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The Name of the Game

Kita, a 9 year old Akita-mix female, came to me for training because she was aggressive to other dogs. It had become impossibe for Cecille, her owner, to take Kita for a walk through the neighborhood. Kita had been in several serious brawls and she had become so violently “charged” that on sight of a dog, she went into a kind of visual “missile-lock”. There was no pause for a sniff, no chance at social preliminaries, simply an all-out lunge, launched without warning. Kitas’ behavior and body language of course put other dogs immediately on the defense and so in a vicious cycle this further served to reinforce Kita’s association that dogs constituted danger.

I approach such a problem on two tracks. First of all, in the interest of safety, the dog needs to learn how to be under the owners’ control even when charged. But secondly and more importantly, I want to help such dogs learn to play with dogs so that an enhanced social capability reduces the need for control in the first place. During one session, I had on my farm a perfect candidate to attempt playtrainig 101 with Kita.

This particular dog was a 2 year old male Airedale and had what I call a “rubber ball” kind of temperament. Figuratively speaking, if he were thrown against a brick wall, like a rubber ball, he’d simply bounce off and hurry back for another heave, taking absolutely no offense whatsoever. Therefore I knew that when Kita lunged while held on lead, he wouldn’t retaliate from a position of anger, he’d simply try harder to connect with her.

While Cecille held Kita, I collected “Monty” from a fenced yard and walked down the drive toward where they were standing. Kita watched us carefully and with hackles bristling, a baleful low growl rose up from her depths and quickly erupted into a torrent of barks, chopped into a frenzied cadence by gnashing teeth. Cecille praised her profusely as per my instructions, and then made her lay down. She stayed, but her aggression hadn’t been resolved by any means, simply stabilized. I proceeded to walk past them and then I asked Cecille to fall in behind us with Kita. We walked a few feet apart on our way to a large field beyond a barn. As we neared a gate to the field, I moved off to the side and let Cecille and Kita take the lead. As they passed by, and with Kita preoccupied with the new area she was entering, I let Monty sniff Kita from behind. Instantly, she whirled around and lashed out and a small tuft of orange fluff was set floating on the breeze. Clearly, Kita meant business.

We continued along and by the time we arrived in the middle of the field, two important things had transpired. First of all, Monty has realized that he has a wet nose and Kita’s body is wired with 200,000 volts of naked electricity and so he better be a little more prudent as to where he sticks it. This didn’t mean he was discouraged, simply that he was a little better informed and ready for quick evasive action. Secondly, some of Kita’s charge had dissapated given her previous outburst and then given the several minutes she had walked on a track parallel with Monty. They weren’t in phase by any means, but it was nonetheless a small taste of their two bodies being in a physical state of alignment. Now, standing in the middle of a large field, surrounded by wide open spaces, I figure that things are well enough in hand so that I can let Monty go completely free while I take Kita from Cecille and attach her to a long 50 foot lead, which in these first moments I intend to hold very short until I see what effects Montys’ charms may have.

Monty, irrepressible rubber ball that he is, immediately approaches Kita and elects to forgo the snuffle, getting-acquainted stage altogether, proceeding straightaway to a rear end mount. Apparently not willing to settle for a base hit, he opts to swing for the fences. Alas, strike one, Kita again whirls around and launches full-force at him. But Monty is far too quick and nimble and easily outmaneuvers her as I play Kita out on the long lead so she can chase him for about 25 feet. Kita quickly gives up once she sees how easily Monty got away and then she switches gears and begins to sniff every inch of the field, marking any tuft or mound with a quasi-leg-lift, she’s a very macho girl.

Monty, as soon as Kita lowers her head to sniff and scent-mark, returns. Again she attacks, chases him for a short distance and then resumes her investigations. After each and every outburst, Monty true to form returns, but never close enough to get himself bitten. And although Monty grows more and more cautious and deferential, Kita nonetheless attacks with the same degree of intensity. Finally however, after a number of these episodes, I begin to see that as she’s chasing Monty, there’s starting to be a softening in her jaw and facial expression. After about 10 minutes of parry and counter-parry; Kita moves her bowels. This is a highly significant development.

