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Do Non-Human Animals Have Consciousness?

Do Non-Human Animals Have Consciousness?

Consciousness—Definitions

Do non-human animals have consciousness? Does this question belong to philosophy, ethology, neurobiology or physics?

Many philosophers distinguish between awareness and consciousness, awareness being a form of perception, and consciousness involving a special kind of self-awareness. Consciousness, in this view, requires a propositional awareness that it is I who am feeling or thinking. However, a dissociation between conscious and unconscious perception can occur in people with brain damage, who yet can make correct judgments even though they are not conscious of what they see.

The question of animal consciousness is indeed a difficult one. The spectrum of scientific opinion is vast. Some believe that consciousness does not occur in animals, and others maintain that most animals have consciousness. The difficulty of arriving at an acceptable and consensual definition of consciousness confounds the situation further.

To define consciousness in such a way that it only fits Homo sapiens sapiens seems to me too anthropocentric. To argue that if we have it, they can’t have it, is definitely committing the fallacy of anthropodimorphism, the opposite of anthropomorphism (Abrantes 2017).

Our tentative definition is: “Consciousness is the presence of mental images and their use by the organism to regulate its behavior. To be conscious is to be aware of what one is doing or plans to do. It is having a purpose and intention in one’s actions” (Abrantes 2012). This definition is quasi-identical to McFarland’s (1998).

Yet, we can imagine intentional behavior that does not involve consciousness. The standard examples of automatic, absent-minded activities, are walking and driving, where we solve relatively complex problems apparently without being conscious of (at least) some of the intentional states through which we must be passing.

“Another way to put the point is to note that intentionality alone is not sufficient for introspectibility, and so, insofar as introspectibility in the normal human case is a necessary condition for a state’s being conscious, intentionality is therefore also not sufficient for consciousness” (Rey 2008).

Another definition, proposed by Chandroo et al., is, ” Consciousness might be broadly described as an awareness of internal and external stimuli, having a sense of self and some understanding of ones place in the world” (Chandroo et al. 2004).

Damasio (2010) states that “[…] no one can prove satisfactorily that nonhuman, nonlanguage beings have consciousness, core or otherwise, although it is reasonable to triangulate the substantial evidence we have available and conclude that it is highly likely that they do.”

 

Private Experiences—Emotions

Emotion has subjective, physiological, and behavioral manifestations that are difficult to reconcile with each other. An emotion is a private experience. There is no way we can know the emotional experiences of another person. We tend to assume they are the same as ours, but we have no experimentally conclusive or logical way of verifying this.

In scientific terms, we cannot assume that animals have particular subjective feelings any more than we are entitled logically to make such assumptions about other people. In physiological terms, emotional states in humans are typically accompanied by autonomic changes, but these are not a reliable guide to identifying particular emotional states. Most animals, at least vertebrates, react to stressors in roughly the same way whether their emotional response is one of fear, of aggression or sexual nature.

Darwin (1872) postulated that facial expressions and other behavioral signs of emotion had evolved from protective responses and other utilitarian aspects of behavior. Darwin’s description was somehow anthropomorphic, which prompted psychologists to react. Lloyd Morgan (1882) advocated an approach devoid of speculation about the private thoughts and feelings of animals. The behaviorist attitude that the private mental experiences of animals cannot be the subject of scientific investigations dominated the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

The behaviorist position seems unassailable, but we can circumvent it in two ways. One argument (the logical one) is that although we cannot prove that animals have subjective experiences, it may be true nevertheless. No proof (yet discovered) does not conclusively imply non-existence. Another (the evolutionary probability argument) is to argue that it is unlikely, from an evolutionary stance, that there should be a marked discontinuity between humans and other animals in this respect. Therefore, if we accept the existence of subjective experiences in humans, then we are forced to admit that animals might have them as well.

 

Self-Awareness

Are animals aware of themselves in the sense that they know what posture they are adopting and what action they are taking? Sensory information from the joints and muscles is available to the brain, so it seems that animals should be aware of their behavior.

In an experiment, researchers trained rats to press one of four levers (Beninger et al. 1974). The rats learned to push a different bar, depending on whether they were grooming, walking, rearing up or remaining still when the buzzer sounded. In a sense, the rats must have been aware of their actions, which does not necessarily mean that they are conscious of them. They may be aware of their actions as they are aware of external stimuli.

 

The MSR (Mirror Self-Recognition) Test

Many animals respond to a mirror as if they saw another member of their species. Does that prove self-awareness? After many years of research, this remains a controversial question. There is evidence that chimpanzees and orangutans can recognize themselves in the mirror. Does the ability to respond to parts of one’s body seen in a mirror indicate self-awareness?

The questions are whether the MSR test is suitable for some species and whether it demonstrates self-awareness. Animals can be self-aware in ways the mirror test cannot measure, e.g., distinguishing between their own and others’ songs or scents (Bekoff 2002). Also, animals can pass the MSR, not necessarily having self-awareness (Cammaerts 2015). Very few species have passed the MSR test (Turner 2015).

The MSR test has limited value when we apply it to species that primarily use senses other than vision, as for example in dogs that mainly use olfaction and audition. Dogs do seem to discriminate their own odor from that of other dogs and to spend more time investigating their own modified odor ‘image,’ precisely as subjects who pass the MSR test do (Horowitz 2017).

A capacity for self-recognition in a mirror does not necessarily imply an awareness of one’s own psychological states and the understanding that others possess such states (Povinelli, 1998).

 

Imitation

Does the ability to imitate the actions of others indicate self-awareness? Imitations do not demonstrate the implication of mental states because of the extensive training involved in the experiments.

We take the ability to imitate as a sign of intelligence. Parrots, Psittaciformes, and mynah birds, Sturnidae, can reproduce human sounds with extraordinary fidelity. Are they particularly intelligent?

To be able to imitate, an animal must perceive the external auditory or visual example and match it with a set of motor instructions of its own. For example, a baby who imitates an adult waving must somehow associate the sight of the hand with his own motor instructions for waving. The baby does not need to be aware that he has a hand, it merely has to connect a particular perception with a specific set of motor commands. How that is done, it is a mystery, but the question of whether imitation necessarily involves self-awareness is debatable.

Even though deliberately copying behavior would be a strong argument for self-awareness, we cannot be sure all apparently imitative behavior is.

Allelommetic behavior (synchronous behavior, mimetic behavior, imitative behavior, and social facilitation) may have evolved because a specific synchronization was advantageous. Sometimes, environmental cues initiate this behavioral synchrony (seen in dogs, horses, sheep, chicken, etc.) (Miller 1996, Stoye, S. et al. 2012).

Humans often find themselves assuming similar postures without being aware of that (not conscious of that). It may be the result of empathy, which may also have developed in some species because of the conferred benefits.

Does the brain potential associated with movement occur before or after we are aware of our movement intention? Do I think, “I’m going to move my finger” and then do it? Or does it happen the other way round: I move my finger, and then I’m aware of that? Does consciousness have a causal influence on movement decision? (Guggisberg et al. 2013).

 

Awareness of Others—Empathy

Empathy means some awareness of others as beings with feelings similar to our own. Some researchers argue that the evolution of close-knit societies made recognition of others, i.e., empathy, advantageous. Empathic behavior is subject to evolutionary laws as any other behavior.

Bischoff-Köhler (1990) investigated the onset of empathy in infants. The results showed that between 16 and 24 months of age, there was a transition from non-recognition to mirror recognition and a simultaneous transition from non-empathy to empathy. Moreover, these transitions occurred at the same age in a given child.

The nature of the phenomenon of empathy in animals is also a topic of investigation (Preston & de Waal 2002). Mice that observe a cagemate in pain are more sensitive to painful stimuli than mice that see an unfamiliar mouse similarly treated (Langford et al. 2006). Empathy can also be the best explanation for some elephant behavior (Byrne et al. 2008).

Finally, empathy does not need to be an all-or-nothing phenomenon (DeWall 1996). Neither does consciousness. As there are various degrees of empathy, there are possibly different levels of consciousness.

The concrete encounter of self and other fundamentally involves empathy, as a unique and irreducible kind of intentionality. Thus, empathy seems to be a precondition for consciousness (Thompson 2001).

