Walks with Dogs

Renowned Local Trainer Publishes New Book
by Becky Karush of the Brattleboro Reformer; February 2011

What if Sir Isaac Newton had owned a dog?

What if this brilliant mathematician, who secluded himself in his small dark rooms for days on end, discerning the very principles that govern nature, had to leave his equations to take the dog for a walk? A born scientist, he would have observed his companion minutely, how it barked, how it sniffed, how its eyes flickered, how its body changed when it saw a hedgehog.

He would have watched the dog respond to him morning and night, a constant witness to his tempers and silences.

Sir Isaac would have seen all of nature reflected in the dog. With his relentless mind striving to make sense of what he saw, what would he have learned about the deep workings of the world — and himself — from this singular animal, this four-legged best friend?

Just ask Kevin Behan.

***

The Newfane resident and renowned dog trainer, and an admirer of Newton, is working outside on a relatively warm February day. His gentle German shepherd, Hessian, lopes nearby, relaxed yet attuned to Kevin’s movements. A dog in the training kennel yips, but the fields and hills behind the house let the sounds roll into them, a bright counterpoint to the snow’s quietude.

Inside, Kevin sheds his black boots and winter coat and settles at the wooden dining room table to talk about his new book, “Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Dogs and Ourselves.”

Part treatise, part memoir, the book explores a complex model of dog behavior that Kevin has developed over 30 years. In contrast to dominance or positive reinforcement training theories, he posits that dogs above all seek a kind of group harmony and are primarily driven by their owners’ emotions.

“I started the book in 2001,” he says. Lively classical music pours from a radio beside him. “But I had been thinking about the ideas for years.”

Kevin grew up in West Redding, Conn., in the 1950s. His father, John, a powerful and gregarious man, was one of the first professional dog trainers in the country. He ran the prestigious Canine College, where celebrities and tycoons brought their dogs to be trained. Dominance theory ruled. You had to get the dog to submit to your authority, teach it the pecking order rules, for it to be a good dog.

Kevin began working for the family business at an early age. He didn’t question his father’s methods, but as he grew up, the theory just didn’t explain what he saw or felt, and he both saw and felt a lot.

“I was an observant kid,” he says. “My life depended on it. I was so shy, I would hide when people came to visit. I was mystified by the world, so I had to study it.”

Though painfully shy, he also had tremendous strength of character and a natural vitality. He loved roaming in the woods behind his house for hours, sometimes sitting so still a deer would walk right past him.

Back in the human world, he survived the constant social terror of the profoundly sensitive by willing himself to learn to fit in. This capacity for intense scrutiny, coupled with a faith in his own intuition, meant that when he saw contradictions in how people thought about dogs, he couldn’t let them slide.

“If dominance theory were right,” he remembers thinking, “then why do puppies run roughshod over adults? Why do little dogs boss around big dogs? Why are cats always in charge of dogs?”

The questions roiled over the years. Biology didn’t have the answers. Behavioral theory didn’t either, but each new observation led him deeper toward an original understanding of why dogs do what they do.

In the 1970s, he and his father had a falling out, and Kevin became a solo dog trainer in Connecticut, specializing in police dog training and the rehabilitation of aggressive dogs. Over time, he developed his own training method, called Natural Dog Training, which works by redirecting dogs’ inherent energies. In 1997, he and his wife and three kids moved to Newfane, in large part to be close to nature.

He filled journal after journal with his queries and observations. His curiosity was insatiable. He saw how a mother dog and her puppies formed a perfectly attuned group mind. He witnessed his dog, Illo, acting out intentions he’d set in his own mind.

He started learning about how wolves hunt; wondering how wolves and humans ever got together; and considering attraction and cooperation as the bases of evolution.

He questioned why he, a lifelong shy person, had chosen to work with the most aggressive dogs. He noticed that he was angry and impatient with sensitive dogs, as his father had been with him. He began to suspect that those shy pups were responding to some emotion or energy he carried. Then, having worked with thousands of dogs, Kevin realized that his clients sometimes didn’t like it when he trained problem behaviors out of their pets.

“I started to understand that, even when they were in danger, the owner was getting some visceral pleasure in the so-called bad behavior,” he says. “That was key.”

The dogs, he conjectured, could feel their owners’ deepest, most stressful feelings. Because dogs want more than anything else to be in group harmony, they were acting out the feelings, ultimately (though not intellectually, as dogs operate by feel and not by thought), in order to help their owners resolve these emotions.

It was and is a radical idea, filled with complexities, but Kevin, much like Isaac Newton, was then able to leap from observations to fundamental principles of nature. Emotion, he says, and the communication of emotion, is nature’s energy. It is the force that makes life out of the hardware of genes and neurons and capillaries. Invisible yet omnipresent, it is the heart of consciousness.

Kevin smiles as he explains his model, aware of the heady abstraction but sure in his thinking and very glad he’s been able to express it in his book.

“There were dark days when I doubted I would ever be able to communicate these ideas. It was like I was hearing a melody but couldn’t name the song,” he says. “But now I’ve let my theory out to play with the other theories, and we’ll see how things evolve. The big goal is for the sciences to see the logic in it and apply their brilliance and rigor to it.”

He grins boyishly. “That would be really cool.”

The light has faded; the cool has crept in. Still, Kevin’s own energy burns with a steady power, a magnetic calm, that he must have learned on all his walks with dogs.

***

Meet Kevin at a book signing of “Your Dog Is Your Mirror” at Everyone’s Books, 25 Elliot St., Brattleboro, on Friday, March 4, at 6:30 p.m. To learn more about his work, visit naturaldogtraining.com.

—–

Take a look at the article on Brattleboro Reformer’s webpage.

Published February 26, 2011 by Kevin Behan
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