What Did Dog Training Teach Me About The Spiritual Life?

by Faith & Life, Self-Knowledge

Everyone thought he was just a cute and cuddly dog, a homeless mutt, who sat shyly in his little kennel corner. He seemed gentle, submissive, and in need of a walk outside the animal shelter where he waited a home. I volunteered to walk him, hoping he’d benefit from the company and fresh air. One block down the road, he discovered the leash as if for the first time and started an embarrassing tug-of-war game!

I, faced with his 90-pounds of powerful muscles, somehow tugged him back into the shelter, where he acted as if nothing had just happened outside.

Turns out, he was completely deaf and needed a special full-body harness to walk.  My mistake.

He also enjoyed lying belly-up on his bed with his tongue sticking out until a potential adopter walked near and he’d pounce at his door, growling ferociously. Those who knew him simply ignored him and apologized to the terrified family.

He needed doggie boot camp. Or dog military school. Something!

What a punk… kind of like the distracted Golden Retriever (the 3rd competitor in this video) who stops to eat everything along the runway instead of obeying his owner and waiting to receive his reward at the end:

We humans can be “punks,” too, at times, but, with a little doggie training-inspired spiritual “boot camp,” we can improve. I don’t mean that we need literal leashes, long walks, and tasty treats for good behavior, but we can’t assume that we’re hearing God’s voice by turning a deaf ear to discipline and obedience.

I had no appreciation for the degree thought that goes into dog training until I studied to become a certified dog trainer. Furthermore, I learned how to approach the faith life through basic dog training principles. If we’re willing to spend the time and money training Fido, we should be able to invest at least as much (if not greater) effort in our spiritual lives.

For the sake of being good disciples of Christ, ask yourself these questions:

1. Who is Your Pack Leader?

We all know the households that treat their dogs like spoiled children. They might even eat at the table, call the shots for walks and play time, decide who sits where on the couch, and obnoxiously greet anyone entering through the front door in all sorts of otherwise embarrassing manners.

In these cases, the dog has become the pack leader of the house. Dogs need hierarchy, so when their humans spoil them, they become the pack leader.

At the other extreme, there are owners who don’t allow any level of reward for their dogs and barely show them love. In their eyes, everything Fido does is wrong and deserves harsh punishment. They expect him to read their minds, and when he misbehaves, they think he’s a defective animal.

Which one are you in your faith life—the self-assured leader, overly-critical owner, or somewhere in between?

Like dogs, what we really need is a strong but kind leader. Leaders enter the house first, eat first, and get the high ground, such as the good spot on the couch.

We ourselves are not our own leader when it comes to faith—God is. If we properly serve our King, we will in turn be able to be good leaders to others. By putting God first, praying before meals, and making sure He has the best spot in the house which serves Him alone, we will be much happier, healthier, and holier.

2. Do You Set Yourself Up for Success?

“Sit.” [Puppy looks at you blankly.] “Sit!” [Puppy tilts his head at you, the strange foreign-speaking human.]

He doesn’t know English, so you need to teach him in his own language. Tell him “sit” all you want, but until he knows what you want in his own terms, he simply doesn’t understand. Much like a teacher testing you on something you never learned, you’ll simply fail.

Teaching a dog by rewarding good behavior and removing a reward – such as freedom in the house or a toy – for bad behavior, helps him succeed. You can’t expect him to read your mind and know what you want unless you speak his language, reinforce the desired behavior, and are consistent.

If you don’t want your dog to poop in the house, let him outside consistently in the morning, before bed, and after meals in addition to other house training methods. Otherwise, you end up with poop in your house. Plain and simple.

As for humans, Aristotle aptly correlated moral virtues and good habits. This makes sense. If you brush your teeth regularly, you’ll have good teeth. If you pray regularly, you’ll have a good prayer life. Taking care of yourself consistently leads to a life of virtue.

Are you consistently good or bad in your habits?

Oftentimes, routine good habits help us keep a clean mind even if it means getting our hands dirty, as in putting ourselves to work. Maybe you need to learn a new hobby that glories the Lord with a particular talent. Or commit to volunteer work on a weekly basis.

Instead of being idle in your faith life or willy-nilly deciding to pray occasionally, put yourself to whatever work you can to better your relationship with the Lord. And do it consistently, from day to day. Monthly confession, regular prayer, and participating in parish life are also good habits to form so you set yourself up for success.

