Monday, December 15, 2008

How to Manage Your Dog's Energy

Those of you who’ve listened to Kevin Behan’s radio interview heard him talk about the two types of energies operative in canine behavior: electricity and magnetism. Some of you may have also read the comments section of my last post, where I gave a response to Summer’s mommy about a problem she’s been having in getting her dog to do any off-lead heel without vocalizing. This post begins with part of that exchange:

How To Manage Your Dog’s Energy
Summer's Mommy: One question, sometimes she gets so riled up with the exercise that she wants to bite my left arm. I think it’s somewhat cute, but in competition that would lose me some points. Also she can get quite vocal (growling, short staccato barks) when she's in drive in the heel. Again, more areas where I can lose points. Do you have any suggestions on how to convert that drive that's being manifested into the biting/barking/growling and channel into just the act of heeling itself? I don't want to punish her or say no, but even as I praise her when she does it, she doesn't stop the behavior even with praise.

Here's my reply:

The biting is a result of a strong attraction (magnetism) while the vocalizing is an expression of nervous tension (electrical energy). She's also trying to "tell" you something. (What that is, I don't know.)

Remember, when she stayed with me I got to see her behavioral idiosyncrasies up close, and I said I thought that even though she's a bit tightly wound, she's also a very sensitive doggie. So it might also help to do more "chase me," "hup!" and "dance with me," and less hidden pops.

In other words, more magnetism, less electricity.


PS: Now that I think about it, the "chase me" will probably create more of a likelihood that she'll grip your arm while heeling, so while I might still do that, I would also probably give her some leash corrections whenever her teeth stray onto your arm. You have to be very fluid about it, and you can't pop her too hard; it should be just enough to damper the energy a little, but not hard enough to make her lose interest in chasing you.

Another way to work on this would be to do very short "chase me" sessions using a ball or tug toy as the focal point, and quickly end each go-through with a game of tug. Then gradually increase the length of the game, but then turn it into a "game" of off-lead "Heel!" And follow that with a ball throw or a game of tug, whichever she prefers. If she's still too bitey during the off-lead heel, go back to doing it on lead with the leash corrections to inhibit her from biting during the heel. The idea is to let her know that she can't bite while heeling, but that she'll get a big old payoff once she's finished.

I hope that helps!

Okay, so what do I mean exactly when I say more magnetism and less electricity? I’m essentially describing the difference between drive energy (i.e., desire/connectedness) and an overload of nervous tension (i.e., neediness/feeling disconnected).

The body of any animal has two basic energy systems. The nervous system (which includes the brain, the spinal cord, and all the neurons, axons, and dendrites), and the emotional system (limbic system, endocrine glands, sexual and sensory organs). Both types of energy are necessary. For instance, you can obtain a great deal of knowledge about a person’s internal organs through an MRI machine: a magnetic resonance imaging. But it doesn’t work unless you plug it into the wall first.

As I’ve been thinking over Jacinta’s and Sang’s problems with their dogs, Summer and Roxy (Sang complains that Roxy gets overstimulated, which basically means she’s got too much electrical energy running through her system), and it seems to me that there are four basic ways to use, manage, control, and modulate your dog’s natural energy.

First let’s talk about the differences between electrical (neediness) and magnetic (desire) energies.

We all have survival needs, and the survival instinct exists to ensure that we act to protect ourselves from danger, drink when we’re thirsty, eat when we’re hungry, etc., etc. Sometimes, however, we attach survival feelings to something unrelated to our actual survival needs. How many times do we tell ourselves that we “need” to get to work on time, or that we “need” a raise or a new car. Another example is the kid, like Ralphie in The Christmas Story, who thinks he’ll die if he doesn’t get the air rifle he wants for Christmas. When we attach neediness—survival energy—to non-essential things it screws us up, it puts stress on our bodies and actually makes us less efficient at getting what we really need. It also makes us feel unconnected from our co-workers, who—come on—aren’t going to kill us if we’re late to work, or our bosses, who are also not going to kill us. And it makes us feel like our parents “don’t understand” us when they say it won’t kill us if we don’t get what we want for Christmas.

But what do we say? “You don’t understand! If I don’t get it I’ll die!”

Yet, here we are. We’re all still alive.

On the other hand, when you have a strong desire for something—and I mean pure desire, without any neediness attached—you often feel a sense of steadiness and calm as if your desire has created a direct link to whatever it is you want so badly. You are connected.

Desire is governed by the sex instinct; never mind the actual, specific act of mating, the sex instinct governs the creative aspects of life, in all its forms. When you’re in a state of pure desire you almost know you’ll get what you want eventually. You have new, unexpectedly creative ideas on how to do things. And if you hold on to that feeling of desire—that fire in the belly—and if it’s strong enough, it will almost always bring some kind of positive results. It sets things in motion. This is what I mean when I say that desire has a kind of magnetic energy.

So electric energy runs your survival needs; it has a choppy feel, it makes you feel alone, disconnected, it’s chronological, meaning it makes you feel the pressure of time, and it also causes the bad kind of stress on the body. Magnetic energy is desire; it has a smooth rhythm to it, it makes you feel connected, it’s timeless, and creates mostly the good kind of stress.

I think this is a helpful model in learning how to manage your dog’s energy. And as I see it, there are four basic ways to do that.

The Four Ways to Handle Your Dog’s Energy

One: Give your dog a satisfying “ground wire” to offload excess energy.

