Training her mind, training her dog—Mary Rose O’Reilley on the pleasures and pitfalls of learning to sit without barking.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 “hellecat.”
“Hmm,” said the trainer. “That’s a new one for me.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“Listen, you have to have different expectations for these little dogs. They are not on your border collie schedule.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Mary Rose O'Reilley is a potter and folk musician. A Quaker-Buddhist who took the precepts in Plum Village, she follows the common threads in Buddhism, Christianity, and deep ecology. Her books include The Love of Impermanent Things and Half Wild, a volume of poetry which won the 2005 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.
Illustration by Andre Slob.