Are You Teaching Your Pet Superstitious Behavior?


Warning: superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish.

Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident, a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

Dog barks at door.

Some cases of CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) could be superstitious behavior. The dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP cases are not even remotely connected with anxiety as the dog owners erroneously presume.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will follow sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations, so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.

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The Function of Champing Behavior

Dogs Champing And Yawning

Champing behavior has a pacifying function—attempting to turn an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one. The dog to the left champs while the one to the right yawns.

Champing (or chomping) is a noisy chewing motion, despite there being nothing to chew. This behavior is connected with friendliness, pacifying of an opponent, insecurity, or submission depending on degree and context.

There is an element of pacifying behavior in all forms of champing. Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facere, facio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior or restoring a state of tranquility. Licking, nose poking, muzzle nudging, pawing, yawning, and twisting are common pacifying behaviors that dogs offer one another and us. Champing is a behavior widely used by canines in situations ranging from mild unease to more severe concern.

Champing is one of the first sounds that puppies hear—their sibling’s suckling. It is, therefore, a sound associated with satisfaction. Redirection of the champing behavior assumes later a pacifying function—attempting to turn an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one. The pups originally connect champing with the appeasement of hunger.

Jane Goodall And Chimp 1

Jane Goodall used to break a branch and pretend to chomp on it to pacify chimpanzees showing some unease (photo by Derek Bryceson/National Geographic Creative).

Champing is a straightforward and efficient way to show friendliness towards a dog. In fact, this behavior appears to have a relaxing effect on most mammals. Newborn mammals suckle and connect sucking sounds (chomping) with pleasant and desirable consequences. Jane Goodall points out that she used to break a twig and pretend to champ it to pacify chimpanzees showing some unease. I use chomping often when in the presence of dogs and horses showing some kind of distress.

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The Ocean Accepts no Sham

Sailboat In Storm

The ocean accepts no sham” is a maritime saying. The sea is shockingly honest and uncompromising. Excuses, rationalizing, compassion, self-pity, ignorance, political correctness, yapping, and baloney cannot get you out of trouble on the big blue.

In our wealthy and spoiled societies of today, we get away with shallowness, fanaticism, hooliganism and, not least, tremendous uncritical thinking. Not so at sea.


You can’t hide at sea. You’ll meet yourself whether you want it or not, the only viable strategy being honesty and integrity. It’s that simple!

From the sea, all you get is the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth—independently of what that might be. You can change the name of the facts with which your sensitivities can’t deal, but a storm will still hit you with the same fierce force; and the mighty winds will still tear apart your sails—no matter what you call it. Politics, demagogy, propaganda, marketing, and hidden agendas leave the sea imperturbable. No wealth can buy it. It deals with the poor and the rich equally. No status will influence it. Kings and commoners receive equal treatment.

What you believe or don’t, be it gods or mermaids, has no effect. Knowledge does.
Your “likes” and “dislikes” mean nothing; taking as it is, does.
No spoiled children and cry-babies accepted either; toughen up is.
You don’t take care of your boat; she lets you down.
You don’t like punishment; think and don’t make mistakes.
You don’t read the winds, currents, and tides correctly; you pay for it.
You are reckless; you pay double.
You grow over-confident; you pay thrice.
You try to control the sea; you’re a fool.
It is as simple as that.

The sea shows us the essence of life, clear as crystal, as obviously as the blue sky lights up after the early-morning fog.

The sea ignores crying, moaning, nagging, whining, bitching, boasting, and con-artists equally. It demands honesty, adaptation, skill, patience, and humility, loads of it.

By the same token, once you realize in your mind and heart that you are but a little ripple in the immense ocean, just one amongst numerous, and act as such, the sea rewards you handsomely with a generous portion of tranquillity in your mind and contentment in your heart.

Then, and only then, will you be able to see the storm in the eye with no fears, to have the courage of facing yourself with no qualms; and to raise your head and smile to the thousands of stars far above and beyond.

And so, once more, I weigh anchor,
And to the sea, I fare.
“All I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume,
and the sea-gulls crying.”*

Sailboat Calm Sea

* John Masefield in “Sea Fever.”

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Changing the World with Knowledge and Kindness


Every little drop of rain contributes to filling the beck that runs to the river that flows into the ocean.


Every little drop of rain contributes to filling the beck that runs to the river that flows into the ocean. As every little piece of knowledge, you acquire, adds to improving your mindfulness, sustaining your kindness and bringing you contentment.

Knowledge, we procure by diligently, open-mindedly, unbiasedly, and critically studying, observing, listening, feeling and living. Insight is the immediate outcome of accumulated knowledge, and contentment its ultimate.

Kindness is a state of mind, an attitude toward the world, your compass on your route to reaping the benefits of knowledge. It’s an underlying quality you need to master to profit from the knowledge and insight you gain. Without it, all knowledge is to no avail, and all your best efforts will seem disjointed.

We bring you “knowledge to everyone… everywhere.” You practice it with “kindness to everyone… everywhere.” Thus, we are changing the world with knowledge and kindness—a tiny drop at the time, filling the beck that runs to the river that flows into the ocean.

The impressive global coverage of Ethology Institute's "knowledge to everyone... everywhere" program (from Google Analytics Mar, 21, 2017).

The impressive global coverage of Ethology Institute’s “knowledge to everyone… everywhere” program (from Google Analytics, March 21, 2017).

Wherever you are, be it day or night, sunny or rainy— students, tutors, admin team, and supporters—please, accept my sincere gratitude for your contribution.

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Do Animals Have Feelings?


Sad Puppy

Don’t assume that others feel the same as you do, not your fellow humans, not other animals. Don’t assume either they don’t, because they might.

Attributing human characteristics to animals is wrong. No doubt about that. Furthermore, it seems to me, that the opposite (of anthropomorphism) is as wrong, that is, to say that animals cannot be happy or sad because these are human emotions. It is true that we can’t prove whether an animal is happy or sad, but we can’t prove either that it can’t. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We know nothing about one or the other. All we can see is behavior and the rest is guesswork.

The argument for anthropomorphism is valid enough: if I can’t prove (verify) something, I’d better disregard it (at least scientifically); and I can’t prove that my dog is happy, sad, or loves me.

Then again, we are not better off with our spouses, children, friends, not to speak of strangers. What do we know about their feelings and emotions? We can’t prove either that they are happy, sad, or love us. We presume it (and we are often wrong) because we compare their behavior with our own when we are in notably similar states of mind.

