Originally published in slightly different form on January 4, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.
In their groundbreaking book—DOGS: A Startling New Understanding...—Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, write, “Animal psychologists and psychiatrists often work on aberrant behavior, which they describe in psychological terms. This dog has separation anxiety; that dog has a compulsive disorder. Since many of these behavioral disorders don’t respond to classical or operant conditioning, the specialist might prescribe drugs. Our complaint here is that behaviorists tend to think all animals learn the same way. ... And this is where the gap in understanding dog behavior lies.” (p. 34)
I agree that behavioral science techniques are ineffective at resolving behavioral problems in dogs, and part of the problem is that behavior analysts believe that all animals learn the same way. However, I would argue that all animals actually do obey the same set of rules. The problem is that they’re not necessarily the rules of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner, they’re the rules of Newton, Joule, and Maxwell.
This might seem like a strange idea at first, but former K-9 trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan writes, “The irreducible essence of anything is its energy.” And he’s developed a theory of canine behavior designed specifically around energetic principles.
This makes perfect sense when we step back and contrast the idea of canine behavior operating according to simple energetic principles—such as attraction and resistance, and tension and release—rather than on higher thought processes such as symbolic and abstract thought (“I will obey because my owner is the alpha and has a higher rank than I do.”), or hypotheticals and/or mental time travel (“In the past, when I did X I got a reward; therefore if I do X in the future I might also get a reward.”).
A clear window into this new way of seeing behavior as energy is a simple training exercise where a dog is fed outdoors in such a way that he has to push into his owner or handler in order to eat his daily meals.
You let the dog eat out of one hand, and while he’s gobbling his meal you place your other hand against his chest, palm up, lightly cupping his breastbone. As he gets used to the presence of the second hand (over the course of a few feedings), you begin to pull the food hand away ever-so slightly, so that the dog has to push into your other hand in order to keep eating. As you increase the amount of pressure the dog can tolerate you’ll begin to see positive changes in his overall demeanor and a marked increase in his obedience skills. Why? By increasing the dog’s ability to handle more and more pressure you’re reducing the drag coeffecient on his emotional energy. The effects are global and systemic and can’t be explained by either learning theory or the pack leader model.
Most +R trainers I’ve discussed this exercise with don’t get the point. “You’re just teaching the dog to be pushy over food.” Yet the exercise make dogs less pushy, and can even extinguish food-guarding behaviors!
Dominance trainers don’t get it either. “You’re encouraging the dog to think he’s alpha.” If that were the case, why would it make dogs more obedient?
Here are just a few case histories:
Ginger: an adolescent Jack Russell terrier, who wouldn’t play with her owner and couldn’t be housebroken. Within a week of pushing for food Ginger stopped eliminating inside the house. She also started to play.
Fancy: an adolescent boxer who was getting into fights at the dog run. After I’d spent a few days doing the pushing exercise with her, one of her owners called and asked me if I’d been also working on her fear of walking on sidewalk grates. I told them I hadn’t.
“That’s funny,” she said. “Because she’s no longer afraid of them!”
Kyla: A German shepherd mix with a very “dominant” temperament, who could not be bribed, cajoled, or coaxed with treats away from her intense focus on squirrels. She now loves to obey all her commands. She still shows a strong interest in squirrels, but is easily called away for a game of tug instead. She’s an almost completely different doggie.
Caleb: A young Welsh springer spaniel was starting to exhibit a severe form of food guarding around other dogs. This was an otherwise wonderfully social dog who had a knack for making almost any other dog fall in love with him instantly, no matter what. I did the pushing exercise for 2 days, and his food guarding disappeared completely.
Muskoka: A Westie who had 2 problems, leash aggression and a frantic fear of walking anywhere near her vet’s office. Her leash aggression is gone, and each day she gets more and more comfortable about walking past her vet’s office.
