I was volunteering with the Austin Humane Society (AHS) in the Fall of 2014. At this time I was in the middle of transitioning from being a student of physics to becoming a student of dog training. I was just getting my feet wet with some dogs other than my own. While walking around the block with a mentor volunteer (and a dog, of course!), we chatted about a seminar my mentor had recently attended. The seminar was led by a professional dog trainer. She spoke of the trainer’s ‘calm presence.’
“I could never be a dog trainer,” she said, “I’m just not that calm.”
I tried to remain unperturbed. I’m not that calm either. Here I was, thinking I could train dogs.
A few years later, I read from Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s “The Secret History of Kindness – Learning From How Dogs Learn” Chapter 9, pages 244-245:
Sidman immediately points out that “[m]ost people understand negative reinforcement and punishment without difficulty.” They are the flyswatter at hand, the angry word that leaps from the tongue. But practicing positive reinforcement takes thought, conscious distancing from our reactive emotions, in a word, mindfulness. As tough to reach as a peak in the Himalayas.
This is the calm presence of which my newly-minted mentor spoke. It puts in my mind the image of a Buddhist monk sitting in peaceful meditation in the midst of a storm.
Alas, in the midst of my life up until now, the state I have oft found most elusive is calmness. I like the term equanimity, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” This is a difficult state to master. In order to be consistently positive, master it we must. So here I was in need of the very state that had eluded me up until now.
My first practice was to catch myself. “Don’t worry. It can be learned. It can be taught. It can be practiced. It must be. Right?”
I cannot believe this problem is unique. I also believe it is one that can be overcome. “If you can’t master the calmness necessary to always train in kindness, then pick a new profession.” “No, thank you, I aspire to that mental haven of abiding calm presence.” And we could all benefit from a few lessons in peace.
I think it is something that can be learned and taught. If punishment is reinforcing to the punisher because it provides immediate gratification, immediate cessation of the thing which the punisher finds aversive – the barking, the digging, the jumping – then it takes a self-awareness to break the cycle.
If all behavior continues to exist because of its history of reinforcement, then there should be a way to reinforce calmness within our selves, to reinforce peace. We reinforce peace in our dogs, right?!
In a thousand stories of dog trainers, there have to be more than a few lessons in peace. I am collecting stories of how our dogs increase our peace. I am compiling the techniques used to build equanimity and calm presence. I want to help others learn to be more calm and aware in their lives. Who better to help us than our pups?
The development of presence and peacefulness in our lives is an iterative process. We lose and regain our composure repeatedly. Sometimes we are rushed, and sometimes selfish. Slowly, the moments of presence and peace widen and increase in frequency.
Our dogs are waking us up, in more ways than one.