However, self-awareness (consciousness) does not always require empathy. That means we can conclude that animals showing empathy must be self-aware. However, we cannot conclude that those who lack manifestations of empathy do not possess self-awareness.

 

Pain—Do Animals Have to be Conscious in Order to Suffer?

It is difficult to define and analyze pain as the interpretation of findings rest primarily on the behavioral criterion we use. A pure withdrawal reflex would probably not be a good indication of pain. Such reflexes are widespread in the animal kingdom, occur in very primitive animals, and are not always associated with any strong aversive.

The criterion of crying out in pain is not good either. While a dog or a monkey scream in pain when they are seriously injured (or even less seriously), an antelope torn to pieces by a predator remains relatively silent.

Do animals have to be conscious in order to suffer? When we are unconscious, we do not suffer pain or mental anguish because parts of our brain are deactivated. However, we do not know whether these parts are involved only in consciousness or also in other aspects of brain activity. Thus, we cannot say that because we do not experience pain when we are unconscious means that consciousness and suffering are intrinsically related. Perhaps whatever makes us unconscious also stops the pain, but the two are not causally connected.

The truth is that we have no conception of what the conscious experiences of animals might involve if they exist because we have no precise understanding of what consciousness is. Therefore, we can draw no conclusions about the relationship between consciousness and suffering in animals.

Amidst our ignorance, it would be wrong to assume that suffering in animals is confined to those that are intelligent, that use language or that show evidence of conscious experience.

Orch OR Consciousness

Orch-OR is fully compatible with the view that non-human animals possess consciousness to some degree or another. In fact, the opposite would be absurd (illustration from “Consciousness in the Universe: A Review of the ‘Orch OR’ Theory.” Physics of Life Reviews, 2014).

Consciousness as a Quantum State—Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR)

The Orch-OR model, based on quantum physics, suggests that consciousness originates from microtubules and actions inside neurons (Hameroff 1988, Hameroff and Penrose 2016).

Classic and quantum physics differ in their accounting of events. When I hit a pool ball, I use traditional physics (and geometry) to predict where it will be at any particular moment. I expect it to do so (assuming I hit it correctly). However, in quantum physics, such expectation is null and void. According to the (Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum mechanics, any movement is unknown until it is observed. That is not as weird as it might seem. Imagine, I close my eyes just before I hit the cue ball. While my eyes remain shut, the object ball is both pocketed and non-pocketed. It is first when I open them, that the ball is definitely in one place. Physicists refer to this observation, which determines what happened, as a wave collapsing into a single state.

In quantum systems, inside the neuron, Hameroff and Penrose argue that it is every single collapse of the wave function that returns a conscious moment. Their model met some criticism. Most scientists believe the brain is too warm and wet for quantum states to have any influence on neuronal activity because quantum coherence only seems possible in fairly shielded and cold environments. Biological processes, in general, seem too messy for quantum physics o thrive.

However, researchers have recently found that quantum effects are indeed significant for particular biological processes, like photosynthesis (Engel 2007, Brookes 2017). When a photon hits an electron in a leaf, the electron delivers it to another molecule (the reaction center), which converts light into chemical energy (and feeds the plant). The electron uses the quantum effect of superposition, where a particle can be in two places at once while testing various routes to the reaction center where the photosynthesis occurs. Then, it takes the most efficient one. Besides photosynthesis, olfaction may also be a product of quantum processes (Brookes 2017).

Another support for the idea that quantum physics are indeed possible in the inhospitable organic environment of the brain is via the Phosphorus molecule. The central idea is that the Phosphorous molecule in the brain with its nuclear spin can potentially act as a qubit (quantum bit) and promote quantum computation. This hypothesis circumvents the problem of quantum decoherence by proposing that the qubits remain stable, in spite of the higher temperature of the brain, by organizing themselves into a Phosphate ring (Fisher 2015).

The microtubules, essential in the Orch-OR model, may very well be the first cause of thought. The traditional view is that neurons fire when a channel within the cell membrane opens, flooding the neuron with positively charged ions. Once a determined threshold is reached, an electrical signal travels down the axon—the nerve fibers within the neuron—and the neuron fires. Axons connect neurons to other cells, and inside each axon are nanowires, including the microtubule. Bandyopadhyay found that he could apply a charge to the microtubule, causing activity to raise in the neuron. The nanowires fire thousands of times faster than the average activity in a neuron. The neuron, opposite prevailing scientific knowledge, wasn’t the first cause of the human thought process (Bandyopadhyay 2014).

According to the Penrose–Hameroff model, consciousness results from discrete physical events; such events have always existed in the universe as non-cognitive, proto-conscious events. Biology evolved a mechanism to orchestrate such events and to pair them to neuronal activity, resulting in meaningful, cognitive, conscious moments of quantum state reduction. In the Orch OR theory, these conscious events are terminations of quantum computations in brain microtubules reduced by objective reduction (OR), and having experiential qualities. In this view, consciousness is an intrinsic feature of the action of the universe (Hameroff 1998, Hameroff & Penrose 2016).

Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests that life evolved by natural selection in incremental steps and random mutations. Therefore, we would not expect the substantial level of coherence across the brain that would be necessary for the non-computable Orch OR of conscious human understanding to appear any other way. More primitive (less elaborated) forms must have preceded it, shown variation, and been subject to natural selection. Thus, proto-conscious Orch OR states might have emerged step by step in the course of evolution.

Orch-OR is fully compatible with the view that non-human animals possess consciousness to some degree or another. In fact, the opposite would be absurd.

Quantum Consciousness Abrantes Billiards

When I hit the cue ball, I use traditional physics (and geometry) to predict where it will be at any particular moment. I expect it to do so (assuming I hit it correctly). However, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, any movement is unknown until it is observed. Imagine, I close my eyes just before I hit the cue ball. While my eyes (and my opponent’s, Michael McManus, in this case) remain shut, the object ball is pocketed and non-pocketed at once. It is first when we open our eyes, that the object ball is definitely pocketed.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, reads:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates” (Low, Philip, et al. 2012).

The essential point in this declaration is that concurrent studies concluded that human and some non-human animals share the neurological substrates that we consider indispensable to generate consciousness. That may indeed be helpful in our quest for non-animal consciousness.

Otherwise, the document (as other similar ones) is more a political statement than scientific proof. The fact that it is signed by many (argumentum ad populum) prominent (argumentum ad verecundiam) persons does not add anything to the truth or falsity of its statement about consciousness (Copi 2014). Were the opinion of many the truth, the earth would be flat, after having been created in seven days (Genesis 1 and 2). Were the opinion of prominent persons the truth, DNA would have three intertwined strands (Linus Pauling), and life could originate from inanimate matter (Aristotle); and the Spiroptera carcinoma would (falsely) cause cancer (for which, in 1926, Johannes Fibiger won the Nobel Prize in Medicine).

 

Final Note

Human consciousness is by definition subjective and private. We access it through verbal, non-verbal, and instrumental records. Animals do not have language (as we define it), but we can still study their consciousness via behavioral investigations, as we do in preverbal infants. Like humans, animals display different behaviors depending on levels of consciousness. During sleep or anesthesia, no individual—unconscious or having low levels of consciousness—independently of species, can process information (not the full range, at least). On the other hand, behavioral and neurobiological data lead us to the conclusion that animals can express some forms of what we call a higher level of consciousness.

The subject of non-human animal consciousness is relevant to many topics, e.g., ethics and theory of mind. Some scientists and philosophers believe that the foundations have been set for addressing (at least) some of the questions about animal consciousness in an empirically way. Some remain skeptical, maintaining that subjective phenomena are beyond the reach of scientific research. The arguments on both sides are many, and the jury is still out.

 

Conclusion

As a sort of conclusion, it is the view of this author that we have two main unsolved problems related to consciousness: (1) to formulate a conclusive and clear operational definition, and (2) to devise a valid verification method for single species.

As such, at this moment, the most prudent statement seems to be that animals (humans included) show varying degrees of consciousness depending on species. It appears beyond any reasonable doubt that some have it and, therefore, (1) if some have it, others (high) probably have it, too, albeit differently—and (2) that some have it, doesn’t necessarily imply all have it—unless, of course, Hameroff and Penrose are right.

