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Book Review
Natural Dog Training
by Kevin Behan

Review by: Kate Connick, Dec. 2005

Kevin Behan's Natural Dog Training approaches dogs and training from the perspective that dogs are, first and foremost, predators. Therefore, Behan's view is that the most natural and appropriate way to train is through channeling a dog's prey instinct rather than attempting to suppress or ignore it.

As much a philosophy book as a training book, Behan's central thesis is that the dog is fundamentally a socially cooperative hunter and that this is the key to enlightened understanding and interaction. He contends that dogs readily accept behavioral constraints as a means to an end, provided that the payoff involves the satisfaction of prey instinct. In other words, the dog will yield to an owner who is perceived as a superior hunting partner but will resist the owner who is perceived as an obstacle to the expression of prey instinct.

The challenge then becomes one of channeling drive towards acceptable outlets. This involves being not only sensitive and responsive to the dog's needs but highly attentive to managing the dog's environment and experiences.

Behan rejects training models that rely on simple reward-punishment or dominance-submission schemes, yet he embraces both the value of clear leadership as well as consequences to behavior. He asserts:

"Our influence should cause the dog to learn that by being subordinate, he experiences his highest degree of instinctual gratification... when he acts in an appropriate way, he gets positive results. When he acts in an inappropriate way, he makes himself uncomfortable."

To that end, it is important to Behan that corrections - while having a startling effect that will interrupt prey drive effectively - appear as neutral as possible. He does not want the dog to make the connection that the owner has delivered the correction, as he believes that will create resistance or even compel misbehavior. He wants the environment, and ultimately the dog's misdirected drive itself, to appear to be the source of the discomfort.

This isn't always terribly convincing. In some circumstances, dogs do appear to redirect their attentions easily without apparently attributing corrections to the handler, but when you're using long lines and collar corrections, there are going to be circumstances where you simply can't conceal where the corrections are coming from. For example, hooking a long line on a dog that is resting on a couch and then correcting him with a leash-jerk from an adjacent room might get the dog off the couch, but it seems like a stretch to believe that the dog would connect the sudden interruption of his couch comfort with anything other than the owner holding the long line.

Behan works toward accentuating prey drive, building an interest in tennis balls, toys, and food treats, and encouraging active, physical interaction with the owner, including jumping up and roughhousing. This will limit the appeal of his method for some readers who may find the prey drive paradigm unpalatable or the methods contrary to their own nature.

Others will find much wisdom in the approach. To his credit, Behan values dogs as dogs and not as quasi-people, lab rats, or obsessively ambitious wolves. His balanced approach attempts to use the dog's very dogness, as he understands it, to the handler's advantage in training. His overall approach is likely to work best with biddable, high prey drive type dogs (many hunting, herding and working breeds) and dedicated owners.

This isn't a quick-fix recipe book but presents a carefully orchestrated progression of exercises aimed at ultimately achieving off-leash reliability. It is a time-consuming protocol that may feel too labor-intensive for the typical pet owner and may not resonate with the owner of a low-drive dog. And yet, the greatest strength of the book is the author's continual emphasis on the need to develop a bond by satisfying the dog's prey instinct in acceptable ways. This involves personal interaction, walks, play, training, and developing a real working relationship with one's dog. He states it beautifully as follows:

"From your dog's point of view, a hunt can be as simple as a walk around the block, a game of fetch, or an electrifying leap to snatch a frisbee in midair. It can also be a jog down a street or a woodland trail, or a car ride, because fundamentally, hunting means a change of scenery, new sights and smells, and the potential for emotional energy to be cut loose. Hunting means being connected to a group and to nature."

Behan's tools include food, balls, long lines, and pinch collars. Much of his approach involves teaching the dog to "contact" (by jumping up on) the owner before engaging in inherently rewarding behavior like playing with another dog or chasing a ball. Contacting is segued into sitting near or heeling with the owner, and downing is used to interrupt inappropriate expressions of prey drive before redirecting the dog to a more socially acceptable outlet.