Ground wires include tug-of-war, fetch, play sessions with other dogs, the “eyes” exercise, and even taking your dog on long walks in nature. (Believe it or not, trees and grass are natural ground wires for a dog’s energy.)

I’m trying to codify everything here, but a lot of what I “know” about this stuff is intuitive or comes from my subconscious mind. I’ll give you an example: The other night I had a session with a new client. They’ve got a pit bull named Latte who was found on the street, emaciated, over a year ago. She’s reportedly been a lovely girl since then, very affectionate indoors, very obedient and willing to learn, but she’s started exhibiting occasional leash aggression recently.

When I came in and sat on the sofa, Latte was unable to settle down. We tried giving her a bone or a ball, but nothing seemed to satisfy her, so while I was discussing options—describing the possible source of the dog’s behavioral problems, and she was still at it, trying to jump all over me—I put my fingers between her teeth, hoping to give her a chance to ground her energy by mouthing my hand. She pulled away, zipped around the room a little, then settled next to me on the couch again and kind of “sneaked” in close and started to nibble my fingers, hoping I wouldn’t notice. I let her do that. Five minutes later she was sound asleep.

I didn’t pay much attention to this; it happens a lot with the dogs I see. But in a subsequent conversation with her owner, she said she thought it was amazing that Latte had been so relaxed that she’d fallen asleep next to me on the couch. “She has never fallen asleep with someone new in the apartment. Ever!” That’s when I remembered what I had done with my fingers, and I realized that by doing that, I had, in essence, given the dog permission to use me as a ground wire, which enabled her to download some of her excess energy. And that’s why she fell asleep.

Two: Upgrade the dog’s “wiring/hardware.”

This will give your dog a better ability to handle his excess energy levels on his own. Instead of just plugging him into a ground wire (like a tug rag), this would be similar to replacing old corroded wiring with newer, stronger, thicker wires. It’s also analogous to removing emotional blocks. This is where the pushing exercise comes in handy. Also, certain training exercises where the dog has to change emotional gears quickly—things like the “off-lead heel” or the “down-while-running” and conflict training—would also fall into this category. They make the dog’s energy system more productive and less wasteful.

Finally, the fasting exercise, described in Kevin’s book, and what I call the Frankenstein exercise is also helpful at removing emotional blocks in the dog’s system and getting it to run smoother. Kevin has a couple of versions of the Frankenstein exercise, described on Neil Sattin's blog.

Three: Drain the battery/shut down the system.

This is where a crate comes in handy. Another thing that helps is not feeding into the dog’s nervousness. That’s part of what worked with Latte the other night. If I had reacted to her energy with any kind of “dominance” or fear, she would’ve had even more trouble settling down. If the dog has no excess energy from you to feed off she’ll be able to calm down much quicker.

Four: Provide a transformer.

This is where praising the dog to settle his nerves works wonders. When a dog has too much nervous energy and you praise him, this will often help him relax. I’ve described this in more detail (excruciating detail, some might argue) in my article on praise. But in terms of energy exchange it works like this: the dog is nervous (electric energy), praise makes him feel connected to you (magnetic energy)—you’ve transformed that excess buzzing of electrical energy—which eventually has to find a way to ground itself, come hell or high water—into smooth magnetism, which has more of a gentle, steady hum to it. Make sense?

Interrupting the flow of electricity by applying light shocks on the collar, a well-timed throw chain; all of these things have a tendency, when applied to an overly nervous dog to shift her focus from her choppy, disconnected, solo-mood-type behaviors to something more like a group-mood feeling. Again, you have to be very careful and not apply too much pressure or you’ll get the opposite result.

I’m still working out the various ways of describing this stuff. As I said, so much of what I do is so deeply ingrained into my subconscious mind that I rarely pay any attention to what I’m doing anymore. It happens naturally, like breathing. But I hope this helps you understand the basic premise of how Kevin’s model—of the dog as an energy system—works.

I look forward to hearing everyone’s feedback and ideas on this.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Conflict Training, 101

I got a request this week for help from a woman with three dogs: a Rottweiler, a female Malinois, and a beagle. The behavioral problem was that the Malinois had developed a fixation with eating the Rotti’s feces. I asked a number of questions about the past history, the type of training, exercise levels, etc., and there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary that could be causing this behavior. My suspicion was (and is) that the dog’s prey drive wasn’t getting enough of a workout. The owner had done some drive training, but in my view, it wasn’t precise enough for this dog (or maybe for this breed). Also, part of my suspicion is that the dog was acting out to reflect something she felt was lacking in her relationship with the owner. The owner had also been given the suggestion of using an electronic collar, but was hesitant about it.

Conflict Training, 101
The way I see it all canine behavior—whether learned or instinctive, normal or abnormal—is done in an attempt to reduce or release some kind of internal tension. When you think about it, even breathing is a matter of tension and release. When too much tension builds up inside a dog’s system, that’s when we tend to see abnormal behaviors.

The normal way for a dog to reduce tension is through some activity related to the prey drive. From the wolf model, we can see that wolves are an anomaly in the natural world. They’re one of only three types of mammals that routinely hunt animals that are larger and more dangerous than themselves: canines, homo sapiens & orcas All three originally hunted large prey by working cooperatively, though humans later developed weapons, so we no longer need to hunt in groups.

The bottom line is that a wolf’s social instincts are based on their need to hunt large prey. For instance, wolves who settle near a garbage dump dont really form packs. They have looser social arrangements. It also turns out that coyotes—whom it was thought for years did not form packs—actually do, but only when they need to hunt large prey.