Thank you to John Larsen and Parichart Thongparkdee Abrantes for the exciting exchange of ideas we have had while I wrote this paper.

References

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Abrantes, R. 2017. Do Animals Have Feelings? Ethology Institute Website. 

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Low, Philip et al. 2012. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness Publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals.

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Neindre, P. et al. 2017. Animal consciousness. European Food Safety Authority. 2017, 165 p.

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Povinelli, D.J. 1998. Can animals empathize? Maybe not. Scientific American, pp. 67–75.
Preston, S. and de Waal F.B.M. 2002. Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behav. and Brain Science (2002) 25, 1–72.

Rey, G. 2008. Even Higher-Order) Intentionality Without Consciousness. Revue internationale de philosophie 2008/1 (n° 243), pages 51 à 78. 

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Zahavi, D. (2011). Empathy and direct social perception. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 3, 541–558.

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The Ocean Accepts no Sham

SailboatInStorm

The ocean accepts no sham” is a maritime saying. The sea is shockingly honest and uncompromising. Excuses, rationalizing, compassion, self-pity, ignorance, political correctness, yapping, and baloney cannot get you out of trouble on the big blue.

In our wealthy and spoiled societies of today, we get away with shallowness, fanaticism, hooliganism and, not least, tremendous uncritical thinking. Not so at sea.

RAA-At-The-Helm

You can’t hide at sea. You’ll meet yourself whether you want it or not, the only viable strategy being honesty and integrity. It’s that simple!

From the sea, all you get is the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth—independently of what that might be. You can change the name of the facts with which your sensitivities can’t deal, but a storm will still hit you with the same fierce force; and the mighty winds will still tear apart your sails—no matter what you call it. Politics, demagogy, propaganda, marketing, and hidden agendas leave the sea imperturbable. No wealth can buy it. It deals with the poor and the rich equally. No status will influence it. Kings and commoners receive equal treatment.

What you believe or don’t, be it gods or mermaids, has no effect. Knowledge does.
Your “likes” and “dislikes” mean nothing; taking as it is, does.
No spoiled children and cry-babies accepted either; toughen up is.
You don’t take care of your boat; she lets you down.
You don’t like punishment; think and don’t make mistakes.
You don’t read the winds, currents, and tides correctly; you pay for it.
You are reckless; you pay double.
You grow over-confident; you pay thrice.
You try to control the sea; you’re a fool.
It is as simple as that.

The sea shows us the essence of life, clear as crystal, as obviously as the blue sky lights up after the early-morning fog.

The sea ignores crying, moaning, nagging, whining, bitching, boasting, and con-artists equally. It demands honesty, adaptation, skill, patience, and humility, loads of it.

By the same token, once you realize in your mind and heart that you are but a little ripple in the immense ocean, just one amongst numerous, and act as such, the sea rewards you handsomely with a generous portion of tranquillity in your mind and contentment in your heart.

Then, and only then, will you be able to see the storm in the eye with no fears, to have the courage of facing yourself with no qualms; and to raise your head and smile to the thousands of stars far above and beyond.

And so, once more, I weigh anchor,
And to the sea, I fare.
“All I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume,
and the sea-gulls crying.”*

* John Masefield in “Sea Fever.

Changing the World with Knowledge and Kindness

Every little drop of rain contributes to filling the beck that runs to the river that flows into the ocean. As every little piece of knowledge, you acquire, adds to improving your mindfulness, sustaining your kindness and bringing you contentment.

Knowledge, we procure by diligently, open-mindedly, unbiasedly, and critically studying, observing, listening, feeling and living. Insight is the immediate outcome of accumulated knowledge, and contentment its ultimate.

Kindness is a state of mind, an attitude toward the world, your compass on your route to reaping the benefits of knowledge. It’s an underlying quality you need to master to profit from the knowledge and insight you gain. Without it, all knowledge is to no avail, and all your best efforts will seem disjointed.

We bring you “knowledge to everyone… everywhere.” You practice it with “kindness to everyone… everywhere.” Thus, we are changing the world with knowledge and kindness—a tiny drop at the time, filling the beck that runs to the river that flows into the ocean.

The impressive global coverage of Ethology Institute’s “knowledge to everyone… everywhere” program (from Google Analytics, March 21, 2017).

Wherever you are, be it day or night, sunny or rainy— students, tutors, admin team, and supporters—please, accept my sincere gratitude for your contribution.

Featured image: Every little drop of rain contributes to filling the beck that runs to the river that flows into the ocean.

Do Animals Have Feelings?

Do Animals Have Feelings?

Do Animals Have Feelings? Attributing human characteristics to non-human 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 entirely different emotions in distinct cultures.

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

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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The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

AtlanticPuffin-

Yes and no are two very short words and, yet, they convey the most important information many living beings receive. On one level, this information regulates their organic and cellular functions, on another, their behavior, and ultimately, their survival. If I say these words don’t require any explanation, everyone would probably agree—and yet we’d be wrong. Did you know that in some languages yes and nodon’t exist?

In my book “Psychology Rather Than Power,” written in 1984, I define ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in dog training, for the first time. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you’re doing now” and ‘no’ means “stop what you’re doing now.” I explain how to teach our dogs these signals, and I emphasize that ‘no’ is not an inhibitor (earlier called a punisher) and that it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior.

As the years passed, I reviewed, improved and refined all definitions, especially the ways to teach dogs these signals. In 1994, I wrote the first draught of SMAF, which provided the opportunity to analyze signals and teaching methods (POA=plans of action) with increased precision. The definitions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ remained the same, but we could now clearly distinguish between the two entirely different ways in which dog owners and trainers used the sound ‘no.’ One was a signal as I describe; the other was an inhibitor. The inhibitor ‘no’ was pronounced more harshly than the signal ‘no’ but was fundamentally the same sound. Transcribing it into SMAF, we had no doubt that they were two different stimuli. The signal is No(stop what you doing right now),sound(no) and the inhibitor is [!+sound](no).

Using an inhibitor as a signal to encourage the dog to do something is never a good idea as the function of an inhibitor is to decrease the frequency, intensity or duration of a particular behavior. Conversely, the function of a signal is to produce a behavior which we increase in frequency, intensity or duration by reinforcing. Therefore, to strengthen the effectiveness of No,sound (the signal), we had to explain to owners and trainers very carefully that they should never use ‘no’ as an inhibitor. Amazingly (or perhaps not), many dogs could distinguish between the two ‘no’s,’ but we didn’t want to risk them forming a respondent association between the sound ‘no’ and an aversive. We would use any other sound (word), e.g. ‘phooey’ (‘fy’ or ‘føj’ in the Scandinavian languages) as an inhibitor.

 

Why the word ‘no’?

The word ‘no’ seemed to me at the time, the best option to convey, “stop what you are doing right now.” After all, implicitly or explicitly, this is the way most of us use the word (when we have it in our language, that is). Of course, some people cannot say ‘no’ tactfully, but the fact that some people have bad manners doesn’t detract from the meaning or the value of the word itself.

ElephandAndBaby

All infants have an innate understanding of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Their bodies function on ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Their survival depends on it (Photo by Mike Robinson). 

The magic words ‘yes’ and ‘no‘

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are two words used for expressing affirmatives and negatives. The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are difficult to classify under one of the eight conventional parts of speech. They are not interjections (they do not express emotion or calls for attention). Linguists, sometimes, classify them as sentence words or grammatical particles.

Modern English has two words for affirmatives and negatives, but early-English had four words: yes, yea, no, and nay.

If you’re a native English speaker, you know what yes and no mean, and you have no problem using these words, from a linguistic point of view. You might have a problem using the word no from a psychological point of view, but that’s an entirely different story.

If you are a native English speaker and have never ventured into learning other languages, you probably believe there is no problem in answering any question with yes or no. After all, most things either are or are not, are either true or false, right? I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you by demonstrating that you are wrong.

Even though some languages have similar words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. For example, in Portuguese, Finnish and Welsh, you rarely reply to a question with yes and no. Portuguese: “Estás bem?” (Are you OK?) “Estou” (I am). Finnish: “Onko sinulla nälkä?” (Are you hungry?) “On” (I am). Welsh: “Ydy Ffred yn dod?” (Is Ffred coming?) “Ydy” (He is coming).

