By Susan Chaney, Dog Fancy; November 2011
“Natural dog training.” What could that possibly mean? Skeptical? So was I. Then I talked to Kevin Behan, who pioneered a new way of working with dogs in the 1980s after learning the trade from his dad, a police-dog trainer.
At first, it sounded very new-agey: It’s all about energy. Yeah, right.
Then I listened a bit more, and it started to make sense.
Behan explains: If you have a dog who isn’t friendly to people or other dogs, every time he sees one of them, it creates stress in his body and mind. That stress takes the form of energy, creating an energy imbalance in your dog.
He has limited ways to release that excess energy; he can bark, pull at the leash, jump, growl, bite. The key to natural dog training is to help your dog release it in a directed, harmless way, while making yourself the center of his universe.
Behan and his former apprentice and fellow natural dog training advocate, Neil Sattin, prescribe something called “pushing”. By using kibble a a lure, you teach your dog to push on your hand with the top of his chest to release his energy through your hand, arm, and body. As your dog pushes, he exerts energy, returning him back to a more neutral balance of energy.
Your dog then looks to you when he gets worked up. You become the most compelling thing in his environment, Sattin says.
“In my reading of nature, everything ultimately boils down to energy,” Behan says. “I think it’s really the most physical way of communicating.”
Once you’ve both learned how to push, plus some other basic techniques such as redirection, tug-of-war, and tug-fetch, you can move on to behaviors like Sit, Down, and Stay. These are all natural behaviors that your dog already knows based on his ancestors’ hunting days, Behan says. You just have to give your dog a reason to want to do them when you want him to.
Cliff Abrams and his wife, Anne, found themselves in a highly energetic situation when they adopted an 8-moth-old mixed-breed rescue named Lenny. The puppy had been “locked in a closet after he grew beyond early puppyhood,” Cliff says. But Anne knew a lot about dogs, so the couple thought they could rehabilitate Lenny.
“He was kind of bouncing off the walls most of the time,” Cliff says. Lenny also had an insatiable prey drive, grabbed anything left on the kitchen counter, and ate books and decorative items.
The Abramses worked with the dog but made no progress in managing his exuberant personality. When Lenny was almost 2, they learned about natural dog training and eventually took him from their Cos Cob, Conn., home to spend six weeks with Behan at his Newfane, Vt., training facility. Most owners don’t travel to learn the techniques. They learn them from the natural trainers’ websites, books, or DVDs and apply them on their own.
The first time Cliff Abrams used the pushing technique on Lenny, “I could feel the discharge, almost like he was saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ Now he can lie all afternoon on a doggie pad in my studio. He can stay in his crate and happily sleep while I’m busy. I don’t know what we would have done if Kevin hadn’t come along. If anybody else in the world had this dog, he’d be dead by now.”
Abrams says he doesn’t care why natural dog training works. If not for Behan, he says, “Lenny’s life wouldn’t be that enjoyable and neither would mine.”
Sattin, whose website NaturalDogBlog.com helps spread the word about Behan’s methods, stresses the benefit to dog owners when discussing its principles.
“When you have a dog that doesn’t respond to you, it creates a lot of stress in your life,” he says. “It’s not just about the dog at that point. For me that’s a really important way of making the world a better place.”
He first met Behan because his own dog was “really aggressive with 90 percent of the dogs we met,” he says. “I had tried to desensitize her, used rewards when she interacted well, and even tried to dominate the aggression out of her.”
When he studied Behan’s concept, he found that “from a larger world-view perspective, it made sense to me from an intellectual level and a visceral level. I saw a huge transformation in her. It astounded other people who knew her.”
Today he coaches clients through his Yarmouth, Maine, business to change their own actions and feelings that contribute to their dogs’ behavior. “I’m trying to help people see what they’re doing that’s causing the stress and the problems.”
Sattin says his apprenticeship with Behan was a “great immersion experience. I wouldn’t know what I know about dogs and people if it weren’t for the very intense time we spent together.”
He doesn’t worry about people who don’t buy the whole energy-emotion idea. His site had 152,000 visitors last year. “I’m making a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “That definitely fuels me.”
Sattin mad a big difference in Sang Koh’s life, and in those of his dogs.
When Koh first adopted Roxy, a big Jack Russell Terrier mix, she avoided strangers while out walking through their Seattle suburb. Next, she barked at them and tried to nip them. She and one of his other dogs, a Greyhound-Doberman Pinscher mix named Jackie, started getting into fights.
“There was this underlying tension between them,” Koh says. “Then there was blood. Once I tried to reach in and pull them apart, and Roxy bit me, requiring stitches. Even if she saw a dog off in the distance, she’d start to whine and get tense. The longer we stayed there, the antsier she got, spinning around, pulling on the leash.” If he couldn’t get her away from the situation, eventually she would turn and bite him.
Koh had read Behan’s book Natural Dog Training prior to getting Roxy, and he later stumbled across Sattin’s website. Even though he didn’t quite understand the whole energy concept, he decided to commit to it. He remembers thinking that it certainly wouldn’t make her worse.
“I started pushing twice a day,” he says. “That was basically how she get fed from then on. [When the dog pushes, she gets some kibble.] Within a matter of two or three weeks, I could already start to see how she was becoming more settled and relaxed in general.”
In a month’s time, Koh says he could see the tension between the two dogs lessening. For several months, he pushed with her twice a day. Today, he does it about once a week.
“It really has been a transformative thing for her,” Koh says. “Our ability to live with our dogs has completely changed. It was so stressed. Every day something bad was going to happen; it was just a matter of when. It’s just like night and day.”
Susan Chaney is a freelance writer and editor in Southern California. She shares her home with her mix-breed rescue Max.
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