Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dominance, Reward-Based, or Drive Training?

Which Method Makes the Most Sense?

In the Flow

There are 3 main models for training pet dogs:
1) The dominance (or pack leader) model,
2) The reward-based (or operant conditioning) model,   
3) and drive training (using a dog’s prey drive). 

The pack leader model is based primarily on stress-related behaviors found in captive wolves, and sometimes in wild wolves, but not in domesticated dogs (who don’t form packs). The positive reinforcement model originated with the ways rats and pigeons were taught to press or peck levers in a research laboratory. Natural Dog Training is based on the behaviors of a) wolves who work in harmony while hunting as a group, and b) dogs who, for thousands of years, have been trained to find and retrieve game, and to herd and guard our sheep and cattle, etc.

s My Motivation?

The motivation for learning via the dominance model comes from an instinct dogs supposedly have to submit to the authority of their “pack leader.” In operant conditioning the motive for learning is to garner “positive reinforcements” associated with obedience behaviors. Natural Dog Training describes behavior as an emotional flow system rather than as a binary, stop-and-start dynamic (dominance), or as points on a graph (positive reinforcements).

If we look at this from the dog’s point of view we can see that being dominated is not necessarily a pleasurable experience, though it might be for some dogs I suppose. Getting a reward is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes not, like when a dog is deeply involved in something that satisfies his instincts and emotions. For instance, you may be able to lure some dogs away from a squirrel using a favorite treat, but others will ignore you. Meanwhile, being in a state of flow—as happens during play—is always pleasurable. (The key to training a dog to pay attention to you instead of chasing squirrels is to provide an alternative behavior that
’s even more satisfying.)
There are other fundamental problems with both models because dominance, and reinforcers are concepts or generalized categories of things, and dogs don’t think conceptually or place things into categories. For instance, from a technical standpoint positive reinforcements aren’t actual, physical things. As mentioned before, they’re points on a graph. If they appear with enough regularity, then they qualify as reinforcements. We all know that dominance is about having a superior rank or higher status, etc., over someone else. But rank and status aren’t visceral and concrete; they’re conceptual in nature. And you can’t chase, bite or pee on a concept. That’s one problem. Another is that it’s impossible to make comparisons or to put things into categories without the ability to use and understand language. (It’s true dogs recognize verbal cues but that’s not the same thing as understanding concepts and categories.)

Each method works, or is said to work, around certain principles. Pack leader methods work via dominance and submission. Behavioral science works via punishment and reward. But drive training works via the physical properties of tension, release, and flow, meaning that dogs are motivated by a pleasurable release from internal tension or stress, thereby attaining a state of flow. It’s true that acting “submissive” or working to attain rewards may sometimes provide those feelings, which may be one reason why most trainers using these methods find that they work just fine. But only drive training is specifically designed to motivate learning in ways that dogs innately understand: “My energy was blocked but now it’s flowing!”

“My energy is flowing? What is this, dog training for hippies?” I don’t mean to offend you, but that’s utterly ridiculous!!

Your Dog, Sigmund Freud & Flow Dynamics
I’m not offended. The truth is that dogs trained the natural way are very obedient and responsive, and are very focused on their owner’s commands, as if obeying their “pack leader.” We also use a lot of food and praise. So if either a dominance trainer or a reward-based trainer saw one of us working he or she would have one of three possible reactions, depending on what we were doing or working on at the time: “This is pure dominance,” they might say, or “It looks like positive reinforcement to me.” The third response would be something along the lines of: “Wait, what did you just do? How does that work?” or “I've never seen anything like that before.”

And the thing is, when we talk about flow, we’re not being whimsical or speaking in a figurative manner. Flow is a very real and very important part of all natural systems, from tectonic plates, to ocean currents, to the way bees, butterflies and eagles ride air currents, to the way jellyfish capture prey, to the way an audience at a movie or concert are swept up in the emotions of the moment, even to the way dogs play together.

Let’s look at our own bodies. There are numerous flow systems in operation: the bloodstream, the lungs, the digestive system, the renal system, the endocrine system, even the movement of electrical impulses passing between neurons in the brain can be described as a flow system. And whenever any of these systems is obstructed in some way, it creates very real feelings of tension, pressure and stress (except in the brain, which doesn’t feel anything), and can even cause the system to shut down completely, resulting in death.

In nature, whenever a flow system meets an obstruction it puts pressure on the system, causing stress. In a river an obstruction might be a boulder. The increase in water pressure causes a smooth flow to become turbulent. If the river is obstructed by a dam, on the other hand, the water behind the dam may seem very quiet and serene; and it is. But it’s also putting a tremendous amount of pressure, structurally-speaking, on the dam. It’s only when the dam fails that you’d actually see the effects of that pressure.