You may argue that there is a difference between comparing humans with one another, and humans with other animals. We, humans, are, after all, members of the same species. It appears to make sense to presume that if I am sad when I show a particular behavior, then you are also unhappy when you show similar behavior. You may have a point, even though not a very scientific one—and certainly not always. Cultural diversities play us, as you know, many tricks. Some expressions cover completely different emotions in distinct cultures.

It appears that our attributing feelings to others, e.g. being happy or sad, is not very scientific. It is more a case of empathy, or being able to set ourselves in the place of the other individual. Researchers have uncovered that other primates besides humans, as well as other mammals, show empathy. Recent studies have found that honeybees are capable of indicating a kind of emotional response; and honey-bees, as invertebrates, account for about 95% of all species.

It seems the only reason for my inference that someone feels something particular is by resemblance. If so, I fail to see why we cannot accept that animals (at least some species) also can be happy, sad, etc. The inter-species comparison is a more distant one, but are we not, ultimately, sons and daughters of the same DNA?

If we can’t prove that everyone experiences emotions similarly enough to allow us to attribute them to a particular category, it seems to me to make no sense to accept a claim based on the fact that because humans know of love, happiness, and sadness, other animals (absolutely) don’t.

Again, “A difference of degree, not of kind,” as Charles Darwin wrote, appears to me to be a prudent and wise approach; and to reserve further judgment until we can prove it.

Therefore, if it is a sin to attribute human characteristics to other animals, it must also be a sin to say that because we do, they don’t, because we can, they can’t. The first is, as we know, called anthropomorphism; the second, I will coin anthropodimorphism.

So, if you ask me, “Can my dog be happy or sad?” I will ask you back, “Can you?” If you answer, “Yes, of course,” then I’ll say, “If that is the case, so can your dog (probably) albeit differently from you—a difference of degree, not of kind.”

Bottom-line: don’t assume that others feel the same as you do, not your fellow humans, not other animals. Don’t assume either that they don’t, because they might.

Life is a puzzle, enjoy it!

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Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism (
Anthropomorphism, Double-Edged Sword (
Animals and Love: Exclusive Excerpt From Exultant Ark (
Sexism– or anthropomorphism (with sexism mixed in)? (
On the Origin of Cooperative Species.
Chimpanzees not as Selfish as we thought
Do Bees Have Feelings?
Hornera, J. Devyn Cartera, Malini Suchaka, and Frans B. M. de Waal (2011). Spontaneous prosocial choice by chimpanzees Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences : 10.1073/pnas.1111088108

The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’


Atlantic Puffin

‘Yes” and ‘no’ are the two single most important signals in the universe. Photo: Atlantic puffins, Vesterålen, by Billy Idle.

Yes and no are two very short words and, yet, they convey the most important information many living beings receive. On one level, this information regulates their organic and cellular functions, on another, their behavior, and ultimately, their survival. If I say these words don’t require any explanation, everyone would probably agree—and yet we’d be wrong. Did you know that in some languages yes and no don’t exist?

In my book “Psychology Rather Than Power,” written in 1984, I define ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in dog training, for the first time. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you’re doing now” and ‘no’ means “stop what you’re doing now.” I explain how to teach our dogs these signals, and I emphasize that ‘no’ is not an inhibitor (earlier called a punisher) and that it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior.

As the years passed, I reviewed, improved and refined all definitions, especially the ways to teach dogs these signals. In 1994, I wrote the first draught of SMAF, which provided the opportunity to analyze signals and teaching methods (POA=plans of action) with increased precision. The definitions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ remained the same, but we could now clearly distinguish between the two entirely different ways in which dog owners and trainers used the sound ‘no.’ One was a signal as I describe; the other was an inhibitor. The inhibitor ‘no’ was pronounced more harshly than the signal ‘no’ but was fundamentally the same sound. Transcribing it into SMAF, we had no doubt that they were two different stimuli. The signal is No(stop what you doing right now),sound(no) and the inhibitor is [!+sound](no).

Using an inhibitor as a signal to encourage the dog to do something is never a good idea as the function of an inhibitor is to decrease the frequency, intensity or duration of a particular behavior. Conversely, the function of a signal is to produce a behavior which we increase in frequency, intensity or duration by reinforcing. Therefore, to strengthen the effectiveness of No,sound (the signal), we had to explain to owners and trainers very carefully that they should never use ‘no’ as an inhibitor. Amazingly (or perhaps not), many dogs could distinguish between the two ‘no’s,’ but we didn’t want to risk them forming a respondent association between the sound ‘no’ and an aversive. We would use any other sound (word), e.g. ‘phooey’ (‘fy’ or ‘føj’ in the Scandinavian languages) as an inhibitor.

Why the word ‘no’?

The word ‘no’ seemed to me at the time, the best option to convey, “stop what you are doing right now.” After all, implicitly or explicitly, this is the way most of us use the word (when we have it in our language, that is). Of course, some people cannot say ‘no’ tactfully, but the fact that some people have bad manners doesn’t detract from the meaning or the value of the word itself.

Elephant And Baby

All infants have an innate understanding of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Their bodies function on ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Their survival depends on it.

The magic words ‘yes’ and ‘no‘

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are two words used for expressing affirmatives and negatives. The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are difficult to classify under one of the eight conventional parts of speech. They are not interjections (they do not express emotion or calls for attention). Linguists, sometimes, classify them as sentence words or grammatical particles.

Modern English has two words for affirmatives and negatives, but early-English had four words: yes, yea, no, and nay.

If you’re a native English speaker, you know what yes and no mean, and you have no problem using these words, from a linguistic point of view. You might have a problem using the word no from a psychological point of view, but that’s an entirely different story.

If you are a native English speaker and have never ventured into learning other languages, you probably believe there is no problem in answering any question with yes or no. After all, most things either are or are not, are either true or false, right? I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you by demonstrating that you are wrong.

Even though some languages have similar words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. For example, in Portuguese, Finnish and Welsh, you rarely reply to a question with yes and no. Portuguese: “Estás bem?” (Are you OK?) “Estou” (I am). Finnish: “Onko sinulla nälkä?” (Are you hungry?) “On” (I am). Welsh: “Ydy Ffred yn dod?” (Is Ffred coming?) “Ydy” (He is coming).

In Scandinavian languages, French and German (amongst others), you answer questions with yes and no. However, you have two different ways of saying yes depending on whether the question is an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question or an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question. In Danish and Swedish, you say (ja, jo, nej), in Norwegian (ja, jo, nei), in French (oui, si, non), and in German (ja, doch, nein).

