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.

It’s All About Energy

Do you ever dream about what it would feel like to max out as a human being? Use yourself up completely?

I wonder about that a lot.

I am fascinated with people like Tim Ferris of The 4-Hour Workweek and Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines. Those guys seem to be living so much larger than I am.

And even though I don’t want to live their lives, I do want to have as much passion and enthusiasm and discipline and moxie for my own interests as they do for theirs.

It’s all about energy. And having a ton of it. When you have energy (are rested and well fed) you can move your projects forward. You feel like a world beater.

When you’re tired and exhausted, or worse, bored, you can’t do squat.

Healthy, active, vital people are the only ones who can make things happen in their own lives, and in the world. Healthy people are the only ones who can move their lives and their projects forward.

They don’t call in sick. They are reliable. They get the job done. And for that reason they are extremely valuable to everyone around them.

Don’t you want to be like that?

To be healthy you have to move your body. There’s no two ways about it.

Walk. Log 10K steps on your Fitbit. Do yoga. Every day. Rain or shine.

Find a body practice you like to do that is not dependent on other people, the weather, or fancy equipment, and do it most days. No tennis, no golf, no swimming. Those are all too complicated. Fun, yes, but not for a daily body practice.  Find something simple with no built-in excuses for why you can’t do it.

Also: watch your fuel. Make sure you put mostly high octane in your tank. If you’ve gotten off-track with your food, get back on track. Hire a health coach for a few months if you have to, and get back to healthy eating. Eat green things every day. And move.

I’m a yoga teacher, so I have a bias towards yoga as the perfect body practice, so let me give you my argument for why yoga should be your daily body thing.

You can do it by yourself, or in a class with others.

You can find free classes and instruction on YouTube.

You don’t need any fancy equipment.

You can start at any age and at any level of fitness.

You don’t have to be bendy or flexible (it will create that in time.)

You will stretch and strengthen your body, and focus your  mind.

In 20 minutes a day.

I am also a huge fan of walking. Get a FitBit or a VivoFit or some gadget you can wear on your wrist and start logging steps. There is a latin saying, solvitur ambulando. It means, walking solves everything.

If you have a problem, take your problem for a walk. Walk long enough and you will solve your problem. Having problems with someone at work? Schedule a “walk and talk.” So much more productive than an office meeting.

Fresh oxygen to the brain cures lethargy and promotes creativity and problem-solving.

Find a body practice and commit to it today. It is key for project development.