In a like manner, when you become cognizant of how stress operates and exerts its influence on canine behavior, you can see the cracks begin to form before the problem has fully developed. And it’s always best to catch such problems sooner than later, if you can.

All that aside, just being alive causes emotional pressure and stress. The minute you wake up in the morning your adrenal glands increase production of a stress hormone called cortisol. The same is true for dogs. And research has shown that normal levels of cortisol motivate us to do things. In fact many of us elevate our own levels of cortisol artificially each morning with caffeine or nicotine, as a way of further motivating ourselves. And when cortisol levels go up, so does our blood pressure.
(Cortisol is also directly associated with learning.)

Cortisol was discovered in 1937. But Sigmund Freud described the way inner tension and pressure motivate behavior 17 years earlier in his treatise, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” He said that “the course taken by mental events … is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, and that it takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension” resulting in “a production of pleasure.” [The Freud Reader, 594, 595.]

Freud rightly thought of the body and mind as a flow system. Internal pressures brought on by unresolved emotions or repressed instincts increase our blood pressure, just as cortisol, nicotine and caffeine do. This motivates us to behave in ways we hope might minimize those feelings. On a certain level, the same is true for dogs; they too behave in ways that they hope or have found by experience will minimize tension and stress, creating a pleasurable release.

I know it seems odd to talk about teaching a puppy to sit or heel and bring this stuff about Freud and stress hormones into the discussion. But remember, we’re discussing the differences between the ways dominance, positive reinforcement, and drive training all motivate learning. And only drive training operates specifically via the reduction of internal tension and stress.

Still, isn’t it simpler to just reward a dog? Why complicate things with all this talk about flow? The dog associates good behavior with a reward and that’s how he learns, right?

The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Behavior modification via positive reinforcement doesn’t work—at least not for very long—unless you constantly change the pattern of reinforcement by using one of a number of very complicated reinforcement schedules and contingencies, which if mistimed or misapplied can backfire.

Karen Pryor, a figurehead of the positive training movement, wrote on her blog in 2006: “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 very disconcerting. If two or three expected reinforcers fail to materialize, the animal may simply give up and quit on you.”

This accidentally proves (or at least strongly suggests) that behavior is not learned through positive reinforcers but through the reduction of internal tension or stress: the more stressed a dog is (up to a point)—as with the uncertainty that comes when you correctly change the pattern of reinforcement—the deeper the behavior is learned once the pattern is recognized. In fact new research shows that animals may not learn via association. They learn through pattern recognition, and that dopamine—a neurotransmitter that’s long been thought of as the brain’s “reward” chemical—is actually released when animals detect changing patterns in the environment, both pleasant and unpleasant.

B. F. Skinner formed the concepts of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning partly because he felt it was unscientific of Freud to describe behavior in terms of a person’s thoughts and feelings. How can we know with any certainty what another person or organism is thinking or feeling? Besides, even though Skinner was heavily influenced by Freud's work, quoted him extensively, and even agreed wholeheartedly with some of his major concepts, Skinner believed that all behavior was the product of conditioning, and that thoughts and feelings were irrelevant (In fact Skinner said that thoughts and feelings were products of conditioning.)

So Skinner set out to create a means of showing how conditioning takes place based on pure mathematics. However, to make sure his theory worked he fasted the animals in his research laboratory to two-thirds of their normal body weight, then placed them inside locked boxes. He did this to make sure they would only respond to environmental cues that he created, such as food suddenly appearing whenever the animal accidentally pressed a lever at the same moment that a light flashed. And sure enough the animals learned to press the lever when the light flashed, etc. But since they were subjected to physiological and psychological stress from being hungry and locked in boxes, Skinner also proved—accidentally—that stress-reduction is the real mechanism behind all learning. (Skinner would say the mechanism is irrelevant; the fact that they exhibited conditioned responses was all that mattered.)

Going back to dopamine, remember? The “reward” chemical in the brain? Freud predicted its discovery—as well as the discovery of endorphins and other, natural “feel-good” chemicals found in all mammals—in his 1930 book, Civilization and Its Discontents. Yet for years his views of psychology were deemed outmoded by many. Now, thanks to advances in neuroscience, Skinner's theories have fallen apart while Freud’s are more relevant than ever. (As one example see: “The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas,” R. L. Carhart-Harris and K. J. Friston, Februrary 28, 2010, Brain: Oxford Journals.)

And how do dopamine and other neurotransmitters and hormones to find their way to the parts of the body and brain that need them? 
They flow.

In a 2004 article for Scientific American Mind, Dr. Mark Solms wrote: “Freud’s broad brushstroke organization of the mind is destined to play a role similar to the one Darwin’s theory of evolution served for molecular genetics—a tem­plate on which emerging details can be coherently arranged.” And: “At the deep level of mental organi­zation that Freud called the Id, the func­tional anatomy and chemistry of our brains is not much different from that of our ... house­hold pets.”