(I’m getting to the point, trust me.)

Bison, elk, moose, etc. have horns and hooves. It’s very dangerous for an individual wolf to hunt one of these large animals, so they also evolved strategies like scavenging, hunting small prey, and will even at times eat vegetation. The survival instinct sort of dictates that they not put themselves in harm’s way by hunting large prey unless they are absolutely driven to do it.

This is where Nature becomes a clever taskmaster. If she wants wolves to hunt large prey she has to design a strong enough motivation for them to leave the safety of the den and foray into the path of those hooves and horns. And the basic underlying mechanism for motivating wolves to hunt large prey is a build-up internal tension or stress. When the pack gets hungry enough, the prey drive starts to kick in. Once it’s strong enough to override the need for safety, the wolves are driven to hunt. That’s not entirely accurate, though, because it doesn’t reflect the wolf’s actual experience or point of view. What these animals are really driven to do is to simply get rid of their tension. Think of the way a male dog goes after a female in heat. If you look at it from this angle you can see that he’s not interested in mating per se, he’s really only interested in getting rid of the overwhelming levels of tension and stress he’s feeling. The higher the stress levels, the more driven he is to complete his “task.”

Another factor for wolves in particular (and dogs to a lesser extent) is that at every step in the predatory sequence—the search, the eye stalk, the chase, the grab bite and kill bite—a wolf's body produces endorphins, providing internal rewards for each behavior phase of the sequence.

So in nature (and no matter how domesticated they are, dogs are still a part of nature), the ultimate release of stress comes through acting on the prey drive with no (or very few) inhibitions. And the primary reason stress builds up in the first place is because the animals are inhibited about acting on the prey drive because doing so is dangerous.

So when I hear of a dog like your Malinois, whose behavior is outside the normal range (and coprophragia is normal in puppies, but not in a two-year old), I automatically see it as being related in some way to a blocked flow—an inhibition—of the dog’s prey drive.

So how do we fix it?

I don’t like to use punishment in cases like this, because in order for it to successfully override an instinctive, compulsive, or habitual behavior, it has to be so strong and so severe, that you run the risk of making the dog shut down in other ways. True, an electric shock can accomplish that goal, and may do so safely in some cases. But even if it were to work, there’s a downside to it, which is that the nervous system runs on electricity, and one of the last things you want to do is download more electric energy into a dog whose nervous system may already be overloaded.

In general terms what I might do in this type of situation is put the dog in conflict between something that she wants to do vs. obeying my command. In Natural Dog Training we call this “conflict training.” You dont necessarily have to use the Rotti’s poop to do it, as long as it’s some activity that your Malinois has the same or a similar level of attraction to. Once she’s developed an ability or skill-set to give up one attachment in favor of obeying you, others will start to naturally fall into place.

Something similar that comes to mind, which illustrates this approach, is a compulsive behavior my own dog had years ago of digging in sand boxes. He particularly liked to “bury” his favorite toy—an empty soda or Poland Spring water bottle—in the sand. Conflict training is basically what I sued to cure him of his compulsive digging. (Now that I think about it, he used to love to eat wino shit in Central Park, too; but after I did the sandbox exercise with him, it was much easier to call him away from that unappetizing habit; and calling him away—followed by a game of chasecured him of his coprophragia, so it might very well work for you!)

Heres what I did:

I put him on a long leash, in a down stay near a sand box and put a soda bottle close to him, but off to the side a little, at an indirect angle to him. Then I walked away, backwards, facing him directly the whole time, holding the end of the leash. Then when I got to the end of the leash, I called him to me: “Okay, Freddie, come!” If he went for the bottle instead of running to me, I ran over and without saying anything used the leash to put him back into his original position, using short, fairly hard pops on the collar*, acting as if we were both in a dangerous situation the whole time. Then, once he and the bottle were back in the original position, I reminded him, “Stay!” and did it all again. *(You have to be careful that the pops don’t cause him to lose focus on you; they should actually motivate him to work harder with you.)

Once we got to the point that he ran straight back to me on command, instead of going for the bottle, I rewarded him with another bottle I had hidden in my training vest, though I didn’t just give it to him: I made him chase me around first for about 15 secs., then I threw it for him to chase on his own. (I had put a small amount of water inside so I could throw it farther than if it had been empty.) It also helped that his other favorite activity was decap”itating those bottles. So even though he had an impulse to take the bottle back to the sand box and bury it, all I had to do was say, “Take the cap off!” and he would settle down with the bottle and take the cap off with his teeth.

He was a Dalmatian, so it took a while before he “got” the “point” of the game. And I had to do it with him holding the stay at various places around and even inside the sandbox so he could cross-contextualize it. Once he got it, he actually “locked-in” to me. And I only had to re-acquaint him with the exercise once the next day after that first session. He never showed any interest in digging again. (And as I mentioned before, it was instrumental in stopping him from eating human feces in the park.)

Going back to what I said up top, my point is that digging is actually one way a dog has of sublimating his prey drive, meaning he’s expressing it in some way that doesn’t involve chasing and biting a prey object. Freddie had inhibitions about chasing and biting in play. Now your dog doesn’t seem to have the same inhibitions that Freddie did, but my suspicion is that she must have some issues, because scavenging and eating feces are also ways a dog has of circumventing and only partially satisfying their prey drive. In my scenario, once Freddie’s inhibitions were resolved he no longer had a need to dig in sandboxes or eat feces.

