Breath: your most important training tool

How you feel affects your breath. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: your breath affects how you feel and your ability to perform. Changing your breath pattern changes the way you feel and what you do. In addition, breathing affects the way dogs feel and what they may or may not do.

We were holding our dog class in a school parking lot and it was the second week of the session. A woman—not signed up for the class—drives by and promptly enters the lot. As I go to intercept her, her 50-pound Labrador bounds out of the car window before the woman can attach his leash. The woman is running after the dog screaming “Come!” while the dog makes a beeline for the Maltese across the lot.

The Maltese handler is trying to help her dog, but the scared little dog is wrapping the leash around her legs. The woman trips and falls to the ground. I grab the excited Labrador and quickly return him to the car. The people in class are upset and the woman with the Maltese is crying. I have my assistant start the class while I escort the woman a distance away. She wasn’t hurt but it seems she was four months pregnant and previously had two miscarriages. This incident understandably had a tremendous impact. I spoke to her at length and she actually returned to class the following week. Everything turned out fine. She went to her doctor to make sure everything was okay, and she had her baby five months later with no problems. Talk about stress!

Situation under control…

How does a teacher handle such a situation and turn it into something positive? I returned to the class and explained how such occurrences are part of real life. What we do as individuals in such situations dramatically impacts how we and our dogs will act in the future. Safety and getting the situation under control are the first concerns. Breathing is the next most important step. Breathing. That’s what I did, that’s what I had the pregnant woman do, and that’s what I had the class do.

Breathing as tool…

“If you expect your dog to be in control, you have to be in control first.” Breathing is the single most important tool in a trainer’s toolbox to develop and maintain focus and control. Certain breathing patterns can instantly relax you, your class and their dogs. Breathing can change the way a situation is perceived. Yet breathing is the last thing most teachers or their clients think about when they come into a dog training class.

Interpreting breath…

Trainers have a wonderful opportunity to inform pet parents how their dogs interpret breath, or the lack thereof, in tense situations and how this can improve or worsen an already tense situation. It makes sense, if you consider how sensitive we are to one another’s moods, and how we sometimes give a wide berth to people whose body language suggests aggression. We all make associations.

When a person is stressed, breathing becomes shallow, the person’s body, especially the facial muscles, tighten and there is a chemical reaction from the adrenal glands in the body. To a dog whose senses are much more acute and highly sensitive, these become signals that can trigger the dog’s fight-freeze-or-flight syndrome.

Positive training…

If you relax and focus your energy through breathing exercises, your students will mirror your attitude. They will begin to look at the situation as you do for what it was—a single moment, and nothing more. You can then explain that the dogs have an issue and demonstrate how positive dog training can resolve the issue. You have done all of this in seconds without anger or the use of aversives. You are in control. Your affect of understanding, leadership, and control—coupled with your step-by-step resolution to the problem—leaves a dramatic, empowering impression.

Practice ‘easy breath’…

Three things are required for the ‘easy breath’.

  • The breath must be relaxed and not strained.
  • The breath must be equally measured during inhalation and exhalation (e.g., three seconds in, three seconds out.)
  • There should be no ‘holds’ at the top or bottom of the breath. In other words, make the transitions at the top and bottom gentle and continuous. Ideally, this breathing is done through the nose with the mouth closed. There are hundreds of breathing methods. This particular one uses nostril breathing. If you cannot breathe in and out through your nose, don’t worry about it. Just do your best.

You can practice three or four breaths whenever you remember—while driving, watching television, when you wake up, and before bed. The more you practice, the better the results. Easy breathing oxygenates your blood and energises every cell in your body.

Breathing to enhance concentration and relaxation…

As you continue to practice, you’ll be able to extend your inhalation and exhalation. This will happen automatically and naturally. Within a few days or weeks you’ll be able to comfortably breathe in and out for 10 to 20 seconds or more. Length of time is not of primary importance—increasing your depth of concentration and relaxation is. The length will take care of itself.

How you feel affects your breath. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: your breath affects how you feel and your ability to perform. Changing your breath pattern changes the way you feel and what you do. In addition, breathing affects the way dogs feel and what they may or may not do. Before every class, before every in-home training session, and during a class itself, remember to breathe.

Listen to your breath…

The key to relaxation is to listen to yourself breathe. As an experiment, gently close your ears and listen to familiarise yourself with the sound. Then consciously relax your breath more and more. With practice you’ll get better and better until you’ll eventually be able to relax at will. You and your students, both dogs and humans, will benefit.

(Paul Owens is author of the best-selling books The Dog Whisperer, A Compassionate Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training (Adams Media), The Puppy Whisperer and The Dog Whisperer Presents: Good Habits for Great Dogs. He is director of the non-profit educational organisation, Raise with Praise Inc. He is also member of Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and is endorsed by The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI)).