A Critique of Context-Is-Everything Followed by an Introduction to Canine Body Language

I started this section on body language in order to explain what’s going on in a You Tube clip of an interesting interaction between a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a Malinois.

While brief, the video is rich with dynamic. In fact there’s so much going on that it’s necessary to do some theoretical backfilling before going further. However I often hear my theory is hard to get, and I agree that it is intricate, but it is also simple, as simple as the cave wall-like drawings I use to articulate it. For example while it’s easy to grasp the simple forces that are affecting two dancers, these being gravity and the laws of motion, it’s amazingly complicated to graph the confluence of forces over time. Likewise my model does become very elaborate over the course of a back and forth interaction. Yet even as individual motive elaborates into a self-organizing social system, there is not one difficult concept involved at any point. It is one simple idea after another compiling into an intricate expression of complexity.

However I can appreciate that someone wouldn’t be motivated to learn a new model if they believe the current ones are working well. (BTW, how can there be more than one?) I surely wouldn’t have persisted if the theory that dogs learn by association, or that they organize into a system of relationships predicated on one individual deferring to a more dominant one, could explain the behavior of dogs. Therefore in this introductory article I offer material from Ian Dunbar on his site Dog Star Daily to point out what I see as internal inconsistencies and contradictions. And if such examples strike one as incongruent as they seem to me, then one might be motivated to puzzle over a new model.

In preface, I want to review that in the seventies I began to realize that the flow of emotion provided a definitive explanation for what I was observing, as opposed to the descriptions which was what the dominance theory and the theory of learning-by-association were offering. When any two individuals interact, what they are sorting out is a transfer of their respective emotional “momentums.” A sense of momentum, or motion, is the basis of emotion (which is why emotion compels movement) and if two dogs can align along a common line of travel, and/or synchronize around a common object-of-attraction, then this exchange of emotional momentum is facilitated and they are on their way to becoming emotionally bonded. They become synergistically energized, in other words the stress they carry no longer acts as a limit but rather serves as an energy boost (think home field advantage in a sports contest as the fans sync up with what their team is doing), and thus it is that individuals can derive more pleasure from collectivized action then they can by acting singly. But to be clear, it’s not that the other individual adds actual energy to its counterpart, it’s that being in sync with another releases energy already on board, i.e. stress. At any rate, there is a principle of conductivity by which emotion moves or not, and this innately shapes individual behavior into social behavior, and the emotional conductivity of any set of circumstances is that which determines context as far as the animal mind can apprehend.

From Dog Star Daily:

Ambiguous Behavior

Ian Dunbar:

“It is not always true that a dog’s actions necessarily mirror his intentions.”

Does that make sense? In other words if on the one hand canine behavior is a function of intention as revealed by context, but then if a dog’s action doesn’t mirror his intentions, therefore there is no language in body language. Rationality in a dog trumps instinct. So why learn about body language? Why should we care what the body is saying if context is more important?

There are three main reasons why those of the context-is-everything school see ambiguity in body language. (1) they don’t understand that emotion is the source of all animal behavior, deeper than instinct; (2) that emotion acts on the body/mind as a “force” of attraction, and (3), when emotion meets with resistance, this renders a spectrum of behaviors which have been attributed to the context and confused with a human psychology, a linear mental construct of causes and effects within the framework of one self seeing its “self” relative to other selves. (If you think my model is complex, try writing that out to its fullest extent the cogitation going on in the minds of two dogs interacting rather than taking intellectual short cuts as in “the dog thinks this or thinks that.”) Dunbar’s explanation follows below:

“Whereas we may easily observe and quantify a dog’s behavior, we can only hazard a guess as to his feelings and intentions.”

One must resort to guessing because they have failed to make a distinction between emotion and instinct, and between a feeling and a thought. Instincts vary between species, but emotion does not. Furthermore, everything going on in the body/mind during an emotional experience is not pure emotion or a “true” feeling. There are instincts, sensations, habits of mind, and in the case of human beings, thoughts, judgments and a moral dimension. So an emotional experience is being seen as a monolithic amalgam and this leaves context and human rationales to define the many degrees of nuance, and like two dancers intertwined, a feeling’s infinite capacity for inflection. The context-is-everything approach precludes building a coherent model because it never properly defines emotion as a “force” of attraction, and feelings a function of an individual integrating its “self” and thereby attuning to its surroundings.

“This is not to say that dogs are intentionally deceitful, double-dealing or deceptive. Duplicity is after all a quintessential human foible.”

But if context reveals intention, then dogs are just as capable of intentional double-dealing and deception as they are of any other possible intention. (We’ve all seen dog A bark at the horizon. Dog B leaves his bone to investigate. Dog A grabs vacated bone.) Perhaps the reader has noticed that in these psychological treatments it’s always a one-way street on the side of virtue or something comedic, when logically, if it is true that a dog can think about deferring to a social superior because that strategy proves to be to its advantage in a given context, then it must also be true that it is capable of thinking about deceiving, tricking or double-dealing another individual if that strategy were to prove to be to its advantage in some other context. If submission, appeasement and diversion by distraction can occur to a dog, then so too can trickery and malicious intent. This sugar-sweet construct always paints a positive picture of the intellect.

