The Reactive Dog and the Power of Will

Impulse Control

There’s a lot being said these days about impulse control given the increasing number of dogs being defined as  “reactive.” A dog that over reacts to innocuous events, does so because it feels compressed and it feels this way because it perceives itself to be the object-of-attention. After repeated sensitizations, the threshold of this perception grows lower and lower. This syndrome also tends to have an equal/opposite manifestation, the dog needs to keep itself at the center of its owner’s attention (which the owner misinterprets as an emotional bond when it really is a dependency.) A reactive dog typically doesn’t initiate a bite or attack, but rather over reacts to innocent entreaties of other dogs or people, even though indeed their advance may have been too forward and oblivious to the signs of the reactive dog holding itself back out of fear. Nevertheless the reactive dog over reacts to a non-existent threat by a snark, snip or bite and thus produces its worst nightmare, its fear a self-fulfilling prophecy as now the approaching dog wants to snark/snip/bite it right back. At some point the syndrome takes on a life of its own and the reactive dog becomes more and more active about initiating an aggressive encounter but unlike a truly aggressive dog, does so under a specific range of contexts.

So the question is, what grants a dog control over its impulses so that it doesn’t have to react when not warranted? What’s going on deep within the canine body/mind so that we can increase such a reactive dog’s emotional capacity? By identifying the faculty within the body/mind that allows a dog to hold itself back even when provoked, then a dog can learn to distinguish between innocuous bad manners that don’t merit a DEFCON FOUR alert, as opposed to a legitimate threat. (BTW, reactive dogs tend not to act when there is indeed an actual danger.) For example I’ve known police dogs that could discriminate between serious felons and belligerent yet harmless drunks. So what is going on deep within the body/mind and which transpires well below and significantly ahead of what’s going on within the brain? My point being that once this energy takes shape and is presented to the higher aspects of the nervous system for executive function, the real show is over.

The other thing to be said about a high emotional capacity, is when such a dog is  being given attention by another being, he feels as if he is the object-of-attraction rather than of attention (the distinction is feeling sensual/open versus sensitive/tense). This is significant because an object-of-attraction feels that it enjoys emotional leverage over the other being, and by this I mean that the sensual dog feels that it can control the other dog or person by choosing to focus on its body and the pleasure it’s feeling within from being awash in a sensually aroused state. What’s important to not that in such a body/mind set, the two dogs (or dog and person) are likely to entrain.

So what’s going on to render this desirable state? Within the body/mind, the most important precursor to any action (or even an “act” of inaction) ensues from an internal build up of tension that has been elicited by a state of attraction. But then this internal pressure collapses into a point of fixation that is now invested with a precise degree of emotional momentum making the dog feel compelled to do something. In other words, the collapse is like a thrust that makes the dog want to move forward because it feels an internal surge coming from its gut and up the “first primal pathway,” i.e. the body/mind as a pipe. Now if the dog feels grounded into the object of its attraction, and it feels grounded by virtue of whether it can perceive a preyful aspect, then it doesn’t feel knocked over by this acceleration, but rather connected and this collapse induces internal feelings of sensual arousal. In this magnetized or sensual state, it will then feel an urge to deflect its focus off of the eyes of the other being, and onto its body, and this will lessen the “threat” value of its approach to the other dog. This is why it’s highly likely that such a dogs emotional state will induce the other party to feel likewise as well and so they can entrain.

We can say that a sensual dog is “collected” a term that I borrowed from the horse world as an equestrian once explained to me how she got her horse collected and supple before approaching the course of jumps. Being collected is the prerequisite to a high emotional capacity and impulse control because consciousness is a circle, a cycle that reliably repeats itself. As a cycle or circuit, this means that in order for an animal to feel “in the flow,” there has to be an input component that corresponds to the output. In other words a dog doesn’t just act out an impulse unless it feels some kind of return coming in at the same time. It’s like a submarine putting out a sonar ping, and unless it gets a signal back, it doesn’t go forward because it can’t “feel” what’s out there. So the dog projects its “self” out there, and then if it feels grounded into an object-of-attraction, it simultaneously feels an input just as if it has ingested something. In fact, it is the physical memory of ingestion from its earliest imprinting phase of life that supplies this sensual state OF ITS HIND END.

