Friday, December 11, 2009

The Meeting of the Dogs

This poem is found in the front section of my novel, 'Twas the Bite Before Christmas.

The Meeting of the Dogs

The dogs they had a meeting.
They came from near and far.
Some of them came by Greyhound bus
While others came by car.

The purpose of their meeting?
To fill the world with glee
and put a brand new puppy
under ev'ry Christmas tree.

But a special hall was rented,
and the landlord did declare
he didn't want them running 'round
just pooping ev'rywhere.

So before inside that rented hall
the dogs could even look
they had to take their hineys off
and hang them on a hook.

Then once inside the meeting—
ev'ry mother, son and sire—
some cat, dressed in a dog suit,
began to holler, "Fire!"

They all rushed out, that pack of dogs.
They had no time to look,
to which type of hiney
they grabbed off its little hook.

They got their hineys all mixed up.
It really made 'em sore,
to have to wear a hiney
they'd never worn before.

Then, once the chaos ended,
so did the dogs' grand scheme,
and kids who'd dreamed of puppies
were left with just a dream.

It's also why you'll see a dog
give up a juicy bone,
to go and sniff and hiney,
to see if it's his own.

Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Bite!


Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement

Here's another article originally posted at my PsychologyToday blog: 

The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement
In the first article in this series, Why Behavioral Science Is Losing the Training Wars, I described two examples of learning in dogs that can't be explained through either the pack leader model of training or learning theory, and suggested that the reason the positive training movement hasn't dominated the current training landscape is that behavioral science isn't as scientific as positive (or +R) trainers claim.

In the second, Is Behavioral Science Failing Our Dogs, I described how my two examples can only be explained completely and satisfactorily through a simple energy theory which operates primarily on the principle that all behaviors, instinctive or learned, are designed to reduce a dog's internal tension or stress:

stimulus (energy-in) > increased tension > behavior (energy-out) > release

It's all pure energy.

This idea may seem strange at first, but after all, the universe started out as energy. It then differentiated into subatomic particles, then into atoms of hydrogen, then helium, and up the periodic table. At a certain point some atoms were joined, energetically, into various kinds of molecules. At a point beyond that some of these molecules developed into living organisms, which then evolved and developed into the rich complexity of nature we see all around us (and inside of us) today. From the Big Bang to the dog run, energy continues to manifest itself in everything your dog does, from the way the neurons fire inside his brain to the way his tail wags when you come home from work.

In presenting his energy theory, former police dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan, writes: "The irreducible essence of anything is always a function of energy. I'm proposing that the nature of dogs is also a function of an energetic makeup rather than a [mental or] psychological one." (Read more here.)

My good friend Alexandra Semyonova -- a highly-respected and well-known dog trainer in the Netherlands, who uses only positive reinforcement techniques -- wrote to me not long ago, saying, "Your energy theory1 is not as far-fetched as people may think. It's just that you have to think interdisciplinarily to get it. You could say that an energy exchange with the environment doesn't only take place through food. As two dogs look at each other [or play together], the electrical patterns in their brains change. This can trigger changes in physical structure. And because those brains are a sort of solidified past, those dogs will be responsive to [the] kind of energy related to that past, and not to some other kind of energy that wasn't present or important at the time2."

To me, that's brilliant. And it's exactly how operant conditioning works (when it does work). The reinforcement for "good" behaviors isn't the result of an external object, event, or marker; it's due to the way a dog's emotional energy flows and finds a satisfying release. The more satisfying the release, the more deeply the behavior it's coupled with is learned3.

Mind you, when I talk about energy I'm not being vague and new-agey. I'm talking about nervous or emotional energy. Nervous energy is essentially electric: the movement of electrons through one neuron into the next. It's choppy; it has an unpleasant stop/start feel. Plus it's hard to control; it operates on its own, almost forcing an animal to obey its (the energy's) own needs. True, nervous energy is necessary for an animal's survival, but it has nothing to do with animal happiness. That's a problem, because both dominance training and operant conditioning rely primarily on survival feelings to get their effects: with a dominance-trained dog it's the need to avoid danger (i.e., a correction), with a positively-reinforced dog it's the need for food (remember, behavioral science got its start with Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, and continued with Skinner's rats pressing levers to obtain food pellets).

Emotional energy, though, is magnetic, flowing, and can be very pleasant. Yes, a dog may occasionally feel stressed if he has more emotional energy than his system can carry, especially if he has no way to resolve or release it. But at least he has more control over what he can do with it. And as long as he has that feeling, he's not distressed or thrown completely off-balance by the weight of excess emotion.

So it seems to me that despite Skinner's brilliance, instinctive biological needs actually interfere with an animal's capacity to learn, while positive emotions are the bedrock of learning. Behavior modification via survival needs is also almost wholly dependent on repetition and artificial reinforcement, not to mention the process of occasionally withholding rewards through a variable reinforcement ratio, which can be very stressful for a dog. Karen Pryor, one of the key figures of the positive training movement, writes in a 2006 article: "Reinforcement may go from predictable to a little unpredictable back to predictable, as you climb, step by step, toward your ultimate goal. Sometimes a novice animal may find this [variability] very disconcerting. If two or three expected reinforcers fail to materialize, the animal may simply give up and quit on you. You can see this clearly on the video of my fish learning to swim through a hoop. When three tries ‘didn't work' the fish not only quit trying, he had an emotional collapse, lying on the bottom of the tank in visible distress4."

