"Canine Cathexis: Why Dogs Pull on the Leash."

A Common Behavior in Dogs, Seen From a Freudian Perspective.

Originally published in slightly different form on June 1, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

Pulling on the Leash of Pulled on By Instincts and Emotions?

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 two most common explanations for pulling are: 1) the dog he thinks he’s alpha, [1] and 2) the behavior is being reinforced. [2] (Another cause is the opposition reflex, which is often a factor.) I’m going to offer a simpler, yet I think more powerful explanation. 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 a force of attraction than it does to walk next to you, unless walking next to you holds a stronger level of that force. It might help if we examined what this force actually is, and where it comes from. I think it’s similar to the elementary force that binds atoms together into molecular structures. (It’s interesting to note that when two people fall in love we often say it’s a matter of “chemistry.”) Sigmund Freud saw this force 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 Kevin Behan calls it the “drive to make contact.”) [3] I know that describing this force of nature in Freudian terms, as if it were a form of sexual energy, is going to create problems for some people, but I think it’s important to consider Freud’s idea, at least for the moment, and see where it takes us. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1924), Freud writes, “Even though it is certain that sexuality and the distinction between the sexes did not exist when life [on earth] began, the possibility remains that the instincts which were later to be described as sexual may have been in operation from the very first.” He then goes on to draw a comparison between human sexual energy and the energy in living cells. “We might suppose that the ... sexual instincts which are active in each cell take the other cells as their object ... and thus preserve their life; while the other cells do the same.” (The Freud Reader, 615, 618) It seems to me that, at heart, the process of evolution is driven by this need to make connections. Atoms need to connect to one another in order to form molecules. Molecules form connections so as to evolve into living organisms. Living organisms are vitally driven to connect to sources of energy: air, water, sunlight, food, etc. 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.” [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, 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? 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 exhibiting more impulse control, and so is more selective about which objects he projects his energy onto. 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, he 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 adoration, a kind of innocent and uncorrupted 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 draw and 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: other dogs, squirrels, cyclists, etc.

Why Complicate Things? 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 “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 in some way. 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 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, other than as a pure leap of faith, that any behavior of any kind has 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 attractionwhich 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. 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 sort of 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.) Stimulate those puppy-like feelings of joy and adoration. Play with your dog! [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 (my words, not his) through downloading 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 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 level of consciousness exists in any other species except humans and 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.