Meanwhile operant conditioning seems destined for the scientific dustbin, if it’s not there already. The only area where it’s still considered the “gold standard” by some people is in animal training: pet dogs, helper monkeys, and training dolphins and killer whales to do tricks in tanks at water parks, training that can unfortunately backfire with disastrous results, as happened at Sea World in April of 2010 when an orca killed his trainer. One has to wonder if this would have happened if the orca had been trained with the concept of flow, rather than positive reinforcement, in mind.

Okay, enough about Freud and flow and orcas and positive reinforcement. What about “pack leader” training? That seems to work just fine without all this mumbo-jumbo.

Dominance and Submission

The main problem with the “pack leader” model is that, from a scientific point of view, dominance and submission can only take place between two animals of the same species who are also members of the same social group. For instance, a wolf may be said to “dominate” other members of his pack, but not wolves from other packs, and definitely not geese, elk or human beings. By the same token, a human can’t “dominate” a dog—except in a somewhat fanciful way—because we’re members of two different species.

Another wrinkle is that pack formation is always a function of prey size, meaning canines only form packs when they need to hunt large prey such as elk or bison. For instance, wolves who live near garbage dumps don’t need to hunt large prey, so they don’t form packs. And coyotes, who are normally solitary hunters, form packs in the winter when their usual provender, small prey, is scarce. And finally, domesticated dogs don’t form packs at all, ever, not even when living a feral existence. Pack formation is always about hunting large prey, and feral dogs lack that ability. So without the capacity to form a pack how could dogs be motivated by a supposed human “pack leader?” Mind you, I’m not saying these techniques don't work, just that they don’t work because your dog thinks you’re his “pack leader.”

Still another problem is that not all packs have clearly visible dominance hierarchies. (Some scientists say these are just “latent” hierarchies.) Dr. David Mech, who many think is the world’s leading expert on wolves, once wrote that “Dominance contests are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.” (“Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs,” Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1999.)

The packs Mech studied at that time were small, mom-and-pop units (which eventually gave rise to an alternative term for the “pack leader,” the current, politically-correct term, “pack parent”). In other packs Mech studied, dominant behaviors were more prevalent, usually because of changes in pack structure, usually related to an increase in the size of the pack.

So it certainly seems to be the case that when wolves are kept in captivity, or when a pack has grown beyond the optimal size necessary for successful hunting (which peaks at around 4-5 wolves) that social friction starts to become more and more readily apparent than it is in smaller, wild packs. And, logically speaking, that’s likely to be the case because being held in captivity, or living in a pack that’s too large to sustain itself, would cause an increase in stress across the pack as a whole, bringing us back to—you guessed it—cortisol! In fact, the most “dominant” member of any animal group generally produces the highest amount of cortisol! (Remember, cortisol doesn’t cause stress, it’s just a canary in the coal mine telling us that stress is present.)

And unlike positive reinforcement techniques, whose scientific provenance is impeccable (if a bit creaky), not only is there no real scientific basis for the idea that a dogs see us as their pack leaders, there are also no scientific studies showing that dominance techniques are effective. In fact there are several showing the exact opposite.

So while dominance techniques may work with some dogs in some situations, they don’t work for the reasons “pack leader” trainers say they do.

This is why I think it’s important to understand how and why stress reduction and attaining a pleasurable state of emotional flow are the primary mechanisms for motivating all behaviors in dogs. And it’s very easy to tell when your dog is in a state of flow. He’ll have a relaxed yet dynamic demeanor, much like an athlete who’s having a good day on the ball field. But if your dog is too needy of attention, for example, it means things aren’t flowing properly. And, if he’s acting aggressive then things are flowing, but in a turbulent rather than a smooth manner.

Knowing these dynamics exist, and having the ability to see them as they play out in your dog’s daily behavior, will enable you to become your dog’s stress-relief mechanism, putting both iof you into a pleasurable state of flow, which will also put you in total control of every aspect of your dog’s behavior, but in a really cool, really fun way for both of you.

By the way, flow is the reason most dogs love to swim, chase Frisbees and tennis balls, run agility courses, go for car rides, etc. And it’s the real reason wolves follow the pack leader.” He’s able to generate more flow than they do, and they’re simply caught in his wake.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thoughts on Being a Dog Trainer

Why Have So Many People Suddenly Become Dog Trainers?

To me, being a dog trainer is a gift and a calling. It’s not something you can learn overnight, or become skilled at simply by hanging out at the dog run, reading books, watching Animal Planet, or by looking at training videos (though theres nothing wrong with doing any of that). Yet in the past 10 years or so the number of people in New York City who’ve decided that they’re professional dog trainers has increased exponentially. One of my clients told me that when she first arrived here with her dog, nearly everyone she met on the street or in the park claimed to be a dog trainer, and had a business card to prove it.

