The Yoga Of Dog Training

Shortly after we got Stella, I had an epiphany watching some corgis on an Instagram account I follow called Alfuku. 

The owners of these corgis are Japanese, and naturally they talk to their corgis in Japanese. 

When I heard them interact with these dogs, I had no idea what they were saying. But these corgis sure did. 

These dogs are beautiful and funny and trained. They know all kinds of tricks. They even dance in competitions with their owners, weaving in and out of them to music. It’s amazing.

But my epiphany watching them respond to commands in Japanese was— and everyone who has ever trained a dog, will go, “Duh” when I say this,— is that these dogs don’t understand the Japanese language, or any other language, for that matter.  They’ve just learned to decode sound patterns.  

They’ve translated what sounds to me like: ichi washi goobahya into: Bring the rubber chicken here, and drop it at my feet.

Once I fully grasped this, I consciously started monitoring my speech for brevity and consistency when I talked to Stella. No color commentary, no reasons, no verbal expressions of exasperation or complicated feelings and needs.  I needed to shut up, keep all that to myself, and just say,  Come! 

Same with body language. No dancing Shiva arm movements, no fancy footwork. If she was trying to decode me, I needed to send as clear a signal as possible.

One thing that makes Stella easy to train is her attentiveness. She makes eye contact. She seems to be trying to read me. 

When I ask her a question, or, more accurately, when my voice goes up at the end: “You wanna go for a walk?” She cocks her head to one side, as if to say, “What?” 

Then, if I put on my shoes and grab her leash, and always repeat those same sounds every time before a walk, “You wanna go for a walk?” is basically ichi washi goobahya except instead of fetching a rubber chicken, she gets to go outside with me.

My latest project is trying to train her to know the distinction between “Stay With” and “Stay Close.”

I want her to understand that when I say, “Stay With” she should stay within a close proximity to me, maybe 30 yards. I should always be able to see her, and she, me. 

I use Stay Close to mean what most dog trainers mean by “Heel.”  I want Stay Close to mean, “keep exact pace with me.”  

This training has been eye-opening. I have to be totally present and aware of what I’m doing in order to be effective.

 It’s a lot like practicing yoga. I can’t multi-task. I can’t make random, mindless movements or jibber-jabber to her in meaningless paragraphs of mouth noise. 

If I want the signal to be read, I have to reduce the noise. I have to breathe, slow down, make eye contact, be patient, be willing to fail, and try again. And again. I have to make it fun. I have to have treats on me at all times.

Dog training means paying attention to what I’m doing, and what she’s doing, and finding ways to connect.  I have to witness myself and I have to witness her. I have to create a relationship.

When I’m walking alone, without the dog, it’s different. I can and do carry on long conversations with myself, out loud. 

I used to get embarrassed if anyone caught me doing this, but now, in the age of wireless headsets, everyone appears to be talking to themselves as they walk along, anyway.

Yesterday Stella and I were walking on the Hike and Bike trail.  This is where I like to practice stay with, and stay close with her. She had her short, lightweight drag-along leash attached to her collar but I wasn’t holding on to it. 

 It was sunny and warm and I found myself striding along, happily talking to myself about my usual nonsense when I realized I’d lost track of her. And myself.

But thankfully she hadn’t lost track of me. There she was, up ahead, waiting for me to catch up. She was doing a great job of staying with. Whereas I had strayed. I had lost her. And myself. To thought.

Dogs teach us so more than we teach them, if only we would stop thinking and just observe them.

A long time ago I wrote this poem to another dog:

Shasta

My dog knows the universe with his nose,

sips the air for the scent of leaving

after the doorlock clicks.

I spend each day practicing to do

what he does:

Follow my senses,

observe the wind, 

respond to the sense of soil

and not to the flowering of each

fantasy, each upturned rock

of memory.

My pet, 

my guru, 

my teacher on a leash.

From the passing pick-up

it looks as if I am walking you,

but I am the student

following you each morning

from tree

to bush, 

probing the world of gravel

and weed, 

learning the proper response

to air, the infinite 

logarithms of light,

the script of sound

far beyond my range.

The Mindful Meatloaf

The other day I decided to make a meatloaf. I came across a recipe online and bought a pound of grass fed beef and a lot of expensive spices and exotic ingredients so I could try it. It was a pretty complicated recipe for a meatloaf.

But I delayed making the meatloaf because my life suddenly became really full and complicated with lots of stuff that needed my attention, pronto.

But then I looked at the expiration date on the meat and I really had to make it.

But I also had to do a lot of other things, too.

But I also needed something for dinner.

But I also needed to attend to my things.

So there it went, back and forth, back and forth, like that, in my brain.

I went into the kitchen and started to assemble the thousand ingredients for this complicated meatloaf, all the while questioning my decision, given all the other, you know, things competing for attention.

And then my brain hit overload.

So right in the middle of the kitchen, I stopped the meatloaf prep.

“Okay, Kath,” I said. “Here’s the deal. You are either going to totally commit to this meatloaf, or you are going to totally abandon it right now. Pick. Because you can’t do it like this, hon.”

And that’s when I made the conscious commitment to the meatloaf. I even put my hands together in prayer position and bowed to the meatloaf and said, out loud, “I am going to fully commit to you for the next hour, Meatloaf.” “Namaste.”

And with that, I set to the task of measuring and mixing and stirring and chopping. At the end of the hour the meatloaf was ready for the oven, all the prep dishes were cleaned up, and I was calm and happy.

I had really enjoyed the whole process. I was present for the whole thing. And now I was free to go on to the next thing.

And what I had learned in making the Mindful Meatloaf was that all I needed to do was pick a thing, commit to it for a specific amount of time, and then just focus.

The reason I am telling you about the Mindful Meatloaf is that I often ask my yoga students to create an intention for themselves before we start practicing yoga.

Many times, I too, have been asked to create an intention for myself before yoga, and I was often confused about what an intention was, exactly.

For a long time I confused “intention” with “goal.” But an intention isn’t a goal. An intention is just a promise you make to yourself to focus your attention in a particular direction for a particular period of time. That’s so when your focus wanders, and it will, you have your promise to bring you back.

What will happen the whole time you are making the Mindful Meatloaf, is that your attention will constantly be pulled toward all the other stuff you need to do, stuff that’s way more important than the meatloaf.

Your other projects will wail and scream. You will deeply question your bad decision to make this stupid meatloaf now, on this especially crazy day.

But then you will remember that you pledged your allegiance to it until it got done, and you will not entertain the possibility of moving on to another activity, another “meatloaf,” until this one is in the oven.

You will not listen to those wails and bids for attention from your other projects. You will stay with the meatloaf. You will be like Odysseus, and not plug your ears to the songs of the Sirens, but instead tie yourself to the mast of your meatloaf, listen to them, and sail on!

So now you can use the Mindful Meatloaf as your personal ADHD dispelling magic word any time you feel like you have too many things to do and not enough time to do them.

In those moments, just put your hands in prayer position and whisper, “mindful meatloaf” and commit to it with your whole heart.

***********

Oh. And that meatloaf?  Terrible. I mean, truly awful. Worst meatloaf I ever tasted. I threw the whole thing in the garbage.

But the making of it was transcendent.