Finding My Beginner's Mind

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s book, The Places That Scare You. Before even getting into the heart of the book, I was blown away by a single sentence in the prologue.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
— Zen master Suzuki Roshi

It’s been on my mind ever since, haunting me. I’ve been wondering what does this mean? And why is it resonating so strongly with me right now?

I’m also obsessively exploring the idea of agency within the context of dog training. I’ve been wondering how agency might play a role in a dog’s life. How is behaviour impacted if dogs are offered more access to choices in their lives?

I found this summary of agency I quite like in the book Psychological Agency, Theory, Practice, and Culture: 

When we come to understand ourselves as agents of the world, it becomes possible for us to imagine making different choices and to relate to others and to act in different ways.
— Robert Frie (Editor), 2008

And then it happened. A beginner’s mind moment showed up in my life in a glaringly obvious way.  

I had just read a brilliantly insightful piece written by Seattle dog and primate trainer Cristine Dahl and founder of Northwest School of Canine Studies. Cristine suggests we should try taking our dogs out for a walk with zero concern for kilometres logged, number of balls tossed or frisbees thrown. To disregard the need for polite walks or heels cued and offered. But rather, to just be with our dogs.

She asks us to offer our dogs the freedom to choose how the walk will go. Our dogs might walk quickly, leaving us to pick up the pace. Or our dogs might choose to slow down and spend several minutes sniffing a blade of grass or investigating a snail meandering across the sidewalk. Whatever they choose (safety issues notwithstanding) it’s totally up to them.

We are letting our dogs determine the cadence, geographic location, terrain, etc. Our job is simply to observe and learn about our dogs - to pay attention to them without judgement. To show up in their lives in order to build a stronger connection with our dogs. Or to use Cristine’s language, to show our dogs regard. It’s that simple and beautiful.

I strongly recommend reading her article to get the full gist and perhaps give it a try yourself.

I took Cristine up on her challenge and went out into the world prepared to show my dogs regard, although my smug expert’s mind was sure I was already doing this. After all, I’m a successful and well-educated positive reinforcement trainer who doesn’t use force.

That’s when my beginner's mind moments began to appear.

  • I observed Charlie showing signs of stress when I wasn’t leading her around the neighbourhood. I wasn’t cueing her and she seemed perplexed at first and then her behaviour intensified. She just stared at me intently, panting and then barking. For half the walk we were just two lost souls looking at each other. I had to recongnize that I hadn’t really offered her much agency when on leash up to this point, so when given a bit of freedom she didn’t appear to know what to do with it.

  • I also realized Charles isn't a huge fan of bees. Or at least not this particular one. A big furry bumble was buzzing away on a leaf about a foot from where Charles was standing. She looked at it with a furrowed brow and then proceeded to walk as far away from it as she could. Who knew? I had no idea.

  • Charlie has arthritis in her back end and I thought I was being super conscious of her need for a slower pace especially when we’re walking on hard surfaces. Nope. When Charles is left to determine the pace of the walk, she chooses half the speed I normally walk with her and my other dog, Tyson.

  • Tys also shocked me. I’ve always known the guy is a big sniffer. What I didn't realize is that he will sometimes choose to stick his head in a flowerbed and totally let other dogs pass on by. All without showing any of his typical signs of aggression when on leash. I think I’ve been alerting him to dogs by flipping into training mode and forcing his attention back onto me and the other dogs when perhaps he just wanted to mind his own damn business.

This next bit is hard to write. I’m supposed to be an expert, after all. But I have to stop and remember we are all on this journey together and sometimes I need to let my beginner’s mind show me what the expert in me can’t see.

I realized I wasn’t showing my dogs the regard they deserved.

I’ve been marching Tys and Charles around my neighbourhood on leash with little regard for their needs and wants. I sincerely thought that because I had trained my dogs to walk nicely on leash using non-aversive methods, that I had satisfied the kind of walk they wanted. In my expert’s mind, I had done enough. And here’s the other thing I realized, training without regard for our dogs isn’t much different than old school traditional methods where the human commands the dog to do X and the dog is expected to respond with Y. Translation: human micro-manages their dog’s life.

