Treating Our Dogs With Dignity


“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”
~ Laura Hillenbrand

The other day I was hiking with my dogs Bhakti and Bodhi, when we came upon a mountain biker riding toward us.  I called the Dogs off the trail and had them sit while I waited for the biker to pass.  He stopped and exclaimed, “What good dogs!”, and then he rode off.  I was struck by the idea that to many of us, when it comes to Dogs, “good” has become synonymous with “obedient”.  

Every day, social media is filled with photos and videos of Dogs being obedient, but I often wonder, who is this for?  Is it for the Dog’s benefit or the Human’s?  The answer seems obvious – it’s for the Human.  We love to show off to the world how much control we have over our Dogs.  We feel proud of ourselves when we can make our Dogs “sit”, “give paw” and “roll-over”.    We use our Dogs to boost our egos.  We are filled with what psychologists and sociologists refer to as “B.I.R.G.” – Basking In Reflective Glory. 

“Roll-over” is the perfect symbol for what we are actually doing to them.  We are making them subservient and submissive. yet we call them our “Best Friends”.  If a person treated me that way I certainly wouldn’t consider them a friend at all.  

Organizations that make millions of dollars from the promotion of genetic manipulation and production of Dogs, such as the American Kennel Club, have contests that showcase how much Humans can make Dogs conform. An example is the AKC Good Citizen Award. I wonder if Rosa Parks or Ghandi had been these “good citizens” what our world would be like today?

 Entire industries and professions exist for the sole purpose of canine conformity. I’ve witnessed this for 30 years as a former professional dog trainer and an animal behaviorist.  The tools and techniques, especially the Skinnerian behavior modification “brainwashing” methods, are all designed to achieve blind obedience, like something out of a George Orwell novel.  Again, I ask the question: For who’s benefit?  

There are many who will rationalize that it’s “good for the dogs – it keeps them safe.”  I used that line myself for many years.  However, turning your dog into a mindless subservient robot is a steep price to pay for this safety, especially when there are more respectful and effective ways to help our Dogs live happy, productive and self-determined lives. 

Instead of teaching them to conform, our goals with our Dogs should be to empower them.  That’s what friends do.  We need to be respectful and not coercive.  We must strive to be friends and not owners.  Rather than ask our Dogs to be obedient, we should work together in cooperation and collaboration.  To help them to be “safe” we should share our wisdom with them and build a friendship based on trust and respect.  As the educators Jean Piaget and John Dewey suggested, learning is best when it is the sharing of ideas.   Our focus should be on creating well-being, not performance.  This is treating our dogs with the dignity they deserve. 

Donna Hicks, Ph.D., an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, speaks of the “Essential Elements of Dignity”, and when they are violated they can destroy relationships.   These elements should be applied to our Dogs every day.  The following are her10 Essential Elements of Dignity.  Although Dr. Hicks is referring to Human to Human dignity, we can include Dogs (and every non-human) in these ideas:

  1. Acceptance of Identity: First thing you need to do when you want to honor peoples’ dignity is to accept that they are neither inferior nor superior to you. By virtue of being a human being, we all have the same inherent worth and value and the same human vulnerability. Everyone should feel free to express their authentic self without fear of being judged negatively. When you have an interaction with others, start with the orientation that no matter who they are, or what their race, religion, gender, class, or sexual orientation, it is your obligation to humanity to accept them as your spiritual equals and to do them no harm.
  2. Acknowledgment: People like to feel that they matter. Acknowledgment can be as simple as smiling at others when they walk by to formally recognizing them for something they have done for which they deserve credit. It is especially important to acknowledge the impact of your actions on others when you violate their dignity, instead of trying to save face by diminishing or ignoring the harm you have caused.
  3. Inclusion: No one likes to feel left out or that they don’t belong. When we are included, we feel good about who we are. When we are excluded from things that matter to us, we feel an instant reaction of self-doubt. What is it about me that I wasn’t included? This is an affront to our dignity at all levels of human interaction, from the political, when minority groups feel left out of the political process by the majority, to the interpersonal, when we’re not included in the decision-making that directly affects us.
  4. Safety: There are two kinds of safety that are important to dignity: physical and psychological. Physical threats need no explanation but psychological threats are more complicated. Honoring others’ psychological safety means not shaming, humiliating, diminishing, or hurtfully criticizing them, especially, but not limited to, violations that are public.
  5. Fairness: We all have a particularly strong knee-jerk reaction to being treated unfairly. If we want to honor the dignity of others, we need to ensure that we are honoring agreed upon laws and rules of fairness—both implicit and explicit—when we interact with them.
  6. Freedom: A major dignity violation occurs when we restrict people and try to control their lives. Honoring this element of dignity requires that people feel free from domination and that they are able to experience hope and a future that is filled with a sense of possibility.
  7. Understanding: There is nothing more frustrating than to feel misunderstood, especially when you are in conflict with others. Extending dignity means that you give others the chance to explain themselves, actively listening to them for the sole purpose of understanding their perspective.
  8. Benefit of the Doubt: Treating people as though they were trustworthy—giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are acting with good intention—is honoring their dignity. This is, paradoxically, especially important when people are in conflict with one another where the cycle of mistrust is difficult to break. Treating others as though they were trustworthy, as difficult as it is, often interrupts the negative expectations, creating opportunities for a change in the relationship.
  9. Responsiveness: We all want to be seen and heard. Treating people as if they were invisible or ignoring them by not responding to their concerns is a violation of their dignity.
  10. Righting the Wrong: When we violate someone’s dignity, it is important to take responsibility and apologize for the hurt we have caused. It is a way for us to regain our own dignity as well as acknowledging the wrongdoing to the person you violated.

