The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves
by Kevin Behan
Hardcover: 344 pages
Publisher: New World Library (February 15, 2011)
Kevin Behan, author of Natural Dog Training and one the the nation's foremost leaders in dog rehabilitation, presents a revolutionary new model for understanding canine behavior, built around the framework of emotion, in his new book Your Dog is Your Mirror. In his book, Behan demonstrates that dogs and man are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined - by heart - and that as things now stand in the conventional wisdom and scientific study on dogs, we are completely missing the connection a dog makes possible, not only with nature, but most important, with our own human nature.
The following excerpt is the Introduction from Your Dog is Your Mirror...
In The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan observes that there are tens of millions of dogs in North America and only ten thousand wolves. He asks, “So what does the dog know about getting along in this world that its wild ancestor doesn’t?” (And I would add, every other animal as well.) Since I’m proposing nothing short of a new paradigm in addressing how dog and human, and especially a dog and its owner, connect, I will sum up my premise right at the outset:
Dog and owner form a group mind.
The best explanation for everything canine, from the evolution of the wolf to the domestication of the dog — to the incredible emotional relationship that has emerged between the modern pet and its owner — is that dogs feel what we feel. This is how a dog “knows” its place and what it must do to get along, a process that has been crudely approximated (and grossly misinterpreted) as a dominance hierarchy and a learning-by-reinforcement theory.
Why isn’t something so fundamental self-evident? Because the human intellect is a relativity machine. It compares one thing relative to another thing, one moment relative to another moment. We end up fixating on the forms of things and situations and see them as connected in a linear, rational sense. This isn’t necessarily incorrect. As Carl Jung put it: “Form gives energy its quality.” However, Carl Jung, on a visit to the American Southwest in the fifties, had a transformative conversation with a Hopi native. The elder told him the white man was restless and “mad” because white people think with their heads, whereas the Hopi think with their hearts. This conversation profoundly influenced Jung’s philosophy of life. It helps us see that there can be a form of intelligence that has nothing to do with thinking, and this is being expressed by the intelligent ways that dogs adapt to human civilization.
If we don’t apprehend the energetic essence that all things have in common, our mind will perceive the inside as being distinct from the outside, the mind separate from the body; time segmented into a past, present, and future; nature disconnected from humans; and our dog as a separate conscious being apart from ourselves. We will not see that dog and owner are connected by emotion and going by feel.
Dogs, on the other hand, don’t see the world in terms of one thing or one moment relative to another. A dog’s mind is an energy circuit. What it feels is indistinguishable from where it is, its consciousness a function of its surroundings, whoever or whatever it finds therein and whether or not it feels connected to all of this. This is why dogs are compelled to smell; they’re importing the essences of things, the energy within the form, directly into their gut so it can be digested. Sensory inputs become integrated with viscera so that a dog becomes physically rather than mentally connected to its world. A dog doesn’t apprehend its “self” as separate or distinct from whatever or whomever it is attracted to.
Our current scientific models intellectualize nature and personify dogs in ways that prevent an owner from being able to see the dog’s true nature. Everything a dog does and even its personality is a one-to-one translation of what its owner is feeling. A dog and owner evolve to form one “group mind,” each the emotional counterbalance to the other and yet both aligned around a common want, the pursuit and resolution of which is the main subject of this book.
Haven’t you ever seen a dog do something that was so bizarre and out of character you didn’t know what to make of it? Maybe the dog was unexpectedly aggressive, or acted strangely only when one particular relative visited. Does your dog do something that seems calculated to drive you nuts? Did your dog develop bad habits no training regime can make it give up? The reason may surprise you, and the way to fix these “problems” will be more surprising still. Having grown up the son of a famous trainer, and now a trainer myself, I will share my story, and my theory, and show you how to understand your dog in a new way.
As an illustration, here is an exchange I had with Sandy, who owns a German shepherd dog named Rufus. Sandy contacted me through her dog’s breeder, Ellen. She wanted to know what I made of Rufus’s reaction to her Christmas tree ornaments. Here is what Sandy initially wrote to Ellen:
We put up a ten-foot Christmas tree in the living room. It’s all decorated — but obviously Rufus isn’t too crazy about where I put the ornaments. He very, very carefully takes each one off and carries it over to a pile (he can reach up about three and a half feet without stretching too much). He doesn’t sneak around — he does it right in front of us! Madeline looks at him like “Boy, are you going to get it!” All we can do is laugh, and put them back on the tree. It’s now a game.
