Comfort Food

I don’t believe in using food to reward a dog. I use food to calm a dog. Food is calming because it is an emotional ground. In other words in order to eat the food, the dog has to open his jaws and swallow, and since in animal consciousness the body/mind is one organ and faculty, this means that to allow food into its body a dog’s mind must be open as well. And when a dog’s body and mind are open, he feels good and feeling good is the basis of being calm. The question then becomes how high is the dog’s emotional capacity so that he can hold onto that feeling of being grounded no-matter-what. Raising emotional capacity rather than rewarding behaviors should be the heart of the training process.

Whereas when we say that when we give a dog a treat for sitting on cue, that the food is a reward for the act of sitting, we are mistakenly attributing the effect to a mental cognitive process and this will factor out to a profound misunderstanding of how dogs learn. One might even follow this kind of thinking to its logical extension and conclude as did Karen London in a recent issue of “Bark” magazine, that there is no such thing as prey drive. Imagine that, the organizing principle of the canine makeup is reasoned out of its nature.

Consider the first ten minutes of a cocktail party when you don’t know anyone (and just to ramp up the social tension, imagine being over-or-under dressed). And when we are offered food and drink and immediately start to relax, it’s not because we are being rewarded for coming to the party and for being polite to the host, we are feeling calm because we are becoming emotionally grounded by the act of ingestion. This is how our physiology and neurology is configured. We even have a term “comfort food” for those delectables that induce the most emotionally grounding affects. Whereas if learning theory is correct, the term comfort food should be thrown in the hopper along with the term prey drive and replaced with “reward food.” But somehow that just doesn’t feel right.

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Published November 15, 2012 by Kevin Behan
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19 responses to “Comfort Food”

  1. john says:

    i can understand that food is calming for the dog but folk will say that dogs have been doing actions for food for a long time or so it seems

    but what they cant fathom is why the dog is doing it if not for food than why?? if there was never a reward for actions given would there still

    be the same response from the dog,

    there is so much more to this debate than one believing in using food as a reward or not, people see success in the reward approach be it

    through food or in drive with a tug item, what you say about food you must also say about a reward in drive due to the immediate moment

    effect , what folk have the problem with is the dog having no idea what’s coming next , convincing them of that is the crux of the matter,


  2. I haven’t read the Karen London article, but it’s interesting to note that she’s also written that play training can help aggressive dogs.

    I haven’t read that article either, but I’m interested to know why she thinks play can help cure aggression, and how.


  3. kbehan says:

    The learning theorists must cling to the notion of reinforcement because in the clinical sense they are material reductionists, and the only immaterial aspect of consciousness they can entertain in order to account for variability between organisms and within the behavior of organisms, is random mutations of genes and random reinforcements of behavior. Since dogs are obviously emotional beings, the learning theorists must at the same time resort to romantic notions (“every dog is different,” “it all depends on a relationship”) to offset the sterility and deadness of what they’re saying. I’m arguing on the other hand that there is an underlying template so that something is reinforcing to the animal mind (the human animal included) if it is emotionally grounding. Furthermore, something can be emotionally grounding without any material feedback whatsoever if it renders a state of emotional synchronization. Thus I used my cocktail party example. Eating an h’ors oeuvre and sipping an adult beverage is calming because the brain-to-gut connection is being satisfied and so the animal part of our mind is feeling grounded. It’s silly to say the party goer is being reinforced with food for coming to the party. Furthermore, if during the course of the evening the individual attains a level of emotional synchronization with the other guests and especially the host, he will feel even more grounded because the deeper levels of tension in the physical memory banks (the source of the original intensity) are being converted into flow by way of positive physical memories (which are held on an even deeper level than the fear/pain memories of collapse). Also, if the party goer walks into the gathering and someone is the obvious life of the party, they will feel an urge to not “out-vibrate” that person for fear of upsetting the emotional balance. But if no obvious dynamo is presenting, they will feel inclined to be more adventurous and gravitate toward that polarity. This same dynamic is going on within dogs as well because emotion is universal and works according to a universal template. If one dog is occupying one polarity, the next dog in will feel a deflection toward the open slot. This has nothing to do with reinforcement and everything to do with emotional synchronization in order to render a state of flow. The difference between this interpretation of behavior and learning theory, is that the latter conflates the WHY of behavior (random mutations and reinforcements) with the HOW of behavior (what’s going on inside the body/mind). Since given this conflation, learning theory can’t generate a model for what’s going on inside the mind of the animal they are forced in the final analysis to ascribe thoughts to the mental nuts and bolts they believe are the material core of animal behavior, and to accord human reason (survival, territoriality, competition) to the role that genes play.