So far so good, but if you venture into the Asian languages, it gets far more complicated. Some Asian languages don’t have words for yes and no. In Japanese, the words はい (hai) and いいえ (iie) do not imply yes and no, but agreement or disagreement with the statement of the question, i.e. “agree.” or “disagree.” はい can also mean “I understand what you’re saying.” The same in Thai: ใช่ (chai) and ไม่ใช่ (maichai) indicate “correct,” “not-correct.” In Thai, you can’t answer the question “คุณหิวข้าวไหม” (Are you hungry?) with “ใช่” (correct). It doesn’t make sense, for what is it that you are confirming to be correct? The right answers are “หิว” (hungry) or “ไม่หิว” (not hungry). In all Chinese dialects, yes-no questions assume the form “A or not-A” and you answer echoing one of the statements (A or not-A). In Mandarin, the closest equivalents to yes and no are 是 (shì) “be” and 不是 (búshì) “to not be.”

Latin has no single words for yes and no. The vocative case and adverbs do it, instead. The Romans used ita or ita vero (thus, indeed) for the affirmative, and for the negative, they used adverbs such as minime, (in the least degree). Another common way to answer questions in Latin was to repeat the verb like in Portuguese, Castellano and Catalan (e.g. est or non est). We can also use adverbs: ita (so), etiam (even so), sane quidem (indeed, indeed), certe (certainly), recte dicis (you say rightly) or nullo modo (by no means), minime (in the least degree), haud (not at all!), non quidem (indeed not).

In computer language, yes and no appear as a succession of “A or B” conditions. If condition A is true, then action X. A computer’s CPU only needs to recognize two states for us to instruct it to perform complicated operations: on or off, yes or no, one or zero.

The theories of quantum computation suggest that every physical object, even the universe, is, in some sense, a quantum computer. The cosmos itself appears to be composed of yes and no. Professor Seth Lloyd writes: “[…] everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information—ones and zeros. […] Atoms and electrons are bits. Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer.”

The way computers use yes and no is the closest to our customary use of these terms. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you are doing right now.” ‘No’ means “stop what you are doing right now.” That is the implied meaning of yes and no in the majority of the sentences. “Are you hungry?” The answer “yes” would result in you getting food and “no” in the opposite. “Shall I turn right? ” followed by a ‘yes’ would make me continue with what I intended to do and if followed by a ‘no,’ would make me stop doing it. A ‘yes’ in response to “Did you buy rice, today?” would prompt me to continue doing whatever I might be doing and a ‘no’ would lead me to interrupt my errand to go and buy some rice. There are many other examples, but in general yes prompts or encourages a continuation, and no does the opposite. There is nothing particularly positive or negative in either. Both are valuable bits of information that we can transform into behavior to our benefit. Both save energy, the most precious resource for all living organisms.

Two peculiar aspects of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

As we have seen, some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ That is a cultural phenomenon. For example, in Japan and Thailand, it is bad manners to be direct. Japanese and Thai people consider ambiguity to be a beautiful aspect of their language. The objective in courtesy is to convey the true meaning between the lines. The way one delivers a message should be as unclear as possible, especially when criticizing someone or rejecting an invitation. This linguistic feature is probably related to the sense of self-respect and honor so pronounced in both cultures, i.e. one doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings or lose face.

For example, I can’t say to a Thai employee that arrives late to work, “Arriving late is not acceptable. Please, rectify this in the future.” If I do, I won’t have an employee coming to work at all the next day or maybe ever again. I’d have to say, “If we had employees that arrived late, we would have to ask them to come at the right time, don’t you think?” That would have the desired effect. If you invite a Japanese to an event that he or she is not the least interested in, they will answer “I want to come, but unfortunately, it is impossible on that day.” That would suffice for me to understand that they are not interested without making me lose face. Suggesting another day (and missing the point) is considered impolite.

Thais use ครับ (khrap, by men), ค่ะ (kha, by women) and the Japanese use はい (hai) to show that they are listening to you because it is impolite for them to let you talk for any length of time without their acknowledgment. However, it does not mean they agree with what you are saying, they will comply, or that they even understand you.

Regarding animal training, a signal is “everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver.” A command is “a signal that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only minor variations.” The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are probably the closest we come to commands. ‘Yes’ means continue and ‘no’ means stop and, as to most behaviors, there are few possible variations in continuing or stopping, if any).

Is ‘no’ a bad word?

‘No’ is not a bad word. On the contrary, it is a very useful word. It conveys information in a precise and efficient way. To get ‘no’ as an answer is as important as getting a ‘yes.’ Both save us energy and lead us to our goal. Personally, I like the words yes and no equally, and I wished people would learn to use them properly and more often.

The other day, I went into a store at a busy hour, and I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait. I said to one employee: “Excuse me, I have a question that you can answer quickly with a yes or no. Do you have a Time Capsule 2TB?”

“I have one, but it’s reserved for a customer,” he answered.
“What does that mean? Is he coming to pick it up or not?” I asked again.
“Yes, he is.” He answered.
“Well, then that’s a no, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.

Why couldn’t he just have said no the first time? It would have saved us all time: me, the other customers in the line, and not least himself.

Another example:

United Airlines desk at the gate boarding to ORD: I approach and ask: “Do you have an empty seat on this flight?”
The United operator answers me: “That depends on your ticket, sir.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I reply, “whether or not you have empty seats does not depend on my ticket, It depends on whether all the seats will have butts on or not.”
A colleague of hers smiles and checks it. “Sorry, sir, this flight is fully booked. I have one seat on the next flight, but… it’s business class.”
“No ‘but.’ You can put a comma or an ‘and’ in there,” I say. It blows my mind. A seat is a seat, and that’s what I requested. A seat is not less of a seat because it is a business class seat.
“Excuse me, sir?” she replies with a smile, plainly not understanding my comment based on linguistics/logic.
“Never mind. Here’s my frequent flyer card. I have an e-ticket for the 7.13 pm flight. Please, upgrade it with my miles. Thank you.” I say smilingly, in an attempt to reinforce her behavior for having been able to think clearly (yes/no) for two seconds and for checking the availability on the next flight.
“Yes, sir.” Finally a short and precise answer!

Why couldn’t they have answered first ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ until they got the next bit of information if I had any to give them? It would have saved me (and them) time and energy. If the lack of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Asian languages is frustrating for the Western communicator, the refusal to use them, or their incorrect usage in languages where they exist and are well defined, is exasperating.

