When I first started training dogs, a metaphor was often used to describe how a handler’s emotions affected their dog during training or competition. This metaphor was, “stress travels down the end of the leash (from the handler’s hands to the dog).” Figuratively it does not, or at least I have yet to see anything visibly running down the leash like droplets of water. However, it illustrates that handlers should relax their muscles, breathe and quiet their minds when working with their dogs.
In recent years, much has been said of “energy” as to what one projects or fails to project to their dog. Consequently, other dog training terms such as being the pack leader, being the alpha, etc. are often times used in the next breath after “energy” is discussed or as a way to describe using energy while modifying a dog’s behavior. Understanding energy of itself is important but unfortunately, speaking it in the same breath as these other words changes it’s meaning and intent.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “energy” as, “being active” or “the energy that flows through all people.” In sports such as martial arts, gymnastics, archery, sport shooting and others; mediation, visualization and calm energy is used to quiet the athlete’s mind. This reduces fear and improves concentration, meditation, and contemplation.
A little bit of fear is helpful to keep one grounded and safe. Otherwise, one may be tempted to make unwise and dangerous decisions such as handling a threatening dog without any type of safety equipment such as a leash and/or a muzzle. However, too much fear blocks a person’s ability to make accurate observations about one’s environment upon which to take appropriate and safe actions.
Concentration comes from the word “center.” It is the conscious experience we have of our environment when we bring it into harmony with our center being. To improve one’s ability, concentration is necessary. Otherwise, the mind is scattered, cannot focus and has difficulty learning; forcing the mind to remain in an unhealthy reactive state of being.
Mediation is to ponder about something to gain better understanding of it and it’s role in the environment. This intensive but relaxed observation is like a quiet inquisitive mind. It helps us to see and experience all that a person, dog, or other subject is about. Without mediation, we truly do not see all that is there right in front of us.
Contemplation is intense like concentration but it is without a center. It is not reflective, so it is not mediation. We wait to see what is presented. It is an aroused state of being without a base or what can be described as “seeing without knowing.”
For many years, I studied and competed in various marital arts earning a second degree black belt in Judo. Through these experiences, I came to understand flashes of calm energy or moments of awakenings upon feeling an opponent’s slight change in balance, hearing their change in breathing and sensing their rhythm. These moments of clear understanding are amazing experiences. It’s like a gap in time that passes instantly. It is thought without thinking and taking action based on a new clear understanding. Being open to concentration, mediation, and contemplation in sports has helped me in other areas of my life such as when training dogs.
One example of “calm clear thought” or the ability to perceive and transmit energy occurred while working with a beautiful male German Shepherd dog and his handler. The dog had a history of exhibiting aggressive behavior or what I call an inappropriate sense of defensiveness toward other dogs. The handler was previously unaware that his dog also had fearful reactions toward people. This went undetected due to the extensive positive reinforcement training the handler had done with his dog. As long as the dog concentrated on his owner, the dog appeared calm despite being in the presence of dogs and people. Looking at his owner resulted in good things happening such as food treats and avoidance of looking at stressors. However, when the dog was not looking at his loving handler (which seldom occurred), the dog showed fearful behavior which caused him to lunge, snap and attempt to bite others to protect himself.
During our dog training session, I sat near the dog but to the side in a non-threatening manner. I was not looking at the dog nor his handler. The experience was a brief quiet gap of time with his dog. I did not feel threatened despite his dog not looking at the handler. His dog avoided eye contact with me by looking straight ahead into the center of the room as did I. He was breathing normally and coping appropriately with the stress of being near to me. I was simply being there in the moment with his dog helping him to experience a non-threatening situation with a stranger.
The handler, desiring to protect me; leaned over his dog, quickly braced both of his hands holding the leash onto his hip removing the small amount of slack in the leash, and quickly expelled air from his lungs without following it with an inward breath. I felt the handler’s stressed energy and actions without looking at him. Consequently, I saw his dog also felt the stressed energy even though he was not looking at his handler. In an instant, the dog had lowered his head, laid his ears back on his head, tensed his muscles, and momentarily stopped breathing. This was the quiet before the storm and it was necessary for me to create distance from his dog. The dog had felt his handler’s stressed energy and unintended social pressure which possibly signaled to his dog that something bad in the environment was about to happen.
In the above dog training example, the solution is to help the dog and handler feel more relaxed in non-threatening environments even if there is no eye contact between them. What is more important though, is this example was used to point out how personal energy can be perceived and used in dog training.
Quieting my mind, I am able to connect with a dog’s energy and therefore, see and understand the dog’s perspective of their environment. This is essential in gaining the dog’s trust and placing them in a safe state of mind where learning can occur. This translates to knowing when to approach a dog or allowing them to approach me instead, recognizing a dog’s stress relieving behaviors, and developing training plans to boost their confidence and teach new alternative behaviors.
So this is the energy I speak of, awakening our minds and inner beings to our environment, without the confrontational descriptors of being a pack leader or the alpha dog. Whether you use terms like “stress travels down the end of the leash” or “energy”, being in the moment with our dogs and others helps us to truly understand them. This inner awakening will allow us to build the close life time relationships we desire with our dogs and other loved ones.
Disclaimer: If your dog exhibits fearful and/or aggressive tendencies, consult with Michael Burkey, a Professional Dog Trainer. Do not attempt to modify your dog’s behavior by using information contained in this article. Contact Michael at 734-634-4152.