And in another important development, while Kita is preoccupied with personal business, Monty has happened to find an old gnawed-out bone lying in tall grass. He picks it up, amuses himself by tossing it high in the air over his head and then interestingly, he returns to Kita and presses near to her with the bone in his mouth. Kita, again lunges, but this time something really interesting happens.

After her customary 10 yard spurt, she doesn’t stop, she keeps running. Counting on Monty’s agility, I decide to drop the long leash altogether rather than cut short this new development and Kita continues to chase Monty for 20, 30, 50 100 200, 300 yards, and on and on. Round and round they race with Cecille and I standing in the middle of the circle they’re describing. I can’t resist the urge to laugh because Kita is refusing to give up even though she’s hopelessly outmatched in terms of stamina and speed. It’s comical watching her try to catch Monty with such earnest, but completely hopeless, determination.

But then for some inexplicable reason, we see that slowly she’s beginning to close the gap until Monty himself apparently senses that he’d better get serious about escaping, and like a fleeing soldier throwing his gear to the side of the road, Monty drops his bone to concentrate on his running. Meanwhile I doubt that Kita has ever run so far – or so fast – since she was a young puppy. Still, she continues to chase Monty, and remarkably, the gap between them continues to shrink.

Now, Monty’s tail tightened into a tuck as he runs, his expression looks tense, and for some reason Monty’s plight seems even more hilarious than Kitas’ chasing-in-vain of the earlier moment. Cecille and I both are now doubled over with laughter.

But it was curious, how was it that Monty seemed to lose an overwhelming advantage of speed and agility? His feints and swerves no longer left Kita in his dust. She seems to be able to anticipate his every move and for a few moments it looks as if Monty is in real trouble. She nears his flank and is almost ready to ride her muzzle onto his hindquarters which would knock him off stride like a cheetah taking out a gazelle.

All during this chase sequence, they had been running around us in a huge circle which slowly shrunk as Monty felt threatened and wanted to be closer to me. This allowed me to feel secure enough so that I could let the drama play itself out. The longer they were running, the closer they were getting. But then suddenly, both, at the same time, broke out of orbit and headed directly away from us on parallel tracks. They were headed toward the barn and as they went out of sight, with a sinking feeling, I realize that now there’s nothing I can do, I’m completely out of position.

Yet, I should have known, dogs are never wrong, By the time I run up to the other side of the barn, I find both dogs standing alongside each other, panting heavily, looking floppy and completely soft. Then, together, they saunter off to the edge of the woods to investigate something. They had reached phase.

Physically, Kita was not capable of catching Monty. The only reason she had closed the gap wasn’t because she had new-found speed, it was because her Will had grown stronger. Her Will grew stronger because she had found a safe way to express her aggression, an aggression activated as all aggression is, by fear. As she chased Monty, she was at the same time releasing the deep-seated fear which stood in the way of a pure emotional attraction to dogs. Once her fear was released, she was then able to feel and hold on to her desire towards Monty. Motivated through pure desire, her attraction to Monty was able to evolve from the short pulse of an aggressive overload, like the spark of a static charge arcing across a gap, an energy burst that quickly dissipates- which is how the nervous system doses out energy – to a steady-state surge of energy, which is the only kind of energy capable of sustaining desire. The switch from the load/overload, static charge kind of behavior, to the steady-state constant flow kind of behavior, (in other words, the shift from the brain to the Heart) occurred when Kita defecated. (Why this is so will be discussed in a future article.) The act of defecation revealed that emotionally she had opened up and let go, and this meant that on the emotional plane, there had been made room for new energy to come in. In canines, new energy is always characterized by a heightened state of sociability. This is why I’ve learned not to correct aggressive behavior as a first step in its remediation. By my encouraging her aggression, Kita found the opportunity to burn off the charge that had accumulated over the years. Every time she was aggressive, both Cecille and I praised and petted her lavishly. We put ourselves into alignment with her because I knew that beneath the aggression and beneath the fear which caused the aggression, there remained the desire, and that the desire will always move towards cooperation if afforded a safe environment for its full expression. Eventually as Kita felt safe and was able to trust in her most basic desire to connect, she let go of the deep fear blocking her.