As the hind end of the dog becomes sensually aroused, or energized, by the physical memories of ingestion, we then observe the dog gathering itself in its hind end, there’s a softening side to side motion in its hips and the tail starts wagging. So in a collected dog, the hind end is going faster than the front end (since the object-of-attraction isn’t yet open to making full contact) and the dog approaches along a curve and with a softened demeanor. It’s goal is to smell the other dog’s body as opposed to  looking at its eyes and overcoming its resistance. It’s focusing its internal subliminal beam of attention on the physical memory of its physical center-of-gravity in its hind end, in the collected position, and this makes it feel sensually aroused back there. The collected dog thereby perceives as if it is pulling the other dog into its “Self.” It is feeling that by feeling sensual in its hind end, it is inducing its surroundings to heighten its feeling of pleasure. It has no concept of its self relative to another self, rather, by concentrating on this collected state and focusing its psychic energy deep within its hind end, it is literally willing the environment to conform to its desires. This feeling can grow so strong that even if the other dog snaps, nips or snarks the dog as he tries to complete the emotional cycle by capturing a smell of essence, the dog merely doubles down on being soft and supple as if to say, “not to worry, to know me will be to lub me.”

The reactive dog on the other hand, is at the opposite end of this high emotional capacity spectrum. It is feeling pressure in its head and jaws as it tries to hold energy back from a “sensitized” hind end. It feels a surge of acceleration from the physical memory of being knocked over during its early imprinting phase as if its physical center-of-gravity is rocketing up through its body about to burst from its head. All it can perceive is the other dogs eyes and the degree of resistance invested in its form. It holds its self back as long as it by keeping its forequarters locked up and its jaws and muzzle clamped down tight. It may growl to push energy out of its head to reduce the overwhelming pressure, but sooner or later it will either perceive an opening or reach critical overload and it ends up lashing out. We could say its front end is going faster than its hind end. Or, in that moment it has no Will.

After the overload, the reactive dog will experience a decrease in internal pressure and it gives credit for this short term redress to the tension it felt in its shoulders and jaws, and the intense effort exerted in pushing energy out of its head by focusing its subliminal beam of attention on its inner ear balance mechanism. This of course can become an addictive cycle. In subsequent articles, I will address how the four core exercises of NDT increase such a dog’s emotional capacity so that it can get the power of its Will back in its body.

Published June 12, 2012 by Kevin Behan
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 responses to “The Reactive Dog and the Power of Will”

  1. Christiane says:

    thanks for this – and a question: when a dog barks a lot when encountering distressing situation – is that basically a good thing as the jaws are not locked up? or – if instead of growling, the dog barks – that is preferred? and then – say it barks at visitors – but carries on way too long and sometimes seems to got louder – before or even after the owner shows up and greets the visitor – how to get it to stop = deal with the situation and relax? looking forward to your articles on the 4 core exercises to increase such a dog’s emotional capacity. not that i don’t have a clue – but i’m still looking forward to them 🙂

  2. kbehan says:

    Yes, at least when a dog is barking he’s moving energy. If the bark is deep and metered, then he is collected and most able to learn to collect himself and become quiet. If the bark is coming from the head and is high pitched and streaming together into a barely modulated series, then it tends toward the incessant. Now some dogs will have the metered and the high, and this is typically from the too-much-owner-attention as the dog’s metric of connection with the owner, and in this state the dog finds it difficult to settle itself. As we go we’ll talk about the four core exercises as a means of “greasing the skids” for an ultimate resolution, but for now I would recommend the owner not give the dog any attention indoors and to remove any other allergens as well (sleeping on bed, overly tending, etc..).

  3. john says:

    looking forward to the follow up on this one, have a dog very similar to the model of the reactive dog in this post, thanks

  4. Larry says:

    Kevin, could you talk a little more in detail about the “sleeping on bed, overly tending” aspects of dealing with this. I’m not sure where my dog falls in this spectrum, but definitely has “issues” with other dogs. However, it’s been my observation that her energy is definitely more ‘attraction’ as opposed to ‘aggression’. I know you’ve advised against letting dogs sleep in your bed, (which I am sometimes guilty) but would enjoy hearing more about how this and the “overly tending” can impact the interaction between myself and my dog.

