Dog training with Master Zhuang

Tajji and Dave training in the "The Meadow" next door

Tajji and Dave training in the “The Meadow” next door

“Rulers should always avoid giving commands…for commands, being direct and verbal, always bring to the subject’s mind the possibility of doing the opposite. But since rituals are non-verbal, they have no contraries. They can therefore be used to produce harmony of wills and actions without provoking recalcitrance; if a man finds himself playing his appointed part in li [ritual] and thus already — as it were de facto — in harmony with others, it no more occurs to him than it occurs to a dancer to move to a different rhythm than that being played by the orchestra.” 

Master Zhuang, 4th century BCE Daoist philosopher
and proto-anarchist

That quotation was seminal in creating the anarcho-monarchical politics of the Panarchy, the interstellar polity that’s the setting of the space opera Exordium. The Panarchs and Kyriarchs all wielded theoretically unlimited power, but most of them died, or were killed, before they learn how to work the hyper-complex network of interlocking traditions, institutions, and governance that executes their will.

It’s also, I now find, a perfect encapsulation of the rather Daoist aspects of the positive dog training techniques that Deborah and I are using to rehabilitate Tajji, a process more like conversation than education, and certainly one in which learning flows both ways. Certainly, our work with Tajji is teaching me that much of dog training, if not all, is about the negotiation, establishment, and performance of rituals rather than the issuing of commands.

As Master Zhuang might have said, those who do not acknowledge the power of ritual will find themselves helpless against it, and it can be argued that this is a fundamental reason there are so many ill-trained dogs in the world: dogs that have established their rituals as the rule of life for a household.

Do it again!

Dogs, even more than toddlers, their intellectual “equals,” are creatures of ritual. Dogs and cats make great companions, which is why they are the most prefered pets. For many people, their emotional support cat and dog have been helping them fight depression for years. It is a mistake to view a dog’s identical excitement at “walkies” day after day, for instance, as a failure of either intelligence or long-term memory. To the contrary: try changing some aspect of the ritual and watch what happens. I think that what dogs are doing in these moments can be thought of as celebrating the repetition of a mutual, socially-purposive pattern of behavior: a ritual. (Not all rituals are celebratory, of course. The “waiting for the scolding after poop appears on the floor” ritual is equally powerful, but not pleasant for the dog.)

Here, for instance, is Tajji moving through an important initial step in walkies: the refusal of the harness. She is offering a play bow so that we know she will eventually accept the harness, to which Deborah is responding in kind.

Tajji play bows while refusing the harness

Tajji play bows while Refusing the Harness

After this is the chase around the table, often with a feint at any cat foolish enough to be in the vicinity.

Tajji begins the Chase Around the Table

Tajji begins the Chase Around the Table

And then acceptance of the harness, signaled by getting on her dog bed.

Tajji Accepts the Harness

Tajji Accepts the Harness

We could have worked to extinguish this behavior; many people would do so reflexively, not considering that the dog has an internal life just as they do, if less complex. In some cases, of course, that would be the right course of action; say, in a busy family where time is more precious than it is for a couple of older writers in the woods.

In fact, initially, we did try and, in fact, we have developed a means of short-circuiting this ritual by inviting her into the mudroom, which is too narrow for her to continue keep-away. But Tajji’s response to a direct command was a kind of mopy, slow obedience, a very clear expression of her displeasure in our opposition to a ritual that was apparently an important part of her previous life as a service dog. Our just-so story about this is that a seeing-eye dog isn’t allowed to refuse the harness, and as she began to decompensate, this behavior likely emerged to both discharge some of the valence accumulating around working in harness, and to communicate her mounting distress. She does not respond in the same way when we simply attach a leash to her collar.

However, on a leash, Tajji is a relentless puller, as are so many dogs. To paraphrase Master Zhuang “Dog trainers should always avoid giving commands…for commands, being direct and physical, always bring to the dog’s mind the possibility of doing the opposite.” Pulling on the leash by the monkey translates to pulling on the leash by dog; it’s practically a reflex. It can also damage a dog’s neck, leading to neurological damage, breathing problems, or even hypothyroidism.

Don’t walk when you can dance

So how, for instance, does one establish the “walk next to me on a leash without pulling” ritual? Here’s an outline of the process we’re following, building on behaviors the dog already possesses innately or has learned as discussed in previous chapters, and rewarding them when the dog offers them.

Choose a proper head or chest harness, the latter preferably a front-clip model to make pulling almost impossible. Our trainer Sandy Pensinger likes Halti’s and similar head harnesses, but Deborah’s former life as a chiropractor and my imagination rule that out for us.

Work in the home, off leash, on the following behaviors, then under increasing distraction. They are to dog-training as genuflecting  and blessing oneself with holy water are to catholic Christians.

