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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.*

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

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

__________

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

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

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.

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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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

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.

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 strong bonds so that the former take care of the latter and the latter accept the teachings of the former. This serves both parties best. As a result 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 like 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 type of 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 to be preprogrammed 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 without any 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 be bonding 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 it will be forgotten. A tough nut to crack, on the other hand, is an everlasting memory binding the parties to one another.

I even suspect one of the reasons we have so many divorces these days is that we want everything to be easy, and oh so pleasant, that in the end, nothing is holding the two together—but that’s another story for maybe another time.

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.

Learn more in our course Ethology and Behaviorism. Based on Roger Abrantes’ book “Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism,” this online course explains and teaches you how to create a stable and balanced relationship with any animal. It analyses the way we interact with our animals, combines the best of ethology and behaviorism and comes up with an innovative, yet simple and efficient approach to animal training. A state-of-the-art online course in four lessons including videos, a beautiful flip-pages book, and quizzes.

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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.

DogMuzzleGrabMarco

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

The function of this behavioris 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).”

WolfAddultMuzzleGrab

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

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. 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 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.”

WolfPCubsMuzzleGrab

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.

Mouthing and biting are not even remotely related to the muzzle grab 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).

At times, the dog may even grasp our hand or our arm 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 closely 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 at times, 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.

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.

Biting and mouthing are quite different behaviors. They are more forceful and challenging than the grasping of your 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 of the 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.

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.

Why Does My Dog Eat Poop?

WolfCubsDen(MontySoan)

Why do dogs eat their own poop? That’s an interesting question and I find on the Internet one horrendous explanation after the other, which the authors could avoid with a 101 course in Evolution. Even scarier is to read some rebuttals of perfectly scientifically valid accounts because of blatant ignorance.

That is why we offer our course ‘Evolution’ free of charge.

I will give you now two examples of how a bit knowledge of evolutionary biology can help you analyze statements and avoid making claims that don’t make sense or are very unlikely to be true.

Why does my dog eat its own 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 not particularly predated by any other species. They tend to defecate where that can, sometimes even using it to scent mark their territory, which is anything but concealing it. The only occasion where this occurs is when canine mothers eat their puppies’ feces while they are still in the den. The function of this behavior is to keep the den reasonably clean, free of parasites, and probably also odor free. Evolutionarily, those that didn’t do it suffered more cases of their progeny succumbing to disease. It might also have reduced the scent signature of the den helping it remaining concealed, but again that would only have been an advantage where predators with a reasonable sense of smell would share the same environment. It might have been beneficial for the Canis lupus lupussharing their environment with bears (family Ursidae).

Conclusion: it is unlikely that dogs eat their poop to conceal their whereabouts from predators except for mothers consuming their puppies’ 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 probable is it that the dog associates its act of defecation with the punishment from the owner arriving at the scene maybe 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 retains a kind of memory of anything that made it sick even occurring 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 exceed its costs grossly. It is true that insecure animals tend to keep a low profile, also restricting their urination and defecation to less-prominent locations, but not by eating it.

Conclusion: it is definitely 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 eating own poop 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 conditions would favor 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 own poop, then? I have found a few plausible explanations but none conclusive, yet. Therefore, my answer must be, “I don’t know.” You may need to around. You are, now, in a better situation than earlier to evaluate any answer you may get because you know how to analyze an argument from an evolutionary point of view.

Featured image: Canine mothers (in wolves, African wild dogs, and domestic dogs) eat their puppies 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 Monty Sloan).

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.