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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Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?

In the behavioral sciences, there is some confusion about the meaning of the terms signal and cue (as with so many other terms) and some authors use it interchangeably. To make it even more difficult, communication theory also uses the same terms with slightly different meanings and in the theatre and movies world a ‘cue’ is actually a ‘signal.’

Male lion and cub

Secondary sexual traits, as the mane of the male lion, are powerful cues (Photo by Luca Galuzzi via Wikipedia).

However, in behavioral sciences, the general consensus (see references below) is that signal and cue have the following meanings.

signal is a perceivable behavior or feature that has evolved and has acquired the specific characteristic of conveying information about the signaler or the signaler’s environment. Information (communication) changes the behavior or the beliefs of the receiver.

This definition of signal implies that if a signal changes the behavior of an organism, this change of behavior must be profitable to both sender and receiver more often than not, or otherwise, signalers would cease to send the signal and receivers would cease to respond. This definition distinguishes, in principle, a signal from coercion, although some signals may be coercive, e.g. threats.

In general, signals must be honest and reliable, or otherwise they cease to have any effect (receivers don’t behave appropriately) and they undermine communication (honest senders will not benefit from sending the signals). However, some signals can tolerate a certain degree of dishonesty, all depending on the costs and benefits for all parties. H. W. Bates discovered in 1861 that some (palatable) butterflies had an advantage in mimicking (Batesian mimicry) poisonous butterflies, which is detrimental to the poisonous butterflies inasmuch as it turns their signals of unpalatability less reliable. On the other side, some species use the same signals to convey the same information and they all benefit from it (Mullerian mimicry).

cue is any feature that an organism can use as a guide to display a particular behavior or series of behaviors. The classical example is the mosquito seeking a mammal to bite and flying up wind when it detects CO2. The CO2 is a cue for the mosquito, but it is surely not a signal sent by the mammal, which would prefer to remain undetected and not be bitten. Intentionality is the key element to distinguish signals from cues.

A cue is a regularity, a pattern that either is permanently ‘on,’ or is ‘on’ and ‘off” depending on specific conditions, e.g. a rock, a tree, or the position of the sun in the sky cues us of directions, and dark clouds cues us of impending rain. The rock, the tree, the sun and the clouds are not there to give us information, but they do if we interpret them correctly. A signal is more malleable, more intentional and we can turn it ‘on’ and ‘off’ in response to relevant cues in the environment, e.g. the warning cry that many species (signal) issue in response to the appearance (cue) of a feared predator.

Cues are traits or actions that benefit the receiver exclusively. The sun and the rock do not profit from us getting our bearings. When a mouse by accident makes a rustling sound in the leaves and attracts a predator increasing the risk of being killed, the sound is a cue for the predator about the location of its prey. When an alert animal deliberately gives a warning call to a stalking predator resulting in the predator giving up the hunt, this sound, the alert call, is a signal both for conspecifics and the predator. Different species can, thus, communicate by means of signals which both recognize and behave accordingly.

Secondary sexual traits are features that distinguish the two sexes of a species, but that are not directly part of the reproductive system. They are probably the product of sexual selection for traits, which give an individual an advantage over its rivals in courtship and competitive interactions. Secondary sexual traits are also cues for the opposite sex. They are not directly related to a better production of offspring, but are normally good indicators of better sperm quality or egg production, e,g, manes of male lions (Panthera leo) and long feathers of male peacocks (Pavo cristatus). In humans, visible secondary sexual traits include enlarged breasts of females and facial hair on males.

The study of signals and cues is more complex that it may appear at first sight. Cues can become signals. In 1952, Niko Tinbergen described ritualization as the evolutionary process whereby a cue may be converted into a signal, e.g. the canine behavior of baring teeth. In 1975, Zahavi described the handicap principle where the reliability of some signals is ensured because they advertise greater costs than absolutely necessary, e.g. the exaggerated plumage of the peacock.

