Thursday, March 19, 2009


The dog came upon a pair of Muscovy ducks resting in the shade. He crouched and slowly stalked toward them, taking careful steps, punctuated by pauses with one front leg raised. The large male was closest to the dog, the female a few yards beyond. As the dog crept closer, the big drake rose and began to move. He slowly took a few steps to the right. The dog responded by moving to the right and a little forward. The Muscovy turned and moved to the left; the dog matched his movement and crept closer. The big drake changed direction again. Staring intently and slowly stalking, the dog seemed to be engaging his quarry in a synchronized waltz – back and forth and back again.

Suddenly, he broke into a course. The big drake lifted into flight in ample time, but the dog seemed not even to notice. Just beyond, still nestled in the tall grass, was the duck. She hadn’t seen the dog’s rapid advance; it began at the precise moment when the big male’s body blocked the view. By moving the drake into position, not only was the dog able to surprise her, his course was a perfectly arranged straight line from one target to the next. The duck lifted off just as the dog leapt forward to take her. If he had managed to grab her, the struggle would have been interesting. The tiny dog weighed about the same as the duck.
I am partnered with Jack, the little greyhound in this story, and I watched this scene play out. Jack was not taught to execute such a clever hunting strategy; it is simply part of his canine programming. Domestic dogs are descended from free-roaming canids who practiced predation for hundreds of thousands of years. No matter how we have morphed and styled them, stretched and shrunk them, today’s dogs have the tools and often the inherent inclinations to execute some or all of the sequence of predatory behaviors seen in their wild forebears.

Through selective breeding, great emphasis has been placed on a portion of the sequence, resulting in specialization. Tracking dogs search, herding dogs stalk and rush, retrievers rush and grab, sighthounds seek and course, and terriers grab and kill. All dogs possess the ability to finish the sequence with prey of the right size that they are able to catch, but not all actually will.

We often resist and even punish the things dogs do that they are naturally inclined to do and predatory behaviors seem to upset us the most. A dog up the lane killed one of my chickens once. He didn’t eat her. I went to his house with the chicken’s body, intending to ask his people if the dog might be kept from wandering down to my barn. I no sooner got “your dog killed my chicken” out when the man grabbed its lifeless body and began to beat the dog with it.

We seem to forget that dogs are animals or that they are a different species. We have a model of a dog in our mind and he or she is often a huge departure from the actual dog in our life. Jack caught an enormous grasshopper one day. I watched as he ate every bit of it. That turned my stomach but I didn’t try to stop him. He once caught a bird but just held it awhile. I believe that he would kill a squirrel if he got hold of one and maybe a duck. He has dispatched a few sweet anole lizards, abandoning them when they are dearly departed. When I come outside, he will take me to them and show me their little grey bodies. He will give them one more bite. Then, with great excitement, he will move through the foliage, poking with his long muzzle and scratching with both paws, looking for more.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Becoming Dog-Present

Paula's comments on "Say What?" gave me a unique way to make a post about my forthcoming book - "The Conceptual Dog: Liberating the Indigenous Canine." Thanks Paula. (To read her comments or leave your own, click the topic title or the word “comments” at its end.)

I find that more and more people are beginning to deliberately express loving-kindness – that is, when we become awake and aware enough to actually choose what we will think and how we will feel. The human mind is feeding thought to us 24/7. Sometimes, we follow our thoughts and get lost in the labyrinth to which they lead. Oftentimes, they chatter away in the background as we interact with daily experience through a variety of cognitive efficiencies. By relying on concepts, beliefs, and what we think to be knowledge, we can engage the mind more readily, multi-task and process more than one idea at once. But this type of consciousness actually results in unconsciousness. It detaches us from the dynamic wholeness of the moment, serving us a conceptualized version of it instead. Without even realizing it, we are distracted and inattentive.

Nearly everyone has had an experience that suddenly catapulted them into acute awareness. Remember the time you reached for your wallet and found that it was not in your pocket. Or, the time you realized that someone had left the gate open and the dog was on the loose. Yes, we panicked, and we were acutely aware. We know the difference between everyday attentiveness and hyper awareness but we don't know how to purposefully get from one state to the other…without panicking.

"The Conceptual Dog" explores ways that we can habitually bring critical awareness forward while we interact with the dog in our life. When we fix our attention upon him, the dog is wholly there and completely ready to engage us. We can learn how to give him the same, how to be dog-present.

Once we begin to engage on this level of consciousness, we will not want to return to chattering distractedness while interacting with our dog partner. The rewards will be hugely obvious. And we will find that what can be known in a single moment of complete awareness is far greater than that which we can come to learn or believe in an entire lifetime. If we really want to know how dogs think and why they do what they do, consult the master in your home. He probably has his eyes fixed upon you right now, hoping that you will awaken and that the wholeness of you will come out to play.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Say What?

