Panksepp, SEEK, and Natural Dog Training

Part Three

(17:05) At this point in the interview the subject of the brain reward system comes up and Panksepp points out that this was an unfortunate term because it should actually have been called the “seeking system.” Panksepp’s research discovered that this system elaborates in higher cognitive processes into creative impulses and makes enjoyment of an intellectual life possible. It’s fun just to seek in and of itself, one doesn’t need a reward, whereas modern learning theory depends on the notion of tangible reinforcements because it believes the individual is motivated by rewards, it’s misinterpreted that research that Panksepp has now set right.

In Natural Dog Training, the most powerful motivation for behavior is Potential Energy, which is another way of saying “seeking” (although I would argue that  seeking is actually another way of saying potential energy). In Police dog training I developed a two sleeve method for teaching the dog to “Out” because I noticed in those days (seventies) that dogs experienced learning to out as a shock to their system. And it was even expected that the bite should suffer during that phase of learning and it would take some time for the dog to recuperate. But I noticed that the dog never actually recovered, in a moment of conflict months if not years later the original sensations of the oral urge being abruptly terminated would immediately resurface and put the dog into a state of confusion. When confused in a moment of crisis, some dogs sought to avoid the unpleasantness, some dogs became “dirty.” The two sleeve approach solved that problem due to the phenomenon of potential energy.

After some preliminary building steps to set the stage for the two sleeve exercise, the dog was held by lead by his handler, and wearing two sleeves, I would give the dog a bite on one of my arms and then shed that sleeve. The handler would let the dog carry the sleeve in a tight circle that ended up with the dog right in front of me and I’d jostle the sleeve with my leg to help the dog maintain his grip as well as crave even more physical contact. Then I would stop and gather  myself into a poised position with the dog now looking up at me with the sleeve still locked in its jaws as I slowly but steadily build the degree of tension I was holding, physically saying with my body…..Reaaaaaaaaaaadddddddy………looming right on top of him, looking as if I was about to burst and with the 2nd sleeve on my arm slowly floating into the ready-to-swoosh-at-any-second position, the handler leaning over close to the dog’s ear so as to whisper, “let me seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…..and then………..“OUT” at the exact instant the dog was about to let go anyway. The dog felt as if the word OUT” was the catalyzing variable that caused me to move and thus make another bite possible. So in the dog’s mind, the command OUT became affiliated with potential energy, the flight of the prey that was about to be. And then while he carried that 2nd sleeve around I’d slip the first sleeve back on and we’d cycle through this routine four or five more times. In a few sessions the dog would OUT even when he was hanging on my arm and I had just finished wuppin him all over his body with a soft baton, with even that rough physical contact now being associated with potential energy.

So in my view seeking in and of itself is not enough to understand the impulse to seek. Underneath the seeking system is the Seek-for-What question, and I’m arguing that this is the hunger for potential energy. Potential energy is the essence, the preyful aspect, the universal common denominator within the form of anything an animal could be attracted to, and thus seeking for. This is true of a bird seeking a nest site, a puppy seeking its mother’s nipple, a dog looking for a bone.

That then begs the question as to how does an animal recognize potential energy if it can’t think about the future and any prospective benefits that may accrue to it from its possession? Resistance. Resistance is stored energy, it’s the potential to become energy. And to understand this we need to note that not all searches render the same degree of pleasure. The more resistance that is overcome in the course of a search, the more pleasure is derived and the more potential energy will end up being realized as actual energy. (I should add that what makes dogs so behaviorally malleable, is that due to the phenomenon of unresolved emotion being projected onto things that the group focuses on, something relatively neutral, inert, or even a predatory aspect, can be transformed into a preyful aspect because it is now affiliated with potential energy, i.e. the release from unresolved emotion. Thus dogs can go by feel due to “group triggers” when other species are limited in intense situations by instinctive triggers.)

