Constructal Behavior and The Art of Dog Training


Back when I wrote At the Intersection of Physics and Emotion, my dear cousin pointed out to me that I hadn’t explained how these concepts of constructal law and emotion actually related to dog behavior. So I must address this! The constructal law, as stated by Dr. Adrian Bejan, has helped me understand that with dogs, as with humans, there are “behavioral pathways” which are these seemingly ephemeral channels, only visible as long as the behavior is being expressed through the animal’s movement. However, due to procedural or bodily memory, as described by Peter Levine in Trauma and Memory, the engrams (or memories) of these behavioral pathways can “live” in the body. This is how a behavior becomes a habit or pattern, and therefore predictable. What we want to do when working with a dog is to create many happy memories along whatever behavioral pathway or channel will shape the dog’s movement to our liking.

And how does Dr. Adrian Bejan’s definition of emotion–the flipping of the switch or opening of a valve–factor into all of this? Well, a dog may be emotionally stimulated, or the channel (valve) may be opened by a prey animal, e.g. setting sights on a squirrel. Once the valve is open, the dog is ready to take action. The behavioral pathway that the dog’s DNA has imprinted on his brain and body is screaming at him to chase that squirrel. However, with some channeling of this behavioral pathway, we can entice the dog to chase us instead! While the squirrel may have flipped the emotional switch in the dog–and will continue to do so, that we cannot change–what we can do is complete the circuit. In order to do this, the alerting on–or sighting of–the squirrel should always lead to a fun game of chase and tug with the handler, with the dog catching his prey by “winning” the tug toy from the handler and carrying it home to his den. This represents the grounding of an emotional charge that the dog picked up from the squirrel. And because the satisfaction or completion of this instinctual cycle derived from his human counterpart, it strengthens the emotional bond between human and dog at the same time that it creates amazing obedience.

What we are actually doing is installing procedural memories in the dog. In the foreword to Trauma and Memory, Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD defines these procedures as “things that the body automatically does, as psychological automatisms.” In this way, we strengthen the dog’s recall and stop him from running away to catch the prey. We are shaping his behavior through many repetitions, the way a river forms on the landscape. Over time, the river’s boundaries change to allow greater access to the currents that flow through it (see Design in Nature). Once you have carved a deep enough channel, i.e. behavioral pathway, your dog can “go with the flow” of the river which will lead him not to the squirrel, but to you, his handler!


So our obedience work with our dogs isn’t based at all on being a “pack leader,” it is wholly and holistically predicated on the handler providing the greatest source of satisfaction for emotional grounding via the dog’s natural instincts. Your dog will be attracted to you the way water is “attracted” to the ocean, the way lightning is attracted to the earth. Everything that flows is acted upon by forces in nature, and we want you to be the end-all-be-all “force” in your dog’s life by attracting his emotional “charge.”

When a river flows to the ocean, we don’t say that the ocean is “dominating” the water in the river, any more than the earth is “commanding” lightning to strike. These are natural phenomena that occur based on physical laws. And so we can use prey/predator dynamics found in the wild to shape your dog’s behavior in a very natural way.  This style of dog training is, in fact, derived from a method called Natural Dog Training, created by Kevin Behan.

Behan is the first person I know of who associated animal behavior with Bejan’s constructal law, and he was my dog training mentor for over 6 years. He taught me that dogs actually don’t conform to pack politics, instead, as he states: “There is no pack leader, the group organizes itself based on the principle of flow.” And that principle of flow is defined by the constructal law. Whatever behavioral pathways (channels for movement) will allow greater access to food, territory, and safety for the pack, those are the defining elements of a wolf’s behavior. Wolves don’t just blindly follow a leader, they move towards a greater goal, and synchronize as a team accordingly. And so the same idea applies to your dog, with a slightly different spin: your dog wants food of course, but he also needs emotional grounding through his primal hunting instincts, as well as a safe and stable bond with his human companion. Once we cultivate those pathways, our relationship with our canines becomes joyful and harmonious, and we can satisfy our dog’s emotional needs while simultaneously shaping his behavior.

And so there you have a brief summary of constructal theory applied to canine behavior and how it relates to and shapes my philosophy of dog training. To find out more, you can visit my website: Canine Movement Lab.



3 thoughts on “Constructal Behavior and The Art of Dog Training

  1. Is debarking a kennel with positive reinforcement, Clicker Training – Quiet in the Kennel – YouTube, confirmation of constructal law?

    The video shows a kennel in an uproar as the trainer walks back and forth delivering treats to each dog if they are at that moment not barking, until all is quiet. Can this procedure be applied to other knowledge-flow systems, for example quieting a cacophony of frayed nerves in one’s mind, or in the wider world among self-interested nations?

    Bejan says what works is kept and spreads. Here with each individual dog, the not-barking persists. The trainer remembers and reuses the procedure. Quiet dogs are more readily adopted, increasing the flow of rescues. As more kennels learn the trick, clicker training spreads.

    Inevitably, voluntarism is restored over the globe! Now, can I interest you in downdraft ventilation?


    1. Yes, in my mind, the dogs learn how to increase the flow of food by self-regulating and remaining quiet. Constructal behavior for sure!

      I don’t have any idea what downdraft ventilation is…


      1. Downdraft ventilation has been around awhile. Buckminster Fuller proposed it in 1936 (link). Fifty years later ClariTech Innovations of New Brunswick, Canada patented a whole house ventilation fan installed in the cellar. Off-the-shelf units are in high demand and expensive, but it is cheap and easy to do oneself.


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