Donna Hicks
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Harvard University
January 30, 2009

When we treat our Dogs with dignity, and view them as someone rather than something, not only will our friendship grow beyond our expectations, we will grow as individuals as well.  Then, and only then, will we be able to truly say we have “good Dogs”.

Ownership Vs. Friendship



“Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control.”
~ Lundy Bancroft


There are profound differences in how we relate to our dogs whether as owners or as friends, and the two are not compatible. There cannot be a “happy medium” between them, because a friendship is based on equality whereas ownership is based on inequality.

Yesterday, I was reading on the American Kennel Club’s website about “responsible dog ownership”. I wasn’t surprised to read this from an organization that makes millions of dollars every year from the mass production of genetically manipulated organisms (dog breeds). What I didn’t find anywhere was “responsible dog friendship”, which implies a relationship based on equality and respect, rather than control and ownership.

This attitude of ownership is rooted deeply in the idea of human superiority and speciesism.  In our culture, as in many other cultures, the ownership of non-humans is a legal term. However, can one sentient being ethically and morally own another sentient being? And, if so, what would be the consequences of this arrangement? This is easy to answer. Just look at the millions and millions of unwanted dogs, cats and other non-humans that populate our shelters every year. Look at the thousands upon thousands of animal abuse and neglect cases that human officers have to deal with, not to mention the untold number of those that go unreported or unseen. This stems precisely from the idea that we (humans) are the owners of these living creatures, and since they are possessions, we can do with them as we please. The problem lies in the fact that possessions are for the pleasure of the possessor. Once the pleasure ends, we try to control or “fix” the possession, and if we can’t, we dispose of it. This is exactly what we do to dogs when we feel that we are their owners, not their friends.

Friendship is the natural path to take with our dogs, as that is how humans and dogs evolved together for thousands of years. Ownership is a recent distortion of that relationship. If friendship is the natural way that Humans and Dogs “grew up” together, and anthropologists and ethologists find that it most likely was, then ownership is an unnatural, contrived and manufactured relationship, compared with the growth of a friendship. It takes longer to grow something than make something, and in our culture of instant gratification, we have lost the virtue of patience. We want everything NOW. But any good gardener or farmer will tell you that genuine and healthy growth takes time. If we pull up on the stems to make the flower grow faster, we kill it.

Ownership is control-based. Therefore, it is dualistic. That is to say that we see ourselves as very separate from our dogs; and it is reductionist – we break the relationship into irreducible “parts”, like a machine, compared with the organic and holistic nature of a friendship, which is non-dual, and integrated.

Ownership is one directional: Top-Down. It is based on a hierarchy, where friendship is bi-directional and horizontal and is based on equality.

The approach with ownership therefore is control: mechanical and Skinnerian – where the only thing that matters is what the dog does. It’s a business transaction: “Do this, and you’ll get that.” It’s a monologue and a lecture. Friendship, by contrast, is humanistic, that is to say it takes each other’s feelings and aspirations into account. It works on growing the relationship. It’s a dialogue and a conversation.

An owner “does” training to his dog, where friends collaborate with each other and trust and respect each other.

And finally, ownership is often externally and extrinsically motivated, “What can I get from my dog?” Friendship is internally and intrinsically motivated, “What can we give to each other?


Ownership is a self-serving relationship. It exists to please the owner, not the possession. If we are to end the continued mass production, and consequently the mass disposal, abuse and neglect of dogs, our supposed “best friends”, then we must strive to actually be their friends, and not their owners. We owe them that.

