Theory Into Practice – Be the Ground

There are a few simple concepts that help put the theory (emotion as animal energy and as a force of attraction) of Natural Dog Training into practical application in regards to the raising and training of a dog. These will be articulated through the following three articles: (1) “Be the Ground” (2) “Objectify the Problem” (3) “Pavlov’s Theory” and will provide the basis of subsequent training articles.

Be the Ground

One fall afternoon about thirty years ago I was driving along a country road that ran above a house. I could see the entirety of its yard which featured a dog tied to a long trolley. Months and months of hard pounding had shaped the dog’s path into what looked like an official dirt bike course, complete with banked curves and notches carved into hillocks. As I neared the property, the dog was lying at the foot of its dog house, intently staring at the far end of its range. Then, it launched itself at a dead run at a squirrel that had come within striking distance of the trolley track. Of course, the squirrel had the calculus all worked out and by the time the dog was almost on it, was safely out of the hot zone. Strangely however the dog never slowed and hit the end of its cable at full speed, which then flung the dog high into the air from whence it was slammed to the ground in a smack-down worthy of Wrestlemania. “Oh, that’s gotta hurt,” I remember thinking to myself and yet oddly as it seemed to me at the time, the dog immediately leapt  back to its feet with the biggest smile on its face. Then with tail held high, it trotted back to its lair just as our German Shepherd dog Rommel would prance along when carrying a dead woodchuck in his mouth. It took me many years to understand what I had just witnessed.

Whenever a dog perceives any change in its surroundings, its brain of course becomes active and this generates neuro-chemical energy. No rocket science here. A stimulus would not be called a stimulus if it didn’t stimulate the brain. However, because the dog’s mind is constituted by two-brains, the Little-Brain-in-the-gut in addition to the Big-Brain-in-the-head, stimulation first and foremost invokes a sensation of emotional displacement and this makes a dog feel unbalanced, literally. Even a state of hunger is perceived as a displacement and therefore the dog searches for a “ground” (i.e. a preyful aspect) in order to return it to the pre-stimulated state of emotional equilibrium and which it simultaneously equates with being on terra-firma.

Bio-mechanically speaking, grounding means that nerve energy of the Big-Brain (which is like an electrostatic pressure with spikes of electrical charge) must be converted into smooth muscle wave action of the intestines. The most primal avenues of ingestion or grounding are smell and taste, and so smelling or eating something – even grass – has a calming effect. But sight and touch can also become available as more elaborate pathways for emotional grounding due to the sexual/sensual circuitry. So nerve energy stimulated by sensory input needs to be digested by the Little-Brain-in-the-gut just as nutritional input needs to be digested within the gut. Every input to the organism, whether nutritional or emotional, follows this principle.

In regards to training, this means that it doesn’t actually matter to a dog what logically happens in any given situation, what really matters is how a dog ends up feeling. In other words, after the dust settles does the dog feel grounded or not? For example, if 200,000 volts of stimulation was inputted then 200,000 volts of grounding has to be achieved in order for the dog to end up feeling satisfied.

Bernhard Mannel, a German Schutzhund trainer mentioned elsewhere on this site, posed the following question to participants in a seminar I attended, and this can help clarify how important the feeling of grounding is to canine learning. Mannel asked us to consider that if a wolf were to seize a deer by its hind leg and if somehow the leg in its grasp yanked free of the deer’s body: how would the wolf respond to watching the rest of the deer getting away? Would it continue after the deer or would it content itself with the leg in its mouth? Mannel argued that the wolf wouldn’t care what happened to the rest of the deer. The wolf had leapt into the air to “make prey” and ended up with prey-on-the-ground, and therefore in the canine mind, the situation was resolved.

At the time of that seminar, around 1977 or ‘78, I believed Mannel was right, and since then everything I’ve learned about dogs confirms his supposition. To put his point in my parlance, the wolf felt grounded, and this fulfills the essential predicate of animal consciousness. A wolf isn’t trying to kill the deer or even eat the deer; it just wants to bite the deer’s body in order to attain grounding, and as far as the wolf is concerned, the head of the deer (i.e. its predatory aspect) is welcome to whatever is left. In a dog’s mind, it doesn’t matter what actually happens, – all that matters is how the dog feels after-what-happens happened.