We must understand correctly what the intentionality of signals means and not to confound the intentionality of the signal itself with its origin, development and evolution. Signals do not origin by design with a determined purpose. Some features or behaviors just happen at a certain time to be efficient for an organism in generating in another organisms the right behavior at the right time. If they convey an advantage to these organisms in their struggle for survival (and reproduction), they will spread in the population (provided these organisms reproduce). With time, they gain intentionality and become true signals, but their origin was accidental like everything else. This is the reason why I had to modify (some extensively) the definitions I use in this text and I had to create new ones—to make them compatible with the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Applying the principle of simplicity, as always, I suggest the following definitions:

signal is everything that intentionally changes or maintains the behavior of the receiver. A cue is everything that unintentionally changes or maintains the behavior of the receiver.

These definitions open for the possibility to better distinguish between the intentional signals (proper signals) we send and the unintentional ones (which are cues). For example, many dog owners say “no” to their dogs meaning “stop what you are doing,” but their (unintentional) body language (cue) says “yes.”

In conclusion: signal is the most correct term to denominate what we use when we communicate with our animals; and signals may assume many forms, auditory (the words we use), visual (the hand movements and body language we use), olfactory (in canine detection work), tactile (a touch, very common in horse training) and probably also palatable.

So, enjoy the consequence of your (intentional) signals and be careful with any cues you may be (inadvertently) sending to your favorite animal. Enjoy as well your further studies of this fascinating topic: animal communication.


References and further readings

  • Dawkins, M. S., and T. Guilford (1991). The corruption of honest signalling. Animal Behaviour 41:865–873.
  • Donath, J. (2007). Signals, cues and meaning (February draft for Signals, Truth and Design. MIT Press)
  • Hasson, Oren (1997). Towards a general theory of biological signaling. Journal of Theoretical Biology 185: 139-156.
  • Hauser, Marc D. and Mark Konishi, eds. (1999). The design of animal communication. Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (1995). Animal signals: Models and terminology. Journal of Theoretical Biology 177: 305-311.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (2003). Animal signals. Oxford University Press, UK.
  • McFarland, D. (1999). Animal Behaviour. Pearson Education Limited, UK.
  • Otte, D. (1974). Effects and functions in the evolution of signaling systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systemat- ics 5:385–417.
  • Saleh, N et al. (2007) Distinguishing signals and cues: bumblebees use general footprints to generate adaptive behaviour at flowers and nest. Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 2007, 1:119–127
  • Schaefer, H. M. and  Braun, J. (2009). Reliable cues and signals of fruit quality are contingent on the habitat in black elder (Sambucus nigra). Ecology, 90(6), 2009, pp. 1564–1573.
  • Searcy, W. A., and S. Nowicki (2005). The evolution of animal communication. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.
  • Tinbergen, N. (1952). The curious behavior of the stickleback. Scientific American December 1952.
  • Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection: a selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology 53:204–214.
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Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior


Behavior is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Behavior does not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to control a stimulus. Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time, a particularly advantageous behavior spreads throughout the population. The disposition (genotype) to display a behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), It requires, though, maturation and/or reinforcement for the organism to be able to apply it successfully. Behavior is, thus, the product of a combination of innate dispositions and environmental factors. Some behaviors require little conditioning from the environment for the animal to display it while other behaviors require more.

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior.

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are therefore only approximate and as pictures allow.

An organism can forget a behavior if it does not have the opportunity to display it for a period, or the behavior can be extinguished if it is not subject to reinforcement for a period.

Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from a maximization of utility and towards a maximization of fitness.

Social behavior is behavior involving more than one individual with the primary function of establishing, maintaining, or changing a relationship between individuals, or in a group (society).

Most researchers define social behavior as the behavior shown by members of the same species in a given interaction. That excludes behavior such as predation, which involves members of different species. On the other hand, it seems to allow for the inclusion of everything else such as communication behavior, parental behavior, sexual behavior, and even agonistic behavior.

