Getting Under The Charge

Oregon Seminar October 2014

In any particular seminar some idea tends to stand out. While for me it’s all one thing, I know from my  experience when learning a new system that something said once might not sink in, but then later in a different context it rings a bell so loud I can hear the clang. At the Oregon Seminar graciously hosted by Betsy Davenport, tirelessly brought to fruition by Sunny, Jenya and Boris, and then graced with willing participants, one concept that stood out was: “Getting Under the Charge.” And given that we’re now at the beginning of the new year with resolutions to do better fresh in our ears, getting under The Charge is like one’s promise to begin the new year as if the past didn’t matter, the “first day of the rest of a life.”

The Charge is when all physical memories held in the body, the emotional record of resistance that’s been experienced, (i.e. stored emotional momentum) comes up in an instant. This can have two widely divergent, yet equal/opposite manifestations, either as an explosive outburst, or as an implosive collapse. The former constitutes aggression, the latter some kind of phobia.

Now in the old days (seventies and eighties) the vast majority of dogs had very little training. So when a problem dog was presented and if its breeding was somewhat sound, rehabilitation was incredibly easy. I just had to get the dog to bite and carry an object around, jump up and make contact, this opened the emotional channel, their bodies quickly suppled and softened, and then one channeled this into obedience. It felt like turning on a switch and seeing a light go on in the dog’s body and mind. But these days, and it seemed to have begun in the mid-nineties, high tech training from the competitive training arenas has come to dominate the pet dog market and now typically a problem dog has had a lot of intense training and to imprint a new emotional value requires rewinding a long, long tape of highly conditioned physical memory. Problem dogs are now very well trained.

The Charge carves the deepest channel through the emotional battery and everything about a dog, its patterns of behavior and personality, become organized as an expression of this channel. In Oregon I used the metaphor of the Mississippi River watershed wherein every weather input that occurs from the Rockies to the Appalachian mountains, no matter how different it might look to us, from a gentle summer rain to a raging blizzard, nevertheless all of it drains to New Orleans. Everything about a dog is likewise in service to transporting every emotional input to the outlet, or object, of the Charge just as the Mississippi watershed determines how the region it drains developed. It doesn’t matter how nice, loving, positive or dominant an owner might be, how much exercise the dog gets or training it has received, every input is still going via the Charge toward its definition of New Orleans. (To determine a dogs’ Charge, simply ask what is he most intense about.) If we want a new outcome, we have to carve a new channel and ensure it can can conduct the flood waters. At the seminar I said if New Orleans was where we didn’t want to go, we were going to create a new path to Shreveport. I’ve since consulted Google maps and reset the course for Gulf Port. After all we’re still governed by thermodynamics and the waters have to reach the sea.

So to rehabilitate a dog one must create a new channel that can conduct more energy than what currently serves as the main one, whether it be chasing deer, fighting dogs, chasing kids on skateboards or cowering under the bed during the 4th of July fireworks. Fortunately we have the natural dynamic amplified by domestication to assist us, so it’s not an impossible engineering problem. But to carve this new channel it is important to begin digging when there’s no water in the channel way. I call this “Getting Under the Charge.”

I learned this concept in the eighties when I used to be presented with police or protection dogs that were failing at the “Out” or “Aus” command. These were typically very hard, full Drive dogs who had tons of intensive training and prey instinct stimulation and from their point of view had been given an impossible problem to solve, being commanded to let go of an object that could conduct all their energy, the bite sleeve, in deference to an object, their handler, who could not. Given the strength of their temperament rather than implode, they had simply learned to double-double down and bite harder and harder, in fact, the closer their handler got to the dog attached to my arm, the harder he bit the sleeve, the tell-tale signature of this learning block.

Now as soon as this kind of dog saw me on the training field, Boom, two years of training and puppy development instantly leapt to his mind and from there on Nobody-was-Home. Using two sleeves, a sweety-pie voice, having the dog carry the sleeve around and around for half an hour, none of this made a dent in his Charge and I came to understand that my progressive approach was merely adding one more course of bricks to the wall that stood between him and mastery of the Out Command. No matter what I was doing we were still headed for New Orleans. So I backed things all the way to the beginning, having the handler bring his dog into my office so as to contrive a situation that was as remote as I could make it from what the dog had experienced in bite training, which typically happens in a wide open field with an agitator popping in and out of view and with other dogs getting stirred up. Laying around the floor of my office was every piece of small bite toys I had in my prey zoo; the floppy, squishy, wiggly and soft-until-the-bone devices I fashioned to arouse a puppy but without adding much resistance, the intensity of which triggers The Charge.

