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Critical Reasoning—on Aggression and Dominance

DogsHeadToHead

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.

 

A Question of Definition and Convention

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 tricky 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.

 

Accuracy, Consistency, and Modesty

Behavior and emotion are intimately 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 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 while living up to a scientific standard; which we frequently register, and convey 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.

DogsPacifyingBehavior-1024x576

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 (photo by unknown).

Example 1—A Poor Definition

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 does not 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 does not 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 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 is a “you decide”). Aggressive behavior and dominant behavior are, thus, not the same.

A hierarchy maintained employing 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 repeatedly challenge the higher ranking. Any hierarchy maintained by 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. We would not dare to say ‘all’ and we 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 regular displays of dominant behavior must maintain it.

The sentence is not a definition of dominant behavior because to be so we would have to substitute dominance with dominant behavior and aggression with aggressive behavior, and we would get “dominant behavior is established through aggressive behavior,” which does not 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 does not seem to make sense once we begin analyzing it, but we 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 include many other aspects, as we saw.

The sentence “A relationship is not established until one animal consistently defers to another,” is 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 confuse 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.”

That 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 do not need to call it dominance, we can directly 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’).

 

Example 2—A Circular Definition

Let us consider 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 does not 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.” That 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.

 

Example 3—A Better Definition

Let us find out why a third statement, which we 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 defined term is not (“not a personality trait”).

 

Good and Tentative Definitions

The art of making a good definition is to find the right balance between too much and too little and to state only the 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 more significant number of people than the first one.

A proper definition defines precisely what it 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 final definition. It is a definition at a stage of being developed—a tentative definition that in due time may turn into an established definition.

 

Example 4—A Good Definition

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.”

It 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 is 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 contains enough conditions to justify the use of the term—not too few, risking being synonymous with another term, and not too many, risking being too broad and losing its explanatory value.

It gives an example of its main characteristics in plain words. It does not presuppose any specialized knowledge of a reader to understand it. It is 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 accepts adjustments and improvements as new data becomes available, the mark of a good definition. In fact, we have modified it numerous times since its inception in the 1980s, thanks to the input of fellow researchers. It’s not the last word on this matter. It is, though, a solid tool to pave our way into increasingly more accurate explanations of a seemingly too complex reality for our brain to grasp.

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 we believe we can come close(r) to it by being meticulous in our observations, strict in our argumentations, modest in our generalizations, and prudent in our conclusions.

References

  • 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?
  • Akert, R. M., Aronson, E., & Wilson, T.D. (2010). Social Psychology (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Blair R. J. R. (2004) The roles of orbital frontal cortex in the modulation of antisocial behavior. Brain Cogn55:198–208.
  • Bock, Gregory R. and Goode, Jamie A. (eds.) (1996). Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Broom, M., Koenig, A., Borries, C. (2009).Variation in dominance hierarchies among group-living animals: modeling stability and the likelihood of coalitions, Behavioral Ecology, Volume 20, Issue 4, 1 July 2009, Pages 844–855, https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arp069
  • Brown, C. (2015). Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Animal cognition, 18(1), 1-17.
  • Copi, I., et al (2014) Introduction to Logic. Pearson Education Limited. Harlow.
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Craig, I. W., Halton, K. E. (2009). Hum Genet (2009) 126:101–113.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Dawkins, R. (2006) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Javeed, Q. S. and Vidhate. N. J. (2012). A Study Of Aggression And Ego Strength Of Indoor Game Players And Outdoor Game Players. Indian Streams Research Journal, Volume 2, Issue. 7, Aug 2012.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1972). Game Theory and The Evolution of Fighting. On Evolution. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-85224-223-9.
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1982). Evolution and the Theory of Games. ISBN 0-521-28884-3.
  • McFarland, D. (1982) The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • McFarland, D. (1998) Animal Behaviour. Benjamin Cummings. 3rd ed.Maynard Smith, J, Harper, D. G. C., Brookfeld, J. F. Y. (1988) The Evolution of Aggression: Can Selection Generate Variability? Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 319:557–570.
  • McCauley, C. (2000) Some Things Psychologists Think They Know about Aggression and Violence. In Teaching About Violence, Vol 4. Spring 2000)
  • Miles DR, Carey G (1997) Genetic and environmental architecture of human aggression. J Pers Soc Psychol72:207–217.
  • Nash, J. F. (May 1950). Non-Cooperative Games (PDF). PhD thesis. Princeton University. Retrieved May 24,2015.Nelson, Randy Joe (ed.) (2006). Biology of Aggression. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 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.
  • Schacter, Daniel L. (2011). Psychology Second Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Shermer, M. (2004). The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Times Books.
  • Siever LJ (2008) Neurobiology of aggression and violence. Am J Psychiatry 165:429–442
  • Tremblay R. E., Hartup W. W., Archer, J. (2005) Developmental origins of aggression. Guildford Press, New York.
  • Yamamoto H, Nagai K, Nakagawa H. (1984). Additional evidence that the suprachiasmatic nucleus is the center for regulation of insulin secretion and glucose homeostasis. Brain Res304:237–241.
  • 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.

