Monday, May 16, 2016


I just returned from a trip outside the “contiguous 50” to assist on a Federal investigation. I had not been to this location before, and there is a language difference, so the world temporarily took on a sense of “almost but not quite completely different”.

Being different can be a very good thing. Stepping out of our regular comfort zone can help us see a little clearer, a little better. We notice things that we usually gloss over.

For instance, a fast food sign. I pass a Burger King sign hundreds of times a week at home. But seeing a Burger King sign with the words "Desayuno" and “Servio Carro” in big letters was slightly jarring. Yes, I knew it was just breakfast: but it was enough of a curve ball that it caught my eye.

According to Adam Steltzner, in his book The Right Kind of Crazy, “If you are an experienced practitioner in a field, you can get stuck in the rut of the past, in the way it should work, or the way it worked before.”

As trainers and behavior changers we do get in ruts. The ruts almost have to develop-after all, habits are what keep us safe. We have a complete suite of habits that we use day in, day out, habits that work with our client animals and that we don’t even think about. These habits are frankly what make us seem like magic to clients: those things we do automatically, that we have done so many times, things that are almost reflexes.

But automatic isn’t necessarily good. Easy, yes. Good, not so much.

The thing is, once we get into a rut we only see the rut around us. We stop looking, observing closely. When a client explains that they have X problem, we already have a picture in our minds of what the solution is. The same thing has worked a bazillion times before: of course it will work this time.

And then reality comes in once in a while and smacks us. We make the same old assumption, set into the same rut - and it bites us, sometimes literally. We are complacent and we miss key indicators. We do a disservice to our clients, the dog, and ourselves.

Back when we were beginners we had a smaller experience base. Everything was new then. Sure, we had a certain amount of practice, but we were still building our base of reference and we paid attention a great deal. Our outlook was fresh. We may have been on a mission to be disruptive, to find a new way of doing an old task, and we looked at everything with new eyes.  As Steltzner puts it, we had Beginners’ Mind.

“Beginners’ Mind, the eyes of fresh naivety, let you ask very potentially disruptive questions, because you’re not invested in the way it has been done in the past.”

This is a Buddhist concept, Beginners’ Mind. Traditionally it is called “Shoshin”. It is the innocent and receptive state of perception that makes no prejudgement. Shoshin sees the world just as it is, no more and no less. There is no reference to past experience, since there is none. The person is a beginner and everything is new.

A Beginner is surprised by everything. A Beginner is open to everything. Nothing is off the table, nothing is established. Everything is an option. Everything is possible.

I have said before that a good trainer has a big toolbox, with lots of methods and tools inside. A really good trainer can meet a new situation and make progress where others are stuck. A trainer with many tools can be out at the edge, doing new things, because they are not limited by old attitudes and old methods.

But they too have to be aware of the ruts in the road. They have to make sure that they keep a fresh outlook. Cool tools are useless if you still see things in one certain way every time.

Steltzner relates Beginners’ Mind and innovation: “ If you’re at the edge of what’s possible, if you are in an innovative field or you’re trying to develop change, how it was done before may be a poor indication of how it should be done in the future.”

Many problems appear similar, and the “good old way” does work most of the time. That’s why it has held on so long. In most cases we can muddle through by repeating the same old strokes.

But then a case comes along and surprises us. Those old tools are dull, rusty, and ineffective. The problem doesn’t fit the “good old way”.

We have a choice to make. We can keep our old mindset and practice the same old methods, and fail, or we can choose to be surprised more often. We can jump out of the rut, look back into our own Beginners’ Mind, and stay fresh.

Photographer and Explorer Naoki Ishikawa put it like this:

“People who believe they know everything tend to lose any chance to be surprised. I don’t want to think like that. I want to fulfill my life (as a photographer) by staying loose and open to change - and to treasure the ability to always be surprised.”

As a trainer, an investigator, and a person I want to be open to surprise, and not just when things go wrong. I want to be surprised a little by every animal I come across, every situation that I meet. I want to try and recover my Beginners’ Mind and see each situation freshly. Yes, I will then dig back into my toolbox, but I may use an old tool in a new way. Or I may look for a new tool. Either way I want to stay surprised. That keeps me awake and alive.