  4. I also found this on Wikipedia (and, no, I didn’t contribute to the article…)

    “The prey drive can be an important component of pet dog training, obedience training and schutzhund as well.[3] Games such as fetch and tug-of-war, can be an effective motivator and reward for learning.”


    “Dogs are happiest and most balanced in overall behavior when their prey drive is properly stimulated and satisfied through play.”

  5. kbehan says:

    That’s interesting, here’s the link to her article:
    and you’re right it begs the question.
    I wonder if she’s noticed that the species of animal easiest to play with, is the same one with the most flexible prey drive so that it can sublimate the prey instinct into being synchronized with a human being as in herding or any other working service. This is why by playing with a dog, the brain to gut connection (grounding) is satisfied and the aggressive dog begins to like people, not because he was reinforced, but because he could attain emotional synchronization.

  6. Alex Susman says:

    You are the best trainer I ever happen to come across in my studies. Thank you.

  7. kbehan says:

    You’re most generous Alex, thanks. With every dog we have the opportunity to learn more, we just gotta keep pushing!

  8. Alex Susman says:

    I agree. Pushing is paramount in every dog I work with now. It took me awhile to understand the theories you present. As I persisted, I realized it wasn’t complicated at all, just different. Then realized it wasn’t necessarily different, more so honest. The honesty is what makes your work excellent. Curiosity doesn’t hurt either. Ether way, your work is important. Pushing is awesome not just in the physical sense, as well as fun, it makes complete sense in theory. Which is equally as assuring. The other day I was able to get a puppy eat and just be around a bunch of pigeons, with complete disregard for the pigeons as they are in a normal dynamic, which would be prey, and the dog predator. The puppy was curious of course, but I was able to manipulate the situation well enough where the pigeons were coming up to the pup, within inches, and there was no problem what so ever, almost like they were all one. I NEVER would be able to do that without understanding the theories you present. I pushed with the pup too (as well as some early early box work). I still want to learn more about biting, how to get the dog to give a real good, satisfying feeling bite. I understand how important that is. I promise to keep pushing if you promise to keep writing! (I’m pushing no matter what anyways)

  9. Annie says:

    Alex, I agree with you about Kevin’s work!

    Kevin…I also am having the same need to work with Luke’s bite. He will push for food, but doesn’t grab on to a tug-object with any kind of commitment. He uses his front teeth, and I sometimes sense he is tentative-although sometimes he will take the object and thrash it to and fro. Shouldn’t his bite be full-on, in order for him to connect with his drive? Is this related to his bark? I haven’t been successful in getting him to bark on command.

  10. kbehan says:

    Yes the bite should be calm and full, dog able to carry it anywhere no-matter-what, and to get him relaxed enough to open up, the bark is important. But the bite can come first or vice versa so you keep chipping away. If you play bite with hands, rub a dub with Luke on his back and fluffy toy dangling about his muzzle with your free hand, and put fluffy toy on string and give it a lot of whip action, these can help a dog become more sure with the bite. Another thing to look at is how readily he makes physical contact, and degree of sustaining it, in the absence of food. A block can manifest here and when that is cleared up, the bite follows. Finally, if he’s getting his prey-making ya-yas out in play with other dogs, that can make it hard to employ same soft and open state of mind to a human being and so to make breakthrough, helpful to not give play outlets with other dogs in the interim. Thanks and Good luck.

  11. Annie says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I will keep chipping away ……”Eat, Prey, Shove!”.

  12. Martin says:

    So when I have my dog jumps up to make contact she can sustain a little pushing around without food but then jumps off or starts to nip at my clothes and looks for an outlet to sink that energy into which is when I have a tug on the ground that she can run over and get. Is that another way to stretch the emotional capacity of the dog. The physical contact with the handler and no food stresses the dog and the tug provides the release?….. “Eat, Prey, Shove!” Indeed!

  13. kbehan says:

    Yes indeed. You want to practice with that one-on-one physical contact because you’re exactly right, as she approaches her intensity limit, she then breaks away to find a path of lesser resistance, and this is the threshold you want to raise so as to increase her emotional capacity (i.e. how much emotion can move before triggering an instinct or a habit). Pay very close attention to the blend of arousal/intensity you are eliciting in your dog in your body language and the work is to increase the former so as to “ground-out” the latter. It’s like giving a child a push on a swing, slowly building up in intensity as long as there is a smooth wave pattern that can absorb all that acceleration.

  14. b... says:

    If food serves as an emotional ground, how do we explain a dog’s preference for some foods over others?