The truth is not everyone who claims to be a dog trainer is really equipped for the task. For instance, there’s a veterinary behaviorist I know of, who’s a widely-acclaimed expert on dogs. He gives seminars around the country. He’s written numerous books and produced several videos on training. And yet, by most reports, he’s not a very good dog trainer. He seems to have no clue as to what really makes dogs tick. On his blog, not long ago, he even asked the question: “Why isn’t dog training working as well as it used to?”

Meanwhile, I know of a guy here in the city, who makes his living as dog walker, yet in my book he’s the second-best dog trainer in New York even though no one has ever heard of him. 

Why the difference? 

Simple: one understands textbooks, the other understands dogs.

It’s also important to realize that there’s a vast difference between being an obedience instructor—someone who teaches classes on how to train dogs to sit, give paw, etc—and being a dog trainer—someone who understands all aspects of canine behavior, training and learning, and who is capable of taking any dog, at either end of the aggressive/fearful spectrum, and turning that wounded animal into a happy, emotionally-balanced, and well-behaved family pet. And in most cases, the key to becoming someone like that, someone who can do that on a regular basis, is threefold: 1) you have to have natural aptitude for it, 2) you have to spend years studying dogs, how they learn and behave, under any and all conditions, and 3) you have to either study with or have some kind of direct contact with a master trainer.

So, if you’d like to become a real dog trainer—someone who can make a real and lasting difference in a dog’s life, and in the lives of the people who love him—be aware of what’s required. 

It takes more than a business card.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Charles Darwin and the Dominance Meme, Part 2

Does Human Observation Create Dominance Hierarchies?

“Although it has been shown that in horses … dominance hierarchies are so poorly developed as to be invisible, needing artificially created competition to develop, … there is a reluctance on the parts of both trainers and some scientists to abandon human attitudes about dominance.”
—Lucy Rees, horse trainer

The Baby and the Bathwater 
Some readers may think that I’ve been embarking on a fool’s errand in trying to make arguments against the idea of dominance hierarchies in social animals. However, I’m not alone in this regard. Some scientists have tried, with little progress, to dismiss the idea of hierarchies entirely. Others, who still believe the myth, and who toil honestly in the vineyards of animal behavior, are fond of the phrase “Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater,” meaning just because there are gaps in logic pertaining to how and why some social animals seem to form dominance hierarchies, the really important stuff remains.

But are there contradictions in dominance theories? 

Yes. And as usual, the clearest window into these contradictions comes from David Mech, who is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, the best wolf researcher currently working in the field.

These two quotes sum things up perfectly.

“Dominance contests are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.”                                                
—L. David Mech, 1999.

“Dominance is one of the most pervasive and important behaviors among wolves in a pack.”                            
—L. David Mech, 2010.
So according to Mech dominant behaviors are a) so rare as to possibly not exist at all, and b) so pervasive that they’re a profoundly important part of every wolf pack’s daily life.

When I was writing for I was surprised and shocked when Dr. Marc Bekoff told me that he’d never heard of anything like Mech’s first statement in the literature. How could Dr. Bekoff have not known about it? Would knowing that have changed his perceptions concerning the many flaws in dominance theory?

The second quote comes from a 2010 paper by Mech and Dean Cluff, which concerns an incident observed in 2009, where the leader of a large pack of wolves (20+) on Ellesmere Island repeatedly pinned and re-pinned a younger wolf, possibly (according to Mech and Cluff) one of his own offspring, for the purpose of “pack dispersion” (hypothetically motivating the youngster to go start his own pack).

The only real question of interest here (again according to Mech and Cluff) is the length of time that the older wolf spends doing this, which they suggest might have been due to the fact that the older wolf had recently been shot with a tranquilizer dart (for the purpose of attaching a radio collar). They eventually dismiss this idea, but ask openly if anyone else has seen such a long and continuous bout of “dominance” in wild wolf packs.

So why is there a seemingly conflicting difference between Mechs two statements? Did conditions on Ellesmere Island change substantially between the late 1980s and 1990s to what they were in 2009? Was there a difference in the technology of the radio collars? (It’s been shown that even weak electromagnetic frequencies can affect the brains and nervous systems—and thus the behaviors—of humans and animals.) Being anesthetized can also cause an animal or human deep stress, and since hierarchies are more apparent when animals are under stress, was there a difference in the types of anesthetic darts used? And, finally, since Mech has said that one of the draws for traveling above the Arctic Circle to study wolves in the wild was that the packs there had no fear of human beings, making them ideal subjects for study. So did the wolves gradually learn to become wary of humans? After all, if a wolf could avoid being shot with a tranquilizer dart, she would probably do so. 

The Stressful Effects of Human Observation

“Just when we think we know it all ...”