And then another critical development occurred when Monty picked up a bone. This prey-object served to purify Kitas’ attraction to Monty so that it was reconstituted all the way back to a puppy-like state of uninhibited and unfocused “prey-making”, (typified by the floppy mouthyness of the puppyhood phase). She had regressed back beneath the years of an accumulated charge, back to her earliest memories of a pure and unfettered emotional attraction to other dogs. A pure emotional – i.e. “preyful’ – state is the basis of all play. This is why healthy puppies are characterized by two related traits: social openness and a pronounced oral drive.

Now Heart doesn’t act on one individual independent of another. It can be likened to a “field” of energy so that all individuals within that field become emotionally organized in accord with the properties of that field. Because she and Monty had become connected in the peculiar and singular way that Heart operates through the canine prey instinct, as Kitas’ Will grew stronger, Monty’s Will started to soften. They were being compelled into a convergence. And because they were connected, Kita while chasing him could thereby feel when Monty was about to move either left or right, even before he made his move. Kitas’ desire for Monty led her to a state of attunement with Monty. Monty slowed down, it was his Will, but it was not in any way a conscious decision on his part, in fact it went against his own survival instincts which is why his tail was tucked and his expression looked grim. (It’s important to note here that Heart is a faculty of consciousness and it is deeper than instinct, which is why in nature cooperation is deeper than conflict) As Kita started to close in, Monty was genuinely scared, he must have felt like he was in one of those dreams where you run and run from a monster but you can’t quite make headway no matter how hard you try. From Hearts’ point of view, there was no reason for Montys’ fear since there was no real danger as indeed things were to turn out, but Montys’ concern was understandable given how new the situation was for him. Finally however, when Monty let go of his fear as well, he broke out of the orbit away from the safety that Cecille and I represented, and headed for a neutral site by the barn where it would be perfect, at long last, to make contact with Kita.

This now brings me to the point of this story which isn’t that Kita figured out how to get along, or, the steps that led her and Monty to that state, even though I find this process endlessly fascinating. When Cecille and I were first watching Monty throwing himself against the wall of aggression that surrounded Kita, bouncing off and then throwing himself right back at her again, Cecille asked me if Kita was trying to bite Monty. She knew from experience that Kita would bite, but since I had been talking about how all behavior is based on emotional attraction and not intention, so that Kita was fundamentally attracted to Monty and technically speaking had no intention of biting him, Cecille got a little confused. And as I was continuing to explain this distinction, I added that a game could emerge if in the course of their interaction, the two dogs were able to sense, who – or what – the prey was. So the point to this story is that when Cecille repeated her understanding of my statement to see if she had it right, she substituted another term for prey which I had forgotten, but was far more common to an older generation. The term she used helped me see once again just how deeply the ancient truths of nature are embedded in human language. She said, “you mean that when they know who thegame is, then the game can begin.” “Yes”, I said, she had it exactly right. The name of the game, is game. Once the dogs sense who, or what, the prey is, then there can be a game and at such a point, then there is no chance for violence. Games, the essence of a social nature, have indeed evolved from prey-making which is why most games involve a ball, the ball being the surrogate for a prey animal. Once every individual is in accord on what or who the prey is, they fall into phase and the game can begin. What our language clearly reveals through a multitude of expressions and word derivations is that hunting is the basis of a social nature. This is one of the most important things we can learn from dogs about our own human nature.

