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Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves
Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves
Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves
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Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves

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In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined; by heart; and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
Release dateFeb 22, 2012
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  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    I found this book amazing! I am a owner of a reactive dog and this really helped me to understand how my trauma is affecting my dog and how he is reacting to me. I loved this thank you!

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Your Dog Is Your Mirror - Kevin Behan



[ Our Special Relationship with Dogs ]


[ They Know Us by Heart ]

I’ve got you under my skin.

I’ve got you deep in the heart of me.

So deep in my heart, that you’re really a part of me.

I’ve got you under my skin.

— Cole Porter

What does it mean to know by heart?

It used to be that students were required to memorize important passages of literature by rote. In the New York Times Letters to the Editor section a few years ago, a man wrote lamenting the loss of this practice. In his letter he pointed out that once he had committed a poem or some prose to memory, the words of the masters were available to him for the rest of his life and at exactly the precise moment when he needed to make a point or seal an argument. It was as if these words had become his own, spontaneously springing from his lips at the perfect time and carrying the voice of a transcendent wisdom. He knew them by heart.

When we know something by heart it has become a part of our body as much as an arm or a leg. It is quite literally — and this will be demonstrated plainly over the following pages — under our skin, integrated into our very viscera. We can feel it and know what’s true by virtue of how it feels from deep down inside. Somehow we’ve ingested the essence of that thing or even of a person until this thing or person becomes a part of our very being. To know something as an unshakeable truth isn’t a thought, it’s a feeling.

Imagine if we could meet someone and virtually on sight, or with a touch, feel what that person was feeling. I don’t mean trying to imagine how they’re feeling, or asking, How would I feel if I were in her shoes? I mean actually feeling the other person’s emotion, without any thinking whatsoever, an empathic communication of pure energy, a one-for-one transference in every nuance and subtlety of one individual’s feelings to another.

If such direct communication were possible, then the other person’s words and even their actions wouldn’t matter most to us (in fact they might be irrelevant) — only what they were feeling would matter. Interestingly, if they wanted something, we’d want them to have it. We wouldn’t negatively judge what that person was feeling because we would be feeling exactly the same way. It would feel good to give that person what they wanted so that they would feel good because we would then feel good too. If that person’s feelings changed, we would feel the change and would require no reason for it. We would have no need to save face or hold onto a feeling that was no longer present. We would know what that person was about to do, even before they acted. It would be easy to come to trust them. No matter what they did, it would all make sense to us, since we would be experiencing it for ourselves. There wouldn’t be two points of view to reconcile; there would be only one emotional point of view. Even more important, if this person were deeply upset, we would feel it, and we would feel compelled to find relief in order to be near them.

In other words, we would find ourselves responding to that person — and to all others — and behaving just as dogs do: from heart to heart.

On rare occasions in nature, we are afforded a glimpse of this kind of empathic transference. Periodically, these stories make international news, as when a lioness adopted and nursed a baby gazelle and defended it from other lions; a dolphin rescued a swimmer from a shark attack; a gorilla in a Chicago zoo saved a young child who had fallen into its enclosure; and in the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, a hippo and a tortoise exhibited a deep emotional bond. I once saw a deer try to play with a dog on the other side of a fence.

At the same time, however, because expressions of this cross-species empathy are so rare (nearly all animal behavior is instinctual or habitual), such events strike us as miracles, as if the animal magically transcended its base nature. In fact, due to special circumstances of the moment, the exact opposite has occurred: the animal was able to get below its genetic preprogramming and down to the root emotional core it shares with all other animals. In other words, every animal has access to the same, universal code of emotion, a monolithic force of attraction, like gravity, that creates meaningful bonds and is responsible for altruism and the cooperative impulse. However, in most species when a situation gets too intense, instincts or old habits take over and preclude the animal’s capacity to go by feel. I call this ability to go by feel the individual’s emotional capacity; it is the ability to feel the pure emotional context of a situation or the emotional essence of another being. When any two animals get along and bond, both individuals are responding to the organizing effects of pure emotion; they are within their emotional capacity (which varies by species and individual) and are open to each other. When animals are able to work together and achieve more than they could on their own, it is the result of a shared true feeling. When emotion collapses and instincts crowd out feelings, it is the source of all the strife we see in nature, and I daresay in society.

