Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Curing Thunder Phobia

Those of us who are familiar with the Natural Dog Training philosophy are so used to being ahead of the curve on some training issues it can sometimes come as a shock to us when we find out how many of the techniques we've been using for years are met not only with skepticism but hostility by others in the field.

Barking at the Storm: Curing Thunder Phobia in Dogs

Years ago -- back when my dog Freddie was having almost daily panic attacks over any little sidewalk noise here in New York City -- I ran into a dog owner I knew who had a Sheltie named Duncan.

I told him about Freddie's panic attacks and he said that Duncan had once had a similar problem. He was afraid of thunderstorms.

"How did you help him get over it?"

"I didn't. He got over it on his own."

"Okay, but how?"

"I don't know. One day he was scared out of his wits. Then out of nowhere, he barked at the thunder, and that was the last time he was ever afraid."

This made sense, because Kevin Behan had once said to me that "aggression cures fear." So, I reasoned, if a dog can bark while he's frightened, even if there's nothing to bark at, the fear may go away -- as it did with Duncan -- just because of the barking, and nothing else. 

As a result, whenever Freddie had a panic attack after that, I gave him the "Speak!" command. He didn't always respond right away; it's hard to listen to commands when your brain is full of fear and static. But once he did bark, his tail, ears, and shoulders immediately came back up, and he gave me a look, as if to say, "What are you looking at? Are we going for a walk or are you just gonna stand there?"

Over time, his panic attacks grew less and less serious, I think partly because of what I learned from Duncan the Sheltie. (I eventually resolved the issue altogether using a technique from Kevin Behan's book, Natural Dog Training.)

I'd like to know if anyone else has a story like this! It doesn't even have to be about fear-related issues, though would be great too. 

Over the years a lot of readers have given me great stories about how Natural Dog Training techniques have helped their dogs get over fear, aggression, and other behavioral and emotional issues. I'd like to stockpile as many of these stories as I can for a possible future book on solving behavior problems the natural way!

Thanks! I look forward to your stories! 

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why Do Some Dogs Act "Sneaky?"

This article is linked to a recent blog article I wrote for If you've clicked on the link in that article, please scroll down to the red sentence below to avoid having to re-read the material from that article.

Why Do Some Dogs Act "Sneaky?"
"Uh-oh, I think someone's coming!"

In a recent blog article Marc Bekoff has said that dogs -- these amazing animals we all love so much -- have what’s called a Theory of Mind, a theoretical construct used by cognitive researchers to determine where a particular species’ forms of cognition lie on the evolutionary and psychological scale. In the study Dr. Bekoff cited, what’s ostensibly been proven is that dogs have the first of three levels of a ToM, the conscious awareness of the perceptual states of other beings (also called “mind reading” by cognitive scientists).

Bekoff says, “We”ve learned that dogs know what others can and cannot hear,” and provides a link to a new study “proving” this idea.

I’ve read the paper, and I don’t think it comes anywhere near to proving that “dogs know what we can and cannot hear.” The researchers have clearly assumed that this is so, but I don’t think that, within the confines of their study, they’ve showed any such thing.  

Here’s how the study was done.

20 dogs were collected to see if they changed their behaviors in relation to whether a human being could or could not hear what they were doing.

1) “Dogs were allowed to familiarize themselves with their surroundings by exploring the area (10 – 15 min.).” I don’t think this enough time to get a true baseline on how anxious the dogs might or might not have been before the trial started. It would have been better to let the dogs explore the space for at least an hour a day, each day, for two weeks. 

2) “Following acclimation, dogs first completed a short inhibition task to mark the human as ‘gatekeeper’ for treats.” I agree this is probably an important step to set up the dynamic of being given access to treats only when a human allows the dogs to do so.

However, as above, I think it would have been better if the dogs had all been acclimated to the researchers, i.e., fed by hand, once a day, every day, for two weeks. This would have greatly reduced whatever baseline anxiety they might have had about those persons.

It’s also not clear how many dogs passed or failed this first test, or how they failed, exactly. “Dogs were allowed a maximum of 5 min to take the treat. If the dog had not taken the treat in 5 min, the dog was given the treat.” What happened to the dogs who didn’t wait? We’re not told.

3) After the inhibition test, the dogs were shown two translucent containers. Each had three strings of small brass bells, hung across the openings. On one container, the “ringers” had been removed. The other bells rang normally. When the researcher put treats in the containers, she made sure to demonstrate the noisiness, or lack thereof, for each container. (Without seeing the video, I’m not sure what impression, if any, this made on the dogs at the time this demonstration was performed.)

4) Each dog was only given one trial, which makes perfect sense. Subsequent responses are more likely to be the result of learning rather than of some innate cognitive faculty.

Once the “sound properties” of each container had been demonstrated, “the experimenter sat between two containers,” and either looked straight ahead (Looking Position) or “pulled her knees to her chest and placed her head between her knees, facing the ground.” (Not Looking.)

Then the dogs were given permission by their owner or another researcher to go get a treat.

5) When the experimenter was in the Not Looking position (knees pulled to her chest, hiding her face), the dogs always chose the silent container. When the experimenter was in the Looking position, each dog’s choice of container seemed entirely random. 