—Marc Bekoff, 2013

Biologist Thelma Rowell, who studied baboons in the wild, got into hot water with the scientific community back in the 1960s when she questioned the idea of animal hierarchies. She said they didn’t seem to exist in the baboons she studied. In the 1970s, Shirley Strum took a stronger stance, claiming that dominance hierarchies were a myth.

The differences both women saw in baboon behavior were seemingly related to one thing: stress. Captive baboons, who were under more stress than those living in their natural habitat, formed dominance hierarchies. Wild baboons didn’t. 

This coincides with what Dr. Mech reported in the late 1990s—that captive wolves also behave differently than those living in the wild. And according to Rowell captive animals only form dominance hierarchies under two sets of conditions: a) where the animals are total strangers to one another, and b) where they lack ready access to resources available to those living in the wild. 

Rowell took this idea even further. In her book The Concept of Social Dominance (1974) she wrote, “The experimenter will report that his trials have demonstrated a dominance relationship between the monkeys while in fact they (the trials) have actually caused it.” (p. 136.) 

In fact, Rowell went on to say that dominance hierarchies only exist where the observer creates them. 

In a piece at, Dr. Marc Bekoff writes about how the behaviors of animals change in very substantial ways when they’re aware of predators in their environment. (His article is the source of the quote at the top of this section.)

Bekoff: “It's not an overstatement to say that many animals live in constant fear. Consider the reintroduction of grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. While most of the attention focused on these magnificent animals, biologist John Laundré was more interested in the elk who had been living in the park.”

Bekoff recounts the realization that Laundre came to: wolves don't just kill elk, they also change the elk’s daily behavior simply by living in the same general area. This is true in other habitats as well. Whenever predators live in the same environment—they don’t even have to live in close proximity to their prey—it creates a perpetual state of apprehension and stress in the local prey animals. 

Wolves are known as apex predators, meaning they’re at the top of the heap: no other animal preys on the wolf, at least no other non-human animal does. But since humans are the only animal that poses a real and serious danger, it would make sense that wolves might behave differently when they feel our presence in their environment, particularly if we’re also shooting them with tranquilizer darts. 

If stress is the chief factor causing the formation of dominance hierarchies, and if being watched increases an animal’s stress, then being “observed” by scientists may very well be stressful to wolves, increasing incidents of so-called dominant and submissive behaviors. These effects would likely multiply in situations where wolves were shot with tranquilizer darts and outfitted with radio collars. 

Granted, I’m an outside observer, not an active participant in the process. To quote Professor Donna J. Haraway, “Science, for the most part, makes room for technical papers, grant applications, informal networks of students, teachers, and laboratories, official symposia to promote methods and interpretations; and textbooks to socialize new scientists. It does not, however, provide room for outsiders and amateurs.” Thats me. (Animal Sociology and a Natural Economy of the Body Politic, Pt/ II. 1978.)

In their 1995 book When Elephants Weep Masson and McCarthy wrote, “In recent years the idea of the dominance hierarchy has become more controversial, with some ethologists now asking if such hierarchies are real or a product of human expectation.”   

I’ll go beyond that and—siding with Thelma Rowell—say that dominance is not only a product of human expectation, it’s probably a product of human observation. 

Before I began questioning dominance in dogs, I viewed canine behavior through what I later came to call “dominance-colored glasses.” Once I took those glasses off, an amazing thing happened. No matter how many dogs I saw exhibiting so-called dominant behaviors, I saw them for what they really were, symptoms of anxiety and stress.  

You can watch this video of the incident Mech and Cluff reported on in 2010. And if you're like me you might wonder, when the wolves stare directly into the camera at the end of their tussle, has the presence of human observers perhaps caused or at least increased the magnitude of these stress behaviors (i.e., dominance)?

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Charles Darwin and the Dominance Meme, Part I

Do Dominance Hierarchies Run Counter to Darwin's Theories?
 Two wolves playing in the snow.

“I aimed for a modest presentation. I would demonstrate simply and directly that male Pumphouse baboons did not have the traditional hierarchy, while females did. … At the end of my presentation, no one spoke. The polite silence was finally broken with barely guarded accusations. I had invented my data. I didn’t have enough information to draw the conclusions I had come to and that there had to be a male dominance hierarchy … I had managed to miss it, that was all.”

—Shirley C. Strum, Almost Human 

Animal Hierarchies Didn’t Exist Before the 1920s.
 The idea that animals form dominance hierarchies is so deeply ingrained into the minds of most scientists today that to say or even hint that things may be otherwise (as Thelma Rowell and Shirley Strum have done) has become something like an act of heresy or sacrilege.1 Animal hierarchies are, in neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky’s words, “textbook social systems, sort of engraved in stone.”