Why don’t some people like the word ‘no’?

Cultural differences apart, some people don’t like the word ‘no’ for the same reason that some dogs don’t like it: they associate ‘no’ with aversives. Parents are just as bad as dog owners in distinguishing between signals and inhibitors, and they make identical mistakes, which will later create problems to their children.

Of course, parents have to yell ‘no’ if the toddler is about to stick his fingers in the wall outlet (plug socket). There’s nothing wrong with that. What is incorrect, and creates the aversive respondent association with ‘no’, is the constant repetition without a reinforcer when the behavior stops. The toddler only learns that, sometimes, parents go berserk, and she has no idea why or how to avoid it. The toddler becomes so sensitive to the word ‘no’ that later, like many others, he or she would rather live with regret than to risk hearing a ‘no.’ This conditioning can also happen subsequently, in adult life, to which abusive parents, enraged spouses, and tyrannical bosses all contribute.

An elementary mistake, committed by both parents and dog owners, adds to the aversive connotation of ‘no.’ If we have to use inhibitors, we should never (ever) inhibit the individual, only the behavior. Inhibiting the individual may create traumas, a lack of self-confidence, the feeling of rejection, etc. Inhibiting the individual rather than the behavior can even produce aggressive behavior instead of decreasing the expected behavior.

The reason why some people don’t like ‘no’ has nothing to do with the word or the message conveyed, but with the aversives to which it was (respondently) conditioned. Changing that goes beyond the scope of biology, animal behavior, and linguistics, and pertains to the realm of psychology.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘no’ and particularly not with the message it conveys. There is something wrong with abusive parents, enraged spouses, tyrannical bosses and ignorant people (all potentially abusive animal owners). To forbid the word ‘no’ or to replace it with another, e.g. ‘stop,’ does not resolve the problem. The only thing that does solve the problem is to educate people, to teach them to respect others independently of species, race, and sex.


English Springer Spaniel on the trail: ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are indispensable tools to direct the dog.

‘No’ in dog training

The signal ‘no’ is indispensable in dog training. I use it constantly when training detection dogs, rats, and Guinea pigs and the animals respond correctly with no emotional response at all. I give the signal ‘search’ using sound, the dog searches, I reinforce it. I give the dog the signal ‘no,’ the dog changes direction, I reinforce it. If the dog stops and looks at me, I give the signal ‘direction’ with a stretched arm toward the desired target, I give the signal ‘search’ employing sound, the dog searches and I reinforce it. If necessary, while the dog searches, I can signal ‘yes’ to encourage the dog to continue searching (‘yes’ functions here as a signal and a reinforcer, not an exception at all).

For those of you proficient in SMAF:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

PRS2. {No,sound => Dog changes direction => “!±sound”};

ALT2. {No,sound => Dog stops and looks at me => Direction,arm + Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

If necessary:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound” => Dog searches => Yes,sound}; /* Yes,sound also functioning as “!±sound */

In languages where there are no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ such as Thai, I use ใช่ (chai=correct) and หยุด (yut=stop) respectively for “continue what you are doing right now” and “stop what you are doing right now.” I don’t use ไม่ใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close to ใช่ (chai=correct).

Some trainers don’t allow their dog owners to say ‘no’ at all in their classes. That is an option, particularly if we have a class full of badly-mannered dog owners, but if our class consists of average, well-mannered owners, I cannot see any reason to do so. If they are not well-mannered, maybe they should learn to be so before beginning training their dogs; and perhaps, by training them to be polite to their dogs, we could even make a change for the better in their lives in general by teaching them good manners toward their fellow humans as well.

Forbidding the signal ‘no’ in dog training is a grave mistake (and misunderstanding) in my opinion. Firstly, it is one of the two most critical signals in life. Secondly, we all need a quick, efficient signal to stop a behavior which might be fatal for someone we care about (human or animal). Thirdly, it would be an untenable waste of time and energy if we had to resort to diverting maneuvers every time someone (our dogs included) did something undesirable.

Substituting the signal ‘no’ with other sounds (words) such as ‘stop,’ or ‘off’ doesn’t solve the problem. It only transfers the conditioning to those new words. The problem is that some people just can’t speak nicely to anyone. Most dog owners yell their dog’s name, and they yell ‘come.’ What are we going to do about that? Forbid them to use their dog’s name and the word ‘come’? What’s the next thing we are going to forbid them? Rather than banning words, it seems to me a much better option to teach them to communicate properly. We need to explain to them that the words they use, the way they use them, are not signals but inhibitors and, by definition, they will not achieve the desired result. Quite the contrary, they will get an undesired outcome. We need to show them how appropriate signals produce appropriate behaviors.

Bottom-line: The fact that some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that Latin uses quantifiers instead, suggests there are cognitive as well as emotional elements connected to the meaning of both words. Maybe the logical human brain likes the precision and simplicity implied in ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but the emotional human brain doesn’t. The universe and computers have no queries with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ perhaps because they are not emotional. Maybe ‘yes’ and ‘no’ appeared in some languages at a stage when action became more decisive than emotion. We don’t know. I haven’t been able to clarify any of these questions. Nevertheless, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ convey important bits of information in a succinct and precise way. In the languages, which contain them, we can use them correctly for our benefit.

Enjoy and don’t feel guilty because you are well-mannered and know how to say no.


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Critical Reasoning—on Aggression and Dominance

Dogs Head-To-Head

Is this head-to-head confrontation a display of aggressive or dominant behavior? We need good definitions to decide correctly for one or the other.

In the following, I will give you four definitions of aggression and dominance; and will analyze them determining whether and why they are good or bad definitions.

Behavior is tricky to study because it is highly dynamic depending on many variables. It is even more difficult to describe because nothing, or very little, is as clear cut as we would wish and our brains strive after. The difference between any two behaviors is like the difference between any two colors in the light spectrum. When is red not red but yellow is as difficult to assert as when friendly behavior turns into pacifying, pacifying into submissive, or submissive into fearful. It is, ultimately, a question of definition and convention.

Behavior and emotion are closely connected and yet we can only see the former and guess about the latter. Generalizations are troublesome and prone to error. These inherent difficulties combined with poor definitions and a sloppy use of the terms can only turn a difficult subject-matter into a nearly impossible one. My suggestion to attempt to remedy this is to formulate accurate definitions, to apply terms consistently, and to be modest in our claims and generalizations, leaving plenty of room for alternative hypothesis and improvement.