Are We Punishing Our Dogs With Rewards?



“Between the carrot and the stick there is usually a jack-ass.” ~ Alfie Kohn

In the early 1960’s, two graduate students researching independently on the benefits of rewards as motivators arrived at results that were not expected. Louise Brightwell Miller (University of Kansas) discovered that when 9 year-old boys were paid to solve a simple identification test (differences in faces), they performed worse than the 9 year old-boys who were asked to do it for free. Sam Gluckberg (NYU) got the same result with adults trying to solve a puzzle known as the “Candle Problem”.

It is generally agreed on by most professionals that punishment is not a strong motivator. But what about rewards? Are they just another side of the same coin?

In his book, “Punished By Rewards”, Dr. Alfie Kohn explains: “When you do something for a reward you tend to become less interested in what you’re doing. It comes to seem like a chore, something you have to get through in order to pick up the dollar or the A or the extra dessert.”

The science of motivation is headed toward this direction, with theories like the Self Determination Theory (Deci, Ryan) that emphasizes intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is what Skinnerian, reward-based behavior modification focuses on with our dogs. The message is simple: “Do this and you’ll get that.” If you Sit, you’ll get a treat. If you Come, you’ll get a toy, etc. The motivation is externally focused, and even with all the different reinforcement schedules, once the reinforcer is gone, so is the behavior.

Rewards can also be perceived as a form of punishment. When our dogs don’t perform as they should, the reward is withheld. That is no different than punishment. It’s like telling a child they will get an ice cream if the are quiet in the car, and for one moment they slip up – they’ve lost the reward. Does the child feel that they lost a reward or do they feel punished? I think we all have experienced this ourselves. The unfulfilled expectation of a reward is punishment, no matter how the behaviorists try to spin it.

Extrinsic rewards may be, and often are, counter productive for the very reason that they originate outside, and are thus dependent for their existence on the external environment. When a reward is not forth coming, as is the case with many extrinsic rewards after a while, not only does the reward stop, but possibly the lack of reward is experienced as a kind of punishment, causing the formation of conjectures that learning will be accompanied by or followed by this punishment. There is now considerable evidence to suggest that intrinsic motivation not only motivates us better than contrived or extrinsic contingencies, but is actually must be central in any  real motivation affecting us positively.”
Edward Deci

By contrast, there is intrinsic motivation. This means doing things for their own sake, and not with the expectation of what “goody” will be waiting for them at the end. This allows the dog’s natural desires to determine their behavior and not impose it artificially from the outside. It is really the difference between having faith that your dog will be a good friend, versus the fear that your dog, unless you use the carrot and stick, will run amok.

The reason we should have faith in our dogs is steeped in evolutionary theory. First, the consensus of how dogs evolved is growing that dogs didn’t hang around human settlements scavenging their refuse piles, and that we “domesticated” a few puppies and made them less wild, some claim. (It’s very doubtful that early humans even had these enormous refuse piles, we were very skilled at utilizing every bit of food and every resource. Nothing went to waste). It is now thought that we “partnered” with wolves/dogs to each others benefit. We learned from each other how to hunt and even care for our families. In other words, we helped each other out because we wanted to (intrinsically), not to get some extrinsic reward. (Schleidt, Shalter).

Another idea from evolution is whats known as Reciprocal Altruism, where one organism does something for another for the good of the whole. (Trivers). While this is usually thought of as in intra-species phenomenon, there are anecdotal examples of how humans and dogs did this for each other. (Pierotti & Fogg).

With these ideas in mind, it should be clear that the constant manipulation of our dogs may not be as necessary as many dog behavior and training “professionals” would lead you to believe.

One final note: The over-use of rewards can warp our relationships with our dogs. It puts us in a vertical relationship, where we are always sitting in judgement above our dogs. Rewards keep our dogs dependent on how we feel in order to have their needs met, such as food and acceptance. That’s not friendship, that’s ownership.

Therefore, it may be useful for us think of helping each other be good friends rather than “training”. This means learning to trust each other, respect each other and accept each other. This is a relationship between equals, a horizontal relationship. Our desire to make each other happy will be intrinsic, not based on an extrinsic “goody”. That type of connection with our dogs is the only reward each of us ever needs.

Mindful Walking With Your Dog


“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”
~ Helen Keller

I love going hiking with my Dogs. We go out on the local trails three times a week, and go across the country once a year to hike different terrains. My Dogs love it as much as I do, and there’s nothing better for refreshing the mind and the body than taking a walk under the open sky. However, I feel more closely connected with my Dogs, when we practice Mindful Walking together.