Another approach I’d take with your dog is I would hand feed her all her meals outdoors, using what’s called the “pushing exercise.” I’ve posted a link just below. One thing I didn’t describe in the sandbox exercise was the fact that I had taught Freddie to jump up on me on command, and that was part of the “chase me” game I played with him when he obeyed the recall. Jumping up basically causes a dog to plug a lot of her energy into you. It overcomes some of those natural inhibitions dogs have about seeing us as “prey” in the same way they see a Frisbee or another dog they like to play with as something to chase. The pushing exercise accomplishes the same goal as jumping up but without some of the drawbacks. So print out the article found in the link below and follow the instructions carefully. It will increase your dog’s levels of social attraction to you, which will increase the reliability of her recall, and might even reduce some of her need to eat feces in the first place.

The Pushing Exercise (pdf)

Doing the “eyes” exercise (below) may also help. You may have already taught it to her as “watch me,” but I think this version has a wrinkle or two that makes it stronger. Basically dogs alternately see us—or I should say they feel, us on a knee-jerk level—as either prey and predator. The more prey-like we become, the more interested in obeying us they are. However, to some extent, the more predator-like we are the more that increases their obedience skills too. The difference is that in the first case the dogs obey us willingly, because it makes them feel good, it makes them feel connected to us in the strongest way possible. But the more predator-like we are, the more their obedience is based on fear. (This is why dominance training works; it’s also why dominance trainers think dogs see them as the “pack leader,” when they actually sees the trainer the way a wolf sees a moose who suddenly turns and brandishes his antlers.)

The Eyes Have It

If I were you, I’d wait a few weeks of doing these two exercises before attempting the conflict training. Remember, I had already done the jumping up with Freddie.

One thing that will give you a clue as to how this is going to help is that after you do the pushing exercise, you may find that your doggie plays tug- of-war with a lot more energy and focus; she’ll probably bite and pull a lot harder than she did before. You can also integrate the pushing dynamic into your games of tug, which will up the ante considerably. And always remember, the key to reducing tension in the canine species comes primarily through chasing and biting.

Sorry for the lengthy reply. I hope this helps!

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Post About Dogs and Doorways

This entry starts with the opening section of Chapter 7 in my second Jack and Jamie novel, Murder Unleashed. (It's currently out of print but I'm going to republish at some point.) Jack has driven Jamie to a crime scene where a boxer named Roarke is inside a dead man's car, snarling and growling, preventing the police investigators from getting inside. Jack offers to help out. The police think Roark killed the man, but Jack isn't so sure. The reason I'm re-visiting this bit of detective fiction now is that it illustrates the energy dynamic behind a common household behavioral problem: dogs who jump up, bark too much, or want to bite when anyone who comes over to visit.

Dogs and Doorways
Unlike Jamie—or any woman who’s angry at her mate—most dogs will bite only as a last resort. It’s kind of a paradox, too, since the urge to bite is at the core of a dog’s most positive social instincts. This idea flies in the face of conventional wisdom, of course, which says that a dog’s social instincts revolve around issues of dominance and submission; who’s alpha and who’s not. But in my opinion—and in the opinion of more and more experts these days—there is no such thing as an alpha dog. No canine has any desire to be alpha, and no ability to form a social hierarchy based on concepts like rank and status. (Dogs don’t think conceptually.) My belief is that the pack is actually a self-emergent heterarchy, in which the behaviors of the individual dogs create the social structure, the social structure doesn’t control the individual behaviors.

Besides, all dogs really want to do is to chase things and bite them, which is the foundation of their prey instinct. And canine social behavior is inextricably linked to prey drive, particularly the need to hunt large prey. If wolves and dogs didn’t hunt in packs, they’d be more like foxes (who never hunt large prey and therefore don’t need a pack instinct).

Think of it like this: When a lone wolf bites into a fleeing rabbit the crunch of bone and flesh between his teeth and jaws is a highly pleasurable thing. But when that same wolf--working in glorious synchronicity with his packmates--bites into a galloping deer or a cornered elk and feels the moist, hot, massive flesh tear away from the animal’s heaving body, while his packmates are all emotionally aligned to the same purpose, and are all filled with the same wild emotions, that, my friends, is pure ecstasy.

I should know. I was a wolf in a former life.

This didn’t make my journey across the road to Judge Merton’s Cadillac any less nerve-wracking. I’d dealt with aggressive dogs before. I’d even been bitten four or five times, though most of the incidents were accidental; a high-strung standard poodle named Ozymandius once tried to grab a tennis ball from my hand and bit me on the thumb instead. A poor, neurotic boxer named Spike did the same thing to my arm. (Either I moved at the last second or he had bad aim.) My saving grace with Roark was I knew that he liked to play fetch, which is why I had a tennis ball in my pocket just in case I couldn’t lure him out of the car with the liver treats.

I had another thing on my side—a sensible caution based on a studied understanding of a dog’s den instincts. You see, there’s this thing about dogs and doorways. The dominance crowd believes that a dog who goes through a door ahead of you is trying to be alpha. Supposedly one of the perks of being the top dog is being the first to go through any opening. This is total nonsense of course. The truth is much simpler (it always is): Whenever a dog senses movement at the threshold of the den, his bite reflex is automatically stimulated. Why? My theory is that crossing thresholds is a risky business; there might be danger just outside of the den door when, there might be danger lurking inside when you come home. A canine’s bite reflex has to be right up on the surface, available to use, whenever he leaves the den or whenever someone else comes in. This is the only reason some dogs and wolves snap at others who go through a door ahead of them. It has nothing to do with being alpha. It’s just that the bite reflex is always stimulated around the den door. And for some dogs, movement around a car door or window is much more stimulating than movement around the front door of your house or apartment.

