Exploring Parallels: Shannon Sullivan on Dog Training and the Feldenkrais Method®
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
by: Ira Feinstein, MFA

Section: Practitioner Spotlight

Ira Feinstein: You currently work as a dog trainer, designing training programs for reactive dogs. How did you transition from being a Feldenkrais® practitioner into dog training?

Shannon Sullivan: Before I started my Feldenkrais training, I adopted a dog who turned out to have many hard to manage issues: resource guarding, separation anxiety, and leash reactivity. She bit my husband the first week we had her! I had my hands full. My previous experiences with dogs had been uncomplicated: I'd spent my youth working with horses and being surrounded by dogs who never required training. 

So, I embarked on a journey with her to try and find a solution, which eventually 
led me to an apprenticeship with a professional dog trainer. It was around that same time that I began my Feldenkrais training. 

IF: Did you apply what you learned during your Feldenkrais training into your animal training apprenticeship?

SS: I remember—even during the first year of my Feldenkrais training--being fascinated by how the two areas of exploration intertwined. With the Feldenkrais Method, practitioners are taught that they are not above the client: the client is their own authority. This is entirely different than the more common model of a practitioner of any given method or modality being the expert, the authority. 

The corollary in the animal training world is that trainers/owners are supposed to be dominant and fill the alpha role. I’d grown up with horses and control-based training, and although it had never felt right to me, I hadn’t been aware of another way. During my dog training apprenticeship, I immersed myself in positive reinforcement theories, at which point, the correlations between the Feldenkrais Method and positive reinforcement training started popping up everywhere. 

Both methods are about how a body learns. If you’re working with a dog, you’re working with a nonverbal animal, and you need to figure out how to facilitate their physical learning. Which is precisely what we’re doing with the Feldenkrais Method, right? We’re not trying to engage people’s intellect; we’re trying to get their body to learn. My Feldenkrais training added a depth of perspective and anchored the dog training in a way that made it more universal than if I had been only thinking about it from a dog training perspective. 

IF: Do you bring the Method into your work with reactive dogs in the way that you touch them?

SS: When I am working one-on-one with the dogs, not so directly. It is more in the background of my perspective. However, when I am coaching people how to work with their dogs, I teach them about using listening touch as a way to help their dogs relax. It also helps the owners build a relationship with the dog. 

I also bring in the Method in terms of how I set up my program, where there is a focus on successive of approximation. A lot of the training happens in the absence of reactivity. Similar to a Feldenkrais lesson, where we lay down on the floor to remove the effect of gravity so that it isn’t reigniting the habit we’re trying to replace, during my dog training program, I make sure that the dog has the opportunity to develop more functional habits away from their triggers before slowly bringing in challenge. This allows them to form a functional habit first, and then have them apply that habit in situations that were previously challenging. That's not to say that I got all of this from the Feldenkrais Method, as it's also how good behaviorists are dealing with behavior problems in dogs. However, it's interesting that it’s also what we do in the Feldenkrais Method.

In the reactive dog classes, a significant component of the class is coaching the dog owners. Depending on the severity of their dog's reaction, the owners could be dealing with reactivity 24-7, which is more training than I can provide. In these cases, the owners end up becoming dog trainers, even if they intended just to be pet owners. Many professional dog trainers actually have this origin story—they adopted a dog that needed them to become more, so they did.

IF: What does the coaching look like? Do owners develop a highly attuned awareness of their dog's micromovements?

SS: Yes, there is a lot of education around paying attention and reading their dog’s body language. When people say that their dog is reacting, they usually mean barking, lunging, or other sorts of aggressive behaviors. However, there's typically an entire sequence of behaviors and stress indicators that precede those actions. Helping people learn to read their dog and notice when their dog is just starting to become stressed, allows them to more precisely identify what the stressors are, and what behaviors they can expect from the dog if they don't intercede.

IF: How does the relationship between the dog and their owner change over the course of the program?
SS: One of the things that pretty much all dog owners struggle with is putting the onus on the dog. “My dog is ‘stubborn’ or ‘distracted,’ or ‘choosing to ignore me.’” My goal is for people to transition out of that and be able to look accurately at the subtlety of all the things that are happening. So, instead of jumping to some aforementioned conclusion about what they think may or may not be going on inside of their dog's head, which they’ll never actually know, they learn to pay attention to what’s happening. Just like during a Feldenkrais lesson, the owners have to know where they are first. As a result, people begin to look at their dogs much more objectively. 

I find that when it comes to reactivity, there are a lot of human emotions associated with it, especially shame. People don’t understand why their dog is behaving poorly. They wonder if they’ve caused the problem. Being able to differentiate all of their dog’s behaviors and not see them as "wrong," gives them a neutral place to start. If they come in blindly saying, “My dog goes ballistic,” there isn’t anything in that description for us to work with. 

It's also important to look at the full perspective of the dog's life. Do they spend the majority of the day barking at the windows? Do they get any exercise? How long has this behavior been going on? All of those sorts of things factor into the whole picture.

IF: When it comes to dog training, how should we go about positively interacting with our animals?

SS: Dogs do what works for them, just like us. They are going to do the behaviors that get them what they want. Our job is to decide what we want them to be doing and to make it worth their while, which is really what reward-based training is all about. So, it's a combination of that and successive 
of approximation because we can't just tell them what we want, right?

Humans are conceptual and so learning transfers. I can teach you to sit in a chair and then show you any chair anywhere in the world and say “sit” then you’ll understand. But dogs don’t learn conceptually, at least not primarily. Knowledge is physical for them, so you have to help them make the translation. We can't just give verbal instructions; we have to bridge the physical gaps and help them find the actions you want them to do very rewarding. It’s a process of building new habits and then reinforcing them. We build a strong history of them being rewarded for performing behaviors we want.

IF: I’ve heard about a newer theory for training called Positive 2.0, which to me has interesting parallels to the Feldenkrais Method. Could you tell me about it?

SS: Positive 2.0 is basically looking into how much consent, how much agency, an animal should or can be given. Think about it: animals are living beings with their own desires, yet we’ve spent centuries forcing them to fit in our world with the complete absence of choice. Is that really how we want to live in relationship with other beings? 

IF: How are people exploring those concepts? 

SS: Various ways! One that I came across semi-recently was put forth by Ken Ramirez, a big name in the dog training world who also set up the marine mammal program at the Shedd Aquarium. He has a wonderful lecture about a beluga whale that was born at Shedd. From the beginning of her life, she only worked with their three best trainers. However, as she grew up and other whales were born, the trainers had to move on to the new whales, and she started getting the less experienced trainers. 

Over a period of two years, she started refusing to do behaviors, which is a real problem in that environment because it means they couldn’t provide routine medical care without tranquilizing her. To solve this problem, Ramirez
 came up with the idea of giving the whale "no." Basically, she has a buoy available whenever she is working with a trainer. Whenever she touches that buoy, she receives the exact same reward that she would get if she had done whatever the trainer had asked. What they found was that with the three trainers she loved, once she figured out that she could touch the buoy and get rewarded she would spend maybe a session and a half doing nothing but touching that buoy. Afterward, she would let it go and only touch it occasionally. 

Then, when they brought in a new trainer, she would spend session after session only touching the buoy—still receiving the same fish she would have gotten as if she’d done what was asked of her. Eventually, though, she would start to comply with their requests. Who knows what she was really feeling, or what this option came to mean for her, but the speculation is that giving her a full choice, one she could make at no cost to her, helped her began to trust the new trainers.

Based on this, I started an experiment with my dog where I gave her a “no” signal--putting her paw on her nose. It’s allowed me to learn things about what kind of reward frequency my dog needed to actually feel like the behavior I was asking her to do was worth it. I also learned that if there was a down moment in training and I started fiddling with some equipment without giving her something specific to do, that she preferred to have something to do, so she’d just keep putting her paw on her nose. 

Then there was one interaction that really blew my mind. She has never been a super affectionate dog, but over time, she and I have developed what I call her “hug”: she'll walk up to me when I'm seated, drop her head down and lean into me while I scratch her shoulders. One afternoon, after the scratching, she sniffed my face and then I went to kiss her on the forehead as I often do. She immediately put her paw on her nose. My husband saw it too, and both of our jaws dropped because it seemed like a genuine “no.” We weren't in a training scenario; she wasn't expecting treats from me, so I just refrained from kissing her and said, “Thank you!” 

IF: That’s fascinating, especially when I think about the emphasis Moshe put on the importance of choice.

SS: Exactly. At the end of Ramirez’s lecture, he pointed that if you are attending and listening to your animal, you don't necessarily need to give them an explicit out. If you're truly listening, their body language is communicating. The key is not overriding that listening. Of course, sometimes there's a considerable gap between the subtlety of what they perceive and what we perceive, so offering our animals a "no" is something that can fill in that gap. 

Since giving my dog a "no," she's let me know that sometimes she is ok with me kissing her on the head and sometimes she isn't. But it makes sense that she wouldn't always feel open to it. Humans don't always feel open to touch. Why would other animals be so different?

Shannon Lynne Sullivan 
is a reward-based dog trainer certified by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, as well as a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm. Her clients are engaged, savvy and looking to develop shared communication and joyful responsiveness with their bodies, their dogs, or both! She lives in Chicago, IL with her husband, Stephen, and two adopted dogs, Ginny and Hoota. http://shannonlynnesullivan.com
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