Living in the moment

drawing of woman meditatingOf all of the silly things I hear in regard to dog behavior the proclamation that ‘dogs live in the moment’ perhaps takes the cake. It is usually used to criticize owners for being understanding of their dog’s past and that unlike humans, that past doesn’t effect them. They are furry zen masters of ‘be here now’.  The idea that it is the owner’s response to their dog’s fearfulness or reactivity that is the cause of a dog’s behavioral problem, not the animal’s history, is an uninformed one.

I’m going to back pedal here for a moment because certainly an owner’s response to their dog can and does effect their dog’s behavior, but to lead people to believe that the events, or lack of them, in a dog’s life have no impact on their current behavior is wrong. It makes no sense for an animal to simply ‘forget’ about things that they felt threatened by in the past. If that was the case then training, whether using rewards or punishment, would be a waste of time, what they learned today wouldn’t matter tomorrow.

Whether a dog is consciously thinking about a scary past event, or is responding based on how they were classically conditioned to respond, may remain a mystery to us as we work with our dogs. Though our dogs may not be worrying about the security of a bone they buried last week (or they might be!), they may be concerned about something that scared them last year. The more potent the emotional charge an event has for a dog, the more likely it will be remembered, consciously or unconsciously, and matter. And that we know something is safe or inconsequential doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people deathly afraid of things that have never harmed them or even have the potential to harm them.

Handlers do need to be aware that a dog’s behavior may be affected by their response to a situation. But they should never downplay the effect prior experiences can have on a dog’s ability to cope with the moment they are in.


23 comments so far

  1. Ann M on

    I think the phrase “live in the momen” does apply to dogs when referring to their future – they aren’t worried about paying bills, or next weeks dr appt or probably dying(we hope), but worrying about what happened to them when that bee stung them and they see another bee- you’d better believe it! The “baggage” that can come with a rescued dog, let alone a fearful rescued dog can be mind-boggling and can years to surface in just the “right” situation.

    • fearfuldogs on

      To assume that dogs don’t ‘worry’ about their future also doesn’t make sense. Anxiety is all about worry or dread of the future. Dogs who are unable to predict what is going to happen, or have learned to predict something bad, are stressed by it.

      That they may not have the imagery of death and dying in their heads does not mean they are not concerned for their safety and prolonging their life. It might even be the case that what are they are most concerned about IS dying.

      I know what you are talking about, but a dog needn’t see the bee to be afraid to be stung by it.

  2. Jeanie B. on

    Deb I have to agree 100% with this one. Last week I experienced this with my non-fearful BC at class. A new dog in class started chasing another very small dog. The small dog ran around and then stopped, turned and basically “told off’ the big dog. Lots of noise, no contact. I noticed that my dog was affected by this. Her tail was down and her enthusiam for the obstacles was much slower for the next 10 minutes, then she recovered. It was the very next week that my dog would not perform a simply sequence. She would stop and stare. I realized the new dog was working just on the other side of the tunnel that I was asking my dog to go towards. I decided to do the sequence backwards, away from the “new” dog and my dog did it as fast as she normally does. It seemed very clear to me that she did not trust that new dog when it was working too close to her. We have been in multiple classes over the past 6 months and I have never seen this behavior with my dog. She is easy going and likes other dogs. She certainly remembered what happened the week before and took notes 😉

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good of you to take note of the incident. Some might have called their dog disobedient or stubborn for their failure to follow through. It’s a good reminder to acknowledge that they have a reason for their behavior, even if we can’t figure out what it is. Hope the other dog is well behaved in the future so your dog doesn’t have to keep worrying.

  3. Marta (@smorty) on

    I read that phrase today in a magazine! They used it for explaining the “right” education method and explained that dogs do not understand it, if we are “inconsequent”, meaning that sometimes we allow them certain things, sometimes we don’t. So they wrote we should be aware, that a dog “lives in the present and won’t understand if we change our mind”. While i do think one should be consequent to a certain amount (always changing the rules, doesn’t make it easier to understand them!) I also think dogs are capable of accepting or even understanding exceptions to a rule. Of course – to make an exception too often doesn’t make sense or else you have no rule.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’d guess one could say the same thing about people, that if their primary caregivers are not consistent in their expectations of them, it could be confusing or stressful. Imagine allowing a toddler to reach into a bowl for a piece of candy and then slapping them the next time they try. But my own dogs seem to have been able to sort out and tolerate the fact that sometimes they get to go out the door with me, and sometimes they don’t.