Not only is this kind of training not positive, it actually proves that all behavior is learned, not through reinforcers, but through the reduction of internal tension or stress. The more stressed a dog is -- as with a variable ratio of reinforcement -- the deeper a behavior is learned when that stress is resolved. But learning through flow is anything but stressful. It also doesn't require reinforcements because it's an immensely pleasurable experience on its own. Plus it takes place instantly and automatically.

So no matter how well-conditioned our dogs become, no matter how much a part of their brain "salivates" at the sound of a clicker5, or works to gain a reward, on a certain level dogs are not very happy when they're subjected to learning through operant conditioning.
Not happy? Are you serious?

Deadly serious. I mean, think about it. Somewhere in the back of every dog trainer's mind is that image of Pavlov's dogs, salivating at the sound of a bell ringing. That's the apex of conditioning. Yet no one seems to consider how unhappy those dogs must have been. And let's not even get into the stress Skinner's lab rats and pigeons were feeling. So, yes, on a certain level, positive reinforcement is actually an unpleasant experience.

I know that may sound crazy, but the current trend in child-rearing and education tells us that positive reinforcement is undermining learning and happiness in our kids. In her Psychology Today blog, Creating in Flow, social psychologist Susan K. Perry quotes Teresa Amabile of Harvard. "If rewards become prominent in children's minds, they may overwhelm the intrinsic joy of doing something interesting and personally challenging." Kids who are given rewards for reading, for example, tend to choose shorter books in order to get more rewards, while children who are motivated by a love of learning will read anything that catches their fancy, just for the pure joy of it.

Every positive trainer reading this will assert that they see that kind of joy in their dog's eyes when their clients' dogs are learning through +R. I can only say that they must be seeing things differently than I do5. I would also argue that whatever happiness dogs do experience in a clicker class or by working for variable-ratio food rewards, it isn't because of the technique, it's probably because -- just like young children -- dogs are so hungry for learning and are designed to latch onto anything that gives them something to do with their energy -- especially in a social context -- that they're supplying their own emotional flow in order to help them move past the unpleasant aspects of conditioning techniques.

There's no doubt that there has to be a payoff for learning. That's the one simple truth of Skinner's theory. But if the payoff doesn't reduce internal tension, or spark feelings of pure joy, it will automatically create unhappiness and resistance in dogs just as it creates uncertainty and resentment in children.

The positive training movement defined itself from the outset as being a kinder and more scientific alternative to dominance training. And that's true. But dogs aren't lab rats. And there's a "new kid" in town, a method that's even kinder and may be more scientific.
If you've read my first article you'd know that my primary reason for discussing the holes I see in behavioral science is that dogs are trying to tell us something about the nature of consciousness. Lab rats and helper monkeys don't have the emotional capacity dogs do, so using survival feelings to condition them works fine most of the time. But dogs are different. Only canines, homo sapiens (and some cetaceans) have the ability to override instinct in favor of emotion. That's an amazing thing. And it's part of what makes dogs the current "it" species for cognitive scientists7.

We all love our dogs and we all want what's best for them. So I would challenge anyone reading this: if you believe operant conditioning is scientific, then be scientific and test Kevin Behan's energy theory for yourself. Next time I'll give you one simple exercise that will not only enable you to do that, it might just improve the lives of every dog you know.



1) It's not my energy theory, though for some reason Semyonova likes to think it is. As this article states, it was developed by Kevin Behan. Oddly enough though, Semyonova and I are the first two people to describe canine social structure as part of a self-emergent system, long before we had a meeting of the minds online. Semyonova did it 2002 in her longitudinal study found at, while I did it as a bit of passing dialogue in my first novel, A Nose for Murder, also published in 2002. Meanwhile, Kevin Behan described pack social structure -- particularly while hunting -- as a bottom-up, self-emergent system in his 1992 book, Natural Dog Training, even though he hadn't heard of emergence theory at the time: "Since each individual has different sensitivity to prey making, we observe the emergence of order -- the creation of a group and a pack -- out of what was chaos."

2) It's a physiological fact that certain sensory details associated with past emotional experiences can not only bring memories flooding back, they can often make you feel as if you're actually re-living that past event. One of the strongest of these mnemonic triggers comes through the sense of smell. For example, when your present-day nostrils inhale the same perfume worn by that wonderful girl you were in love with back in college, your olfactory nerves and the part of your hippocampus holding memories of her vibrate at the same frequency once again.

From Discover Magazine: "Quantum physics may explain the mysterious biological process of smell ... says biophysicist Luca Turin, who first published his controversial hypothesis in 1996 while teaching at University College London. Then, as now, the prevailing notion was that the sensation of different smells is triggered when molecules called odorants fit into receptors in our nostrils like three-dimensional puzzle pieces snapping into place. The glitch here, for Turin, was that molecules with similar shapes do not necessarily smell anything like one another. Pinanethiol [C10H18S] has a strong grapefruit odor, for instance, while its near-twin pinanol [C10H18O] smells of pine needles. Smell must be triggered, [Turin] concluded, by some criteria other than an odorant's shape alone.

"What is really happening, Turin posited, is that the approximately 350 types of human smell receptors perform an act of quantum tunneling when a new odorant enters the nostril and reaches the olfactory nerve. After the odorant attaches to one of the nerve's receptors, electrons from that receptor tunnel through the odorant, jiggling it back and forth. In this view, the odorant's unique pattern of vibration is what makes a rose smell rosy and a wet dog smell wet-doggy. It is the frequency of vibration, not the shape, that determines the scent of a molecule."