I remembered all this as I approached Roark, ending up about four feet from the passenger side of the car. By this time, he was a barking, snarling maniac—just as Flynn and Quentin Peck had described him. The car door was the same for him as the door to a wolf’s den. He was ready to guard it with his life. Any attempt by me, or anyone else, to get inside that car, or to even put a hand through the door, would result in bloodshed. Offering him a liver treat would lose me a finger. Teasing him with a tennis ball, then throwing it across the ice would have no effect. The question was: How could I entice him to get out of the car voluntarily?

I couldn’t. I realized I’d have to force him out somehow. I wished for a moment that I’d waited for Animal Control. Having a padded suit on, even wearing just the arm pad, would certainly help. I had quick mental image of Roark grabbing hold of my padded arm with his teeth, the way attack dogs are trained do, and that’s when it hit me; tug-of-war. Screw the liver treats, screw the tennis ball, screw the army blanket. All I needed was something Roark could sink his teeth into. Then—once he was fully committed to playing tug-of-war with me—I could yank him out of the car and onto the ice. Presto!

I searched my pockets for a tug-toy or a bandana. Then I noticed the tassels of the ragg wool scarf Jamie’s mother, Laura, had given me for Christmas and thought, “Shit, there goes a perfectly good muffler.” I untwirled it from around my neck and had a [nearly] perfect tug toy.

I opened the door, and as soon as I did, Roark faked a lunge at me, but stayed inside, as I knew (or hoped) he would. I began teasing him with my makeshift tug toy, waving it around the door, trying to entice him to grab hold of it. He was more intent on growling and snarling at me, though, so I began praising him as I danced the scarf in front of his nose. The praise was not to reward him for trying to kill me, but to make him feel that we were on the same side; that we both wanted the scarf ‘dead’. I even threw in a few fake growls of my own, to let him know that the two of us were killing the scarf together.

It worked. He stopped focusing on me and grabbed the scarf and pulled on it, hard. In fact, he pulled so hard he almost yanked me into the car. I don’t know how, but I managed to stay upright. We played tug for a few seconds, me praising him and doing my fake, ‘play-growl’ the whole time, and then I used the scarf, and leverage from the open car door, to pull Roark’s ass outside and onto the icy ground. He lost hold of the scarf, then grabbed it again. What a silly goose. He wanted to kill me a moment earlier, now he was helping me ‘kill’ my muffler.

I let go of the scarf and praised him for beating me—which is how all tug-of-war games should end; you always praise the dog for winning. Then, while he shook his head around as if breaking the neck of the fallen scarf, I took hold of his leash, which he’d been wearing while he was in the car, and began to lead him gently up the side of the ditch, stopping for just a moment to take a look inside the vehicle. Just as I’d thought, there was almost no blood visible on the judge’s spent air bag. He’d been murdered before he got behind the wheel of his car, and the killer wanted to make it look like Roark had torn the judges throat to shreds.

I was startled by an unfamiliar sound. I looked across the road and saw that everyone was standing outside their vehicles, applauding.

Okay, so what does this have to do with controlling your dog’s greeting behaviors? It’s pretty simple, really. One of the reasons dogs jump up on guests, or bark madly, or spin in happy circles, or even nip their sleeves or bite their butts is because of this atavistic impulse that gets switched on anytime there’s movement around the den door, particularly if it involves a non-pack member coming through that opening. These behaviors are simply various ways a dog has of offloading the energy behind that urge to bite in more socially acceptable ways.

What do you do to stop these behaviors? That’s pretty simple too: you teach the dog that when the doorbell rings, or the buzzer sounds, or there’s a knock at the door that her job is to first sniff the person, then go grab a toy and bring it to the door with her. If she’s a fairly typical dog, the feeling of having that toy in her mouth will satisfy that urge to bite and totally offset all the other behavioral quirks she may have previously exhibited.

Boywunder posted a link to a radio interview with Kevin Behan in the comments section, but you have to cut and paste to get to it. Here's a direct version of that link.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dogs Are Never Wrong

For various reasons (related to possible future publication), I've deleted most of this blog entry (which was about how Freddie passed away in his sleep on June 28th, 2007), except for the following:

Dogs Are Never Wrong
That’s one of the great lessons this beautiful animal taught me: That dogs will always respond to our desires in some way; they can’t help themselves. They don’t know how not to.

Some may read this and think: “That’s not true. You never met my dog!” Others may think, “Well, your dog was special.”

The thing is, though, I have met your dog, or one like him. And to me all dogs are special. In fact, if you follow me and Fred on this journey you’ll see that he was one of the worst-behaved, and seemingly one of the dumbest, most willful, foolish, disobedient, and hardheaded dogs who ever lived. There were times I wanted to murder him. But as the story unfolds, you’ll also see that nearly everything he did, or refused to do, was done out of love for me, and out of a real, biological need all dogs have, one they’re born with, which is to align themselves with the wishes and desires of the people and animals they love. Again, I’m totally serious about this; I’m not spouting some mystical new-age crap. This is purely a matter of biology and physics. Dogs will relentlessly align themselves with your wishes and desires even if you’re totally unaware of what those wishes and desires are! That’s what can be so maddening about this trait of theirs!