    • KellyK on

      “Lives in the present” doesn’t mesh with “needs and expects consistency,” though. While they’re right about clear and consistent expectations, those are important *because* dogs learn from past events and build up their expectations based on them. If you confuse a dog by sometimes letting them on the couch and sometimes not, they’re confused because they remember having been on the couch before, not because they live in the moment.

      • Ellen on

        If people taught their dogs to only come up on the couch when they were invited on our terms, and not on their terms, there would be no confusion at all. It’s when we let dogs do whatever they want whenever they want to do it that leads to confusion. Dogs live by and respect rules, boundaries and limitations. They make them feel safe and secure and they know what is expected of them. Consistency is key.

        I’m not sure why all of my previous posts are still awaiting moderation, but they have good explanations of what “living in the moment” truly means.

  4. Ann M. McHugh on

    I think we agree about anxiety and dogs worrying. There is a very nice working border collie that was stung by a bee 3 wks ago in obed class. She has not been the same since -she comes to the same building for agility and has no problem, but last night she was at obed class and worried all night -looking around, losing focus, missing signals just looking for “that darn bee” The original incident started at a day class, so the owner nought her to the evening class in hope that darkness woud change things enough, but it didn’t work. For her it is a situational thing, I think -dumbbells=beesting, teeter/tunnels are still fun. My sensitive, not really fearful CDX dog worries when she thinks she has done something wrong and if she does the rest of the trial is an NQ even if the mistake was just pts off. Also she wants to know what is expected of her and if it comes as she espects she is much more relaxed OR is she “reading” my ring anxiety?
    Does a dog who has never seen another animal die actually have the concept of death?and its finality? I had one dog who was dying go off into the snowy woods twice in one evening “to die” we thought in retrospect. She was upset I brought her back. She failed badly during the night and we had to pts the next afternoon – she “knew” or did she?

    • fearfuldogs on

      I had a dog who I came to learn had been zapped by a neighbor’s electric sheep fence. Until I realized what had happened all I knew was that he refused to turn right out of the driveway. The neighbor’s house was 1/2 mile down the road to the right.

      • Ellen on

        Being zapped by a fence, given treats or punishment during training is operant conditioning – a consequence to an action whether good or bad. I think you’re confusing some things and what “living in the moment” truly means. It’s not that they don’t “remember” things that have happened to them, it’s how we enforce those events and impose a continued fear and an excuse of why they behave or don’t behave a certain way.

        There is no knowledge behind instinctual reaction which is what happened to that person’s dog in class. Once the action was done in reverse, the dog was fine. I bet a bigger deal was made about the incident than needed to be, and there was no “recovery” done afterward. That’s dog psychology.

        Dogs do not have the same emotional base as we, and we tend to hold onto things, or spend too much time trying to figure out a dog’s past, and make up stories in our minds about why a dog does or doesn’t do something. They don’t have that string of thoughts and really do live in the moment. That’s one of the things that’s so beautiful to me – no regrets, no grudges with each other or humans (as evidenced by a dog’s constant wanting to go back to balance and still wanting to trust a human even after horrible abuse), and no worrying.

        If a dog is afraid of stairs, it’s truly because nobody has worked effectively to bring that dog completely through the experience and unlock the brain where it gets stuck. If he never goes up or down the stairs on his own, and we leave him in that state, he’ll always be locked at that point. It’s not because that dog is actually “thinking” about a bad experience he may have had with them. Again, dog psychology.

        Dogs that have anxiety are usually put in that position by their owners. Making a big deal when leaving the house, or when returning, is a big culprit. Another is to leave a new dog roaming the house instead of letting her relax in a crate that is not the size of a barn. Too much space actually intimidates and can scare a dog, or they become bored, and their way of calming themselves is to have a distraction which usually means not good things for them to be doing.