“This suggests,” the researchers conclude, “that [the] dogs’ pattern of approach in the Not Looking condition was not due to either a general preference for the silent container or an aversion to the noisy container. Instead, dogs appeared to prefer the silent container only when the experimenter was not looking and therefore did not have knowledge of their approach. This suggests dogs took into account the noise caused by their approach only when that noise could change what the experimenter knew about their actions.”

As an attorney in one of my novels might say, “Objection. Based on facts not in evidence!”

There is no clear evidence that the dogs were showing an awareness of the humans’ knowledge states. I would suggest that without giving the dogs enough time to acclimate themselves, both to the space and to the strange “gatekeeper,” it’s entirely possible that, to paraphrase the study, the “dogs significantly preferred the silent container only when a strange person sat in front of them in a strange position, with her eyes hidden from view.” And I would paraphrase the conclusions drawn as follows: “Dogs appeared to prefer the silent container only when the experimenter was acting in a strange manner, with her eyes hidden, which from the dog’s point of view, created feelings of uncertainty. This suggests dogs took into account the noise caused by their approach only when that noise would further impact their feelings of insecurity.”

The researchers don’t give us any insight into why they think the dogs felt that they had to be quiet. Since the dogs were being “allowed” to get a treat, there’s no logical reason for them to be “sneaky” about it. So what was their motive in “making less noise?”

Instead of setting up an artificial study, in an artificial environment, as was done here, let’s look carefully at one way that dogs do seem to be acting sneaky when in their home environment: the dog who sneaks up on the bed only when his owners aren’t home or are fast asleep.

This would seem to be based on the dog’s knowledge of its owner’s perceptual state, correct?

So, absent a ToM, how does that happen?

First of all, there would be no need for a dog to act sneaky unless he’s engaging in a behavior that will “get him in trouble.” Very young puppies never act sneaky. Everything is jake, as far as they’re concerned. It’s only when their owners start scolding them, or pulling them away from things that interest them (like mommy’s dress shoes, or the television cords), or lunge at them when they try to make inside the house, do they start to “act sneaky.” So sneaky behavior is based on past experience, not necessarily on an innate understanding concerning whether we can see or hear what they’re doing.

Secondly, a dog’s social instincts give them very sensitive “antennae” for reading our emotional energy and our attentional states. They learn to detect even the slightest difference between an owner who’s wide awake (active, or +, levels of energy) and one who’s fast asleep (absent, or -, levels).  They also have a capacity for reading our levels of intensity. The more intense the energy coming from the owner, the more the dog will be motivated to act in certain ways to either avoid the owner, acclimate themselves to the energy’s intensity, or to find a way to offset or offload it.

So being able to read the owner’s energy and attentional states is step one.

Step two is that, over time, and with experience, the dog learns that whenever he tries to get up on the bed when the owner is lying in bed but is still in an active (+) state, the owner pushes him off. But when the owner is in a passive (-) state, she doesn’t.

The dog also learns that certain ways of approaching the bed (based on a simple ability to register how the dog’s own energy does or doesn’t cause a perturbation in his owner’s energy and/or attentional states) can sometimes change the owner from a passive (-) to an active (+) state, which results in the owner pushing the dog off the bed. The more intense the owner’s reaction to the dog’s behavior, the sneakier the dog will be.

In this model, the dog’s “sneaky” behavior is based solely on a) the ability to read the owner’s energy states and b) past conditioning. That’s it. 

Some may think I’m splitting hairs. But hopefully this analysis will give the careful reader a slightly different way of interpreting their dog’s behavior, one that doesn’t imply that dogs are doing the things they do because they’re capable of knowing right from wrong, that they understand when they “did something wrong,” or that they do things with deliberate intent.

The more we understand how dogs really think, they better our relationships with them will be. 

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Saturday, June 26, 2010

7 Games Associated With the Predatory Sequence

I've written a lot about the predatory sequence in several other posts. Here's a more complete examination of this phenomenon, showing how and why playing seven specific games that stimulate and satisfy your dog's prey drive will have a very strong tendency to create calm, obedient behavior by reducing your dog's internal tension and stress.

7 Games That Stimulate & Satisfy Your Dogs Prey Drive
In mammalian predators (which includes dogs), there are 5 basic steps in what’s called the predatory sequence. Each of the steps involves a fixed-action pattern, or hard-wired instinctive behavior, that leads to the 5th and final step.

These steps are as follows:

The Search

The Eye-Stalk

The Chase

The Grab Bite

The Kill Bite

It’s important to understand that for a predator, the act of leaving one’s den or home turf to find and kill prey animals of any size is a dangerous business. In many cases the predator, particularly a wolf, has to venture deep into foreign territory, with unknown changes in terrain that will have to be factored in to its approach to hunting. A predator could easily injure itself by twisting a leg in a rabbit hole, for example, or injure a paw by landing hard on a sharp rock, or rip a hole in its abdomen by running too close to a sharp tree branch.

In order to motivate predators to do their job, Mother Nature has a compelling tool at her disposal: the release of endorphins, one of the body’s own form of opiates. Nature does this at each of the 5 successive stages because the closer a predator gets to its prey, the more dangerous the enterprise becomes.