So Alexandra Semyonova's statement -- "dogs will be responsive to [the] kind of energy related to that past, and not to some other kind of energy that wasn't present or important at the time" -- is right on target.

3) While it's true that learning still takes place in relation to a dog's history (as behavioral scientists tell us), the key element isn't a conscious mental process such as thinking of past experiences and figuring out how to apply them to the present moment, or of learning through consequences or trial-and-error (which would all require that the dog be able to engage in mental time travel and/or propositional thinking). It's simply about the dog vibrating at the same frequency in the here-and-now moment as he did in the past: in other words, learning is a funciton of energy, not a mental thought process.

4) Pryor goes on to say, "Casinos, believe me, use the power of the variable ratio schedule to develop behaviors, such as playing slot machines, that are very resistant to extinction, despite highly variable and unpredictable reinforcement."

So are we training dogs or creating gambling addicts?

5) Clicker training was invented by Keller Breland -- a student and later a colleague of B.F. Skinner -- as a way of marking behaviors while working with hunting dogs at a distance. Breland later taught Karen Pryor how to use clicks and whistles to train dolphins. Here's how Pryor describes the process:

"The trainer clicks at the moment the behavior occurs: the horse raises its hoof, the trainer clicks simultaneously. The dog sits, the trainer clicks. Clicking is like taking a picture of the behavior the trainer wishes to reinforce. After ‘taking the picture,' the trainer gives the animal something it likes, usually a small piece of food. Very soon (sometimes within two or three clicks), an animal will associate the sound of the click with something it likes: the reward. Since it wishes to repeat that pleasurable experience, it will repeat the action it was doing when it heard the click."

So again we're using Pavlov's dogs as a template.

6) Another figurehead of the positive training movement, Jean Donaldson, clicker trained her dog to hump her leg on cue. (I know!) In my experience dogs only exhibit that behavior when they're in a state of frustration, not joy. Yet Donaldson insists that her dog "seems to have fun" doing it. Plus it makes her (Donaldson) laugh. (For the full article, click here.)

Finally (on this point), the fact that +R trainers see joy in the dogs they train doesn't mean much; after all, I'm sure Cesar Millan -- the nemesis of the positive training movement -- sees joy in the eyes of the dogs he works with too.

7) Virginia Morrell writes in Science Magazine: "Dogs are fast becoming the it animal for evolutionary cognition research. Our canine pals, researchers say, are excellent subjects for studying the building blocks underlying mental abilities, particularly those involving social cognition. Their special relationship with humans is also seen as worthy of study in its own right; some researchers see Canis familiaris as a case of convergent evolution with humans because we share some similar behavioral traits. ... Some researchers even think that dogs may teach us more about the evolution ... of our social mind than can our closest kin, the chimpanzee, because Fido is so adept at reading and responding to human communication cues."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Captive & Laboratory Learning vs. The Natural Way

Here's a comment on my latest Psychology Today blog article, along with my reply. If you haven't already read the article you may still be able to follow most of the arguments put forth here.

Laboratory Learning vs. The Natural Way

Comment Submitted by Anonymous on November 6, 2009 - 7:16pm

I really don't feel there is a firm grasp of operant (behavioral) conditioning concepts in place here. Getting your dog to stop picking up trash off the ground by praising him is putting that behavior on stimulus control. This is widely used to eliminate unwanted behaviors-you don't ask for it, you don't get it. And I don't think you can call trying something with a few dogs a "theory." That is an insult to the scientific method, quite frankly.

I appreciate dog owners doing their best to be better owners to their dogs, operant conditioning is ALWAYS at play in every interaction you have with not only every dog, but every human you come into contact with. Behavior is constantly being reinforced or punished.
Operant conditioning is NOT simply positive reinforcement, and anyone who makes that claim (which I will admit has become fairly common) does not understand operant conditioning.

Read Skinner, read the Brelands, read Karen Pryor!!

Operant conditioning is postive and negative reinforcement (both which INCREASE behavior), and positive and negative punishment (designed to DECREASE behavior).
These methods are used to train animals of literally nearly every species in captivity from elephants to whales to sharks to turtles to fish to alligators to cats to rabbits to frogs to fish (zoos and aquariums aquire all KINDS of behavior with it), so please do not disregard something proven to be so universally successful as something that may not really work for dogs. I love dogs, but I am sorry to say they are not any more special or unique than any other animal. Don't "dogthropomorphize" behavior when it is simply behavior that is yes, specifc to dogs, but not so unique that the wheel must be reinvented to accomodate it.

Answer, submitted by Lee Charles Kelley on November 7, 2009 - 7:41am


I don't think you have a firm grasp of what I've written.

1) How was the scavenging behavior put under stimulus control? The general principle for stimulus control is something I'm very familiar with. I use it all the time to teach dogs not to jump up or bark by first teaching them to jump up or bark on command, then teaching them what “Okay, off,” or "Quiet..." means.

Explain how that applies here.

2) I never said that the use of praise to stop a dog from scavenging was the basis of any theory. If you had read my articles more carefully you'd see that this behavioral shift was only presented as an example of learning that can't be explained through the alpha theory or learning theory.