I will exemplify the problem with some representative statements about dominance and aggression, which I picked from articles on the Internet. The name of their authors is irrelevant in this context because my purpose is not to criticize single persons, only to point out fundamental errors and to help my readers to analyze what they read, to find their bearings, and develop their own educated opinions.

In all fairness, we must appreciate the problem any author faces when attempting to describe an everyday occurrence like behavior accurately, and living up to a scientific standard, an occurrence which we are used to registering, describing and conveying in daily language. It’s much more difficult than to write a mathematical sentence. “Between a rock and a hard place,” the author tries not to use too many technical terms, which require definitions on their own, putting him or herself at the mercy of everyday language and colloquialisms bound to a myriad of interpretations and misinterpretations. If you’re the author of one of the analyzed statements below, please regard my analysis as an aid. I’m definitely on your side, fully appreciating the burden of the task you so bravely undertook: to define and to explain.

Example 1: “In animal behavior, dominance is defined as a relationship between individuals that is established through force, aggression and submission in order to establish priority access to all desired resources (food, the opposite sex, preferred resting spots, etc). A relationship is not established until one animal consistently defers to another.”

The author states that dominance is one kind of relationship: (“dominance (…) is a relationship”) with the function to “(in order to) establish priority access to all desired resources.”

The statement doesn’t tell us explicitly what dominant behavior is, but leaves us guessing that since dominance “is established through force, aggression and submission,” it must be related to these behaviors; but it doesn’t define aggression and submission, which are technical terms.

The statement seems either biased or too restrictive. One individual can establish a dominant (priority access, according to the author) relationship with another through motivation, persuasion, argumentation, bluffing, bribing, all without the use of force or aggression (aggressive behavior), independently of how we exactly understand these terms.

Most social parents establish their dominance status over their offspring not by using aggressive behavior, but because they are better (older, more experienced) at solving problems (this is persuasion and argumentation) or only a limited and inhibited amount of force, which is quantitatively and functionally so different from aggressive behavior, that it deserves a new name (dominant behavior).

In some cases and for many reasons, most commonly age and experience, it is even the lower ranking (in need of protection) that bestows a higher ranking to the other (it’s a “you decide”). Aggressive behavior and dominant behavior are, thus, not the same.

hierarchy maintained by means of aggressive behavior tends to be unstable, either because some of the lower-ranking leave the group (estimating that the costs of group membership out-value its benefits), or because they constantly challenge the higher ranking. Any hierarchy maintained by means of dominant behavior tends to be more stable because the lower ranking individuals have greater benefits at relatively low costs.

The sentence “to all desired resources,” is too daring. I wouldn’t dare say all and I doubt very much that any individual ever controls all desired resources (depending on the number, of course, but all suggests many). No hierarchy is ever more consistent than it is regularly subject to changes. Even in established hierarchies, the highest ranking individuals do not always gain access to particular resources on particular encounters. Persistent dominant behavior from one individual toward the same other individual tends to turn their relationship hierarchical, but it has to be maintained by regular displays of dominant behavior.

The sentence is not a definition of dominant behavior because to be so we’d have to substitute dominance with dominant behavior and aggression with aggressive behavior, and we would get “dominant behavior is established through aggressive behavior,” which doesn’t explain anything.

If dominance and aggression are the same, there is no need to call it something else: aggression would do. The term submission seems misplaced: “dominance is established through submission” is a contradiction since one is the antonym of the other. The sentence doesn’t seem to make sense once we begin analyzing it, but I have a hunch of what the problem is: the author is confounding hierarchy with dominance. If we substitute one term by the other, then the sentence makes sense—a relationship can be hierarchical—though, it is still wrong because a hierarchical relationship does not necessarily involve force and aggressive behavior; it can involve many other aspects as we saw.

The sentence “A relationship is not established until one animal consistently defers to another,” can be misleading. It gives the impression that no relationship at all exists between two individuals unless one consistently defers to the other, which is not true. There are many examples of relationships, most as a matter of fact, be it between humans, wolves or dogs, where one of the parties does not consistently defer to the other. Quite the contrary, in most stable relationships, both parties consistently defer to one another.

In the statement above, and in general, we confound dominance with dominant behavior; we confound a defining characteristic with an attribute.

A dog is not dominant as it is black or short-legged. A dog shows dominant behavior toward (condition 1) when (condition 2).

“A knife is a cutting tool” indicates a defining characteristic (permanent). “This knife is sharp” indicates an attribute (temporary). The correct is: “This knife is sharp to cut meat (=condition 1) today (=condition 2).”

Likewise, “Bongo is dominant toward Rover (=condition 1) when they find a bone (=condition 2).” More correctly, we should write “Bongo showed today dominant behavior toward Rover when they found a bone.” We can also say, if it is the case, “Bongo shows, more often than not, dominant behavior toward Rover when they find an edible item”.

This is characterizing the behavior, not the individual. What we cannot say is “Bongo is dominant, Rover is submissive” because these are not defining characteristics of an individual.” These are attributes of their behavior under certain conditions even when these conditions seem to be rather encompassing.

Bottom line: The statement is not good because: (1) it defies observational data (aggression is not a necessary condition in a dominance relationship), (2) if aggression is a necessary condition, then we don’t need to call it dominance, we can simply call it an aggressive relationship (or antagonistic if you prefer a nicer name), (3) it is too restrictive (‘all desired resources,’ ‘a relationship is not established,’ ‘consistently defers’).

Let me give you another example of a representative sentence, this time about aggression, taken from another article on the Internet.

Example 2: “So what causes aggression? Aggression is a response to something/someone the animal perceives as a threat. Aggression is used to protect the animal through the use of aggressive displays (growling, barking, tooth displays, etc.) or protect the animal through aggressive acts (biting). Aggressive behavior is most frequently caused by fear.”

We miss the definition of “threat” to be able to analyze the sentence conclusively, but assuming that threat means “an intention of imminent harm, danger, or pain” (The Free Dictionary), the statement is false.

A threat is only a threat if it threatens, that is if it succeeds in eliciting fear behavior (apprehended as imminent danger). Otherwise, if the threatened individual does not consider itself under imminent harm, danger or pain, then it is not a threat, it is just an exclamation (information).

Animals respond to threats (not exclamations), which are aggressive behaviors, by either neutralizing the opponent’s aggressive behavior (pacifying behavior), giving up (displaying active or passive submissive behavior), or fleeing (the most effective energy saving measure when seriously threatened). When threatened, attacking would be the worst possible strategy. If attacking solves the problem, then the threat was not a threat at all (by definition) because it was not dangerous enough to qualify as such.

