Training her mind, training her dog—Mary Rose O’Reilley on the pleasures and pitfalls of learning to sit without barking.
In front of my meditation cushion is an altar where I keep my Tibetan bell, an image of Kwan Yin, an icon of the Virgin Mary, and a screaming red plastic hotdog that squeaks when you squeeze it.
When I tell people I’m teaching my dog to meditate, they snicker, be they Buddhists or dog trainers. But meditation is, among other things, simply a long down-stay. We show up, shut up, and hold a space. Both humans and dogs need to learn these skills. Twenty-five years ago I adopted a border collie whose needs ate into my early morning prayer time. I began multitasking. I’d meditate with her beside me on command. Once she learned not to bite out the candle flame, things went better.
People meditate for many reasons, among them, to enter a space of holy presence, to train the mind in stability and peace, and to work with deep-seated emotional patterns. Many dharma teachers speak of “purifying the unconscious” in ways that bring healing light to what lies hidden within us.
Is any of this useful for dogs? Some would say that dogs have no spiritual nature, but I am too much of a Franciscan to believe that. When I lead my animals into the meditation room, I go with them not only as a teacher, but as a member of an eccentric sangha. Our training in stability and inner quiet evolves as a kind of mutual illumination. When I am calm, riding the current of breath, the dogs pick up on it, and when they are at peace, I let their rest quiet me.
I bring my current puppy, Ani, to Kwan Yin. I’ve reached the end of my rope trying to train this flibbertigibbet. Let’s note that there are two struggling contemplatives here: Ani and her witless human companion.
I had such high hopes for this puppy, and though hope is a legitimate focus, it’s unwise to skip blithely to attachment, especially when goals are idealistic. After almost forty years of contemplative practice I still struggle with the basics: expect nothing and live calmly with the dogs that life gives you. In my case, those have been challenging dogs. In the last thirty years, I’ve made homes for Toby, the incorrigible runaway; Shep, who stole food so obsessively that I had to tie a bungee cord around the refrigerator; and, lately, Star, who herds my grandchildren.
I resolved this time around not to fall for the first pair of sad eyes at the shelter. I researched gentle dogs, child-friendly dogs. I looked into breeding and bloodlines and settled with a sigh and a wad of cash on a nine-pound coton de tulear whom I brought home from a conscientious breeder. Cotons are tiny dogs with clownish personalities set deep in a cloud of white hair. My partner, Robin, and I are hospice volunteers and we wanted a little doggie assistant. I could imagine a tiny, white dog snuggling up to a sick person.
At the breeder’s house, a five-month-old puppy trotted up and pointedly chose me—but maybe not to be a therapy partner. A few weeks later, when I had to write down her breed at the puppy socialization class, I carefully inscribed “hellcat.”
“Hmm,” said the trainer. “That’s a new one for me.”
Ani was aggressive and barked insanely from the get-go. She was soon exiled from puppy soc, and then from doggie daycare—the caregivers kind enough to label her “shy,” rather than “a killer weasel.” She air-snapped the other dogs and yowled and screamed on walks. She also got herself blacklisted at my local big-box pet store. Considering the amount of money I was spending there, that’s like getting thrown out of Macy’s for sobbing over the merchandise. Then she bit me, leaving an inflamed circle of tiny tooth marks and a black and blue stain on my arm. It wasn’t personal. My arm got in the way of her crazed charge at the car window when a German shepherd jumped in her face.
As one by one the best dog trainers in town gave up on us, I desperately tried to develop a plan to save Ani’s vocation. Under hospital conditions, she would most likely bark at a wheelchair or oxygen tank—not to mention someone using a walker, or a mannerly therapy dog. Clearly, training her was a job for Kwan Yin.
Three months into our time together, Ani has learned the meaning of “go to place,” but I don’t order her onto the meditation mat beside my cushion. When she follows me into the meditation room, I put a treat on the floor in front of her. It’s the same principle Jewish mothers use when they offer children a spoonful of honey with the Torah. I sit on my cushion and ring the bell. When she comes anywhere near me, I place a treat on the floor. Within two days—to my surprise—she is seeking her meditation space, flopping down and lolling with soft eyes.
My high-strung dog needs relaxation to keep her below her panic threshold; she’s quickly at ease in the meditation room, but her practice develops slowly. Sometimes she lies quietly on the padded mat, sometimes she chews it, sometimes she potties on it. But she shows up.