So in some ways, while we tend to think of predators as the dangerous ones, hunting is almost as dangerous for the hunter as it is for the hunted. Hunting is also more dangerous for wolves than it is for other predators, such as the big cats. That’s because the default setting on the wolf’s prey drive is to go after large mammals with horns and hooves. It’s true that a wolf will also hunt small prey, especially when large, dangerous prey are unavailable. But the wolf's prey of choice is usually over ten times bigger than the average wolf. Elk weigh around 800 lbs., moose around 1000, while the average wolf only weighs around 80 lbs. Also, a wolf doesn’t have powerful claws, as the big cats do. Nor does he have the tooth size or the kind of pressure in his bite that a cougar or cheetah does. So the odds are stacked against him.

However, he has two things working in his favor. One is that he doesn’t hunt by himself, so the feeling of danger inherent to preying on moose and elk is diffused, spread out across the entire pack; no one wolf feels the entire charge. And, since the wolf isn’t going solo, he’s also able to work in-synch with his pack mates: this means he can slack off, take a breather, if a change in terrain favors another wolf’s physical skills, or fall back if he sees an easier, more circular approach to the prey, etc.

The second element in the wolf’s favor is his relentless drive to connect to the prey animals, and his ability to outwit and outlast them. Big cats operate primarily on the element of surprise. So a cheetah or cougar always has to act quickly or lose the window of opportunity. Wolves, on the other hand, usually win by wearing down their prey.

It’s also important to note that wolves who settle near garbage dumps don’t form packs. Coyotes, on the other hand, sometimes do, but only when they need to hunt large prey. So pack formation is actually an ancillary function of the canine hunting instincts.

Finally, it’s important to know that captive wolves exhibit stress-related dominant and submissive behaviors, but that these behaviors are rarely found in wild wolves. The reason for this is that captive wolves aren’t able to relieve their internal stress by going out as a group and hunting large prey, so they engage in internecine squabbles instead. Dominant and submissive behaviors are rare in wild wolves because hunting and killing large prey is the ultimate stress-reducer.  

Is this really relevant to dog training?

Of course. Since hunting is dangerous, especially for wolves, and since predators are motivated by an internal, psycho-chemical process to go through all 5 steps of the sequence, and since dogs share a long evolutionary history with wolves, we can learn something about what motivates dogs to learn new behaviors or unlearn old ones by looking at what motivates their wild brothers to hunt large prey. 

Plus, all the basic obedience behaviors we normally teach dogs (except the sit) are analogues of the predatory motor patterns found in wild wolves. And since the wolf’s need to hunt large prey is the genesis of all canine social instincts (hunting as part of a group requires intense social cohesion and cooperation), knowing as much as we can about the way wolves hunt may be the most relevant thing we can do to learn about how to best motivate dogs to obey, and how to make a maximum use of their instinctive energy and emotions. 

And finally, since all misbehaviors seen in dogs are the result of an inability for the dog to relieve internal stress naturally, and since the prey drive has stress-relief built into it (thanks to endorphins, etc.), it's far more effective to use up your dog's energy by playing hunting games than it by taking him on long walks, or even going jogging together.

With that in mind, there are seven games designed to use up your dog’s energy, naturally, by stimulating and satisfying his hunting instincts:

The Predatory Sequence & 7 Games Associated With It

The Search – “Find” - hide a toy or treat then tell the dog, "Find!" (also called Hide-and-Seek. by some trainers, but that's actually a very different game where you hide when your dog isn't looking, and wait for him or her to look around to see where you are, then you suddenly reappear, act excited, and run away.)

The Eye-Stalk – “The Eyes Exercise” (the foundation for the stay)

The Chase – Fetch and “Chase Me” (get your dog to chase you), and Hide-and-Seek.

The Grab Bite – Fetch, and Tug-of-War

The Kill Bite – Tug and Push-of-War (push while playing tug)

The Pushing Exercise” is also helpful, not just for using up a dog’s energy, but for removing any emotional blocks that prevent him from relieving his stress naturally through play.

“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Canine Mind Doth Make Fools of Us All

Here's another article from my blog. This one was supposed to have already been available through the menus on the right, but for some reason, the link failed, so I'm re-posting it now.

How Dogs Can Fool Even Our Smartest Scientists
In an earlier post -- "From Pavlov to Pauli..." -- I wrote that, scientifically speaking, all canine behavior can and should be explained from an emotional/energetic point of view rather than a mental framework. I even kind of bragged, perhaps foolishly, that I could do just that.

In my most recent article -- "Smart Pooches or Dumb Science?" -- I critiqued a recent spate of online articles and TV news blurbs in which psychologist Stanley Coren quite wrongly states that dogs are better at math than 2-year-olds. Here's CNN's version of one "study" supposedly proving that dogs can count and perhaps even do arithmetic:

"Counting ability is tested in drills such as one in which treats are dropped, one at a time, behind a screen. When the researcher either sneaks away one of the treats or stealthily adds an extra before raising the screen, the dog will wait longer -- appearing to puzzle over the bad math -- before eating the treats."

In rebuttal I gave some of the scientific evidence for the idea that all animals, not just dogs, have an innate number sense, which enables them to know when the general amount of salient things in their environment has changed: robins and their eggs, for example, or dogs and their treats or toys. (This "number sense "can also be found in 4-and-a-half-month-old babies, by the way.)

However, I think the concept of animals or even babies having a "number sense" is inaccurate because understanding numbers -- 1, 2, 3, 10, 3/5ths, pi -- is language dependent. Without the use of words, animals and babies can't put names to abstract numeric concepts, or even to concrete objects like a robin's eggs or a dog's chew toys. It seems to me that the thing they're actually aware of is the changes that take place in their environment: the absence or presence of things that were or weren't there before. And it would make more sense that they would be able to calibrate these changes viscerally (via the changes in own their internal energy states) rather than figuring it all out mathematically.