The only occasion when some animals respond aggressively to threats (not all, some freeze and die) is when pacifying behavior, submissive behavior, and fleeing doesn’t have the desired effect of neutralizing the threatening (aggressive) behavior of an opponent. These are exceptional exceptions.

The sentence “Aggression is used to protect the animal through the use of aggressive displays (…)” is circular. Aggression being synonymous with aggressive behavior and display and act with behavior means that the sentence reads “Aggressive behavior is used to protect the animal through the use of aggressive behavior or protect the animal through aggressive behavior.”

Furthermore, since the author writes in the passive, it leaves us with the feeling that aggression is some mysterious quality. Who uses it? Where does it come from? Re-writing it in the active, we get the even more nonsensical “The animal uses aggressive behavior to protect itself through the use of aggressive behavior or protect itself through aggressive behavior.” This is not exactly a statement likely to enlighten anyone, quite the opposite.

The sentence “Aggressive behavior is most frequently caused by fear” is the result of our use of terms without having given enough thought to their proper definitions. Fear does not elicit aggressive behavior. It would have been a lethal strategy that natural selection would have eradicated swiftly and once and for all. A cornered animal does not show aggressive behavior because it is fearful. It does so because its natural responses to a fear-eliciting stimulus (pacifying, submission, flight) don’t work. 

Let us find out why a third statement, which I also took from the Internet, is much better than the two that we have analyzed above.

Example 3: “Dominance is not a personality trait but a description of a relationship between two or more animals and is related to which animal has access to valued resources such as food, mates, etc.” We can easily improve this statement by avoiding the unclear “is related to” and the passive construction of the sentence: “Dominance is not a personality trait but a description of a relationship between two or more animals; in a dominance relationship, the dominant animal has access to valued resources such as food and mates.” (We also drop the vague and unnecessary “etc.”).

This statement is not as restrictive as the first one we analyzed. For example, it does not claim aggressive behavior as a necessary condition. It allows for more options. It also says what the term being defined is not (“not a personality trait”).

The art of making a good definition is to find the right balance between too much and too little and to state only the absolutely necessary conditions. A too restrictive definition has fewer chances to be adopted than a broader one, and a too broad definition risks losing its defining function. This definition of dominance is more likely to be accepted and adopted by a larger number of people than the first one.

A proper definition defines exactly what is supposed to define and nothing else. A good definition gives an if-and-only-if condition for when an object or a term satisfies the definition. It is conclusive and exclusive. A good definition should also involve simpler terms than what we are defining.

Sometimes, we are compelled to use working definitions. A working definition is a definition we choose for an occasion and may not fully conform to the established definition. It is a definition at a stage of being developed.—a tentative definition that in due time may turn into an established definition.

Dogs Pacifying Behavior

Believe or not, the higher ranking (ethology term) or most distinguished (in human terms) dog is the one on the right. That is the function (and the beauty) of the evolutionarily stable strategy dominant/submissive behavior (when defined correctly). It resolves a confrontation without injury to either party, spending only a manageable amount of energy. The dog on the left shows pacifying behavior, which is a voluntary display of a mild form of submissive behavior. It’s politeness, recognition, in human terms.

Example 4: “Dominant behavior is quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.”

This is a good definition because it defines a term including and excluding the necessary conditions. It defines something concrete and observable, not a semantic form (it’s easier to define “dominant behavior” than “dominance relationship”).

It states a necessary condition to distinguish it from a related technical term, aggressive behavior, even explaining a defining characteristic of the latter.

It does not include other terms needing a definition. It includes enough conditions to justify the use of the term, not too few to risking being synonymous with another term, and not too many to risking losing its explanatory value by being too encompassing.

It gives an example of its main characteristic in plain words. It does not presuppose any special knowledge of a reader to understand it. It’s almost impossible not to agree with this definition unless, of course, one wants the term to describe something completely different (which is another matter altogether).

It is not likely that we’ll find the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth about behavior anytime soon, if ever, but I believe we can come closer to it by being meticulous in our observations, strict in our argumentations, modest in our generalizations, and prudent in our conclusions.


"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

Should We Reinforce the Effort or the Result?


If you ask, “should we reinforce the effort or the result?” you are liable to get as many answers supporting the one opinion as for the other. Supporters of the effort system sustain that reinforcing results creates emotional problems when one doesn’t succeed and decreases the rate of even trying. Advocates of the result method defend that reinforcing the effort encourages sloppiness and cheating.

I shall argue in the following for and against both theories and prove that it is not a question of either/or, rather of defining clearly our criteria, processes, and goals.


Effort or Result

Learning is a complex process The main difficulty in some learning processes is to reinforce the right behavior at the right time, which bad teachers, bad parents and bad trainers do not master. We must reinforce the process because of its emotional consequences. The dog and the child must accept the challenge, want to be challenged, to be able to give their best in solving the problem, not giving up.


I shall compare the learning of some skills in dogs and humans because the principles are the same. The difference between them and us is one “of degree, not of kind,” as Darwin put it.

I will use SMAF to describe some processes accurately where I find it advantageously. If you are not proficient in SMAF, and you’d like to be, please read “Mission SMAF— Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training.”

The main difficulty in some learning processes is to reinforce the right behavior at the right time, which bad teachers, bad parents and bad trainers do not master (bad means inefficient, and it is not a moral judgment).

Much of my personal work with dogs (and rats and Guinea Pigs) is and has been detection work, mainly narcotics and explosives, but also person search, tobacco and other. One of the first signals I teach the animals is a disguised reinforcer.

With dogs, I use the sound ‘Yes’ (the English word). The signal part of this signal/reinforcer means, “continue what you’re doing,” and the reinforcer part, “we’re OK, mate, doing well, keep up.” That is a signal that becomes a reinforcer: Continue,sound(yes) that becomes a “!+sound”(yes).

The difference between the most used “!±sound”(good-job) and “!+sound”(yes) is that the former is associated and maintained with “!-treat”(small food treat) and “!-body(friendly body language); and the latter with a behavior that will eventually produce “!-treat”. The searching behavior does not provide a treat, but continuing searching will eventually (find or no find). That is why “!+sound”(yes) is a disguised Continue,sound(yes) or the other way around.

Why do I need this interbreeding between a signal and a reinforcer?
Because the signal ‘Search’ (Search,sound) does not mean ‘Find the thing.’ Sometimes (most of the time) there’s nothing to find, which is good for all of us (airports and the likes are not that full of drugs and explosives).

