Natural Dog "Training"

Today was my second day at Maple Farm in Newfane Vermont training with Kevin Behan. It was a beautiful weekend at a picturesque farm with incredible, important events happening every hour, but I was so enthralled I didn't take a single picture.

Kevin has been working with dogs all his life, and his father was also a dog guy. Kevin, at an early age, started to see chinks in the armor of the standard dog-obedience paradigm that experts (even his dad) were using, and began to study and research and experiment and has come up with a philosophy that he calls Natural Dog Training.  I told him that I thought it was mislabeled. It's not dog training at all. It's untraining in some cases. It's a lot of observation and responding to the dog. And it's finding creative ways to meet their needs while at the same time yielding behavioral results that are acceptable.

River and I spent the weekend with him, so that I could learn this technique and apply it to River's fear to prevent behaviors like growling at certain strangers, barking when someone comes into the house, and attacking any dog his size or larger.

I learned that I have not been allowing River to be his full dog-ness. I was requiring that he perform for me. In retrospect, I can clearly see how damaging that was to him. Not permanently, but is was increasing the energetic charge that led to those problems I mentioned above.

Kevin says that no dog is wrong; ever. There is no bad behavior and no bad dogs. There is attraction and flow and balance, and the dog is always seeking to balance his attraction and his flow. Nothing is cognitive, nothing is intentional, nothing is personal.This is why a healthy dog can be calm one second, totally rattled and fighting the next second, and then calm again a second after that. They live their entire lives in one, single moment: now.

But so does lightening, and so does a river, and yet, those can both kill you if you get in the way of their flow.

So if River is exhibiting a behavior that I don't agree with, it is up to me to help him choose a different behavior.

One of the main exercises that we'll be working with is to go into a quick down stay. Walking along side by side and then suddenly, I yank on his chain and calling "down!" Then I reward him with food when he responds by lying down. A few times a day of this can build this into his psyche as a choice he never knew he had. In certain situations that bring up fear in him, he can now make the choice to go down.

A healthy dog will roll over and accept a massage on the side of the neck or the belly, but with me, because I used an Alpha Roll as a method of training, River doesn't fully trust me to do that. And if I'm his main human and he can't trust me, what chance in the world does anyone else have of gaining his trust. So, another daily exercise we do is that I gently roll him over and give him a quiet massage. Kevin says he will eventually stop resisting, but it might take a while. And once he does, it will have a domino effect on his happiness in the world.

River has a low tolerance to stimulation, so I am not supposed to play 'fetch' with him anymore, as that increases that immediate response to stimulus that I'd like to interrupt.

Instead we have a new game called Bite. I'll bait him with a burlap pillow or thick rope and get him really upset at the object until he attacks it with a bite. And then, I encourage him to run with it in his mouth. I don't know why, but this activity takes the urge to bite out of him. As Kevin said when he first met River, "We need to take the fight out of this dog." Giving him an acceptable outlet for his biting urge is crucial to our happiness together.

I had been doing lots of silly obedience commands with him. Touch, Kiss, Spin, Jump, etc. He takes to them really well and is very athletic and trainable. And I thought it was good to keep him learning and to keep interacting with him. But Kevin says that those tricks offer no satisfaction to him. They bring excitement, with no release. So the cute parlor tricks are now off the table.

River has never had a doggie friend. He doesn't play nice. Within an hour of working with Kevin, River was greeting dogs normally. He was sniffing and letting himself be sniffed, walking away, coming back, sharing pee spots and running in the water together. Doing nice, friendly dog activities. And these weren't therapy dogs. These were actually dogs that were at the farm to be fixed of their issues. River, in many cases, ended up being the model citizen and teaching these other dogs how to behave. River was very adept at absorbing anything the other dogs brought and taking it in stride. In the past, he would have most certainly reciprocated a snarling attack from the other dog, if he hadn't already instigated his own snarling attack. But today, he just backed up about two inches and shook it off. Kevin and I would assist the interaction by holding the leashes taught and keeping in a position to yank them apart before anything gets ugly. This gives them a chance to make those choices that don't lead them to satisfaction, but stay in the game long enough to figure out other choices. It was amazing and emotional to witness.

Today River played nicely with a giant sheepdog with aggression issues and a big, energetic pit bull. Yesterday he played well with a Schnauzer and a Doberman and a black Lab and today with the sheepdog, pit bull and an aggressive Corgie. River did better than I ever could have imagined.

On our way out of the farm, Kevin met us in the nearest town, Brattleboro, so that he could demonstrate the technique and initiate River into it in a more urban setting.

He showed me a way to get him out of the car seat that grounds him before sending him bounding off into the city with no sense of self-control. It's weird, but I pull forward on the leash but at the same time tell him not to come off the seat. The idea is that he responds by grounding the back half of his body to resist my pulling. This physically grounds and settles him. If he does come off when I pull, I quickly pull up on the leash, causing it to press on his throat. I encourage him to get back on the seat, and as soon as he does, I immediately release the leash, so he learns that getting off the car seat before I say OK makes him uncomfortable.

We walked down the street until we ran across a homeless person singing and playing a guitar. She had a dog with her. We gave her a dollar and let her dog meet River. It went perfectly.

So, I have some serious adjustments to make. I have to sacrifice some things that I loved to do. But it will be an easy sacrifice because I truly believe that those things were harming him, and I certainly would never want to do that.


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