Cathexis: Why Dogs Pull on the Leash

A Common Behavior, Seen From a Freudian Perspective

Originally published in slightly different form on June 1, 2010 at Pulling On the Leash and the Drive to Connect

Go to nearly any dog training website and you’ll find that a dog who pulls on the leash, or forges ahead of its owners while walking, is one of the most common behavioral problems trainers offer to solve.

The most common explanations for pulling are: a) the dog he thinks he’s alpha (which is a misunderstanding about a dog’s supposed rank in a social hierarchy), or b) the dog's behavior is somehow being reinforced (the behavioral science view), or both. In fact the opposition reflex is simply a dog’s natural resistance to having pressure put on his collar or harness so that it restrains his natural movements. The pressure makes the dog either stop walking or start pulling in the opposite direction. Another factor is that most dogs are able to walk faster than their owners can.

That said, I don’t think dogs pull on the leash so much as they feel pulled on by things in the environment that stimulate and attract their instincts and emotions. That is, it feels more natural for a dog to move toward something that exerts this force of attraction than it does to walk next to you, unless walking next to you holds a stronger level of that force of attraction.

The Force Is With You

It might help if we look at what this force is, and where it comes from. Strangely enough, I think it’s similar to the elementary force that binds atoms together. Sigmund Freud saw it as a pristine, undifferentiated form of Eros, a kind of pre-sexual, sexual energy, which, in simplest terms, could be called the drive to connect, and which Freud thought was also related to the forward thrust of evolution. (Dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan called it the “drive to make contact.”) [3] I know that describing this force, and applying it to dogs in Freudian terms, as if it were a form of sexual energy, is going to create problems for a lot of people, but I think it’s important to consider Freud’s idea, at least for the moment, and see where it takes us. In dog training, this form of sexual energy can be seen in certain behaviors where, for instance, a dog gets frustrated because you’re not moving as fast as they are, and they start humping your leg.

In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud writes, “Even though it is certain that sexuality and the distinction between the sexes did not exist when life began, the possibility remains that the instincts which were later to be described as sexual may have been in operation from the very first.”

If this is true, then it may help dog owners understand some of the strange sexual or sex-related behaviors dogs sometimes exhibit, things that for some people are quite embarrassing. They usually derive from a feeling of internal pressure felt in the dog’s body caused by unresolved emotions. And those behaviors are a way for the dog to release internal tension and stress. And the reason for that stress is an inability to make satisfying connections with objects of attraction: toys, other dogs, wanting to get up on the bed, etc. The Need for Connections

Now, I’m no expert on Darwin, but it seems to me that, at heart, the process of Darwinian evolution is driven by this need to make connections. Atoms need to connect to one another in order to form molecules, that’s a form of attraction. Molecules form connections so as to evolve into living organisms. That's a form of attraction. Living organisms are driven to connect to sources of energy: air, water, sunlight, food, etc. That's a form of attraction. The human body and brain operate together through myriads of connections: we couldn’t sustain life without them. It makes sense that the body’s connectors and connectees would need to have some form of attraction to one another in order to “hook up.” The same goes for dogs. [4] When we look at puppies we find that, even when sleeping, [5] they seem to be driven to connect to nearly everything around them. In fact, puppies are in an almost constant state of cathexis, projecting their energy onto their toys, dinner bowls, the furniture, the rugs and carpets, their owners’ hands, pieces of paper, shoes, feet, socks, pajama bottoms, etc. But puppies are too young to have any sexual urges, right? And if these behaviors are the result of a puppy projecting its libidinal (or sexual) energies onto everything in sight, then why don’t adult dogs, who are more developed sexually, exhibit even higher levels of this type of energy, and why don’t they project it onto everything the way puppies do? Sexuality vs Sociability

I think it’s because a puppy’s developmental process demands a higher level of attraction to the objects in his environment than what’s called for in an adult dog. Also, as the pup’s mind and body develop, his social instincts begin to exert more and more control over his “selfish, pleasure-seeking drives.” This doesn’t mean that an adult dog has less sexual energy with which to form cathexes; it just means that he’s more able to use more impulse control as a means of forming social contact, and so is more selective about which objects he projects his energy onto, and how. If we look at the first time a puppy goes for a walk, especially if it’s down a city street or sidewalk, we see that he usually stays close to his owner, probably out of nervousness or uncertainty. But when walked in a park or natural setting, the pup often becomes wildly excited, eager to explore the world, but feels he has to do so in a peculiar, orbiting fashion: seeming to throw his body, projectile-like, out into the environment, but always circling back toward and around his owner with what can only be described as a mixture of joy and possible adoration, a kind of innocent and un-corrupted eroticism, a pure feeling of attraction for the owner, which is similar to the love most people feel for their pups as well. As time goes on, though, the pup becomes braver; memories of past punishments and repressed impulses start to re-surface, and the gravitational/erotic pull the owner once had on the pup’s emotions begins to lose some of its luster. And so the adolescent dog, no longer so madly in love with his owner, begins to pull ahead, whenever he’s walked toward newer, shinier objects of attraction, like other dogs, squirrels, cyclists, etc. Alpha Theory and Behavioral Science

Some might complain: “Why complicate things with this pseudo-Freudian, unscientific gibberish about invisible sexual energies, and this imaginary drive to connect?” I can only say that the energy of attraction, or the “drive to connect,” is clearly visible and observable in everyday canine behavior. What isn’t observable, what is, in fact, far more invisible than this natural drive, is the idea that dogs pull because they think they’re alpha, or because their behavior has been reinforced (which is partially true). If alpha theorists could prove that dogs have the capacity to think of themselves as alpha, or even to think of themselves as “selves,” [6] we might rightly consider their position. As for behavioral science, the truth is, positive reinforcements are not actual, physical objects any more than my hypothetical drive to connect is. They’re more akin to a function of statistics, measured solely in terms of a behavior’s response strength. We can only know if a tangible object, such as a toy or liver treat, might or might not have provided the mechanism for reinforcement by interpreting the resultant behavior after the fact, through a +R lens. Since it’s also usually possible to interpret any behavior through the opposite lens, [7] behavioral science loses credibility in this regard.