Since in my "Pavlov to Pauli" article I proposed the idea that I could explain any and all behavioral phenomenon in dogs from just such an energetic standpoint, I'll attempt to do so here.

Imagine you're at a party. Your mind is full of thoughts: "God, those cheese thingies were good, I wonder if they have any more," or, "Hey, Shelia looks good in that," or, "I hope the kids aren't terrorizing the babysitter," and possibly, "Uh-oh, there's that awful bore, what's-his-name? I hope he doesn't try to harangue me again with his theories about how dogs have better math skills than toddlers."

These are all thoughts. But beneath these thoughts your body is busy accommodating its inner "radar" to the underlying press of stimuli around you: the buzz of conversation, the brief bursts of laughter, the tempo and level of the music, the clinking of ice in glasses, and the almost constant sense of kinetic energy, people shifting between groups of 2 or 3, etc. You're not thinking much if anything about all this, but your body's internal radar is. It's constantly calibrating and recalibrating itself to accommodate these fluctuations in energy. (Since a stimulus is, by definition, anything that increases the energy in an organism, that's exactly what your body is responding to: fluctuations in energy.)

At some point you ask the hostess if you can use her bathroom. She nods, points the way, you go down the hall, make a left, go inside the bathroom, start the water running in the sink, etc. And, while you're thus engaged, a large chunk of people decide to go to another venue: perhaps out back to see the pool, perhaps they have theater tickets. It doesn't matter. Approximately half the people, let's say, are suddenly gone, disappeared.

When you come out of the bathroom you go into a mild state of shock. Your first thought is, "Wow, where did everybody go?" though you don't really care where they went, you just want to know how they all disappeared so quickly. And the reason you're shocked is that your unconscious mind has to re-calibrate itself viscerally to this sudden change in the environment, this huge shift in energy. (This is not a mental process, by the way; the mind rarely concerns itself with fluctuations in energy, but the body is always doing so.)

Okay, now back to dogs.

Remember, the researchers showed the dogs in their study a certain number of treats then dropped the treats behind a screen, added or subtracted some, then revealed the new "amount" to the dogs.

Coren interprets all this as follows: "Now we're giving [the dog] the wrong equation which is 1+1 = 1, or 1+1 = 3. Sure enough, studies show the dogs get it. The dog acts surprised and stares at it for a longer period of time, just like a human kid would."

The dogs "get it?" Right. Except that from the dog's point of view this is more like three-card monte or a magic trick done by an annoying relative -- pulling a quarter from a kid's ear or doing the "where'd my thumb go?" trick -- than actual arithmetic.

Now put yourself in the dog's shoes. You're in place where there's food and people, sort of like a party. Humans are showing you some treats, so you pay attention. Those treats are magnetic to you. They're buzzing with all kinds of potential energy. As far as your body is concerned, they're the most salient feature of your environment. Then these humans do a magic trick where one of the treats is suddenly no longer there or another one is suddenly, inexplicably present. And like the partygoer coming out of the bathroom, you go into a mild state of shock: you have a look of "surprise" on your "face." But it's not because you've done any mental arithmetic. It's because your body's awareness of its surroundings is forced to make a sudden adjustment. In short, you've been fooled.

Stanley Coren has had a long and distinguished academic career. His research on sensory perception is top notch. His paper "Sensation and Perception" is required reading on the subject at university levels. He's a bestselling author, and has also written some very interesting articles on dogs here. So I have to wonder why he sometimes seems totally incapable of using any kind of real critical judgment when it comes to the subject of canine cognition. He can't really believe this stuff, can he? If he does, I guess it's true that when it comes to dogs, even the smartest people can be very easily fooled. I think that says less about Coren, though, than it does about what truly amazing animals dogs are.

They can fool even the best of us without even trying.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"
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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Establish a Deeper Connection with Your Dog

This article can also be found on my blog...

4 Easy Ways to Establish a Deeper Connection 
with Your Dog, and with Your True Self
One evening, many years ago I was at an asphalt basketball court on the East Side of Manhattan with two dogs: my Dalmatian Freddie and a client’s Jack Russell terrier named Mack. (Someone in the neighborhood was on the city council, owned a dog, and had pulled some strings to allow us to exercise our dogs there in the evenings.)

The dogs were playing nicely. Everyone was having fun. Then it started to rain lightly, and Mack, who hated the rain, decided to go home. So he wiggled through a small gap in the chain link fence out to 68th Street, and headed straight for Second Avenue.

I went into emergency mode and called Freddie. There was no time to hook up his leash, which was hanging around my neck (along with Mack’s). I just ran as fast as I could to the exit, which was closer to First Avenue than Second. Freddie ran in-synch next to me. We came out onto 68th Street, and I scanned the sidewalk, looking for Mack. He’d apparently crossed to the uptown side of the street. So I checked quickly for oncoming cars, then ran across the street, saying to Fred, “Let’s go!”