I mean, let’s face it, very few of us are cognizant of what we’re wishing for at any given moment. Nor do we always know what we really want or truly desire. Not a single one of us is as in touch with our feelings as we’d like to believe. But our dogs are. To dogs our feelings and desires are as real and as pure and as important to them as the air they breathe.

I’m a dog trainer by profession but I don’t think “obedience” is the right word for what we ask of dogs. Or that “training” is the right word for what we do when we supposedly teach them how to behave. What we do, really, is just facilitate what is natural in them. We give them a chance to do what they were born to do. And it isn’t to “obey” us or to perform tricks. It’s to align themselves with our desires.

And that cuts both ways, too. Dogs are much more obedient to us when we align ourselves with their desires, and their wishes. That
s why some methodologies work better than others. Some of them are more geared toward that particular goal.

At any rate, Freddie taught me a lot in his 15+ years on earth, but that’s probably the most important thing of all. That through all the scrapes he got himself into, and despite all his foolishness and daredevil exploits and occasional maddening mealtime persnicketiness, he taught me that no matter what dogs do, no matter what kind of dumbass shit they pull, no matter how crazy their behavior, or how insane it makes us, they’re essentially doing it for our benefit. They know, or I should say they feel, that we can be better human beings if we would just listen to what they’re trying to tell us with their behavior. And when we do listen, miracleslike the one that took place during Freddie's last night on earthhappen. Dogs are miraculous creatures after all.

And the funny thing is, dogs
never wrong.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mental Associations v. Reduction of Tension II

Another article about behavioral science, and some of its flaws and inconsistencies.

Do Dogs Learn Via Mental Associations? Part II
Let me start by saying I have no problem with the idea that certain neurons in a dog’s brain are capable of forming dendritic trees with other neurons when they’re activated at the same time. Hebb’s Law sums it up: “Cells that fire together, wire together.” This energy exchange between neurons ultimately creates an actual physical, biological pathway in the brain creating a direct connection between what might otherwise be disparate, unrelated stimuli. But it starts as an energy exchange.

I also don’t have a problem with the idea that some of a dog’s memories are stored in the hippocampus, one of the “memory” centers in the dog and human brain. And if the paired stimuli also create a change in the dog’s hedonic state at the time they’re perceived or experienced, that connection is strengthened by the “pleasure and pain circuits” in the amygdalla. But one has to realize that these connections all take place in a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia, located near the brain stem, and are exhibited to some extent by all vertebrates, not just dogs and humans.

My point is that when some trainers say that dogs make a mental association between the word sit, the behavior itself, and the resultant reward, it all depends on what they mean by “mental association.” The common implication is that there’s an actual conscious thought process involved—which would have to take place in the frontal lobes, not just the basal ganglia—and that’s simply not the case; there is no “If I sit when I hear the command then I’ll get a reward,” construct in the dog’s mind. And according to John Staddon, the head of Duke University’s behavioral science department, anytime you have an “if-then” construct you’re using hypothetical or at the very least propositional thinking, which requires the use of language.

It seems clear to me that when dogs make associations between cues (commands), actions (obedience behaviors) and the resulting conse- quences (reinforcers) it’s all happening on a totally unconscious level (perhaps entirely within the basal ganglia). And I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words “mental association,” it always implies that some form of conscious thinking of a higher order is taking place.

Learning in Rats, Flatworms, and Protozoans
The idea of learning to produce a specific behavior in response to a command (or “discriminate stimulus”) goes back to Skinner’s lab rats who learned to press a lever to get a food pellet whenever a light was flashing (as one example). But would any dog trainer truly believe that when a rat presses a lever he’s doing it because he’s thinking logically, conceptually, or through any kind of internal linguistic-based thought process? How about planaria? Experiments done with flatworms show that they can “learn” through operant conditioning to navigate a maze. Do flatworms learn this by inductive reasoning: “If I go this way I’ll get food?” Do they make mental associations? Clearly not.

We could stick with canines and ask if Pavlov’s dogs really “learned” to salivate on cue (when the bell rang) through some higher-level cognitive process which required logic and language, or even through some lower, rudimentary thought process, such as pattern recognition. I had a well-known “positive” trainer tell me recently that when Pavlov’s dogs heard the bell it signaled to them that “food was on the way,” never mind the fact that all they ever got in conjunction with the bell ringing was a little meat powder, sprayed in the mouths while their heads and bodies were held immobile by leather straps. The fact is Pavlov simply found a trip-wire for one of a dog’s unconscious reflexes, and Madison Avenue has been using that kind of tripwire to get consumers “salivating” ever since!

Even the stentor, a single-celled organism, is supposedly capable of learning to avoid slightly noxious substance called carmine through a kind of trial and error method. This initially happens in such a way that it’s obviously a biochemical reaction; this is a protozoan, after all. (Its behavior was first observed and recorded in 1906 by H. S. Jennings.)

How a Protozoan “Learns”
When the carmine grains are introduced into the stentor’s environment, the first response is no response at all. The organism doesn’t react. Then, after a bit, the organism’s structure sort of bends away from the source of the irritant. That’s obviously a matter of biochemistry. When that doesn’t work, the stentor begins to reverse the motion of its ciliae, moving the substance away from its body. And if that doesn’t get results, the stentor contracts itself into its own feeding tube, interrupting its current “meal.” That trick usually solves the problem if none of the others haven’t.