English Springer Spaniel On The Trail

Search’ means “Go and find out whether there is a thing out there.” The signal ‘Search’ (Search,sound) does not mean ‘Find the thing.’ Sometimes (most of the time) there’s nothing to find.


So, what does Search,sound mean? What am I reinforcing? The effort?
No, I’m not. We have to be careful because if we focus on reinforcing the effort, we may end up reinforcing the animal just strolling around, or any other accidental or coincidental behavior.

I am still reinforcing the result. ‘Search’ means “Go and find out whether there is a thing out there.” ‘Thing’ is everything that I have taught the dog to search and locate for me, e.g. cocaine, hash, TNT, C4.

“Go and find out whether there is a thing out there” leaves us with two options equally successful: ‘here’ and ‘clear.’ When there is a thing, the dog answers ‘here’ by pointing at its apparent location (I have taught it that behavior). When there is no thing, that is exactly what I want the animal to tell me: the dog answers ‘clear’ by coming back to me (again because I have taught it that). We have two signals and two behaviors:

Thing,scent => dog points (‘here’ behavior).
∅Thing,scent => dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior).

The signals are part of the environment. I do not give them, which does not matter: a signal (SD) is a signal (1). An SD is a stimulus associated with a particular behavior and a particular consequence or class of consequences. When we have two of them, we expect two different behaviors and when there is none, we expect no behavior. What fools us, here, is that in detection work we always have one and only one SD, either one or the other. It is impossible to have none. Either we have a scent, or we don’t, which means that either we have Thing,scent or we have ∅Thing,scent, requiring two different behaviors as usually. The one SD is the absence of the other.

Traditionally, we don’t reinforce a search that doesn’t produce a positive indication. To avoid extinguishing the behavior, we use ‘controlled positive samples’ (a drug or an explosive, we know it is there because we have placed it there to give the animal a possibility to obtain a reinforcer).

That is a correct solution, except that it teaches the dog that the criterion for success is ‘to find’ and not ‘not to find,’ which is not true. ‘Not to find’ (because there is nothing) is as good as ‘to find.’ The tricky part is, therefore, to reinforce the ‘clear’ and how to do it to avoid sloppiness (strolling around) and cheating.

Let us analyze the problem systematically.

The following process does not give us any problems:

Search,sound => Dog searches => “!+sound”(yes) or Continue,sound(yes) => Dog searches => Dog finds thing (Thing,scent) => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.

No problem, but what, then, when there is no thing (∅Thing,scent)? If I don’t reinforce the searching behavior, I might extinguish it. In that situation, I reinforce the searching with “!+sound”(yes):

“Search,sound” => Dog searches => “!+sound”(yes) => Dog searches => ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => “!±sound”(good-job). */And I can also give “!-treat”*/

Looks good, but it poses us some compelling questions:
How do I know the dog is searching versus strolling around (sloppiness)?
How do I know I am reinforcing the searching behavior?

If I reinforce the dog coming back to me, then, next time I risk that the dog will take a quick round and get to me right away: that is the problem. I want to dog to return to me only when it finds nothing (the same as didn’t find anything).

To reinforce the searching behavior.
To identify the searching behavior versus strolling around (sloppiness). How can I make sure that the dog always searches and never just rambles around?

Reinforcing the searching behavior with “!+sound”(yes) works. OK.

Remaining problem:
I have to reinforce the ‘clear’ behavior (coming back to me), but how can I make sure that the dog always searches and never strolls around (avoid sloppiness)?
How can I make sure that the dog has no interest in being sloppy or cheating me?

To teach the dog that reinforcers are available if and only if:
1. The dog finds the thing. Thing,scent => Dog sits => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.
2. The dog does not ever miss a thing. ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.

I teach the dog gradually to find things until I reach a predetermined low concentration of the target scent (my DLO—Desired Learning Objective). In this phase of training, there is always one thing to find. After ten consecutive successful finds (my criterium and quality control measure), all producing reinforcers for both the searching (“!+sound”(yes)) and the finding (“!+sound” + “!-treat”), I set up a situation with no thing (∅Thing,scent). The dog searches and doesn’t find anything. I reinforce the searching and the finding (no-thing) as previously. Next set-up, I make sure there is a thing to find, and I reinforce both searching and finding.

I never reinforce not-finding a thing that is there, or finding a thing that is not there (yes, the last one is an apparent paradox).

Consequence: the only undesirable situations for a dog are: (1) not-finding a thing that is there (the dog did not indicate Thing,scent), or (2) indicating a thing that is not there (the dog indicates ∅Thing,scent).

(1) Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => [?±sound] + [?-treat].
(2) ∅Thing,scent => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => [?±sound] + [?-treat].

That is (negatively) inhibiting negligence, but since it proves to increase the intensity of the searching, we cannot qualify it as an inhibitor. Therefore, we call it a non-reinforcer: “∅±sound”, “∅-treat”.
In the first case:

Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => [?±sound] + [?-treat].
Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat”.
Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat” => Dog searches (more intensively) => Thing,scent => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => “!±sound” + “!-treat”.

In the second case, I have to be 100% sure that there is indeed no-thing. The training area must be free of any scent remotely similar to the scent we are training (Thing,scent). Particularly in the first phases of the training process, this is an imperative, and a trainer who misses that is committing major negligence.

Should the dog, nevertheless, show ‘here’ for ∅Thing,scent, then we can use the same procedure as above:

∅Thing,scent => Dog shows ‘here’ behavior => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat” => Dog searches (more intensively) => ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => “!±sound” + “!-treat”.

What if later the dog doesn’t find a thing that is there in a lower concentration than the one I used for training, or masked by other scents?

No problem—that is not the dog’s fault. I didn’t train it for it. The dog doesn’t know that it is committing a mistake by giving me a (wrong) ‘clear.’ As far as the dog is concerned, the room is clear. For the dog, it is a ‘clear’: ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “!±sound” + “!-treat”. The dog was not strolling around and is not cheating me.

Comparing to humans:
I reinforce the behavior of the child trying to solve a math problem. Yes, we must always reinforce (or inhibit) a behavior, not the individual. “Well done, but you got it wrong because…” The solution may be incorrect, but the method was correct. Then, it is all a question of training. The ‘wrong’ will be eliminated with more or better training. Maybe, it was caused by a too abrupt increase in the difficulty curve of the problem (which is the teacher’s problem). We are not reinforcing trying; we are reinforcing the correct use of a method (a desired process).