“Rather, many dog body postures and vocalizations simply have a variety of meanings. For example, a growl may be a threat, or it may signify frustration, fear, lack of confidence, or learned helplessness. Alternatively, a growl may be an invitation to play, or it may be a learned communication that has very little to do with underlying emotions. Some dogs growl as a solicitation to play, some growl as a request to be petted and some will growl if you try to stop petting them. Obviously, the dog’s growling quickly becomes a learned behavior because it has been invariably (albeit unintentionally) reinforced by the owner playing or petting the dog. Growling is one of the most misunderstood vocalizations in the doggy dictionary, especially in some breeds, which seem to growl, or “talk” about every conceivable topic including the weather.”

Growling is not “talking” in any sense of the word about some topic. Growling is ALWAYS an expression of fear. Just as someone can experience a pang of fear in the midst of a pleasant conversation, or while playing or listening to a beautiful passage of music, or while doing anything, so too can a dog experience fear in a context that is otherwise emotionally conductive enough to prevent the fear from being expressed into an overt and more obvious action. We should not let context determine how we interpret what we observe. We should apply a model to understand what we are observing.

“On the other hand, characteristically friendly behaviors may have alternative unfriendly interpretations. A dog may bare her teeth as a submissive grin, or as a threat.”

The baring of teeth is not a smile in one context or a threat display in another. It is ALWAYS an attempt to keep any more energy from entering the body/mind as the sensations of compression are becoming overwhelming. It’s on the same continuum of growling. Smiling in humans on the other hand is distinct from this behavior in dogs as it is opening the body/mind so as to let in more “energy” as another being comes near. (When I say energy, I mean affects of pure emotion, as well as the release of stress, into a sense of momentum.) The baring of teeth occurs on the OUPTUT cycle of a state of attraction (emotional projection), whereas smiling in humans occurs on the INPUT cycle (emotional ingestion) of a state of attraction. When dogs are in an emotional state of being open and on the input cycle, their jaws are slack and ajar and their facial expression are open and relaxed. Dogs don’t smile, rather they exhibit a soft puppy mouth with a pronounced oral tendency that is readily displaced into a sensual body comportment and manner.

“A dog may paw you as a sign of friendly appeasement and deference in greeting, or she may pin you with straightened forearms as a threat. A dog may sidle up to you for company, or as a spatial ranking maneuver. A dog may bring you a present, or it may proffer a “gift” as a test — to see if you dare try to take it away.”

A dog cannot feel emotionally connected with another being if it is not emotionally aligned along a common line of travel and/or synchronized in terms of a common object of attraction. This collectivized configuration satisfies the sense of emotional momentum that is the root source of all action. All the above behaviors are examples of a dog experiencing resistance to a person it is trying to make contact with, and the behaviors described are deviations from pure states of alignment and synchronization and would automatically dissipate if a chronic state of alignment and synchronization were such a dog’s imprint.

“And all of us know a wagging tail signifies a happy friendly dog — right? Well certainly a high frequency, large amplitude wag augurs well for a happy social encounter, but there are several different types of tail wag. For instance, it is not uncommon for a dog to wag his tail furiously when barking and lunging at another dog. Similarly, a large amplitude, slow frequency cat-like tail swish means the dog reeeeally doesn’t like you and a high frequency, small amplitude vibration at the tip of the dog’s perpendicularly held tail, generally signals the animal is extremely tense and stressed and about to react.”

Here at the end of the paragraph Dunbar is contradicting his ambiguity thesis because now he’s saying that if we look more closely at the tail wag, we can see that on a subtler plane of expression there are in fact tell-tale indicators. So it would seem that on the one hand gross body actions are ambiguous, we’re told that the baring of teeth in one context is fundamentally different from the baring of teeth in another, but then on a finer grain of resolution we find with the wagging tail that subtler nuances of behavior are accurate. So where is the guide to the necessary distinctions so we can get to a definitive study of body language, why are we wasting time on the ambiguity of context? Note that in the intention school of thought, be it dominance, calming signals, and other variants of the context-is-everything approach, its proponents never definitively articulate what’s going on inside the dog’s mind. We can “never know for sure” on the one hand, but on the other we are assured that it is about dominance, calming a partner or achieving a consequence, all of which depends on which context-is-everything model one is consulting.

Perhaps in this brief example one can see the need for a new model and below they will find a short primer so that we can look in further detail at what is going on between the Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Malinois as they “work things out” according to the principle of emotional conductivity.