Mindful Walking is the instance when each step that is taken is done deliberately, with attention and awareness. You focus on the moment at hand and the ground beneath your feet. It is not about planning your next step, nor is it about arriving at a predetermined destination. It’s about connecting with the present moment, and when you do this together with your Dog, it’s about connecting with each other.

There are two types of Mindful Walking that I practice with my Dogs. The first is a formal practice, and the second is an informal practice. Doing either of these, whether together or separately, can bring you and your Dog closer to a deep friendship by sharing this special experience.

Formal Practice: With your Dog by your side, take one single step and then pause. Feel your leg lifting in the air, moving forward, and then settling down on the ground. Feel the way the earth feels beneath your foot. At the same time, have your dog take a single step as well. This may not be easy for her at first, as her natural tendency is to want to keep moving once she begins. If she tries to keep moving ahead, gently hold back on her leash and softly tell her, “slow”. Allow her to sniff the ground, as long as you are not restraining her. Each step you make, do it as mindfully as possible and with as much gentle guidance and encouragement to your Dog to do the same. Talk to her the whole time as you both engage in this exercise. Don’t have the goal of taking a certain amount of steps. Each step with your Dog is whole and complete unto itself. Even if you can only do one single step together, you are off to a great beginning. The more you practice this connection exercise with your Dog, the more steps you will take together, but don’t be in a rush. You have a lifetime together to connect.

Informal Practice: In Japan, they have a practice they call “Shinrin-Yoku”, which means “Forest Bathing”. It is the practice of walking in the woods without having a destination or a purpose. It is just the experience of being under the canopy of trees with no other goal than to enjoy the moment. This is what I will often do with my Dogs when we aren’t hiking. “Formal” hiking is different because we have a destination and a goal, whether it’s an “out and back” trail or a “loop”, we walk until we complete the trail. Shinrin-Yoku has no such goal. Often, I will let my Dogs lead the way and follow them wherever they decide to wander. I will look at what they are looking at, step where they step, follow and explore wherever their senses lead them. Sometimes, they move around a lot and other times they spend a long time in one place. It doesn’t matter. The point is to experience, in my own way, what they are experiencing without getting lost in my own thoughts. Time is not a factor, nor is distance. It is a way for me and my Dogs to connect and share this mindful experience.
Sometimes, I will engage in this practice with my Dogs when we are not in the woods, but just standing in front of our house. This can be done anywhere. Simply follow your Dog’s lead and pay attention to what she is paying attention to, without analyzing, evaluating or judging it. Just experience it the way your Dog is experiencing it.

When you and your Dog are practicing Mindful Walking together, you are sharing a deep moment of connection and experience. In this space, there is no firm division or boundary between you, and the exchange of energy and love flows freely. Each step you take together is one step closer to the ultimate friendship: Kenzoku.

‘Howl’ Connected Are You and Your Dog?


“I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.”
~ Howlin’ Wolf


In the distance, a siren sounds. Your Dog, sleeping peacefully on the couch, awakens, and with ears pricked, begins to howl. Is she answering the “call of the wild”? Is her “inner Wolf” trying to break free?

Wolves, Coyotes and Dogs howl as a means of communicating. It’s their way of saying, “I know you are there, and I am here.” Although there is no complete agreement among scientists as to specifically “why” these beings howl, it is generally agreed that it is a way of connecting. It is also a great way for us to connect with our Dogs, too.

Now, I am not suggesting that we get on all fours and begin baying at the moon with our Dogs, although I have done that and it is a great way to join them and experience a moment together from their perspective. Actually, I am merely using the word HOWL as an acronym to describe a way of being with our dogs on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis that will bring us closer together and deepen our friendship.

H.O.W.L. stands for:
Openness and acceptance

“There is a greater need to extinguish arrogance than a blazing fire.”
~ Heraclitus

Next time we are with our Dogs, let us take a step back and trust them that they know how to just be. We would be well served if we are humble and allow these amazing creatures to be themselves. As a species, we Humans tend be arrogant. I realize that may put some of you off, but I believe that’s one of our most profound weaknesses. We always think we know best, and that’s especially true when it comes to our Dogs. Modern humans have been around for approximately 200,000 years. Wolves, which are virtually genetically the same as Dogs have been around for over 2 million years. They know very well how to be Dogs and don’t always need our help. Sometimes when we think “we know better”, we can make things worse.
~”Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown” said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree.~


Openness and Acceptance:
“Let in all the guests. You never know what gifts they may bring.”
~ Rumi

It’s easy to be critical of our Dogs, and to reject aspects of their behavior and appearance. We amputate their tails, slice off part of their ears (fondly known as “cropping”), gasp when they hump, get offended when they jump up on us, scold them for barking, all of which is harmless, normal dog behavior. This creates a chasm between us that is hard to mend. If we are to say that we “love Dogs”, then we have to love them as Dogs, and be open to all the qualities that make them who they are. Otherwise, our love for them becomes self-serving and conditional. In that way, we only have what Rabbi Twerski calls “fish-love” for dogs, and don’t truly love them at all. I am not suggesting that we become completely passive and permissive, of course we deserve as much respect as we give them, but we must be more open to accepting our Dogs for who they are, not just what we want them to be.