3. Are You Enforcing Positive or Negative Associations with Your Faith & Faith Community?

If you scream at the dog and shove his face into the poop on your carpet, you’re teaching the dog that you don’t want to see the poop. He might just poop behind the couch, thinking that’s what you want.

If you consistently scold the dog when other dogs are around and tug his leash, you’re creating a negative association with other dogs. Your dog will only grow rowdier upon seeing other dogs because he thinks those canines must be bad news.

What are you associating with your spirituality that is negative, and how can you reverse that? Who or what are you associating negativity with that stunts your growth?

I certainly hope you’re willing to greet your priest instead of ducking out the back door after church and that you don’t only pray when bad things are happening in your life!

4. Can You Handle Change or Do You Shudder in Fear of Newness?

If dogs aren’t properly socialized, they cower in fear or lash out aggressively, traumatized by new surroundings and unfriendly to new people. Not every bark from a dog is offensively aggressive—it can be defensive, too, which makes a huge difference when approaching them!

The importance of ‘socialization’ applies to humans as well. Are we avoiding pancake breakfast after Mass with our parish community just because we had an embarrassing experience with the syrup once? Can we warm up to the idea of trying a new way to pray or learning something new about our faith? Do we lash out at changes in our church as if the world is coming to an end with any alteration? And, most importantly, is it because we are being defensive or on the offense, and why?

As much as we need routine and consistency, we also need to open ourselves up to constant conversion, which means change! We aren’t called to simply say that one day we converted and since then its sunshine and butterflies; we are called to live a life that orients everything we think, say, and do towards Christ, the Light of the World. There are ups and downs, but these are calling us onto something better than the place we are currently at with God.

Your routine should consistently change you for the better, and whether or not the new priest is going to keep Mass at 7:30am or move it to 7:45am shouldn’t destroy your world like a dog who experiences thunder, a car, or a newspaper and collapses with earth-shattering dread because of fear of newness or what happened last time.

5. What Alternatives do You Have to Sin?

If you don’t want your dog to dig up your garden, you make digging in your garden unpleasant for him with any of a multitude of methods (lava rocks, for example). But don’t just stop there; give him a toy to entertain himself or a place, such as his very own sandbox with hidden toys, to dig and focus that energy into something acceptable.

Sometimes, we feel like we metaphorically dug up our spiritual garden, but that’s all we know. We struggle and struggle with a bad behavior that leads to temptation or is itself a sin, then we apologize in the confessional, and we do it again anyway because we really aren’t sure how to stop.

Like unacceptable behavior in dogs, we also need to find alternatives to what we want to stop doing. Perhaps we replace poor behavior by taking ourselves for a walk and pray to rosary. We could also have a plan ahead of time that when we catch ourselves starting to make a bad choice, we’re determined to replace it with a new habit or activity – something completely different that requires our full attention.

With proper training, we will be more like the dogs in the video who race to their owner and less like the one who is distracted!

God gave us companion animals for more than just companionship; He gave us pets to help us grow closer to Him through that companionship. Some dogs are difficult to train; some are incredibly fast learners. Be patient with yourself as you would your favorite furry friend in training.

May you grow in your relationship with your Creator with this reflection on the ways we kindly and tirelessly train His furry companions!

Photo credit: Nidhin Mundackal / Unsplash.com

More Catholic Resources

Litany Of Trust | Sr. Faustina Maria Pia, Sister of Life

“I Thirst For You” – A Letter From Mother Teresa

Mass Will Never Be The Same After You See This

All Your Questions About Adoration Answered…What Is It? How Do I Go? What Do I Do? And More!

26 Catholic Books You Should Be Reading

How To Pray the Rosary? A Step-By-Step Visual Guide

Catholic-Link Donations donate donation donor

Be Ready for the Eucharistic Congress!


Keep Searching, Keep Learning

Our Newest Articles:

The Legend Of St. Brendan’s Stone

The Legend Of St. Brendan’s Stone

What is the legend of St. Brendan's Stone? Enjoy an imaginative retelling of this Irish folklore and an inspiring Saint! St. Brendan's Stone Where the green ground of the Emerald Isle met the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, a man stood along the coastline, looking...

Get your gear for the Eucharistic Congress here!

Search Catholic-Link

You have Successfully Subscribed!