  5. kbehan says:

    The link below is to an article I wrote several years ago about sleeping on the bed. The main thing is that overly-tending a dog comes from an owner’s need and need is always a function of fear (the alternative is a want, a function of desire). Sooner or later the dog will convert the pressure from being object-of-attention, into an overt expression of fear, which is the only way it can be turned back into a desire. (fear is the collapse of a desire). Constantly internalizing a fear is an emotional dead end which is why fearful dogs ultimately would like to become aggressive, they’re trying to externalize what they’ve been internalizing. In short, we want to connect with our dog through desire, a common want, rather than through need. All the joys of canine companionship emanate from the former, all the travails from the latter.

    http://naturaldogtraining.com/blog/dogs-sleeping-on-the-bed/

  6. This explains something I discussed in my first novel and which continues on to today.

    In the story, Ginger, an Airedale, has been left out in the cold on a tie line for about 10 hours, while her owner has been lying dead in the kitchen. When Jack takes her back to his kennel, he allows her to sleep on the bed with him.

    The next morning, his groomer, Mrs. Murtaugh tsk-tsks him, saying “You’re not supposed to let a dog sleep on the bed.”

    Jack says, “There’s a lot of things you’re not supposed to do that end up being the best thing you can do, once you do them.”

    He goes on to say: “If you were Ginger, and your owner had just been murdered, would you rather spend your first night without her, alone in a kennel, or sleeping on a comfortable bed with someone you know and like?”

    Jack essentially gives up his own comfort out of a desire to help the dog cope with a huge change in her routine.

    I don’t have a kennel, but I board dogs in my apartment. And while I don’t allow them to sleep on my bed through the night, there are times when I’ll invite one up on the bed for some contact before bedtime, while I’m watching Letterman, because I know it will help settle the dog’s nerves.

    Case in point, Odysseus (Oddy), a miniature schnauzer. Every time he stays with me he does a lot of compulsive lifting his nose in the air, as if sniffing some invisible scent. I see this as a stress reaction. Lying next to me on the bed calms him down almost immediately. Once he’s calm, he’s happy to go sleep in his crate, or wherever he likes.

    So I’m glad to have this explanation for the “no-letting-the-dog-up-on-the-bed” rule because I do it sometimes, but I’m not doing it out of my own need for contact (though it’s nice, up to a point), but because of a desire to help settle a dog’s nerves.

  7. By the way, when Oddy comes to stay with me he always comes with his “sister” Penny (Penelope).

    Both dogs were seriously attacked by a much bigger dog several years ago. Penny nearly died from her injuries, but bears no emotional scars. Oddy, who wasn’t hurt as badly, developed some very deep emotional issues.

    For the first few days of their usual stays with me, whenever I invite Oddy up on the bed, Penny comes up too. She doesn’t stay up long, though. She doesn’t need to feel grounded as badly as Oddy does.

  8. b... says:

    “As the hind end of the dog becomes sensually aroused, or energized, by the physical memories of ingestion, we then observe the dog gathering itself in its hind end… So in a collected dog, the hind end is going faster than the front end (since the object-of-attraction isn’t yet open to making full contact)…”

    So if a dog is stimulated by another dog and is trying desperately to get to it, but is prevented from doing so via leash (owner stands still)… and after an attempt to break free of the leash, goes into down but starts vocalizing (whining, squeaking, not growling), do we interpret the down as:

    A) the dog is gathering itself in its hind end (= progress, should be encouraged), and just doesn’t yet have the capacity to handle that much energy flowing through it, hence the vocalizations

    or…

    B) the vocalizations are a sign that the dog is not conductive
    (“It is feeling pressure in its head and jaws as it tries to hold energy back from a “sensitized” hind end…”)
    and the down is not grounding but rather the dog’s attempt to perform a previously trained obedience behavior in an attempt to gain freedom from the leash/owner?
    (i.e., this is just reinforcing an undesirable pattern)

  9. b... says:

    Also, same dog:

    “[grounded dog’s] goal is to smell the other dog’s body as opposed to looking at its eyes and overcoming its resistance. It’s focusing its internal subliminal beam of attention on the physical memory of its physical center-of-gravity in its hind end, in the collected position, and this makes it feel sensually aroused back there. The collected dog thereby perceives as if it is pulling the other dog into its “Self.” It is feeling that by feeling sensual in its hind end, it is inducing its surroundings to heighten its feeling of pleasure.”

