Misinterpretation of Behavior Due to Calming Signal Theory


At the 3:00 minute mark of this video there is an excellent example of how the notion of calming signals leads to a fundamental misinterpretation of two dogs interacting. The author of the video interprets an interaction between a yellow dog and a black lab in terms of calming signals, as one self-contained entity of intelligence communicating intent to another self-contained entity of intelligence. In such a linear approach, the author sees the black lab as the one who is jamming the signal. But in point of fact it is the lab who is self-regulating in order to maximize the potential for flow. It hungers for contact, thus its tail is held high out of a state of arousal and he eagerly seeks contact. But the yellow dog looks away and this immediately causes the black lab to stop advancing. The yellow dog is feeling pushed upon, unbalanced, whereas the black dog is feeling a pull. The lab then slows its rate of tail wag because he can feel his output returning to him as an increase in tension in the yellow dog, and that doesn’t feel good. The lab is referencing his hind end, his enteric nervous system, the social brain (fixation of subliminal beam of attention on the gut/loin region). I call this state “being collected” and this is why the lab withdraws a step (i.e. doubling down on being collected) which then induces the yellow dog to approach (isn’t this what we tell kids to do; let the dog come to you—how then is the lab putting out the wrong signal?). Being in a collected, sensual emotional state, the black lab enjoys being sniffed in his hind end when the yellow dog makes contact in response to the lab being in a collected state.

The notion of calming signals obscures the group dynamic of emotion–and its principle of conductivity—that is orchestrating the interaction as the dogs configure their bodies around these influences. Emotion is a force of attraction that operates according to the laws of motion—and which therefore piggybacks on the bio/neuro/mechanics of locomotion. Being collected, the lab is absorbing the emotional momentum of the yellow dog which makes them both feel safe.

Also, the calming signal model doesn’t understand that the same behavior can be expressed from two different modalities, hunger or balance. The former is evidenced by magnetic-like emotional affects, and is always social, the latter is evidenced by electric-like affects and is often the source of explosive discharges which then leads to all kinds of complications.

These two dogs aren’t particularly dangerous, for one thing they probably wouldn’t be running off lead on the beach and the yellow dog clearly has a lot of play in him, but still this is a good example on a small scale of emotional jujitsu, the lab neutralizing another by doing nothing, just by being in a collected hind end state of mind. And even though they didn’t connect, a little impulse of momentum did get through to the yellow dog and this will continue to pull on him as the one-that-got-away. Perhaps on their next meeting he will feel more confident. In the meantime big rub-a-dubs for “Blackie.”

In Depth Analysis

The yellow dog is operating primarily through its balance circuitry, note how tippy toed he is in a “rooster dance” as he positions himself near the lab. At the moment of making contact, he strives to keep his head above the lab. But because it can’t position itself over the the lab in order to calm his sense of imbalance, he protects his anal region when the lab tries to smell him, i.e. he’s in his head not in his hind end. So he disengages.

Meanwhile the lab can feel what the yellow dog is feeling because it has (1) projected its physical center of gravity into the yellow dog, and (2) because he is also collected in hunger mode, he can therefore feel the tension in how the yellow lab configures its body and movements around its own physical center-of-gravity, just as if he were in that same emotional state of mind. He doesn’t feel unbalanced by the yellow lab, but energized, and his only motive is to get that energy of tension moving. Being collected, the black lab moves its body in order to soften the way the yellow dog makes the lab feel. The tension manifested by the yellow dog feels discordant to the lab’s hunger for flow and because his mind is collected in his hind end, the lab is exhibiting a soft deportment in its forward parts (head and shoulders) in order to absorb the momentum of the yellow dog. This biofeedback/auto-tuning group dynamic softens the yellow dog measurably. The black lab has no understanding of the yellow lab’s point of view, but he can nevertheless feel it since in addition to the automatic projection of the p-cog as self into the yellow dog, he also feels  “release” due to the arousal of the hunger circuity. He’s perceiving the yellow dog’s body tension as precursor to flow, rather than as upsetting to equilibrium. Put another way, this isn’t cognitive because when in hunger mode, the physical memories of early litter experiences of pure flow are governing the perceptions. (Another way of saying this is that the lab is in prey drive wherein tension is precursor to flow, whereas the yellow dog is in balance mode.)

In contrast the yellow dog, while autonomically having projected his p-cog into the lab as well, however by being in balance is going by the form of the black lab and isn’t able to feel the softness of the black lab’s muscle tension and how it has shifted its internal focus back on to its hind end in order to act in a collected way. When a dog is in balance mode, he’s dealing with negative experiences from his physical memory bank and then moves its body in a way that minimizes feedback from what it is attracted to. When the lab moves, it increases the risk of destabilization in the yellow dog which is why the yellow dog acts so tentatively.

The lab has more energy to move than the yellow dog can absorb, this momentum is what the yellow dog is feeling when he smells the lab, and while the scent of saliva softens him somewhat as we can see the yellow dog’s tail begin to wag during the nose touch, nevertheless the reality of lab’s innate momentum overwhelms the fleeting feeling of flow that the brief nasal contact enables and the yellow dog can’t hold on to that short lived feeling of flow. So he breaks it off and goes on his way. Most importantly the lab doesn’t need to follow, it hungers for flow as opposed to needing an electrostatic like discharge of pent up energy, which was the motive that drew the yellow dog to the black dog in the first place. The black lab does not need to stick his wet nose into another dogs’ hot socket. He can feel that the two of them can’t make a smooth wave together and a flow dog knows there’s plenty more fish in the sea.

Published April 15, 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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