Sociologists insist that behavior is an activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to social behavior, which has both. This definition does not help us much. All above-mentioned behaviors do have a social meaning and a context unless ‘social’ means ‘involving the whole group’ (society) or ‘a particular number of its members.’ In that case, we should ask how many individuals we need in an interaction to classify it as social. Are three enough? If so, then, sexual behavior is not social behavior when practiced by two individuals, but becomes social with three or more being involved, which is not unusual in some species. We can use the same line of arguing for communication behavior, parental behavior, and agonistic behavior. It involves more than one individual, and it affects the group (society), the smallest possible consisting of two individuals.

Agonistic behavior includes all forms of intraspecific behavior related to aggression, fear, threat, fight or flight, or interspecific when competing for resources. It explicitly includes behaviors such as dominant behavior, submissive behavior, flight, pacifying, and conciliation, which are functionally and physiologically interrelated with aggressive behavior, yet fall outside the narrow definition of aggressive behavior. It excludes predatory behavior.

Dominant behavior is a 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.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, which caused the least disadvantages.

Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat.

Submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival.

Aliens are two or more animals that do not live close together and do not depend on one another for survival.

A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

Canine ethogram social agonistics

Canine ethogram for social and agonistic behavior. The colors illustrate that the categories are constructed by us. When a behavior turns into another one is a matter of convention and interpretation (illustration by Roger Abrantes).

The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors (please, click on the diagram to enlarge it).

PS—I apologize if by chance I’ve used one of your pictures without giving you due credit. If this is the case, please e-mail me your name and picture info and I’ll rectify that right away.

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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.
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Pacifying Behavior—Origin, Function and Evolution

— by Roger Abrantes

Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facerefacio = 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. There are two ways of classifying pacifying behavior: (1) to include all behaviors with the function of diffusing social conflict, and (2) to restrict it to a particular range within the broader spectrum of conflict decreasing behavior (see diagram below). This author prefers the latter because the broad use of the term in the first option makes it synonymous with conflict decreasing behavior in general, without reference to any particular sub-class of this behavior.

Roger Abrantes And Rottweiler.

This Rottweiler female shows me friendly behavior licking my face and ear. I show that I accept her friendly behavior by turning my face away from her, closing my eyes and mouth and making champing noises. Mostly, dogs show friendly and pacifying behavior to humans as they do to other dogs (photo by Lisa J. Bain).

Pacifying behavior is closely related to friendly behavior (including greeting behavior), insecure, submissive and fearful behavior. In general, the differences between these behavior displays are quantitatively small, but we can classify them separately and qualitatively according to their respective sub-functions. An animal pacifies another using a complex sequence of different behaviors as we can see in the diagram below. An animal very seldom shows a single behavior. Also, the same behavior may achieve different functions depending on its intensity, and the sum of all behaviors displayed at a given moment.

Pacifying behavior did not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to manipulate an opponent. Initially, it was probably just a reflex. Like all phenotypes, it happened by chance and evolved thereafter.

Pacifying Behavior in Canids

Pacifying behavior in dogs: licking own lips, licking and pawing (images by Alanic05 and Colorado Great Pyrenee Rescue Community).

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time pacifying behavior spread throughout the population. Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from the maximization of utility and towards the maximization of fitness.

pacifying behavior animals

Many species show pacifying displays in their behavior repertoire (photos by J. Frisch, AFP and Aleixa).

The origin of pacifying behavior—Animal A facing aggressive opponent B registers (sensory system) B’s behavior, processes it (neurological system) and responds with a behavior. The aggressive animal B registers this behavior (probably an infantile behavior); some behaviors tend to pacify it (probably eliciting parental behavior) while others do not. The pacified state of B benefits A and reinforces its behavior, i.e. it is likely it will repeat the same behavior in similar circumstances. Most importantly, animals that show appropriate pacifying behavior (such as A) survive conflicts and avoid injury more often than not and subsequently pass their genes onto the next generation.

Pacifying behavior also pacifies the pacifier, which is an important feature of this behavior. By displaying pacifying behavior, an insecure animal attempts to regain some security (homeostasis) by displaying a behavior it knows well and has previously served to reassure it.

