At this moment, you’re reading these words on some electronic device — a computer at home or work, a cell phone on the bus, a tablet just about anywhere.
But, even as you’re reading these words, you’re somewhere else. You’re thinking about something that happened last week or worrying about something someone said this morning; you’re planning your next meal, trying to remember whether you left the oven on, hoping that your vacation plans will work out.
In other words, you’re everywhere but where you are right now. That’s what humans do because humans are primarily intellectual and emotional. But that’s not the way our dogs see the world at all.
Dogs are primarily instinctual, so they aren’t obsessing over the past or worrying about the future. They, like all animals and unlike humans, have mastered the ability of living in the moment. Actually, they haven’t mastered anything, it’s just what they’re naturally good at.
We don’t refer to the average human as having mastered walking on two feet because it’s just something that most of us do. Living in the moment is just something that dogs do.
This is why, for example, that correcting a dog only works at the moment they have committed to performing the misbehavior. Correct them too early or too late when they’re about to lunge at another dog, and you’ll either confuse them (early) or make them more aggressive (late).
This is also why disciplining a dog for doing its business in the house long after the fact does absolutely nothing to fix the misbehavior. Your dog may have pooped in the kitchen two hours before you got home, so she no longer connects that incident with herself.
So, if you come in the door and see it and start berating her for it, she’s going to think you’re criticizing her for doing whatever she was doing when you started correcting her. Far too many dogs become neurotic because their humans discipline them for something in the past when they’re currently in a calm, submissive state. The result is that these dogs learn that their humans do not want them to be calm and submissive, so they become excited and anxious.
It’s easy to think that dogs dwell on the past or brood about the future because we love to project our emotions onto them. The truth, though, is that dogs really only care about what is happening to them right now.
One issue I hear about frequently comes from people with two or more dogs that fight. Fighting generally only happens when the humans are not the clear Pack Leaders. However, a dog fight is such an emotionally negative experience for humans that it makes us constantly worried about another fight happening.
So people with dogs that have fought think that their dogs are dwelling on that fight, waiting for the next opportunity to continue the feud. Consequently, these humans are projecting the constant fear of a fight through their energy. Their dogs sense this and, if there are unresolved dominance issues in the pack and weak human leaders, they will fight again — and then forget it the second that it’s over.
Another way we project onto our dogs is when they do tricks that we have taught them, especially if treats are involved. It’s easy to think that the dog is thinking of the future — “If I do this for my human, then I will get that” — but, again, they aren’t thinking that far ahead. The in the moment thought process is much more immediate. “Doing this trick is good.”
This is exactly why you can train a dog (or any animal) to do a trick using treats, then remove the treats and still get the behavior. Instinct teaches them that a certain behavior frequently results in a reward. They don’t keep track of how many times it did and didn’t pay off, only that it paid off enough times to stay in their mind. This is what Ivan Pavlov discovered over a hundred years ago with his famous dogs.
In order to understand how our dogs live in the moment, it’s worthwhile for us to learn how to do it, too. For humans, the process is called meditation, and it involves quieting those voices from our past and future that distract us from the present. It also helps if we exercise, which brings us more in touch with our bodies and instincts, no matter how we choose to do it: walking our dogs, jogging, yoga, dancing, etc.
By living in the moment, you will not only understand better how your dogs experience the world. You will also become a much calmer Pack Leader, and find that place of quiet balance that will naturally make your dogs want to follow you.
Stay calm, and stay present!
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