Not purely positive by any stretch, firm collar corrections (referred to as "shocks" by the author to emphasize their purpose in startling and energizing the dog) are used to interrupt inappropriate expressions of prey drive and redirect the dog towards the owner's chosen path (e.g., fetching a balls versus chasing squirrels) after the dog has "contacted" the owner, as well as to heighten drive and harden behaviors. To his credit, Behan has a good grasp of the importance of context in moderating the impact that a correction will have.

A casual reading might make this book feel correction-heavy, but a careful reading reflects the author's sensitivity towards trying to use "shocks" judiciously. He is not a bully who advocates relentless punishments or confrontational training in general. Rather, he is quite liberal with letting a puppy be a puppy and carefully developing drive so that a dog is capable of tolerating and benefiting from the corrections that he employs. Nonetheless, this style of training will not be palatable to all dogs or owners; none is.

I suspect that Behan is a brilliant practitioner, and I'd enjoy seeing him work. He appears to have the ability to relate to dogs well - to read them, adjust himself as he goes, and bring out the best in them. I'm not so sure that an inexperienced pet owner could use the information in this book to their best advantage, however.

Even though the book is geared towards "family dog" training, I think it is more useful for a hobbyist who is trying to broaden their perspective beyond traditional or behaviorist models. Poorly implemented, the techniques in this book could do more harm than good, and for a genuine novice, the methods might be harder to perfect than some other approaches to training. For example, anticipating that a dog is losing focus and correcting him pre-emptively is something that could be easily botched by a novice handler. A soft dog, in particular, could suffer from overzealous and inexpert corrections. One really needs to be able to read a dog well to implement Behan's style of training with any degree of competence.

I don't necessarily find all of Behan's assertions convincing or logically consistent. For example, he appears to depart from his prey focus when asserting "it's a huge mistake to let a dog sleep in your bed." Behan suggests that the animal will become so sensitized to rank issues that "he will be doomed to live a life of unnecessary conflict and stress" if given bed privleges. If Behan genuinely believes that dogs are not inherent social climbers, that "there is no inherent drive to make oneself superior," and if the dog's prey instincts find healthy expression elsewhere, this assertion seems to conflict with his overall approach. One would think that communal sleeping among hunting partners would reflect the calm harmony among them.

Similarly, he offers a puzzling interpretation of dogs who "become depressed and start to drool or retreat to a corner of their kennel" when left with him for boarding. He flatly rejects the idea that these dogs are distressed for losing connection with their social group - in effect, for legitimately missing their owners - even though that would appear consistent with his paradigm. Rather, he insists that the dogs are experiencing some deep-seated, post-traumatic emotional crisis based on a history of being over-disciplined.

"Really, it's because the dog has experienced too much punishment for reasons he couldn't comprehend. The newness of this moment at the kennel destroys his sense of order, renewing the emotional pain of a violated limit."

Behan provides enough of these odd conclusions and unprovable assertions to interfere with his overall believability.

This is a 300+ page hardcover volume. Behan's writing style is so thickly poetic, New Agey, and heavy with metaphors that it can be tedious. There are almost no illustrations to clarify concepts, and for a reader short on time or motivation, the book could be insurmountable. Terminology like "harmonic pathways of learning, whereby every member is aligned on parallel lines of flow," may alienate the reader who prefers a more conversational, straightforward manner of writing.

And yet, for the reader willing to slog through the flowery text, Behan presents a thoughtful book. Even if one doesn't entirely buy into his philosophy or methods, he does offer food for thought. Many will find that Behan's emphasis on redirecting and satisfying prey instinct is just what they need to forge a solid working relationship with their dog. While I don't see this book as a helpful tool for the average, novice pet owner, I do think it makes good reading for the hobbyist with a little experience who needs to find that certain something that they haven't found through a strictly behaviorist or traditional approach.

Natural Dog Training, by Kevin Behan.
Published by William Morrow & Company, 1991. ISBN: 0688087833

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