At first the dog didn’t know what to do since he had long since outgrown his puppy phase (in those days most handlers didn’t play with their dogs and toys were considered distracting, even corruptive). At some point I might encourage the dog to pick one up and then I gently suppled his body striving to not excite him. I didn’t want any force behind the water beginning to trickle into this new channel. Then I switched my focus as obliquely as possible to another toy hoping to entice the dog to  nose and roll it around but not to lock up and get possessive. I didn’t want him to fixate on any one particular item, my goal was to keep him supple and unfocused, easily switching from what he was into and onto what I was attending to. This was the dog’s problem, focus, focus, focus, and all these foci lead to the one main Loci, The Charge, which then insulated him from handler direction. It was like a thick and hardened callous I was trying to get under so that the dog could feel a new connection to his handler.

The next step was to walk the dog, trailing his lead, as part of our group heading to the training field at the center of which was a pile of the hard bite sleeves, pieces of bite suits and some fat puppy sleeves and tugs. The dog wasn’t going to see me coming toward him, we were going together, side-by-side, loosey-goosey, and when we arrived there he would find the complete catalogue of bite sleeves. I was trying to avoid igniting that cascade of triggers that sprung his mind shut like a leg hold trap. As soon as the dog began to nose around one sleeve, I’d go over to the opposite side of the pile and start poking at and then petting another one. When he went to investigate that one, I did a 180 and switched to the far side again. I didn’t want him to connect me with the sleeve and start getting into his trip. Then the handler got in on the act casually animating one sleeve and then with as much sweety-pie as the dog could tolerate without getting excited, redirect him to another piece on the opposite side of the pile.

Sometimes we quit right at this point however when I felt the dog could handle it, I triggered him enough to focus on a sleeve, carry it away from the pile following me, holding the lead if necessary, and then back to the pile where I induced him to pick up a new one. Eventually, we had the dog carry the sleeve back to the cruiser and interestingly, most of them dropped it immediately once they hopped in (the car being a place of total alignment-and-sync-associated-with-flow between dog and handler). Depending on where I felt we were at in the process I would have the handler encourage the dog to hold the sleeve in the car, pet him, pet the sleeve, put a little muscle into the sleeve, and then shut the door and reopen it. Finally putting his hand on the sleeve and simply standing there and wait until the dog started to get nervous and try to back away with the sleeve in his mouth. If our timing was right when the handler said “Aus” with a gentle but firm tone, the dog plopped it right into his hand. We weren’t telling the dog to let go per se, we were inhibiting the dog from getting nervous, the low grade state of anxiety that ultimately led to the full state of lock jaw. Needless to say when the dog complied to a whisper this put the handler on cloud nine. He became aware as to how confused his dog had been all along.

The next step was to see how much intensity I could put into one of the sleeves without triggering the dog’s full explosive outburst. Little by little the dog learned to get a sleeve I directed him toward, bring it to me as I backed away, and with dog on lead and sleeve attached to a rope, I’d add a little intensity so that the dog became focused but without the full degree of sharpness. I put up some kind of fight, then we all headed for the cruiser with the dog carrying it, sometimes hopping into the back seat sleeve still in jaws.  When the handler came close and the dog tried to back away or shake the sleeve, he would say “Aus” and the dog calmly released.

In the next step the handler brought his dog to me at the “Magic Pile” as I agitated him (to some degree based on where I felt we were at and with or without sleeve already on my arm) until finally the dog was up to a full fight on my arm. I would now be wearing two sleeves, the handler would sweety-pie talk as he approached and came in close, command the dog to out when he began to tighten up or right before he was beginning to let go, and then he was rewarded with the fight over the second sleeve. And then we flipped it around and brought dog to field first and I approached the dog, again with a progressively more intense approach. The Charge now had Gulf Port as its destination, with the handler controlling the flow of when to bite, when to let go, the gatekeeper on the lock systems for when we needed water to flow uphill.