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Published June 1, 2009 by Kevin Behan

12 responses to “The Name of the Game”

  1. shanty says:

    I just left a note on your blog about dog “zoomies”, but it touched on this issue of figuring out who-is-the-game.

    To refresh, my dog prefers the mounting and being chased role that Monty here displayed, only my dog is also the one with the issues Kita had. Not that he is always hair-trigger agressive, just that he often doesn’t know how to play with the other dogs and gets nervous upon introduction in off leash environments – snarky, then mounting – and barks and nips the dogs who try to take the ‘prey’ toy away from him, or barks and circles dogs who wrestle rather than chase.

    He only settles in comfortably if the dog in question chases him first – then he’s more open to other play.

    Very interested in your take on my situation.

  2. Christine says:

    I love this post Kevin, it’s such a beautiful, descriptive essay with so many nuances to learn from!
    Regarding Duncan, I see more of the “softness” of puppy-play in him. His jaw is open and relaxed, his body is soft and supple (most of the time). There is, however, unresolved emotion there and I would appreciate your input.
    When all 3 are out in the yard playing and I kick the ball, it is usually Bodie that goes for it. At times, Duncan will chase after Bodie and either body-block him or bite at his face or the back of his neck. His body language in this phase is not relaxed but very tense, along with intense vocalizations (a kind of growling-bark, if you will). He looks like a cheetah going after a gazelle. He doesn’t want the ball as he ignores it; his target is Bodie. Bodie will always defer and turn away. There have been a few times when Duncan has defecated after a few of these encounters, yet they still occur.
    There are times when Duncan is quite playful and wants to engage Bodie but Bodie hesitates to join in (who can blame him?) and when he does, he zooms out and zooms back in again. Sometimes Diva and Duncan will “mob” Bodie. I’m not sure how to go about resolving these issues; how would I redirect the mobbing or should I even try? And what would be the most effective method to resolve Duncan’s aggression towards Bodie? Poor Bodie hesitates to come out into the yard to play anymore!
    I always appreciate your insights, Kevin.

  3. kbehan says:

    The first thing I would focus on is softening your relationship with Duncan. Let’s just say for purposes of discussion, there’s 200 volts of resistance between you and Duncan. This means when you direct your attention onto Bodie, you are imparting 200 volts of resistance onto Bodie, in a sense you are saying “sic ’em.” So it would be interesting to put on heavy clothes and a protective cap, get on the ground in the yard with Bodie without any of the other dogs present, and see how he responds to you engaging him on his level.

  4. Christine says:

    Do you mean play with Bodie outside or play with Duncan outside? And I’m not really sure that I understand what you mean by “softening your relationship with Duncan”. I get the gist of imparting 200 volts of resistance onto Bodie, I see how that plays out. Please provide a bit more detail regarding Duncan and hopefully I’ll be able to process it correctly! Thanks as always Kevin.

  5. kbehan says:

    What you could do is get down on the ground with Duncan, and no other dog around, do this outside. Start to rough house with him and see what his response is. Wear heavy clothes and a hat so you can protect your face and eyes, I put on overalls and a hooded sweat shirt. Then I can see how nervous the dog is about connecting with me when my human-ness is somewhat removed from the formula by virtue of me being on the ground on all fours and engaging the dog as would another dog. My point being that whatever comes up, is related to the over-charging on Bodie. Hope this is clear.

  6. Christine says:

    Thanks Kevin, that helps. I guess I’m still a little fuzzy-headed as to the source of the resistance. Perhaps its because I’ve never had any real one-on-one with Duncan(or Diva for that matter) like I did with Bodie. This winter I’m taking a “step back” and just enjoying the puppers with few expectations (i.e. no training, just being). If I’m more relaxed, they will reflect that (I hope). We take occassional walks on the week-ends in neighboring fields/woods and it’s nice to see them so relaxed and romping around being dogs! This week-end when we were out they didn’t roam very far from me. If they went into the woods and I didn’t follow, they’d come running back to where I was. There were a few snowmobilers out and a few instances when one or all of the puppers would run after them but I’d give a whistle or a holler and take off in the opposite direction and they’d come running after me. So I’m taking this all as positive and heading in the right direction. At the very least it feels good to me (sigh of contentment!).

