved ones tune us out. When we are silent, they tune us in.”
Enlightened Dog Training also includes detailed practices for addressing a wide range of problem behaviors, healing canine neuroses and anxiety, mastering leash walking, and deflating dog aggression. Each chapter ends with a mediation practice for the reader, which blends the chapter’s training tips with mindfulness.
Evidence-Based Support for Enlightened Dog Training
For those of you wondering about proof that mindfulness and dogs are a good combo, a new study by psychologists Jessica Lee Oliva and Tim Robert Green may be of interest. Oliva and Green tracked two types of dog-assisted mindfulness interventions with human-canine pairs during the pandemic lockdown.
The “dog-assisted mindfulness” participants were instructed to sit quietly with their dog while listening to a mindfulness recording. During the meditation, they used a quality of their dog as their object of focus, for example, the canine’s fur, breathing, or inner beingness.
[Listen to the podcast: “Lama Surya Das on Dogs as Teachers.”]
The “dog interactions” participants spent at least seven minutes of undivided attention interacting in various ways with their dog, including playing hide & seek, following their dog’s lead wherever they went, and reading to them.
In response to the activities, participants recognized enhanced emotional and spiritual connections with their dogs. Human-centered benefits were reported as well, such as feelings of happiness, relaxation, and focus both during and after participating in the activities. And the researchers observed significant improvements in anxiety and mood states in both groups. What’s more, the “dog interactions” group suggested they witnessed increased “dog happiness” on behalf of their canine partners.
Although I still remain uncomfortable with words like obedience, master, and training, I must concur with Sternberg, Oliva, and Green that being mindful with our animal companions is a remarkable improvement over the domination-based methods favored in the past. Surprisingly, a few tips even improved my relationships with my feline roommates, Deacon and Buba-ji.
Living with other-than-human animals can be a messy mix of love, fun, and frustration. Attempts to balance a pet’s emotions—as well as our own—take persistence and patience. As the Zen saying goes, “Enlightenment is an accident, and practice makes us accident-prone.” And by that, of course, I mean the good kind of accident. Not the one you need baking soda for.
Learn how dogs can help us heal in Walking the Divine Fido.