Distractibility and Time

There’s several dog blogs I check from time to time to see how others think about dogs. I used to make comments on these various blogs but these 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 it. 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 a large prey and each scenario ends with the wolves chasing and then encircling their prey as the checkmate solution. The problem is that these folks 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.

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 nevertheless 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.

Finally Eric Brad has a recent post that accurately describes how a dog can be so excited by the 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 in the hopes of rewarding it. This is a problem I ran into training police dogs in tracking or 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 pipe, a conduit for emotion, and as such has a certain carrying capacity. When the pipe is too limited for the amount of current trying to move through it, the behavior (which is a conduit for emotion) and that is desired, such as calmly smelling for the scent of a criminal after a high speed chase with lights and sirens, can “burst” thus forcing the dog to resort to a more conductive vessel, 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. Pushing increases emotional capacity so that no matter how stimulated or stressed the dog may be, it will still be able to discriminate and discern subtle inflections. It will be able to feel its body and feel an attraction to its owner and thus be amenable to owner 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 reader’s attention to the fact that a reward can be a distraction, however without the notion 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 the desired lesson. It’s not enough that something might really, really, really, reinforce a dog’s behavior. Now it must be high value, but not too much. No wonder dog owners are confused by the modern “science” on learning.

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 the taking of said action, are connected linearly in the dog’s mind according to the human conception of a chronological sequence of events so that the dog thinks that (A) caused (B) as would a human being.

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 animal’s mind and so that they therefore become connected in its mind via a cause-and-effect kind of reasoning. The animal mind perceives the external as being part of its internal because it experiences the affects of emotion INTERNALLY. Nothing could be simpler to see in theory and in the behavior of dogs and 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 and in the process external objects of attraction become subsumed in the dog’s mind with its social frames of reference. And if the dog has more emotional energy attracting it toward an external stimuli than that object can conduct the dog will become “distracted” and will search its physical memory banks for objects previously integrated into a frame of reference that can.

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 its emotional capacity. In other words the force of attraction is too intense for the dog to feel grounded into the desired frame of reference with owner as its epicenter. So I work with food and toys not to reward but rather to increase emotional capacity. For example, often when dealing with fearful but a very hungry dog, by offering him food in my hand I can actually be increasing his fear of me because the strength of attraction is now higher, but the pipe connecting us is as fragile as a soap bubble aloft on the wind. The food is adding intensity to the situation making me all the more incompatible with frames of reference in his physical memory bank. So instead, I put some food in a bowl, the bowl being a frame of reference more conductive to the dog, and I leave. As soon as the dog feels safe (i.e. grounded), he eats and this nevertheless links to me since I remain, due to the dog’s fear, the most intense negative variable in that frame of reference. Ingestion (of anything) increases the dog’s emotional capacity and in short order it will be taking food from my hand, then next jumping up on me to take food from my hand, and finally pushing into me and overpowering my resistance to take food in my hand. So next I repeat the same steps with strangers being present and then progressively acting more and more provocative. And then I repeat the grounding/resistance process of increasing emotional capacity with the strangers themselves doing the hand feeding, the jumping up, the pushing, biting and barking. All these steps are a logical progression in terms of increasing emotional capacity, rather than thinking in terms of high or low reinforcement value or the other irrelevant term of distractibility.

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 lap, hours seem like seconds.

Published December 4, 2012 by Kevin Behan
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7 responses to “Distractibility and Time”

  1. Excellent post. Well done!

    I’ve just finished writing a piece for PsychToday.com on why a dogs “language skills” seem to always center on bite-able objects, i.e., toys.

    Years ago, after reading Stanley Coren’s claims about dogs and language I tested my dog Freddie to see if he could differentiate b/w 5 of his toys, using nonsense names for each item. He did pretty well. Then I tested him to see if he could differentiate b/w 5 different food items. It was a miserable failure.

    I just took a quick look at Eric Brad’s blog but didn’t find his piece on food as a distraction. I’d like to add it to my own piece before I publish it. Do you have a link?


  2. kbehan says:

    He’s concentrating more on play as distractions, but for some dogs even food can be overwhelming. Looking forward to your article.


  3. Thanks for the link.

    The PsychoToday.com article is up now: http://ow.ly/fQnPC

  4. Psycho – Today.com? Oops!

  5. Bredon Adam says:

    There is many reason why people consider dog as their best friend. The ability of dogs to learn thing quickly and accurately made them the most loved one in pet category.

  6. wetnosewarmhearts says:

    Perhaps the great dog-human friendship is grounded upon the reciprocal ability to absorb and project energy.

  7. kbehan says:

    That’s exactly right, with emotion being that means of exchange and furthermore, elaboration so that sociability is inculcated to greater and greater levels of utility and ubiquity. In my opinion dogs and humans have the highest emotional capacity of any animals on earth, hence our emotional entanglement.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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