Mind matters

Forget all the reasons why it won’t work and just do it.

What is fair and reasonable to ask of a dog? Let’s look at common contributing factors to find a good answer to this question.

  • Age
  • Breed
  • Relationship
  • Skills
  • Commitment
  • Health

Age plays less of a role than people assume. You definitely can teach an old dog new tricks and puppies are just like sponges, absorbing every experience as learning. As long as you adjust to your dog’s pace, they can learn regardless of their age. 

Tilly used to be a total couch potato. She was about 10 years old when her human started to teach her some fun tricks even though she didn’t initial think they’d get very far. After a little while they both got so much joy out of it.

Your dog’s breed can play a role insofar as it concerns their body shape and therefore their physical capabilities. But I think there are fewer limitations than most people believe. 

The relationship between you and your dog influences their level of trust and willingness to work with you. Trust needs to be built before asking things that make your dog feel very vulnerable such as lying still on their side for a body check-over. Their level of physical sensitivity plays into it too, for example where grooming is concerned.

Do you have the skills it takes to teach your dog whatever it is you’d like them to do? If you learn as you go, expect that you’ll be progressing more slowly than when you already have previous experience. 

Commitment means to keep going after your initial motivation runs out. You keep steadily at it, not only when it is convenient. 

When confronted with a challenge, the committed heart will search for a solution.
The undecided heart searches for an escape.

Andy Andrews

Is your dog’s physical condition compatible with what you are wanting to ask? By doing as you ask, would your dog experience pain or discomfort? Where is your dog’s physical development at, have their growth plates closed yet, would it be safe to do what you ask? 

Why do we need to know that what we are asking of our dog is fair and reasonable? If we are unsure, that uncertainty will show in our body language. Lack of clarity filters through to our voice, our focus, our commitment. Doubts too will show up in our behaviour. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are broadcasting our inner state (our mood, our thoughts and feelings) loud and clear to our dogs. They read us like an open book.

So then, once we determine that it’s fair and reasonable to teach our dog what we have in mind, how do we best go about it? Which method leads us down the road to success? Though I do believe what approach we choose makes a marked difference, what matters most is our mindset.

Our attitude and beliefs shape not only our expectations but also our body language, our micro facial expressions, the tone of our voice, our level of patience and our motivation. 

It doesn’t matter if you’d like to teach your dog to stay on their bed, not to pull on the lead, do a handstand, ride a skateboard, wipe their paws. If you are unaware of your part of the equation, you and your dog will struggle to achieve it. 

Harry & I practicing our handstands.

Working as a dog trainer I have observed that there are two categories of dog people – ones who expect too much and ones that assume very little can be expected. 

In the first category, people have a vision of what is possible though they often expect too much too soon, they are impatient. They often also lack the knowhow. This can cause a lot of frustration and stress because they take their dog’s behaviour very personal. When things don’t work out they believe that their dog is

  • dumb
  • lazy
  • stubborn
  • a bad seed
  • not the right dog for them.

In the second category, people put up with behaviours from their dog that impact their lives beyond reasonable because they think it can’t be helped. Their dog’s over-excitement or anxiety is accepted as status quo. They might even have tried a few things (medication, working with a trainer, consulting with a behaviourist, etc.) but found that nothing makes a difference. They believe that their dog 

  • is just a dog
  • is just a puppy
  • is just too old
  • is just a typical [fill in their breed]
  • is unable to overcome a bad past experience 
  • is a rescue with a sad and abusive background.

Nothing is more common
than unfulfilled potential.

Howard G. Hendricks

So, it’s either the dog’s fault (first category) or other circumstances are to blame (second category). There is a third culprit too – people, who consider themselves incapable. They think they are unable to learn what it takes to succeed and believe they are failing their dog.