Every day we bear witness to perhaps the greatest example of a network consciousness, going on with one animal who, endowed with an amazingly high emotional capacity, is able to fully bond and communicate with human beings: the family dog. It isn’t coincidental that all the traits we associate with the notion of heart — stand-by-your-friend steadfastness, dogged determination, unconditional loyalty and devotion, social openness, against-all-odds courageousness, inexhaustible willingness to subordinate self-interest for the good of the whole — are traits we also associate with dogs. Intuitively, we recognize dogs as heart energy, and that is precisely why dog owners often have such peculiar and baffling responses to their dogs. It is also why a dog infallibly comes to fit his or her owner emotionally like a hand-in-glove.

About ten years ago I was working with a psychiatrist and her happy but rambunctious briard. As I’m relatively tall, while I was walking with the woman and her dog on the Manhattan sidewalks, I could look down and observe not only that she and her dog had the same color hair — with delicate streaks of light blond weaving in and out of a darker, orange-tinged blond — a concordance unusual enough, but that their hair had the same fine texture as well. In addition, their coifs were layered in such a way that with each footfall, the shock of impact flounced their hair in the exact same manner. They were completely physically simpatico. Equally clear was that the psychiatrist — who taught at a major university and had a large private practice and a home in the Hamptons — was wholly unaware of the stunning physical similarities she shared with her dog.

This set me up for another revelation. As the woman told me what her dog liked and didn’t like, his habits and predilections — which dogs at the fenced dog run were mean to him and which ones he got along with, and why she thought he had developed the particular set of traits he exhibited, which are things I know have nothing to do with the nature of a dog — I grasped that she was really telling me about herself. This is what I feel about the other dog’s owner. This is what I don’t like being done to me. This is how I want to be treated.

The woman wasn’t projecting or reading things into what her dog was doing; he did, in fact, perform the actions she described. Just as she and her dog had become synchronized physically on a very subtle level, her dog had likewise molded his social and emotional behavior to suit her personality and dispositions. Her dog was behaving exactly as she expected him to behave.

I have spent my life immersed in nature and in the nature of dogs, but it was on that walk with a dog and his owner on a busy Manhattan street that I arrived at understanding the absolute essence of a dog’s true nature: They know us by heart. We are under their skin.

Once I was at a dinner party and the conversation at our table turned to my work as a dog trainer, which prompted one woman to ask me about her male miniature schnauzer, Ranger. Why, she wanted to know, would Ranger attack any male dog on sight, except for some unfathomable reason, one particular male dog that they occasionally encountered on the street, whom Ranger absolutely adored? This big old dog, a Lab mix, would push her Ranger down to the ground, and rather than retaliate, the schnauzer would roll over on his back with his tail going a mile a minute. Ranger’s owner was shocked each time this happened because if any other male dog made but one nanosecond of direct eye contact, Ranger would leap for the jugular.

I never solicit these kinds of discussions, as they can easily wander into prickly emotional terrain. But the question was irresistible, so I dared to press on. As a trainer, I know that when dogs go belly up, it’s not friendliness; rather, the dog is in emotional overload and reacts with the same instinctual mechanism that underlies the human condition of guilt. I asked the woman what she felt about the owner of this particular dog. Oh, I can’t stand her — she’s horrible to me. She says I’m a terrible dog owner because she thinks my dog is so unruly. I told her I’ve tried all kinds of training, but then she tells me that people like me shouldn’t have a dog.

Now things added up. I told my dinner companion that, emotionally speaking, the owner of this dog was her mother to her, and therefore energetically the big dog was the same to Ranger.

My statement hit her like a ton of stone: her jaw dropped with her eyes wide open, she sat back in her chair ramrod straight, palms pressed flat on the table, looking as if she was either trying to stay in her seat or about to bolt from the table. Waiting for her to catch her breath, I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps I’d crossed the line; perhaps she was about to throw her butter plate at me. Then to my great relief she exhaled and said, You’re exactly right. I feel just as if she is my mother.