        I was asked for help and to assess a situation recently regarding three Maltese dogs in a home that were not getting along: one was aggressive to another and attacking and this person was having a nervous breakdown. After being there and observing for a while, I noticed that the “aggressive” dog was misdiagnosed, as usual, and actually trying to help the owner calm the newest addition and the youngest that was a rescue and only there several days. The owner kept harping on a story about her resident dog coming all the way from another country and shuffled from house to house when he got here, and that’s why he was acting that way and “lashing out.” Now, that’s a story in her mind, but not the reality of what her dog is “thinking” about or what his actions truly mean. He is dealing with a new resident dog that is much too excited. He’s living in the moment.

        After all was calm and he lay next to me sleeping, I told her that he was long past remembering any of that and has moved on, and she needed to move on also and save that story for dinner parties, but not make it foremost in her mind and attribute any behaviors to it. She let it go. I was there for two hours observing, giving advice and alternatives, and went for a walk with her and all of them. It was on this walk that I noticed what later did turn out to be a medical issue with the new young one.

        The new arrival was scared if you moved toward him into his space and cowered and ran away, yet came back and followed as soon as you went in the other direction. We were discussing this as he was sitting on the floor in front of me with his back to me-trusting me and living in the moment. So, work with Mother Nature and don’t enter his space until you both have bonded and trust each other. Why should we harp about why he does this and what he’s “thinking?” It really doesn’t help the resolution to think he was probably abused in some way and is afraid when we approach, and keep approaching. So what? Go with what he’s doing now and keep it simple.

        When I left, all three were calmly sleeping and she couldn’t believe it. Neither could her husband when he came home and asked her if it was their house he was entering. She told me this two days later when she called to thank me and pretty sure she was going to keep the latest rescue. Now everyone was, and is, “living in the moment!”

    • Ellen on

      I believe that’s exactly what she was doing. It’s instinctual to go off and die away from the pack. Wolves do it all the time. It’s dying with dignity. We should all be so lucky.

      I believe she is reading your ring anxiety.

      One of the ways to get past the bee sting issue would be to make that buzzing noise in the ring while having her do obedience and then the course, but start slow of course with her right next to you on leash. Turn it on and off. You should get to a point where it’s buzzing at the area where she relates it and she just moves past it. Many repetitions to show her that nothing bad will happen should do it. She has to focus on you, not look for bees.

      It takes time, patience (like you’re learning in the obedience class I hope) and a calm and confident handler – you!

  5. honeysjourney on

    to lead people to believe that the events, or lack of them, in a dog’s life have no impact on their current behavior is wrong.

    If this wasn’t a true statement, then I would ask myself why is there always a pause before doing what is known by my girl. Honey knows several things very well, to come when called, take treats from the hand, boxes on the floor has treats in them plus several others. But there is always the 4-5 second pause before she does anything. In that time frame she will look at me then the item and back again to me. I believe she is mulling over in her head “I’ve done this before with NO bad side effects so lets do this thing”

    In my uneducated opinion “baggage” the size of a Steamer Truck is the biggest obstetrical we work with daily regarding these awesome dogs. Even if we open the trunk slowly take out every piece of fear based issues inside and help them deal with them, just the sight of the trunk will cause some anxiety and a required 4-5 second pause.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So true George. And if you are dealing with a dog who is easily startled by novelty, it’s even more challenging. It often doesn’t matter that they’ve seen the trunk dozens or hundreds of times. It startles them.

    • Ellen on

      I admire your analysis of Honey’s thoughts, because that is most likely exactly what she’s thinking. No harm has come to me with this thing. I bet those 4-5 seconds of pause used to be a lot longer while you were building trust. At this time, are those seconds any less with bringing out that steamer trunk often and working with her?

  6. Kate on

    Oh gosh, “dogs (and horses) live in the moment” is one of those things that never sounded right to me – even years ago when I did not have the knowledge – or know where to go to find the knowledge – to dispute it. It just doesn’t make sense! At all! If this were true, how would they learn?!

