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.