Running With Buckeye

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.


No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.
                    Clarissa Pinkola Estes 

We bought a beagle pup for my son and managed to keep it a secret clear through till Christmas morning. This required that I sleep through the previous night with a small dog draped across my throat, but the look on Alex’s face the next morning was worth it. He immediately named her Buckeye. 

Now I walk this dog daily, often turning this task into a run that covers a couple of stop-and-start miles. It’s this movement around my neighborhood that inspired this essay. 

I run Buckeye on a long retractable leash that I can manipulate to control her closely or let her move with a great deal of freedom. For a few hundred yards at a time I can loosen the lead while she almost floats along beside me. If a dog can emote, it seems to me that Buckeye is perfectly joyful at this time. But at any moment this lovely picture can change. This begins with a sudden stopping or veering by the four footed member of the team. Without warning, Buckeye is overwhelmed by a scent, and her instinct to follow it takes immediate precedence.

          Emotion: an affective state of consciousness.

          Instinct: a natural or innate impulse...
 natural intuitive power...urged or animated by some inner force.

    Random House College Dictionary 

It’s this effortless, rapid shift from emotion to instinct that separates me from the beagle, and this is what I want to talk about here.  

There is this noteworthy difference between savage and civilized: that while a sick, civilized man may be six months convalescing, generally speaking, a sick savage is almost half well again in a day.

Herman Melville 

Man's Presumptuous Brain by ATW Simeons, M.D. (Dutton; 1961), traces the evolution of instinctive response to threat and clearly differentiates these from human emotion:

"An instinct is a very old impulse which is generated in the diencephalon by a combination of hormonal and sensory stimuli. In this process the cortex is involved only to the extent that it censors the raw incoming messages from the senses. An emotion is the conscious or subconscious elaboration of a diencephalic instinct by the cortical processes of memory, association and reasoning. Emotions are thus generated in the cortex out of crude instinct."

Simeons goes on to describe the cortex as a censor of instinctive movement or expression. Beyond that, once the cortex transforms instinct into emotion, it will commonly censor any expression of the emotion itself. He feels that since our society is built on cortical control (as opposed to our basic instincts), psychosomatic illnesses will commonly occur. Only by identifying this conflict and accepting the complex working of our inner and outer lives might we avoid the insidious onset of chronic illness.

Consider this: A person experiences some sort of trauma, perhaps an attack, a fall in the shopping center, or even some especially upsetting news. In each case our immediate initial response will be a perfectly appropriate instinctive movement toward protection and preservation, but our second response is not nearly so predictable. When you ask most people what they feel first when falling in public, they will say, “Embarrassment.”

It is this tendency to turn toward emotion that blocks the human animal’s ability to recover as easily as any other animal might. Peter Levine suggests in Waking The Tiger (North Atlantic Books 1997) that the human reaction to trauma is often arrested before the physiologic response is complete. Thus we are left in a state of heightened sympathetic tone characterized by cooling, rigidity, increased sweat gland activity, upper respiratory breathing and general nervous facilitation. This makes it easy for any subsequent mechanical deforming of the body to become symptomatic. This being the case, seemingly minor trauma can result in long lasting problems.

Let’s return to Buckeye’s behavior while we run together. During the course of any run there are several moments when Buckeye is either pursued by or suddenly pursues other animals. These include other large, barking dogs and squirrels. The whole event lasts no more than a few seconds but it’s quite intense, and during those moments Buckeye’s protective and predatory instincts are perfectly evident. But a few steps away from the event she returns effortlessly to her apparently joyful state, calm and obedient. By contrast, I would find it impossible to return to normal autonomic tone if I were just as scared or excited as she. While her emotion (assuming it’s there) is fleeting and quickly replaced with instinctive recovery, mine will remain, and it will propel me toward chronic illness. At least, that’s the theory.

If there is a way of understanding instinctive movement toward recovery from trauma, it is probably in the study of ideomotor activity, a category of nonconscious movement rarely expressed fully in our culture but obvious among animals*.

Tonight I’ll take Buckeye running again, and I’ll wonder at her ability to tolerate the leash with such skill and forgiveness. I’ll watch her recover from attack within a few seconds.  If I observe her carefully, she’ll teach me how to tolerate and recover from the restraints in my own life.

* See “Without Volition: The Presence and Purpose of Ideomotor Movement” by Barrett L. Dorko P.T. at