Heart Coherence – a moral dial for making dog training choices?

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“We owe it to them (dogs) to learn the most effective and gentle ways to train them. We have a responsibility as their mentors to educate ourselves on how they learn and how to best train them. Quite frankly, culturally, we have an absolutely horrible training model.” – Robert Milner

A few weeks ago I attended a six day seminar with Linda Tellington, the creator of the Tellington Touch (TTouch) method.  If you are not familiar with TTouch, I recommend looking here for specifics, as I’m not really going to delve into technique in this blog.  Instead, in this and a few upcoming posts, I’ll be discussing my thoughts on the some of the main takeaways I got over the 6 days.

heart coherence

A puppy standing on stupid fire hydrant Gov. Rick Perry.

During the seminar I started wondering about how dog trainers make the choices they make.  Why does a trainer choose one method or tool over another?  Why would any dog trainer choose to use a shock collar, for example, when there are so many more gentle options to choose from?  I don’t doubt the love these trainers have for dogs and in most cases I don’t think there is malicious intent behind the methods.  So what drives their decisions?  We know they are not making choices based on science, which continues to show how unnecessary and potentially damaging aversive methods can be.   I think many would simply answer that they choose to use a method “because it works”, an understandable considering that most dog owners are paying good money for professional dog trainers to give them results that “work”.  So the dog trainer makes their money and gets their results, and the dog owner is happy because their dog can sit on a stupid fire hydrant on command, frozen like a deer in headlights.

The problem with using  “it works/doesn’t work”  as the sole criteria for decisions that affect living beings is that it either relegates moral obligation to the backseat, or disregards it all together.  Imagine if humans made decisions about society based simply on what worked and what didn’t work, without regard for moral obligation?  Most pre-Civil War plantation owners would probably have said  slavery “works”.  Most millionaire Wall Street bankers would probably say the financial system works.  Clearly, the fact that something works doesn’t make it right.

As supposed dog behavior experts, we have a moral obligation to come up with solutions that not only work, but, equally importantly, are fair and humane to the dog (and owner).  But dog trainers are all over the map on where the lines between moral/immoral and humane/inhumane are drawn. How do they decide what crosses those lines?  Are they simply looking at what causes physical pain?  If so, how much pain is considered inhumane?  Furthermore, is physical pain the only measure of what is humane/inhumane?

It was fuzzy for me for a long time.  I’ve used prong collars, shaker cans, and other tools in the past.  Yes, they “worked”.  But I felt like shit everytime I saw a dog’s eyes wince at a correction.   I felt like shit leaving clients with tools that they were unlikely to use properly because of a learning curve.  Eventually, I realized there were better ways.  I started seeing life from the dog’s eyes – how all they ever seemed to was to run with playful abandon, eat food, and snuggle with their owners.  How most of the “aggression” behaviors were just expressions of fear or of feeling threatened.  I started to realize that I never wanted to inflict discomfort onto these amazing animals that are so honest and content to live in the moment.  And I learned that with the right perspective, I didn’t have to.  Still, however, I come across times of uncertainty – times that I am not sure a particular technique is fair to the dog.  And I have to make a decision.  What do I base that decision on?

Throughout the seminar, Linda referred to a concept called “heart coherence”.  At first I thought it was just some hokey term, but trusty Google led me to a non-profit group called the Heart Math Institute (HMI).  HMI suggests that by becoming “heart coherent” or “heart intelligent”, people can “reduce stress, self-regulate emotions, and build energy and resilience for healthy, happy lives”.  They call heart coherence “the optimal state for your heart, and emotions and all of the processes in your body, including cognitive, hormonal, digestive, respiratory and immune systems” and suggest that “intentional, positive feelings” such as “compassion, caring, and love” are the quickest way to heart coherence, while “negative attitudes” like anger, fear, and anxiety lead to an “incoherent” heart.  A list of scientific research articles is listed as support for their statements, but I admittedly haven’t delved too deeply into the literature yet.  To me the statements just make intuitive sense – don’t we already kind of know that we are happier and healthier when we feel compassion and caring emotions and that stress and anxiety are bad for us?

It seems our aim should be to achieve “heart coherence” at every moment of our lives. Of course that’s probably not possible for most of us – occasionally getting angry, scared, or anxious is part of being human.  But given a set of choices, it makes sense to always make the decision that is the most compassionate, caring, and loving – the ones that bring us closer to heart coherence.  And that should extend to making heart coherent decisions when we teach our dogs.

In a sense, heart coherence could be used as a moral dial for how we train dogs.  In fact, anything else would mean shortchanging ourselves out of optimal functioning.   Inflicting any intentional physical or mental pain would not pass the heart coherence test.  So why do it when we can use methods that are heart coherent, equally effective, and help lead us towards optimal functioning?  By no means does making heart coherent decisions mean you should be a pushover and let dogs do whatever they want.  Consistency is what is important.  And nothing makes consistency incompatible with heart coherence.   Gently guiding dogs to the correct responses and away from things they are doing wrong is not only equally effective, but gets you closer to optimal functioning through heart coherence.

We can also use heart coherent decision making as a foundation for building stronger relationships through training.  All this means is using methods that intentionally show positive emotion.  It’s easy to do.

Instead of barking out “commands” to dogs like a drill sergeant and expecting compliance, try politely asking the dog for the behavior like you might ask a child.  Say “Please”.  Be respectful of their status as living, breathing, emotional beings.   Show them true appreciation when they do something right.  Say “Thank you”. In my own training practice, I’ve mostly strayed from teaching clients to use precise marker words, preferring to focus on teaching them to express real appreciation whenever the dog does something we ask or that we just like.  I want them to get comfortable being themselves and to show sincere gratitude and be proud of their dogs. That is what I think builds a healthy, cooperative relationship.

Overall, I would love to see heart coherence (or similar concepts) become more emphasized in the dog training community.  don’t think the concept of intentionally expressing positive emotion is given nearly enough attention among dog trainers – even so called “positive reinforcement” trainers.  Instead, the focus seems to be on learning theory concepts like “timing” and “markers” and “reinforcement schedules” in a way that turns dog training into something almost robotic.  That stuff is undoubtedly important.  But not at the expense of actual communication.

I’ll end with a quote from Dr. Ian Dunbar, which I think sums up the problem best:

Dog training is in danger of losing its soul. Far too many trainers have adopted impersonal, quantum consequences (clicks, treats, jerks and shocks) in lieu of verbal feedback. Trainers have become technicians, which although beneficial for refining timing or learning how to set criteria, lacks feeling when teaching people to develop relationships with their dogs. Just because computers had to dispense quantum kibble and shocks as consequential feedback does not mean that we need follow suit. Also, just because we need to adhere to scientific criteria does not mean that we cannot talk to our dogs. Moreover, by using instructive and analogue verbal feedback, people may transcend the training abilities of any computer.