This calls into question the prevailing logic of reinforcement-based theories of learning. For example, we think that praise and food rewards are necessarily experienced by the dog as a positive emotional input. However, if a dog sees a deer and is energized to the 200k volt level, and then the owner calls the dog to their side and rewards with food and praise (which for purposes of this discussion let’s say is worth only 100k volts worth of grounding to this particular dog), then the dog has been left with a shortfall of 100k and sooner or later the dog will have to get back to the unfinished business of grounding-out-deer-energy, even though it may have reliably come to its name the first several times dog and owner encountered deer. Just because a dog is interrupted from a chase by the sound of its name and then returns to its owner’s side, doesn’t mean that all its energy felt consummated and that therefore the dog is gaining the lesson we think it is learning. Because in this example, the dog remains burdened with unresolved energy which will continually vibrate away, deep within its body/mind until it resurfaces at some later point. While unresolved emotion may be latent, it is never dormant; it organizes everything.

Conversely, if the sight of a deer fills a dog up with 200,000 volts of “energy”, and then if those 200,000 volts of energy end up “running-to-ground” it doesn’t actually matter to the dog how the energy ran to ground, just that it ran to ground. If fully grounded into something, as in a bite object an owner might provide, then the dog feels satisfied even if it didn’t end up bringing the deer down. All that matters is whether the dog’s emotional battery is returned to its pre-stimulated state, so that if a deer equals 200,000 volts of stimulation and 200,000 volts of nerve energy runs-to-ground via contacting with its owner, then for this dog, this is what bringing a deer down feels like. A dog doesn’t have to bring a deer down, it just has to bring the energy to ground and therefore it is incumbent on an owner to understand that there is an emotional physics (rather than a psychology) by which a dog defines success.

I now believe that the trolley dog I observed thirty years ago had probably never ever killed a squirrel in its life, and yet nonetheless when the dog pranced its way back to its house to resume its survey of the kingdom below, it carved yet another notch on the transom. For that dog, being flung into the air and body-slammed to earth was the only tangible thing of high intensity value to ever be realized in trolley land, and that thereby came to constitute its definition of what killing a squirrel feels like. As incongruent as it may appear to our human powers of reason and sensibilities, physically speaking the dog did indeed attain a pretty high degree of grounding given that so much of its energy had quite literally been absorbed by the ground. There had been a huge transfer of kinetic energy from dog to the earth and that was enough to satisfy the energetic parameters of animal consciousness. In fact I believe the dog learned to wait at the highest point of its compound at the farthest end of its range so that it could experience the most degree of grounding by hitting the trolley at its highest possible speed. The dog would never be able to learn to lie in wait as the most efficient means of actually catching a squirrel as a cat would do, because in its mind that’s not what killing a squirrel feels like, and it didn’t really want to kill a squirrel. It just wanted to feel grounded.

So the motive of all animal behavior is for energy to run-to-ground, and given that the canine mind is organized as an energy circuit, an owner can position themselves to become the apex of their dog’s mind by becoming the pathway by which the dog’s energy thereby runs to ground. To establish such an imprint this means that if there is 200k volts worth of input, it must be discharged through actions that overcome 200k volts of resistance and that results with 200k volts of grounding. Interestingly, in the natural scheme of things the Being which constitutes this apex of emotional experience is not the so-called pack leader but the moose. I’m not aware of one recorded instance whereby an alpha ever commanded an omega to come to its side. And yet whenever the moose calls, wolves always come running.

So when I encounter a deer with a young dog, I don’t command it to do anything. I say “Gooood boy, yea, let’s get that deer. Reeeaaaaddddy?” We then run away from the deer as fast as I can go and get to the “Ready” tree where I’ve hidden the sacred moose toy. Then we beat each other up over getting that toy in my dog’s mouth. For my dog, that’s what killing a deer feels like.