Dog and Cat

Cat and dog use the pacifying behavior of their own species to communicate with one another successfully because of the common characteristics of the behavior (photo by Malau).

Some pacifying behavior has its origins in neonatal and infantile behavior and only becomes pacifying behavior through redirection and eventually ritualization. Other forms of pacifying behavior rely on concealing all signs of aggressive behavior. Sexual behavior can also function as pacifying. Young animals of social species learn pacifying behavior at a very early age; it is important for young animals to be able to pacify adults when they begin interacting with them. The disposition (genotype) to display the behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires reinforcement for the young animal to be able to apply it successfully. In canines, adults (initially the mother at the time of weaning) teach the cubs/pups the intricacies of pacifying behavior, a skill they will need to master in order to prevent or resolve hostilities that could cause serious injuries.

Even though pacifying behavior is more relevant and developed in social species, we also find pacifying displays in the behavior repertoire of less social species. Animals successfully use the pacifying behavior characteristic of their species with individuals belonging to other species (if possible) because of the common elements of pacifying behavior across species. It is not unusual to see our domestic animals, dogs, cats and horses interacting peacefully and exchanging pacifying signals. Dogs also show friendly, insecure, pacifying or submissive behavior to their owners and other humans with their species characteristic displays. Licking, nose poking, muzzle nudging, pawing and twisting are common behaviors that dogs offer us.

This diagram shows the placement of pacifying behavior in the spectrum of behavior in canids. The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors. A conflict is any serious disagreement, a dispute over a resource, which may lead to one or both parts showing aggressive behavior. Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Pacifying Spectrum

The spectrum of pacifying behavior in canids (by R. Abrantes). The colored background illustrates and emphasizes that behavior is a continuum with fading thresholds between the various behaviors. The vertical lines are our artificial borders, a product of definition and convention.



  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. Dog Language. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Grasp Behavior—Advanced Dog Language.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Nudge, Muzzle Grasp And Regurgitation Behavior.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Why Do Dogs Like To Lick Our Faces?
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Do Dogs Understand What We Say?

Roger Abrantes And Rottweiler. Dogs communicate with us in the ways of their species, and they seem to appreciate when we answer them in something that resembles their language (photo by Lisa Jernigan Bain)..


“Do dogs understand what we say?” is one of the most frequent questions people ask me.

My answer is, “yes and no. They do and they don’t. It all comes up to what you mean by understanding.”

Dogs do not understand English or any other human-created language. They do understand words (or rather, sounds) in any language. After hearing the sound “sit” many times, the dog associates it with a behavior and with some consequences and will end up sitting more often than not when it hears that sound. It all depends on the consequences and of the competing stimuli at that moment. If the dog has something better to do, offering more attractive consequences, or the consequences for not sitting are not that unpleasant, then it won’t sit. In that respect, it is exactly like us, “I understand perfectly well what you are saying, I just don’t want to do it.”

Dogs do not understand sentences. If we say, “Let’s go for a walk,” most dogs will get excited and run to the door. That does not prove the dog understands the sentence, only that it associates one sound in the sentence, probably, the word walk, with one particular behavior. If we say, “Banana ping-pong walk,” we will very likely get the same response.

Tone matters. We don’t need any experiments to verify that. Observing casual dog owners provides us with all the necessary evidence. “Don’t do that, sweetie, we don’t like that at all,” with a gentle voice, as I hear many dog owners saying, is no way to prevent a dog from doing whatever it is doing. Better be quiet if so, because all we say in that tone will reinforce the behavior we don’t want. Curious, isn’t it, how things can work just the opposite of what we intended?

Cocker Spaniel And Owl.

There is a universal language with terms all animals understand, terms like peace, danger, companionship, fear, safety, mutuality. Partnerships exist between animals across species (photo by unknown).

If you want your dog to keep on doing what it is doing, you’d better say something in a sweet tone. It does not matter what you say, but it will be more efficient if you always use the same word. Personally, my favorite is dygtig (Danish for clever). It has a good doggy sound, gives me a friendly, doggy face, and I can modulate it for the occasion, e.g. make it long, short, etc.

