Training Mindfully: Reframing our approach to fear in dogs

13912764_10105558913584497_5172261607008029630_nTraining mindfully is a concept I’ve been cultivating for the past year. When I say training mindfully, I mean paying attention on purpose, and being acutely aware of what’s happening during the training session: Your mechanics, your timing, your location, as well as the dog’s internal state.

Paying attention on purpose takes practice, predictability and protocols. When we train mindfully, we:

  • Train consciously and intelligently
  • Are aware of the interaction of the environment, the dog, and ourselves
  • Listen to the dog so the training session is a conversation
  • Teach and train with intention
  • Incorporate the human client’s needs and abilities into a dog’s functional assessment

While we can’t always control our dog’s environment, we can give them the coping skills so that when life throws triggers their way, they can respond in ways that are less fearful and less reactive. When training mindfully, we can move with intelligence, and so can our dogs.

Much of my work as a trainer involves helping fearful dogs and their guardians train mindfully. Questions I commonly field include:

  • “When will this be fixed?”
  • “When will my dog be normal?”
  • “When is training over?”

These questions are tough. They’re also understandable. I empathize with people who ask them, because the concept of living with a fearful dog takes work, mentally and physically.

Conceptualizing training as something that eventually finishes is damaging. It sets up guardians for false expectations. It places undue pressure to “fix” fear instead of learning how to help a dog cope with his genetic and environmental load.

Sometimes people see me training a dog and ask: “Oh, what’s wrong with this one?” I’ve caught myself answering with an immediate diagnosis, like “fear of strangers” or “dog-dog aggressive.” While not wrong, I find these answers incomplete. A fearful dog isn’t a car that’s gone into the repair shop for fixing.

Imagine how powerful it could be to reframe our concept of fear in dogs as something that requires work, training, coping skills and lifetime management, as opposed to something wrong that needs fixing? Something that requires a mindful approach?

After all, fear isn’t the only thing in dog training that requires training, coping skills and management. A dog’s recall goes south quickly without regular practice, as do basic obedience cues, loose leash walking, and any number of behaviors that aren’t based in fear. The work involved in helping a dog feel safe doesn’t have an expiration date. The improvements achieved through training cannot be defined by the single word “fixed.” Coping skills increase, startle responses decrease, positive associations to the environment strengthen.

Often, one of the hardest parts of living and training with a fearful dog is accepting the dog in front of us, and reframing our thoughts of fixing and deadlines into those of coping and lifetime support. When you notice your dog’s recovery going sideways, backwards, perhaps even forwards a few times in between, don’t panic. It’s ok. You’ll be ok. Your dog will be ok.

Train mindfully by observing what’s happening in your environment and ask the following questions:

  • Is there anything in the environment that’s new or causing your dog stress?
  • Are you pushing ahead too quickly in your training plan before your dog is ready?
  • What is your dog’s body language telling you?
  • Have you spoken to your vet to rule out any underlying physical causes?
  • Do you need to add another element to your training plan to address a new or previously unknown trigger for your dog?
  • Are you managing your dog’s environment to prevent his going over threshold and developing negative associations to his environment?

If you live with a fearful or aggressive dog, remember: Recovery may not be linear, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. It just requires a mindful approach.


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Positively Expert: Maureen Backman

Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town Dog Training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project.


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