So this is a protozoa, and we wouldn’t naturally expect a single-cell organism to be changed by its experience, would we? It can’t really learn which of these behaviors—the contractions—was ultimately the most effective, can it? And yet let a little time pass, introduce the irritating substance again, and the little guy doesn’t go back to square one—ignoring the substance—or step two—bending away from it—or step three—reversing the movement of its ciliae. No, it goes straight to step four and begins contracting in on itself, doing so quite violently now, as if it had learned from its previous experience that the more violent the contractions are, the quicker and better the results. And it does this even though that particular behavioral pattern prevents it from being able to feed.

Would we for a second consider the idea that the stentor made a positive mental association with the one behavior that worked to relieve its irritation the first time, and that that’s why it immediately went straight to that behavior when the substance was re-introduced? Of course not; it’s a single-celled organism. If there was any sort of change that took place in its internal structure it has nothing to do with memory (not as we know it), or any sort of thought process. It’s got to be the result of a simple biochemical transformation of some sort. In fact, on a very simple level it’s solely about reducing tension. The carmine creates stress on the stentor’s simple biological system. Each of its behaviors are simply reactions to the stress and are designed to get rid of it and return to homeostasis. The “learning” that takes place is, again, due purely to a temporary chemical transformation*.

And how do single cells undergo chemical transformation? Through an energy exchange. In fact, as I stated up top: whenever a human or a dog learns something new, a more complicated and sophisticated form of energy exchanges takes place: one neuron sends energy to another, which sends that energy to another, and on up the line. And the main reason it’s more complicated is that there are more cells involved. On a cellular level, it’s still pretty simple.

So anyway, back to dogs…

Theory of Mind
I think one problem in applying some of these lessons (the stentor, the rat in the box, the planarian in the maze, and Pavlov’s bell) to dog training has to do with the way the dog’s closest biological relative hunts its prey: In some instances one or more wolves will chase the prey animal toward a spot where they know other members of their unit are waiting to leap out and pounce. A you watch this take place it sure seems like a carefully thought-out, deliberate, and well-orchestrated plan. The mere fact that some of the wolves are keeping themselves hidden suggests that they have a rudimentary theory of mind; one that involves the ability to know and understand the logical proposition that

a) I am able to see things because I have eyes,

b) other animals with eyes must have the same ability to see things, ergo

c) if I can prevent my prey from seeing me, I’ll catch him by surprise...

When we watch footage of wolves hunting it seems almost incontrovertible that wolves must have this first level ToM. (There are three levels: sensory, emotional, and intellectual.) But does a dog or wolf even know that he has eyes? How could he? He may have a vague sense of where his field of vision is centered—somewhere above his nose and away from his hindquarters, etc.—but they don’t have the ability to understand how they look to themselves, let alone what “look” or “themselves” mean. So how could they know what another animal's perceptions of them are, or that other animals have perceptions?

In discussing this with a +R trainer once, she said she was convinced that when a dog brings a ball back and drops it at your feet he’s placing the ball where you can see it. So in her mind dogs definitely have a first level ToM. And on first glance this sounds quite plausible. But once you go back in time and look at the way the dog first learned to bring the ball back, you’ll see that the main criteria the dog has is to put the ball where you can reach it, not where you can see it.

I know of many dogs who’ll bring a ball back and when it rolls past me, or under the bench where I might be sitting at the dog run, they’ll bark in frustration that I’m not throwing it fast enough. I have to teach them to bring the ball back to a spot that’s close enough for me to reach down and grab it. That spot will be in front of me and not under the bench, etc. If these dogs had a rudimentary ToM they would already understand naturally that they didn’t put the ball where I can see it (which would also most likely be where I could reach it). But they don’t.

If you ask me the most relevant bit of human anatomy in the dog’s experience of fetch (and a lot of other daily events) is your hands, not your eyes. Yes, the eyes are great for communicating emotion, but if a dog wants you to throw the ball he’d be pretty dumb to focus solely on your eyes. He sometimes needs you to pay attention to him, of course. That’s why the dogs I mentioned a moment ago start barking at the dog run. But knowing where your owner’s attention is focused is something separate and apart from knowing that your owner’s eyes are what provides him or her with visual input (or even what visual input is).

Speaking of attention, another proof some people give that dogs have a first-level ToM is the dog who’s been punished for making mistakes in the house. As a result whenever the urge comes on her she might develop the habit of finding a place to eliminate where her owner can’t “see her.” We’ve all known or heard of dogs who do this. It has to be ToM, right? She doesn’t want to be seen. Perhaps. But maybe the more relevant thing to the dog is that she can’t see you when she sneaks off. Or what’s even more probable, she’s simply trying to escape your attention. Attention and focus are things a dog can understand. The business of how visual input comes through these orbs in the face, then through neural pathways to the brain, etc., is way out of reach.

By the way, there are scientists who study this stuff. They set up very complex experiments to test whether chimps, for example, have this first level ToM. We’re not talking about the casual observations of misinformed dog owners. These brilliant men and women are doing cutting- edge work. And yet there’s currently no consensus that even chimps have this first-level ability. But if any animal on the planet would be expected to be able to, it would certainly be our closest living relative. (I know I’m leaving out dolphins and cetaceans, but I’m not sure science has found a way to run tests on them.)

If behavior and learning are all about making mental associations then it’s almost impossible to not see dogs as having a theory of mind. We, as dog lovers automatically make that leap. But if we see what’s really going on, and what’s really relevant to the dog’s experience—whether it’s getting his owner to play fetch, or finding a place to eliminate where his owner can’t “see him,” or even the wolf’s tactic of hiding from his prey—we might recognize that all of these behaviors are about reducing internal tension, not making mental thought processes.