3) The idea that operant conditioning is always at play in every interaction someone has with any animal or human is a myth. Not even a die-hard behaviorist would argue that. (They'd say you're ignoring instances where classical conditioning is at play.) Meanwhile, I would argue (and have) that neither form of conditioning can explain all types of behavior or learning in animals and humans. How does a child learn impulse control by pretending to be a factory guard? Is that operant conditioning? How does operant conditioning explain the scavenging example? Like everyone else, you've only attached a label to the phenomenon, you haven't explained it.

4) As for your reading list, I've read Skinner. Lots of Skinner. I've also read the Brelands. And sad to say, I went through my own Karen Pryor phase, where I thought operant conditioning was the "one true answer." But the more I applied oc principles to dogs the more I realized that the emperor has no clothes. Perhaps you should read Dennett and Chomsky and Pinsky and John Staddon and Gary Cziko.

5) I understand full well the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. I was explaining my approach to dog training yesterday in Riverside Park to a woman who's been training dogs for 6 years using clickers and positive reinforcement. We were discussing the praise issue mentioned here. She seemed to think that whether you're praising a dog or shouting at him you can still be reinforcing the behavior.

"Though shouting," she said, "would be negative, not positive, reinforcement."

"Actually," I said, "if shouting increased the behavior it would still be considered a positive reinforcement."

She didn't understand; she thought I was making it up.

6) The fact that these methods are used to train captive animals means very little. When we base our understanding of learning on the behaviors of animals in captivity we're only seeing a small, unnatural piece of the pie (which is, unfortunately how Skinner’s theory was first developed, in the lab, with animals kept captive in boxes, not walking around in real life). Captive wolves exhibit hierarchical behaviors, wild wolves don't. Why is that? When captive dolphins, who are designed by nature to swim hundreds of miles a day through open waters, are held prisoner in small (to them) tanks, why wouldn't they be willing to perform all sorts of acrobatics for food, or even for praise? What else are they supposed to do with their energy? Could they be trained to do all those things out in the open ocean? No, because in their natural environment they'd have another outlet for their energy.

7) Finally, you're completely misinterpreting my argument for dogthromorphism. I never said we should dogthropomorphize behaviors, but that instead of anthropomorphizing dogs, we should dogthropomorphize ourselves, meaning we should try to see their behavior from their own unique perspective. It may be true that all animals learn the same way, but that way isn't through operant conditioning; it's through the way emotional energy either flows or gets blocked. The satisfying release of emotion is what reinforces behavior and creates learning. Sometimes operant conditioning imitates that process, sometimes it doesn't. Dogs are the clearest window we have into this phenomenon.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How to Redirect Behavior Using Distractions

Here's another puppy tip:

“Distract, Praise, Focus”
Before your puppy's behavior gets this much out of control, you might want to learn a cool trick that can him stop whatever he's doing instantly. Then, once he stops, you'll be to get to get him to immediately re-focus his energy on you, in the most positive way possible. 

I call this exercise, "Distract, Praise, Focus." And here's how to do it.

When your puppy is about to chew something he shouldn’t, make a neutral sound distraction, like a whistle, clapping your hands, etc. Don’t do it too loudly, just loud enough to make the pup stop what he’s doing. Immediately praise the puppy vocally in a high silly voice. This should make the puppy drop what he was doing (or chewing on) and come racing toward you. Keep praising him. When he gets to you, tease him with a toy, then toss it a few feet for him to chase.

Here’s how this works. The puppy is emotionally attracted to an object, like your shoes or the remote. He’s plugged his energy into it, or is about to. Your sound distraction should be loud enough to make him unplug his energy from it on his own. (If it’s too loud it’ll scare him; if it’s not loud enough it won’t have any effect.) Once he’s unplugged his energy from your shoes, etc., you praise him, which will cause him to feel attracted to you. He’ll come running so that he can plug himself into your energy circuits. Then you tease him with the toy (getting him to focus his energy on it), until he’s crazy to bite the toy, then you throw it a few feet and he’ll plug his energy completely into the toy.

If you do this correctly 3 or 4 times, with a particular object, like a shoe, on the 4th or 5th time you do it the pup will go toward the shoe, then stop short, as if he’s been shocked. Then he’ll turn and come running to you. (Pretty cool, huh?)

If you try it and it’s not having the effect described, you may not be giving enough energy in your praise or in your distraction. It helps to use a different sound distraction each time you do it.

This exercise works very well for new puppies. But if you’ve been scolding your pup or taking things away from him, he’ll be more resistant to the exercise.

(For more info, read William Campbell's Behavior Problems in Dogs.)

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Puppy Training, 8 - 12 wks.

I'm adding a new folder, just for puppy stuff. Here's the first installment:

Training for Puppies, 8 to 12 Weeks
 Photo from Decoverly Kennels,Fayetteville, PA

Puppies need to either be closely supervised1 or confined behind a gate in kitchen, bathroom, or hallway, or in a puppy pen, with a water bowl, chew toys, a comfortable bed2 inside an open crate,3 with wee-wee pads covering the floor.4 Puppies take great delight in exploring everything in their path through their teeth and jaws5. They will stop to pee or poop whenever the urge strikes them6. They will bark and cry when left alone7. They will get tired very quickly, but quite often they won’t realize how tired they are. 8

(Some puppies may be lethargic for the first few days. This is usually temporary and due to the shock of adjusting to a brand new environment, but you should consult with your vet to make sure there isn't an underlying medical problem.)

