Kevin Behan: Distractability and Time.

Dec 04, 2012

The Unsure, Unknown Scientist

There are several dog blogs I check into from time to time to see how others think about dogs. I used to make comments on them but they don’t seem particularly productive. People project so much onto dogs, that they think they know what I’m saying without actually taking the time and trouble to understand what I’m actually saying.

For example, any talk of energy is misconstrued as mysticism. There’s one particular blog written by an apparent scientist, he or she thinks they are debunking my model in a post explaining how a simple algorithm in a computer model successfully duplicated the hunting pattern of wolves.

He thinks he’s undermining my theory, which he must presume is based on telepathy, when in point of fact he is verifying the very essence of my model, i.e. that all behavior, even complex behavior is a function of attraction, and that the flow of emotion develops in terms of a circle, a wave function. In his article there’s even a simulation of wolves hunting large prey and each scenario ends with the wolves chasing and then encircling their prey as the checkmate solution. The problem is that these people think they know what I’m saying because they think they know what they’re saying and they thereby fail to see the internal contradiction at the heart of their own argument.

Patricia McConnell

Another case in point is underway on Patricia McConnell’s blog wherein she features a video of three dogs interacting as an opportunity for her readers to offer their version of events. The exercise is meant to be a cautionary tale about the differences between observation and interpretation (don’t get me started) but the observations — even though they are painstakingly detailed in terms of the politically correct terminology of the day, i.e. “calming signals,” — are automatically followed with the projection of a human psychology onto the dog’s behavior. They might as well be describing an interaction between three children, there’s absolutely no difference. What’s the point of this new way of looking at behavior, i.e. “calming signals,” if they always lead to a foregone conclusion?

Furthermore, what is particularly revealing is that in the most laudatory terms the older dog in the video is portrayed as “disciplining” a younger dog, as if the older dog is teaching the younger dog the rules of the road so that everyone can get along more peacefully. And yet if this was a video of Cesar Millan disciplining a young dog with his trademark “ssshhh” and threat of a poke in the ribs or a bop on the nose, I suspect he’d be harshly criticized by these same people.

Eric Brad

Finally, Eric Brad has a recent post that accurately describes how a dog can be so excited by the prospect of a toy or a food reward (apparently those of the “high value” variety) that the dog thereby becomes distracted from actually learning the lesson the food or toy is being used for, in the hopes of providing it a reward. This is a problem I ran into training police dogs in tracking or in building searches. A dog can become so excited he wants to run around at full speed either air scenting or looking for the prey, and in such a state he can run right past the “helper” standing in full view.

Resolving this problem was one more thread that led me to the notion of “emotional capacity.” In other words, every behavior should be considered a kind of pipe, a conduit for emotion, and as such each behavior has a certain carrying capacity. When the pipe is too limited for the amount of current moving through it, the desired behavior—such as calmly smelling for the scent of a criminal after a high speed chase with lights and sirens blasting—can “burst,” thus forcing the dog to resort to a more conductive vessel, meaning behaviors such as running around to air scent or going by sight altogether.

In regards to obedience work the notion of emotional capacity led me to develop the pushing technique so that my touch could become as conductive to the dog as the most distracting stimulation could ever be. Pushing increases emotional capacity so that no matter how stimulated or stressed a dog may be, he will still be able to discriminate and discern subtle inflections. He will be able to feel his body and feel an attraction to his owner and thus be amenable to the owner’s inputs. I liken it to Mohammed Ali in the middle of a championship bout being able to adapt on the fly or take input from Angelo Dundee.

But when learning theorists frame the problem of distractibility within the reinforcement paradigm, then, logically speaking, a high value reinforcement should never be distracting.

While I applaud Eric for calling his readers’ attention to the fact that a reward can be a distraction, without understanding or applying the underlying template of emotional capacity, a logically consistent resolution isn’t possible. In the reinforcement paradigm owners must now bear in mind that a high value reward can be counterproductive because it can actually limit their dogs’ capacity to learn a desired lesson. It’s not enough that something might really, really, really, reinforce a dog’s behavior. Now it must be a reinforcement of high value, but not too much. No wonder dog owners are confused by the modern “science” on learning.

Time, And a Dog's Internal Emotional Experience

The root of this problem is the human conception of Time that the mainstream psychology of dogs invests in their observations of canine behavior, specifically, the insistence that dogs learn according to reinforcements. In other words (A)—a dog’s action, and (B)—the consequences derived from taking that action, are connected in a linear fashion in the dog’s mind according to the human conception of a chronological sequence of events, so that the dog supposedly thinks that (A) caused (B) just as a human being would.

In contrast, Natural Dog Training asserts that dogs learn according to an internal emotional experience (always predicated on an underlying state of attraction), which on the deepest level is not influenced by external events (such as consequences) in a linear, chronological way. I’m not saying that the external doesn’t influence the internal, I’m saying that the two aren’t separate in the dog’s mind and so that they then become connected in the mind via a cause-and-effect kind of reasoning.

The animal mind perceives the external to be part of its internal because it experiences the affects of emotion INTERNALLY. Nothing could be simpler to see in theory and in behavior of dogs, because it renders the most parsimonious interpretation of observed behavior. What connects the external with the internal is not a mental concept but the principle of emotional conductivity—the flow of emotion that the dog feels in the immediate moment. And in the process of this feeling and flow, external objects of attraction become subsumed in the dog’s mind through its own social frames of reference. And if the dog has more emotional energy attracting it toward an external stimulus than that stimulus can conduct, the dog will become “distracted” and will search its physical memory banks for objects previously integrated into a similar frame of reference so that it can then find that feeling of flow once again.

Now, the term “distracted” while descriptive isn’t meaningful. The phenomenon generally characterized as “distractibility” is in reality a dog becoming “ungrounded” by virtue of going over his emotional capacity. In other words, the force of attraction is too intense for the dog to feel grounded into the desired frame of reference, especially with the owner as its epicenter.

Emotional Capacity

So I work with food and toys, not to reward the dog per se, but rather to increase his emotional capacity. For example, when dealing with fearful but a very hungry dog, if I offer him food from my hand I can actually increase his fear of me because the strength of attraction is now higher, while the pipe—the emotional connection between us—is as fragile as a soap bubble aloft on the wind. The food adds intensity to the situation making me all the more incompatible with known frames of reference in the dog’s physical memory banks. So instead, I put some food in a bowl—the bowl being a frame of reference more conductive to the dog—and I walk away. As soon as the dog feels safe (i.e. grounded), he eats what I’ve given him, and this nevertheless links me to him since I remain—due to the dog’s fear—the most intense negative variable in that frame of reference.

However, ingestion—which is a kind of flow state—increases the dog’s emotional capacity and in short order the dog will be taking food from my hand, then next jumping up to take food from my hand, and finally pushing into me and overpowering my resistance to take food in from my hand.

So the next step is that I redo the same thing with strangers present and do so progressively acting more and more provocative to the dog’s desires. Then I repeat the grounding/resistance process of increasing emotional capacity with the strangers themselves doing the hand feeding, the jumping up, the pushing, the biting and barking. All these steps are a logical progression in terms of increasing the dog’s emotional capacity, having nothing to do with high or low reinforcement-value or the, by now, irrelevant term of distractibility. The dog is totally and solidly in synch with me.

Einstein summed up his theory for the relativity of Time, and unknowingly the linkage between emotional conductivity and distractibility, with the following explanation: to paraphrase, he said that were a homely woman to sit on his lap, a moment seems like forever, but if a beautiful woman were to sit on his eilap, the hours would seem like seconds.

Kevin Behan

December 4, 2012.

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