I’m not using force to train, but I’m uncovering this part of me that is still steeped in the human-runs-the-show mentality. This realization has been difficult, yet hugely important for my growth as a dog parent, a dog trainer and a human in this world.  

My expert’s mind believed I had been showing my dogs regard. In my attempt to unravel agency, my beginner’s mind revealed itself and challenged me to become more observant, more patient and more curious about the dogs I’ve been entrusted to help along their journey. And perhaps most importantly to show MY beginner’s mind some regard.


Learning to Listen to Bella

Bella is an amazing and beloved little dachshund. Her Mom had come to us because of Bella's fear and anxiety around strange men and other dogs. And sure enough, our entering their house resulted in whale eye, tongue flicks, hard mouth, barking and lunging, and cowering.

Our initial session with Bella and her Mom ended with showing them how to begin using Counter Conditioning and Desensitization (CC&D) with men and other dogs in the neighborhood.

But the point of this story is not the protocols we used. It's how we stopped a protocol (twice) to listen to what Bella was telling us and the unexpected breakthroughs we started to see as a result.

Even though everything we knew said that the grassy knoll was way too close to the sidewalk, we wanted to see what Bella was trying to tell us.

It was a rare and sunny spring day when Cara and I returned for our follow-up session with Bella. We were quite impressed with the improvements we were seeing and opted to move onto a simplified BAT protocol.

In a nutshell: Mom takes a step forward and sees if Bella wants to walk with her. If so, they approach a stressor (me) and then Mom stops at a safe distance, allowing Bella to sniff, stare and gather information. The moment Bella turns to look at Mom, her Mom marks the behaviour and they turn and run away from the stressful Sean’ster.

We began with Mom and Bella 30 feet away from Sean, but Bella wasn't having any of it. She didn't want to take a single step closer. Mom couldn’t help herself. She began to tug Bella forward. They had to practice, after all, and the two professionals were watching. But we asked Mom to just turn and walk away. And boom, Bella was MORE than happy to walk away from the strange man.

Bella was asking for more space, not less. Once they were about 50 feet away, Bella happily participated in the simplified BAT protocol, marching forward most confidently to stare at the strange man on the sidewalk (me).

Things were going stellar. Bella and Mom were marching up and down the walkway in front of their house. It was a hot day, but the trees and buildings kept us in the shade and cool. Bella had started at over 50 feet but now was happily trotting up to about ten feet away from me before turning and running away with Mom.

We decided to change locations and show Bella and her Mom how to do the BAT protocol from behind their house where the driveway intersected a somewhat busy street. We walked to the area and Mom set Bella down.

Only, Bella wasn't having any of it. She would only advance and it became quite apparent that she wanted to approach the grassy knoll beside the sidewalk.

So we listened. 

Even though everything we knew said that the grassy knoll was way too close to the sidewalk, we wanted to see what Bella was trying to tell us.. So we waited for a gap in the traffic and let her scramble onto the three feet of sun and grass beside the sidewalk.

At which point, Bella curled up and laid down happily.

Her Mom laughed and said that one of Bella’s favourite things in the world is sitting in the grass in the direct sun. They would often spend part of their walks like this.

And so we trusted our gut. This was Bella’s happy place. And so we switched back to CC&D. Every time Bella turned to look at an approaching dog or man, her Mom made wonderful food happen.

Bella had already surpassed our expectations earlier, but now we could only stare in wonder. This little dog didn't even blink at dogs and men passing just five feet away.

Trust me when I say we were watching carefully and there to step in if Bella showed any signs of stress or increased anxiety. But she didn't. She just sat and did some of the most wonderful CC&D we have yet seen the pair do.

The real Bella in her happy place!

The real Bella in her happy place!

And this is where we had to step away and think about what we had learned.

Cara has been pushing me to re-evaluate everything we do with an eye towards agency. And today was no exception. We had stopped to listen to what Bella was telling us and then adjusted to support what she needed.

The environment plays a significant role in any behaviour modification (or even training) work. From the Establishing Condition to PREPAREDNESS, the other stimuli involved in a session can significantly hinder or (accelerate) the work you are trying to accomplish.

Put more simply, there are things that will make it easier for your dog and there are things that will make it much harder. And it's only by listening to your dog that you can start to determine what these are. And with dogs, listening means watching and paying attention.