Puppies need to play more than they need structured learning. In fact, the more structured learning you impose on a puppy, the more you open the possibility of creating learning deficits, limit his social and emotional development, decrease impulse control, and guarantee that your pup will be unable to learn as many things as quickly compared to puppies who are given every possible opportunity to engage in unstructured play. The puppy's brain knows naturally what it needs in order to grow and develop. Most dog trainers are not as smart as Mother Nature in this regard, and there's not a dog trainer alive who has more experience than she does.

You’ll need to spend a lot of time down on the floor, playfully interacting with your pup, but the kind of games you play shouldn’t be forced on the puppy. Within reason, the puppy should choose which games and activities feel most important to him at any given moment, and you should follow the puppy’s lead. By the way, doing this will make the puppy feel more open to doing what you want him to do. It will not make him “dominant.”

Try as much as possible not to pick up the puppy, especially if you’re doing it to satisfy your urge to kiss the pup,9 or to stop the puppy from doing something he “shouldn’t” do or getting into something he “shouldn’t” get into by zooming toward him with your outstretched arms looming down at him, and then physically restraining him. And under no circumstances should you ever scold, reprimand, or correct a puppy for anything. You will pay for it dearly when he grows up. So always remember:

If you can’t watch the puppy closely, he should always be in his quiet area.

Cuddle time is important too, but don’t overdo it. There are two questions to ask yourself when it comes to cuddle time: “Am I doing this to satisfy my emotional needs?” and “Am I reinforcing too much neediness in my pup by cuddling when he ‘demands’ it?” You have to strike a careful balance. Puppies need affection and physical comfort, but don't give too much unless you want to spoil your pup.


1) Notice the word, “closely.” This means you’re paying close attention to the pup at all times. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MULTI-TASK! Your puppy’s health, safety, and proper emotional development come first (meaning no yelling at the pup because you weren’t paying attention and she got into something she shouldn’t have).

2) Use light blue towels. Light blue is a relaxing, calming color. And puppy beds are destined to be soiled, chewed, or ripped up. Towels are an inexpensive alternative.

3) Keep the crate door secure so it doesn’t bang shut or hit the wall, etc. For now, going inside the crate should be the pup’s choice, so make it as stress-free as possible. You should also consider putting her dinner bowl inside at breakfast and suppertime.

4) Put newspaper or wee-wee pads on the entire area except for the bed and water bowl. After a few days you’ll see that puppy generally chooses to go on one particular are. Over time you can slowly take up all the other wee-wee pads until only one is left.

5) To ensure proper emotional development, puppies should not only be allowed to do this, they should be encouraged to do it. They should especially be encouraged to mouth your hands, but only at times when they’re feeling relaxed and quiet. (See, “How to Stop Puppy Bites.”) However, there are some things they shouldn’t be chewing on, like electrical wires. The best solution is the puppy-proof your home. Bitter-Apple Spray (or other brands) can be applied to things your puppy shouldn’t chew on. Electrical wires should be placed out of reach, and if you have expensive rugs or carpets, take them up for now and put them in storage. They will get peed on, pooped on, and have their edges chewed when you’re not watching. (See footnote 4, and the “Distract, Praise, Focus,” formula for redirecting your puppy’s teeth away from danger.)

6) Do not ever stop your puppy from relieving herself by peeing or pooping on the wrong spot. Once she’s already in the act, you have to resist the urge to run over and grab her. Take a deep breath, count to ten, then quietly clean it up. Interrupting a puppy while she’s being controlled by a strong (and to her at this age, uncontrollable) urge, will do little to teach her how to go in the right spot, and will do a lot of damage to her ability to trust you.

7) As a general rule, when a new puppy comes into the home they’ll cry when you put them behind the gate, especially at night. You have to ignore the crying or you’ll reinforce it. It may take 45 minutes the first night, 30 minutes the second, and 20 the third night, but eventually the puppy will stop crying out of loneliness. If you give in and try to assuage her loneliness, you’ll only be guaranteeing that she’ll bark and bark and bark whenever she feels needy. You have to tough it out those first few nights.

In case you haven’t figured it out, this means you cannot and should not let a new puppy sleep in bed with you. Make sure you give her plenty of play time about an hour or so before bed, with a 20 minute cool-down period. If you want to cuddle with her on the floor, or hold her in your lap while she falls asleep, that’s fine. But once she’s making ZZZs, gently pick her up and put her behind her gate, turn out the light, and pray.

8) Overtired puppies are very similar to overtired kids. They just need an enforced nap.

9) On an unconscious, knee-jerk level, dogs react to a big head coming toward their head as a potential act of aggression. It’s okay to teach a puppy to give you kisses, but the pup should also come toward you to do that. It’s better not to move your head toward the pup. Few puppies are going to actually bite you over this, but it does create unconscious feelings of nervous tension toward you. So try to remember not to kiss your puppy; let your puppy kiss you (if she feels like it).

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Do Dogs Like to "Kiss" Us?

The following is taken from my column at

Why Do Dogs Like to "Kiss" Us?
They're sublimating their urge to bite.

In the Mike Nichols film, Wolf, Will Randall, a meek, downtrodden book editor (played by Jack Nicholson), is bitten by a wolf one winter night and finds himself becoming more and more in tune with his primal nature. He can smell things like tequila on a co-worker's breath from clear across the building. He can hear people talking from several floors away. He can read and edit whole manuscripts without his reading glasses.