If you do not want your dog to do something, you’d better say it in a serious tone (I said serious, didn’t say yelling). Personally, I say, “Stop,” or “Phooey” in an assertive tone, and that does the trick (usually). I never use “No” for this purpose. I use “No” to convey important information, i.e., “What you’re doing is not adequate, try something else.” Of course, you don’t need to do as I do. You do what works for you, and I do what works for me.

Body language is important, and even more decisive for the behavior of our dogs than sounds and tones. If you doubt it, just watch my movie “Animal Training My Way.” I barely talk to the dog, and we understand one another perfectly well. Self-confident body language will induce your dog to follow your instructions more readily. Insecure body language will either make your dog nervous or alert it to take control of the situation since you seem to be in no stand to do anything about it.

Does it help to attempt to speak dog language even if with an awful accent? Yes, definitely. Dogs respond well to our yawning, champing (chomping), licking our lips, squeezing our eyes shut, pouty mouth, the canine muzzle grasp, and many other signals. You need to be a good observer and to practice; and to be totally uninhibited and unconcerned about others laughing at you. I like to do it, and I have excellent results. Then again, I speak nine languages (doguese, catese and horsish not counted), some with a poor accent—and I do get rewarded for my effort. It works for me, but again, you do what works best for you.

Do dogs create relationships with us like they do with other dogs? Not exactly, but does it matter? Dogs are uncomplicated. When they live together with other animals, humans included, they adapt (as do many other animals). They don’t regard us as dogs, and I believe they don’t even speculate about that. They communicate with us in their language, and they seem to appreciate when we answer them in something that resembles their language. There’s nothing special about that. In fact, it works for and with most animals (if not all). You respect their ways and you get some results—you don’t, and you get different results. It’s all a question of communication. When I’m diving with rookie students, their way of moving around, gesticulating far too much, attracts the attention of the local fauna. When I’m there alone with my diving buddy (we always dive in buddy pairs), they don’t even seem to notice us. The body language of the rookie signals “alarm,” “intruder”—and ours, more experienced as we are, signals “all is good.”

It’s so simple. I don’t get it how someone can claim that attempting to meet the other party halfway is in vain. The argument is that dogs are dogs, and we are humans. That’s a remarkable justification defying all evidence we have about communication across species—hence, my commitment to “knowledge to everyone everywhere.”

All I can tell you is that it works well for me. With my inadequacies and until a set limit, when I’m in Rome, I do as Romans do—when I’m under water, I do as fish do, and when I am with a dog, I do as dogs do. Of course, none of this obliges you to anything in particular.

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Your Dog Understands Your Yawn


Dog And Man Yawning


A yawn is a simple behavior, a reflex, with specific physiological functions. We are not the only ones yawning. Chimpanzees, bonobos, macaques, and dogs, among others, yawn as well. Although a simple behavior, yawning performs social functions as well. It is contagious, not only within a group of individuals of the same species but also across species as in the case of humans and dogs.

The original function of the yawn is not clear, several explanations being equally probable. One study suggests that yawning brings an influx of oxygen to the blood when it contains increased levels of carbon dioxide. Another explanation focuses on a particular necessity to stretch the muscles in the tongue and neck. A third interpretation suggests that yawning helps to keep one alert, a crucial condition for any predator to be successful. Since social predators need one another to succeed, yawning developed into being contagious (through natural selection) because of the benefits it confers. Another suggestion is that yawning helps to control the temperature of the brain. Some studies point out the connection between yawning and the neurotransmitters, e.g. serotonin and dopamine, that affect various emotional states. That could explain the pacifying function of yawning.

The simplest explanation for yawning being contagious is that the mirror neurons in the frontal cortex of various vertebrates, including humans and dogs, activate the corresponding area in the brain of others. Studies have shown that this mirroring effect occurs not only within the same species but also across species. Mirror neurons may be the ultimate explanation for imitation and allelomimetic behavior.