Why reinforce the process?
We must reinforce the process because of its emotional consequences. The dog and the child must accept the challenge, must want to be tried and to be able to give their best in solving a problem.

Are we reinforcing the effort rather than the success?
No, we are not. Reinforcing the effort rather than the result can and will lead to false positives. The animal indicates something that it is not there because it associates the reinforcer with the behavior, not the thing. Children give us three-four consecutive, quick and wrong answers if we reinforce the trying, not the process (thinking before answering).
We reinforce the result (success) only. When the dog doesn’t find because there’s nothing to find, that is a success. When the dog doesn’t find because the concentration was too low, that is a success because ‘too low’ is here equal to ‘no-thing.’ When the child gets it wrong, it is because the exercise exceeded the actual capacity of the child (not trained to that). No place to hide for trainers, coaches, teachers, and parents.

We are still reinforcing success and exactly what we trained the dog and the child to do. We don’t say to the child, “Well, you tried hard enough, good.” We say, ” Well done; you did everything correctly. You just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that x=2y-z and you couldn’t know it.” Next time, the child gets it right because now she knows it; and if not, it is because x=2y-z exceeds the capacity of that particular child at that particular moment, in which case, there’s nothing to do about it.

The same with the dog: the dog (probably) will not indicate 0.01g of cocaine because I trained it to go as low as 0.1g. When I reinforce the dog’s ‘clear,’ I say, “Well done, you did everything correctly, you just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that 0.01g cocaine is still the thing.” Now, I train the dog that ‘thing’ means ‘down to 0.01g cocaine’ and either the dog can do it or it cannot. If it can, good. If it cannot, there’s nothing we can do about it.

We reinforce result, success, not the effort, not trying. We must identify success, have clear criteria for success, plan a progressive approach to our goal, a gradual increase in difficulties. We must be able to recognize limits and limitations in ourselves, in the animal species with which we work, in the individuals we tutor, in the particular skill we teach. We must know when we cannot improve a skill any further and when someone, human or not, cannot give us more than what we get; and be satisfied with that.
1 Strictly speaking, the scent, which the detection dog searches, is not a signal, but a cue, because it is not intentional. In this context, however, it is and SD because we have conditioned it to be so, and we can, therefore, call it a signal. Please, see “Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?

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Laughter is the shortest distance…



We laugh, but we are not the only ones.

As you have figured out by now, I enjoy finding proof that humans are not that different from other forms of life. We share many characteristics with the other living creatures on our blue planet. Today, I have one more example for you—laughter.

Laughing is an involuntary reaction in humans consisting of rhythmical contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system. External stimuli, like being tickled, mostly elicit it. We associate it primarily with joy, happiness, and relief, but fear, nervousness, and embarrassment may also cause it. Laughter depends on early learning and cultural factors.

The study of humor and laughter is called gelotology (from the Greek gelos, γέλιο, meaning laughter).

Chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans display laughter-like behavior when wrestling, playing or tickling. Their laughter consists of alternating inhalations and exhalations that sound to us like breathing and panting.

Rats display long, high frequency, ultrasonic vocalizations during play and when tickled. We can only hear these chirping sounds with proper equipment. They are also ticklish, as are we. Particular areas of their body are more sensitive than others. There is an association between laughter and pleasant feelings. Social bonding occurs with the human tickler, and the rats can even become conditioned to seek the tickling.*

A dog’s laughter sounds similar to a regular pant. A sonograph analysis of this panting behavior shows that the variation of the bursts of frequencies is comparable with the laughing sound. When we play this recorded dog-laughter to dogs in a shelter, it can contribute to promoting play, social behavior, and decrease stress levels.*

Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Maybe, it is simply the shortest distance between any two living creatures.


* Panksepp & Burgdorf, 2003, ‘Laughing’ rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?; Simonet, Versteeg & Storie, 2005, Dog-laughter: Recorded playback reduces stress related behavior in shelter dogs.

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"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

How Wolves Change Rivers


The wolves changed the rivers of the Yellowstone. Picture by photographer Ronan Donovan, NG.


In 1926, there were no longer wolves in Yellowstone, once the natural habitat of this species. Between 1977 and the re-introduction in 1995, we have reliable reports of wolves being seen throughout the park. Most of them were either lone wolves or pairs, probably only transiting. Finally, in 1995, grey wolf packs were reintroduced in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park and Idaho.


“How Wolves Change Rivers” produced by Sustainable Man and narrated by George Monbiot.


Before the extirpation, the wolves living within the park belonged to the subspecies Northern Rocky Mountains wolf, Canis lupus irremotus. The reintroduced species of 1995 belong to the subspecies Mackenzie Valley wolf, Canis lupus occidentalis.

The reintroduction of the wolves has shown a greater impact on the biodiversity of the Yellowstone than anticipated.

The wolves’ predation on the elk population, until then unchallenged, produced a significant increase of new-growth in various plants. Aspen and willow trees, previously grazed by the elks more or less at will, got suddenly a chance to grow. With the presence of the wolves, the elks stopped venturing into deeper and for them dangerous thickets where they could easily be surprised. They began to avoid areas of low visibility, which would increase the chances of wolf attacks.

The elks began avoiding open regions such as valley bottoms, open meadows and gorges, where they would be at a disadvantage in case of an attack from a wolf pack. William J. Ripple and Robert L. Bestcha dubbed this process top-down control. In ecology, top-down control denotes that top predators regulate the lower sections of the trophic pyramid. In other words: a top predator controls the structure or population dynamics of a particular ecosystem.

With new vegetation growing and expanding came subtle changes in the waterways running through the park. That had an impact on other species as well. Various bird species came back to Yellowstone with the increased number of trees. The beaver, previously extinct in the region, returned to the park. Their dams across the rivers attracted otters, muskrats, and reptiles.

Probably due to the wolves keeping the coyote populations at bay, the red fox got suddenly a chance to survive because the number of rabbits and mice grew considerably. The raven, always the wolf follower, came back to the park as well, now able to feed on the leftovers of the wolves.

The wolves changed the rivers, in as much as they readdressed the lost balance within the region, one we had created when we exterminated them. With a better balance between predator and prey, top meat eaters and top grazers, came the possibility for other species to thrive. With the increased vegetation growth, erosion decreased and the river banks stabilized.

Every time we produce drastic changes in nature, we interfere deeply with the whole eco-system.

Nature is indeed a beautiful act of balance.


References and further reading

"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

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