In Scandinavian languages, French and German (amongst others), you answer questions with yes and no. However, you have two different ways of saying yes depending on whether the question is an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question or an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question. In Danish and Swedish, you say (ja, jo, nej), in Norwegian (ja, jo, nei), in French (oui, si, non), and in German (ja, doch, nein).

So far so good, but if you venture into the Asian languages, it gets far more complicated. Some Asian languages don’t have words for yes and no. In Japanese, the words はい (hai) and いいえ (iie) do not imply yes and no, but agreement or disagreement with the statement of the question, i.e. “agree.” or “disagree.” はい can also mean “I understand what you’re saying.” The same in Thai: ใช่ (chai) and ไม่ใช่ (maichai) indicate “correct,” “not-correct.” In Thai, you can’t answer the question “คุณหิวข้าวไหม” (Are you hungry?) with “ใช่” (correct). It doesn’t make sense, for what is it that you are confirming to be correct? The right answers are “หิว” (hungry) or “ไม่หิว” (not hungry). In all Chinese dialects, yes-no questions assume the form “A or not-A” and you answer echoing one of the statements (A or not-A). In Mandarin, the closest equivalents to yes and no are 是 (shì) “be” and 不是 (búshì) “to not be.”

Latin has no single words for yes and no. The vocative case and adverbs do it, instead. The Romans used ita or ita vero (thus, indeed) for the affirmative, and for the negative, they used adverbs such as minime, (in the least degree). Another common way to answer questions in Latin was to repeat the verb like in Portuguese, Castellano and Catalan (e.g. est or non est). We can also use adverbs: ita (so), etiam (even so), sane quidem (indeed, indeed), certe (certainly), recte dicis (you say rightly) or nullo modo (by no means), minime (in the least degree), haud (not at all!), non quidem (indeed not).

In computer language, yes and no appear as a succession of “A or B” conditions. If condition A is true, then action X. A computer’s CPU only needs to recognize two states for us to instruct it to perform complicated operations: on or off, yes or no, oneor zero.

The theories of quantum computation suggest that every physical object, even the universe, is, in some sense, a quantum computer. The cosmos itself appears to be composed of yes and no. Professor Seth Lloyd writes: “[…] everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information—ones and zeros. […] Atoms and electrons are bits. Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer.”

The way computers use yes and no is the closest to our customary use of these terms. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you are doing right now.” ‘No’ means “stop what you are doing right now.” That is the implied meaning of yes and no in the majority of the sentences. “Are you hungry?” The answer “yes” would result in you getting food and “no” in the opposite. “Shall I turn right? ” followed by a ‘yes’ would make me continue with what I intended to do and if followed by a ‘no,’ would make me stop doing it. A ‘yes’ in response to “Did you buy rice, today?” would prompt me to continue doing whatever I might be doing and a ‘no’ would lead me to interrupt my errand to go and buy some rice. There are many other examples, but in general yes prompts or encourages a continuation, and no does the opposite. There is nothing particularly positive or negative in either. Both are valuable bits of information that we can transform into behavior to our benefit. Both save energy, the most precious resource for all living organisms.

 

Two peculiar aspects of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

As we have seen, some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ That is a cultural phenomenon. For example, in Japan and Thailand, it is bad manners to be direct. Japanese and Thai people consider ambiguity to be a beautiful aspect of their language. The objective in courtesy is to convey the true meaning between the lines. The way one delivers a message should be as unclear as possible, especially when criticizing someone or rejecting an invitation. This linguistic feature is probably related to the sense of self-respect and honor so pronounced in both cultures, i.e. one doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings or lose face.

For example, I can’t say to a Thai employee that arrives late to work, “Arriving late is not acceptable. Please, rectify this in the future.” If I do, I won’t have an employee coming to work at all the next day or maybe ever again. I’d have to say, “If we had employees that arrived late, we would have to ask them to come at the right time, don’t you think?” That would have the desired effect. If you invite a Japanese to an event that he or she is not the least interested in, they will answer “I want to come, but unfortunately, it is impossible on that day.” That would suffice for me to understand that they are not interested without making me lose face. Suggesting another day (and missing the point) is considered impolite.

Thais use ครับ (khrap, by men), ค่ะ (kha, by women) and the Japanese use はい (hai) to show that they are listening to you because it is impolite for them to let you talk for any length of time without their acknowledgment. However, it does not mean they agree with what you are saying, they will comply, or that they even understand you.

Regarding animal training, a signal is “everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver.” A command is “a signal that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only minor variations.” The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are probably the closest we come to commands. ‘Yes’ means continue and ‘no’ means stop and, as to most behaviors, there are few possible variations in continuing or stopping, if any).

 

Is ‘no’ a bad word?

‘No’ is not a bad word. On the contrary, it is a very useful word. It conveys information in a precise and efficient way. To get ‘no’ as an answer is as important as getting a ‘yes.’ Both save us energy and lead us to our goal. Personally, I like the words yes and no equally, and I wished people would learn to use them properly and more often.

The other day, I went into a store at a busy hour, and I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait. I said to one employee: “Excuse me, I have a question that you can answer quickly with a yes or no. Do you have a Time Capsule 2TB?”

“I have one, but it’s reserved for a customer,” he answered.
“What does that mean? Is he coming to pick it up or not?” I asked again.
“Yes, he is.” He answered.
“Well, then that’s a no, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.

Why couldn’t he just have said no the first time? It would have saved us all time: me, the other customers in the line, and not least himself.

Another example:

United Airlines desk at the gate boarding to ORD: I approach and ask: “Do you have an empty seat on this flight?”
The United operator answers me: “That depends on your ticket, sir.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I reply, “whether or not you have empty seats does not depend on my ticket, It depends on whether all the seats will have butts on or not.”
A colleague of hers smiles and checks it. “Sorry, sir, this flight is fully booked. I have one seat on the next flight, but… it’s business class.”
“No ‘but.’ You can put a comma or an ‘and’ in there,” I say. It blows my mind. A seat is a seat, and that’s what I requested. A seat is not less of a seat because it is a business class seat.
“Excuse me, sir?” she replies with a smile, plainly not understanding my comment based on linguistics/logic.
“Never mind. Here’s my frequent flyer card. I have an e-ticket for the 7.13 pm flight. Please, upgrade it with my miles. Thank you.” I say smilingly, in an attempt to reinforce her behavior for having been able to think clearly (yes/no) for two seconds and for checking the availability on the next flight.
“Yes, sir.” Finally a short and precise answer!

Why couldn’t they have answered first ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ until they got the next bit of information if I had any to give them? It would have saved me (and them) time and energy. If the lack of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Asian languages is frustrating for the Western communicator, the refusal to use them, or their incorrect usage in languages where they exist and are well defined, is exasperating.

 

Why don’t some people like the word ‘no’?

Cultural differences apart, some people don’t like the word ‘no’ for the same reason that some dogs don’t like it: they associate ‘no’ with aversives. Parents are just as bad as dog owners in distinguishing between signals and inhibitors, and they make identical mistakes, which will later create problems to their children.

Of course, parents have to yell ‘no’ if the toddler is about to stick his fingers in the wall outlet (plug socket). There’s nothing wrong with that. What is incorrect, and creates the aversive respondent association with ‘no’, is the constant repetition without a reinforcer when the behavior stops. The toddler only learns that, sometimes, parents go berserk, and she has no idea why or how to avoid it. The toddler becomes so sensitive to the word ‘no’ that later, like many others, he or she would rather live with regret than to risk hearing a ‘no.’ This conditioning can also happen subsequently, in adult life, to which abusive parents, enraged spouses, and tyrannical bosses all contribute.

An elementary mistake, committed by both parents and dog owners, adds to the aversive connotation of ‘no.’ If we have to use inhibitors, we should never (ever) inhibit the individual, only the behavior. Inhibiting the individual may create traumas, a lack of self-confidence, the feeling of rejection, etc. Inhibiting the individual rather than the behavior can even produce aggressive behavior instead of decreasing the expected behavior.

The reason some people don’t like ‘no’ has nothing to do with the word or the message conveyed, but with the aversives to which it was (respondently) conditioned. Changing that goes beyond the scope of biology, animal behavior, and linguistics, and pertains to the realm of psychology.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘no’ and particularly not with the message it conveys. There is something wrong with abusive parents, enraged spouses, tyrannical bosses and ignorant people (all potentially abusive animal owners). To forbid the word ‘no’ or to replace it with another, e.g. ‘stop,’ does not resolve the problem. The only thing that does solve the problem is to educate people, to teach them to respect others independently of species, race, and sex.

EnglishSpringerSpanielOnTheTrail

English Springer Spaniel on the trail: ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are indispensable tools to direct the dog.

‘No’ in dog training

The signal ‘no’ is indispensable in dog training. I use it constantly when training detection dogs, rats, and Guinea pigs and the animals respond correctly with no emotional response at all. I give the signal ‘search’ using sound, the dog searches, I reinforce it. I give the dog the signal ‘no,’ the dog changes direction, I reinforce it. If the dog stops and looks at me, I give the signal ‘direction’ with a stretched arm toward the desired target, I give the signal ‘search’ employing sound, the dog searches and I reinforce it. If necessary, while the dog searches, I can signal ‘yes’ to encourage the dog to continue searching (‘yes’ functions here as a signal and a reinforcer, not an exception at all).

For those of you proficient in SMAF:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

PRS2. {No,sound => Dog changes direction => “!±sound”};

ALT2. {No,sound => Dog stops and looks at me => Direction,arm + Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

If necessary:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound” => Dog searches => Yes,sound}; /* Yes,sound also functioning as “!±sound */

In languages where there are no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ such as Thai, I use ใช่ (chai=correct) and หยุด (yut=stop) respectively for “continue what you are doing right now” and “stop what you are doing right now.” I don’t use ไม่ใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close to ใช่ (chai=correct).

Some trainers don’t allow their dog owners to say ‘no’ at all in their classes. That is an option, particularly if we have a class full of badly-mannered dog owners, but if our class consists of average, well-mannered owners, I cannot see any reason to do so. If they are not well-mannered, maybe they should learn to be so before beginning training their dogs; and perhaps, by training them to be polite to their dogs, we could even make a change for the better in their lives in general by teaching them good manners toward their fellow humans as well.

Forbidding the signal ‘no’ in dog training is a grave mistake (and misunderstanding) in my opinion. Firstly, it is one of the two most critical signals in life. Secondly, we all need a quick, efficient signal to stop a behavior which might be fatal for someone we care about (human or animal). Thirdly, it would be an untenable waste of time and energy if we had to resort to diverting maneuvers every time someone (our dogs included) did something undesirable.

Substituting the signal ‘no’ with other sounds (words) such as ‘stop,’ or ‘off’ doesn’t solve the problem. It only transfers the conditioning to those new words. The problem is that some people just can’t speak nicely to anyone. Most dog owners yell their dog’s name, and they yell ‘come.’ What are we going to do about that? Forbid them to use their dog’s name and the word ‘come’? What’s the next thing we are going to forbid them? Rather than banning words, it seems to me a much better option to teach them to communicate properly. We need to explain to them that the words they use, the way they use them, are not signals but inhibitors and, by definition, they will not achieve the desired result. Quite the contrary, they will get an undesired outcome. We need to show them how appropriate signals produce appropriate behaviors.

Bottom-line: The fact that some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that Latin uses quantifiers instead, suggests there are cognitive as well as emotional elements connected to the meaning of both words. Maybe the logical human brainlikes the precision and simplicity implied in ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but the emotional human brain doesn’t. The universe and computers have no queries with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ perhaps because they are not emotional. Maybe ‘yes’ and ‘no’ appeared in some languages at a stage when action became more decisive than emotion. We don’t know. I haven’t been able to clarify any of these questions. Nevertheless, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ convey important bits of information in a succinct and precise way. In the languages, which contain them, we can use them correctly for our benefit.

Enjoy and don’t feel guilty because you are well-mannered and know how to say no.

References

Featured image: ‘Yes” and ‘no’ are the two single most important signals in the universe. Photo: Atlantic puffins, Vesterålen, by Billy Idle.

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Featured Price: € 396.00 € 198.00

 

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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A Dog’s Self-Respect

petrinebirdretrievebw

Did she cheat me? Did she manipulate me? Was it a proof that my English Cocker Spaniel had a sense of self-respect, that dogs behave intelligently?

It happened long ago, but I still think about it, trying to find a plausible and scientifically correct explanation. My dogs have always been fun dogs, independent and skillful, but manipulative and naughty at the same time. It’s my fault. I’ve brought them up to be that way. I trained them because at the time (the beginning of the 1980s) I was keen on demonstrating that there were other ways of training dogs than the traditional, mostly compulsory and often forceful methods of the old school. Since I believed (and still do) that the best way to have someone change is not by forcing, persuading or convincing, but rather by showing attractive results, I trained my dogs to help me in this quest, and none more than Petrine, my female, red English Cocker Spaniel did so.

At the time, there was a very popular dog training series on TV called “No Bad Dogs the Woodhouse Way” with the unforgettable Barbara Woodhouse. Those of a certain age will chuckle nostalgically when they hear inimitable “walkies.” Mrs. Woodhouse, born in 1910, was a charming, efficient lady who loved animals. She was not mean; it was just her methods that were forceful to say the least. Does this sound familiar? History repeats itself, as we well know!

Instead of attacking her and her methods personally, or trying to argue for ways I thought were better, I found a more convenient strategy: to channel the interest in dog training that Mrs. Woodhouse generated and present my own way as an alternative. Of course, I had to show results. I had to be able to teach the dogs the same Mrs. Woodhouse so efficiently taught them. If I was successful, and my methods were not only as efficient but more attractive, they would win the public’s favor. If I couldn’t achieve the same results as her, my way would not win. I went for it, confident that I could make dogs as “obedient” as Mrs. Woodhouse did, but using my own methods. To allow for an obvious comparison, I even used the terminology of the time, which I later felt entitled to change when my first book came out in 1984: from there on a “command” became a “signal,” “obedience” became “cooperation,” and “praise” became a “reinforcer.”

So, Petrine and I did a lot of “obedience” training, even if we weren’t too keen on the fastidiousness of the process. We trained using motivation, treats, facial expressions as reinforcers, the word “dygtig,” later to be called a semi-conditioned verbal reinforcer, and sometimes a whistle as a conditioned positive reinforcer (the precursor of the clicker); and together we won several obedience competitions.

At the time, you didn’t see many Cockers competing, and our victories did help to prove my point, but our achievements weren’t exactly a big surprise. They were more like appetizers. What really did it was when we won a hunting-dog competition. That caused quite some stir in the dog-training community of that time because we beat all the smart, green clad hunters with their pointers and the like. At the time, it was unthinkable that an English Cocker Spaniel (not only red, but female too!) and a longhaired, bearded, young fellow (in worn-out Levi’s and clogs just to top it off) could beat the establishment. Well, we did! That day of fame and infamy set me on a career path I could never have imagined. Training in a new way, the “psychology rather than power” way rather than the Woodhouse way, we made it into newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, and to be on TV was a big thing at the time. Inevitably, we were heroes for some and villains for others, but my message had been conveyed as the first edition of my first book, entitled (of course) “Psychology Rather Than Power,” which showed a completely different way of training dogs based on ethology and the scientific principles of animal learning, sold out in three months. It was a victory for psychology rather than power in more than one way, as it also proved my point that showing results works better than arguing, persuading, convincing or forcing.

Petrine was indeed an amazing dog. She taught me most of the important things I know about dogs, but she also taught me about life, respect and affection. As I said before, I trained her because it was necessary, but I must confess that I never liked the training as much as the interaction. Training was definitely secondary to having a good relationship. Therefore, I always encouraged and reinforced any behavior that showed initiative, independence, and her resolving problems her own way. This was (and is) my philosophy of education for any species. I think of my job as an educator as like being a travel guide, providing my students with opportunities to develop, to learn how to deal with their environment, to stand out from the crowd and not be just a self-denigrating face, but to make of themselves whatever they choose. If my dogs found ways to circumvent the rules and succeeded (that is what I call good canine argumentation and reasoning), I would reinforce that even at my own cost. In other words: I have always reinforced sound argumentation and conclusions consistent with their premises, even though they might have gone against my wishes and, as the good sportsman, my father educated me to be, when a better opponent on a better day beats me, I accept defeat gracefully. I applied the same philosophy to the education of my son.

When Daniel was little, we traveled a lot together. I always thought traveling, experiencing other ways of thinking and having other stances on life were good antidotes to narrow-mindedness and all that comes with it. On one occasion, we arrived at a guesthouse after a long journey and Daniel, by then about 9 or 10 years old and already an experienced traveler, quickly assessed the situation.

“OK, we have only one little bed,” he said.

“Yes, so I see,” I replied, whilst removing my heavy backpack, trying not to lose the car keys or spill our cokes.

“I have 50% of your genes, and when I have kids, they’ll have 25% of your genes, right?” he asked rhetorically.

“For sure,” I said, amazed at what a kid could learn just by accompanying his daddy to talks and seminars whilst quietly drawing pictures at the back of the room.

“So if you want me to pass 25% of your silly genes to my kids, you have to take good care of me, right?” again a rhetorical question.

“Yes, absolutely,” I answered.

“OK, so I take the bed, and you sleep on the floor,” he concluded.

I slept on the floor.

Petrine, the red, female English Cocker Spaniel was indeed one of a kind. I remember one day I had decided to invite guests for dinner and prepared a roast beef to serve them. It was no mean feat considering my extremely limited culinary skills. I was in the living room surveying the table when I glanced towards the kitchen, and my eyes registered a sight that caused instant paralysis of every muscle in my body, including my jaw, which gaped open as I recollect.

Next to the kitchen table, where I had placed the fruit of my hard labor, the once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece, my roast beef, stood Petrine. That in itself is not reason enough to make me stop breathing and incite a serious and irreversible heart-attack you may think, and you’re right, but add to that Petrine holding my roast beef in her mouth and I think you will begin to understand the cause of my instant, full body paralysis. For a moment that seemed interminable, we stood there looking at one another, me, drop-jawed and paralyzed from head to toe, and Petrine with her deep brown eyes staring at me intensely, roast beef in mouth.

If I was paralyzed, Petrine certainly was not. She began to walk towards me with a swift, self-confident, elegant pace, not once averting her gaze from mine. I merely stared in disbelief at her approach with the roast beef. Without stopping, she trotted around me in a perfectly calculated circle and sat right next to my left leg, lifting her head and the roast beef towards me, her eyes still fixed on mine.

I think I took longer to react than I normally would on this type of occasion, but I managed to bend down, take hold of the dummy (read roast-beef) and give the signal “Tak” (read release). I know I managed it because I remember trying to wipe away Petrine’s teeth marks from the roast beef and placing it on a plate on the table ready to serve to my guests. I also remember that, even though my paralysis had only been momentary, my brain was still not fully functioning, as the next I heard was a barely perceptible whine from Petrine. I looked down to find her gazing up at me, wagging her tail and all lower body as cockers do. She was right, and it was good of her to remind me. I was failing in my duties. “Free,” I said, and, as swiftly, as elegantly and as self-confidently as she had brought the roast beef to me, she went off to perform some other of her daily chores. It had all been just another episode among the many life presents us with. No more, no less— or so it seemed to her.

It was only once the guests had gone, the kitchen tidy and Daniel in bed that, sitting on my porch and enjoying a well-deserved glass of Portuguese “vinho verde,” I cast my mind back to the Petrine episode. What had been going on?

As I told you, my philosophy of education encourages determination and reasoning, and Petrine was good at that. She realized that she had been caught in the act. She had several options: one, to drop the roast beef and show submissive behavior (active and/or passive), which would have been accompanied by a “Phooey” from me, an ugly face and a very assertive tone of voice; two, to scoff as much of the roast beef as she could before I caught her, which wouldn’t have taken long considering I was no more than 6 meters (20 feet) away; three, to run with the roast beef, which she could have done, but I would inevitably have caught up with her. And, of course, she also had the option that she chose, which is not one I would have thought of myself. Why did she choose that option? All things considered, I believe it was the best option open to her, but what went through her head when she chose to do so, I would pay a handsome fee to know for sure.

None of my (attempted) scientific explanations succeeds in convincing me fully. Having been caught would produce the “phooey” and ugly face, she knew perfectly well. Being the self-confident individual she was, I have no doubt she hated any “phooey.” That I could see clearly from her expression on the few occasions, I had had to use it. She had been brought up to think for herself, to be imaginative and creative, and to believe in herself, not to be a pitiful dog waiting for her master’s voice before daring to blink.

If Petrine had rejected “phooey” as an unacceptable means of solving the conundrum, the only way to come out of it without losing face was to do what she did. She actually controlled the situation. If it is true that I could trigger her retrieving behavior (and that, combined with searching, was our best game in the whole wide world), by just assuming any position remotely resembling the game, so too could she trigger my behavior, my part in the game. That, she did indeed. She showed me a perfect retrieve, and put me in my role in the game. “Your line, now,” she said to me, clearly and emphatically without even the need of words. Like an experienced actor playing a Shakespearian part, I reacted promptly to my cue.

If a behavior repeated often with fairly predictable consequences creates moods (Pavlovian conditioning) in all of us, independently of species, which seems to be the case, I have no doubt that she associated the retrieve game with the most pleasure she could have in life. When in trouble, we have a tendency to perform behaviors that previously have brought us success, pleasure. This is a reassuring procedure, the basis even for stereotyped behaviors according to some. It is an organism’s attempt to re-establish emotional (neurophysiologic) homeostasis. If this is the case, Petrine’s solution was a good one, an intelligent one (as we would say of ourselves) and entirely compatible with our body of knowledge. It may seem improbable at first, but it becomes more reasonable the more we think about it.

Some of you will still think I am anthropomorphizing, and you have every right to do so. Pre-Petrine era, I would have thought the same. I would never have conceived of such an explanation. However, post-Petrine, a little dog that helped me discover many facets of life on Earth, I’m no longer so sure of the boundaries of anthropomorphism. Are intelligence, reasoning and self-respect only human features? In my opinion, as an evolutionary biologist, it is unlikely. Maybe language is misleading us once again. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” After all, why should “we” be so radically different from “them”?

Whilst I wouldn’t dare to rely on the unobservable self-respect on a scientific study, I wouldn’t dare either not to rely on it at a personal level on any one-on-one relationship independently of species involved. Unobservable and un-measurable, it may be, yet it remains for me a solid guideline reminding me that I am but one among many.

Life is great!

Featured image: Petrine, the English Cocker Spaniel, compelled me to ask: are intelligence, reasoning and self-respect only human features?

Odie The Pekinese: Awaiting On Death Row

SadPekingese

Odie came to me on an odd day, one of those rainy, grey days, when the only thing you want to do is stay at home, listen to good music, watch the fire roaring in the fireplace, hold a hot cup of punch in your hands and feel sorry for yourself. Odie, an ugly duckling of a Pekinese, was awaiting his turn on death row. A twist of fate meant Odie survived his death sentence and, one year later, he had turned into a beautiful wolf.

I was sitting in my office at my desk, gazing absent-mindedly at a blank piece of paper lodged in my typewriter, which, unfortunately, had been stuck there for far too long. I was suddenly wrenched from my thoughts when our vet knocked at the door. “Have you got a minute? ” she asked. I debated saying “No,” but overcame the temptation. She came in, accompanied by Odie’s owners, and explained the situation. Odie’s owners wanted to euthanize him because they were sick of a particularly annoying behavior of his. He urinated all over the house and, when one day they found him cocking his leg up the impeccable flower arrangement they had proudly positioned in the middle of their much cherished, antique mahogany dining table, that was the last straw.

“Right on top of the table?” I asked them and they nodded solemnly.

I glanced down at Odie with newfound respect for it was no mean feat for an eight-inch (20 cm) tall Pekinese to climb on top of a dining table in order to accomplish a vital mission. So I asked them if I could keep the dog instead of them euthanizing him. I would try to solve his problem and find a good home for him. They were overjoyed at my proposal and I thus found myself being the improbable owner of a Pekinese for the first, and no doubt, last time in my life.

I was on a very tight deadline to write an article. After giving Odie a quick once over, I turned back to my typewriter and the embarrassingly blank sheet of paper. I remember thinking “Gee, you’re a really ugly little fellow, I understand why they wanted to get rid of you.” Odie grunted once in return. I think he could take a bit of humor. I would take care of Odie later. My first priority was to fill that all too white sheet of paper with some wise words.

Once deeply submerged in writing my article (or not writing it as the case may be), it was then I heard an almost imperceptible sound that took a couple of seconds to register and identify. I spun round to the source of the sound and, to my astonishment, my suspicion was confirmed. Odie was peeing on my books on my bookshelf.

I am a peaceful person and it takes a lot to upset me. Being a child of the sixties, I accept everyone and almost everything; all is good as long as it doesn’t restrict my freedom. However, one thing I must confess I can’t take is having someone peeing on my beloved books. I don’t discriminate: nobody urinates on my books, period! My reaction was therefore pure reflex. I reached for the first thing I had at hand, ironically enough it was my first book about dog training and behavior “Psychology Rather Than Force” and, before I knew it, I had thrown it at Odie.

The book, a good quality hardback, landed with a smack right behind Odie. Taken by surprise, he yelped, performed a beautiful pirouette in the air and stood there looking baffled and bewildered, staring at my book. For my part, I remained quiet as a mouse, holding my breath. After a few seconds, Odie managed to compose himself. He approached the book, sniffed at it in a noisy, Pekinese manner, then took a sniff at the bookshelf before returning to my book on the floor and giving it another long, even noisier sniff. Smacking his lips, he decided to lie down right next to the book. I returned to my tauntingly clean sheet of paper whilst keeping one eye on Odie.

Odie fell asleep, or so it seemed, and I finally began filling the blank sheet of paper with some meaningful words. A little later, whilst searching for something on my desk, I happened to knock a pencil over the edge and it fell on the floor between the desk and that bookshelf, a source of so much knowledge and inspiration. Odie opened his big, bulging eyes, one looking right and the other looking left, and approached the pencil. I couldn’t see him or the pencil but could hear him clearly, grunting, snuffling, puffing and panting. A few seconds later, maybe 15, he came around the desk directly towards me. He was holding the pencil in his mouth, each eye still looking in a different direction, one as wet as the other, dribble all over his face, with his head covered in balls of dust and fluff reminding me that my office needed a good hoovering.

I stretched out my hand to him and automatically said “tak” (which means “thanks” in the Scandinavian languages and was my sound signal for “release”). Odie, with a grunt, promptly dropped the slimy pencil into my hand. I was impressed. Was that a “retrieval”? Did he really retrieve that pencil for me?

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Odie became very popular. His odd looks combined with his skills were an improbable combination in most people’s eyes.

I was so baffled and curious that I proceeded to do something that fellow pencil lovers regard as the ultimate sin towards pencils. You never drop a pencil as it is highly likely you’ll break the lead inside, rendering it useless once sharpened a couple of times. I tossed the pencil so it fell in the same place between my desk and the bookshelf; and once again, Odie ran (I think he was running, but don’t know for sure as I couldn’t see his short legs for all the fur), he grunted, snuffled, puffed and panted, rubbing one eye then the other along the floor in an effort to pick up the pencil and, in doing so, collected even more dust fluff. He wouldn’t give up, finally managed to take the pencil in his mouth and promptly returned it to me just as he had done before.

“Hallelujah!” I exclaimed despite my lack of religious conviction, “We have a retriever!” Joy filled my heart. The misery and self-pity the dull, grey day had imposed upon me ever since I had got out of bed that morning were gone like magic. Of all the activities I have undertaken with dogs, the one that has most amused me, and my dogs too it would seem, is without a shadow of doubt search and retrieve.

Odie never again urinated indoors, a fact we have discussed at some length. We are convinced it was the book incident that did it, due to the optimal coincidence of a series of conditions. Firstly, he was caught in the act (perfect timing), secondly, he did not associate the book falling behind him with me (instead with his own behavior), thirdly, the smack of the book falling on the floor had the right intensity to startle him (not too much, not too little), and fourthly, he associated the book aversive with his urinating behavior and nothing else (it happened when he urinated, it stopped when he stopped). No bad feelings towards books and (of course) no bad feelings from books towards him. Of course, the moral of this story is not that you should throw books at your dog. Let me say this loudly and clearly so no one gets it wrong: I do not recommend people throw books at their dogs. It worked in this case because of the coincidence of the many necessary conditions for it to work (as I explained) and that’s it.

I kept Odie and we all trained him. Sit, stand and, down were no problem at all, only difficult to observe for all the fur and short legs. We used treats as unconditioned reinforcers and my “dygtig” (as a semi-conditioned reinforcer), but he would do anything as long as we held a pencil in our hands (this was his reinforcer of choice). He would take the treats only because he was hungry. We put him on a program where he had to work for all his food and he worked a lot: no free food at all. Odie became very popular. His odd looks combined with his skills were an improbable combination in most people’s eyes. The staff at the Ethology Institute sometimes asked if they could take him home to show visiting friends. Odie never disappointed.

At the time, I was living in one of those enormous, old European mansions, like small castles, with three floors and endless of rooms. One particularly cold winter when the fields were covered by snow and ice, our cellar (basement) became a refuge for mice. This is very normal and we all know how to deal with the problem, except that I thought at the time it was more dignified for a mouse to die in battle than to be trapped or poisoned. Therefore, I introduced a hunting session every night at 8 pm after having read my son Daniel his bedtime story.

The nightly hunting session began with the troops, Petrine, Elanor (English Cocker Spaniels) and myself, assembling at the door to the cellar. Petrine and Elanor were skilled hunters so this was a good opportunity to stimulate them. Every evening we enacted the age-old game of predator and prey in the cellar of that big, old mansion house. Odie was always very keen to join us on our mission and, one evening, I decided to let him give it a go. Odie experienced his first hunt.

Odie quickly learned the rules of the game, although learn is perhaps the wrong term as it looked like he had always known and just had to be reminded. The first time, he went under a couch to chase a mouse, he took a long time. All I could hear was his usual grunting, snuffling, puffing, panting and the occasional high-pitched squeak from a mouse. I guess the mice were terrified of Odie’s looks combined with the spluttering, snorting and grunting. He came to me carrying his first mouse by a hind leg, the mouse completely stiff and wet, but very much alive. Odie became an efficient mouse hunter. He was quick and could squeeze into confined spaces for which the cockers were too big. Every evening, he was the first to reach our rendezvous point. He was there from around seven onwards, waiting patiently. He insisted on being the first to reach the bottom of the stairs to the cellar which was quite a spectacle for the steps were too steep for his all too short legs. He somehow managed to overtake the cockers on the way down, not running, but tumbling down amidst a cloud of dust and much snorting and grunting. The cockers just looked at him bemused. Up until then, our mission had been a well-planned military operation. Stealth, discipline, training, dedication and precise timing were our weapons. After Odie joined us, it all looked more like Asterix and Obelix against the Romans.

The days passed, one year passed, and Odie grew older and more experienced. I bet he could have won all kinds of competitions, but we never subjected him to that. By then he had become a great hunter, only limited by his physical characteristics, the ones us humans have bestowed upon him through selective breeding.

It was bound to happen sooner or later: one day someone came along that wanted to keep Odie. It was love at first sight when they saw his antics. When they asked me about his original problem, I couldn’t even remember what it was. I had completely forgotten, as had we all. After that first “attack” by my book, he had never again urinated indoors. Odie found a good home, one year after he had entered our lives.

I was sad to see him go. We all were. We often spoke fondly of him and made each other laugh by telling Odie stories. Odie had taught us invaluable lessons. First, that we should never judge anyone by their appearance. He was a little dog, short-legged, furry, flat-faced and cross-eyed, but he was a dog at heart like any other. None of us thought he was ugly, despite my initial horror. He was further evidence that many dogs develop problems because they are not treated as dogs; they are understimulated and their excess energy causes them to engage in any kind of activity, be it desirable or undesirable for the owners. He was a quick learner and an impeccable hunter with an enormous joy for life. Without words, he told us: “Respect and you shall be respected. I’m not a toy, not a thing, not a little human. I’m Odie, a Pekinese dog.”

14 years later, I went to give a talk in a town about 50 km from where I lived. During the break, a couple approached me and asked me if I remembered them. It took me a while, but I did recognize them. They were the new owners we had found for Odie. He was still alive, they informed me, but very old and tired by then. He no longer had any front teeth, as his love for retrieving hard objects had not waned over the years. They said they were getting ready for the day they would have to say goodbye to Odie and I saw their eyes well up.

Thinking of him, my eyes welled up too, Odie, the ugly duckling of a Pekinese that had turned into a beautiful wolf in my eyes and in the eyes of all those who had the privilege to know him. Thanks, Odie, my friend!

___________________________

PS—I know that metamorphosis does not occur in canids and that a dog cannot turn into a wolf. I also know that a dog is a dog (Canis lupus familiaris) and not a wolf (Canis lupus lupus). Since this is a story with a point written for a blog, not a scientific article, I allow myself some artistic license when I write “Odie turned into a beautiful wolf.”

Featured image: Odie, an ugly duckling of a Pekinese, was awaiting his turn on death row. A twist of fate meant Odie survived his death sentence and, one year later, he had turned into a beautiful wolf (Photo by Nikolaj).

Featured Course of the Week

Canine Scent Detection Canine Scent Detection is the same course that Roger Abrantes gives to law enforcement officers, from the acquisition of indication behavior (alert) and target scent to the indication of a hidden scent target. One-on-one tutor support.

Featured Price: € 396.00 € 198.00

 

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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Animal Training — I Didn’t Fail, I Discovered 34 Ways That Don’t Work!

RogerHorseStand2

“I didn’t fail. I discovered 34 ways that don’t work to trailer the horse!” I told them. But allow me to start from the begnning.

Success and failure are relative measures. Success boosts one’s self-confidence and improves subsequent performances. However, failure toughens one up and increases persistence in the face of future mishaps.

To go from one success story to the next feels good, but may give one a false sense of comfort. On the other hand, moving from one failure to the next isn’t any good to one’s morale. So what’s the best? I will tell you a short story.

Once, when I was young and never said no to a new challenge, I accepted a job of trailering a horse. Horse trailering was at one time the number one problem reported by horse owners, much like the home alone problem is for dog owners and inappropriate urination and defecation for cat owners.

Trailering a horse, or not being able to do so, can be a considerable problem. If it happens when you’re at home, it’s annoying you can’t move the horse, but that’s what it is. When you’re out with your horse, 300 miles away, and you can’t take your horse home, then you got a real problem.

These horse owners had the horse 200 miles from home. They went out for some kind of equestrian event, and when it was time to drive back home, the horse refused to get into the trailer. Try as they might, they couldn’t get the horse into the trailer. Finally, they gave up, left the horse in a stall, and drove home. That’s when I came in. They called me offering me all I wanted if I just could get their horse home. After hearing how many horsemen and how they had tried to solve the problem, I should have refused. As I said, I was young and thrived on challenges.

I drove up to the farm where the horse was. We let if free in a small arena, drove a trailer in, and I sat on the fence just watching the animal. It was a beautiful quarter horse mix, a mare, about four years old. The owner told me the story of the horse: no problems except trailering. They succeeded in one of maybe 20 tries, but only after much hassle, and it was getting worse.

I will spare you for all the different methods (if you can call them such) they have used while trying to solve the problem—a long list of force and abuse that have nothing to do with horse training, just reflecting human frustration and thoughtlessness. Don’t get me wrong: the owners were not bad people. They were friendly and educated. They had just been poorly advised.

Some dog people, these days, get their blood pressure up from hearing a faint whine from a dog, and they fight bitterly over which collarsare right and which ones are so totally wrong. Well, visit the horse world from time to time, and I promise you you’d begin focussing on what is essential and would not even give a thought to minor deviations. Except for a few (and marginalized) brave horseman and women attempting to show that there are other equally (or more) efficient ways to handle a horse than sheer force, I’m sorry to have to say it, but horse training is still a long narrative of abuse masked under the names of fancy techniques.

I stepped into the arena bare-handed, not even carrying the horseman’s tool number one, his rope. I liked the mare straight away. It’s with animals like with humans, some you have that feeling of liking instantly—and others, unfortunately not. I think she liked me too, if not right away, then maybe 10 minutes after we both just walked slowly around, each tending own business, pretending not to be bothered at all by the other. The owners left at some point having to run errands downtown, which I think suited us both (horse and me) perfectly well.

After a while, the horse came to me, and we stood for a moment just deeply inhaling and exhaling. This is a horse thing when they meet others. When in Roman, be a Roman. So, when I’m with a horse, I become as horsey as I can. It may look silly for some, but it works for me.

We walked around in the quiet arena for about two hours. We had a great time. The owners came back and asked me if I had had the horse in the trailer.

“No,” I answered shortly.

“Oh, we’re sorry you’ve failed and wasted your time,” they replied as offering their condolences.

“I didn’t waste my time. I didn’t fail. I discovered 34 ways that don’t work to trailer the horse.” I replied.

A few hours later, both the horse and I were in the trailer eating carrots and happily inhaling/exhaling one another. Not at one time did I use a rope or the halter, not once did I touch the horse. The first time we had body contact was when we had been in the trailer for a while and had eaten three-four carrots.

That day, I learned how to trailer a horse, not because I succeeded after four hours, but because I had found 34 ways that didn’t work. I thought I knew it before, but I didn’t. My early success had just lulled me into a false sense of security.

Success and failure are in our minds. It’s all a question of criterion and attitude.

Featured image: Roger Abrantes working with horse—Body language and movements are very important when communicating with any animal. Horses are particularly sensitive to motion and stance (photo from the EI files).

Featured Course of the Week

Canine Scent Detection Canine Scent Detection is the same course that Roger Abrantes gives to law enforcement officers, from the acquisition of indication behavior (alert) and target scent to the indication of a hidden scent target. One-on-one tutor support.

Featured Price: € 396.00 € 198.00

 

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.

ATMWCourse

The Perfect Relationship

Relationship Child Dog (ChildDogPuddle-600x326.png)

I’ve posted this clip before, and I’ll do it again. I can watch it repeatedly and never get tired of it. It’s just beautiful.

This is what we want: the perfect relationship. This is something to aim at, to uncover the secret of these two—child and dog—replicate it and promote it.

It’s so simple that it is shocking.

Please, watch this short clip with an open mind, preferably several times. We see what we think and feel, seldom what we are looking at. Forget all about politics, labels and all the artificial constructs with which our biased, adult human mind enslaves us, ruling us with an iron hand.

Just watch, enjoy, and allow it to inspire you.

Live as If You Were to Die Tomorrow—Learn as If You Were to Live Forever

Today, I’d like to dedicate my blog to our students—and to all students all over the world.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever,” as Mahatma Gandhi once said.

Gandhi might not have said it exactly this way, but the idea is the same. Rajmohan Gandhi (in “The good boatman: a portrait of Gandhi” from 1995) explains his grandfather’s view as “[…] a man should live thinking he might die tomorrow but learn as if he would live forever.” Incidentally, Rajmohan Gandhi is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with whom we have had an excellent student exchange at the beginning of the years 2000.

We find the same idea in “Etymologiae” by Isidore of Seville, who lived much earlier (560 – 436): “Study as if you were to live forever. Live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

A variation of the same message (in “Hadith”) is attributed to Muhammad: “Live for your afterlife as if you will die tomorrow, and live for this life as if you will live forever.”

Some researchers attribute this quote to Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536). “[…] live as if you are to die tomorrow, study as if you were to live forever.”

Our students have been wonderfully diligent. I’m glad to see the number of taken courses increasing daily. It shows that “knowledge to everyone everywhere” is indeed the way to go.

Keep up the good work. Don’t postpone learning, my friends, do it rather today than tomorrow, for even the littlest of matters you learn adds to our collective knowledge. It may seem to you, at times, like no more than a tiny little drop—but then, even the great oceans are made of many tiny little drops, aren’t they?

Featured image: Even the great oceans are made of many tiny little drops (photo by Nick Grabowski).