The Natural Dog Training Difference.

Originally Posted on January 3, 2010

Here's an in-depth look at how Natural Dog Training differs from the popular pack leader and positive reinforcement methods.

The Emotional Center of Gravity I read something interesting on Kevin Behans’s blog the other day, about how nearly everyone who takes their first ride on a camel or elephant experiences motion sickness, which doesn’t happen when people ride a horse for the first time. Kevin’s reasoning is that horses naturally know how to adjust their movements to incorporate the rider’s center of gravity In thinking about that, I realized that what’s missing from both the dominance and +R approach to training — and what we do — is that dogs really do have a sort of emotional center of gravity as Kevin postulates. And when we teach our dogs to do an exercise like the heel, for instance, using thought-centric models of learning — such as dominance and +R — the dogs have to figure out, on their own, how to match their forward momentum and energy with ours. But when we teach them using Natural Dog Training, no matter how bad we are at it initially, if our goal is to teach the dog to be in-synch with us physically and emotionally (instead of teaching them to respect our leadership, or by rewarding external behaviors, at some point we’ll find that we’re actually creating a feeling in the dog of a shared center-of-gravity, just like with a horse and rider. In that respect, heeling not only feels natural to the dog, it feels really good.

The Dominance Approach to Dog Training

To highlight these differences, here’s a video of Cesar Millan solving a behavioral problem of a great Dane who gets too energized when she goes jogging with her owner. She expresses this excess energy (which is essentially a nervousness about how to keep her desire to run full-bore in check) as jumping up. Millan interprets this as dominance, and teaches the dog to stay next to her owner by being “submissive.”

Clicker Training

Contrast the dominance approach with the traditional clicker-training and food-luring method, as shown by Nancy Cusick, a professional dog trainer from Texas who's been described (by herself and others) as The Awesomest Dog Trainer in Austin, which she may very well be. (I pulled this video at random from YouTube.) I see several things lacking here. One is that the puppy is a bit too young for the exercise. She just wants to sniff and explore. Each time she does, Cusick redirects her with a kissing sound. That’s nice, and fine in theory, but by doing this Cusick slowly and inevitably becomes an obstacle to the puppy’s physical movements and desires, desires that are being controlled more by her developmental needs than by hunger. Also, at one point when the pup sits while not in the heel position, the trainer moves her body next to the pup’s body rather than using her own body language and energy to induce the puppy to move toward her and then sit. Then she clicks and rewards the dog for being in that position.

This is based on the somewhat questionable idea that dogs learn through positive reinforcement, ie, that if the dog is reinforced while it’s in the proper position it will gradually learn to choose that position on its own. (Notice that despite the seeming validity of this idea, the more the trainer rewards the puppy for being in the heel position, the more she wanders off to explore, and do other things on her own.) Another problem is that when the trainer accidentally drops food on the ground, and the puppy goes after it, the trainer makes the kissing sound again to try to redirect the puppy’s attention back to her. Again, you can see clearly that the more the trainer does this, the less attention the puppy pays to the trainer. (At one point the trainer even jokes to the camera, “Attention doggie deficit…” and chuckles.) 

There is nothing inherently wrong with using a kissing sound while teaching a dog to walk next to you. The problem here is with the timing. Instead of making the kissing sound as soon as the pup loses focus, the trainer does it after the puppy has already projected its energy onto something else. So the kissing sound ends up feeling like an intrusion to the puppy's flow of.   Puppy loses focus ... finds something to focus on ... handler makes kissing sound.   Puppy feels, “Hey, I was having fun!”  Contrast that with making the kissing sound the instant the pup loses focus, before she finds something else to focus her energy on.  I’ll give Cusick the benefit of the doubt (as I said, she probably is the awesomest dog trainer in Austin, Texas), and suggest that part of the problem may be she’s not just focused on training the pup, she’s also talking to the camera as she works..  However, in the end the puppy only has a “generalized” heel, whose focus is very easily broken except when doing the sit while in the heel position. The reason the puppy is focused then is because that’s the only time the puppy isn’t feeling a disconnect between its own body and the trainer’s movements. While they’re doing the heel the puppy is mildly interested in getting the treats, but can’t figure out how to match her body’s need for forward momentum with the movement of the trainer’s body and the food lure. And the trainer isn’t using the food to help the pup solve the problem, she’s only using it as a lure and a positive reinforcement.

