When I started Zen Dog Training in 2005, I realized that people needed simple and effective answers when it comes to training dogs and solving unwanted behaviors. With that purpose, I developed training plans and guides that could be customized to each dog and owner. Over the years, these training plans and guides have become the basis for the digital library of games, solutions, videos, and comics we use today.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” As we enter our 16th year training people and the dogs they love, my team and I have been reflecting on our training methods and have developed a streamlined approach we call The Zen Dog Way.

 

Zen Dog Training Options

Manage  |  Train  |  Interrupt  — these 3 training options encompass Zen Dog Training

 

MANAGE

Managing means focusing people on creating situations where they control the outcome. This option depends on people optimizing the environment so learning happens naturally. Having the right environment will speed up the training process by preventing unwanted behavior and help people more easily control outcomes. 

Instead of trying to train dogs in the moment, when people might not have the time or ability to train, the focus is shifted to carefully managing situations to guarantee desired outcomes. For example, using a dragline, crate, confinement area, treats, or baby gates helps people more quickly interrupt, prevent, or guide dogs away from getting away with unwanted behaviors.  

The Secret to Zen Dog Training is to focus people on creating environments where learning happens naturally and unwanted behaviors can be avoided. As explained in the ZDT Secrets Comic, using the right tools and equipment is the easiest way to ensure people are successful when training.

In fact, from teachers, to therapists, to law enforcement to kindergarten classes, focusing on creating an environment for success is the cornerstone of good instruction, governance, and performance.

When clients are taught how to use the right tools and equipment to optimize the environment for training, they speed up the learning process and make training easier and more effective at the same time.  

PRO TIP: There are two ways to manage: manage to prevent unwanted behaviors from happening, or manage situations to create teachable moments to help teach lessons.

 

TRAIN

Training is the hard part, because people need to learn how to act in counter-intuitive ways to better communicate with their dog. Getting people to learn a new way to communicate and interact with their dog is challenging!

In many cases, the biggest challenge is getting people to notice what their dog is doing and remember that allowing unwanted behaviors essentially trains their dog to misbehave! This means, instead of treating their dog like a human and depending on talking or dirty looks to communicate, people need to get better at understanding their dog’s emotional state (are they scared? Excited?) and reacting accordingly. 

Next, people must remember to use short clear signals like “Yes” or “Ouch” that make it easier for dogs to understand them. Most importantly, people must learn to follow through consistently with actions and consequences to ensure their words have power.

A popular saying we use with clients is “if you say something, you must do something”. People must remember that training dogs is different from teaching people. Zen dog training goes beyond just words and requires action and follow-through from owners.

In summary, training requires clients to learn how to act and react to their dog in ways that help their dog understand them better. Training requires people to notice the behaviors they want to encourage or stop, and learn the right signals to use, best timing for communication, and to patiently follow through with rewards and consequences! 

Training is the biggest category of solutions, and includes the basic principles of how to understand dogs, how to use positive and negative reinforcement, as well as, training plans for teaching commands, leash walking, and obedience. In addition, training includes special considerations for puppies, methods for solving separation anxiety, solving demand behaviors like barking and play biting, helping dogs with their anxieties and fears, and dog/dog reactivity.  

 

INTERRUPT

Interrupting unwanted behavior is what really differentiates Zen Dog Training from other kinds of dog training. While some dog trainers constantly distract or avoid problems, we teach owners simple and effective ways to stop unwanted behaviors.

Interrupting is the most important technique we teach. Clients learn how to physically intervene to stop unwanted behaviors without triggering the fight/flight/freeze fear response. Rather than trying to startle, scare, scold, or punish dogs, people learn how to gently and physically stop their dog (without getting angry, aggressive, or mean).

Interrupting is not punishing. At Zen Dog Training we define interrupting as physically stopping an unwanted behavior with as little force as possible, but with as much effort as necessary to ensure the unwanted behavior actually stops.

 

Interrupting is counter-intuitive

When their dog misbehaves, people will revert to what they know, which tends to be the ways we correct, admonish, or punish other people. Therefore, people’s natural response to stopping unwanted behaviors tends to be verbal or based on eye contact. Like a teacher or parent who is dealing with an unruly child, people want to yell, scold, or even spank, hit, or punish their dog the same way.

Trying to correct a dog like a child does not work and may hurt the dog/human relationship. Since dogs are bonded with their owners, the extra attention dogs get when people yell or scold (eye contact, scolding, or even yelling) can be misunderstood as a reward! Why? Because when dogs act out and become the center of attention they learn that doing unwanted behaviors gets them attention. Being noticed and getting negative attention can be rewarding.

Worse, if people choose to correct their dog by physically punishing them by poking, hitting, spanking, or rolling them on their backs, dogs tend to associate the punishment with their owner’s angry face, and not connect the punishment with the action they took. This is due to how dogs learn. They live in the moment and are so bonded with their humans, they tend to associate punishment with their owner (not the bad behavior). 

The problem with correction-techniques is that dogs have trouble separating their owner from the punishment. They might learn their human is mad and angry, but not understand why. Correction-based training is not advised because of the side-effects (triggering the fight/flight response tends to make dogs scared/fearful) and the difficulty of timing punishment. If the correction is just one or two seconds late, from the dog’s perspective, too much time has passed for real learning to take place.

Gently and consistently interrupting unwanted behaviors and refocusing is the Zen approach. 

 

Beyond Positive Reinforcement

“What you allow your dog to do, you train your dog to do”. This is true because dogs learn based on trial and error. What dogs are allowed to get away with quickly becomes a habit.  Ingrained habits are hard to break.

The Zen Dog Training approach is easy. We encourage people to create situations in their dog’s daily routine that prevent unwanted behaviors, support good behaviors and help teach lessons with as little effort as possible. Training happens when dogs and owners practice enough times to drill in lessons so dogs learn there are consequences for behavior and begin to listen in difficult situations.

Just like teaching children or other people, dog training is about a long-term relationship. Once people understand these training options, they must do the actual training by creating situations where they are in control and can reinforce the right behaviors and reduce unwanted ones.

When solving unwanted behaviors, clients learn ultimatums and consequences such as, The Last Resort, our proven method for time-outs can help people create teachable moments. The focus is on getting people to set-ups situations where dogs can be rewarded for good behavior, but also, gently interrupted for making the wrong decision. This way important lessons can be repeated enough times to be learned. Once people have the upper hand, training is about repeating lessons and being consistent with rules, boundaries, and follow through.

 

Conclusion

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” – Lao Tzu

Zen Dog Training focuses on helping people understand how dogs learn and see the world, and encourages people to act in ways that help dogs better understand what people want from them. Understanding the options; managing, training, and interrupting, is the first step to a relationship where people have the tools to train their dogs. 

Dog training can be counter-intuitive for many people, due to the way dogs learn (via actions and results; not words), and the natural ways people teach and talk to other people. Our methods ensure people know the best ways to communicate with their dogs so they can train with compassion and mutual understanding. 

Training the Zen Dog Way does not depend on a fixed idea of what training should be about. Rather, it is an approach to dog training that is infinitely customizable to the needs and goals of people and their dogs.