Wolf Yawning

Wolf yawning, a behavior shared by wolves and dogs and also common in other species (photo by Monty Sloan, Wolf Park, Indiana, USA).


Dogs yawn and studies have found that they are more prone to yawn when their owners yawn than when strangers do the same. These are serious studies conducted at the universities of Tokyo, Porto and London’s Birkbeck College. They discarded the possibility of the dogs’ yawning being a stress response by closely monitoring their heart rates during the experiments.

The dog’s yawn is similar to ours. It is often followed by the same characteristic sound. Yawning is popularly associated with tiredness or boredom. In reality, it can be an expression of embarrassment, insecurity, excitement, and relief. Some humans yawn when they are in love, which can be embarrassing if it is mistaken for boredom!

Dogs may yawn when they are tired, but their yawning functions usually as a pacifying behavior (of themselves as well as an opponent). As we see in many other cases, a behavior originates with a particular function and acquires other beneficial functions later on. Yawning became a signal of friendship, of peaceful intentions. For example, a male dog may yawn if the female snarls at him during the mating ceremony. A self-confident dog yawns showing friendliness to an insecure opponent, and vice versa. Dogs yawn to us with the same functions and results (if we register it). They may also yawn as a displacement activity. An owner scolding his dog is a typical situation where we can observe a dog yawn. In some critical training situations prone to error, like in the so-called ‘stay,’ the behavior of the owner causes the dog to feel insecure. A yawn is likely to follow, together with licking and muzzle-nudging. When the owner changes behavior, say, by using a friendlier tone or more relaxed body posture, the dog ceases to display those pacifying behaviors.

So, yes, your dog yawns at you showing that it is friendly and peaceful—and you can safely yawn back confirming that you are as well. Once again, don’t worry if some find it silly. Yawning, champing (chomping), licking your lips, squeezing your eyes shut, pouty mouth, the canine muzzle grasp, all work—and all communication means are valid as long as they promote understanding, wouldn’t you say?


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Canine Muzzle Grasp Behavior—Advanced Dog Language


Muzzle grab in adult wolves (photo by Monty Sloan).

Muzzle grasp in adult wolves (photo by Monty Sloan).


The muzzle grasp is an interesting behavior that I’ve seen in many canids including our domestic dogs. It’s a behavior that scares many dog owners who believe it signals unconditional and uninhibited aggression. It doesn’t. The muzzle grasp is yet one of those fascinating behaviors, which developed and evolved because it conferred a higher fitness to those who practiced it.

The function of this behavior is to confirm a relationship rather than to settle a dispute. The more self-confident dog will muzzle grasp a more insecure one and thus assert its social position. The more insecure individual does not resist the muzzle grasp. On the contrary, it is often the more insecure that invites its opponent to muzzle-grasp it. Even though we sometimes see this behavior at the end of a dispute, wolves and dogs only use it toward individuals they know well (teammates) almost as a way of saying, “You’re still a cub (pup).” The dispute itself does not tend to be serious, just a low-key challenge, usually over access to a particular resource. Youngsters, cubs, and pups sometimes solicit adults to muzzle-grasp them. This behavior appears to be reassuring for them, a means of saying, “I’m still your cub (pup).”

Dogs also show the muzzle grab behavior (photo by Marco de Kloet).

Dogs also show the muzzle grasp behavior (photo by Marco de Kloet).

When used as a means of settling a dispute, a muzzle grasp looks more violent and usually ends with the muzzle-grasped individual showing what we ethologists call passive submissive behavior, i.e. laying on its back.

The muzzle grasp behavior emerges early on. Canine mothers muzzle grasp their puppies (sometimes accompanied by a growl) to deter them from suckling during weaning. At first, her behavior frightens them and they may whimper excessively, even if the mother has not harmed them in any way. Later on, when grasped by the muzzle, the puppy immediately lies down with its belly up. Previously, it was assumed that the mother needed to pin the puppy to the ground, but this is not the case as most puppies lie down voluntarily. Cubs and pups also muzzle grasp one another during play, typically between six and nine weeks of age. A muzzle grasp does not involve biting, just grasping. This behavior helps develop a relationship of trust between both parties: “We don’t hurt one another.”