“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

When was the last time you saw your dog? I don’t mean looking at her as she’s lying on the couch or walking in the yard, I mean really seeing her? It’s easy to forget at times, and I am also very guilty of this, that the Dog we share our lives with with is a miraculous, extraordinary and wondrous creature. When we first meet our Dogs we are enamored with them. We spend a lot of time being present with them and noticing everything they do. As time passes, the “honeymoon” phase wears off and there is a tendency to take them for granted. The Dog that we were once so infatuated with has not changed, however we seem to have drifted into a place of indifference and routine. To change this, we can adopt what is know in Zen as “Beginner’s Mind”. This is the mind of a child, where everything, even the mundane and routine, is fresh and new. It is being in a state of mindfulness where we see through the preconceived ideas about our dogs and experience their true essence. By spending just a few moments a day in the present moment with your dog and appreciating them as if for the first time, you will reconnect and bring back that experience of awe when you’re together. It helps you increase your level of empathy and understanding with your dog. I do this once a day with Shared Mindfulness. Our Dogs are with us for only a brief time, so why not remind ourselves every day that this amazing creature is only an arm’s reach away.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
~ Robert A. Heinlein

The more our Dogs feel loved and secure, the deeper our friendship will be. Attachment theory (Bowlby, Ainsworth, Main) shows that secure attachment creates positive changes in the brain that enhances all aspects of life. There is no better gift to give our Dogs than this gift of unconditional love, and that love will be reciprocated a hundred fold. Everything we do for and with our dogs must be done with an open and loving heart. As I mentioned earlier, our love shouldn’t be self-serving. We can show our love by being completely present with them, guiding them when they need our help, and even giving them space and freedom to just be themselves. Our friendship with our Dogs is founded in this love, and it needs to be cultivated daily. When we use compassion and loving kindness as our guide, we will never become lost.

So, the next time your Dog has a “wilderness moment” and begins to howl, maybe you should consider getting down on all fours with her and joining in. You may find you and her are connected in perfect harmony.


My Review: Carnivore Minds by G. A. Bradshaw


I have several books that I keep on the top shelf of my bookcase, so I have easy access to my favorites. Included in these are: “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas Hofstadter, “The Seven Mysteries of Life” by Guy Murcie, “The Laws Of Form” by G. Spencer Brown, “The Wisdom Of Insecurity” by Alan Watts, “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra, and “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, as well as others. Now, I am going to make room for “Carnivore Minds” by G. A. Bradshaw.

In “Carnivore Minds”, G. A. Bradshaw, the founder of Trans-Species Psychology, takes us on a journey with some of Humankind’s most misunderstood and feared creatures, not as a casual observer, but as an active participant. At the end of this journey, we transform our misunderstandings into clarity, and our fear into affinity.

In an informative and very readable style, G. A. Bradshaw dispels many common cultural myths we have about the nature of carnivores. We discover what the scientific community has discovered: that humans and non-humans share an empathic, emotionally intelligent and self-aware mind. The idea that nature is “red in tooth and claw” is shown to be not only an inaccurate statement, but an ignorant one. Citing numerous scientific data from diverse fields we begin to see clearly how all life has a symmetry, and share a common “humanity”.

Among the chapters, G. A.Bradshaw shows us the diverse personality of sharks, and that they have much more of a thinking and feeling mind behind those, as quoted from the movie Jaws: “…lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes.” (Jaws, 1975). We learn that often feared Grizzly Bears are “…masters in the art of secure attachment parenting…”, Orcas have diverse cultures, not unlike our own, and that a Rattlesnake is “…a psychologically attuned individual who feels and thinks in empathic relationship with his prey.”

The relationship between Gilberto Sheddon and Pocho the Crocodile illustrates the “humanness” of reptiles and their ability to form lasting friendships, how the majestic Puma can suffer, just like us, from PTSD. And, like me, you will be brought to tears from the tragic story of Amber, the Coyote, and know that emotional and psychological trauma knows no specific boundaries.