Then, once you add the necessity for determining what kind of reinforcement schedule was at play (and there are far too many to list here), [8] it simply boggles the mind how anyone can say they know with any certainty that any behavior of any kind has or hasn’t been reinforced, or what the mechanism of reinforcement actually was. [9] Meanwhile, the very real feeling one gets from the palpable, physical force of a dog pulling (or being pulled) toward an object of attraction—which can be clearly felt in the back, arms and shoulder muscles of the person walking the dog—is far more real, and far less “invisible,” than the rarefied thought processes of dogs who “think they’re alpha,” or the equally rarefied statistical analyses of operant conditioning. (Skinner’s view of drives was based purely in terms of deprivation and reinforcement with no reference to, or interest in, how a test subject was “feeling”). Besides, when dealing with a behavioral problem of any kind, I think it’s always best to know as much as you can about what’s actually causing the behavior. It’s only when you really know what’s going on that you can get a better handle on how to fix it. How Do You Fix Pulling?

One way is to go back in time, to when your dog was fully and completely in love with you and everything about you, back to when your dog couldn’t get enough of you. (Fortunately, most dogs are still like that the moment we come through the front door.) Chase your dog, or get your dog to chase you! Tease your dog with a toy, then run away! Or tease the the dog with a toy, then fall to the ground and let him jump on top of you! Stimulate those puppy-like feelings of joy and adoration. [10] Fall in love again! The rest will follow. Lee Charles Kelley

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1) For years it was believed that when wolves traveled together the pack obediently followed behind one animal, usually designated as the pack leader or alpha male. Then David Mech did a study showing that “leadership” (who’s out in front when the pack travels) changes hands almost continuously, and that the breeding female is most often in the lead (a small percentage of the time). Also, since the alpha pair are also the breeding pair, it could be argued that whatever sway they have over the rest of the pack (which is usually composed mostly of their own offspring), would be due to a kind of pre-conscious form of sexual attraction. 2) Some dogs pull even though they’re wearing choke collars, which, logically, should mean that the behavior isn’t being reinforced, but punished (unless we revamp our understanding to what constitutes positive reinforcement to include aversive stimuli). 3) In his article, “The Emotional Battery,” Behan writes, “What I’m trying to articulate in my limited way, is that ... there is only one emotion, a virtual force of attraction. ... Note that one doesn’t wake up at 3 in the morning blissed out, but rather stressed out. This is because we are first and foremost designed to be carriers of an emotional charge that makes us feel incomplete and disconnected. Our thoughts then race to find a source of this stress so that we can take action to find a connection.” (This fits nicely with Freud’s view that all organisms are in an almost constant state of “irritability,” which can only be relieved through downloading their excess energy onto objects of attraction.) 4) Just imagine putting you’re the size of sperm cell, and you’ve put a leash on another sperm cell who’s swimming up the cervical canal, and see how hard he’d pull! 5) If they could, most puppies (though few adult dogs) would always sleep in our laps or on top of our chests, or in some cases, on top of our heads. 6) Cognitive scientists have a number of tests for determining whether an animal has a sense of self (a prerequisite to having a sense of “self-and-other”), and have found no compelling evidence that this exists in any other species except humans and perhaps dolphins. 7) “Some stimulus changes associated with an increase in behavior are difficult to classify as [positive versus negative reinforcement], and the use of either description may be nothing more than an arbitrary and incomplete abbreviation for the ‘pre-change’ and ‘post-change’ stimulus conditions as well as for what transpires in between. For example, is a change in temperature more accurately characterized as the presentation of cold (heat) or the removal of heat (cold)?” (“Negative Reinforcement in Applied Behavior Analysis: an Emerging Technology,” Brian A. Iwata, University of Florida, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Winter, 1987.) 8) Here are just a few reinforcement schedules used by behavioral scientists: fixed ratio, continuous ratio, fixed interval, variable interval, variable ratio, differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior, differential reinforcement of other behavior, differential reinforcement of low response rate, differential reinforcement of high rate, etc. And these are all considered “simple” schedules! 9) With all that said, I would actually agree that when a dog pulls, his behavior is being reinforced, but that the reinforcement comes from the pleasure the dog feels when he’s cathecting his pent-up energy onto objects of attraction. This explanation is actually much simpler, far less abstract, and doesn’t rely on statistics or arcane mental manipulanda. Plus the solution is much simpler too: provide the dog with a stronger feeling of pleasure (i.e., a stronger cathexis) by playing with him, on his level, and the pulling behavior will begin to diminish in strength, and may eventually stop on its own. Meanwhile it’s hard for a dog to form a cathexis with clicker, or with someone who’s dominating him. 10) In a recent blog article here I described how my dog Freddie once did a perfect heel through New York City traffic, running right next to me, his eyes locked onto mine, with no command from me, while I searched frantically for a little Jack Russell terrier who’d run off. I had never reinforced that specific behavior in Freddie, but I had often played games designed to increase his “drive to connect” to me.

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.