Bella had a CC&D session that even amazed her Mom. She happily sat there while men with carts went by and only a fast moving skateboarder on the street caused even a mild glance from her.

Bella was not only in her happy place, she had chosen to sit here. We just decided to listen and give her a chance to make this choice.

Now that’s not to say that we would have continued to sit there and do CC&D if we saw signs of increasing anxiety or stress in her. But it means that we were willing to modify our program to include her wishes. And with some pretty epic results, we might add.

[top image source: Creative Commons Licensed image from rp_photo on Flickr. Bottom image used with permission from her amazing Mom.]

Say No to Household Fascism

photo courtesy of Andrew Branch

photo courtesy of Andrew Branch

Let's be clear. Most of our clients aren't interested in creating a totalitarian regime over their canine companions. They choose to work with Wildflower because they want to help their dog become a positive and valuable part of their family. And we believe each person within a home has as a unique and individualized relationship to their dog. 

And yet, a week doesn't go by that we don't come across some confusion about "double standards" or whether a single set of rules for their dog is necessary.

I want to unpack this. Let's look at how rules exist in households:

  • Parents are allowed to do things the children aren't, like drink liquor and watch late night TV.
  • Babies are allowed to do things the teenager in the house isn't, like puke on the furniture and throw her food at the dinner table.
  • And grandpa is allowed to do things with his bodily functions that nobody else would ever dare try in the house.

We live in a complex, social web where different rules apply to different people, based on their role, age and their relationship with us. But even these rules aren't applied consistently in every situation.

This is because rules that regulate our behaviour depend entirely on context. And we learn quickly what rules apply to what situations. Figuring this out is a normal part of growing up in any household, community or society.

For example, I wouldn't DARE eat ice cream straight from the container if Mom was home. But Dad didn't care so much. In fact, I'm pretty sure he taught me how to use my spoon to carve out the edge bits without damaging the container.

But touching Dad's tools was a hanging offence. Whereas, if just Mom was home, she seemed relieved if I spent the afternoon outside playing with Dad's tools in the forest (and invariably leaving them in a random trail of rusting metal.)

I could pester my sister endlessly until she agreed to give me the remote control. Not so much when Dad or Mom were nearby. And I don't think Grandma even knew what a remote control or a computer was, so I had total control over the world when grandma came over to watch us for the evening.

Social rules and norms are always contextual. Even in our homes.

It's not about everyone treating your puppy exactly the same. It's about recognizing the relationships involved and helping your little friend to find his loving place in your growing family.  

It's okay if Rover is allowed to sleep on one person's bed but not another's. It's also perfectly acceptable that Mom allows the dog up on her lap for snuggles, but Grandpa prefers to teach a sit and wait.

If there was a place for a consistent set of hard rules, it would be around the training methodology you all agree to use, such as positive reinforcement and force-free methods. Having Mom and Little Sara both using rewards while Grandpa is using aversives, like hitting the dog with a rolled up newspaper, does not always end in a good place for you, your family or your dog.

But short of that, it is totally okay and normal to develop a set of guidelines that are contextual to the individuals and the situations. Rover will learn quickly not to beg at the table and to meet Jimmy in his room to devour all the yucky bits that Jimmy snuck into his socks. My dog certainly did. 

Listen, Humans.

A rabbit, a possum and three mice were right on this spot. Seriously, how cool is that?!

A rabbit, a possum and three mice were right on this spot. Seriously, how cool is that?!

As head dog here at Wildflower Dog Training, I think a lot about agency.

As dogs, we live in a world defined by you apes. Someone else determines when we eat, where we can sleep, if we get to go outside and what is appropriate behaviour when that old lady that smells like pork chops comes over.

And don't get me wrong. This can be pretty sniffilicious. I lucked out and my human does a pretty good job at helping me live a fun life. But sometimes I need help. And sometimes a little more agency is really what I need.

Agency is an ape word for giving us dogs more choices and a voice in our day and life.

And agency can be really helpful for a dog suffering from anxiety that manifests as aggression. Which is why BAT (Behaviour Adjustment Therapy) is such an important tool for our coaches. And with some dogs, the results are nothing short of stunning.