Published September 5, 2009 by Kevin Behan
Tags: , , , , , ,

14 responses to “Theory Into Practice – Be the Ground”

  1. April Hannon says:

    This is a very interesting and enlightening post. I realized that the dog never has to kill the prey, just to feel grouded. How would you help a dog that wants to kill cats, though. I’ve been doing pushing, lots of tug of war, and other chase games. And I feel that my dog is much more grounded with me. But when should or what specifically, be done about his prey instinct towards cats( I’m not sure its prey drive or prey instinct, but he will kill a cat if given the chance).

  2. Ben says:

    April– I used NDT to help my dog get over his attraction to cats (or I should say, taught him what it feels like to actually catch a cat). I dealt with this over a year ago, and it was before I had ever really seen NDT demonstrated. All I had was Kevin’s book and lots of helpful information from Lee and Neil. They may recommend a different approach, but this is what worked for me.

    Before NDT, I tried to use corrections to teach Indy, my dog, not to go after cats. That failed miserably, and corrections actually *increased* his desire to go after the cat (which now makes sense, but at the time it was baffling).

    Instead, I started to praise him every time we saw a cat. I’d say “GOOD boy!! That’s a great cat! Good, yeah, you want to get him, huh!” All the while I’d be massaging him, and speaking in a very relaxed and calm tone.

    This helped a lot, but then I upped the ante and decided to start redirecting him. When he became fixated on the cat, I’d praise and massage him, and when his focus broke at some point for a split second (which it always does eventually)– I start running backwards and called his name excitedly. If I caught it at the right time (which is key), he would start running towards me and I would either start tugging with him, or invite him to jump up on me to get some treats.

    Once we got that down pat, I then started to mix obedience behaviors in. I’d ask him to “Down” near the cat, “come”, etc. This seemed to help a lot– as all the drive he would feel in those moments would be resolved with me.

    We got to the point where I felt comfortable enough to let the leash go entirely. He could run across the yard full speed towards me with the cat mere feet away.

    Your dog needs to feel what it’s like to catch a cat– whatever the amount of attraction he feels towards the cat needs to be resolved with you. The fact you’re doing all the base exercises is GREAT, and I think will make training around a cat much easier. Luckily, my neighbor’s cat was content enough to lay around outside while I trained with Indy.

    I haven’t done any training near cats since then, and he has relapsed a bit, but is still infinitely more manageable than he was before. We still had a little more work to do, so we never quite finished (if one ever “finishes” training a dog).

  3. kbehan says:

    Ideally, we want the cat to train the dog. So don’t allow the cat to run from the dog in their first exposures to each other or you will indeed have to contend with cat as prey object. I place a cat in a wire cage and so this will encourage the cat to fight back and express its predatory aspect. Meanwhile I see if the dog will take food from me when the cat is nearby. Then I see if it will push into me, then follow me, then do down and then down/stay. Then go to the cat in the crate, get hissed at and then come to me, push, follow, down, stay. In a few weeks when the dog is doing great on stay-on-the-box, I might let the cat move around freely while I sit nearby with dog on box and on lead. Meanwhile outside the dog is getting its prey-making ya-yas satisfied through push-of-war work. In general I wait for the cat to show me when the dog has shifted. At some point the cat will come right up to the dog, rub up against it and splay itself out in front of the dog and from then on the cat will be in charge and there is peace in the valley. This approach may take a while but it won’t be dependant on controlling the dog, the energy will be in control.

  4. Irma says:

    Whenever we return to the house from a walk, my dog with go to his bed and hump it and perhaps if he is in a heightened state of energy, he might chew at it. To me, this feels like a build up of energy that hasn’t been grounded. How do I get him to feel the grounded energy so that he doesn’t pick away at his bed? Should I let him hump his bed? He also humps his bed when it seems to me like he wants attention and he isn’t getting it.