We got to the other side, and I looked up the street toward Second Avenue, my heart racing, my mind trying not to panic. I still couldn’t see the little figure of the missing Jack Russell, and hoped he hadn’t tried to cross Second. My goal was to run as fast as possible and find the little bastard. But as I ran I noticed something unexpected and wonderful. Freddie was running right next to me, in a perfect heel, his eyes locked onto mine. In fact, I realized that he’d been running next to me like that the whole time. He hadn’t taken his eyes off me for a second. It was an amazing feeling.

We got to Second Avenue, I asked some people if they’d seen Mack, and was directed to a video store. We got inside and found Mack casually strolling through the aisles, begging for treats.

Although I'd spent many long hours training Freddie in obedience, I didn’t realize until that night how bonded, or connected to me he was. And there was no specific behavioral precedent for what he did that night. It was based almost entirely on our emotional connection.

I also realize now I was a different person before I met Fred. For one thing, the person I am now would’ve never called Mack a “little bastard,” even in my own mind. Mind you, I have no illusions that I’m now a fully-realized human being with no faults or character flaws. But I’m much more centered and grounded than I was before that wonderful, yet difficult, dog taught me how to be human. (I learned later that his being "difficult" was actuallly the result of my resisting the emotional changes taking place inside me.)

People sometimes question how (or why I think) I know so much about how dogs do or don't think, what makes them tick. Part of it comes through countless hours of research, studying various disciplines, from physics, to neuroanatomy to cognitive science to philosophy of mind to evolutionary biology to emergence to systems dynamics,  and more.

But most of my understanding comes from my daily interactions with dogs. Except when they’re asleep, dogs are constantly watching us, reading our behavior.  I’ve found that if we do something similar, just do four simple things for a few minutes each day, it can help us connect more fully to our dogs’ feelings, and connect to our true selves.

Will it make your dog run next to you in a perfect heel through the streets of New York? Proably not. But as they say about chicken soup: "It couldn't hurt!" And what may be even more important, you might find that by doing these four things, your life will, over time, become easier, happier, and more full of joy.

So here are the 4 simple steps that can help make all that happen.

1) Observe - Whenever you take your dog for a walk, or when your dog is playing with other doggies, or even when your dog is sleeping, take a few moments to simply watch his behaviors. Don't make any judgments or assign any + or - values to what the dog is doing. (When we take a walk through a pine forest, we very rarely impose value judgments on the trees, rocks, ferns, and birds, do we?) Just observe the minutia of his everyday actions; keep things as simple as possible. Pay attention to how your dog approaches other dogs. Does he come straight toward them, or in more of an arc? What happens to his face when he smells something? What is his tail doing when he sees a squirrel, or when you call him for supper? 

Don't think about what any of this means, just observe.

One value of this type of objective observation this is that our visual systems are directly-connected to the pleasure circuits in our brains. So the mere act of looking at something, anything, creates a feeling of calmness and well-being. So the more we're able to observe without judgmental thinking, the more relaxed and contented we become.

Another nice effect is that by observing your dog's behavior without judgment or expectation, you'll begin to see things from his perspective. Thinking usually means we project our beliefs and value systems onto our dogs' behavior, which prevents us from seeing them for who they really are. But seeing dogs as they are returns us to nature - to the pine forest, the desert, or the waterfall - if just for a small moment in time.

2) Wonder - Childhood is a time of wonder. When we were young we spent a great deal of time wondering about all kinds of things. Wonder is also a key element in science. Darwin wondered why the various types of finches on different islands in the Galapagos had beaks with different shapes, and his theory of evolution was born. Einstein sat on a moving train and wondered what it would be like to be on a train that could travel at light speed, and the theory of relativity was born.

But there's more to wondering than the if, or how, or why of things. Just being in a state of wonder has an amazing effect on the psyche. Like observation, wonder stimulates the brain. Plus it opens up an emotional connection between you and the thing you're wondering about, in this case, your dog. So try each day to view your dog with a childlike sense of wonder. 

Wondering means you don't know anything, but that you're open to learning something new. If Einstein had thought about it, he would've known that no train could possibly travel at light speed, and that would've been the end of that. But by wondering, he saw something in his mind that no one else could see.

What will you see, that no one else can, when you take a few moments each day to look at your dog in wonder?

3) Feel - Dogs are feeling, emotional beings. So are we. But as kids, we were forced by the rules of society, peer pressure, by how our parents raised us, and by our own survival needs, to put a lid on our emotions. It's an amazing thing that just by tuning in to our dog's emotions now, as adults, we automatically tune in to the emotions we gave up long ago in order to placate our parents and teachers, or to fit in.

So spend a little time each day trying to tune in to what your dog is feeling. Don't think about it. Take a second or two to try and feel it; then let it go. A few moments later you may find that a childhood memory will drift to the surface, or the answer to a problem you've been having, perhaps related to work or family, will suddenly become clear.

A theatre professor of mine once said that whenever we see a great play or movie, or look at a work of art, it has the capacity to change us for the better. And even though a physician or a chemist or construction worker may not feel any affinity for Hamlet's woes, or relate to the life of a Pennsylvania deer hunter, or understand what a Mark Rothko painting "means," each will come away a better doctor, chemist, or builder. True, dogs may not be Shakespeare, but in their own way, they can do that for us too. That's because by allowing ourselves to feel what our dogs are feeling, we reawaken our ability to feel our own emotional connections, the ones we lost when we were pups.

4) Be - Some trainers say, "Be the pack leader! Be dominant!" Others say, "Be the pack parent!" or "Be positive!" 

I say, "Never mind all that, just be!"

What does that mean?

All evidence on how wild canine packs really operate suggests that our old ideas about wolf packs having a leader (which originated with Konrad Lorenz, who later admitted that everything he ever said about dogs was wrong), aren't true. 

However, in every animal group there is always one member who - to borrow from Willie Wonka - has the golden ticket. To me, the golden ticket represents an animal's natural charisma or animal magnetism. So others in the group follow him because of his natural gifts, not because he has to dominate them to make them "obey."

Think about your natural gifts. What are they? Whatever they are, they're yours and yours alone. You don't have to try to be something you're not.

But remember, there are two yous (at least), the authentic self, and the self that evolved as a means of fitting in, satisfying your parents' and teachers' wishes, etc. The authentic self is the one who's able to observe, wonder, tune in to your dog's (and your own) feelings, and is able to just be. The other self, frankly, thinks too much.

If you get angry or frustrated with your dog, that's okay. Just try to own those feelings, but try not to act on them. Remember, they're not real, they're just signposts. So instead of acting in anger or frustration, take five slow, deep breaths - breathe in slowly, breathe out slowly - and remember that you already have your unique golden ticket: your dog's love. Yes, the road may be rocky at times, but those rocks aren't insurmountable obstacles, they're just reflections of the fractured pieces of the authentic self you gave up as a child. Your dog doesn't misbehave in order to dominate you or create obstacles; he does it because he wants to help you reconnect to who you really are.

So those are the 4 easy steps: Observe, Wonder, Feel, and Be. Just spending a few minutes each day engaged in those simple activities can bring amazing results.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sigmund Freud and the Art of Dog Training, Part I

Here's the first article in this series...

Sigmund Freud and the Art of Dog Training, I
I'm a Neo-Freudian dog trainer. It says so in my bio.

One of the first indications of this came while I was working with a Rhodesian ridgeback who had fear issues; she was scared of the construction noises in her Manhattan neighborhood. After one of our sessions - where we were able to get her to have fun walking past the jackhammers by using a favorite toy to build her prey drive - her owner, a psychotherapist, asked me if I'd ever studied object relations theory.

"No," I said. "Why?"

"It seems to me that your ideas about dog training are based on it."

So I went to the library (this was pre-Google), and did some research. I found that the term "object relations" was first coined by Ronald Fairbairn (in 1952), but that Freud used the term as early as 1917 to identify the people in a person's sphere of influence as "objects" of drives or desires.

Huh. I did sometimes refer to toys as "prey objects" and treats as "food objects," though I didn't know why. I also work a lot with a dog's prey drive, for inducing obedience and for healing wounded emotions.

But still, isn't Freud passé? Sure, most of us still use Freudian terms. When people say that someone is narcissistic or anal-retentive, we know immediately what they mean. Yet - except in Woody Allen movies - Freud is now considered completely obsolete, or worse.

"Whenever someone mentions Freud," writes poet and novelist Siri Hustvedt, in her blog article Who's Afraid of Sigmund Freud?, "I see eyes roll and listen to the nasty remarks that follow. The received knowledge, even among some highly educated and informed people, is that Freud was wrong and can be relegated to history's garbage can. ... the general attitude is one of out-and-out hostility."

Hustvedt then points out that modern neuroscience is starting to validate some of Freud's "outmoded" ideas. "No neuroscientist today would say that the unconscious does not exist. No one working in the field would argue against primal emotional drives in human beings either. Freud is no longer dismissed as quickly as he once was."

This is a kind of poetic justice since Freud actually studied neuroanatomy at the University of Vienna under German physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke. It was Brücke, who first proposed the concept of "psychodynamics" in 1874, along with physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (one of the formulators of the first law of thermodynamics). Brücke and Helmholtz stated that since all living organisms are energy-systems, they must be governed by the laws of thermodynamics. This became the springboard for Freud's psychology.

Modern neuroscience really is validating Freud. A new paper by R.L. Carhart-Harris and K. J. Friston, published in the Oxford University neurlogical journal, The Brain, posits that Freud's view of how the Ego (the conscious mind) is designed to monitor and, if necessary, suppress impulses coming from the Id (that is the more archaic parts of the mind, or the "unconscious"), is, in fact, grounded in actual physical brain structures, as well as the types of brain waves that different parts of the brain, such as the limbic system (which controls emotion) and the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of executive function) use as part of their operating systems. They write, "Freudian concepts may have a real neurobiological substrates [that] could be usefully revisited in the context of modern neuroscience." They go on to say that new advances "allow us to recast Freudian ideas in a mechanistic and biologically informed fashion."

But still, a neo-Freudian dog trainer? 

It's true that Freud was a dog lover. But seriously, when we think about canine behavior, Sigmund Freud is not the first name that comes to mind. (Does Pavlov ring a bell?) Most dog trainers trace their philosophy back to either Konrad Lorenz or B. F. Skinner. Very few would consider Freud a major influence.

All three were geniuses who made a major impact. However, even though Freud is now considered old-hat, every single one of Lorenz's views on canine behavior have been proven invalid1. And while Skinner's ideas still hold sway in most animal training circles, holes and cracks in his philosophy began showing themselves from the outset2.

So even though no one thinks of Freud's ideas as being relevant to dog training, to me they're much more helpful, and much more relevant, than the Lorenzian or Skinnerian models.