Cubs and pups muzzle grab one another during play (photo by Monty Sloan).

Cubs and pups muzzle grasp one another during play (photo by Monty Sloan).

Domestic dogs sometimes approach their owners puffing to them gently with their noses. By grasping them gently around the muzzle, we reaffirm our acceptance of them. We show self-control and that they can trust us. After being muzzle grasped for a while, the dog will usually show a nose lick, maybe yawn and then walk calmly away. It’s like the dog saying, “I’m still your puppy” and the owner saying, “I know and I’ll take good care of you.” Yawn back and all is good.

Speaking dog language helps promote an understanding between our dogs and us. It may make us look silly at times, but who cares? I don’t, do you?


"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

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Do You Want to Become a Better Dog Trainer?


When we had traditional, on-campus programs at the Ethology Institute, every year the new students would invariably fall into two groups: those who wanted to become dog trainers and those who wanted to become horse trainers. Every year, I would tell them the same, “If you want to become good trainers of your favorite species, you’ll have to train other species, you’ll have to gain some perspective.”

In principle, it doesn’t matter what other animals or animal species you train. Cats, rats, parrots, they are all good and they all have a lesson for you to learn. However, there is one little and cute animal that stands to me as our (almost) ideal teacher. It is charming, social, curious, shy, and relatively easy to train. You have probably guessed it. I’m talking about the guinea pig. Today, I’m going to tell you how these little, cute animals can make you a better dog trainer, a better horse trainer, a better animal trainer, and—most importantly—a more ‘complete’ individual. Please, keep reading.

The basic skills you need to train a dog are the same you need to train any other animal. One difference—and this is good news for you—is that (mainly due to our common history) there is no other animal as easy to train as a dog. On the other hand, there is a limit to how much you learn if you only train dogs.

Dogs forgive our mistakes and are nearly always motivated to cooperate. Other species scrutinize us far more thoroughly. We must earn their trust—if they don’t trust us, they won’t cooperate with us. A horse will not follow you if it doesn’t trust you and it takes a lot to earn the trust of a horse (and only a moment to lose it). You can offer it as many carrots as you like, but if it decides you are not someone to be trusted, the best carrots in the world will be to no avail. A cat will blink, at least twice, at you and the treat you offer it before even considering moving into your direction. Then, if it deems your request reasonable, it may just indulge you—otherwise, no deal.


Dog and guinea pig

Dog and guinea pig together. Training a guinea pig can make you a better dog trainer (photo


The guinea pig, a favorite prey of many predators including humans, is social and fearful by nature. We don’t share a common evolutionary history with it as with the dog. You won’t get anything for free. You’ll have to work to gain your guinea pig’s trust and show it that co-operating with you is profitable in both the short and the long term.

Training guinea pigs will teach you the theory of animal learning. You’ll have to be precise and use the right procedures to produce the right behavior. You’ll explore the whole spectrum of operant conditioning, but you’ll be left gasping for more. You’ll find yourself desperately attempting to think like a guinea pig, thus entering the realm of ethology.

You can teach dogs many things without a proper plan. They are so active and eager to please that, sooner or later, they will do something you like, which you can reinforce. With dogs, you can play by ear and sing along, but with other animals, you’ll need to plan. Timing is important when you train your dog, but surprisingly enough, you’ll still achieve acceptable results even if your timing is off. With dogs, it’s like singing a melody out of tune and your friends still recognizing it. With guinea pigs, you’d better sing in tune or they will tacitly suggest you get your act together before going back to them. It’s tough, but it’s also a good lesson about life.

Much like horses, guinea pigs tend to react fearfully when in doubt (the key to their survival throughout their evolutionary history). Displaying composed, self-confident behavior works well, but anything more assertive than that will backfire on you. Dogs, these ever amazing animals, give you a second chance (and understand our bad “accents” in dog language); a horse or a guinea pig hardly ever do so. If you as much as think of trying to bully a guinea pig into doing what you want, it will probably freeze for up to 30 minutes, which is a real stopper for any aspiring trainer.