“Small dog, small brain, small bladder,” says the vet as she runs her hands over Ani’s supple muscles. I have just confided my puppy’s unwillingness to housetrain.
“Listen, you have to have different expectations for these little dogs. They are not on your border collie schedule.”
About Ani’s barking, the vet offers a diagnosis: she is “highly reactive.” Also, she is short. Ani greets bigger dogs with a blitzkrieg of shrieking, which makes them retreat with their paws over their ears. In other words, the behavior works for her.
Now at one year of age, she is, at least, no longer aggressive, and she joyously bounds into “Pint-Sized Play” to romp with small dogs off-leash. No more snaps at people or canids, and, 95 percent of the time, she potties outside. What’s left? Mainly the soprano shrieks with which she meets other leashed dogs, bicyclists, and, indeed, anything untoward. Therapy dogs must pass a Canine Good Citizen test, and they cannot pee on the floor 5 percent of the time.
I go to a workshop for “aversive and reactive dogs.” The teacher encourages us to introduce our animals by complimenting them while stating our goals for the class. “Ani,” I say, “is joyous and affectionate. And funny. I think she would do well as a therapy dog, if she could stop barking at everything that moves.” The teacher is a specialist in Tellington TTouch, a kind of doggie massage that aims to calm the animal’s nervous system. Two hours into it, canines are snoring left and right. The humans are pretty calm, too. Rubbing finger circles on your pet is a powerful meditation.
The teacher is also an “animal communicator,” or what might be called a “pet psychic.” At the end of the workshop she “reads” each dog. “Please ask Ani whether she wants to be a therapy dog,” I say. It’s dawning on me that I need to let go of my big ideas.
Our teacher immediately replies, “The flash I get from Ani is of nausea and dread. The phrase going out into the world.”
“So, she’s agoraphobic?”
“Something like that.”
My own little Emily Dickinson.
“If you’re patient with her, she could handle a small number of people,” the teacher says. “But you’ll have to take it very slowly. With her, it’s like trying to train a butterfly.”
Maybe it’s like a butterfly trying to train a butterfly, I think, for in sharing time with Ani on the cushion and mat, I’ve realized how we mirror each other’s feelings and how slowly we both go “out into the world.” I have a boundless capacity to screw up and fly off center. I take in too much information and have to train methodically on a few basics. Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet.
When I was a student at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh taught us this healing meditation: First, center yourself in the breath: Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Then allow your feelings into the space of consciousness: I know that I am feeling… Furious, perhaps, with this hairy little diva! Then, Breathing in, I see the deep source of my feelings. Finally, sit quietly with your feelings.
One of our about-to-be-ex-dog trainers—a good and methodical woman, fast with the treats—loses patience one night and yells in my face because in the midst of a complex drill, I and my befuddled puppy have, for the second time, gone left when she’s said “right.” Where Ani is in space, I don’t know; I find myself on some windswept playground cowering before my old teacher Sister Mary Paperweight, fumbling the ball again, tearing up with nerves. Breathing in, I see the deep source of my feeling.
Later, when I meditate with Ani, I meet my demons of shame and perfectionism. We have a laugh together. Ani’s giddy joy offers safe passage to our visitors from the dark side.
Such little windows of enlightenment give me confidence in dog training as spiritual practice. It’s slow going. I’m not sure what Ani is picking up; I’m learning a discipline of leading with the heart (which accepts the dog I have), instead of the brain (which plans, judges, passes, and fails). I’m practicing focus, patience, and surrender of outcomes. One of my daily metta prayers has long been May all beings find their true paths. I must free Ani to find hers.
And Kwan Yin laughs her ineffable laugh, in love with the clueless clowns of this planet. One of them me.
Ani’s Tips for Beginning Meditators
Work below your threshold. Negative feelings simmer under the boil, and you should work with your fears at this level. The time to go to your mat is before you erupt in crazy barking.
Wear your flak jacket. My human companion wraps me in a kind of swaddling band to give me a sense of safety. Some spiritual traditions speak of “the cloak of protection.” Set your intention every day not to be blindsided by orange traffic cones or that bichon.
Smell the flowers, smell the poop. Check out how high a collie can pee. Calling your human to mindful walking is a gift to her. Develop her instinct for being led.