Next time: how understanding Freud can 1) be of immense benefit to dogs with PTSD and other disorders, 2) show us that by punishing a puppy for mouthing or soiling the house we create neurotic behaviors later on, and 3) help us learn that teaching puppies obedience skills before their brains are developed, can create social, emotional, and even neurological disorders.


1) Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, in their book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding... report that when they met Konrad Lorenz he told them right off the bat, that "everything I ever said about dogs was wrong."

Sigmund Freud and the Art of Dog Training, Part II

Here's an early preview of my next article...

Sigmund Freud & the Art of Dog Training, II
"Happiness is a warm puppy." - Charles Shultz

"What we call happiness comes from the satisfaction of needs
which have been dammed up to a high degree." - Sigmund Freud

In my last article at Psychology Today, I made the claim that understanding some of the basic principles of Freudian psychology can help us - dog owners and dog trainers alike - understand our dogs better, and that Freud's ideas may be more relevant to dog training than those of Konrad Lorenz, Ivan Pavlov or B. F. Skinner.

I also pointed to some of the latest research in neurobiology, which validates Freud's views that the psyche is divided into the Id and the Ego. In simplest terms, and neurologically speaking, these correlate with the limbic system (Id/unconscious urges and emotions) and the pre-frontal cortex (Ego /conscious thought/executive-function).

In other articles here I've presented the idea that a dog's behavior operates more along the lines of a natural energy system than it does either as part of a dominance hierarchy or solely as the result of reinforcement schedules. When we examine Freud's view that the Ego's primary role is to suppress most of the unbound energy contained within the Id, we can start to see that there's also a direct correlation between some of the basic precepts of Freudian psychology and with the idea that all canine behavior operates as part of an energy system.

I think that's fitting, because Freud likened the human mind to a horse (Id) and rider (Ego), but he could just as easily - and perhaps more aptly - have compared the mind to a puppy and its owner.


Because, except when sleeping, puppies have almost boundless energy and curiosity. They're always sticking their noses, not to mention their teeth, into places they don't belong. The owner's goal is to prevent the little guy from doing too much damage to the owner's clothes, furniture, skin, or to the pup himself. This is often a matter of the owner's Ego (both small e and capital E) constantly repressing the puppy's desires. We worry what our friends or relatives will think of us when they come to visit. What if we take our pup to the bank and he does his business right there on the floor? Our self-image is often inextricably bound up in our pups' behaviors. (We also channel our inner parent when we interact with our puppies.) So we do everything we can to repress, and put a lid on - or as Freud puts it, "dam up" - the puppy's desires.

There's almost no way around this. In most cases we're just trying to keep the puppy from danger. And when we're not, we're unable to see the link between the childhood battles we may have fought with our parents and the battles we're now having with our pup. Those battles are locked deep within our unconscious minds; the puppy just does what all good dogs do, he fetches them for us, brings them to the surface for us to deal with.

Think of the words we commonly associate with training: leash, collar, harness, "No!" "Bad!" "Wait!" "Down!" "Stop!" "Stay!" etc. They're all designed to put a lid on a dog's energy.

Over time, the puppy learns to repress his instincts and impulses on his own. This is a matter both of conditioning and an outgrowth of the symbiotic relationship that develops between the pup's mind and that of his owners, a form of embodied, embedded cognition. The two begin to share a single mind, where the puppy is pure Id and the owner is the Id's control mechanism.

The thing is, though, that while puppies may have difficulty learning impulse control - at least initially -, as a species dogs are actually more capable of doing this than any other animal on earth, except humans and dolphins. In fact, impulse control may be an evolutionary artifact, a direct outgrowth of the dog's shared evolutionary history with the wolf.

A recent study on dogs, "Common Self-Control Processes in Humans and Dogs" shows that dogs exert impulse control in exactly the same manner as humans. And that in both cases, this ability to suppress one's own desires (alternately called "self-control," "delayed gratification," "volition," and other things), is measured through the depletion of blood glucose levels in the pre-frontal cortex, or "executive-function" portion of the brain. The more impulse control, the more blood glucose is depleted. As a result the less energy the dog or person has at their disposal for new cognitive tasks. However, once glucose levels are restored, the ability to learn new tasks, and to control one's impulses, is restored as well. (The dogs in this study were given commands that involved impulse control; they weren't put into positions where they had to do this on their own, which only reinforces the idea that this ability may involve a shared consciousness between dog and owner.)

The authors of this study say that it offers "the first evidence that exerting self-control depletes energy in nonhuman animals." (Holly C. Miller, Kristina F. Pattison, C. Nathan DeWall, Rebecca Rayburn-Reeves and Thomas R. Zentall, Psychological Science, March 2010, March 11, 2010.)

The idea originally comes from a 1998 study on humans ("Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?" by Roy E Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice (1998), which was heavily influenced by Freud's psychology (which in turn was heavily influenced by the idea that the mind is an energy system, which obeys the laws of thermodynamics). In it the authors write that the "...theory that volition is one of the self's crucial functions can be traced back at least to Freud (1923/ 1961a, 1933/1961b), who described the ego as the part of the psyche that must deal with the reality of the external world by mediating between conflicting inner and outer pressures. ... Freud also seems to have believed that the ego needed to use some energy in making such a decision. ... [and] he recognized the conceptual value of postulating that the ego operated on an energy model."

