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.