Until recently, our dog was something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: two distinct personalities in one being.
When we were at home, he was—and still is—the model of model dog behavior. He sat when we told him to sit. Perfectly house-trained, he never had an “accident” inside. He has always been sweet and friendly with adults and children. If we knew that we’d rescue such a well-behaved dog, we would have done it much sooner.
But outside our house, the story was entirely different. He didn’t—and still doesn’t—get along with other dogs. The sight of a squirrel or a cat would drive him insane. He would bark, leap, and pull so hard on his leash it took superhuman strength to keep him from dragging us with him. Just a few weeks into welcoming him home, we were stressed out.
Nunuk, a gorgeous Alaskan Malamute, has been rescued twice and experts tell us that at seven and a half years old, we can alter some of his behavior but it’s unlikely he’ll change completely. While some people would see that as reason enough to return him to a shelter or re-home him, that was not an option for us. Doing that would mean we had failed this innocent creature. We decided instead to make a more concerted effort toward helping Nunuk feel more comfortable outside home.
Initially, our efforts showed moderate results. We used the tips and tricks we had learned from experts, but there were still too many occasions when we’d come across a particularly unfriendly dog where it was hard to tell who was freaking out more: us, or Nunuk. We began to wonder if anything was going to really work. I began to wonder if we were putting our faith solely into the techniques we had learned. Maybe we were missing something vital.
And then it hit me: yoga.
So much of what I learned on the yoga mat—breathing, proper posture, focusing on my intention, being in the moment—I somehow knew I could apply to my relationship with Nunuk. In retrospect, I now think that when I first walked Nunuk I often had my mind on other things: deadlines, pesky clients, completing errands, money, annoying in-laws, and so on. I probably approached walking the dog as just another task to cross off in the course of the day. And I’m sure the dog sensed that.
When I take a yoga class or practice at home, I start by reminding myself to let the outside world melt away and focus on my intention, my breath, and cultivating feelings of calmness, compassion, and gratitude. It’s not always easy. But if I could do it in yoga, and it helped me in other aspects of my life, couldn’t it help me with my dog? It couldn’t hurt to try.
In the first couple of weeks I tried my yoga-inspired approach, I started my walks much the way I started my yoga practice: I listened to my breath. I stated an intention. I reminded myself to maintain good, strong posture throughout. If we spotted a squirrel, or came near an unfriendly dog, I stopped and remained calm while Nunuk barked.
Whatever I decided to do, either turn around or pass the other dog, I made sure that while I held onto Nunuk’s leash firmly and kept my posture straight that my breath was flowing evenly and smoothly. When we passed the other creature, I was relieved and grateful. We did it. I hugged him. Gave him a treat. Said a few kind words. And continued. It was tiring at first, but like yoga, I viewed walking Nunuk as a practice: something I did regularly, something in which I would improve over time, and something from which I would feel joy, not dread or frustration.
Less than a month after I started this approach, my husband and I noticed a huge difference in Nunuk. Although he still has occasional episodes of aggression, his tendency to get very excited and get into “fight” posture when another dog is present have diminished considerably. We feel that by combining experts’ techniques with our zen-like approach we’ve come to look forward to and enjoy our walks with Nunuk and live a more harmonious life with him. What drives him bananas we’ll never fully know. Maybe it was the time he spent in shelters, maybe he had a previous owner who taught him to mistrust other dogs. It will always be an unsolved mystery. What we do know is that by being firm yet compassionate with him, we have achieved a happier coexistence with our dog.
I’m not a licensed dog therapist, nor am I a professional dog trainer. I can only speak about my personal experience and how it worked for me. If you’re having trouble with your dog, consult an expert first. Ask if they know about using yoga-inspired techniques with your dog.