  7. kbehan says:

    The source doesn’t really matter, animals are biostatic charge machines, we as well as our dogs are always absorbing a charge due to the unavoidable experience of resistance to the expression of emotion as well as physical movement. The only thing that matters is can our dog align and then synchronize with us in order to resolve unresolved emotion.

  8. Heather says:

    My kids were out riding all sorts of things with wheels this weekend. A month ago I would not have “trusted” Happy, or myself, it is a very difficult situation just helping the kids to keep their e-cogs at their centers, or they will fight and do other destructive things. I also didn’t want to put too much pressure on Happy’s healing emotional circuits. But, it felt right so I took Happy out on a long lead and we did some pushing and tug with his favorite toy and I also gave him an old favorite skunk toy that he hasn’t seen in awhile. It seemed that whenever he’d build up a charge by watching the kids, he’d grab his toy and come to me (sometimes I’d interrupt him if he was focusing on the kids and ask him to find the toy), and we’d play a bit and I’d send him off. After a little while I gave him a marrow bone and he was content to chew and relax on the sidelines. It was a very positive, confidence-building experience for everyone. It is as if things have “clicked” in all sorts of small ways lately, and I feel with certainty that Happy and I are working together. Last night I discovered burrs up inside Happy’s feet that must’ve come from our walk in the morning, and he just laid there and let me work them out one by one. So I think he feels the same way.

  9. “Mechanics of the Animate,” P R Killeen, Arizona State University, 1992.

    “Behavior is treated as basic physics. Dimensions are identified and their transformations from physical specification to axes in behavioral space are suggested. Responses are treated as action patterns arrayed along a continuum of activation energy. Behavior is seen as movement along a trajectory through this behavior space. Incentives or reinforcers are attractors in behavior space, at the centers of basins of lowered potential. Trajectories impinging on such basins may be captured; repeated capture will warp the trajectory toward a geodesic, a process called conditioning. Conditioning is enhanced by contiguity, the proximity between the measured behavior and the incentive at the end of the trajectory, and by contingency, the depth of the trajectory below the average level of the potential energy landscape. Motivation is seen as the potential of an organism for motion under the forces impinging on it. Degree of motivation is characterized by the depth of the potential field, with low motivation corresponding to a flat field and a flat gradient of activation energy. Drives are the forces of incentives propagated through behavior space. Different laws for the attenuation of drive with behavioral distance are discussed, as is the dynamics of action. The basic postulate of behavior mechanics is incentive-tracking in behavior space, the energy for which is provided by decreases in potential. The relation of temporal gradients to response differentiation and temporal discrimination is analyzed. Various two-body problems are sketched to illustrate the application of these ideas to association, choice, scalar timing, self-control, and freedom.”

    The full article can be downloaded as a pdf file here:


  10. Heather says:

    Do you think that is an attempt to explain operant conditioning (using big words)? From the excerpt it sounds like it would be different from NDT in a few key respects (eg, incentives/reinforcers, forces of incentives, temporal discrimination). But I am not able to make much sense of it, I need some help figuring out what the authors are saying.

  11. I agree. I’ve only read the first page or so, but the author seems to be trying to lay a template of physics on top of Skinner’s theories of behavior, while Kevin’s ideas reflect a complete paradigm shift, and work from the inside out rather than from the outside in.

    However, the following passage is interesting:

    “Just as mechanics may be simplified by considering gravitational forces as issuing from a point at the center of the object, psychology may be simplified by finding a center of gravity for actions.”


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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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