To Recap In Cesar Millan’s mind the dog’s problem is “How can I be submissive to my pack leader?” which is based on a false premise. Meanwhile, the positive trainer sees the puppy’s problem as, “How can I get a reward? Maybe if I heel I’ll get a treat?” which is just as false. Both ideas require the dog to engage in a linear, rational, time-dependent thought process, and a) dogs aren't capable of rational or hypothetical thinking,and b) they live totally in the moment, without any awareness of linear, chronological time.  In each case the real problem for the doggie is, “How can I get my body to feel in-synch with my handler’s energy while we’re both moving together?”  Kevin Behan and the Natural Dog Training Approach

Now contrast these two approaches with this video of Kevin Behan, working on the heel with a Doberman pinscher named Laszlo, using the natural approach.  First of all Laszlo is no ordinary dog. His owner brought him to Kevin because she was having a great deal of difficulty with his overabundant energy. As she wrote on her own blog, Laszlo was so wired that “he wouldn't lie down. I don't mean on command — I mean, he wouldn't lie down. Such was his anxiety and vigilance.”  Now, that’s a tense doggie! The first thing Kevin does with Laszlo in this video is the pushing exercise, where he gets Laszlo to push for food. He does it, among other things, to stimulate Laszlo's social attraction to him. To the uninitiated viewer this may look just like “luring” the dog with treats the way Nancy Cusick does, but there’s a lot more to it than that.  After a bit of pushing, Kevin begins moving around, encouraging Laszlo to move with him. At one point Laszlo gets distracted by a puddle, but Kevin just keeps moving (no kissing sound), encouraging the dog to connect to him (and what’s in his bait bag). At other times Laszlo finds bits of food on the ground and Kevin waits a bit for him to finish eating them before he starts moving again.  Once he’s got Laszlo moving with him he begins to oscillate between acting like prey and predator, moves that again, to the uninitiated, might seem to have no purpose. “He’s just throwing in some silly tai-chi moves to impress people.” They may seem strange and maybe even silly, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that each shift in Kevin’s body language creates an immediate, in-the-moment shift in Laszlo's behavior, his approach to staying in-synch with Kevin’s movements. Those “silly” moves create shifts in Laszlo’s energy. At a certain point, Kevin even gets Laszlo to hold a down/stay without even giving him the command. And Laszlo’s ears never go down or back except once or twice, for a fraction of a second, and each time they do, Kevin compensates with food or with his body language to bring the dog’s energy back into to a more relaxed, confident state. There is no intimidation — or dominance and submission — in anything Kevin does. He occasionally touch Laszlo’s neck with the back of his hand, which is done to help ground the dog's energy a little and to “steer” him a little, the way you’d do with a horse’s reins. You’ll also notice (I hope) the way Kevin does the about turns, which gently induce Laszlo to stay in "the pocket," i.e., next to Kevin To help with this, Kevin uses food as a means of keeping the dog’s drive-to-connect up and active rather than as a reward for any one specific behavior. It’s more like a dance, one that leaves Laszlo entirely under Kevin’s command with no punishment or bad feelings taking place.  At the end, Laszlo is heeling off-lead, and his energy is totally plugged in to Kevin.

By the way, the movements that Kevin makes don’t need to be, and in my opinion, probably shouldn’t be, copied exactly by you or anyone else. Those particular “dance steps” are organic to Kevin’s emotional energy and personality. Everyone will do the exercise differently, depending on how they naturally express their own energy through their own physical and emotional centers-of-gravity.  LCK

“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”

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Note: Kevin passed away last summer. We still miss him.

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.