Featured image: 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 (photo by unknown).

Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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Should We Reinforce the Effort or the Result?

EffortOrResult

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).

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.

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.”

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 scent detection work. 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.

EnglishSpringerSpanielOnTheTrail

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.

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).

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 precisely 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. Having none is impossible. 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 the dog to return to me only when it finds nothing (the same as didn’t find anything).

Problems:
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 only rambles around?

Solution:
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?

Solution:
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”.

Training:
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].
Or:
(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].
Becomes:
Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat”.
Then:
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 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. More or better training will eliminate the ‘wrong.’ 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.

Conclusion:
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.

________
Footnotes
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 an 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?

Featured image: 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.

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Laughter is the shortest distance…

LaughterSpecies

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.(1)

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.(2)

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

 

__________

References

(1) Panksepp & Burgdorf, 2003, ‘Laughing’ rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?

(2) Simonet, Versteeg & Storie, 2005, Dog-laughter: Recorded playback reduces stress related behavior in shelter dogs.

Featured image: We laugh, but we are not the only ones.

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Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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How Wolves Change Rivers

The Wolves Changed the Rivers (WolfByRonanDonovanNG).

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.

Before the extermination, 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 produced a more significant 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 national park 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

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

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Avoid Dog Problems After Christmas

LonelyDog

Christmas is a big holiday season in the Western hemisphere. We have more time to give to our pets, which is good, but can also create problem behavior if we are not careful. Having more time at their disposition means that most dog owners spend more time with their dogs—longer walks, maybe a bit more training, but most of all much more time together.

All organisms are more or less sensitive to routine changes—that’s a survival mechanism—and our dogs are no exception. The children staying home from school increases the household activity level and implies some stress. Many dogs do not respond well to that. Some of them become restless, hyperactive.

Another problem occurs with being home alone, which our statistics shows clearly. If June-July and December are low seasons, then August and January are high seasons for canine problem behavior. Many dogs react poorly when school and work routines set in again after having been together with their owners almost 24-7 for a longer period. From one day to the other, without any explanation (for them) all the razzmatazz goes away, and they are left home alone. After having been extremely busy for a period, unexpectedly nothing happens around them.

From having had company around the clock to being left alone eight hours a day, or from having been active most of the day to suddenly having nothing to do, creates problems.

What can we do to prevent our dogs from developing behavior problems during Christmas holidays?

The time we spend with our dogs should be quality time more than quantity time (and this applies to all relationships). More time during the long holidays is good because we can focus on training our dogs in some skills, which we had wished we could have done, but couldn’t because of our busy working schedule.

To prevent home alone problems from showing up after the holiday, we should maintain periods during the day in which the dog is unattended. That will also prevent the worst of the hyperactive behavior that may develop due to the higher level of stimulation. Instruct the children to leave the dog alone at set times and explain to them why this is important.

As to what you can do with your dog, avoid the hollow, stressing activities like ball throwing and chasing. Focus on the more meaningful searching games instead—nose work or scent detection as you prefer to call them. These are activities that tire the dog without creating hyperactive behavior. You can even teach your children these searching games. They will spend some fun times with their dogs developing a healthy relationship. It is my experience that children are great with animals if we, adults, give it the necessary time to instruct them correctly.

If you travel on your holiday, remember that boarding a dog is stressful for the dog independently of the quality of the boarding venue. The best will provide suitable conditions for the dog to satisfy its needs for contact and exercise, but it is still a break in the usual routine. Be prepared to reintroduce the household routines when you return from what I hope has been an enjoyable holiday. It does not need to be difficult if you are aware of it and do it systematically.

Other pets than dogs are also affected by our holidays. Cats may become extremely restless during the holidays and seek refuge. Horses may show stereotypies when returning to the pre-holiday routines if you have spent much more time with them. Even parrots have shown some problem behavior because of the disruption of the daily schedule.