And I'm not just saying that because I run this place. I'm also a client. 

I asked Sean to help me write this blog post because BAT has been super helpful for me in dealing with some of the things that really stress me.

Yeah. I know. It's hard to believe.

But hey, some things really get to me. And allowing me to decide when I've had enough is really, super important. Not only that, I'm told it is like a "safe word". I give the signal and my human turns and runs with me. And that is super cool. I love running! And we're also running away from that worrying bulldog that I know is up to something!

I also love that I choose whether we do another repetition. A big shout out to Chirag Patel for that idea! I would totally give Chirag a big, slobbery kiss if he ever comes back to Canada.

But here's my favourite part of BAT.

My human companion has to start listening to me. It's super awesome. I feel so much more confident when I know what we are working together to get out of stressful situations so I don't have to escalate.

Okay. Enough husky yowling. I've got some squirrel watching to do. Sean says he's going to post his video below.

Smellily yours,

- Sir Tyson

There are no guarantees. No easy fixes. But there is transcendence.

A client recently told me she had previously worked with another dog trainer who guaranteed to “fix” her dog’s issues for life. She felt disappointed when that promise didn’t come true. I felt her pain. I’ve experienced that heartbreak before in own my life. How many times have I searched for and chased “the guarantee”, the easy fix, the escape from reality? The promise of something better with minimal effort on my part. How many times have I walked up to another human and said “X is causing me problems, fix it. I don’t like how this is working. I want something better, shinier, brighter, less complicated, less work. And I want a guarantee it will be fixed pronto". The crazy thing is I’m not talking about getting my dishwasher fixed. I’m referring to internal stuff. Big messy stuff. Career struggles. Relationship struggles. Sentient being struggles. The turmoil that comes from deep within and manifests in my own behaviours that I haven’t always liked. 

I think we often approach our dogs’ behaviours with the same attitude: Fix it. Get rid of it. Make him stop lunging and barking at the dog across the street. And do it quickly at whatever emotional cost it takes.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned. Our dogs are emotional beings and there’s tons of evidence of this coming out of an exciting new field of research exploring canine cognition. We’re discovering our dogs are far more complicated than we ever imagined. Their brains are not dishwashers or furnaces that can be easily fixed overnight and certainly not for life. Our dogs require effort. Time. Understanding. Patience. Deep breaths. Love. And of course a behavioural modification plan ~ but I’ll save that for another post.

Instead of a “fix it” approach to our dogs (and quite possibly ourselves and those we love ~ human and non), I’m proposing something a little more empathetic. Something much more realistic. And something way more humane. A re-think on the fix it now / guarantee for life THING we all think we want but know deep down is impossible. 

This re-think business looks like this…

  • Decide you want to build a trusting relationship with your dog 
  • Commit yourself to a force-free, humane way of working with your dog
  • Recognize a huge part of your dog’s behaviour can be positively influenced by YOU 
  • When things are overwhelming or you’re just not sure, find help (ideally from a well-educated force-free / positive reinforcement trainer)
  • Most importantly, accept there are no easy fixes or guarantees when it comes to behaviour. Yours. Mine. Our dogs. No such thing. Some behaviours are easier to modify than others but there’s no such thing as a “fix”. 
  • It’s a journey, regardless of who it is ~ our dog, our child, our partner, ourselves. We learn, we grow, we evolve, sometimes we fall and take a few steps backwards, but we don’t fix. We fix robots. We don’t fix emotional beings. We transcend. 

And holy smokes can we learn a lot about ourselves from our dogs with this re-think approach. There’s liberation in knowing the goal isn’t to fix. Suzanne Clothier articulates this so well in her book “Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs”. 

“Of all the gifts that animals can offer, perhaps the greatest is this opportunity to delve deep inside ourselves. Without judgment or timetables, with patience and an amazing capacity for forgiveness, animals are the ideal guides through our inner landscapes. In moments of glorious agreement as well as moments of frustrated disconnection, our relationships with our dogs serve us well, gently nudging us to a greater understanding of the dynamics of two beings in willing partnership and to new insights into who we are. Once we begin the journey toward the authentic connections we long for, we cannot help but be profoundly changed, often in ways we did not expect but welcome wholeheartedly. A life lived in relationship with an animal has the power to make us both fully human and more fully humane. And this spills over, as a fullness of soul inevitably does, to other relationships, weaving its magic across our entire lives."

