I want to preface this by giving credit to Mike Ritland of Team Dog and Alicia Morrison Scholet of Fulton Strong K9 for the ideas and concepts presented below. Thank you.


Alright, let’s talk about mindfulness and energy when training your dog. When working with herders especially (who are more emotionally receptive to you than, say, a Doodle), being aware of your mental, physical, and emotional state is paramount. In case you didn’t know, dogs can hear your heartbeat, smell the change in your pheromones, and are in tune with your breath.

Don’t believe me? I saw a Malinois bitch that was so intuitive, she keyed on the decoy’s inhale as he braced to catch her on the sleeve. There are also personal protection dogs who will key off of a spike in cortisol — not a word or cue from their handler. This right here shows me that being aware of your state (mental, physical, and emotional) is paramount. As we often say, “emotions travel down the leash.”

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in your body in the present moment; ie the practice of being in the here and now. It’s feeling the sun on your skin, seeing the love in your dog’s eyes, hearing them pant, smelling the Kennel-Sol from the clean runs. It’s NOT thinking about what’s for dinner, or the e-mail you need to send, or how your dog didn’t out correctly on the decoy 5 minutes ago so you stimmed him on the ecollar.

(I’ve been guilty of all of those thoughts and actions, btw — you’re not alone.) <3

When we are being mindful, we are not judging our thoughts or feelings. We simply acknowledge them and let them go. This takes practice, and it is worth it.

When you are mindful, you are aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You are not caught up in the past or future; you are simply experiencing what is happening right now. This is extremely important when training dogs. In order to be successful, we need to be fully focused on what is happening in the moment.


How does it apply to dog training?

Since emotions travel down the leash, mindfulness can help you connect with your dog on a deeper level. Dogs are extremely conscious of our emotional state. Emotions have micro-effects on our posture, facial expression, how we smell to the dog, etc. Dogs are more aware of all of this than we are.

When we’re in the moment with our dogs, we can focus 100% on them, and catch subtle cues that we may otherwise miss. As you know, dogs communicate mainly through nonverbal means. When we’re mindful, we can catch those micro-moments, and adjust our interactions with our dogs accordingly. To the outside observer, it may look like you and your dog are reading each others’ minds!

Mindfulness is important in our daily interactions with our dogs. Any interaction with them is a training opportunity, and a chance to be in the moment with them. For example, grooming is a good way to be mindful with your dog, and to release the clutter of your mind to focus on the task at hand. You can also get down on the floor with them, tune into your energy and breath, and invite them into your space. Turn your phone off, quiet your surroundings (ie don’t flip Netflix or YouTube on), and pay attention to what’s happening in the moment between you and your dog.

Another great mindfulness practice is taking your dog for a walk, in order to clear your mind (and your dog’s mind). If you’re frustrated with your training, this is a great way to calm down and tune in. Stop when they want to sniff, and move when they want to move. When they pause, pay attention to what they’re sniffing — how are they breathing? Watch their sides move. When they walk, watch how they’re moving. Are they moving straight? Striding short on one leg? Is their body language confident? These are all questions to ask (and to file away for possible action later).

When engaging in formal training sessions with our partners, being aware of our energy will help them to stay calm — especially when we’re working with dogs in drive! By staying calm, we can bring their energy down. This also works with horses (which is where I originally got the idea). Horses are prey animals, so they DEFINITELY cue off of our energy. If we’re shouting and raising our voice (even in excitement), horses and dogs will respond in kind. Even if we’re not shouting, but we’re tense and breathing into our chest instead of our belly, our companions will be stressed and excited — looking for the prey or threat. By being aware of where we’re breathing and where our energy is, we can manipulate their energy.

Mindfulness tips

There are a number of ways to get started with mindfulness. They’re simple, and will become easier with regular practice:

  • Be aware of your breath. When you are tense, your breathing will be shallow, rapid, and in your chest. When you are relaxed, your breathing will be slow, deep, and in your stomach (read: diaphragm). Focus on taking long, deep breaths and exhaling slowly. Pro tip: I’m a fan of “box breathing”, which is inhaling for a count of four, holding the inhale for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, and holding the exhale for a count of four.
  • Be aware of your thoughts. When you are training, don’t get lost in your head. Acknowledge any negative thoughts or doubts and say “thank you” as you let them go. Remember that you are the only one who decides what “negative” and “positive” mean to you — thoughts are thoughts, and they’re all data to Source. It’s our ego that judges our thoughts. Also understand that you can control most of what you think about, and all of how you respond (not react).
  • Be aware of your body. Notice how you are feeling physically. Are you feeling angry or frustrated? Where in your body are you tense? Where are you relaxed? Is your stomach queasy? Are you feeling vaguely spacey or headachy? Take a few deep breaths and relax your body.
  • Be patient with yourself. Mindfulness takes practice. Don’t expect to be perfect at it right away. With time and patience, you will be able to incorporate mindfulness into your life with ease.

Mindfulness is an important tool for us as dog handlers. By being aware of our thoughts, feelings, breath, and energy, we can create a more positive training environment for both ourselves and our working companions. Mindfulness allows us to be in the moment and to focus on the task at hand, and it’s a great way to calm down and connect with our dogs.

If you’re looking for more information on mindfulness, I’d highly recommend reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. It’s a great read, and it will give you a deeper understanding of mindfulness and how to apply it to your life.