You’ll learn soon enough that coercion is not the way to go at all. Thus, you’ll learn the secrets of motivation and the beauty of working within and with your environment, rather than attempting to control it, and that in itself will lead you to unexpected and welcomed results.

If they could, I’m sure your dog and your horse would thank the guinea pigs for what they teach you when you train them, for you become, undoubtedly, a much more subtle and balanced trainer. You’ll be in control of yourself rather than the animal, motivating rather than forcing, showing the way rather than fumbling about, achieving results with the least (sometimes even imperceptible) amount of intrusion into your favorite animal’s normal behavior.

If you have a chance, give it a try. We can never learn too much, can we?


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Why Do Dogs Like to Lick Our Faces?

Dog Licking Girl Face

When a dog tries to lick your face, the best you can do is to close your eyes, yawn and turn your head away. This shows in dog language that you accept its offer of friendship.

Dogs like to lick our faces, a behavior that seems disturbing for many dog owners and particularly non-dog owners. However, this behavior is a demonstration of friendliness, a pacifying gesture, a hand (though not literally) reaching for peace. It’s a compliment in dog language: “I like you; you can be my friend.”

The behavior originates in the neonatal and juvenile periods. Newborn suckle and lick. A bit older pups lick everything as a way of gathering information about their world. Licking our faces may give our dogs much more information than we can imagine about who we are and how we feel.

Pups lick one another, a behavior which seems to make both donor and recipient relax because it is an undemanding activity. Grooming and self-grooming, which also include licking, are pleasant and bonding practices as well.

Canine mothers lick their pups to keep them clean and to stimulate their urination, defecation, and maybe even digestion.

When the pups become a little older and begin eating solid food, it is common for them to lick the lips of the adults, a behavior which should elicit their regurgitation of food recently consumed, a good source of nutrition for the youngsters. Even though not as widespread as when Canis lupus familiaris were mainly hunters, this regurgitation behavior is not uncommon among our more scavenger like domestic dogs if we give them the opportunity to live a relatively independent dog life.

Friendly Wolf Behavior

Roger Abrantes and wolf at the Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. Licking is one of the many behaviors dogs and wolves have in common. It signals friendship (picture by Monty Sloan).

Pacifying behavior is, for the most, behavior that originally has essential survival and well-being functions, and later shows these same functions, though in different areas and with different outcomes. For example: licking produced food regurgitation, licking produces friendly behavior.

Next time a dog licks your face, you do not need to be too terrified or disgusted. Just close your eyes, yawn, and turn your head away. That shows in dog language that you accept its offer of friendship.

By the way, don’t be too afraid either of the germs you may get when your dog licks you—they are not worse than those we get from kissing one another.

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The Importance of Confidence in Animal Training

Confidence comes with success and success comes when you are confident—believe in yourself.

More often than you might realize, your animal training, independently of species, does not succeed because you don’t believe it will. Doubting yourself, your abilities, or the outcome of your behavior has an impact on those with whom you communicate.

Dogs, horses, cats, guinea pigs, just to mention a few, are experts in reading your body language. They will detect the slightest hint of doubt. If you don’t know or aren’t sure of what you want or what you’re doing, how do you want the animal to feel safe by following your instructions?

Here’s your plan of action: work it all out first and then do it believing fully that you will succeed. Don’t worry about the animal. Control yourself and your emotions. If you’re good, it will end up good.

“What if I don’t succeed, anyway?” you may now ask.

Tough luck, sometimes it does not work! In that case, return to square one, re-think your plan and go for it once more—and, as always, believing in yourself and that you’ll succeed.

Enjoy your training—but, first and foremost, enjoy spending time with another living creature.

"Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself" from the movie "Confidence" by Roger Abrantes.

“Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself” from the movie “Confidence” by Roger Abrantes.


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