Attraction and Resistance, Tension and Release
Originally published in slightly different form on February 22, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
A Tired Dog Is a Good Dog
We’ve all heard the expression, a tired dog is a good dog. But what does it mean, exactly?
I think the most common way this adage is interpreted is that if you give a dog enough exercise he’ll have fewer behavioral problems. In extreme cases the dog is put on a treadmill for hours at a time, or is forced to carry heavy weights around on long walks. What these things do is use up some of the dog’s energy that would otherwise be used to chase the cat, chew the carpet, or hump the mailman’s leg.
But where does that energy come from?
I would propose that it comes directly from the wolf’s prey drive. For one thing, modern research has shown that the hierarchical behaviors, and dominant and submissive polarities, seen in captive wolves aren’t as apparent or pronounced in wild wolves.
Why the difference?
Wild wolves have a natural outlet for stress: chasing, biting, taking down, and tearing at the hide of an animal that is larger and more dangerous than themselves. They only get stressed, and release it in the form of aggression towards other pack members, is when they haven’t hunted for a while, or when the pack has grown too large to sustain itself.
Kevin Behan and Natural Dog Training
In previous posts I’ve stated that there aren’t just two forms of training for pet dogs, the pack leader model and operant conditioning, that there’s a third method, drive training, which has traditionally been used only for training working dogs, attack dogs, detection dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, etc.
That all changed in 1992 when veteran police dog trainer Kevin Behan published Natural Dog Training, a comprehensive guide for training pet dogs using the prey drive as the focal point for learning new behaviors and for solving behavioral problems of all kinds. (Drive training has been around much longer than dominance or positive reinforcement, but Behan’s methodology operates on a much different level).
Drive training is essentially about giving the dog an outlet for his energy, primarily the urge to bite. In Freudian terms, the trainer teaches the dog to “transfer” his urges and impulses onto objects of attraction.
Just as with operant conditioning, the 4 Quadrants of Drive Training come in pairs of opposites: attraction & resistance and tension & release.
There are also four basic ways to use drive training to solve behavioral problems. In this article we’ll look at some old and some new ways of giving a dog a release for his or her pent-up energy. These include playing tug-of-war, which taps into the wolf’s primary tension-release mechanism (the kill bite), and which use up more energy in less time than taking a dog on long walks, running her on a treadmill, or other “energy-draining” exercises.
Other healthy outlets include playing fetch with a ball or Frisbee, rough-and-tumble chase sessions with other dogs (or with you!), and even taking your dog on long walks in a park or other natural setting.
When a Dog’s Oral Impulses Aren’t Being Fully Expressed
Much of what I’ve learned about how dogs relieve internal tension and stress is intuitive or second nature. For instance, I think one of the biggest sources of behavioral problems in adult dogs comes from puppies who were punished or scolded for using their teeth during early development. Absent a definite history of the dog’s upbringing how does one know if this has happened to the pup?
For me it’s a matter of observing various kinds of troubled dogs over long periods of time and getting a feeling for how, when, and in what manner a dog’s oral impulses are or aren’t being expressed normally.
For instance, I had a session a few years ago with the owners of a pit bull named Latte; she’d been found on the street a year earlier in sad shape, emaciated and scared. She’d reportedly been a lovely girl during her first year with her new owners, very affectionate indoors, but she had recently started exhibiting leash aggression outdoors.
When I came in and sat on the sofa and began talking to her owners, Latte was unable to settle down. She kept pacing, coming over to sniff me, and then pacing again, etc.
We tried giving her a bone or a ball to help her settle down, but nothing seemed to work, so while I was discussing options with her owners, I gently put two of my fingers in her mouth, hoping it might give her a chance to ground some of her excess energy. I did this reflexively because of a sense I had that she’d been severely punished for mouthing when she was a pup.
This only made her more uncomfortable. She pulled away from my hand as if it were a hot iron. She zipped around the room for a while in circles that got smaller and smaller, with me as their center. I was the problem as well as the potential solution. Finally, she settled next to me and “sneaked” in close. I offered my hand again and she started to nibble on my fingers.
I let her do that, praising her softly, and petting her with my other hand.
She mouthed my hand gently for about thirty seconds, then jumped up next to me on the sofa and almost immediately went to sleep.
Back to Puppyhood
I didn’t pay this much attention; this happens a lot at my training sessions. I’ll let the dog nibble my fingers, the dog will become very relaxed and then fall asleep. But Latte’s owners were amazed. “She has never done that with someone new in the apartment, ever!”
That’s when I actually remembered what I’d been doing, and realized that by letting Latte nibble my fingers, I’d taken her back to puppyhood so she could complete her oral development phase, or at least start to.
Another way to look at it is that I let her use me as a “ground wire,” and that enabled her to offload some of her pent-up aggression (or urge to bite) in the form of nibbling (one of the ways puppies bond) rather than the neurotic, social-anxiety behaviors she’d been exhibiting outdoors. And, I think, that’s why she became relaxed enough to fall asleep on the couch.
A few weeks later, however, I met another dog—another pit bull—whose energy was far too ungrounded for me to feel safe about putting my fingers anywhere near her mouth. So this is not something I’m recommending for everyone to do with just any dog. You have to have a very clear sense of how far off the charts the dog’s oral impulses are.
The Eyes Have It
Another way of grounding a dog’s energy is through “The Eyes Exercise,” used by many trainers as “Watch Me.”
It was invented by Kevin Behan in the early 1990s, but most trainers have learned it incorrectly. It’s all in how you hold the treat when you begin the exercise, with your thumb and forefinger in a circle as you’re holding the prey object (treat). Only by holding your hand in the specific way Kevin developed (which is quite easy), and by finding that magic spot—roughly 3 to 5 inches from the dog’s nose—will the dog sit perfectly still, then automatically lock her eyes onto yours. (Then, of course, you say “Eyes,” and give her the treat at the same time.)
I’ve done this exercise both ways, and it always works much quicker and is more effective when done the way Kevin designed it. For instance, a big love of a mutt named Bailey had a leash-aggression problem, one that manifested itself initially as an “eye-stalk” behavior. Then when he got in close enough to the other dog, he would lunge and try to bite.
After teaching him the “Eyes” exercise, I was able to replace his need to stalk other dogs simply by saying, “Eyes!” and getting him to look me in the eye, to essentially offload his predatory energy into me. After I’d done that, I was then able to get him to calmly sniff-and-greet other dogs.
With dogs who have generalized anxiety, the “eyes” can help settle their nerves. With others it’s a bridge between feeling aggressive and releasing the energy behind that aggression via a quick game of tug.
There’s a mistake I think some trainers make, of doing the “Watch Me!” game and thinking of it only as an alternative or replacement behavior. That’s because without also giving a dog the opportunity to offload even more energy by biting and tugging on a toy, they’re only accomplishing the first part of the process: re-focusing the dog. He’s still going to have some pent-up aggression that will need to be downloaded in some way, at some future point. That’s why I think it’s much better to help such a dog release as much energy as possible the instant he’s focused on you.
At least that’s how I see it.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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