    I think a whole lot of natural horsemanship is built around this — never mind the question of how they teach horses to do quite complicated performances – how would the horse remember exactly how to respond to all the commands? But some of them have a system of “games” (which are not play or games to the horse, but threats) which they often say you must do each and every time you go near your horse, before commencing any other training or riding. Presumably this is because they think the horse needs a refresher, every single day, about just what will happen if they don’t comply. I’ve seen that it very much only takes a couple of times for that lesson to be VERY well embedded in the horse’s mind – no need at all for daily reminders. 😦

    We can’t KNOW what the dog (or horse) is thinking. I know this might be projecting a bit, but I have anxiety and social phobia, and often what people who are trying to help me *think* I am thinking or worrying about isn’t quite right – and sometimes they are way, way off. (Sometimes they are spot on – just not always.) Even people who I have talked to before, and even after I have explained about my usual thought patterns and so on. “Oh I suppose in that situation you were worried about x because y.” Nope… I was panicking about z because a and b.) If humans *whose job it is to help with psychological stuff*, and even those who are quite helpful and good at it, can’t always accurately guess what another human is thinking, *why* do we think we can know this for sure with another species?! How do we know for sure that a very fearful animal isn’t lying there worrying a bit about what might happen tomorrow?

    ” It is usually used to criticize owners for being understanding of their dog’s past ” Oh, this. Ugh.

    • Ellen on

      Once again, you are a person that does not understand what the statement means “to live in the moment.” It does not mean that animals have no memory; it means that they are willing to give up their past and respond to what’s happening in the moment – like an abused dog who is following their new guardian with its tail out from between its legs and moving forward.

      You can understand your dog’s past, but there’s no reason to live in it…they aren’t! You can’t move forward if you’re always looking back. Humans use that story to allow for any poor behavior their dog is showing, and they can’t correct it because they feel sorry for her. That’s just wrong!

      We should all live in the moment instead of dreading tomorrow and worrying about what we can’t change from yesterday or yesteryear. It’s one of a dog’s most cherished features that they are here to teach us how to do.

      Dogs do not lie there and worry about what might happen tomorrow because they don’t sit and rationalize like humans, if you can call that rationalizing. Worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet that you have no control over is ludicrous and a waste of time.

      It’s that human worry and weak energy that transfers to your dog and makes her a nervous, anxious, unbalanced and unhappy animal!

      I guess this makes too much sense because this blog owner doesn’t publish any comments that do not agree with her. You’ll never learn anything that way and you’ll always be fearful!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thank you for sharing your interpretation of what living in the moment means to you.

  7. Ellen on

    From Wiki: Living in the moment is all about living like there’s no tomorrow. To do this, you must realize beauty in every moment, and in everyday activities. It’s a conscious act that requires participation, not just observation, but the reward is a richer, fuller life. This is your life, now live!

    Let’s take it a bit further, then, shall we? When Beagles that have lived their lives in experiment labs get to walk on and feel grass for the first time, start to explore and run around, are they not living in the moment? When puppy mill dogs feel sunshine and grass for the first time and start rolling in it and smelling everywhere, are they not, too, living in the moment? It’s not that they’ve immediately forgotten their horrible past, but they are always willing to move on from it and go back to balance. Anything that makes them fearful will remind them of how they’ve felt in the past, but a human that doesn’t always just give affection to a dog that’s in that fearful state and pity a dog is their best ally in moving forward to live to their fullest potential as a happy and balanced dog.

    If everyone would watch the behavior of dogs for long periods of time and the interaction among them, and learn a little dog psychology and communication, we’d be able to help more dogs, and less of them would wind up in the shelter due to behavior issues. It’s what I’ve committed my life to teaching and showing others to do to make a better relationship and bond with their dogs. As you know, especially with fearful dogs, this all begins with building trust right away.

    If you watch, you’ll notice that dogs do not follow unstable people willingly – they show hesitancy, doubt, fear, anxiety and a host of other symptoms that, when not noticed or read correctly, can lead to a bite. As a very smart man has said, “humans are the only species that will follow an unstable leader.” Sadly, this is very true.

    Dogs do not sit and bemoan their fate or dwell on the past. You are really humanizing them if you think they do. A dog in a shelter might look terrified because of the new situation with many other fearful animals, unfamiliar cold cement, and they can sense and smell death, not because they’re actually picturing the person coming with the leash to take them to the death room. They are instinctual creatures, with some thought process, not rationalists.

