Posted by: Linda Trunell | June 2, 2013

Zen and Dog Training

Max close up

I read an article called “Zen and the Art of Training a Dog” by Eric Brad (Life As A Human, January 31, 2013). The author shared how some Zen teachings helped him to be a better dog trainer. I particularly identified with this one.

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” – Zen teacher Ram Dass

It is usually during the first week of training class I hear things like “Fluffy, sit. Sit. Sit. Can you sit for Mommy? Si-it (drawing it out like a 2-syllable word). Fluffy, SIT!” While this monologue goes on Fluffy is usually jumping up and trying to get the treat her human is waving around. Fluffy does not hear anything Mommy is saying to her and Mommy is totally oblivious to what Fluffy is thinking.

Some people think their dogs understand everything they say and they know exactly what they want them to do. So if they don’t do it they are either stubborn, stupid, or being dominant (ugh – hate that word). The truth is most of what they say to their dogs goes right over their heads. They may understand certain words out of the stream (walk, car, ball, treat, etc.) but most of it just flows by.

Now, I am not saying our dogs don’t enjoy us talking to them. I talk to Max all the time and I know he listens intently because he stares at me and tilts his head to catch every word. What I do know is when I want him to do something I just say the cue word or give him the hand signal – not a dissertation.

Most dogs can learn the meaning of over 200 words and some dogs learn many more. But we must teach them the meaning of each word. We cannot teach them the English language. So when they are taught “watch me” they do not automatically know that “focus”, “pay attention”, or “look at Mommy” all mean the same thing. If we teach them “wait” but we say “Hold on a minute” it means nothing to them.

I think the best trainers are the ones who say and move the least. Dogs only need to hear or see the cue and not be distracted by a lot of other words and body movements. The quieter we become, the more we can “hear” what our dog is thinking and feeling. Is he really stubborn or have I not trained the cue well enough? Is he stupid or am I confusing him with the wrong words? If a dog is not responding to a well-trained cue we must look to the reason why. Is he not feeling well, tired, confused, too distracted, not motivated enough by us or fearful of doing the wrong thing and being punished because of our relationship?

Training takes time and being consistent. To quote Buddha – “A jug fills drop by drop.”

Here’s to being our dog’s best friend,


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