Canine coaching Tip #3: There are no guarantees in dog training. No easy fixes. But there is transcendence. Ask yourself, how can I positively impact my dog's behaviour tonight? Tomorrow? For the rest of our lives? And now go do it. 

Check out if you want to learn more about what your dog’s thinking. It’s super cool.

Canine Ladder Of Aggression

The canine ladder of aggression is a simple visual aid explaining how aggression escalates in dogs. Although the behaviours would manifest differently, I suspect it's not that different in other species including those of us calling ourselves Homo sapiens. It's pretty simple. It starts relatively peaceful ~ for example a lip lick or turning away from the stressor. If the stressor persists, fear and anxiety increases and aggressive displays become more obvious and more serious such as a growl, air snap or bite.  All dogs are different and each dog has their own individual tolerance for stress. Also, some dogs have been punished for showing displays that are by all accounts non-violent (e.g. a growl). This can cause them to move up the ladder to a more obvious and serious display of aggression. If your dog could speak it's likely they would say something like this about a stressful situation ~  "Hey, this thing is making me feel uncomfortable. I really want it to go away."

Canine Behaviour Tip #2: NEVER punish a growl. It's information. That simple. Nothing personal. No need to feel embarrassed or upset. It's your dog's way of saying "I need your help before my fear / anxiety escalates up the ladder of aggression." 

Get your copy here.


Image courtesy of Unsplash

Image courtesy of Unsplash

I spend a lot of time thinking about connection. What does it mean?  What are the benefits of connection? Does it change over time? What gets in the way of connection? What are the components of deep and meaningful connection? Is it volitional? Does it require a plan? Can you measure success? Or is it entirely visceral? Is it perhaps something magical and out of this universe? And what about connection across species? That’s where it gets really complicated. 

Or does it…? 

I also spend a lot of time thinking about dogs. I’m a canine behaviour coach. Which is a fancy way of saying I’m a dog trainer. I became a canine behaviour coach because I’ve always felt a deep connection to dogs. But why? What is it about this interspecies relationship that draws me in and gets me waxing philosophical about the meaning of connection? Ironically, it wasn’t until I started studying the science of behaviour change that I could fully appreciate why this connection to dogs is so profound. Science has lead me straight back to my heart. 

These perspectives I have, echo the work of the brilliant behavioural scientist Dr. Susan Friedman, who in her course "Living and Learning with Animals", details how behaviour has three key components; A, B and C. 

A is what happens right before the behaviour occurs (antecedent). B is the actual behaviour. And C is what happens right after the behaviour occurs (consequence). Here’s the crazy math on this business of behaviour. Behaviour is 2/3’s environmental and only 1/3 the actual behaviour. Perhaps that shocks you! I can hear your response, "Really?  How does that make sense with my misbehaving dog?"  My response is:  "the question we need to ask is '...what does this mean in terms of connection?’ ”

I think it's quite simple but not always easy (believe me I understand) and definitely requires work. 

I believe it starts with committing to a philosophy of how you will care for the animals in your life. My philosophy is in line with the AVSAB recommended standard of care (bottom of pg. 2) and guides the way I train my own dogs as well as my clients. 

The philosophy manifests like this...If you’re kind. If you’re patient. If you’re willing to pause and observe. If you display respectful behaviour (antecedent), most dogs will respond with generosity and goodness of spirit such as move in your direction (behaviour) to solicit your physical affection (consequence). If the dog enjoys physical affection, they’re much more likely to offer this behaviour in the future. Notice the emphasis is on self. Connection requires an awareness of self as much as it does the other being.

This might shed some light on my earlier question about forging an interspecies connection. Is it complicated? I think the answer is no. It’s actually quite simple. However, it takes patience, commitment and little bit of soul searching. Which leads me to my very first Canine Behaviour tip….

Canine Behaviour Tip #1: “If you want to change animal behaviour you have to learn to see, read and change your own behaviour first.” ~ From The Secret History of Kindness: Learning From How Dogs Learn by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.