It’s curious how our minds focus on irrelevant contexts and forget essential ones. For example, no canine has evolved to expect food presented at set times, and yet most dog owners insist in serving their dogs the daily rations by the clock. On the other hand, no canine has evolved to see their family-pack increase/decrease their level of activity dramatically from one day to the other (like with holidays) or to be moved suddenly to an unfamiliar location— and yet many dog owners don’t even give it a thought.

Our responsibility toward our dog is a whole year activity (as it is to be a parent). To love those we are responsible for means to provide them with what they need so that they can develop harmoniously. To love is a full-time job with no time off allowed.

Please, share this link with your dog owner friends; and with your clients, if you’re a dog trainer. It would be wonderful if we’d go out of business in what concerns treating problem behavior in pets, wouldn’t it? Alas, I don’t think that to be a realistic expectation anytime soon, but we can all do our part to help it move in the right direction.

Enjoy your holiday and keep smiling. Yes, life is great!

Featured image: Dogs are sensitive to routine changes. Be careful with how you handle your dog during the big holidays, or you’ll risk serious problems when the children go back to school, and you go back to work.

Ear Cropping and Tail Docking—Is it Right?

Earcrop

Ear cropping and tail docking—is it right? If you think that the safest is to base your moral stances on factual events, you are walking on moving sands (and, probably, committing a fallacious appeal to nature).

Let’s say someone asks you, “Why do you believe tail docking to be wrong?” If you answer, “Because it inhibits the dog to communicate adequately since dogs use their tails to communicate,” you are getting into trouble.

Say again, the same person asks you, “Why do you believe ear cropping to be wrong?” You cannot answer, “Because it inhibits the dog to communicate adequately since dogs use their ears to communicate,” for upright ears allow the dogs to display more and easier detectable expressions than drop ears (though no study has proven that cropped ears are better to communicate than uncropped).

That is the hidden danger we run when using matters of fact to validate our moral statements: we may easily fall into inconsistent argumentation. Even though seemingly that does not bother some, it certainly bothers me and other fellow thinkers with a certain degree of intellectual integrity.

You could avoid this problem by answering, ”Because I don’t like to cut off parts of an animal.” That would do it because nobody can argue with what you like or don’t like. Even if you neuter your male dog (which means cutting off the testicles of the animal), you are still off the hook because you can say, “I did it, and I don’t like it.”

There is no logical contradiction in doing something without liking it. It is only logically contradictory if you infer the premise, “we only do what we like.” “I don’t like diets and I’m on a diet” is perfectly all right. You may have a goal, which requires you to do things you don’t like.

Another aspect of this hidden danger of basing your morality on facts is that if science uncovers some new fact relevant to your morality, you’ll be compelled to change it. One moment right, the next wrong applies to scientific theory, but not necessarily to morality.

For example, if I use the seemingly good argument, “for me, it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain and distress to any living creature, independently of species,” my morality is at the mercy of scientific discovery.

Thus, the only way I can make my moral rule stick appears to be the subjective argument: for me, it is wrong to cut off parts of an animal’s body because I don’t like it. And if science uncovers some painless, undistressing procedures of docking and cropping, so be it. I still don’t like it and won’t do it. Period.

Featured image: Cutting off parts of the body of an animal for our vanity is and will always be wrong for me independently of what science may discover.

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Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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Bonding with Your Dog—Are You Doing it Properly?

Bonding with Your Dog (Desi and Dog)

Bonding with Your Dog—Are You Doing it Properly? 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 facilitate co-operation.

Parents and offspring develop powerful bonds so that the former take care of the latter and the latter accept the teachings of the former. This serves both parties best. Because of filial bonding, offspring and parents or foster parents develop an attachment. This attachment ceases to be important once the juvenile reaches adulthood, but may have long-term effects upon subsequent social behavior.

Among domestic dogs, for example, there is a sensitive period from the third to the tenth week of age, during which normal contacts develop. If a puppy grows up in isolation beyond about fourteen weeks of age, it will not develop normal relationships.

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

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

Bonding behavior such as grooming and feeding seems to release neurotransmitters (e.g., oxytocin), which lowers innate defensiveness, increasing the chances 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 specific life stage) that is rapid and (apparently) independent of the consequences of behavior. Some animals appear pre-programmed to learn about certain aspects of the environment during particular sensitive phases of their development. The learning is pre-programmed in the sense that it will occur with no apparent reinforcement or punishment.

Our dogs in our domestic environments develop bonds in various ways. Grooming, resting with each other, barking together, playing and chasing intruders are strong bonding behaviors. Their bonding behavior is by no means restricted to individuals of their own 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 create a bond for life—and this applies to all social animals, dogs and humans included.