I’ve written a number of posts—both here and at—questioning the validity of dominance hierarchies in dogs and wolves. And I’ve gotten into some hot water for doing so.2 In this post I’ll present new arguments showing:
  1. that the idea of social hierarchies goes counter to Darwin's view of natural selection, 
  2. that there is no evolutionary arc that runs from hierarchical systems in lower animals to those in humans, and
  3. that acting “dominant” may actually reduce an animal’s adaptive fitness.
I realize I’m on a fool’s errand. And I’m more than happy to be taken to task and proved wrong on any of the points I’m going to make here. It just seems to me that dominance hierarchies simply don’t exist in Nature. And it also seems to me that it all starts with a very simple misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

In Paul Ekman’s 1998 edition of Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions and Man and Animals, evolutionary psychologist Daniel G. Freedman seems to have criticized Darwin for being unaware of animal hierarchies: “Darwin is aware of submissiveness,” Freedman wrote, “but the naturalistic notion of, say, wolves forming an hierarchical pack is missing. Social hierarchies is a major concept of animal observation today, and many of Darwin’s examples of antithesis would be seen now in terms of hierarchy.” 

True. But is that because Darwin missed the boat or does the idea of dominance hierarchies run counter to Darwin’s theories?

I don’t think Darwin was wrong. I think it’s more likely that the reason he didn’t mention dominance hierarchies is that they didn’t exist during his lifetime. There were no animal hierarchies for him (or anyone else) to observe because, in all probability, they simply didn’t exist until the 1920s when Norwegian biologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe published his dissertation on pecking orders in chickens.

Scientists began looking for “pecking orders” in all social animals. They sometimes found what they were looking for—though the truth is, sometimes they didn’t. 

Still the concept of pecking orders—which eventually morphed into what we now call dominance hierarchies—caught on like wildfire, or like a meme, an ideological virus that infects the human mind and prevents us from seeing the truth. This meme is so powerful3 that when dedicated scientists like Shirley Strum or Thelma Rowell present data that run counter to this idea, their evidence is ignored, their methods called into question, and the concept of a “latent hierarchy” is invented to account for the lack of hierarchical structure. 

Dominant Species vs. Dominant Behaviors 
I know the idea that social animals form dominance hierarchies seems like pure Darwinism to most. Animals in competition over resources! Yes! But let’s take a look at what Darwin’s theory is really about. 

“The theory of natural selection is grounded on the belief that each new variety, and ultimately each new species, is produced and maintained by having some advantage over those with which it comes into competition.” (Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 371.) 

Here the nature of competition is reserved for different species, not members of the same species, and especially not for members of the same social group. In fact Darwin believed that social animals may be more adaptable because of their ability to work together: “Social animals perform many little services for each other: horses nibble, and cows lick each other, on any spot which itches: monkeys search each other for external parasites. … Animals also render more important services … thus wolves … hunt in packs, and aid each other in attacking their victims.” (The Descent of Man, 71, 72) 

Does it really make sense that members of a social group would be in competition with each other over resources? It seems to me that sociability is about pooling resources, not fighting over them. Finding, isolating, and quantifying these sorts of resource sharing behaviors—now often referred to as “biological altruism”—has become all the rage recently. It’s been shown that even plants share resources with their closest kin. And one of the reasons that scientists are so interested in biological altruism is that it supposedly runs counter to Darwin’s concepts of species being in competition with one another and gaining an advantage over them. 

Perhaps the clearest window into how the dominance meme fails to make sense is the wolf pack—an aggregation of animals whose social structure is built almost entirely around the need to hunt large, dangerous prey by working together as a cohesive social unit. If the prey animal is the pack’s most important resource, and hierarchy formation is about competition over resources, then we should see intense posturing and jockeying for position both during the hunt, and when the pack feasts on its fallen prey. Yet pack members work together, not against one anotherneither dominant nor submissive behaviors are ever seen during the hunt. And once the hunt is over, all members of the pack have mutual access to the carcass of the fallen prey animal, with no hierarchy and very little, if any, dominance visible. 

Plus—and this may be even more important—it’s hard to see how dominance (threats of aggression) would foster group harmony and cooperation. It seems more likely to me that affiliative behaviors—licking each other’s fur, cuddling in the cold, playing with one another, etc.—are the real glue that holds a wolf pack together. 

Leveling Mechanisms in Non-Heirarchical Human Societies 
Another meme is based on what I see as a common misinterpretation of Darwin’s statement that “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” Almost everyone who quotes this trope ignores the fact that a few sentences later Darwin admitted that he could be wrong: “If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc. are peculiar to man, it may well be … the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.”

Still, scientists look at the arc of evolution (and thus the arc of hierarchical systems) as reflecting this shaky theoretical difference of degree and not of kind. This may be one reason we can’t help but see dominance hierarchies in apes, wolves, crayfish, and guppies, etc. 3 

But is there really an evolutionary arc that runs from lower animals to human beings?

