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Bonding and Stress

DogChildByElenaShumilova

Bonding in animal behavior is a biological process in which individuals of the same or different species develop a connection. The function of bonding is to promote cooperation.

Parents and offspring develop strong bonds—the former takes care of the latter, and the latter trusts the teachings of the former. As a result of filial bonding, offspring and parents or foster parents develop an attachment. This attachment ceases to be necessary once the juvenile reaches adulthood, but may have long-term effects on subsequent social behavior. Among domestic dogs, for example, there is a sensitive period from the third to the tenth week of age, during which common contacts develop. If a puppy grows up in isolation beyond about fourteen weeks of age, it will not develop the relationships considered normal for species and population.

Males and females of social species develop strong bonds during courtship motivating them to care for their progeny, so they increase the probability of the survival of 50% of their genes.

Social animals develop bonds by living together and having to fend for survival day after day. Grooming, playing, reciprocal feeding, all have a relevant role in bonding. Intense experiences do too. Between adults, surviving moments of danger together is strongly bonding.

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The strongest bonds originate under times of intense experiences (photo by Cuttestpaw).

Behavior like grooming and feeding seems to release neurotransmitters (e.g., oxytocin), lowering the innate defensiveness and increasing the odds of bonding.

We often mention bonding together with imprinting. Even though imprinting is bonding, not all bonding is imprinting. Imprinting describes any phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. Some animals appear to be preprogrammed to learn about certain aspects of the environment during particular sensitive phases of their development. This learning is preprogrammed, in the sense that it will occur without any visible reinforcement or punishment.

Our dogs, in the domestic environment we offer them, develop bonds in various ways. Grooming, resting together, collective barking, and playing and chasing intruders are efficient at creating bonds. Their bonding behavior is by no means restricted to individuals of their species. They bond with the family cat as well and with us, humans.

Bonding is a natural process that will inevitably happen when individuals share responsibilities. Looking into one another’s eyes is only bonding for a while, but surviving together may be bonding for life—and this applies to all social animals, dogs and humans included.

We develop stronger bonds with our dogs by solving problems together rather than by just sitting and petting them. These days, we are so afraid of anything remotely connected to stress that we forget that the strongest bonds originate under times of intense experiences. A little stress doesn’t harm anyone, quite the contrary. I see it every time I train canine scent detection. The easier it is, the quickest it will be forgotten. A tough nut to crack, on the other hand, is an everlasting memory binding the parties to one another.

One of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the latest is on epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity not caused in the DNA.

Stress hormones seem to boost an epigenetic process either increasing or decreasing the expression of particular genes. Stress hormones change specific cells of the brain that help memories to be easier retained.

We need to be careful. The term stress is dangerously ambiguous. “Stress is a word that is as useful as a Visa card and as satisfying as a Coke. It’s non-committal and also non-committable,” as Richard Shweder says.* I’m talking about stress in a biological sense, the response of the sympathetic nervous system to some events, its attempts at re-establishing the lost homeostasis provoked by some intense event.

Being an evolutionary biologist, when contemplating a mechanism, I always ask: “What is the function of that? What is it good for?” A behavior can originate by chance (most do), but if it does not confer the individual some extra benefits as to survival and reproduction, it will (most likely) not spread into the population.

Asking the right question is the first step to getting the right answer. Never fear toask and reformulating your questions. At one point, you’ll have asked the questionthat will lead you to the right answer.

Why do unpleasant memories seem to stay with us longer than pleasant ones,sometimes even for the rest of our lives? 

Situations of exceeding anxiety and stressful, intense experiences create unpleasant memories. It is important, if not crucial, to remember situations that might have hurt us seriously. It makes sense that the stress hormones should facilitate our retaining the memory of events occurring under stress.

Stress hormones do bind to the particular receptors in the brain that enhance the control of the epigenetic mechanisms involved in remembering and, hence, in learning. They do boost the epigenetic mechanisms that regulate the expression of the genes crucial for memory and learning.

Not all stress boosts learning. Too much stress produces the opposite effect. There is a difference between being stressed and stressed out. When we experience far too much stress, our organism goes into an alarm mode where survival has the first and sole priority, and memory formation decreases. Chronic stress does not promote learning either.

Bottom line: we need to be nuanced about stress. Events causing healthy stress responses are necessary for enhancing attention to details, the formation of memory, the creation of bonds, and learning—and too much stress works against it.

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* Burnout vs Depression – Human Stress

Featured image: Dog and Child in a bonding moment (photo by Elena Shumilova).

Superstitious Behavior in Animal Training

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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.

Timberlake and Lucas concluded in 1985 “[…] that superstitious behavior under periodic delivery of food probably develops from components of species-typical patterns of appetitive behavior related to feeding. These patterns are elicited by a combination of frequent food presentations and the supporting stimuli present in the environment.”

We should be very careful when reinforcing any desirable behavior the animal we train shows us. If the reinforcement happens to coincide with other more or less accidental stimuli, we may be creating superstitious behavior. We may create superstitious behavior with any reinforcement, but probably food is the most liable to do it.

The same goes for inhibitors.1 We should always bear in mind that we never reinforce or inhibit an individual but rather a behavior.2

DogBarksAtDoor

This can 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 (Canine Home Alone Problems) are not even remotely connected with anxiety as many dog owners erroneously presume.

In one of our Guinea Pig camps, we saw some Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created this superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another piggy would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

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 happen 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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1“Inhibitors” were earlier called “punishers.” I coined the new term in “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know.
2 In Abrantes 2013 and 2016.

References
Abrantes, R. (2013) The 20 Principles That All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Abrantes, R. (2016) Animal Training My Way, Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
Timberlake, W and Lucas G. A. (1985). The basis of superstitious behavior: chance contingency, stimulus substitution, or appetitive behavior? J Exp Anal Behav. 1985 Nov; 44(3): 279–299.

Featured image: Superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish (photo from galleryhip.com).

The Misadventures of Bongo

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In 1994, I created Bongo to illustrate the various situations dog owners and dogs get into and how to get out of them the best possible way. My objective was to explain and illustrate that many dog problems (maybe most) were the result of misunderstandings between us and them. If we spoke a better “Doguese,” we could certainly avoid the worst troubles. I paired up with Henriette Westh, a brilliant Danish illustrator, and she gave Bongo more than a form; she gave him a character of his own.

Bongo is a nice, friendly and naughty English Cocker Spaniel (orange roan, the original drawings were in color) with his own mind. He’s a good dog and loves his family very much, but he gets often in trouble, mostly because of misunderstandings as you can see in “Bongo Home Alone.”

“Bongo Home Alone” was first published in 1994 in my book “Hunden, ulven ved din side” (Borgen Publishers). Coincidentally, the editor of the book was none other than Henriette’s brother, Poul Henrik Westh. The book never appeared in English, but Bongo did.

Enjoy this bit of history and nostalgia and have a good laugh!

 

 

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Featured image: Bongo Home Alone (Illustration by Henriette Westh)

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