We develop stronger bonds with our dogs by doing things together rather than by just sitting and petting them. These days, we are so afraid of anything remotely connected with stress that we forget the strongest bonds ever 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 one will forget it. A tough nut to crack, on the other hand, is an everlasting memory binding the parties to one another.

Featured image: Bonding develops stronger and more readily in stressful situations. SAR handlers and their dogs have probably some of the strongest bonds we witness between the two species. Photo: Désirée Mallè, Alpine Rescue Team, and her dog.

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Should Dog Owners Worry About This Behavior?

AnaLauraDogHoldingArm2

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).”

When used to settle a dispute, a muzzle grasp looks more violent and ends in most cases with the muzzle-grasped individual showing what we ethologists call passive-submissive behavior, i.e. lying 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 at all. Later on, when grasped by the muzzle, the puppy lies down right away 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.”

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 dogs will usually show a nose lick, maybe yawn and then walk calmly away. It’s like they are saying, “I’m still your puppy” and the owners replying, “I know and I’ll take good care of you.” Yawn back and all is good.

Sometimes, the dog may even grasp our hand or our arm ever so lightly with its mouth. That is not mouthing or biting at all. It’s a derivative of the nose puffing behavior, and it has the same function. We see a similar behavior between related adult dogs and pups and dogs that know one another very well. It is an invitation to interaction, bonding, and maybe a muzzle grasp. Again, pull your hand or arm gently away from the dog’s mouth, muzzle-grasp it for a little while, make a few chomping sounds and yawn. Speaking dog language helps promote an understanding between our dogs and us. It may make us look silly, but who cares? I don’t—do you?

The behavior of grasping our hands is under control of what Lorenz called “bite inhibition.”* Bite inhibition is the behavior displayed by a dog (and also other carnivores like the cat) when it restrains itself from biting an opponent, although it would be easy for it to do so. In such a situation, most dogs will limit themselves to grasping the opponent without causing damage.

Biting and mouthing are quite different. They are more forceful and challenging than the grasping of our hand as an invitation to a moment of affection, and we should not reinforce these behaviors at all.

 

In conclusion: dogs don’t have hands, and so they use their mouths to perform some functions for which primates use their hands. Hands can be aggressive and forceful, as well as gentle and affectionate, and so can canine mouths. We must not be blind to the subtleties of behavior. Life is not black-and-white—rather more of a rainbow, I’d say.

___________

* Lorenz, K. (1949). King Solomon’s Ring (PDF). Routledge. Retrieved 2014-10-28.

DogMuzzleGrabMarco

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

WolfAddultMuzzleGrab

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

WolfPCubsMuzzleGrab

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

Mouthing and biting are not even remotely related to the muzzle grasp behavior. This photo shows clearly puppy play behavior, and yet it is biting. We should teach the puppy right away that this is not acceptable behavior (photo by unknown).

AnaLauraDogHoldingArm1

This behavior is not biting. It is a derivative of the muzzle grasp behavior and it functions as pacifying behavior. Photo: Ana Laura Chavez.

Featured image: A moment of social interaction: human uses her hand and dog uses its mouth. This is not a dog bite. Photo: Ana Laura Chavez.

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Featured Price: € 168.00 € 89.00

Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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Why Does My Dog Eat Poop?

Why Does My Dog Eat Poop?

Why do dogs eat their poop? While the scientific community cannot provide a conclusive answer yet, we find on the Internet one horrendous explanation after the other. A 101 course in evolution could have prevented these nonsensical accounts, and the exasperating rebuttals of perfectly valid reports because of blatant ignorance.

Now you see why we offer our course ‘Evolution’ free of charge.

I will give you two examples of how a little knowledge of evolutionary biology can help you analyze statements and avoid making ridiculous claims or implausible statements.

Why does my dog eat its poop? Here are some popular answers I found on the net.

Explanation 1: The dog knows that fewer predators will pay it any attention if there is no evidence of his having been around.

Is this probable? First, adult canines in nature are the object to predation by any other species besides humans. They defecate where they can. Sometimes they use it to scent mark their territory, which is anything but concealing it. Defining one’s territory is essential for survival. 

The only occasion where concealing occurs is when canine mothers eat their pups’ feces while still in the den. The function of this behavior is to keep the den clean, free of parasites, and probably also odor-free. Natural selection seemingly favored this behavior because it conferred the advantages of decreasing the odds of the youngsters succumbing to disease and reducing the den’s scent signature, helping it to remain concealed. The latter would only have been an advantage where predators with a reasonable sense of smell would share the same environment. For example, it might have been beneficial for the Canis lupus lupus sharing their habitat with bears (family Ursidae).