The importance of this book cannot be understated. In these pages, the ideas, the facts, the science and the stories not only speak to all non-humans, for me it speaks very loudly about our relationship with our Dogs, the carnivore that we share our homes with. I have always known our Dogs are much more than mechanistic creatures that blindly respond to external stimuli, but I found it fascinating that non-mammals such as fish and reptiles share many of the same qualities. The Path of Friendship is about changing the anthropocentric relationships we have with our dogs to a more inclusive, equal and holistic view. After reading Carnivore Minds, I strongly believe that vision must extend beyond the limits of the leash.

G. A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the director of the Kerulos Center (, author of “Elephants On The Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity”, nominated for the Pulitzer prize (and is also on my top shelf), “Minding The Animal Pysche”, “The Elephant Letters: The Story of Billy and Kani” (great for kids and adults), and numerous articles, research publications, and is regularly featured in diverse media. She is the leading scientist on wildlife psychological trauma, and her discovery of PTSD in Elephants launched the new field of Trans-Species Psychology.

I highly recommend this book, and I’m sure you will find it not only enlightening, but inspiring as well. In full disclosure, I am proud know Dr. Bradshaw personally, and I’m honored to call her my teacher, my mentor, and my friend.

The Great Divide


I had a conversation this week with a Dog trainer, and I began thinking about the contentious division growing between different schools of thought of how to motivate our Dogs. It seems as divisive as politics in our country; a very disturbing notion.

One one side of the motivation aisle we have the behaviorists that base their methods on stimulus/response techniques. This began with Ivan Pavlov (who, incidentally, was brutally cruel to the Dogs in his experiments), John Watson, and B. F. Skinner. The behaviorists claim they know the only humane way to train. Yet this achievement-based training can create stress and anxiety in dogs.

On the other side of the motivation aisle, we have the pack theorists. Their theories are based on the observations of ethologists like Lorenz, Schleidt and others on wolves, which dogs are very closely related (there is growing evidence that Dogs and Wolves are not different species, just different phenotypeypes). The pack theorists claim dominance is the natural way to train, but it has been shown that dogs do not see humans as other dogs or pack leaders.

The behaviorists are claiming that pack theory is debunked, however that is not entirely true. The pack theorists claim that behaviorism only works with passive dogs and that, too is not accurate. Each side spins their propaganda and selectively cites experts that support their own views. Sounds like politics, doesn’t it?

So, what is the truth? The truth is that both philosophies are at the same time correct and incorrect. It all depends. Anyone who claims that one way is the only way is either ignorant, uninformed or trying to sell you something. Claiming that pack theory is completely wrong, or claiming that behaviorism is completely wrong suggests that the trainer should consider going into another line of work. These people will try to make a Dog conform to their way of doing things rather than being flexible enough to adapt to the Dog and the situation. Both ways, however, are focused solely on control and training, not on a relationship.

There is another approach, and that is what Path of Friendship™ is based on. It comes from various fields in psychology such as Cultural/Relational Therapy, Trans-Species Psychology, Humanistic Psychology, Attachment Theory and Social Psychology. It is based on the premise that mutually satisfying and secure relationships with others are necessary for one’s emotional, physical and behavioral well-being. Rather than excluding behaviorism and pack theory, it incorporates them into the larger framework of the relationship. This is the known as Canine Relational Therapy, or Ca.Re. Therapy. (Path of Friendship is actually mindfulness-based canine relational therapy). It works primarily on one of the three broad motivational systems used for survival, called the “Tend and Befriend” system.

There are three broad motivational systems (Siegel):

1. Fight or Flight (threat system):
When we or our Dogs sense danger, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and our bodies are prepared to run, fight or freeze. This involves activation of the amygdala and the production of the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline. This system is sometimes used by the pack theory trainers.

2. Achievement / Goal-Seeking (drive system):
This happens when we are striving, competing and working our way through different challenges and tasks. We are chasing positive emotions and fleeing negative emotions. This system operates on the neurotransmitter dopamine and involves the activation of the nucleus accumbens, which is the same area of the brain that is activated by addictive drugs. This system is what is used by the behavioristic trainers.

3. Tend and Befriend (compassion and empathy system):
This system is activated when surrounded by friends and loved ones, and we and our Dogs experience feelings of connection and security . It involves the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which is generated largely in the pituitary. This system is mostly used by Canine Relational Therapists. However, it is easily overridden by the other two systems unless cultivated and “exercised”.

At best, strict behaviorist trainers will help you control your dog. At worst, they are puppet masters and engage in behavior engineering.  At best, the pack theorist trainers will also help you control your dog. At worst, they are task masters and they will engage in monarchical intimidation.