  5. Alec says:

    It seems like you are going out on the hunt with your dog but it isn’t culminating in fulfillment of the prey instinct. Also, perhaps there is increased energy in the house. I won’t try to pretend I know all that much but I can offer a couple of suggestions that have helped me when I come in from a walk and other energizing activities. When I come back from a walk I grab a fetch toy that my dog likes and throw it around a few times and when we go in I will try to make sure that myself, my wife and my dog aren’t all in the same room for a little while as it seems to create too much energy if we are. Also, I may give my dog something to lie down with and chew on. Good luck.

  6. kbehan says:

    Yes, the dog is building up a charge on his walk so you could teach him to “push” on the walk, and then give him a good bite on a tug toy and put up a good fight so he has to exert himself in order to win and then see if this releases the tension. Because the bedding has a form, it is an object of resistance. And because it has a soft texture and a fluffy bulbous compressible nature, it has prey value. And because sexuality is a response to resistance when a prey object doesn’t move, this is why he humps it. I would put the bedding away before your walk so he doesn’t obsess on this inanimate object and not make it an object of contention at the moment by focusing on correcting, rather work on increasing the amount of resistance he overcomes outside on his walk because as Alec correctly points out the dog isn’t hitting the prey drives’ “STOP” signal. Remember that from a dog’s point of view every outing is a hunt.
    The other important question is, since most dogs don’t mount their bedding even when charged, whether you put special attention into “bedding?”

  7. In regards to training, this means that it doesn’t actually matter to a dog what logically happens in any given situation, what really matters is how a dog ends up feeling..

  8. kbehan says:

    Right, as long as the amount of energy provoked by a stimulation ends up being “grounded.” then the dog perceives the situation as having been successfully completed, even if logically speaking, the exact opposite seemed to have happened.

  9. Christine says:

    Hey Kevin, another general question for when you get a round toit. (I never seem to have enough of them!lol)

    I’ll be attending a WKSP on fostering dogs. Do you have any input on this situation? Would it be advisable and how would one go about using NDT methods with a fostered dog, especially since I already have 3 of my own. Is there anything in particular that I should keep in mind, be aware of, take into consideration, etc.? Would there be any differences in how NDT methods are applied?

    I don’t know that I’ll be fostering any time soon but it’s something I would love to be able to do and I want to make sure the puppers and I are up to the challenge!

    Thank you so much for your insights, experience and willingness to share your knowledge!

  10. kbehan says:

    Most people just swamp the dog with love, include it in everything they do, give it free rein, and the problem then is that whatever instincts landed it in hot water in the past, come to the surface and begin to format the new experience in terms of the old experience, thereby squandering the chance to begin with a clean slate. So, I advise keeping the dog confined when not being supervised, giving it little attention inside, nice long walks outside away from distractions, and observing with great care to get to know the dog. Then, it can slowly be integrated into the routine and in terms of an appropriate handling/training regime. Go slow, always expect the worst, and then be pleasantly surprised.

  11. Christine says:

    Thank You! That makes good sense; I’ll add it to whatever I get at the orientation on Saturday.

  12. Ben says:

    I’ve always wondered about the proper “NDT” way to introduce a new dog to your household and family.

    For example, should a new dog be crated pretty much all the time unless out training or walking? How long should this go on for? Should the dog be allowed to play with toys by themselves in the yard or should everything be owner-focused initially? Is it appropriate to start obedience training immediately or is it best to give it a few weeks until the dog settles in? Etc etc.. I know you are very busy Kevin but it would be a helpful article! 🙂

  13. christine randolph says:

    crating is good but I have a lot of rooms
    so I use a leash to tie the dog to heavy furniture, so that they can be near me without me having to lug the crate to every single room I will be using during the day.
    I found if they are not near me they started howling.

    with my border collie whom i adopted at 10 months, I did not have to do that.

    but the 2 northern breeds were more difficult to integrate so I did do that for quite a while. with the little one whom i adopted at 5 months I did it for 2 months, mainly for the house training.

  14. nba 2k17 vc says:

    I appreciate the details on your website. Thank you so much!.
    nba 2k17 vc http://bc24team.com/forum/topic/5206

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: