“Animal Training My Way”—the “Abrantes Belly-Button Routine”

“The Belly-Button Routine” got its name from the fact that Roger Abrantes keeps his right hand holding the lead right in front of his belly-button. The only movement he makes with it it’s down and up, respectively when he stops and when he resumes walking after a stop. Be aware of where your right hand holding the lead is. We don’t want you or the dog to jerk it.

Notice how Professor Abranteswalks slowly forward and back, keeping a steady rhythm and changing direction very clearly, giving the dog a fair opportunity to follow him. Sometimes, he stops, and the dog must stop as well. Depending on what he ask it to do, it may sit, stand or down.

He calls this drill the kata* of dog training. Once you can do that to perfection, varying the form of the signals between hand, sound, body, and facial, you can teach your dog all you want, and a dog can learn.

Pay particular attention to:

1 – The few signals Abrantes uses.
2 – No repetitions of signals and no yelling.
3 – The consistency in the form of the signals. They are the same, every time, independently of whether he uses a sound, a hand or a body signal.
4 – The consistent and regular use of the semi-conditioned positive sound reinforcer: He says ‘dygtig.’** In SMAF: “!±sound”(dygtig). (You may have to turn your sound up to hear some of them because he whispers them).
5 – The immediate use of the inhibitor ‘ah’ when the dog shows an undesired behavior. In SMAF: [!-sound](ah).
6 – The eye contact he maintains with the dog when he asks it to do something.
7 – The few treats he uses (compared to the majority of trainers). He uses them strategically to reinforce some behaviors on specific circumstances.
8 – The contact he establishes with the dog during the performance of the drill.

To learn more about creating an effective communication and a sound relationship with your, please see our course Ethology and Behaviorism.


* Kata (型 or 形 literally: ‘form’) is Japanese and designates the detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. Many traditional Japanese arts use kata, such as theatre forms like kabuki, and schools of tea ceremony (chadō), but are most commonly known for their use in the martial arts.

** “Dygtig” [ˈdøgdi] is a Danish word and means “clever.” It is, apparently, a good sound as a reinforcer, Abrantes discovered many years ago.   speaker-1

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“The Abrantes Belly-Button Routine” Video Quiz

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Mission Interspecies Contact—Creating a Relationship

Dogs react much better to our body language than to sound signals. We talk too much!

It all depends on your body language, not what you say. If you look at your dog all the time while you’re walking, you are assuming full responsibility for who follows whom. The dog will pull the lead, then—and rightly so, because it is your duty to follow, not your dogs. Yes, it is a lead, not a leash. You use it to lead the dog, not to leash it. Allowing the lead getting tight sometimes, does not equal to being a cruel dog owner. It amounts to allowing your dog to solve a problem for which it has more than enough intelligence to do.

One thing is your dog pulling the lead and feeling uncomfortable by doing it. A completely different matter is you pulling the lead. The former teaches the dog to keep an eye on you to avoid discomfort. The latter only teaches the dog that you are an unpredictable person one cannot trust.

Your body language is crucial. In the movie, did you notice how the simple and clear body signals and facial expressions, and moving rhythmically, appear to perform miracles?

To improve your communication and relationship with your dog, please see our course Ethology and Behaviorism.

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"Mission Interspecies Contact—Creating a Relationship" Video Quiz

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The Importance of Body Language by Roger Abrantes

In this video, Roger Abrantes demonstrates the importance of a crystal clear, friendly, and self-confident body language. Our self-confidence affects our communication. The video shows the use of our knowledge of ethology at its best. We interact with the animals in ways, which are easy for them to understand and to respond appropriately.

Be prepared to work on yourself. Everything you do, matters. The way you do it, matters. The more you practice, the more subtle your signals will become. How you feel, and your level of self-confidence have a dramatic effect on the result. It’s all a question of attitude. Take your time. Think, relax and enjoy.

To learn more and get inspired, go to our course Ethology and Behaviorism based on the book “Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism” by Roger Abrantes.

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"The Importance of Body Language by Roger Abrantes" Video Quiz

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Puppy on a Lead

In this video, Roger Abrantes shows his ‘kata’ for puppies. He walks forth and back teaching the puppy to follow, to stop when he stops, to sit, and to ‘down,’

Notice the ‘lead on the floor’ detail, stopping all movement and inducing the puppy to stop; eye contact; the correct timing of reinforcers; clear body language.

It’s all very straightforward when you apply the correct science to your training, a combination of Ethology and Behaviorism. To learn more, see our courses Ethology and Behaviorism and All About Puppies.

Quiz (for students wishing to earn study credits)

"Puppy on a Lead" Video Quiz

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Evolutionarily Stable Strategies and Behavior

Evolutionarily Stable Strategies and Behavior (DovesAndHawks).

Evolutionary biologists imagine a time before a particular trait existed. Then, they postulate that a rare gene arises in an individual and ask what circumstances would favor the spread of that gene throughout the population. If natural selection favors the gene, then the individuals with the genotypes incorporating that particular gene will have increased fitness. A gene must compete with other genes in the gene pool and resist any invasion from mutants,to become established in a population’s gene pool.

In considering evolutionary strategies that influence behavior, we visualize a situation in which changes in genotype lead to changes in behavior. By ‘the gene for sibling care,’ we mean that genetic differences exist in the population such that some individuals aid their siblings while others do not. Similarly, by ‘dove strategy,’ we mean that animals exist in the population that do not engage in fights and that they pass this trait from one generation to the next.

At first sight, it might seem that the most successful evolutionary strategy will invariably spread throughout the population and, eventually, will supplant all others. While this does occur, it is far from always being so. Sometimes, there is no single dominant strategy. Competing strategies may be interdependent in that the success of one depends upon the existence of the other and the frequency with which the population adopts the other. For example, the strategy of mimicry has no value if the warning strategy of the model is not efficient.

Game theory belongs to mathematics and economics, and it studies situations where players choose different actions in an attempt to maximize their returns. It is a good model for evolutionary biologists to approach situations in which various decision makers interact. The payoffs in biological simulations correspond to fitness—comparable to money in economics. Simulations focus on achieving a balance that would be maintained by evolutionary strategies. The Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS), introduced by John Maynard Smith in 1973 (and published in 1982), is the most well known of these strategies. Maynard Smith used the hawk-dove simulation to analyze fighting and territorial behavior. Together with Harper in 2003, he employed an ESS to explain the emergence of animal communication.

An evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) is a strategy that no other feasible alternative can better, given that sufficient members of the population adopt it. The best strategy for an individual depends upon the strategy or strategies which other members of the same population adopt. Since the same applies to all individuals in that particular population, a mutant gene cannot invade an  ESS successfully.

The traditional way to illustrate this problem is the simulation of the encounter between two strategies, the hawk and the dove. When a hawk meets a hawk, it wins on half of the occasions, and it loses and suffers an injury on the other half. Hawks always beat doves. Doves always retreat against hawks. Whenever a dove meets another dove, there is always a display, and it wins on half of the occasions. Under these rules, populations of only hawks or doves are no ESS because a hawk can invade a population made up entirely of doves and a dove can invade a population of hawks only. Both would have an advantage and would spread in the population. A hawk in a population of doves would win all contests, and a dove in a population of hawks would never get injured because it wouldn’t fight.

However, it is possible for a mixture of hawks and doves to provide a stable situation when their numbers reach a certain proportion of the total population. For example, with payoffs as winner +50, injury -100, loser 0, display -10, a population consisting of hawks and doves (or individuals adopting hawk and dove strategies) is an ESS whenever 58,3% of the population are hawks and 41,7% doves; or when all individuals behave at random as hawks in 58,3 % of the encounters and doves in 41,7%. The percentages, or point of equilibrium, depend on costs and benefits (or the pay-off, which is equal to benefits minus costs).

Evolutionarily stable strategies are not artificial constructs. They exist in nature. The Oryx, Oryx gazella, have sharp pointed horns, which they never use in contests with rivals and only in defense against predators. They play the dove strategy. Up to 10% per year of Musk Ox, Ovibos moschatus, adult males die as a result of injuries sustained while fighting over females. They play the hawk strategy.

An ESS is a modified form of a Nash equilibrium. In most simple games, the ESSes and Nash equilibria coincide perfectly, but some games may have Nash equilibria that are not ESSes. Furthermore, even if a game has pure strategy Nash equilibria, it might be that none of those pure strategies are ESSes. We can prove both Nash equilibria and ESS mathematically (see references).

Peer-to-peer file sharing is a good example of an ESS in our modern society. BitTorrent peers use Tit for Tat strategy to optimize their download speed. Cooperation is achieved when upload bandwidth is exchanged for download bandwidth.

Evolutionary biology and sociobiology attempt to explain animal behavior and social structures (humans included), mainly in terms of evolutionarily stable strategies.


Featured image: The traditional way to illustrate Evolutionarily Stable Strategies is the simulation of the encounter between two strategies, the hawk and the dove.

Do Animals Have Feelings?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is a puzzle, enjoy it!

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

Laughter is the shortest distance…


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.

Body Language with Insecure Dog

Our body language affects the effectiveness of our communication with our animals, as we have seen multiple times.
In this video, we look closer at the importance of our body language when dealing with a dog demonstrating insecurity, on the verge of impeding it of interacting with others.
We’ll need to use all our knowledge of ethology, interacting with the dog in ways, which are easy for it to understand, and, therefore, show appropriate responses.
Notice, that the differences between working with a dog with an average degree of self-confidence and an insecure dog are minor.
Often, we increase the level of insecurity of the dog precisely because we treat it as such. We help too much. The animal never gets a chance to solve the problems by itself and learn. Wrong behavior is still wrong behavior. What we must do is to increase the difficulty of what we ask the dog to do more gradually, in small steps.
At one time, we’ll have to “force” an error to teach the dog to cope with that as well, without showing strong emotional responses.
As always, be prepared to work on yourself. Everything you do matters. The way you do it, matters. The more you practice, the more subtle your signals will become. How you feel, and your level of self-confidence have a dramatic effect on the result. It’s all a question of attitude. Take your time.

To learn more, please go to our course Ethology and Behaviorism.

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"Body Language with Insecure Dog" Video Quiz

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Once a While We Should Focus on What Our Animals Can Teach Us

One of the most exciting aspects of the Guinea Pig camps, as far as I’m concerned, is how they evolved throughout the times.

Learning is an ongoing process and in spite of having held many GP camps, I still learn new fascinating details for every camp I have the privilege to conduct.

For example, for each camp we held, it became increasingly clear how important it is to build a good and trusting relationship with the little Guinea pig before we even consider teaching it any skills. If the piggy does not trust you, it won’t work. This should be obvious, but in these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

We also learned how efficient we can be when combining ethology with behaviorism, a daunting task many consider virtually impossible—but it is not.

Let me explain. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. Ethologists do not interfere with the animals, and as such there is no training theory to find in ethology. There is, however, much to find about interaction, communication and living together.

Behaviorism studies the behavior of animals in artificial setups. Behaviorists attempt to control the environment best possible to achieve the results they want by manipulating stimuli and consequences. As Pavlov showed, to control the environment is a much more difficult task than researchers first assumed.

Combining ethology with behaviorism means to apply the knowledge we have about the natural behavior of the animals with which we work with the principles of behavior modification that we know will lead us to proven results under controlled conditions.