So, this begs the question: which method is best? Adrenaline-based? Dopamine-based? Oxytocin-based? The answer, as I’ve stated before, is that it depends. It all depends on what you want from your relationship with your Dog. Both behavioristic and dominance based training will achieve an “obedient” dog, but is that all you really want? Or do you want to create a deep and connected friendship?  All three will always be a part of any relationship, but which one is the predominate one will depend on your feelings on who your dog is to you. Do you view your Dog as a pet, tool, or friend?

That’s for you to decide.


Know Each Other, Part 3: Friendship Is Not A Spectator Sport

Path Of Friendship oparticipation.JPG

“Ideas are clean. They soar in the serene supernal. I can take them out and look at them, they fit in books, they lead me down that narrow way. And in the morning they are there. Ideas are straight-

But the world is round, and a messy mortal is my friend.
 Come walk with me in the mud…..”

~Hugh Prather~

In my last two blog posts, I shared ways for you and your dog to truly know each other. First, we talked about how the over use of classification, labeling and categorizing our dogs creates not only a deep chasm between us, but prevents us from really seeing each other for who we are. I also suggested adopting a “beginner’s mind” with our dogs; viewing them without preconceived ideas, prejudices or expectations; seeing them as ever changing, in constant flux and unique. Today, I’ll talk about the final and most effective way to truly know each other: Participation.  If you want to truly know your dog, you must be more than an observer, you must be an active participant. True friendship is not a spectator sport.

In order to have a fully functioning and fully connected friendship with our dogs, we must strive to remove the artificially imposed barriers between us. In the beginning, humans and dogs shared a mutual domestication (Schleidt, Shalter), and we enjoyed a participatory relationship. We were hunting partners, companions and friends. It was an equal and horizontal relationship, rather than a top down, dog-serving-human relationship.

We had an intersubjective connection. Intersubjectivity is defined as: “The sharing of subjective states by two or more individuals.” (Scheff). In other words, participating in shared attention, emotional attunement and shared purpose. This is precisely what we want to experience with our dogs, but popular models of human/dog relationships fail to recreate this experience. Even some professionals who have attempted to move away from traditional dominance based-relationships still fall far short of achieving true friendship.

Much has been written about “reward-based” training and becoming aware of your dog’s feelings, and while that sentiment is on the right track, it is being exploited and distorted in order to “gain control” of our dogs. It is, in a way, what con-men do to gain trust; still nothing more and nothing less than manipulation. This is not what we should be doing with our friends. This is not participation.

Participation with our dogs is not simply taking them to the dog park and watching them play. Nor is it engaging in activities such as Agility training, where we set the rules and “train” our dogs to comply. True participation is joining in with your dog and making the rules together. It is seeing the world through your dog’s eyes, and having her see the world through yours.

There are a few ways we can begin to get a feel for who our dogs really are with some basic participatory exercises. The first is quite simple. Just spend a few hours doing exactly what your dog wants to do. Rather than you always calling the shots, let your dog be “King or Queen for a Day”. If they nap, then you nap with them. If they want to go outside, follow them out and explore where they explore. If they want to play, let them make the rules. We have become obsessed with always being in control, but true friends share experiences. Try not to judge their behavior, and be open to the new experience. This can sometimes lead to unexpected benefits. Once, while I was participating in my dog Cosmo’s explorations (following him in the woods), I found a platinum ring that I still wear to this day.

Another way to actively participate with your dog is Shared Mindfulness, especially awareness of the breath, called “anapanasati”. I have written a blog post about this and how to do it here.
This was recently the subject of an article in the Bergen record, which you can read here:


The best and simplest way to join with your dog is to have a attitudinal shift. Rather than assuming we are superior to our dogs, we need to always remind ourselves that although we are different, we are still equal. Equality removes all barriers. A great exercise to help with this is the “Just Like Me” exercise that was created by the buddhist monk Pema Chodron, and that I learned from my time at Karme Choling Meditation Center in Vermont. Although it is designed to help people have more empathy for one another, it can equally be applied to our dogs. It has been established in the scientific community that dogs (as well as every other non-human) have a full spectrum of feelings and emotions. By looking at your dog and saying to yourself, “Just like me, my dog is feeling sadness….”, or “Just like me, my dog is experiencing joy…”, we can attune our affect (emotional state) to theirs, and thus participate in their inner most domain: how they feel.

Full involvement in our dog’s lives can bring a whole new dimension to our friendship. It brings us face to face and heart to heart, and doesn’t allow room for self-serving relational models. Participation is the only path to a fully functioning and deeply connected friendship. It is the only way to Kenzoku.