Here is the reply I sent to Ellen:
Apparently when Sandy was putting up the ornaments she was experiencing deep feelings relative to Christmas, such as poignant reminiscing, memories of joy or sadness, probably of a time when she was young or when her kids were young, something to that effect. Rufus picked up on those feelings and is treating the ornaments in terms of that specific emotional “charge.” He’s putting the ornaments back into the group’s center, in other words, the nest. The ornaments are to Rufus a projection of Sandy’s tender feelings, which energetically in terms of emotion make them for Rufus tantamount to young, infant pups, and so he carries them back to their nest.
Sandy replied to Ellen as follows:
Your friend Kevin might have something! How very interesting! I have not spent Christmas with my family since I moved to the East Coast thirteen years ago. I’ve always been working and have not been able to make it home. Christmastime was always very special, and I tried to make it that way for my two daughters as well. I have not decorated a tree without having an ache in my heart. Many of the ornaments were made by my kids or given to me as gifts....Do you think Rufus could actually pick up on that? He is very sensitive.
Rufus is very sensitive indeed. Rufus knows Sandy “by heart.”
This book is different from other examinations of the canine/human connection because it concentrates on what dog and human share in common rather than what makes us different. We’re not going to consider how the canine sense of smell is far more powerful than ours, what frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum they can see that we cannot, what range of sounds reaches their ear and not ours — as interesting and valuable as such discussions may be. Instead, we will examine the idea that emotion is energy, that it is how consciousness makes contact with nature. Feelings are universal to all sentient beings in nature, whereas thoughts, instincts, and genes, and all the specific adaptations that arise from these, are what differentiate our two species and in the final analysis keep us separate. Therefore, to truly know a dog, especially our own dog, requires reconnecting with our own emotional nature so that we learn more about the nature of what we’re feeling because this is precisely how our dog’s mind works. The energetic principles of emotion are the operating system of a networked intelligence. Perhaps the most amazing thing I’ve learned from dogs is that the heart, the organ in our chest that pumps our blood, is this network’s brain.
I will examine these ideas through three themes: 1) We don’t know what we’re feeling. 2) The behavior of dogs can teach us about emotion and feelings. And 3) the real reason for the dog in our life is emotional. We carry around in our body/mind the physical memory of every emotional experience we’ve ever had; I call this physical memory our “emotional battery.” This is what our dog tunes into and responds to accordingly. When we understand that dogs are emotional beings, that emotion is a force of nature as real as gravity, and that our dog’s emotions are a source of information for us that is often obscured from our eyes by human reason, then we will see our dog not as a being apart from us but instead as being a part of us.
The first theme is essentially that our dog feels what we feel even when we can’t. The human intellect is so powerful that our thoughts run simultaneously with our feelings; they can overwhelm what we feel and lead us to confuse what we feel with what we think. Our prodigious brainpower can even deny the underlying emotion within a feeling altogether. Thus emotion is always confused with instinct (as when we consider fear a basic emotion) and thoughts are always linked with feeling (as when we say things like, “I feel threatened”). This keeps us in the dark about how emotion works. For example, as pure energy, emotions are always a positive force of attraction. Moreover, true feelings are always an emotional counterbalance to what one is attracted to, and they always feel good. There’s no such thing as a “bad” feeling; what we consider a “bad” feeling is actually the collapse of a good one.
Meanwhile, because dogs don’t and can’t think, they do not respond to what their owner thinks, says, or even does; rather, dogs react according to their owner’s emotion as a force of attraction. (For example, we might think we’re mad at someone, whereas our dog will feel that we are intensely attracted to that person. And our dog is right.) Dogs don’t project thoughts onto their owners, they project a feeling. Emotions are a universal code among all animals, from mouse to moose to human, and what dogs feel and then do represents a decoding of an owner’s thoughts, actions, feelings, memories, and instincts back into the primal emotional logic that best expresses the owner’s emotional, or animal, mind.
The second theme looks at what the behavior of dogs reveals to us about emotion, which is, in short, that emotion is the basis of the animal mind and forms an interwoven consciousness, or networked intelligence. Emotion is energy, and energy can move freely between the forms of things; it is not constrained or self-contained within a particular being. This is why emotion is infectious. However, emotion doesn’t move at random (and certainly not by reason) but rather by its own inherent properties and principles of movement. This is why there is a distinct thermodynamics and physical consequence to emotional affects within the body. All animals feel energy the same way, and so emotion as energy is also a synchronizing medium, a platform on which individuals self-organize into social structures and cooperative relationships. Leaders do not organize the group; there is no evidence in nature or in the domesticated dog that supports such a notion. Instead, one shared emotional mind weaves the many into one. This group mind is composed by the principles by which emotion as energy moves. The group mind does not “learn” — as in, “If A causes B, then therefore C follows” — rather, it evolves according to principles of energy, and this distinction explains many idiosyncrasies of animal learning that are confusing when seen in the traditional way (which assumes animals learn by the same mental dynamic humans learn by).