Behavior and a principle of conductivity. All behavior is a function of conductivity, i.e. how much emotion any given action is able to conduct. In this view of emotion the body and mind can be visualized as a pipe in that it is a conduit that conducts emotion. When the “pipe” is open, then the behavior is conducting emotion fully and the dog exhibits a body language appropriate (energetically efficient) to the energetic parameters of whatever situation it finds itself in. These energetic parameters define context. So when emotion is being conducted fully through any given action, there is a relaxed and calm demeanor (the oral urge) nested within the behavior. The best example of the body/mind as a wide open pipe would be a very young puppy prancing up to a toy that has caught its attention. This is a pure state of attraction wherein input (perception)-throughput (processing) and output (action) are in full accord and there are no bottlenecks. One could visualize this as a garden hose with the nozzle opened wide so that the water moves from the source (input/perception) through the hose (throughput/processing) and then out the nozzle (output/action) as freely as possible. No matter what a dog is doing, no matter how intense the activity it’s engaged in, if it is nonetheless efficiently conducting the emotion given the energetic parameters of the situation, than at the bottom of it all is the wide open pipe. For example, a sight hound running down a rabbit on the open plain, while focused like a laser beam and with its muscles as tight as a drum beating out strides with rapid fire contractions, it will nonetheless respond to how the prey deviates from its course with a loose, supple and open body/mind. There’s no bottleneck when responding to change from the quarry. The flow of emotion through the body/mind as a pipe is the foundation of all body language, and the pure oral urge is an internal metric which is constantly informing the dog as to how it is faring in regards to external resistance. When the flow is full so that emotion is “pure” (i.e. moving without resistance) then the body language exhibits a state of supple forward motion. So every time an animal is energized, i.e. stimulated, it is experiencing an attraction to something, either an inanimate object or an animal. The oral urge can then go on to be displaced into behaviors of alignment around a common line of travel, or synchronization around a common object of attraction, but nevertheless the oral urge always remains “on line” to inform the individual as to the efficiency of what it is doing.

(An instinct is a “fossilized” emotion, i.e. a genetically encoded series of reflexes that automatically implement a state of attraction via a specific configuration and action of the body. Instincts are triggered when the degree of emotional energy (which is experienced in the animal mind as a feeling of momentum) exceeds the carrying capacity of the animal’s body/mind. When instinctively driven, an animal does not respond supply to deviations from the norm, but reflexively. This simple distinction is why dogs are able to adapt to all things human, and to a large extent without training, whereas other species cannot.)

However life evolves in a world of resistance and our happy, floppy little puppy wouldn’t live long in this world of friction and faction. He has to become more complex, wary, alert, and most importantly, DRIVEN because a floppy open state of attraction won’t be able to overcome the resistance necessary to secure a meal. Secondly, such an animal would be hopelessly naive about danger, and thirdly, it will be holding nothing back in reserve, always going flat-out at 100% whenever stimulated, and if one only knows GO or NO GO, one won’t be able to self regulate Throughput in deference to Input so as to meter Output and thus be able to align and synchronize with others.

All systems in nature hold a reserve. This leaves something available for a critical moment and it evens out the flow through the lush and the the lean times. A watershed has a wetlands, a car has a battery, the body stores fat, the circulatory system has a spleen, and the animal body/mind has an emotional battery that holds physical memory. Physical memory is acquired when the wide open state meets with resistance. This causes stress, the equal and yet opposite of emotion. Stress is a record of emotional experience.

The interplay between emotion and its equal/opposite counterpart stress addresses the two fundamental problems essential to the evolution of any organism—What’s for dinner?—And, How do I not be what’s for someone else’s’ dinner? That which conducts emotion is safe and/or safe to eat, and that which interrupts emotion is noxious and/or dangerous. Emotion is attracted to that which is safe, stress is attracted to that which isn’t. Emotion is experienced as a pull, stress as a push. If push and pull are equal values on the output and input cycles, then we have Drive. Emotion and stress confluence into Drive and render complexity, a push and a pull. For example, a dog strains during a bowel movement, a push. He then turns around to inspect the elimination, a pull. The more he strains, i.e. the stronger the push, the stronger will be the pull to investigate. (Since there’s little possibility for elaboration of the push/pull in this instance, the dog quickly loses interest and goes on about its business. However the charge does remain and he becomes more Driven to investigate other dog’s eliminations. This too is in service to individual motive elaborating into a self-organizing social system.) So any behavior that deviates from the wide open pipe of the young playfully flowing puppy is the result of stress that has been triggered by the experience of resistance. Understanding emotion and stress and how they confluence in regards to resistance (Emotion + Stress = Drive) is the key to body language.

The interplay between emotion and stress is ALWAYS manifested in a dog’s body language as a deviation from the wide open state. These deviations can occur on the INTERRUPT menu, which then increases the Charge, or on the DEFLECTION menu which then leads to alignment and synchronization. The hallmark signs of these possibilities are typically misinterpreted because the human intellect REFLEXIVELY projects intention into the complex ways animals respond when they encounter resistance. The human intellect ASSUMES that the animal sees its self as separate from its surroundings and is therefore acting through a cause and effect kind of rationale. This assumption leads to an all encompassing misinterpretation of the evidence. The Rhodesian Ridgeback and Malinois have each emotionally projected their “self” into the other, and now they are trying to feel which way the emotional flow can go.

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Published January 19, 2013 by Kevin Behan
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2 responses to “A Critique of Context-Is-Everything Followed by an Introduction to Canine Body Language”

  1. john says:

    For me the more complex an answer becomes the less reason involved,

    Isaac Newton

    “We are to admit no more causes for natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”

    If Isaac were around today he would be pushing, keep up the good work Kevin,

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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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