Master Dog Trainer Steve DeBono On The Surprising Stoic Nature Of His Craft

While Stoicism has been widely embraced in the world of sports, Silicon Valley and other professions, even we were a bit surprised the philosophy has been adopted and used by Steve DeBono, a master dog trainer in Austin. When he approached DailyStoic.com’s very own Ryan Holiday to help him with his dog, Hanno, who would frantically bark at the mailman, as well as his two livestock guardian dogs (Great Pyrenees), because of their barking fights with the neighbors and car chases, the two hit it off about…Stoicism. Turns out that Steve DeBono has long used Stoic principles to train dogs, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview him. We asked him all about it as well as his own daily practices, how the Stoic disciplines of Perception, Action and Will overlap with dog training (P.A.W), as well as who of the Stoics would have the best trained doggo. Think of your own answer before you continue reading, and don’t forget to check out Steve’s website to learn more about his training.

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Tell us about your introduction to Stoicism. How did it happen and do you remember your first reaction?

Your book The Obstacle is the Way probably was the main gateway. I don’t think I was even aware it was about Stoicism – and I probably wouldn’t have picked it up had I known, just because I have an automatic aversion to “-isms”, which I know is kind of a cliché. But anyway, I was struck by the practical principles in the book and I guess eventually learned it was really about Stoicism. I realized that Stoicism was something you actively did, not just something you had to believe, which was similar to Buddhism – something I was also learning about at the time, and another “-ism” I had to get past. I think that fundamentally Stoicism and Buddhism are about practical utility. My first reaction was like, “Wow, if I am disciplined enough I could immediately apply the principles to every single situation in life.” That was immediately followed by self-doubt that I could ever be disciplined enough. Which was followed by recognizing that was bullshit and not very Stoic (or Buddhist) of me. Which was followed by frustration that I wasn’t good at being Stoic or Buddhist, and so on. Eventually I was able to realize that catching myself in those moments of self-doubt was a key part of learning and you know, you get a little bit better at it every day.

Beyond some of the insights for living a better life, how quickly did you realize that it might provide some insight or application to what you did for a living?

Stoicism was way easier for me to apply to my work than to my life (and still is). I immediately knew I was onto something transformative for my work when I was reading The Obstacle is the Way. I had already been working with dogs for over a decade and had processes in place and was pretty successful overall. I was lucky in that I had a great mentor, Suzanne Clothier, the best dog behavior person in the world as far as I’m concerned, who taught me the importance of observation before action, which is something that I don’t think is emphasized in the dog training world. So I was already on the right track, but I didn’t really know what I was doing – my processes were mainly instinctual and not really strategic. I can very vividly remember reading Obstacle and feeling my adrenaline rising – it was moment after moment of  “wow, this is what I do!”. What was fuzzy before suddenly crystallized. Literally as soon as I finished reading the book I began adapting it into a system that I could use for my job, which became the PAW system.

Walk us—no pun intended—through how Stoicism and dog training are connected. Tell us about the system you’ve developed. How do your clients react? Why do you think it works?

Well, “dog training” can mean a lot of different things but the type of training I do is really about problem solving – people come to me with problems they are having with their dogs and I help them figure out solutions they can be happy with. Stoicism is like a blueprint for problem solving – so to me it’s not even that Stoicism and dog training are connected, it’s just that I’m trying to solve problems that happen to involve dogs.

A typical client might meet me at my Behavior Center and say “my dog is aggressive to strangers”. This is just a judgment of the behavior they’ve seen – not actually a description of what happened. They’re usually emotional – afraid that their dog might bite someone or ashamed that they have one of those “aggressive dogs”. And their goal is to bring their dog to every restaurant patio in the city and happily let people pet them and kiss them on the nose, just like their friends’ dogs can do. These are preconceived notions about what their dogs should be, but might be unrealistic for who their dog actually is.

It’s everything Stoics warn about – and it keeps them from being able to see what is actually happening in front of them. And I get it – these are people who love their dogs and see other dogs being a certain way and they want their dogs to be like that.

But it’s just a bunch of noise – I not only need to cut through that noise to get clarity of the problem for myself, but I also need to get the client to change their perception of the problem, because ultimately they are the ones that will be living with the dog.

The client has a problem with their dog’s behavior. This behavior, like all behavior, is a response to a specific combination of external stimuli, usually driven by a combination of genetics and previous learning. We need to identify as many of these variables as we can and figure out what’s controllable and what’s not. What is the dog doing exactly? Is this normal, instinctual dog behavior? When does it happen? Where? To whom?

Forget other dogs, what can your dog be? Let’s establish some reasonable goals that can be achieved based on the time and effort you are willing to put in. And that’s part of the evaluation process itself – what can I expect from the client? What kind of time do they have? Are there physical limitations? Financial? Whatever plan I come up with needs to be doable for them.

There’s a lot of information to gather. It’s like I have to put together a puzzle but I am never sure if I have all the pieces. I just have to hope that I can find enough of the pieces to interpret the picture accurately. One of the coolest things I’ve learned is that if I focus on collecting information and interpreting it correctly, the solutions are usually pretty obvious. So it’s worth putting in the effort.