Exactly, I said. The woman with the big Lab can make you feel guilty, and you have to take it, just like Ranger will let the big dog push him down. Our conversation went on to reveal that when she was a little girl, her mother had taken their family dog — a miniature Schnauzer, of course — and placed it in the shelter for some offense, but eventually it had been put to sleep. It was a betrayal by her mother that the woman thought she had long ago put behind her, yet her dog was revealing that it remained unresolved.

There are a handful of ways humans can project onto a dog: considering one’s dog as a best friend or confidant; viewing one’s dog as a surrogate sibling, like a brother or sister one never had; considering one’s dog as a parent figure who protects and cares for one; viewing one’s dog as a child to nurture and shower with affection; and even projecting the fantasy of a soul mate onto one’s dog. Yet this catalog is far too limited to account for the infinite variety of ways dogs reflect their owners. In other words, the real issue isn’t what an owner projects onto their dog. What’s of interest to me, and what fundamentally distinguishes this book from most other explorations of the human/canine bond, is what the dog picks up in its owner. No matter how many stories I’ve read about the actions of dogs, the level of rapport between a dog and its owner never ceases to amaze me.

For instance, Cruiser is a big, burly longhaired German shepherd owned by Lynette. When she and her husband travel, they board Cruiser with me. There are many interesting things to say about Cruiser. One of these is that no matter how hungry he may be, bounding for joy as I approach him bearing his pan of food, he always leaves a few pieces of kibble uneaten at the bottom of the bowl. He never finishes the last bite.

One day when Lynette arrived to pick up Cruiser, I asked her if there was something in her behavior that was akin to Cruiser’s odd habit. She and her husband smiled knowingly; it wasn’t merely analogous but was a direct one-to-one correlation. Lynette told me — and it apparently drives her husband crazy and is the source of much ribbing from her friends — that she too always leaves a tiny portion of her meal, no matter how delectable, on her plate. She never eats the last bite.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of two items on the same page of a newspaper is far more illuminating than their respective content. In the science section of the New York Times on November 9, 2003, the cover article explored how chimps, apes, and humans have the same specialized wiring in their brains that is purportedly responsible for the high social virtues. The banner headline running boldly across the page read: Humanity: Maybe It’s in the Wiring? Meanwhile, in the bottom right corner of the same page was a photo of village women in Africa holding and wailing over a sick or possibly dead child. What drew my attention to the photo, however, was the village dog in the background, howling with its head cocked back, tail arched high, as if baying at the moon, in an obvious state of yearning and longing. The newspaper gave center stage to humankind’s primate first cousin and the big brain that human and ape have in common. Yet the lowly dog, every cell in its body resonating with how those women were feeling, went unheralded; as with most things canine, the truth slips by without notice. If our humanity and the high social traits of altruism, compassion, and cooperation are in our wiring, then why didn’t the ape, the bonobo, the chimp, or the orangutan evolve to be man’s best friend? Why the dog?

My theory is that dogs and humans have the same primordial emotional makeup. Deep within every animal beats a primal emotional faculty. It infallibly plugs us into nature, our network service provider, and sluices emotion through its many valves and waterwheels to drive evolution. Both humans and canines tapped into this faculty at the same high level and evolved in tandem from there. I believe there is only one way to evolve: by staying true to desire; the wellspring of passion — the prime kernel of code that factors out feelings and behaviors as expressions of emotion in order to consummate desire — is the same in human and dog. What is most wild in human and canine — Heart — is what bonds us.

If we could ask a dog what it views as the source of our humanity, I believe that the dog would say, with all due apologies to the New York Times, that it’s not in our wiring but in our plumbing.


[ A Dog’s Greatest Gift ]

Several years ago, the CBS show 60 Minutes reported on research being conducted on dogs’ ability to smell cancer in humans. The clinical trials that were filmed were compelling, but what was really amazing were the personal accounts of a family dog sniffing out and then worrying over an affected area on its owner’s body, which thus prompted a lifesaving trip to the doctor. In another incident, trained dogs indicated cancer in a tissue sample that had been certified by the lab as being cancer free. The trainers were at first disappointed, but since the dogs kept indicating on this particular sample, a lab technician retested the patient, and this time bladder cancer was detected. The doctors were flabbergasted.

