Any dog owner will attest to the fact that their pet has an uncanny ability to understand not only their simplest words – "sit," "stay" and "down" – but that person's underlying emotions as well. Dog trainer Kevin Behan takes this premise a step further by proposing a new model for understanding canine behavior, based on his perception that dogs respond to owner's feelings, rather than the owner's thoughts or commands.
Behan, who grew up in Redding, Conn., now lives in Vermont where he runs Natural Dog Training, a dog-training and educational facility. He will be speaking about his book, "Your Dog is Your Mirror," at the Westport Library, Monday, July 25, at 7:30 p.m.
Behan's father was a dog trainer and he spent his childhood surrounded by canines, although he admits his earlier interactions with them were less than scholarly: "Dad had me walk Onyx, a black standard poodle, and my sisters and I used to dress it up in T-shirts and other outfits, and then we would play crazy chase games."
He refined his technique subsequently, and went on to open his own kennel, as well as train police and security dogs for several Connecticut police departments. But his love and respect for the outdoors informed the future of his career: "As I became involved in the dog business, my interest in nature carried over into the nature of animals, as opposed to being interested in how to control them," he says. It was this understanding that led him to the conclusion that his relationship with animals was less about having them respond to him and more, he says about a desire to understand them.
Behan's work has led him to believe that "emotion is universal to all sentient beings, which is how animals connect to and understand each other." According to Behan, this means animals can "feel what others are feeling, as well as feel whether emotion is moving within someone, or whether it's being held back." The former, he says, intimates safety for an animal and the latter equals danger. Dogs, says Behan, have a higher emotional capacity than any other animal. "This is why they are able to connect with humans and are able to feel what their owner feels," he says.
As far as training them is concerned, Behan believes that peoples' feelings – whether they know it or not – rather than thoughts or personalities, are what dogs respond to the most. His approach taps into these emotions. "The dog is always going by feel, and this is what I want to teach owners -- how to respond in kind so that the relationship works to everyone's advantage."
After his years of working with animals, he is still touched by seeing a dog or owner experience a breakthrough. "When what was once incredibly difficult all of a sudden softens and the dog or owner shifts their perception of what's going on, no matter how many times I experience it, it never fails to move me."
Behan's talk is free and open to the public, and will take place in the Library's McManus Room. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing afterward. A portion of the proceeds of book sales will benefit the Library. For more information, go to the Westport Library's website.