The PAW system is a start to end framework for solving problems that people are having with their dog’s behavior. It allows the trainer to methodically collect information, decide what is important and what is not, identify controllable and uncontrollable variables, define what acceptable outcomes are, develop the actions we are going to take to get us to those outcomes, and importantly, make all of it very explicit for the client. There is no room for emotion or categories or pointless training exercises in PAW – every action serves a purpose directed squarely at the target problem. It’s flexible enough to account for the uniqueness of every situation, but provides enough structure to work fast and methodically. It started as just a hastily put together website and a one page template for me to take notes on, but it’s really grown and taken on a life of its own and in June I’m presenting the material as a full day workshop for the first time. I called the workshop No Bull*$#% Problem Solving because I feel like there is far too much emphasis put on techniques and methods in the dog behavior field, and not nearly enough put on how to think through problems. That’s one of the things I love about PAW –  it works completely independently of training methodology or context. It will be useful for trainers, rescue workers, volunteers – anyone that really just wants to learn how to work through problems with dog behavior.

I think most of my clients find the process of breaking down the problem kind of liberating – it’s like they’ve been weighed down by all this emotional baggage tied to the idea of having an “aggressive dog” or whatever. But when you break down the problem into a series of clear variables, map out how the actions are going to tackle the issue directly, and really make the importance of their role clear, it’s like a light bulb goes off in their head – the process just makes sense and they get all gung ho about starting. Some of that eagerness might fade as the reality of the work involved sets in, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Ultimately, I think PAW works so well because it’s not just a tool for the trainer – it’s also purposely intended for the client.

Any great lessons you’ve learned working with hundreds, thousands of dogs that you think apply to life? It would seem like you’d get pretty good at being calm and having good energy, not writing anyone or anything off, being patient, being in the moment, but curious which lessons you’d point to.

Definitely how much of a nuisance ego is when it comes to decision-making. One of the main parts of my job is trying to socialize dogs with other dogs – often ones that have a questionable social history at best. Occasionally I’ll make a mistake and when I do, the consequence is usually immediate – the dog attacks another dog or there is a fight. I immediately analyze that instant feedback to see what drove me to make that decision – and usually I realize that it was ego. Maybe I got cocky and rushed things, or I wanted to prove myself to someone, or I just wanted something to work so badly that I ignored the information I was seeing. What’s so hard is that sometimes it’s not clear to me what’s going on in my own head – I think I’m making a decision for the right reasons, but really it’s my ego being all sneaky. Usually the consequences aren’t that big of deal, but there have been a few times where a dog needed a stitch or two. And it’s kind of traumatic for me when this happens. I get a little gun shy and question everything I do. But this is also ego – I’m letting fear dictate my choices and not evaluating the situation for what it is. So I have to rebuild trust in my decision making.

I’d take back those mistakes in a second if I could, but I also know that what I learned from them made me a better decision maker. Having to make so many work decisions with that instant feedback has definitely carried over to my everyday life – it’s just trained me to be more conscious about checking my ego and at least trying to limit its effects.

There is a line in Marcus Aurelius where he talks about yapping little dogs fighting over a bone. It doesn’t sound like he’s a huge dog lover, but maybe he is. Of all the Stoics you’ve read about, which one do you think would be most likely to be a dog person? Who would have have the best trained doggo?

Hah, man that’s tough. But I think I can approach it PAW-like.

First, what does “best trained” actually mean? That they are well-behaved? That they know the most tricks? Saying a dog needs to be “trained” is like saying a kid needs to be “taught”. Taught what exactly?

Next, who is the dog? It’s just harder to train some dogs to do certain things than others. Let’s say Marcus Aurelius had a mini Schnauzer and Seneca had a Pug. Marcus is  probably going to have a much bigger problem with annoying yappiness than Seneca, I don’t care if if he’s 1000 times more Stoic.

But let’s say all three major Stoics were to have the same puppy with the same personality and that they were all starting with the same level of dog knowledge and access to the learning material from my puppy raising program, Puppy 911. What would I expect based on what I know about them and their situations?

Marcus Aurelius seemed pretty busy with war – probably going to be tough for him to make time to potty train or whatever. Since he had plenty of resources, he’d probably have someone do the work for him. So the dog would know a lot of stuff, but respond better to his trainer than to Marcus.

Seneca had a single pupil whose morality wound up being pretty questionable, but fortunately he wouldn’t need to teach the puppy morality. I imagine Seneca’s dog would hang around with him a lot, and he’d have plenty of opportunities work to work with him. They’d probably have a nice strong relationship and the dog would know a lot of fancy tricks.

Epictetus had a lot of experience teaching a wide range of personalities in schools – so I think that experience might make him a bit of a natural and the most efficient at raising a puppy – he’d just be able to teach what was needed and minimize the effects of problem behavior. They’d probably have a strong relationship and the puppy would probably be nice and well-behaved, without necessarily knowing a million tricks like Seneca’s pup.

I wouldn’t wouldn’t recommend betting a nickel on any of this.

Is there one Stoic passage or quote that has struck you the most? Why?

I like this one because of its practical everyday value:

“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.5)

It also reminds me of Buddhism – it’s just so fundamental and true and applicable every single day. It’s like “Dude, chill out. Just pause for a second, breathe, look with curiosity, evaluate logically. Then you’ll be just fine.”

Do you have any Stoic rituals or practices? Journaling or meditation or anything like that? We’d love to know!

I did one of those 10 day silent Vipassana retreats a few years ago and that has become the most important daily practice for me – it makes such a difference to how I react to the world. It’s not really a Stoic practice I guess, but it’s like general maintenance – it gives me the space to be less reactive and more “Stoic” towards specific problems. Meditation is almost like brushing my teeth, something I do every day at around the same time to keep my mouth generally healthy and free from too many cavities. But when I do get a cavity, I’ve got to get it fixed, and that’s Stoicism to me.