Primatologist Shirley C. Strum writes, “Many of the models of human evolution have assumed that the human experiment began with limited social resources, instinctive and compulsory aggression, male domination and rigid hierarchy. But these models seem faulty if we now know that ‘lowly’ baboons are more complex and have more diverse options. Were the earliest humans not as smart or skillful as baboons?”

And we don’t even have to look at baboons. Scattered in various pockets of the globe are small bands of indigenous hunter/gatherer societies who not only don’t form dominance hierarchies, they’ve developed leveling mechanisms to prevent them from forming. And one of the primary reasons they do so is because—just as it would in a wolf pack— hierarchical systems lessen the group’s ability to hunt successfully.

Another leveling mechanism in these egalitarian societies relates back to wolf behavior as well, and  that’s play, an activity that wolves—and especially dogs—engage in on a regular basis. (Now there’s a set of behaviors that actually do have an evolutionary arc…).  

Acting “Dominant” Decreases an Animal’s Adaptive Fitness 
It’s said that the dominant member of the group is the one most likely to pass on his genes to the next generation, and that’s the fundamental purpose of hierarchies: to provide the most robust animal a non-negotiable platform for reproduction. But if the true purpose of a wolf’s social instincts is to enable the pack to work together to hunt large, dangerous prey, how do internecine battles over bones and sleeping places relate to their overall adaptive fitness? In wild packs it’s normally rare for any but the breeding male and female to pass on their genetic material to future generations. Would one night’s sleep on a less-than-perfect “bed” or taking a bone away from another wolf really tip the scale toward genetic oblivion, and that’s why wolves supposedly have to exert their “dominance” over such things?

Is it even true that the most dominant male in a wolf pack—or any social animal group—is automatically more able to pass on his genes to the next generation?

Apparently not. In his studies of baboons Robert Sapolsky found that dominant behaviors actually have a negative impact on survival.4 

At one point, a troop Sapolsky had been studying for years, and who exhibited the classic male hierarchical structure, came across a human garbage site. Yay! Free food! But the food was unfortunately tainted with tuberculosis. The troop was decimated.

Yet interestingly, it was the most “dominant” baboons who lost their lives, not the other way around. The reason? Dominance isnt a normal or natural behavior. Its always triggered by stress. And high levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to suppress an animal’s immune system. (Excessive levels of testosterone don’t help matters any, either.) And that's why the most dominant baboons in the troop died.

“It wasn’t random,” says Sapolsky. “If you were aggressive, and if you were not particularly socially connected, socially affiliative, if you didn’t spend your time grooming and hanging out—if you were that kind of male—you died.” 

A generation later, Sapolsky came back to find that the troop had been transformed. They were much more amenable, social, and affiliative now. There was no longer a clear hierarchical structure (as Rowell and Strum had seen in their studies of baboons). And if you were an “alpha type,” trying to dominate others, you were quickly shunned!

Sapolsky says, “One of the things that baboons teach us is that if they’re able to, in one generation, transform what are supposed to be textbook social systems, sort of engraved in stone, we don’t have an excuse when we say there’s a certain inevitability about human social systems.”

Another thing that the baboons teach us is that hierarchy formation in animals does not serve an adaptive purpose. Just the opposite.  And, in the end, these social structures only exist in our own minds because that’s how we see the world.

Some would argue that hierarchies do, in fact, exist. They’ve been observed. Data has been collected and analyzed. And while there may be gaps in logic here and there, it’s simply undeniable that animal hierarchies exist.

I agree. They do exist, but they’re not normal or natural; they’re stress-related behaviors, brought on by the simple act of being observed by human beings. In fact—and I’ll develop this idea further in my next post on this topic—these behaviors are more likely to be produced when animals are being observed by male rather than female scientists. 

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1) “I was naïve. I had imagined that one did the research, gathered the information, analyzed, interpreted and presented it to the scientific world. Then the work would be evaluated and incorporated, if accepted, into the basic knowledge within the field. But there are cliques in science as in any other facet of human endeavor. If you are part of the ‘in’ group, even minor findings are discussed and integrated, eventually becoming part of the working knowledge of the field. If you are not part of the clique, you stand a good chance of being ignored.” 
 —Shirley C. Strum, Almost Human

2) Every time I posted a mea culpa at PsychToday, it was because other authors at the site complained to my editor. This happened most often when I wrote about the myth of dominance hierarchies, proving that dominance hierarchies do exist, just in scientific circles not animal groups. (I’m not saying this to compare myself to Shirley Strum, Thelma Rowell, or others who’ve fought the orthodoxy, but to point out how strongly those in the scientific community feel about the subject.)

3) “Our findings show for the first time that individual differences in the preference for social dominance hierarchy predict neural response within left AI [anterior insula] and ACCs [anterior cingulate cortices].” (“Neural Basis of Preference for Human Social Hierarchy versusEgalitarianism,” Joan Y. Chiao et al.