Worried that the changes he's experiencing may have also caused a nocturnal blackout, Randall goes to see Dr. Alezais, an expert in animal lore. Toward the end of the interview the aging Dr. Alezais reveals that he's been told that he's dying. However, he thinks that if Will Randall were to bite him, he might become strong like the wolf and live forever.

"I can't ask you to transform me with your passions," Alezais says.

"I can only ask you to honor me with your bite."

My dog Freddie was punished for biting when he was a puppy. This created some behavioral problems later on (severe panic attacks) that took me a while to unravel. However, once I did, I observed a funny, and very sweet side-effect to the new emotional freedom he felt once his fears were gone. Before that, whenever we came home from our walks, he would wait at the top of the first landing, and as I came up and got close to him, he would lick my nose in a kind of ... what, a "submissive greeting?" Perhaps, though he really wasn't the submissive type.
But oddly enough, once I'd helped him resolve his fears, whenever we came home and I got near the top of the landing, instead of licking me he'd slowly incline his head toward mine and use his front teeth to lightly pinch the tip of my nose. The experience was thrilling; it often gave me goose bumps. He used his teeth so gently and so precisely, it felt to me as if he was re-establishing an emotional connection between us that had previously been lost.

Wolves make a living with their teeth. Predators aren't designed to be social animals because their urge to bite has to be kept under lock and key around other members of their group, otherwise there'd be bloodshed. And yet wolves are very social; they live together in almost complete harmony and are extremely cooperative when hunting. They even have the ability to share food, eating side-by-side, once their prey has been killed. This is pretty remarkable given the Darwinian view of nature as a cut-throat enterprise, even among members of the same animal group.

To me, all canine behavior is essentially a process of tension and release. When emotional energy builds up in a dog's system, it creates tension which then needs to find a release point through behavior. For wolves the most complete and most satisfying release of tension comes either through biting prey (during the hunt) or copulating (during mating season). In other words nearly everything a wolf does is a sublimation of his urge to bite (his prey drive), or his urge to mate (his sex drive).

One way of sublimating the urge to bite is "submissive" licking, commonly thought to be how a wolf appeases a more "dominant" pack member. But a) dominant and submissive behaviors are so rare in wild wolf packs as to be virtually non-existent, and b) if a wolf's emotional energy is geared to always be expressed primarily through biting, and c) if he also wants to maintain pack harmony at all costs, he may very well lick his pack mate's lips or chin, instead of biting them.

Submission? Probably not.

Sublimation? Probably so.

It's been suggested (I think by Desmond Morris) that when dogs kiss us (which is anthropomorphic, since a kiss involves puckering the lips, and a dog's lips don't pucker), they do so because that's how wolf pups get their parents to regurgitate a meal when they come back to the den.

This doesn't make sense to me. It's like taking a decal from one behavior and sticking it onto another. Dogs are very practical and context-oriented. It would be very unusual for a dog to take a behavior specifically related to her parents, and somehow apply it to human beings. For one thing dogs move through space on the horizontal axis. Humans are vertical. There's no way a dog could mistake a human being for another dog. Also, dogs don't just lick our lips, they lick our noses, our ears, our hands and feet. And the more stressed a dog is, the more he tends to lick. Plus dogs lick us a lot more when they're puppies than they do when they're adults. Why? Puppies feel a lot more oral tension than adult dogs do.

There's one more thing to consider. When humans smile it's considered a signal of good will. But to a chimpanzee a smile communicates fear. Similarly, when a puppy sees your big human head coming toward him, a part of him reacts with fear, and that part wants to bite you. But unlike wolves, dogs make their living with their hearts, not their teeth. They have strong feelings of love and affection for their owners. Plus, they retain the genetic knack of maintaining group harmony at all costs. So when your dog sees you come leaning in for a kiss, he sublimates his urge to bite, and licks you instead. Then, over time, as he accrues more and more feelings of trust on top of the love he already feels, he finds that licking you actually feels good, not just because it releases his nervous tension, but also because of how it makes you feel. (Our feelings are very important to our dogs; they're like the sails and rudders they use to navigate their way through their relationships with us.)

That's the simple, dog-centric genesis of why dogs lick us: it's a way of sublimating their urge to bite. That's why Freddie licked me when I reached the top of the stairs, back before his fears of being punished for biting went away. It's also why he replaced the less satisfying release he got from licking me, and started giving me those tender little love bites on the tip of my nose. He finally felt free enough to share a tiny bit of his deepest and most primal nature with me.
He honored me with his bite.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Canine Mind Doth Make Fools of Us All

The following is taken directly from my PsychologyToday blog...

The Canine Mind Doth Make Fools of Us All
In an earlier post - "From Pavlov to Pauli..." - I wrote that, scientifically speaking, all canine behavior can and should be explained from an emotional/energetic point of view rather than a mental framework. I even kind of bragged, perhaps foolishly, that I could do just that.

In my most recent article - "Smart Pooches or Dumb Science?" - I critiqued a recent spate of online articles and TV news blurbs in which psychologist Stanley Coren quite wrongly states that dogs are better at math than 2-year-olds.

Here's CNN's version of one "study" supposedly proving that dogs can count and perhaps even do arithmetic: "Counting ability is tested in drills such as one in which treats are dropped, one at a time, behind a screen. When the researcher either sneaks away one of the treats or stealthily adds an extra before raising the screen, the dog will wait longer - appearing to puzzle over the bad math - before eating the treats."