It is not as easy as it looks because as soon as we leave a proven track, we are on our own. Suddenly, we have no longer a recipe to follow. We need to improvise, to dig deeper in ourselves, to find the empathy that will connect us to the animal we train. The rules, we so painstakingly have memorized, do not seem to work any longer. This is an illusion, though, for the rules work all right—though only after a myriad of tiny, individual adjustments, so that they end up resembling exceptions. In that, Guinea pig camps excel. I’ve seen it time after time in the faces of the camp participants: a mixture of excitement and doubt, comparable to what I see in my diving students the first time they jump into the sea to discover that they can actually breathe under water.

And so here I am ready to start a new Guinea Pig camp, this time at the Wolf Park in Indiana. Wolves and Guinea pigs have nothing in common except that they both have much from which we can learn. We will commute between wolf enclosures and Guinea Pig training areas, listening to their stories and learning.

We tend to focus on what we can teach our animals, but maybe once a while we should turn it around and focus on what they can teach us.

Featured image: Our animals have a lesson to teach us. In these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

How Splendid They Are—or the Importance of Imprinting


First Guinea pig camp day. How splendid they are, the little Guinea pigs! Between three and eight weeks of age, they are curious, friendly and quick learners. They are so totally cute! (To put it in modern American English.)

The clip above, which I’m sure you watched as soon as you arrived at this page, is a quick iPhone recording to show you little Chupa-Chupa only two hours after the team started training it. It does not live up to the quality of the movies I usually show but bear with me. I just had to capture the moment and show it to you.

I must compliment Michael and Natalie for the brilliant job they have done imprinting and socializing the young Guinea pigs. Without it, we would have spent the whole day yesterday, and would spend most of today, habituating them to the environment, novel stimuli, humans, etc. As they are, the teams could teach them all the agility obstacles. This is the first time we have achieved it in one day, undoubtedly due to the perfect imprinting and socialization of the piggies.

Though this makes it much easier for the camp attendees to train the Guinea pigs, it also deprives them of the experience of going thru the laborious process of imprinting and socialization. Fortunately, we have a couple of older piggies, Michael and Natalie got later, for comparison.

I wished dog breeders knew more about these all relevant mechanisms in the formation of behavior. Imagine that all puppies were perfectly imprinted and socialized to the human world. I bet we would see a dramatic fall in problem behavior and wouldn’t that be splendid?

Imprinting describes any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior.

Imprinting affects subsequent social adjustment and sexual behavior among others. It occurs immediately after birth or early in life. Though critical for the future behavior of the animal, its preferences and aversions, the consequences of imprinting are not as rapid or as irreversible as Lorenz and the early ethologists thought.

Studies of wolf cubs show that although the period of imprinting is longer than in ducks, and most birds, it is just as important. Holding a wolf cub in our hands for three minutes a day in the first 10 days makes all the difference in its behavior towards humans later in life. The same applies to our domestic dogs, even if they are more flexible. The difference is that we have selected dogs for thousands of years for their sociability. They have probably many genes determining this trait, allowing imprinting for longer, or over several periods.

A sensitive period (or critical period) is a limited time in which an event can occur, usually resulting in some transformation. If the organism does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this time, it may be difficult, or even impossible, to develop some functions later in life.

Evidence suggests that there may be more than one type of a sensitive period. Recent studies point out that the critical phase for sexual imprinting occurs later than that for filial imprinting. Researchers discovered that learning components are more important than previously thought. There is evidence that cumulative learning entails the release of endorphins in the brain providing a comforting feedback and, thus, fixing the association.

As amazed as the camp attendees are with the speedy progress of their training (at the end of the first day, they have gone thru all agility obstacles, including weave poles), what left them flabbergasted today was the limited use of food treats and that we did not use training tools and gadgets at all.

This is training the ethology way, my preferred method of interacting with animals. We create a relationship of mutual trust and respect, with higher benefits than costs, leading by example, meeting the animal half-way, controlling ourselves rather than the animal.

Watch this space, my friends, I will tell you more tomorrow.

Featured image: Konrad Lorenz and his geese showing the effect of imprinting.