    Is a smellier, saltier food (e.g., hot dog) that more intensely stimulates the senses more grounding?

    Also, the smell/sight of these foods can elicit a physiological response (salivating) moreso than others. So does such a physiological response correlate with grounding somehow? Does it have anything to do with feeling the food’s ‘potential energy’? If so, would this ‘potential energy’ have to do with how ‘motivating’ the particular food is?

  15. kbehan says:

    Great questions. The stronger a dog’s Drive, the less he has food preferences other than in regards to the phenomenon of grounding. Foods with high fat and low resistance in their form, say a stick of butter, are the most grounding in that they have the most vivid preyful aspect. This would be like giving a child ice cream (especially high fat). There’s no resistance to ingestion or digestion. Directly related to this however is the crush-ability factor of the form in which the food arrives. For example, a sugar cone encapsulating the ice cream is better than just the ice cream in a bowl because of the pleasure inherent in crushing form. Crushing something in the jaws (or hands) is “network information,” i.e. the physiological equivalent in the body/mind to the far more advanced feeling of importing something into the configuration as an improvement of flow. (This is why dogs have such a compulsion to chew, shred and tear things up. All advanced functionality is predicated on the simplest of functions.) In this way the texture of form plays into preference in terms of emotional grounding since overcoming resistance is the function of Drive and the realization of potential energy. Other than being physically ill, I’ve never known a strong Drive dog to have any selectivity about eating anything remotely edible. On the other hand what happens in domestic life is that Drive is generally inhibited and a dog becomes picky since an emotional charge takes root and reconciling the charge (balance over hunger) becomes more important than Drive. Then when an owner attends to the dog’s appetite concerns, this charge is reinforced. The owner worrying over the dog’s appetite becomes a reactive/indirect manner of the dog relating to its owner via the charge. (Strong appetite is not breed specific, I’ve owned corgi, collie, poodle, Westy, Papillon and these were all ravenous. Food dropped on floor had half life of nano-seconds. I once owned a soft shepherd and when I switched him to raw food he had an initial pause. It had too much prey energy for his body/mind as a pipe to conduct. This took but a few days to shift)

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    Salt would definitely factor into if there is a constitutional need, deer will eat the heads of birds when they have iodine deficiency, and the taste of salt also resonates with the taste of blood.

  16. b... says:


    The explanation of worrying over appetite is very helpful for articulating something that has become a common phenomenon these days.

    And the resistance of crunching bones helps explain the obvious enjoyment that a dog eating prey-model-raw food feels, which has been attributed otherwise to its capacity for ‘mental stimulation’, which didn’t seem logical to begin with.

    How does a dog ‘reconcile the emotional charge’ by choosing a certain food over another? Do you mean that the dog chooses a food with a lower resistance form (path of least resistance because of low drive)? Or that the general act of being picky (irrelevant of the specific food in question) is the dog’s indirect/reactive manner of connecting to owner?

    Also, I understand the greater resistance offered by a food’s texture (crunch), and the lower resistance offered by its form (soft fatty), but how do we explain the appeal of a stronger taste/smell of a food when it does not seem to correlate to a ‘constitutional need’ for a particular nutrient? For example, if you heat a food, even if it doesn’t have an apparently significant ‘prey’ value, like say broccoli, the increased aroma can make it more appealing. Is it because it embodies more potential (sensory) energy?

  17. kbehan says:

    Yes it’s the latter, the general pickiness causes the owner to struggle over the food issue, and this internal block in the dog gives the dog access to its owner’s deeper energies, i.e. their fear that something is wrong with the dog, and/or that it’s helpless and not getting enough love. And to clarify the terminology, the preyful essence is the energy in the food, the form is what it is encapsulated by, and texture is the degree of resistance in the form that denies access to the essence/energy. So fat and sugar would be very close to essence, actually melts in the mouth. When things are heated, the essence is liberated from the form and borne aloft so its energetic value is viscerally apprehensible via sense of smell.

  18. joanne frame says:

    Can I ask a question related to the deep inner stress desribed in the last answer…although its not related to food! If an owner is fearful of their dog running away (because of previous unfortunate issues!) and that inner stress is still within the owner would that be something that the dog connects to and causes more running away or not coming when called? From your description of the picky food eater it would seem to suggest so?

  19. kbehan says:

    Yes, a lot of dogs feel connected to their owners by running away. I would qualify this answer to the extent to which the dog’s running off is directly related to a pure prey drive, in which case it isn’t running away, it has no feeling the owner isn’t running behind it, it’s simply running toward something.

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