Conclusion: It is unlikely that dogs eat their poop to conceal their whereabouts from predators, except mothers consuming their pups’ feces.

Explanation 2: He (the dog) knows that removing the evidence means no punishment for inappropriate elimination.

Is this probable? To be true, it requires that the dog associates the feces with the punishment. How likely is it that the dog associates its act of defecation with retribution from the owner arriving at the scene 1-8 hours later? 

Natural selection has favored associations broadly spaced in time, but only for vital functions, like eating poisonous substances. There is evidence that the organism keeps a kind of memory of anything that made it sick, even many hours later. However, we cannot envisage any situation in which it would be unconditionally and evolutionarily advantageous for an animal to associate defecating with a non-lethal punishment inflicted by some other animal. Natural selection would only favor it if its achieved benefits would grossly exceed its costs. Insecure animals do keep a low profile, also restricting their urination and defecation to less-prominent locations, but not by eating it.

Conclusion: It is possible to condition an association between feces and punishment, but I doubt we can teach any dog to eat its feces to avoid punishment. There is no evidence that coprophagia (from the Greek κόπρος copros, “feces” and φαγεῖν phagein, “to eat”) of own feces has been evolutionarily advantageous.

 

When analyzing a behavior, the evolutionary biologist asks:

  1. What condition in the environment would favor the development of such a trait?
  2. What circumstances would support its propagation into the population?
  3. Do the benefits of such a trait outweigh its costs, both short and long-term?

Why do dogs eat their poop, then? I have found a few plausible explanations but none conclusive, yet. Therefore, my answer must be, “I don’t know.” 

Fear not to suspend judgment until you possess conclusive evidence. An honest “I don’t know” is one thousand times preferable to idle chit-chat and tales of cobblers wags. 

Keep up seeking the truth—whatever that might be. For a starter, take at least the 101-course in evolution. It will help you right away to sort out the worst blunders.

Featured image: Pups in a box (the “home” den)—canine mothers (in wolves, African wild dogs, and domestic dogs) eat their youngsters’ poop when they are still in the den. The function of this behavior is to keep the den fairly clean, free of parasites, and probably also odor-free (Photo by master1305).

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Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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The King and His Dog

Tongdaeng

Tongdaeng, a previous Bangkok stray, adopted as a pup by Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, caught the heart of the Thai people. The book on her life story, “The Story of Tongdaeng,” or เรื่อง ทองแดง, written by His Majesty, turned into a best-seller the moment it went on sale.

Thais love their king, and customers wrestled over the last few books on November 12, 2002, when the book was launched and 200,000 copies were sold. That doubled the first-day sales of the best-selling Harry Potter’s book.

Tongdaeng’s rise from outcast to palace favorite began in 1998 when she entered the Chitralada Palace in Bangkok. It was a present from a medical development centre, which looked after stray dogs and knew that the King loved dogs.

The King praises Tongdaeng as one of the best-mannered, considerate, and respectful dogs in the world and as an example to all Thais on how to behave—particularly politicians. The King’s loyal subjects have been buying the book to read about His Majesty’s views.

TongdaengBook

The book contains messages on morality and manners—much-appreciated considering the stories of corruption surrounding the country’s politicians. King Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch, enjoys immense respect from his people. He introduces Tongdaeng as “a common dog who is uncommon.”

When chasing other dogs around trees, the King writes, she insists that they always run clockwise. Many readers interpret this as a call for national unity.

Tongdaeng can also pick up and open coconuts at the King’s seaside palace on the Gulf of Thailand even though this can take a long time and result in torn gums—advice to be patient and endure pain in times of adversity.

The King writes, “Tongdaeng shows gratitude and respect—as opposed to people who, after becoming important, might treat with contempt someone of lower status to whom they should be thankful.”

Thais worship their king and have the highest respect for him. He never directly criticises public figures, though he occasionally issues reminders to Thailand’s political leaders about their loose moral standards. Thais remember too well how King Bhumibol ended several serious clashes, particularly the one in Bangkok in May 1992, when the army shot at demonstrators protesting a military takeover. Millions of TV viewers worldwide witnessed the army chief and a democracy campaigner, General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Chamlong Srimuang, prostrating themselves in front of His Majesty as he ordered them to stop the hostilities for the good of the nation.

The ultimate message of Tongdaeng, the crossbreed stray, is that, even though you may be born into poverty, you can rise to the top by means of your attitude and manners.