Introduction— Love is Understanding
To truly love our dogs, we need to understand them — what they need, how they communicate and how they learn. If we know this, then we can act in ways that will support and love them. A beautiful saying from my teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, says it all: Love is understanding. To truly love someone, some being, we must first truly understand them.
What I want people to come away with after reading this book is a deep appreciation of the dog, and a wonder of the human–dog relationship that has evolved and co-evolved over millennia. First and foremost, we must understand that dogs are dogs: they have their own culture, language and way of understanding the world. And importantly, we need to acknowledge that, just like us, dogs are not and cannot be perfect. We are asking them to live in our human world, which is fundamentally foreign to them. It is therefore our responsibility to support and mentor them to live safely and happily in our complex world. Why do we do this? Because we love them, and want them to be happy. We want to have a harmonious and loving relationship with them. Unifying our two disparate cultures — the dog and the human — is the role of Dog Zen, my dog behaviour and training philosophy . . . a new paradigm.
Dog Zen invites us to see dogs in a larger perspective. They are our Dog Zen Masters, our teachers — certainly they are mine. One of the meanings of Zen is to look, to see, to understand, so one of the purposes of Dog Zen is to cultivate an ability to observe, to read and to have insight into our dogs. By helping build our understanding we can truly see the wonder of dogs; that they are not something to own and bend to our will, but are separate, extraordinary beings to be cared for and nurtured. By understanding our dogs, we can build a harmonious relationship and work with them more effectively to help them live in our world.
Our relationships with dogs are not just about ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘stay’, ‘wait’, ‘good boy’, ‘bad boy’. They are more akin to the relationship we have with a family member — driven by love, trust, appreciation, respect and joy. Do we know why we are in a relationship with our dogs? Do we even know that we are in a relationship with our dogs? That it’s not merely a one-way street but a dance of two partners, from different worlds, cultures and perspectives. And, like any partnership, the key to success lies in understanding what it is like to walk in their shoes (or would that be paws?), to understand their perception of the world.
This book explores why we love our dogs so much, and how they love us, how they came to be in our lives and what truly makes up this wondrous being, the dog. To do this we will go back to where dogs came from, how and why they became our best friends, and why they are able to understand us and read our gestures, emotions and behaviours.
From our deepened understanding of the dog we look at the key principles of Dog Zen training. Dog Zen is primarily a system of rearing and training that relies on ‘doing things at the right time’, during the critical socialisation and learning periods. That old adage ‘prevention is better than the cure’ is certainly true here. If you do the right things at the right time you will reap the most beautiful relationships. However, all is not lost for older or rescue dogs. Dog Zen also looks at what can be done to fix things when they invariably go astray. Yes, we can teach old dogs new tricks!
When human relationships can feel fraught and challenging, the unconditional love of a dog can ease our hearts. Though let’s not romanticise this too much. Our relationships with dogs can also be difficult and distressing when dogs show inappropriate behaviours, like biting a child or another dog. Then we can be faced with the challenges and complexities of a relationship gone awry, and sometimes even more difficult because of the risks and consequences. However, if we are willing to shift our perspective from merely training our dogs to building a relationship with them — the bond — then our training and lives together will transform.
The wolf is the dog’s ancestor
I am often asked why it is useful to look back to the wolf and other early dog ancestors to understand our dogs of today.
Over the past 10 years, the genetic research around wolves and dogs has exploded. We now know that genetically dogs are 99.96 per cent wolves. The wolf provides the ‘chassis’ (both physical and behavioural, so to speak) of the dog, supplying the foundational aspects of dog behaviour and social order. By looking back at the evolution of the dog from the wolf, we can explore the origins of dog behaviours. What they meant in the wolf, the proto-dog (the wolf that first began to associate with humans — the beginnings of the dog) and later the dog itself; what the evolutionary drivers were that moulded these changes. It is helpful, therefore, to look at these original behaviours in the wild, and investigate the meaning of them to help illuminate many dog behaviours. This gives us an understanding of what these behaviours are and why they evolved. From there, we can meaningfully understand how we can best bond with and train our own dogs.
However, don’t be fooled: the 0.04 per cent that differentiates the dog and the wolf makes a huge difference. The change that drove the evolution of the dog from the wolf via the proto-dog to the dogs we know today transformed the dog’s focus from the pack to the human in unprecedented ways. This changed both the nature of the bond and dog intelligence. No wolf would be safe left alone with our children, whereas a properly bonded dog would save them from even a wolf, love them like their own, or maybe even more. We took the reins through domestication and shaped one of the most amazing, unique and genetically diverse species on Earth. In so doing, we created one of the greatest symbiotic collaborations — truly man and woman’s best friend!
The ‘Zen’ in Dog Zen
There are two aspects to the ‘Zen’ in Dog Zen: the practical aspects of being in a calm, learning state; and dogs as a door or teacher for us to live more in the present moment. For us being in the present moment, concentrated and aware, is critical to being able to grow and live a happy life. In training and rearing your dog, having the dog in a state of calm awareness and concentration (a learning state) is also critical for learning, and therefore training.
From learning psychology, we can identify these states and know that if an animal or human isn’t in a learning state (also called ‘parasympathetic arousal’ or ‘rest and digest’), then no learning is possible. Dog Zen uses this understanding to induce the learning state as a central principle in its training. I especially emphasise this state when I teach a Dog Zen ‘down’. It is a unique part of Dog Zen, and it goes hand-in-hand with re-creating in adult dogs the optimum learning state that puppies experience during the formative period (1–4 months of age).
The other aspect of the ‘Zen’ in Dog Zen is that in many ways dogs are our teachers, often the last semblance of Nature in our complex, left-brain-dominant world. One of the highest states in Zen, sometimes called ‘enlightenment’, can most simply be described as being fully in the present moment. Dogs do this all the time. This may seem silly to some, but it is a profound state of presence that gives them some of the qualities that we admire — loyalty, trust, love, play, joy and much more.
What greater doorway to experiencing this presence than with our dogs? Maybe we all have experienced that moment of pure joy and peace as we watch our dogs, whether they are rolling on the grass, napping in the sun or jumping blissfully into the pond. They don’t have regrets about yesterday or fears for tomorrow: they are truly in the moment, every inch of their being experiencing and enjoying the very thing they are doing. What would life be if we could all just be like our dogs in that moment?
Dog Zen has been built from 40-plus years of my academic and clinical experience. But equally importantly, it is built on a lifetime of loving dogs. It is critical that our approach has a sound scientific understanding, but please let’s not leave it there. The relationship with a dog is one of our most cherished relationships, so it is also built on love. Bringing both the science and the love of dogs together is the aim of this book: hence we have Dog Zen, the art and science of dog behaviour.