As someone who has trained police dogs for tracking and scent discrimination, I’m always fascinated by any new application of canine scenting ability. However, I’m intrigued not because a trained dog can smell the biochemical signature of a chemical compound related to cancer; that says more about the imagination and dedication of the dog’s trainer. When a police tracking dog says go left at a fork in the trail when eyewitnesses swore that the bank robber went right, or when a police tracking dog picks up the scent of a footprint in a bare patch of exposed dirt on a subzero, snowy night, I have long since come to respect the age-old police dog bromide that the nose knows. I have long since acquired a standing, take-it-for-granted state of awe in regards to what a dog can smell.

In addition, I would wager that a cow or a goat at the local petting zoo could also tell which people harbor cancer cells or took an aspirin that day or a contraceptive that month, among any number of chemicals that go into a human body. The difference is that most of the time the cow and the goat don’t care what they smell in a human because the scent holds absolutely no emotional value for them. What I find remarkable in the 60 Minutes piece is that the smell of cancer in its owner bothers an untrained dog.

One of the researchers on the 60 Minutes piece commented that the dog thinks there’s something wrong with its owner. I believe this is where we go off course.

I don’t believe that a dog can comprehend the significance of cancer in terms of time. In other words, a dog doesn’t sniff cancer and realize that this means something bad is going to happen to its owner in the future, perhaps dying and leaving the dog alone, and so on; dogs don’t have those thoughts of the future that can torture a human being. Rather, I think the dog becomes emotionally charged by the presence of such a scent because of something intrinsic to the scent then and there. It’s not an intellectual understanding of trouble to come but a response to something in the moment that is already upsetting its owner and placing the owner out of balance. The owner is leaking energy somehow; the person has energy that is ungrounded, and dogs are extremely attracted to potential energy that radiates from any being.

This is why, for example, dogs become excited when a criminal attacks its owner, when family members wrestle in play, or even when someone jumps into a pool, causing a dog to race around hysterically. These events are all examples of ungrounded energy. This is similar to ungrounded electricity, which we instinctively react to as life-threatening. We are innately alarmed by the sizzling smell of electricity arcing in an unseen wire or junction box. For the same reason, coyotes have been seen to stamp out prairie fires sparked by lightning. They aren’t trying to put the fire out; they’re trying to make contact, or ground, the uncontained energy the fire represents. This is also why Newfoundland dogs, renowned for water rescue, feel compelled to jump in a pond and drag a drowning swimmer to shore. The dog is literally grounding the flailing, floundering person by getting him to terra firma. Once the swimmer is on dry ground, the dog is no longer upset. Likewise, cancer’s electrochemical signature is significant to the dog because of the emotional component it embodies; there is an emotional charge underlying the cancer itself. Yet in this case, the dog can’t do anything to bring it to ground, and so the dog worries over it.

When a dog is trained to detect drugs, explosives, contraband, or other items, the trainer doesn’t actually teach the dog how to smell; the dog already knows how to discriminate one scent from another. Rather, the dog is trained to become emotionally aroused by one smell versus another. In the step-by-step training process, the trainer attaches an emotional charge to a particular scent so that the dog is drawn to it above all others. And then the dog is trained to search out the desired item on cue, so that the trainer can control or release the behavior. This emotional arousal is also why playing tug with a dog is a more powerful emotional reward in a training regime than just giving a dog a food treat, since the trainer invests more emotion into a game of tug. From a dog’s point of view, the tug toy is compelling because the trainer is upset by the toy. The trainer displays an incredible focused intensity toward the play object — as if the charge of the toy has knocked the trainer out of emotional equilibrium — as evidenced by how much energy the trainer radiates when the toy is in his or her hand. In the same way, if a young child watches a puppet show or a clown, and a completely innocuous object, such as a wooden block, is handled gingerly or charged by an overexcited performance, the child feels that the object is charged. If she’s drawn into the skit, she’ll avoid touching the object, since the amount of that charge typically exceeds her emotional capacity. She’s too young to deal with the incredible energy invested in the object, and she doesn’t feel she can bring it to

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