4) Please watch this wonderful video to see and hear Sapolsky describe, in his own words, how the baboon troop changed from a pro-dominance to pro-affiliative society. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dance With Me, I Want to Be Your Partner

Increasing Your Dog’s Social Attraction

One of the most important training innovations that Kevin Behan brought in his book Natural Dog Training, was the idea that dogs experience the world through feelings of attraction and resistance, almost as if each dog were a charged particle or one of Newton’s moving bodies, being influenced by invisible forces rather than engaging the world through the principles of dominance and submission or via associative learning.

Dogs don’t pull on the leash as much as they’re pulled on by things
in the environment that exert a kind of emotional gravity on them.

There are numerous ways to increase a dog’s social attraction to its handler, meaning that the vigor behind the dog’s usual interest in squirrels, interesting smells, other dog’s hineys, etc., is transferred onto the person at the other end of the leash—meaning you. One cool way of doing that is through what I call the “Dance With Me” exercise.

Start by teaching your dog to jump up on command (click here for details), then teach him to only jump up when the command is given, then teach him that he has to stay up until you give him the release signal, “Okay, off!” (This is also a cool way to curb your dog’s tendency to jump up whenever he feels like it.)

Once your dog has those skills under his belt you can start doing the “Dance With Me.”

It’s best if you take your dog to a safe, open area where there’s plenty of room to run around, and with few distractions. 

Let your dog’s attention wander away from you momentarily. This shows that she’s looking for something to plug her energy “in to.” Without actually giving a recall signal (i.e., calling her to come to you), let her know with a whistle or a kissing sound that you want her to pay attention. When she references you, show her a treat or a toy. (Treats work best when first starting to do this exercise.)

If she comes to you on her own, fine. If not, you may have to start moving away from to increase her attraction to you. Then, as she comes right up to you, invite her to jump up, using the command, “Okay, up!” Then release her, saying, “Okay, off!” in a happy voice. 

Repeat this sequence.

Ask her to jump up a third time, but once she makes contact with her front paws, place the treat directly under her nose but don’t let her take it. Instead, start back-pedaling while praising her enthusiastically. Keep the treat right under her nose, praising her while moving backwards for about 5 feet or so. Then give her the treat and praise her extravagantly. Do this twice more, then go back to what you (and she) were doing before. (If you have a very large dog, you can place one arm across your chest—as if you’re a Roman soldier, holding a shield—and have the pooch put his paws there.

You can do this exercise any number of times during your walks or training sessions. But I would recommend doing it only 3 times in a row, then taking a break for play or for whatever other activities you and she want to engage in.

The following day (and on the days after that) you’ll want to start making things a little harder by slowly increasing the distance she has to stay up while you backpedal, going from the original 5 feet to 10 feet, then to 15, then 20, to 25, and finally to about 50 feet.

Some dogs will have more of an ability to sustain their “drive to connect” for longer periods or over longer distances than others. So always “reward” the dog with the treat and lots of praise before her drive subsides. If she has trouble staying up as long as she’d been doing the day before, go back a little by decreasing the distance. If on a certain day your dog doesn’t seem as motivated to do the “dance with me” as before, play a game of “chase me” with her first.

If your dog likes to play tug-of-war, another cool variation is to ask her to jump to grab the toy, then backpedal while she tugs on the rope toy or a bandana with knots in either end.

This exercise should accomplish 2 important goals: 1) it will make your dog much more likely to come when called (and she’ll come running with much more vigor than before), and 2) it will help increase her tendency to “stay in the pocket” while walking next to you on the leash, or even off-lead, for that matter. 

In fact, you can incorporate the “Dance With Me” game into both commands. For example, if your dog has wandered off, and you want her to come running back to you, get her attention then, when she looks at you, pat your chest or thigh, as if you want her to come play “Dance With Me.” She’ll probably come running faster than usual.

You can also incorporate heeling into the “Dance With Me” game. As you’re moving backwards, and it’s time to allow the dog to jump down, don’t reward her yet with the treat or the toy, but twist sideways so that she’s next to you in the heel position, and keep her moving in synch next to you, saying, “Heel!” in a happy voice, luring her with the treat or toy. Then give her the treat or throw the ball for her to chase.

I should mention an important caveat. It's not advisable to do this exercise with nervous dogs. Those who have a withdrawn nature won’t enjoy being asked to jump up. They might do it, but they won’t enjoy it. Meanwhile, dogs who have the kind of nervousness that’s more extroverted may have too much enthusiasm; they may not only jump up on you, they may grab your arm or rip your clothing, try to start humping you, or even knock you over. 

You should spend time with both kinds of dogs working on resolving some of their nervousness (via “The Pushing Exercise” and “The Eyes”) before getting them to play “Dance With Me.”