How Training My Dog Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Mindfulness

by The Mundane Meditator

Dog Portrait

My dog is perfect.

Never mind the chewed up shoes.

Never mind the constant leash-pulling.

She is perfect.

Well, except for maybe one pesky habit.

My dog barks as if there is an armed
intruder at the door every time she hears a knock. Loud and ferocious – as she
simultaneously warns me of someone’s presence and suggests to the person on the
other side that they best think twice before entering.

Of course she is all cuddles and love once
you’re through the door and deemed part of the pack.

Changing this habit and response has
involved enormous patience and a great deal of practice.

Through
the training process, I slowly realized that I was not just teaching my dog how to behave…but teaching myself how to live
more mindfully.

Conditioning a New Response

How I intended to train my dog was simple,
at least in theory.

I knew I needed to condition a new response
when she heard knocking.

Instinctually, (and I’m sure with some bad
reinforcement from me) she had learned that the appropriate reaction to someone
at the door was to scream bloody murder in dog language.

I
began asking for a new reply.

A knock at the door now meant:

  1. Sit calmly and quietly at the
    end of the hallway.
  2. Observe and witness who or what
    came through from the other side.

At the time of this training, I had started
to take up mindfulness meditation. Funny how the connection didn’t dawn on me
until later…

Calm
awareness in the face of uncontrollable changes in the environment.

I was asking my dog to be mindful!

Practice Makes Progress

Upward Progress

The saying is practice makes perfect…but in
dog training and mindfulness, “perfect” is an unhelpful standard.

Every situation we encounter is different –
each knock at the door elicits a new reaction.

I would no sooner expect my dog to never
bark again than I would expect myself to walk around life in a never-ending
state of blissful transcendence.

The training exercises for my dog and the
meditations for myself introduced newer, healthier techniques.

When I first started meditating, remaining
present was very challenging.

Sitting in meditation made me realize that,
while my dog may have one trigger (the door), I had a great many more to
contend with.

What were my “knocks at the door” that
habitually broke my awareness?

Fears of the future. Guilt from past
mistakes. Perceived slights and injustices I couldn’t let go of. Self-doubt and
criticism. Things on my to-do list for the day, week, and months ahead.

Where was my human trainer!?

Soon, I came to relish each intruding
thought and each surprising knock at the door.

Because these presented opportunities to
practice and, for me and my dog, the cultivation of new, mindful habits grew
stronger with each repetition.

Importantly, the training for my dog – and
the analogous training for myself – was NOT to prohibit anyone from ever
knocking at the door.

Unfortunately in life, we can’t control
everything that happens, try as we might.

External changes, like a sickness or job
loss, and internal stimulus, like fears or negative thoughts, will come whether
we like them or not.

The only
thing we can control is our response.

Macro Mondays | Transportation

I understood my dog’s original reaction.
The door could be scary and dangerous – that could warrant a bark.

But it wasn’t always. Sometimes it was an
exciting delivery of new treats. And besides, barking just meant unnecessary
stress and anxiety.

In theory, I guess I could have removed my
door…

But there would be other doors my dog would
have to face.

Just as there would be other surprises I
had to manage my way through in life.

Instead, we had to face the door together.

With a clear intention and as much calmness
and mindfulness as I could muster, each knock at the door became a perfect
training session.

Ignoring the Knocking Does You No
Good Either

Another distinction to be made is that I
was not asking my dog to pretend the knock didn’t happen.

When someone came to the door, I did not
shun her to another room, or block her view or demand a statue devoid of any
emotion.

Even if that were to “solve” the problem,
there would be no growth.

I
wanted her to be able to face the door without the accompanying anxiety and
excitement.

bursting with excitement

The analogy to my mindfulness practice was
clear.

In mindfulness, we do not seek to suppress
uncomfortable emotions or unwanted thoughts as they arise. Instead, we aim to
acknowledge them without getting caught up in their story.

We
practice awareness without engagement.

Of course this is so much easier said than done!

Mindful as I may try to be, countless
things take me out of the present moment.

As much improvement as my dog has made, the
occasional knock at the door will still get her going.

But now we know how to face these
distractions together. We accept the interruption for what it is and work to
settle ourselves down again.

Finding the Space In Between

Now, when there’s a knock at the door,
there are times when I can almost see the gears turning in my dog’s head.

She hears the door.

She knows her habitual reaction is to bark.

More often than not, she manages a more
mindful response.

My meditation practice is no different.
Part of the practice is working to find the space between my triggers and my
habitual reactions.

For most of us, (me included) this space
starts out infinitesimally small. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine an opening
exists at all.

Cut me off in traffic and that gap goes straight
out the window.

But, in truth, there is always an
opportunity to choose a different response.

For example, when I sit to meditate, my
mind inevitably spins up thoughts about past decisions or actions. Out of force
of habit, I will normally begin placing judgment almost immediately. The voice
inside my head will loudly proclaim my ignorance or stupidity, and point out
all the ways I ought to have behaved differently.

Here are some of the ways a formal
meditation practice helps me:

  • Meditation helps me notice when a thought arises – awareness is an important first step if
    we want to change our default reactions.
  • Meditation helps me foster non-judgmental curiosity about the
    thought in question. I am learning to pause and stay with the bare idea without
    bringing an emotional charge to the table.
  • Meditation helps me adjust my immediate reaction. It is not
    the thought itself that is unhealthy – it is the judgmental response that
    becomes unhelpful.
  • Meditation helps me choose a different response to my
    thoughts. Judgment is not necessary. I can replace this attitude with something
    more positive. I can learn to react with compassion and appreciation. My inner
    voice might instead say: “I’m glad I made that decision because of how much I
    learned from it”.
  • Meditation helps me return to the present moment – whether
    that is my breath, or a mantra, or a singular point of focus. I am learning to
    revert to a calming mental place that is free from distractions…at least until
    the next thought arrives.

Desert Plant

Meditation is an effective and joyous way
to discover more space in our lives. To remind us that we have the power of choice
if we can stay mindful for long enough. And to teach us that we can live
intentionally if we pause instead of react.

Finding this space has involved WAY more
repetitions than training my dog. In fact, compared to me, I’d say she has
proven to be a pretty quick learner.

Finding even the smallest moment of space
and stillness between stimulus and response is a major win for me.

Slowly, I’m learning to say: I don’t have
to scratch that itch. I don’t need to identify with that pain. I choose not to internalize
that negative thought.

Somehow, I’d like to think my dog is having
a similar conversation with herself.

Coming to Peace With the Knocks at
the Door

My dog and I are still learning.

And I am not just teaching her, but she is
teaching me.

Aside from the door, she is pretty darn
good at staying in the moment. Much better than me at least.

Training my dog has been a fortuitous
reminder of how to be more mindful in my own life.

If I asked my dog to create a mindfulness program
for me, the steps would be as follows:

  1. Set an intention to
    cultivate a more calm and centered awareness.
  2. Accept that accomplishing
    this is a lifelong journey of practice and discovery.
  3. Recognize that unwanted
    distractions are an inevitable part of life.
  4. Learn to appreciate these
    intrusions, as they are a real opportunity to overcome yourself.

All of us (humans and animals alike!) could
use some more mindfulness in our lives.

Here’s to soaking up the present moment.


The Mundane Meditator is on a mission to help people see meditation as an indispensable life skill worth learning and practicing. When he is not spoiling (or training!) his dog, he writes about all things Mindfulness on his blog: TheMundaneMeditator.com He can also be found on Twitter @TMMeditator, where he shares inspirational content and ideas as he embarks on his mindfulness journey alongside you.

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