What was guiding me in this training regime was how much intensity, or water, I was putting into the channel so that I could stay below The Charge and carve a new suite of behaviors until these achieved a high enough capacity so that at some point the dog’s body/mind could conduct The Charge and still remain soft and supple toward his handler. We were teaching the dog to let go at higher and higher states of intensity and after dealing with stronger and stronger degrees of resistance. We were retraining the dog like we were the Army Corps of Engineers.

This is what I see as especially absent from the discussion on dog training and in particular rehab. People see behavior as binary, the dog does it or doesn’t do it. While it is true that owners and trainers want their dogs to be happy and all that, that still doesn’t address The Charge. Silly-Happy and personality states can’t conduct The Charge. One has to understand the relationship between The Charge and emotional capacity, with resistance and intensity the basis of a trigger and what ultimately determines a behavior’s conductivity.

In Betsy’s riding barn I made a pile of bite toys and the dogs that had a built up charge came to the middle and little by little, was gratified to see the dogs soften by carrying and learning to align and fall into sync when they carried the toy about the ring. At any rate, rehabbing a problem dog is a wonderful way to get good at keeping the New Years’ resolutions one makes. First, get soft, then slowly let in the waters and keep your body on track for Gulf Port so that your mind can forget New Orleans. Not to worry, that’s where next year’s Mardi Gras will be held.

Published January 2, 2015 by Kevin Behan
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6 responses to “Getting Under The Charge”

  1. Jennifer says:

    LOVED this article…the way it was written made me wish it went on longer :)! I study, research, read constantly for solutions to two on going training problems & I believe you are on to something for me :)! I’m now just trying to figure out how to apply the above to outside/fence barking vs. “out” :)! They are being “charged”, just not sure how to “uncharge” ~ so much of what you mentioned is true for us, even the vehicle “safety/connection” zone! You have given me much to think about, process & try to work on ~ thank you!

  2. Joanne Frame says:

    I found this very helpful as well. Are you saying that this is the way to handle any situation when the dog is excitable..like getting out of the crate for example before working with them? Only do what they can handle without them getting excitable? Is that too simplistic an interpretation?

  3. Kevin Behan says:

    I use it as often as I can, it usually revolves around flipping the chain of events so that you begin at the end and work your way to the beginning of the loading process. Once the new channel is strong you can then “harden” it by influencing the dog (from slight verbal intonation to a correction) if it begins to stray back into the old way. What works well in the crate is settle-into-the-collect in order to exit so that the dog is reversing thrusters rather than forward thrust. The former neutralizes the latter. It’s thermodynamics and the laws of motion.

  4. Julie Forlizzo says:

    Kevin, I’m just now getting a sense of “getting under the charge”. I will start working with Rocky on Monday concerning the car. It actually sounds like a fun way to tap into issues. But what about when he goes nuts when he hears me get the leash in the home, getting ready for a walk? Is there a way to begin at the end in that scenario?

  5. joanne frame says:

    Thanks Kevin. Another question, my trailhound whines a lot in the crate for long periods of time….I’m wondering now if thats a charge I need to get under? Not sure how to…acclimatise in the crate for short periods of time? Or is that not the same?

  6. b... says:

    I think this post is incredibly helpful not only for dog work, but for the human implications at the end as well.

    It’s interesting to contrast this with the “desensitization”/counter-conditioning method, where on the surface it might seem that staying under “threshold” is akin to getting under the charge. And that distracting the dog step by step at increasing levels of charge intensity will eventually get you safely to the summit. What seems to often happen there though is that the dog is getting ever more precise and unwittingly more intense about its reaction to the charge. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the same story – Spot was doing so well and we’ve made so much progress over X months, but then he blew up out of nowhere and we have to start from scratch…
    Presumably this is because the channel they’re digging (treats, eye contact, etc.) can’t conduct the amount of energy that the charge triggers.

    Here it seems that you’re blowing the lid off the “threshold” in a way and giving the dog a chance at a new experience from the beginning. And unlike “flooding”, where the pressure is cranked up until the dog pops, in the hopes of landing on the right side of the equation. It seems that you’re changing the nature of the trigger itself by diffusing its intensity so that the dog can take a manageable bite out of it and work its way around the edges of the problem.

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