What was most interesting to me about bite work in police dog training was how it proved to be an infallible measure of how a dog would fare in the search and rescue phase of training, which is predicated on air scenting with nose held high. The softer dogs would always do well in ground tracking, which is typified by a deep nose, the snout buried in the grass or the dirt detecting where the earth has been disturbed by someone walking. But when it came to working out a faint scent borne aloft on an elusive current, the harder the dog bit the sleeve, the more the dog could hold his focus on working the scent cone back to its source. After striking the scent the hard dog would range from one margin of the cone to the next always seeking the intensifying concentration, and I knew according to how intensely the dog was working from side-to-side that he was honing in on our “victim” just like a plane coming through a storm homing in on an airfield’s radio beacon. The softer biting dogs would get the scent as readily as the hard dogs, but then if they came across a line of dense bushes or an outcropping of rock, they would drop their search in order to get around the obstacle, an impediment the “harder” dog would have gone through or over. It would then prove more difficult for the softer dogs to relocate the scent and due to these gaps in concentration they became prone to confusion. It wasn’t that the harder dogs had better noses, rather they were more able to process resistance and convert this to a love for the search itself and thus of course were more likely to find what we were after, the person pretending to be lost, and which means that potential energy would thereby become realized. The softer dogs were more frustrated by resistance, and lost their drive when the harder dogs were energized by that same degree of difficulty. In other words, the more the dog’s hunger system is engaged, the more pleasure he will derive from searching because resistance is becoming converted into arousal rather than sensations, the intensity of which harken to a state of disequilibrium. I would also like to add, that as a softer dog got better in his bite work, its search and rescue work improved in kind. Thus, I see the hunger circuitry as fundamental to the seeking impulse, and which is then “tuned” by the balance circuitry.

There’s also the question: Seek How? By orienting via a circle. It’s my theory that the hunger/balance continuum computes for a curve. I’m awaiting working with a mathematician to verify this thesis, but I’ll preview it here to make this point. If hunger is stronger than balance, then an animal more readily perceives curved objects, or I should say, curves are objectified into a coherent form. (Note that it’s easiest to move a curved object than a flat one, less resistance, more emotionally conductive. We’re more aroused by massive, rounded objects, more awed by massive, square objects. This is due to the Constructal law and the laws of motion, the deepest architecture around which our mind is configured.) Whereas if balance is stronger than hunger, then the nervous system sees discontinuities in the continuum, this results in a fixation on upright lines and especially focusing on the eyes. When balance is predominant, eyes are everywhere in any discontinuity, such as a crack in the floor, an electrical outlet, a subway grate. Someone mentioned on an earlier comment how horses have a slightly asymmetrical conformation so that they have a stronger left or right footed stride, just as humans have a left or right handedness. Natural horsemanship is intended to work through this gait dynamic so that a horse can be developed into a straight leading conformation. This asymmetry is why when a hiker gets lost in the woods, without compass or landmarks they will end up traveling futilely in a circle. So I believe this asymmetrical conformation relates to an angle of deflection, so that when seeking, the organism will travel in a circle, or a quadrant of a circle, we will always move in a circle. I learned from German tracking experts for example that when a dog first is exposed to right angle turns, he perceives these as the end of the track and he then gives up on that one and begins to cast about for a new one. This is because animals always move along an arc, they don’t make arbitrary right angle turns, only humans can do that. So built into the seeking impulse is the circle as an underlying architecture, and this again is the confluence of hunger relative to balance. This is how animals seek and then interact with what they seek, i.e. according to angles of deflection.

Potential energy answers the Why of seeking, this is why it is so fundamental to higher orders of investigation and even high intellectual inquiry as Panksepp has brilliantly uncovered through his research. The mind is organized so that potential energy is perceived as more important than real energy and thus the seeking system is commensurately predominant in the brain’s architecture as well. Aesop had it wrong. From a hawk’s point of view, a bird in the bush is worth ten in the talons. That-which-is-about-to-be is what really drives and guides evolution. The animal mind is configured around potential energy, an “absential,”


something not materially present but which is nonetheless the kernel around which the mind arises. If you’ve ever been in a store with checkbook open on the counter, pen hovering above the “enter amount” field as the clerk begins the tally, but then the phone rings and she beckons you to wait as she reaches to pick it up, you’ve just witnessed the power of potential energy on our animal mind. Of course the clerk should stop what’s she’s doing and answer the phone, that COULD be money. We’re just a customer offering real money. That’s a potential customer. Adding new energy to the network in deference to the laws of thermodynamics, both the first, second and now the Constructal law, is the real engine of evolution, not gene replication.

(next post is PLAY, LUST and CARE)


Published March 18, 2013 by Kevin Behan
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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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