Your Dog Is Your Mirror

The marketing and jacket copy for Your Dog Is Your Mirror, by Kevin Behan talk about the human-dog connection and tout the author’s rejection of the dominance-focused training model he learned from his father. They also swoon over the author’s amazing insights. Sadly, the book does not live up to its marketing.

While Behan says he has rejected a dominance-focused force training approach (except for Schutzhund training), he does not propose an alternate method of training or address training methodology much at all. The bulk of the book is given over to a novel and bizarre theory that Behan devised at the age of 23, having (according to him) read and rejected everything that biology and behavioral science — and his father, a leading dog trainer of the time — had to say about dog behavior and training. One morning, as he was letting the dogs his father boarded out of their kennels, he had the epiphany that “None of the dogs were entertaining any intention whatsoever, even though many looked as if they had the specific intent and goal of getting outside, and some appeared to understand what I expected of them … I now knew there was no intention in anything a dog might do.”

Instead, he posits, everything a dog does is a reflection of the owner’s emotions, both present and past, conscious and unconscious, and in fact, could be a reaction to any experience the owner has ever had. He even explains away the idea that a dog could ever feel aggression toward him (or anyone), stating instead that “when a dog went to bite me, I could see that the dog didn’t intend to hurt me, dominate me, or defend himself or his territory … there was something positive about me the dog was attracted to. The dog had no goal: he was simply attracted to me with a force of desire that for some reason was blocked, hence the aggression.” He does not, however, tell readers what he might have been feeling that could have triggered the dog’s behavior.

Behan rejects any notion that a dog can form intentions or even think. In fact, he utterly rejects the idea of dogs as individuals. Therefore, the canine perspective is completely absent from this book; Behan simply denies that it exists. A dog is “not an individuated consciousness, endowed with her own will that’s empowered by personal volition and informed by a self-contained sense of self or ego,” he writes. He adds that no animals can think, claiming instead that their entire consciousness is formed by something he calls a “networked intelligence,” defined as “a higher faculty of intelligence that in animal consciousness completely supersedes the brain.” Bizarrely, that would appear to rule out instinct, too, as a driver of canine behavior. Behan explains any dog’s behavior, no matter how complex, as a function of what its owner is feeling

Despite having worked with, in his own estimation, several thousand dogs, Behan provides few examples to illustrate his theories. The anecdotes he does give are “as told to him” by training clients, not behaviors he personally witnessed. Nonetheless, he feels confident enough in his theories to determine that one client’s dog reportedly habitually left a bit of food in his bowl because the dog’s owner always leaves some food on her plate; the dog is connecting with whatever emotional issue causes the owner to do so. Another client’s dog is aggressive toward children because, Behan discovers, the owner feels lasting pain and guilt over having “not been there” for her daughters when they were young, many years earlier.

Much of the book is a sort of memoir and retelling of his “discoveries” about dog consciousness; there is also considerable psycho-analysis of the humans who own the dogs he trains. The book does not address multiple-dog households where each dog has a very different personality and behaviors, nor does it explain how to apply Behan’s theory to dogs who live and interact with multiple humans. There is no index and no references, making it hard to find specific information.

While I agree with the author that emotion is a primary driver of dog (as well as human) behavior, I strongly disagree that it is the dog owner’s emotion that is solely responsible for the dog’s behavior. I also completely reject any notion of dogs that denies their considerable cognitive abilities, including thinking and planning and, yes, forming intentions. Dogs are separate beings from us, not merely empty vessels that reflect the worst of our emotional pasts back to us. They are brilliant and intuitive beings who deserve to be loved and valued for the individuals they are. Regarding them as our “mirrors” — as extensions of ourselves — is arrogant and egocentric and a terrible disservice to all dogs.

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