Dudley: A cocker spaniel who had separation anxiety for seven years and had also forgotten how to play. He was so frightened of being left alone, he was found by his owners several times, crying out in fear and trembling in a corner of the room, covered in his own excrement, his eyes practically spinning with terror. And he was taking anti-anxietal medications to keep this from happening! Thanks to the pushing exercise (and a few other things I did) he’s now off the drugs, and is totally fine about being left home alone, He’s even been initiating play with his owners every night when they come home from work.
How could one simple exercise have so many positive effects?
Dogs are designed to work for a living. Pet dogs no longer have the utilitarian function in our lives they once did. They don’t have to hunt, herd, or guard our flocks. All the energy they’re designed by evolution and breeding to expend on working for a living goes into, what? Playing with other dogs at the dog park? Going on long walks? Playing fetch? Patrolling the back yard for gophers? All worthwhile pursuits, but nothing remotely close to the kind of work their ancestors put in on a daily basis.
One way of defining “work” is the amount of force (energy) it takes to displace an object. And all objects have inertia, defined as resistance to change. So when a dog learns he can get what he wants - his dinner - by pushing past the external, physical resistance your hand is putting against his chest, then whatever internal, emotional resistance he’s feeling toward you or the things in his environment disappears as well. The more he learns that pushing feels good, the more emotionally balanced he’ll be.
Meanwhile our species, the human animal - who also used to hunt (and gather) for a living - now expend much less of our physical energy toward putting food into our dinner bowls. Sure, some of us still farm the land and pull nets full of fish out of the sea. But the difference (or one of them) is that those of us who engage in that kind of hard, physical labor on a regular basis don’t need gym memberships. Most of the rest of us do.
Why is that? Why do we go to the gym, or the golf course, or go hiking or kayaking, or mountain climbing, or skiing or snowboarding?
Because pushing feels good. Whether your thing is lifting weights, jogging on a treadmill, doing pilates, playing golf or tennis, hiking, kayaking, skiing, or going to a spin class, you’re pushing against something to get a result. And the pushing feels good.
Why is Michael Phelps the best swimmer in the world? His physical gifts are a big part of it, but there are some other swimmers with his height, his reach. So why does he consistently perform better? Why do some football teams always seem to come from behind in the final minutes to win a big game while other teams tend to fade in the clutch? Certain athletes are simply better at pushing past their own internal resistance, past that internal voice that might say to the rest of us, “I can’t do this.”
Do dogs have such an inner voice?
Not exactly. But if the dogs I described could talk they might say:
“I can’t hold my bladder muscles until I get outside!”
“I can’t walk on sidewalk grates!”
“I can’t control my urge to bite other dogs when they’re eating near me!”
“I can’t obey commands or not chase squirrels or not be dominant!”
“I can’t walk on the same street as my vet’s office!”
“I can’t be left alone in the apartment!”
The truth is, my little doggies, “Yes, you can!”
You just have to learn how to push past your own internal resistance. You just need to have someone with a big pouch of food, take you outdoors, and teach you how to push for your dinner. You don’t have to push very hard at first. You don’t even have to push at all if you don’t want to. But slowly and gradually, the more you learn how hard you can push, and how good it feels to push that hard, and how you can even push a little harder, and a little harder after that, you’ll start to realize that you can do anything. And guess who’s the one teaching you that wonderful lesson?
That’s right. It’s the person who loves you. He or she is the one who’s like Peyton Manning or Joe Montana, the one person who knows you can do it. That you can come from behind, you can get out of whatever hole you find yourself in, and prevail! That you are a strong, amazing doggie with a wonderful, wild heritage. And that you can do anything.
All you need is a little push.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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My goal is to familiarize every dog trainer in America with this exercise, especially those who work with rescue and shelter dogs. If you’re an average dog owner, and you’re interested in trying it with your dog, click here. Please print out the instructions and follow them carefully.
However, I wouldn’t attempt to do it with dogs who have strong aggressive tendencies around food unless you have a lot of experience in relating to, understanding, and working with such dogs. Personally, I would spend at least 2 weeks getting to know a dog with those issues—taking her on long walks, getting her to play, and occasionally hand feeding her with no pressure attached—before ever putting my hand against her chest while she’s eating. Be forewarned.
Take it slow. The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there.