In rebuttal I gave some of the scientific evidence for the idea that all animals, not just dogs, have an innate number sense, which enables them to know when the general amount of salient features of their environment has changed: robins and their eggs, for example, or dogs and their treats or toys. (This "number sense "can also be found in 4-and-a-half-month-old babies, by the way.)

However, I think the concept of animals or even babies having a "number sense" is inaccurate because understanding numbers - 1, 2, 3, 10, 3/5ths, pi - is language dependent. Without the use of words, animals and babies can't put names to abstract numeric concepts, or even to concrete objects like eggs or toys. It seems to me that the thing they're actually aware of is the changes that take place in their environment: the absence or presence of things that were or weren't there before. And they calibrate these changes viscerally, via the changes in own their internal energy states.

Since in my "Pavlov to Pauli" article I proposed the idea that I could explain any and all behavioral phenomenon in dogs from just such an energetic standpoint, I'll attempt to do so here.

Imagine you're at a party. Your mind is full of thoughts: "God, those cheese thingies were good, I wonder if they have any more," or, "Hey, Shelia looks good in that," or, "I hope the kids aren't terrorizing the babysitter," and possibly, "Uh-oh, there's that awful bore, what's-his-name? I hope he doesn't try to harangue me again with his theories about how dogs have better math skills than toddlers."

These are all thoughts. But beneath these thoughts your body is busy accommodating its inner "radar" to the underlying press of stimuli around you: the buzz of conversation, the brief bursts of laughter, the tempo and level of the music, the clinking of ice in glasses, and the almost constant sense of kinetic energy, people shifting between groups of 2 or 3, etc. You're not thinking much if anything about all this, but your body's internal radar is. It's constantly calibrating and recalibrating itself to accommodate these fluctuations in energy. (Since a stimulus is, by definition, anything that increases the energy in an organism, that's exactly what your body is responding to: fluctuations in energy.)

At some point you ask the hostess if you can use her bathroom. She nods, points the way, you go down the hall, make a left, go inside the bathroom, start the water running in the sink, etc. And, while you're thus engaged, a large chunk of people decide to go to another venue: perhaps out back to see the pool, perhaps they all have theater tickets. It doesn't matter. Approximately half the people, let's say, are suddenly gone, disappeared.

When you come out of the bathroom you go into a mild state of shock. Your first thought is, "Wow, where did everybody go?" though you don't really care where they went, you just want to know how they all disappeared so quickly. And the reason you're shocked is that your unconscious mind has to re-calibrate itself viscerally to this sudden change in the environment, this huge shift in energy. (This is not a mental process, by the way; the mind rarely concerns itself with fluctuations in energy, but the body is always doing so.)

Okay, now back to dogs.

Remember, the researchers showed the dogs in their study a certain number of treats then dropped the treats behind a screen, added or subtracted some, then revealed the new "amount" to the dogs.

Coren interprets all this as follows: "Now we're giving [the dog] the wrong equation which is 1+1 = 1, or 1+1 = 3. Sure enough, studies show the dogs get it. The dog acts surprised and stares at it for a longer period of time, just like a human kid would."

The dogs "get it?" Right. Except that from the dog's point of view this is more like three-card monte or a magic trick done by an annoying relative - pulling a quarter from a kid's ear or doing the "where'd my thumb go?" trick - than actual arithmetic.

Now put yourself in the dog's shoes. You're in place where there's food and people, sort of like a party. Humans are showing you some treats, so you pay attention. Those treats are magnetic to you. They're buzzing with all kinds of potential energy. As far as your body is concerned, they're the most salient feature of your environment. Then these humans do a magic trick where one of the treats is suddenly no longer there or another one is suddenly, inexplicably present. And like the partygoer coming out of the bathroom, you go into a mild state of shock: you have a look of "surprise" on your "face." But it's not because you've done any mental arithmetic. It's because your body's awareness of its surroundings is forced to make a sudden adjustment. In short, you've been fooled.

Stanley Coren has had a long and distinguished academic career. His research on sensory perception is top notch. His paper "Sensation and Perception" is required reading on the subject at university levels. He's a bestselling author, and has also written some very interesting articles on dogs here. So I have to wonder why he sometimes seems totally incapable of using any kind of real critical judgment when it comes to the subject of canine cognition. He can't really believe this stuff, can he? If he does, I guess it's true that when it comes to dogs, even the smartest people can be very easily fooled. I think that says less about Coren, though, than it does about what truly amazing animals dogs are.

They can fool even the best of us without even trying.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Monday, August 10, 2009

Smart Dogs or Dumb Science? You Do the Math...

I'm sad to have to report that AOL, MSNBC, and CNN have all proclaimed in their headlines this weekend: "Dogs Smarter than Toddlers, New Study Shows" (AOL), and "Your family dog may be smarter than your toddler!" (CNN). I'm sad because it's been my experience, as a dog trainer, that the more that "science" tries to prove how "smart" dogs are, the more dogs suffer as a consequence. (See my article at, "How Dogs Think: The Debate Between Emotion and Logic.")

Smart Dogs or Dumb Science? You Do the Math...
Here's the opening line from AOL: "The canine IQ test results are in: Even the average dog has the mental abilities of a 2-year-old child."

Really? According to what scale? Stanford-Binet? Or Bichon-Frise?