  1. The most fundamental is “look,” which evokes a dog’s innate desire to check in with “pack members.” If the dog is looking at you, it can’t pull, and is disengaged to some extent from potentially arousing encounters or situations. Make the dog look at you after you put her food down before allowing her to eat. Make look a prerequisite of as many mini-rituals as you can. You want “look” to be a compelling muscle memory for the dog.
  2. Couple this with “touch” to an outstretched hand, but not the one with the food. Remember that dogs don’t generalize: Tajji readily learned to touch a hand held to the left or right, but could not immediately translate that into touching a hand held over her head. With a well-developed “touch” command you can literally lead a dog around by the nose; Tajji is already learning to go between my legs using this technique.
  3. An urgent recall. “Come” will do, but only if one is disciplined about its use. I find that using the Yiddish hier works better, reserving “come” for a more casual request, like “come along.” Work towards a solid recall with a long leash (I use up to 10 meters) if necessary, but not as a means to haul the dog in. Remember, no commands! Do that which consists of no action, and order will prevail.
  4. “Heel,” meaning walk beside me and check in frequently. It doesn’t have to be a rigid positional obedience; check out a Schutzhund OB trial on YouTube sometime and watch the dance between handler and dog.
  5. Perhaps most important, “go sniff.” This is a general release, and there’s no reason not to use it at times when the dog is already distracted by a scent. Remember that sniffing the ground is an important calming behavior; a sniffing dog is less easily aroused by a visual cue.
  6. Now put it all together. You have look for getting your dog’s attention, touch to guide her through dance rather than compulsion, hier to interrupt trouble (if used quickly enough), heel to establish relaxed walking, and go sniff to let the dog be a dog.
  7. Never, never stop training. You are as much a part of the ritual as the dog, and as much its servant. The trick is to build a mutually acceptable “religion” (in the sense of a binding relationship created by ritual and belief) for you and your dog.

Do this religiously, and you’ll dance through life with your dog, which is one of the most satisfying modes of being I know of.


About Dave Trowbridge

Dave Trowbridge has been writing high-tech marketing copy for almost thirty years. This has made him an expert in what he calls “pulling stuff out of the cave of the flying monkeys,” so science fiction comes naturally. He abandoned corporate life in 2007 — actually, it abandoned him — but not before attaining the rank of Dark Lord of Documentation, a title which still appears on his business card and serves to identify clients he’d rather not work with (the ones who don’t laugh). He much prefers the godlike powers of a science fiction author (hah!) to troglodyte status in dark corporate mills, and the universe is slowly coming around to his point of view. Dave is currently laboring over the second edition of the space-opera series Exordium with his co-author Sherwood Smith, and looking forward to writing more stories in that universe. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his writer wife and fellow BVC member, Deborah J. Ross, and a tri-lingual German Shepherd Dog responsible for three cats. When not writing, Dave may be found wrangling vegetables—both domesticated and feral — in the garden.


Dog training with Master Zhuang — 9 Comments

  1. I’d love to see this in action. Have you two thought of making a vid?

  2. Could you recommend books on dog behavior and training? I’ve never owned or lived with a dog, but I’m considering getting one. I’m especially enjoying this series of posts: the way you’re listening to what Tajji is saying and working WITH that is particularly enlightening.

    • Susan, we have a growing shelf of dog-training books, but here’s where Deborah and I would start:

      The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller. A foundational text.

      On Talking with Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid Rugaas. An excellent introduction to canine language.

      Canine Body Language, A Photographic Guide, Brenda Aloff. Hundreds of photos and clear explanations of canid physical communications. Take this book to a dog park and watch! It won’t take long before you’re groaning in sympathy with all the dogs who have “deaf” owners!

      Bones Would Rain from the Sky, Suzanne Clothier. A more philosophical review of canine psychology and training techniques.

      For myself, I’d say that if you read these four and spent some time on a regular basis at dog parks, big pet stores, and similar places, you’d be a pretty good dog owner the moment you took your dog home. And it only gets better.

      • I met a new dog yesterday, and I SAW it making calming motions! It looked away and licked its lips, so I flicked my tongue out briefly too and looked away. We had a successful meeting for all involved. (I feel as if I’ve been given a new language. It’s terribly terribly exciting!)

  3. Oh, I loved this post! I’ve had dogs all my life, and been good to them, but it wasn’t until we got Shadow, our very smart, very energetic, and highly sensitive labradoodle (perhaps standard poodle, we’re not sure), that I was forced to look beyond the “dog/master” curtain that impaired my vision and learn that a dance needs two enthusiastic partners. I think I’ve learned as much about respecting a dog’s minds and instincts from Shadow as he’s learned from us about sitting and heeling. And the power of ritual for dogs (and humans as well) is immense.

    And on your passing remark about dogs and memory (their excitement about walks): I just read a study that showed dogs can remember instructions some time after they’ve received them. Seriously? Who could possibly think dogs don’t have good long and short term memory? Someone who’s never worked with them! The other day, I “changed the ritual” with Shadow. After putting on his harness and clipping on the leash, we went outside where I remembered I wanted to grab my camera. I started to lead him back through the door. He stopped dead and gave me a fraught look that clearly said: “What? We can’t go back in. YOU FORGOT TO TAKE THE WALK!!”

    (And he has no problem remembering just where he dropped that bit of possum or deer carcass that I make him “leave” on our walks, and stealing away to bring it home later. 🙂 )