All these attitudes have a big impact on a dog’s behaviour. Animals and people share feelings. Feelings power actions. If there is no awareness, things cascade in a domino effect. For example, a person asks their dog to sit, the dog doesn’t. The person feels frustrated and their dog, cueing into this high-energy feeling, starts jumping up at them, in turn the person gets angry, then the dog’s behaviour escalates further as well, perhaps they bark or start mouthing the person. The sequence of this entire interaction is like a downward spiralling in a mental death roll.

How do you keep the inner crocodile from performing a death roll?
Just as if we were talking about an encounter with an actual specimen, the answer is surprisingly simple,
“The only way you can guarantee survival is to not get attacked in the first place.” (Chris Packham)
You make yourself unavailable.
Photo by Adam Bignell on Unsplash

Our thoughts create feelings. For example, when you hear the word “dinner” how do you react? Do you experience happy anticipation, feel hungry, uninspired or …? When the feelings created by our thoughts just exist in the background quietly, we can go about our life with ease. However, the stronger the feelings the louder it gets in our head and our capacity to choose our response diminishes or disappears altogether. All we can do then is react.

The more we are invested in unquestioned beliefs, the more strongly we react to our dogs. We are being triggered and react automatically, chain reaction style. How can we get out of this trap? How can we interrupt these fruitless and frustrating interactions? If we become aware of what is going on, we can stop, notice, acknowledge and then make a conscious choice of how we want to proceed. Perhaps we’ll decide to come back to it later, perhaps realising what is going on is all that it takes to fully return to yourself in the present moment and continue, albeit with a very different attitude. 

The best training method in the world will fail if the learning environment is not conducive. The set-up of the outer teaching space you work in is important, but again, if you and your dog’s inner space is filled with frustration, anxiety, an excited buzz, dejection, hopelessness or any similar feeling, it will be a struggle, a strain and a battle.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a way to get out of this recurrent mess and arrive at a place of regulation? If you could stay clear of the “crocodile infested waters”? If you could learn a structured process to interact with your dog where you both experience an inner state of calm attentiveness?

The Trust Technique is one such way. Communicating what you want goes beyond the words and method you use – the outcome of your efforts depends much on the state of your and your dog’s mind. The Trust Technique provides a method to lower the inner clash-bang of an overthinking mind via a process that allows for calming down at the individual’s pace. That means, letting go, integrating and/or healing happens at the speed required for change. A great starting point to understand what the Trust Technique is about is the video series Messages of Trust. The most comprehensive way to learn the Trust Technique is their online video course. If you prefer one-on-one, you can work with a certified practitioner such as myself.

What help is there if you feel completely inadequate to the task of teaching your dog? If you feel you are always muddling it up and that you are failing your dog? If you have zero confidence in yourself? Perhaps it’s time to change your attitude towards failure. From a fixed mindset regarding your beliefs about learning and intelligence to a growth mindset, believing you can get smarter. Dr Carol Dweck and her colleagues have been researching this subject for over 30 years. Reading her book or watching her TED talk is a good starting point.

Nothing is impossible, the word itself says, “I’m possible!”

Audrey Hepburn

It’s good to know and embrace our limitations. From this place, creativity arises, a way forward becomes clear. Rather than throwing in the towel when things don’t work out we are able to adjust. Ingenuity and resourcefulness have a deep link to being open-minded. Perseverance plays a role too.

Fall down seven times,
get up eight.

Japanese proverb

That doesn’t mean, gritting your teeth and white-knuckling it. It has more to do with knowing when to take a break and when to ask for help and how to pace yourself and your dog.

Bringing more mindfulness to a place where we feel stuck or overwhelmed can help us to reflect, take heart and inspire us. I hope this article did just that for you. Rather than in-depth answers, it gives you places to look at. Our culture puts much emphasis on answers. Being with a question, holding it, allowing the tension that arises when there is no immediate answer, are worthwhile skills to develop because the insights gained are personal and perfect to your circumstances unlike any quick and ready-made answer. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, of course. But what if your situation doesn’t require a wheel?

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

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