From the first moment that puppies or dogs enter our lives, they are learning. They learn how to get the things they want and need and how to avoid unpleasant or dangerous circumstances. They learn the nature of things and beings. Regrettably, few of us are purposefully directing that learning in ways that will result in a harmonious alignment between the dog’s characteristics and activities and our own.

Many of us bring a dog into our lives without any real information about how they learn and the best ways to teach them. We try to educate them as we would a child who speaks our language. We issue a verbal directive, wait a millisecond then issue it again and again, sometimes louder. When that doesn’t work, we use our hands to manipulate the dog’s body into the desired posture. We believe that the dog has failed or that she is disobedient or unable to learn through some fault. We can quickly become disappointed, impatient, frustrated and even angry at her inability to translate the meaning of our words and intent into the outcome we desire. Whether or not we overtly punish the failure we perceive, this approach to education causes the dog to experience stress. And her stress is compounded by being in the presence of ours.

The establishment of stable memories and long-term synaptic efficacy are impaired by stress. Its hormones activate primitive responses in areas of the brain that are primarily engaged to meet survival needs, diminishing activity in areas that are involved in learning and memory development. Instead of helping the dog to achieve education accomplishment, we end up diminishing her ability and her desire to learn.

Uneducated dogs will almost constantly run afoul of our desires and expectations. They may spend their lives getting little more from us than corrective interventions and punishments. They will not enjoy many freedoms and may never enter the outdoors off of a tether. I meet so many dogs who have passed their first birthday and have been purposefully taught little more than to sit when cued. And most of them do it to avoid the inevitable rump push. They are wildly impulsive and hyperactive. They greet humans and other dogs with almost dangerous enthusiasm while their partners shout and pull their leashes. They and their people are stuck in cycles of error and castigation.

We lack skill as educators and we give verbal lessons to students who don’t understand the language. This can’t possibly work. But it’s not the real reason that we fail to teach dogs. Ultimately, we fail through our own inattentiveness. Thinking that we are looking at the dog, we are actually looking at the insides of our minds. If we were genuinely seeing the dog, we would be able to take in her immediate living reality. She would standing there, staring up at us, just as she was the moment before we “told” her what to do. If we were present enough, we would have noticed that our words didn’t register. And after we had laughed out loud at the absurdity of thinking that they would, we’d have the wherewithal to try something else.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The "New Deal"

If we were to approach a dog’s development with a focus upon creating conditions and situations in which he could succeed, celebration would be the foundation of our collaboration. But we rarely ever do this. Instead, we do something new, change a routine or take the dog to a place he has never been without much thought for his emotional response. We just plunge dogs into the unfamiliar “new deal” then become confused by and maybe even complain about or punish their resistance.

We would probably all say that we want the dog we are partnered with to be happy, outgoing and confident yet we seldom think about how we can help him develop those qualities. For dogs who live inside homes where little changes, abrupt variation in habits and conventions can be very stressful. Our reason for the change, no matter how good or justified, ultimately makes no difference to the dog.

Without creating any incremental steps, we restrain a dog’s struggling body while we force his mouth open and begin to scrub his teeth with a brush. Suddenly one day, we encircle his neck with a collar and tie him to the end of our arm then drag him about as he resists the new experience. Before he has been anywhere except the vet’s office and Grandma’s house, we take him to a loud and crowded event. After years of sleeping in our bed we abruptly decide to change the arrangement and close him in the downstairs bathroom.

A dog’s reaction to new situations and settings can often be determined by how he is introduced to them. The way a dog responds to the first experience is a good indicator of his continued response. Long before fear and avoidance become habitual patterns, conditions for success can usually be created.

It isn’t difficult to plan a supportive and empowering introduction to a new deal. Positive emotional connections often result from gradual introductions to changing circumstances, novel events and new people. Break the whole down into brief episodes of exposure and stop while the dog still appears confident and happy. Associate each step with great fun and excitement. Celebrate with food and/or play. As positive episodes build, success becomes more likely and stress and failure less likely. The dog feels safe and develops an expectation that good things will happen in this circumstance, rather than a fear that bad things will.

These “new-deal” introductions can become some of the most transformative interactions that we can have with a dog. They provide us with opportunities to focus our full attention on his living reality. By watching the ways he expresses his emotional state we automatically become better guardians of it. We get in the habit of consciously intending to create conditions in which the dog can experience success. This brings our expectations in line with the conditions in which success can actually be achieved. And that’s a radical departure from the unconscious way that we usually operate. We expect and the dog simply must – however he can and no matter what he thinks or feels.