I have spent the better part of the last two decades as a practicing Buddhist and it’s a lens through which I am always deepening my understanding of the world around me. As I began my work with the dog behavior specialists at Bevill Dog Behavior a few years ago, it became clear to me that they were unknowingly practicing many Buddhist principles in their work. Ideas such as compassion, understanding, and consistent effort are all deeply in line with the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism. I thought it’d be fun today to take a look at the core tenants of Buddhism and the way they translate to the world of dog behavior solutions.
I’d like to preface this by saying that Buddhism, as I understand it, is more of a set of guidelines than a religion, and can actually be practiced by anyone from any background. I’ve known many Christian Buddhists over the years who see Buddhism as a supplement to their faith rather than a contradicting religion. I’ve also known many atheist Buddhists. The main thing I am concerned with, as a Buddhist, is to try and see the truth, and to act with loving-kindness. Alright, with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the intersection of Buddhist thinking and the fundamentals of dog behavior.
In Buddhism we have what are known as the Four Noble Truths. To really oversimplify them:
- The truth of suffering
- The cause of suffering
- The end of suffering
- The path to the end of suffering
If that sounds grim, don’t worry-it’s actually quite optimistic when you dig into it.
The first truth means that being a human comes with a certain level of suffering, there’s no two ways about it. If you are born, you will experience it. This is true whether we’re talking about our path as a friend, a sibling, a child, a parent, our careers, or as dog people. There is some amount of suffering that exists in life.
The second truth asks us to look into the cause of this suffering. Put simply-we suffer, because we don’t see things as they really are. We see things how we wish they were, and we suffer because the world doesn’t always fit into that box. In the case of our dogs, we suffer because we expect our dogs not to act like dogs, we expect them to act like humans. We want them to understand what we tell them and we get frustrated when they don’t respond as we’d like.
The third truth brings good news. There is an end to this suffering. It’s important here to make a distinction. To a Buddhist we see pain as part of life, and suffering as a reaction to that pain. So just because there is an end to our suffering, doesn’t mean there is an end to pain. In terms of our dogs, we can improve their behavior, and we can stop suffering when things don’t look exactly how we think they should, when we think they should.
The fourth truth lays out the path to the end of suffering. It’s an 8 step process that includes things like right livelihood, right speech and so on. A few of these steps are particularly relevant to the world of dog behaviorists:
- Right view
- Right intention
- Right action
- Right mindfulness
Right view means we make a conscious decision to see things as they are and to work to honor the truth. Our dogs are dogs, they always have been and always will be. To love our dogs we have to take on the view that it is our responsibility to love them and guide them through our human world.
Right intention means we aim to do the right thing for our dog, even if at times it’s inconvenient or difficult for us personally. That means we keep our dog’s best interests in mind at all times.
Right action takes this intention and moves it into the real world. We want what’s best for our dog, and we act accordingly. This means doing things like being a calm, consistent leader and setting clear expectations for our dogs. It means walking our dogs even when we’re really tired from a long day at work.
Right mindfulness means we remain aware. Our dogs are with us for life, we must be present with them, learn to tune into their needs and make sure we’re holding up our end of the relationship.
Above all, a Buddhist and a dog behaviorist are the same in the way that non-violence is at the core of our values. We do our best never to cause harm intentionally or unintentionally. This means evaluating ways we may have unknowingly caused anxiety or unease in our pets, and working hard to do better in the present moment.