Truly Know Each Other, Part 2: Observation Without Evaluation


“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”
~ Shunryu Suzuki

Many years ago when I was immersed in studies of Mindfulness, Zen and Taoism, my teacher and I were standing by the Waits River in Bradford, VT. “What’s this?” he said, pointing to the water.
“A river”, I answered.
No, NO!”, he said, “River is a word.” “See it, experience it, with Shoshin.” (Shoshin is the Japanese word for “Beginners Mind”.)
As I looked, I started to notice the myriad of all the details: the whirlpools, the ripples, the various textures of the water… I began to see and experience the river, which I had passed hundreds of times before, for the first time as an ever-changing, kaleidoscopic and dynamic being. I then realized that the word “river” was a poor representation of this wondrous entity.

In our last post, we discussed the limits of naming, labeling and classifying our Dogs. Today, we will explore seeing and experiencing our Dogs with “beginner’s mind”.

People often tell me that they know their Dog, but I wonder if this is really the case. I’m sure they know the classification they put their Dog in, but when was the last time we really saw them? Our Dogs are like the river. They are an ever-changing and dynamic flow of energy. They are not the same moment by moment, so to say we know them is to try to fixate them. Over 2000 years ago, Heraclitus said, “You can never step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and you’re not the same person.” He could have also said, “You can never pet the same Dog twice…” and he would have been accurate. We must see them fresh each time we are with them without assuming we know them.

There is a Chinese word “Li” that can be translated as “organic pattern.” It is used to describe the grain in wood, the markings in jade, or the patterns of water in a river. For us to truly know our Dogs, each time we see them, we must see their “li” – their natural and organic patterns.

There are a few ways we can get in touch with our Dog’s “li” using mindfulness as a guide:

  1. The next time you are with your Dog, take a few moments to clear your mind. Allow all the chatter of your thoughts, expectations and evaluations that are going on inside your mind to quiet down. To help you with this, focus your attention to your breathing for a few minutes. Each time your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
  2. Look at your Dog and see her as if you were seeing her for the very first time. In fact, see her as if you were a baby who has not yet learned to speak, with no pre-conceived notions and ideas. You don’t know what a “Dog” is, you only see this unknown being in front of you. You maintain your sense of wonder.
  3. See your Dog not as a separate thing “in” the environment, rather see them as a part of an ecosystem. Your Dog does not end at the boundary of her skin, but she is an integral part of her surroundings. Notice the overall pattern.
  4. When seeing your Dog, avoid evaluative terms such as “aggressive”, “shy”, etc. Rather, just notice the movements and actions as a pure empirical exercise. Nothing is either “good” or “bad”, it is just what is happening now.
  5. Use all your senses in your observation. The more dimensions you observe, the more nuances and subtleties of your Dog’s “li” you will notice.

Our Dogs are with us for a very brief period of time. By seeing them new in each moment, we can see their true selves at each moment. Therefore, each moment will be like the first moment. The excitement and wonder will always be a part of our friendship.

Truly Know Each Other, Part 1: The Limits of Classification



“The map is not the territory.”
~ Alfred Korzypski

Ms. G. contacted me about her dog, Max. “I’m at my wit’s end.”, she said. “I’m about to surrender him to the shelter. He keeps biting me.”
I sat down with Ms. G. and asked her to tell me about her Dog. She had previously worked with a Dog trainer and then with an animal behaviorist, and proceeded to share a litany of classifications that they had told her Max “is”:
“He’s a Schnauzer mix, he’s a male, he has fear aggression, separation anxiety and resource guarding. He is also shy, sneaky and spiteful. I also think he is stupid. His name is Max.” As I looked down, sleeping peacefully under my chair was Max. He was lying there quietly and seemed to be completely oblivious to the boxes he had been put in.
I gave Ms.G an exercise that I often have my clients do. I had her print out a photograph of Max and then with a felt tipped marker, write every name, label and classification she had for Max right over his photograph. She agreed. Once she was done, we both looked at the result. Neither of us could see Max anymore, just the words and labels she had given him. I then turned her attention to the small, sleeping Dog lying at her feet. “Point to the resource guarding.”, I said, “Show me where the fear aggression, separation anxiety and hyperactivity is on Max so I can remove them.”
“He’s not being that right now”, she said, “He’s only that way sometimes.”

To have a deep friendship with our Dogs, to achieve Kenzoku, we have to know and understand each other on the deepest of levels. However, sometimes our understanding never gets beyond the surface and we miss the opportunity to have that deep connection. Continue reading “Truly Know Each Other, Part 1: The Limits of Classification”