Finally, the third theme proposes that the real reason for the dog in our life is not for companionship, for service, or to save a forlorn canine waif from a life of unfortunate circumstances, as worthwhile and benevolent as all these reasons are. The real reason for the dog in our life is to reveal what instincts, thoughts, and judgments prevent us from feeling what is at the very bottom of our heart. These instincts, thoughts, and judgments are the cause of the unresolved emotion we carry, and unresolved emotion is what truly drives us. Unresolved emotion is the physical memory, carried in the body, of every emotional experience that has been lived. Resolving unresolved emotion is the fundamental common denominator to everything an animal, especially a social animal, does. How individuals respond to the way unresolved emotion makes them feel determines how they create their “network.” Our dog’s behavior and personality are not a function of its own self-contained agency of mind; in reality, our dog is acting out, in its own way, the unresolved emotion that disturbs us, as its owner. Dogs evolved to resolve unresolved emotion because resolving unresolved emotion is how nature evolves.
The premise of this book is that your dog is your emotional mirror: this means that the dog can read what’s going on inside its owner, and it is possible for the owner to know what’s going on inside their dog. I admit that it would be a lot easier to simply say a dog “thinks” or it “knows” this or that, but this does not reflect the actual physical laws at work. At a recent seminar, to help participants feel exactly how a dog feels and how it knows how to synchronize with others, I decided to equip them with powerful shop magnets and ask them to walk toward each other, leading with the magnet in their hand. They couldn’t address or touch their fellow participants until their magnets paved the way. As they neared each other, depending on how they were holding the unmarked magnet, they felt either a powerful surge to connect with their fellow participant or an equally powerful force of repulsion. Some people instantly connected with the person they pressed into, others felt pushed away. This is what dogs feel when they smell something. (Of course, this is an oversimplification of the process, which is electrical and not purely magnetic, but we will consider this in more depth as we go on.)
I then asked the participants to hold the same poles of two magnets together and feel that force of repulsion between their fingers, as they tried to force the magnets together against their “will.” This is what dogs feel when they go into what’s called “avoidance behavior,” as for example when we hug a dog and he tries to look away and arches his neck to put some distance between his head and the person’s head who’s forcing the cuddling. Many dogs will wriggle free and then immediately flip their body around and present their rump for a tail scratching; they’re positioning the south pole of their body/mind as a magnet to their owner’s north. We might think the dog wants its tail scratched, but it’s really “flipping polarity” in accord with its inner magnet. We can also see this magnetic force of deflection when a dog approaches another dog’s head and then continues on to smell its genitals, or even flips around to present its own hind end for inspection.
This simple experiment allows us to make an important insight into the mind of the dog. What’s important about a magnetic connection is that if it’s strong enough, the individuals don’t have to maintain an actual physical connection in order for energy to move between them. They can move about freely and still feel connected because an emotional bond, just like a magnetic field, makes one feel as if they are receiving energy over a distance without wires. These are quite literally what we intuitively call “heartstrings.”
When you love someone, then everything in your life suddenly feels energizing: colors are brighter, burdens not so great; you might even find yourself singing in the rain. This is not just the stuff of romance; it’s the joie de vivre all animals experience when they feel connected to others.
Finally, even though my participants only hold a simple magnet, it nonetheless is quickly apparent that each person has to become the mirror of another person if they want to connect with that person. The opposite poles must meet. Therefore it is impossible for two beings — even if they have the exact same genes and the exact same personal background — to have the exact same emotional experience of any event. And yet they wouldn’t vary at random. They would respond to significant things in mirror image. Two emotional beings that connect and bond form one heart. And everywhere they go, whether together or separate, they feel a tug on their strings.
From the book Your Dog is Your Mirror. Copyright © 2011 by Kevin Behan. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
About the Author: The author of Natural Dog Training, Kevin Behan is a veteran dog trainer and one of the nation’s foremost leaders in dog rehabilitation. Originally trained under the dominance theory by his father, John Behan, who pioneered the use of trained security dogs outside the military and was one of the first in America to make dog training a career, Kevin came to understand that what made the modern dog adaptable and trainable was not the dominance hierarchy as taught to him but the dog’s ability to work as a cooperative group member in the hunt. After training thousands of dogs for both aggression and obedience, as well as bomb-sniffing and other security purposes, he established his own kennel, Canine Arts, and the Natural Dog Training method. Since then, he has continued to transform the way people look at their pets, and has saved hundreds of dogs from being put to sleep. He lives with his family on a sixty-acre farm in southern Vermont. His website is http://www.naturaldogtraining.com/.