Sweetness, Stillness, and Resilience
Obedience Comes Naturally by Bringing Out 3 Simple Qualities in Dogs
Instead of imposing discipline and dominance on our dogs, or subjecting them to an unnatural model of learning that only works in a controlled laboratory setting, why not bring out a dog’s sweetness, stillness and resilience?
What exactly are these qualities, and why should we bring them out in our dogs?
Like a lot of things related to our canine companions it can be easy to misinterpret what I mean by sweetness so I’ll do my best to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding.
For starters, if being cautious and wary constitute one end of the scale, and being needy or over-friendly constitutes the other (though both are based on anxiety), sweetness would not just reside somewhere in the middle but would be on another scale altogether and have an entirely different quality to it, a willingness to engage and participate in activities with others in a relaxed, light-hearted manner, with no resistance to the owner’s or other dog’s needs or demands. In Natural Dog Training creator Kevin Behan’s way of looking at things, it would be consonant with a dog’s ability to flip polarities with alacrity, speed and precision.
Sweetness is about always being ready to play if it’s time to play, or to just hang out if it’s time to just hang out, or to go for walk if it’s time for that, or whatever the day demands. A sweet dog is one who comes over and puts his head in your lap when you’re not feeling well. A sweet dog may also bring you his leash, not because he’s itching to go for a walk but because he feels that you’re a bit on edge and could use some fresh air and a change of scenery. Except when they’re sleeping, dogs are always paying attention to our body language, our expressions, even our unconscious desires.
I think one of the two biggest mistakes in dog training is the idea that you have to be your dog’s “pack leader” and that when a dog is misbehaving, you have to bring his natural energy “back into balance.” I would suggest that when a dog is misbehaving, you need to bring him back into a state of harmony, not balance. Balance is the equal opposition of forces, a form of constant yet controlled tension while harmony rightly suggests that you and your dog operate on the same wavelength (as wolves do when hunting), rather than taking sides in opposition to one another.
Balance is tension, harmony is flow.
Believe it or not wolves exhibit a lot of sweetness. They engage much more often in grooming each other, relaxing, cuddling, and playing than they do in bouts of possessiveness and antagonism. This is especially true in small, family-style packs, where sweetness is far more common than episodes of social friction, which are virtually non-existent.
To me stillness isn’t about holding still physically; it’s about being still emotionally. If a dog’s mind and body operate as an energy system (which they do), then stillness would be—among other things—the ability to use only the exact amount of energy necessary for a given situation. That means that your dog can be highly energetic and still possess the quality of stillness.
Stillness is also about feeling centered and grounded no matter what’s going on around you. A dog who feels grounded is one who can’t be thrown off-balance very easily, or when he is, he’s able to rebound quickly and easily.
Stillness also has a quality of quiet, unhurried persistence. For instance, when certain athletes are in “the zone” they have an uncanny feeling that everything around them is suddenly moving in slow motion. So they don’t get frustrated or need to rush things.
Stillness also has, for lack of a better word, a kind of Zen quality to it. It’s neither a quiet pond nor a tempestuous ocean but a kind of gently flowing stream. The “flow” aspect is important because while the kind of dog who embodies stillness isn’t feeling any agitation, he isn’t putting a lid on his emotions either, they’re flowing easily in whatever direction or with whatever purpose is most needed.
And like sweetness, you can see the template for the quality of stillness in the hunting behaviors of your dog’s wild cousins; wolves are very patient yet unwaveringly persistent during the hunt.
Resilience entails some very important qualities in both humans and dogs. One is the ability to bounce back easily from adversity. Another is the ability to quickly regain one’s stability when thrown off balance, either physically or emotionally. This doesn’t mean that the resilient dog isn’t capable of being thrown off balance at all, but when he is he has the ability to roll with the punches and “shake it off.”
There are numerous studies on how some people have more emotional resilience than others when they’re met with traumatic or challenging life experiences. Some of the factors involved in this process include keeping a positive attitude, being optimistic no matter what, and having an ability to regulate one’s emotions.
“When bad stuff happens to resilient people,” writes Dawn C. Mar, PhD, “it appears that in the short term they don’t do anything different from what non-resilient people do. Instead they feel something different about their ability to handle things. And as a result, they fare better [both] physically and psychologically over the long-term.”
I think that our dogs’ capacity to “feel something different about their ability to handle things” is directly related to the inner qualities of sweetness and stillness. In other words a resilient dog is able to adjust and re-adjust his behaviors and attitudes quickly, in the moment, by “going with the flow.” And when I talk about flow it’s not a metaphor or a new-agey, feel-good mantra. Everything on the planet—natural or man-made, organic or inorganic—exhibits properties of flow. From the flow of rivers, streams, and ocean currents, to tectonic plates, to the flight patterns of birds, riding the flow of air currents, to the movements of ants in an ant colony, to traffic patterns in cities and towns, to the electricity running through your computer, to the flow of information that it provides.
It’s all flow.
So how do you bring out these qualities in your dog?
The “How To” of Sweetness, Stillness and Resilience
First I think you have to detach yourself, if only momentarily, from looking at canine behavior as a product of rational, linear (i.e., humanlike) thought processes. This is hard to do because there’s a part of the human brain designed to force us to view natural phenomena through a human-centric lens; we tend to see everything in nature as a reflection of ourselves. In fact, when most of us are asked to switch off this tendency it makes us uncomfortable and, in some cases, it even infuriates us. The human race is so egocentric that we find it impossible to see animals as anything other than a reflection of ourselves.
The second step is to spend a few quiet moments each day observing your dog’s behavior as if it were a flow system. When a stream comes to an obstruction in its path, like a boulder or a rock formation, it flows over or around it. So by observing your dog’s behavior, and your own, as two parts of a flow system you’ll slowly start to see which emotional impediments are blocking your dog’s emotional flow. And the strange thing is that by focusing on your dog’s flow of emotion, you’ll start to see some of the ways you may have been blocking your own emotional flow.
The third step is to find ways to improve the emotional flow in the system. You can do this on your own, or you can investigate the core principles of Natural Dog Training, which provide a comprehensive template for achieving optimal flow in the dog/human dynamic.
Lee Charles Kelley
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?“