If you go back through some of my articles, you'll see that when I talk about behavioral problems in dogs, I tend to describe them in terms of internal pressures - tension and stress - and that one of the best ways to solve such problems is by giving the dog an alternative outlet for that pressure, specifically through rough-and-tumble outdoor play, which increases the production of brain-derived growth factors.

You'll also find several articles where I talk about how when wolves evolved to form packs (for the purpose of hunting large prey), they learned to sublimate their urge to bite into more appropriate social behaviors. And that during the domestication process, dogs expanded on this ability to sublimate their urge to bite in order to secure their place within the human household.

I know that in the strictest sense of the word, sublimation refers to a means of redirecting the energy behind raw sexual urges into other, more acceptable social behaviors, such as art and culture. This was one of the primary focal points of Freud's psychoanalysis. However, Freud also made a distinction between Eros - the energy inherent to all natural drives and desires - and the libido - the reflection of that energy as it manifests in the form of personality. So while we may not think of a dog's urge to bite as having its origins in sexuality, it does. That's because there is - beneath the surface of both sexual and aggressive urges - an overpowering drive to connect with the object of one's desire. (Who has never heard the phrase - usually spoken to a baby or young puppy - "You're so cute I could just bite you?")

So how does this Freudian dynamic play out in terms of a puppy's development?

In his book, Before and After Getting Your Puppy, Dr. Ian Dunbar writes, "The more dogs bite as puppies, the softer and safer their jaws in adulthood." I agree, but would modify that as follows: "The more dogs are able to use their teeth to softly and gently mouth their owners, or to engage in rough-and-tumble play, the happier and better behaved they'll be as adult doggies."

This brings up a seminal event in the development of my ideas on dog training. Years ago, I got a call from a potential client whose dog had a very unusual problem. Emma was a small wheaten terrier who liked to lick doorknobs. In fact, she would obsessively lick the knob on the front door of her owners' apartment every time someone came in or went out, and she would continue licking for at least twenty minutes or so, no matter what they did to try to stop her.

I knew that licking was one way a dog has of sublimating the urge to bite. So my first question wasn't about how the behavior might've been reinforced, or whether someone had at some point opened the front door with bacon grease on their hands, and the dog had begun licking the doorknob as a result. Nor did I waste time supposing that Emma was licking the doorknob so as to dominate it or her owners. My first question was this:

"What was Emma like during her oral phase?"

"Oh, she was terrible. Always mouthing us and biting our clothes."

"And did you punish her for it?"

"Yes. We were told that whenever she mouthed or nipped, even in play, we should grab her by the snout, give her a smack under the chin, and say, ‘No! Bad dog!'"

"Well, that's why she can't stop licking doorknobs now."

The simple lesson is that when a puppy is going through an important developmental phase, and you "dam up" the energy behind those impulses, you're guaranteeing that the pup will develop some kind of behavioral problem later in life.

Freud writes: "The transference neuroses originate from the ego's refusing to accept a powerful instinctual impulse existing in its id, and denying it a motor discharge."

The powerful instinctual urge in this case was the puppy's drive to connect to her owners' hands, shoes, and pajama bottoms through her teeth, i.e., by mouthing and nipping in play, which are both harmless impulses, but that are, nevertheless, as Dr. Dunbar points out, important for proper social and emotional development in dogs. 

The owner, in the role of the ego, denied that impulse its "motor discharge," and as a result the impulse was transferred to a similar motor discharge (licking) onto another object - the doorknob - which represented another form of connection to the owners, as it was the focal point for where the puppy saw her owners - the objects of her desires - leave her alone each day, making her feel disconnected, as well as where she saw them come back, re-establishing the feeling of connectedness that she yearned for.

In some cases, like with Emma, the through-line is fairly clear (though it would've been clearer if she'd become a biter rather than a licker). In others, like with my dog Freddie's panic attacks, the dog seems totally fine until an emotional stressor brings his repressed feelings to the surface. (People used to tell me how "calm" Freddie was; but then, when we moved to a new apartment, things changed, and shortly after that his panic attacks started.) In both cases, the course of action was to teach the dog to bite as hard as possible while playing tug or fetch with its owners outdoors.

Of course the repression of developmental urges isn't the only way dogs can develop behavioral problems. It can happen through trauma and through neglect. However, traumatic experiences always foster fear, which automatically represses a dog's drive. As for neglect, that's simply the flip-side of repression with the same general result; a lack of development in the dog's prey drive increases the amount of energy directed toward the dog's survival instincts, and, consequently, away from the sex and social instincts, both of which are related to the prey drive, and both of which are important to normal behavior in dogs.

I know that Freud has fallen out of favor in the last forty years or so. And, in some respects, there's probably a good reason for that (though Freud was the first to admit that his theories would be proven or disproven by future scientific inquiry). And I seriously doubt if you'll find many other dog trainers, if any, who base their work, even in the smallest way, on Freud's philosophy, as I do. It's also doubtful if my little polemic here will have enough weight to sway other trainers to my way of thinking. In my opinion, we all approach dog training more through the unconscious emotional connections we feel with our dogs than through our (only slightly more rational) "conscious minds."

But for both dog trainers and dog owners alike, there may come a time when neither positive reinforcement nor dominance is working with a certain dog. And if that happens, I hope some will remember what I've said here, and think to themselves:

"Maybe it's time to take another look at the man with the cigar."

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"