"The finding," AOL goes on to say, "is based on a language development test, revealing average dogs can learn 165 words (similar to a 2-year-old child), including signals and gestures, and dogs in the top 20 percent in intelligence can learn 250 words."

Oh, I see.

First of all, that's not only not true, it's not even news. That information (or disinformation) can be found in Stanley Coren's first book on dogs published 15 years ago. Coren (both in that book and in the recent online articles) somehow equates a dog's ability to respond, behaviorally, to cues of any kind - including words, hand gestures, whistles, even just picking up its leash - with the ability to both understand the meanings of words and to actually use them in speech. And many two-year olds are not only able to speak, they're also capable of using words in new and unexpected ways. Plus, on a basic level they inherently understand that words are symbols; they represent things. Now, I love dogs, but they don't have anything close to this kind of linguistic aptitude. So comparing simple behavioral responses to verbal or visual cues with actual linguistic ability is not just like comparing apples and oranges, it's like comparing apples and a recipe for apple pie, or what might be even more appropriate, comparing apples and "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

The recent online articles go on to claim that dogs can also count, add and subtract, and can do simple math much better than a toddler.

Again, really?

From CNN: "Counting ability is tested in drills such as one in which treats are dropped, one at a time, behind a screen. When the researcher either sneaks away one of the treats or stealthily adds an extra before raising the screen, the dog will wait longer - appearing to puzzle over the bad math - before eating the treats."

"Now we're giving him the wrong equation," Coren says of the final part of the study. "The dog acts surprised and stares at it for a longer period of time, just like a human kid would."
The implication here is that the reason the dogs are staring is because they've added up the number of treats in their heads before the screen was removed and have now discovered that some are either missing or that new ones have magically appeared.

But which is more likely, that dogs are able to feel an emotional attraction to certain things in their environment - toys, treats, other dogs - and can therefore "sense" when something's missing (or has been added)? Or that they engage in some form of mental arithmetic and count out, by number, how many things were there initially and either do addition or subtraction to "figure" it all out?

Here's an idea: what if the study had been done with objects that didn't interest the dogs? Toddlers can be taught to count on their fingers and toes, or to count the number of cats in a drawing, or to count spoons or matchsticks or cracks in the sidewalk or other items that wouldn't interest a dog in the slightest. Plus, how do the researchers know the dogs were really surprised when the screen was removed and weren't just feeling uncertain as to what the researchers wanted them to do next? To me this "study" seems to be a perfect example of confirmation bias, and as I wrote in a recent article here, "Dogs are confirmation bias with a tail." They'll do pretty much whatever you want them to, especially if there's nothing else very interesting (to them) going on at the time.

What Coren (and the "reporters" at AOL, MSNBC, and CNN) have failed to mention is that all animals, including rats and even some insects, have a basic "number sense." It's innate, it's hard-wired, it doesn't require arithmetic. Never mind toddlers; even 5-month old babies have this ability. So no, dogs aren't better at math than toddlers. Far from it.

In Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, and Rafael E. Núñez, a psychologist, argue that even the most abstract mathematical constructs arise from how the brain and physical body interact together with the world. They write, "Animals have numerical abilities -- not just primates but raccoons, rats, and even parrots and pigeons. They can subitize [instantly and fairly accurately perceive the numbers of things in a very small collection, as a robin might do with her eggs or a dog with his toys], estimate numbers, and count [just] as four-and-a-half-month-old babies can." (p. 21)

However, Coren insists, "These studies suggest dogs have a basic understanding of arithmetic, and they can count to four or five."

First of all, having an innate sense of quantity - again as a robin would with her eggs or a dog would with his toys - and having a "basic understanding of arithmetic" are two entirely different things. We're back to comparing apples to ... I don't know, multiplication tables. We could carry Coren's logic even further and ask: when a dog catches a Frisbee in mid-flight has he done some form of differential calculus in his head in order to predict the object's trajectory? Of course not; it's a simple sensori-motor skill. (Maybe not so simple, but the dog's behavior is not based on math or other feats of intellect.)

And while it may be true that dogs can be taught to "count to five," their ability to do this is not in the same ball park as a toddler's: not even close. (Remember, dogs don't have the ability to use language, therefore they have no words for numbers.)

In 1930, mathematician Tobias Dantzig first proposed the idea that animals and humans have a kind of mental accumulator, giving them what he called a "number sense." This is not the ability to count but a natural sense of knowing when something has changed in a small collection of items. In The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, modern French mathematician and cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene writes: "Whatever its exact neuronal implementation, if the accumulator model is correct, two conclusions must necessarily follow. First, animals can count, since they are able to increase an internal counter each time an external event occurs. Second, they do not count exactly as we do." (34) (Dehaene disagrees with Dantzig about what "counting" means - but then, one was German the other French.)

It's true, though, in a way. I taught my own dog Freddie to "count" to 5 many years ago: I would give him a number between 1 and 5 and then give him a treat if he barked 2, or 3, or whatever number of times I asked him to. But I didn't reward him if he barked out the "wrong" number. And sure enough, after repeating this procedure over and over many times, Fred learned to bark in accordance with the number given. The thing is - and maybe it's just because I have a different sensibility than Coren and others - I never got the impression that Freddie understood what he was doing. It was purely a rote behavior; he wanted that treat. That's light years away from "having a basic understanding of arithmetic."

So are these recent articles really a case of smart dogs? Or is it just more dumb science?

I'll let you do the math.