Yes dogs and wolves are far more complex than stentor and flaworms, or even rats. But if you ask me, all of nature—all the changes that take place in the natural world, from plate tectonics to hurricanes to the way rivers flow, or the way seeds fall from a tree, absorb nutrients from the soil and then burst out of their casings and start to grow, reaching up toward the sunlight—all these phenomena are built around the very simple, energetic properties of tension and release. I think even the earth’s orbit around the sun is a constant dance between these two expressions of energy.

Wolves, Spiders, and Jellyfish
At any rate, let’s go back to the idea that wolves have to have a ToM to be able to exhibit this predatory behavior of “hiding” from their prey. But let’s go down the evolutionary ladder a little. There’s a type of spider who, when he’s hungry (if spiders get “hungry”), will find a hole, climb into it, cover himself with a leaf, and wait for an insect to come by. Then he’ll jump out, kill his prey, and eat it. Does the spider have a theory of mind? Does he “know” he’s invisible to that insect when he’s under that leaf? Does he think about all this? If he doesn’t need such cognitive abilities to perform these behaviors, then why do wolves and dogs need them?

“Because,” (those who see dogs as having some intellectual abilities would tell us), “the spider has a much smaller brain.”

There’s no arguing that point. So how about looking at a species of animal (in the broadest sense) that has no brain at all—the jellyfish—which is technically a type of plankton? The jellie has no brain and no sensory organs. And there is one species of jellie that actually hunts its prey in a fashion very similar to that used by wolves: one jellie will “chase” while another seemingly “hides,” or least circles around from the other side, “waiting” for the prey to be driven toward him.

And yet the jellyfish has no brain! No face, no eyes, no ears, no nose.

And no brain!

Granted their “strategy” isn’t anywhere near as complicated or nuanced as the one performed by a wolf pack. Jellyfish don’t even “swim,” really. They sort of use the ocean currents to help propel them in the direction they “want” to go. So it seems to me that when we look at such splendid underwater footage of a seeming concerted effort among two jellyfish, we have to wonder: “How the hell do they do that?”

Of course all of this is sort of beside the point I’m trying to make, which has more to do with how dogs learn to obey commands or to produce new behaviors or learn to let go of old ones than how spiders and jellyfish hunt, right? I mean do spiders even have the capacity to learn new behaviors or change old ones? Maybe so: (how some spiders learn)

What about jellyfish? Some species do tend to return to a place where they’ve successfully found food before. Does that constitute learning? If so, why don’t we say that spiders and jellyfish learn by making mental associations (I mean, besides the fact that they have no real mental capacities at all)?

Face Recognition Software
While a spider has eyes, and a tiny brain, his face, if you could call it that, is expressionless. Do spiders have emotions? It’s doubtful. Then there’s the jellyfish, who doesn’t even have eyes or a face (or a brain!) to give us any clues as to how he’s thinking or feeling. On the other hand, when we look at wolves hunting or see our dogs listening to our words we see their eyes, we see their facial expressions, we see the changes in their body language. They tilt their heads as if thinking, even though we might know logically that the head tilt is just a way a dog has of hearing us better. We also see gaps in the action. And when we see those gaps we focus on the changes, if any, taking place in the animal’s face, particularly its eyes.

Human infants do five basic, important things: eat, sleep, cry, eliminate, and look at faces. The first thing a toddler draws when given a crayon and some drawing paper is a face. Face recognition is one of the driving forces in human behavior. And so it seems to me that any time we see an animal with a face and eyes who stops for a moment in the middle of a concerted activity, our brains are both engineered and taught practically from birth to read some sort of thought process onto that momentary lacuna; we have to fill that gap. We can’t help ourselves; it’s an automatic reflex in us. After all, what is a dog doing at that moment if not thinking?

Meanwhile, if we see a gap in the action of two jellyfish using a similar hunting “strategy,” we think no such thing, partly because the jellyfish has no face. He has no body language, he has no emotions. So we see a gap in the action and think, “It’s just due to a change in the ocean current,” or “The jellie really wasn’t hunting at all; it was just an illusion.” But should the action resume, and if the jellies are then successful at hunting their prey by working in unison, we have to wonder: “How the hell do they do that?”

With dogs and wolves we’re sure we know—they’re thinking the whole thing through. They’re changing their strategy, or developing a new one on the fly. But they’re definitely thinking it all out the whole time, or so we believe.

Another part of the problem may go back to how evolutionary biologists have framed their explanations of the evolutionary process itself. Organisms are said to have adaptive and reproductive “strategies.” We don’t even question it when we hear the word strategy intoned dramatically in nature films: “The spider has a clever strategy for killing insects,” or “The call of the male meadowlark is part of his mating strategy.” Even certain viruses are supposed to have adaptive strategies. It’s like every living thing in nature is playing chess or planning to invade Poland on a regular basis! They’re all strategizing!

Still, when we see footage of a spider climbing into a hole and pulling a leaf over his head, waiting for an “unsuspecting” insect to come along, do we think he’s planned it all out in his head? Spiders do have brains, after all. Do we think Mr. Meadowlark wonders to himself which notes will best attract a female, and then choose them accordingly? No. We perceive those types of behaviors as being purely instinctual.

So why do we automatically impute thought processes onto animals?

Personally, I blame Charles Darwin and Walt Disney...

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

*Not surprisingly, the stentor doesn’t retain this lesson much past four hours or so afterwards.