    As far as commands, or cues, they are things that should be routinely practiced and enforced with your dog, or any animal, so they don’t forget them; however, cues without trust and a relationship have no meaning. They also represent bonding and communication with your dog, good things, so why would they want to forget them? Memory is not the same as living like there’s no tomorrow and enjoying every bit of today. Remember those Beagles. Peace.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      One of the reasons you will not find comments spewing the CM rhetoric is because as convincing “sounding” as it may be, it is not based on what we have found in science and research, and reeks of, “if you say it enough people will think it’s true.”

      I do not want to create one more place for his rubbish to be disseminated among owners struggling for answers and thinking that there is actual truth to what you and he go on about.

      Free ranging dogs don’t form packs, they don’t have leaders and so that they “need” to be dominated doesn’t hold water. It’s circular thinking that only works if you stay within your mythological loop of how/why dogs behave the way they do. How do you KNOW that dogs do not bemoan their fate or think about their past experiences? We can only theorize about what goes on in a dog’s head.

      Professional trainers spend less time trying to come up with stories about why we need to “lead” dogs & more time studying behavior and learning. When they do they see CM’s dog whispering for what it is, fast food thinking.

      I am tired of engaging in this kind of conversation, pointing out that your talk about fear and how it works on animal’s physiology is flawed and “made up.” You can say whatever you like as politely and eloquently as you like and your talk about “balance” sure sounds reasonable, but what you are saying is that you don’t understand critical periods in dog development. I won’t even begin to try to explain the HPA axis and other neurological realities of fear that occur regardless of the “stability” of a dog’s handler.

      Sorry this is just too time consuming and upsetting. I try to provide education to people by writing my blog. If you don’t like it, or agree with it, that’s fine. Go in peace, live with your “certainty” and give up trying to ever convince me that you or CM are actually talking about something that is ultimately beneficial for handling dogs.

      You talk about cues or commands being “enforced” when animal trainers know that behaviors we want repeated need to be reinforced. I know that even responding to your comments will be reinforcing to you and I can expect that you’ll respond yet again, with more loopy reasoning and justifications for CM’s ineptness. You can know that as much as I am open to discussion I will not engage any further, nor will I have my blog become one more place people can have access to his nonsense. I can’t pull my punches anymore, sorry, he just doesn’t get it. And from your comments neither do you. You probably could if you spent more time learning about animal behavior, but you’ve found your guru and seem happy with him. Your choice. My blog, my choice.

  8. Ellen on

    You might learn something from these two articles that are long overdue and written quite well:

    You might associate all this with one particular individual, but as you can see, many of us are quite independent thinkers who don’t over-analyze a situation but get in there and help.

  9. Ellen on

    Some folks need a visual. Here is to Living in the Moment!

    Debbie, as you can see by my previous posts, I respect and appreciate other trainers, including the work that you do and have done. It’s just a shame that you feel that you are so high above others that you do not possess the same humility, professionalism, respect and open-mindedness.

    I’m not trying to convince you of anything except that there are other methods available other than what you believe, and I do not feel that any of them are too time consuming and upsetting to look at and ponder.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ellen, I do not doubt your commitment to dogs. Regarding this video- What I see is a dog who has never walked on a particular surface and has been given no choice other than to do it. Even IF a dog is handled this way and becomes ok with walking on that surface, even learns to love it, does not change the fact that there are better and more compassionate ways to manage the introduction to novelty. That dogs are so adaptable and flexible that they provide substandard trainers the opportunity to sell their services, is cold comfort to me. If this is how you want to handle dogs, that’s your choice. I’ve seen better, I know better and I do better.

      It is not a question of me not understanding that there are other methods than what I “believe.” I have been at this for years and have “pondered” long and hard the methods advocated by trainers who couldn’t tell you the difference between positive punishment and negative punishment. That dogs can learn despite how we handle and train them is a given. I’ll never argue with that. And as far as me thinking of myself as “high above others” is a low blow to hurl at someone who is only advocating that dogs be handled as humanely and compassionately as any animal, based on the science of animal behavior and learning theory. That you choose to insult someone who has chosen to get an education in animal behavior doesn’t upset or humble me. It’s just too silly. I will never apologize for having sought out an education.

      I am very familiar with the techniques employed by trainers who use “natural” methods, channel energy, dominate or make up their own brand new field of “dog psychology.” I am contacted by owners, and rescue groups who are trying to pick up the pieces and salvage a dog’s life after someone who didn’t understand the difference between rewards and consequences, got a hold of them.

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