    OK, so if the dog who is fixated on getting to the other dog goes straight to incessantly sniffing and licking that other dog’s nether regions (rather than going for eye contact), is this a sign that the dog is collected? It certainly doesn’t look collected.

    “It’s focusing its internal subliminal beam of attention on the physical memory of its physical center-of-gravity in its hind end, in the collected position, and this makes it feel sensually aroused back there. The collected dog thereby perceives as if it is pulling the other dog into its “Self.” It is feeling that by feeling sensual in its hind end, it is inducing its surroundings to heighten its feeling of pleasure.”

    So if the sniffing/licking goes on long enough and soon turns into mounting/humping, this seems in line with the statement above. Though again, this doesn’t look collected.

    “by concentrating on this collected state and focusing its psychic energy deep within its hind end, it is literally willing the environment to conform to its desires. This feeling can grow so strong that even if the other dog snaps, nips or snarks the dog as he tries to complete the emotional cycle by capturing a smell of essence, the dog merely doubles down on being soft and supple ”

    If the other dog snaps, this dog doesn’t really look like it’s becoming soft and supple, but rather backs off and stares at the other dog for a moment, and then tries to mount again.

    Having trouble interpreting the behavior based on what’s written here — the pulling/whining/licking/mounting dog doesn’t look like a grounded, collected dog…

  10. kbehan says:

    Yes the dog is collected and the vocalizations are the body/mind’s physiological attempt to shed excess energy because the degree of ingestion doesn’t match with the level of arousal, hence the rear end is going faster than the front end. The dog feels grounded into the other dog (which is why it is acting as an emotional counterbalance, i.e. a trait-on-demand, becoming the equal opposite to the object of attraction–it’s down while the other dog is up, it’s active while the other dog is still, etc..)

  11. kbehan says:

    The dog is collected, but the rate of ingestion isn’t commensurate with the degree of arousal, hence the spill over into turbulent behaviors. So it’s collected, but it isn’t calm because the rear end is going faster than the front end. If the front end (stimulation) were fully reconciled with the rear end (arousal) then its top line would be connected to its underside and it would proceed at the pace with which the object of its attraction were more comfortable with. So an overly friendly dog is acting very turbulent and this can upset a dog that is perched precariously and it will feel knocked off balance. We also have to remember that a frame of reference isn’t necessarily the same between being attracted and then actually making contact. So a dog can make contact and then be upset by the surge of stress that releases and the frame of reference changes, so that can be a confusing element when parsing out the complexities of an interaction.

  12. b... says:

    “So a dog can make contact and then be upset by the surge of stress that releases and the frame of reference changes, so that can be a confusing element when parsing out the complexities of an interaction.”

    Thanks, that’s very helpful. I was trying to understand the process of when the dog is very attracted to another dog in a non-aggressive but highly stimulated way, and then once it gets to the dog and connects (mounting), it sometimes turns into snarling/snapping.

    It seems like the dog should be prevented from making contacting with other dogs when it’s overly stimulated by them, until it is grounded enough to not whine/pull, so as not to reinforce the collapsing pattern?

  13. kbehan says:

    Exactly, until both dogs are collected, the interaction can collapse so it’s best to manage the first ten minutes and after they get aligned and synchronized, such as when they orbit a scent pole and take turns urinating, then they can be given the freedom to interact. The litmus test is if one snarks and the other can absorb it without reacting, that means it can hold onto the feeling of attraction and will self-modify and this will soften the snarky one. Then he feels safe and will just be still to immobilize the other rather than feeling compelled to resort to an outburst. You have to watch for that shift into “the less I do the safer I am.”

  14. Peebar says:

    Hi Kevin, did you produce the subsequent article/s that summarise the four core exercises of NDT as mentioned here? It would be great if you could post a summary of your up to date recommended core exercises to practise to develop my dogs emotional capacity and make him more connected.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: