5 Tall Tales from 1 Small Mind

I am an occasional visitor to the Natural Dog Training (is there such a  thing as Supernatural Dog Training?) blog authored by snake-oil salesman and new-age mystic Kevin Behan. Reading the blog is amusing and infuriating. I find it painful to see him lie to readers and distort the latest science story to support the sales his energy snake-oil story.

I am also amused by the similarities between Behan’s attack on science and the way creationist (and climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, truthers, oil lobby and at one time the smoking lobby) deal with science – blanket dismissal, logical fallacies, distorting findings and outright lies.

Even though I read, I don’t normally comment on his blogs. Behan is industrious when it comes to producing misinformation and I don’t want to spend my time debunking it.

I reached my tipping point for the quackery with his recent post on the SPARCS conference. The cumulative fraud was more than I could take.

1. Why Don’t Free Ranging Dogs Live In Packs?

The weasel words start with the first sentence.

“The fact that free ranging dogs don’t form working packs is cited by proponents of dog-as-scavenger theory and modern learning theorists as evidence that dogs were fundamentally changed from wolves by way of neotony, the retention of infantile traits into adulthood.”

Weasels words

Anonymous Authorities and Kevin Behan are intimately friends. Credit: Wikipedia.

Who are these anonymous proponents? Can he name them? Cite where these claims are made? Which learning theorists are making these claims? In what study? In what book? You have to wonder about assertions that claim “it’s been cited” but don’t actually cite the source. To quote Ben Goldacre, “if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.” 

Mr. Behan reaches new heights in ignorance of evolution when he reworks the creationist lament, Why ain’t monkeys turning into humans?” He puts his own spin on it by asking:

“why then haven’t domesticated versions of foxes and coyotes, not to mention other dump scavengers such as rats, bears, raccoons, skunks, crows, ravens, seagulls, etc., etc., been domesticated through the same process that tamed the wolf?”

In simple terms, once an organism takes an evolutionary path in any direction, it’s hard to do a U-turn. No do-overs.  And even under identical environments E.coli will evolve into different strains.

“Even from so simple a beginning, small happenstances of history may lead populations along different evolutionary paths. A potentiated cell took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” (Lenski  2008)

The same is/was true for dogs.

2. Cognitive Research as Alchemy Posting about this NYT article, Behan quotes:

“As he and his wife, Vanessa Woods, explain in their new book, “The Genius of Dogs,” natural selection favored the dogs that did a better job of figuring out the intentions of humans.”

What does Behan get out of this? “Abracadabra. Dogs figured it out.” He doesn’t even pretend that truth will play a part of his attack on science. “Abracadabra”? What a dishonest douchebag! Darwinian selection is not magic. And “dogs figured it out” smacks of Lamarckism, IOW not natural selection, not evolution.

Of course the strawman is part of the con. After constructing the ‘dogs figure it out’ strawman he can then dismantle it to conclude his views must then be right –  Snake-Oil Sales 101 is in session.

3. Resource Holding Potential

Let’s start with how RPH is described in two books:

Animal Behavior Desk Reference – A Dictionary of Animal Behavior Ecology and Evolution 2nd ed – Barrows (CRC 2005)

  1. An individual organism’s potential for obtaining, or retaining, a resource based on its fighting ability [coined by Parker 1974 in Maynard Smith 1976, 44].
  2. An individual organism’s potential for obtaining, or retaining, a resource based on one or more relevant attributes, which include fighting ability, physical position with regard to the resource, posturing, size, strength, timing of its relevant behavior, vocalization quality, and weaponry (Parker and Rubenstein 1981, 221, 223–224).

Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition – Miklosi (Oxford 2007)

  1. The chances of winning any contest can be also conceptualized in terms of the resource-holding potential of the participants (Parker 1974). The resource-holding potential is determined by fighting ability, information about the disputed resource, and motivation to invest in the contest.

Behan’s post on RPH was a response to Eric Brad’s article on dominance. I think Behan misrepresents Brad’s position but I’ll leave it to the author to defend his views. Reading the descriptions above, one gets the feeling Behan didn’t even bother Googling the term.

  “The concept of “Resource Holding Potential” (RHP) has been offered as the best explanation for the social structure of canines.”


Weasels – specially cartoon weasels – are cute, weasel words are not.  Credit: Wikipedia

Really? Who made the offer? Where? When? The lack of citation for this decree makes me to doubt it. RPH has been successfully applied across varied species; sand gobies, pigmy swordtails, dragonflies, blue tit, prawns, red deer, butterflies, crickets, hermit crabs, female lion groups, etc., etc.

The concept works across wide taxa for two very simple reasons, animals compete for resources and contestants are rarely evenly matched. Body size, weapon size, age, energetic states, body temperature and other factors that determine an animal’s ability to win a contest are lumped under RPH.

If you are starting to think Behan is full of crap there is a reason, but it’s not that he’s full of crap. As he egotistically explains, it’s your fault.

The problem is that these folks think they know what I’m saying because they think they know what they’re saying and they thereby fail to see the internal contradiction at the heart of their own argument.

A wave of his hand is all it takes to dismiss the scientific evidence and the work or all who work in research. Suck it Dunbar, Hare, Fox, Mech, Lord, Bekoff, Topal, Miklosi, Beck, Casey, Yin, Trut, Horowitz and other. YOU just don’t know what you are saying!!

The confidence of fools never fails to amaze or their capacity to blame others for their deficiencies. Behan constructs comforting delusion; he never has to bother with introspection because if you don’t accept his theory it’s always your fault and never his.

4. More Evidence of Physical Memory

Behan reads far too much into this article about trained planaria that have regenerated their heads seem to perform better than untrained planaria. It’s an interesting observation and probably indicates that they encode information along their nervous system and not just the neural bundle – not really a brain.

Behan’s idea of physical memory is explored in the 1924 classic ‘The Hands of Orlac’, Mad Love (1935), Hands of a Stranger (1962), Body Parts (1991) and a Simpson’s episode called Killer Toupee. Though most adults know these stories are entertainment and not science. Moving on to the second cited article he writes:

“Physical memory tunes the organism to the vibratory essence of those things that are emotionally relevant to its evolutionary niche.”

I’m a practical guy. I wan’t detailed mechanisms not rhetoric, metaphors and stories. What is physical memory? How does it tune? What is the vibratory essence of things? And how did the measure essence?

I get the feeling that he doesn’t even read the articles he links to. Did he miss this?

“Once flowers hide away their pollen this way, natural selection favors bees that can give the flowers a harder shake. The harder the bees shake, Dr. Vallejo-Marín and his colleagues have found, the more food they can bring home.”

There is no need to posit emotional transference to a flower. It’s just evolution, or if you prefer co-evolution. Common to many quacks, Behan’s explanation  involves “energy.” 

The body formats sensory inputs, tunes the organism into forces of nature which are embodied as the forms of things, and is also the anchor for the deepest kind of memory, physical memory, a cellular record held in the body and which is composed from the resistance experienced in the expression of emotion. In this way the forms of things are internalized as energy, emotion.

Forces of nature“? Are there other forces? “Deepest“? Did he take a survey of other memories? Gibberish a la nonsense with a spice of Weasel.

Behan’s description of the process is classic pseudoscience nonsense-speak and I think Dr. Risë VanFleet would agree. On July 14 she wrote on Facebook:

BIG WORDS all strung together do NOT = Science. I’ve seen some pretty strange things on Facebook in the past couple weeks that claim to explain how animals work, are motivated, or have feelings. They are essentially strings of big words put together in an effort to sound “authoritative.” If anything, what they are saying is quite the opposite of science, not just of animal behavior, but also about physics, chemistry, etc., and some of it sounds like complete gibberish. Sounds like a marketing ploy to me. Critical thinking is an important skill to have, and we need to get to the sources of the science when there’s any doubt at all!!

5. Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science Conference

Like many others, I tuned into the SPARCS conference drawn in by the prestigious lineup of speakers and presenters. Mostly I listened, taking the occasional notes and I even had a few tweets, including one expressing disappointment with Dr. Fox for deviating into the paranormal and talking about telepathic dogs.

You would think that listening to the speakers would be a requirement for anyone wanting to write about the conference. But not everyone takes such a rational approach. Posting about the SPARCS conference, Behan takes a unique approach: knowing jack-squat about the material presented.

“I didn’t attend either the conference linked below or log onto its streamed content”

I admire the gall it takes to comment on something without knowing anything about it but I glad that movie and books reviewers don’t take this approach.

For Mr. Behan, IGNORANCE is the perfect starting point; it saves him the effort of ignoring the presenter. Unburdened by facts he can entertain whatever notion pops into his head. Who needs to know things? Learning and knowing just gets in the way of the magical energy/magnetic/quantum juju he’s made up.

From my point of view the take away is that attendees heard what they expected to hear, dogs think just like us and a dog’s capacity to adapt to humans is a function of high order cognition, such as a theory-of-mind (ToM). But here’s what was not taken into considerimagine it.Summary

NYT or other science articles often inspire Behan to respond; this is foolish. These articles are often far removed from the original paper and are often based on press releases or media copy.  Basic rule: If you aren’t willing to read the study, don’t blog about it.

This one is specifically for Behan: if you didn’t attend the conference and listen to the lectures then you don’t get to comment on them.

Behan’s argument style is formulaic; if you read through his blog the same players keep showing up. The cast includes:

  • The Strawman
  • Dichotomous fallacy
  • Goalpost Movers
  • God of Gaps
  • Appeal to Ignorance
  • Prodigious Gibberish
  • Tautology
  • Nominal fallacy
  • Misinterpretation
  • False Premises and Promises
  • Anonymous Authority

Expect to see them in the next Kevin Behan production.

14 thoughts on “5 Tall Tales from 1 Small Mind

  1. Behan still hasn’t figured out how evolution works, and writes

    “Natural selection favored the dogs……………………..”

    is like saying steel becomes magnetized by being placed besides a magnet. “

    My special hostility to this type of attack is due to the fact that evolution is at the very center of biology. I was kind enough to provide a Video and other links expanding on natural selection. Leave it to this fool to comment on natural selection without consulting reliable sources.

    When intelligent people read “Natural selection favored the dogs……………………..” they understand it to mean that a change in ecological conditions gives a subset of the population a reproductive and survival advantage to the offspring.

  2. Van Kerkhove (2004), reviewing 5 studies of feral dogs published between 1975 and 1995, concluded that their pack structure is very loose and rarely involves any cooperative behavior, either in raising young or in obtaining food.

    Females were typically courted by multiple males (up to 8 in Pal et al., 1999), which competed for copulation attempts; although females rejected some of these attempts, copulatory ties with several males on the same day were common place (Pal et al., 1999), which would be highly unusual in a wolf pack (Schotte and Ginsburg) 1987; Packard, 2003pp. 56–59).
    S. K. Pal (Pal et al., 1998, 1999; Pal, 2003/2005).

    Cook Islands
    Loose, transitory associations” rather than packs.

    ” Comparative social ecology of feral dogs and wolves “, Ethology Ecology & Evolution
    7: 49-72, 1995. Boitani and Ciucci
    Feral dogs social units do not function as wolf packs , namely for the lack of clear dominant-subordinate relationships throughout and of firm social bonds among all group members. This directly affects the potential groups size, the breeding system, the group’s efficiency as a functional unit (hunting, territory defence, communal pup rearing, etc.)

    Luigi Boitani’s 1984-1987
    Study on 80.000 feral dogs from Abbruzzo (Italy)

    Are there alphas and betas in dog groups? No. In wolf packs, alpha partners suppress reproduction cycles in beta members, so that the entire pack is available to to take part in raising the alpha pair’s litter.  In feral dog groups, all females are capable of reproducing.  Boitani said he saw no indication of any attempts to control reproduction in other dogs.  Also,  during estrus cycles, aggressive behavior is much less pronounced in dog groups than what you would see in wolf packs.

    Hope there is enough scientific evidence.


  3. Man!! Behan is a crapmeister of the Nth degree. It’s unmitigated bullshit or unfailingly wrong. How can anyone even buy this shit?

  4. Looks like Monique Udell responded to his *cough* review of SPARCS. Quite nice.

  5. So I make a comment describing how genetic algorithms show that his assertion about transmitter/receivers is false. His comeback:

    “So are you saying there is a math module running an algorithm inside the dog? ”

    my reply:

    Are you really this ignorant? Do you think there is a math module inside a die? Or a coin? Do you think radioactive material is running Poisson “math modules”? You proved Science of Dogs’ observation true; you distort what I people write.

  6. I read your critique of Mr. Behan’s work and posted some questions on the NDT site which I incorrectly directed to Elektrik Skeptic.I thought I would just post them directly here.

    I saw your post on your site of the Cesar Milan clip. I have heard of Cesar Milan obviously but I have not seen many of his shows. When I first got my dog I tried the dominance route because my dog is very “aggressive” towards dog, cats, squirrels, etc. I guess it would be simple to say she has a lot of prey drive. After abandoning dominance training I ordered a video from Leerburg “How to Train Your Dog with Markers” http://leerburg.com/obediencedvds.htm
    and I read as much as I could about positive rewards. I also started playing tug with my dog. The problem I had was twofold. I could find very little about how to draw my dog to me in the face of high distraction. I tried the highest food value treats possible. In fact trying to give food to my dog when she sees a cat repulses her. If you put the food right in her face she will turn away as if the food is getting in the way of her getting to the cat. Also what I found was that my goal wasn’t to teach my dog specific tasks. I was trying to get the dog to “work with me” for lack of better phrasing. So it became frustrating to find information that was only talking about getting my dog to sit, lie down, etc. I do not know how positive the Leerburg “Marker” video is considered in the training world but there was also the problem that some positive trainers would say “well sometimes you need to correct a dog”. I do not remember who right now but I can find out if it important. This made no sense to me. Why do I have to correct my dog if being positive works. This made as much sense to me as dominance training when it was said that you need to correct your dog hard but careful because too hard and some dogs could be pushed to be more aggressive.

    Which is it ? These are the questions I was left with. I had corrected my dog as hard as I was going to correct her and positive training was not working out either. I now use NDT methods and find that I am able to come up with questions I have about my dog and can then modify my training to work out some solutions. Mr. Behan has given my dog and I some basic techniques that give me foothold into having my dog want to work with me instead of racing after everything else. I am not a scientist so if you can post some information that would allow me to understand how a scientific approach would apply to training it would allow me to connect what you are saying to some of the behaviors dog owners face and by seeing the mechanics of how the behavior is worked with allows me to understand what you are saying about dogs. It would be especially helpful to see videos of people working with dogs in high distraction. So, something like the Cesar Milan video but with a training method that you would endorse. I did look at your link for Academy for Dog Trainers. http://academyfordogtrainers.com/blog/
    The site has information on not using dominance methods and appears to favor a clicker training approach. I’m sure it is a good site but I realy can’t pull a complete system out of it from what I saw.

    Also I had one other question that I often think about in terms of positive training which is possibly a misunderstanding of what positive training truly is. I will use the Judo opponent as a starting point. So Judo or martial arts often can involve an element of pain or at the very least being uncomfortable and for many that is part of the thrill or excitement. If it was super easy it really wouldn’t feel like you were getting anywhere. I often wonder that if dogs think/feel like us then can’t there be contexts where being uncomfortable is motivating and enjoyable for the dog? I guess an obvious example would be when a dog is wrestling with the decoy in a bite suit. So if that is enjoyable can’t uncomfortable moments be incorporated into training because the dog think/feels like us.

    • Martin; I’ve posted 4 times on Millan. I will assume you are writing about the most recent post on Millan.
      I will say that there are no ‘dominance’ trainers just as there aren’t any ‘energy’ trainers; in both cases the distinguishing features is not what they do, but rhetoric they use. When you say ‘dominance’ that is code for aversives and compulsion. You are also confusing predation with aggression. Dog can show a lot of aggression with little predatory interest. The opposite can also be true, a dog can be a crazy predator and show little aggression.
      The way you describe using food is not consistent marker training; it seems to me that you were using food as a bribe/lure and not to reinforce behavior following a marker. It’s click then treat, not show treat, shove it on the dog’s face in the hope of getting its attention.

      I cannot comment on what you’ve heard. I have not seen Leerburg’s video and I can’t comment on that – I could always pull a Behan and talk out of my ass about a DVD I haven’t’ seen but I won’t do that. And without knowing the source of your quote it is impossible for me to comment on it. Why the hell don’t the energy woo-meisters cite their sources?
      I should point out that you don’t use NDT methods; they don`t exist. When you strip away the mystical explanations we see that NDT is nothing more than a traditional old-style training using both compulsion and rewards – and often doing so badly.
      If you are really interested in learning then it is essential you abandon all the quantum-vibrational-energy voodoo that you’ve picked up from Behan. Many of the SPARCS conference presenters have written books. Any of those authors is a good place to start.
      Finally, you don`t see people doing what Millan does because few people are that stupid. Your sensei is not that stupid and s/he didn’t demand that you learn your moves by fighting for your life. You first practiced them alone – without the distraction of an opponent – repeating the katas until you knew them. We don’t hold classes in the middle or rock concerts for the same reason and soldiers aren’t taught to shoot during combat but in ranges. Your brain and that of a dog work exactly the same, no matter what lie you’ve been told by Behan; there isn’t a single instance in which reducing distractions is not conducive to learning. If you see something similar to what Millan does from another trainer, you can be sure that person doesn’t understand how the brain learns.

  7. Yes, I believe I understand your point on prey making and aggression and yes I was referring to the most recent post on Cesar Milan. The Leerburg video was consistent with click then treat. Instead of a clicker they suggested that you could also use the word “yes” to mark the behavior and then the treat would be delivered quickly afterwards. That is what I did. My understanding from the video is that the click was to let the dog know that a reward was on the way. The markers/clicks were teaching the dog that it was on the right track. So the behaviors that were desired were reinforced and the dog could learn what to do. The problem I had was that the problem was related to what you mentioned in that when reducing distractions my dog would do great but from my observations there is no middle ground for some types of distractions. Let me use a cat as an example. I could use marker/clicker training when no cats were on the horizon but as soon as my dog would identify something that she perceived to be a cat than the click would not work. So a logical suggestion would be to say well you are too close to the cat but that does not matter because even at a distance it seemed to be a black or white situation. If she thinks “cat” we were done. There didn’t seem to be a middle ground. It is difficult to explain so I hope that makes sense.
    I do not want to misrepresent Mr. Behan’s ideas on dogs so I will just propose this as something that I wonder about when it comes to dogs. What if you were a quarterback and you were playing in the Superbowl, winning, etc. If you were having a great time you wouldn’t want to the good time to end. I am not a scientist but what if for example you are working on a project that is totally engrossing, interesting, and you are doing great.Time seems to go away because you are very much interested in your project and even problems that arise heighten your dedication to your work. My interpretation of Mr. Behan’s work and my own question about dogs is: Is it possible that dogs are always in this type of emotional state where time does not exist for them. It doesn’t have to be positive either. In the case of https://dogbehaviorscience.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/exhaustion-and-emily-the-pitbull/

    does Emily have any view of the future or is there only an emotional feeling of fighting for her life which puts her in that moment and none other…and I agree this is not the type of emotion I would want to elicit from my dog. So there is obviously mental activity in Emily but for lack of better phrasing it is taking a backseat with respect to emotion. The same with the scientist example. The scientist is obviously using their brain in their lab and thinking but if they are engrossed in their project and time “stops” for them than the overall impression is an emotional one for them. Anyway, I will look at the SPARCS site and learn more about the people at the conference and their research.

    • Distortions in the perception of time can occur for a variety of reasons along with the ones listed with the link there are a number of drugs, like LSD, that affect how we perceive time.

  8. Martin, please read information on how to use Desensitization/Counterconditioning correctly. You NEVER use it when the dog is over threshold…you use it when the dog first notices something but is not reacting at that point. When used properly, it does work. Trying to shove food in the dogs mouth over threshold will get you nowhere, also a dog cannot learn anything when they are in that state of mind. You may want to hire someone who is versed and experienced in this. Look to the Pet Professional Guild to find someone near you.

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