Monday, February 25, 2013

Hierarchy Without Dominance: The Pack as a Flow System?

Two days before deconstructed my blog, they also pulled this guest post by Kevin Behan, author of Natural Dog Training & Your Dog Is Your Mirror.

“It is difficult to resist the idea that general principles underlie non-hierarchical systems, such as ant colonies and brains. And because organizations without hierarchy are unfamiliar, broad analogies between systems are reassuring. But the hope that general principles will explain the regulation of all the diverse complex dynamical systems that we find in nature, can lead to ignoring anything that doesn’t fit a pre-existing model.
—Deborah M. Gordon,
“Control Without Hierarchy,” (Nature, March, 2007.) 

Prologue by LCK
I believe that the concept of dominance hierarchies in animal groups—particularly as it’s applied to dogs and wolves—is long overdue for the scientific scrap heap. Yet it persists.

Primatologist Thelma Rowell—who studied baboons, and whose observations overturned much of what was known about their social behaviors at the time—, felt that hierarchies should be labeled as subordinance or even “stress hierarchies.” (1974.)

She was ahead of her time (and still is).

In most animal hierarchies, the most dominant member generally produces the most stress hormone, cortisol. Of course, like many hormones, cortisol has several modes of operation. For instance, prolonged elevated levels lead to muscle wasting, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that in alpha wolves (at least not while they’re young).

Another potential problem—as I see it—is that the social behaviors of animals have long been described through the principles of economics, as if a wolf pack, eg., were a market system. This is why we see scientific papers about “the division of labor” and “cheating” in wolf packs.

However, I believe that a better model might be to see the pack as an information system. If we apply that concept to alpha wolves—incorporating the seemingly contradictory ideas that these animals produce more cortisol yet seemingly show no ill effects from elevated levels—we might surmise that cortisol acts as a form of information, and that more dominant wolves may have more carrying capacity than other members of the group. After all, so-called alpha wolves are generally in the position of having to process more information about their environment than their subordinates are; being a leader means having to focus one’s attention on far more details.

Another possible way to reinvent or replace the alpha model has been proposed by veteran dog trainer Kevin Behan. In the following guest post, he suggests that we look at the pack as a flow system, based on Dr. Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law: "For a finite system to persist in time (to live) it must evolve in a way that provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it."

I’m not convinced that the constructal law works here, but I’m willing to entertain any of Kevin’s ideas, no matter how strange they might seem to me at the time. That’s because whenever I apply them to dog training, they almost always work better than anything else that I’ve ever come across.

So here’s another well-thought-out guest post from Mr. Behan.

Shifting Stands, Shifting Sands
The theory of dominance has shifted over the 50 years or so that I’ve been a dog trainer. It used to be about social superiority. Every individual was thought to be endowed with an inborn impulse to dominate others, as well as a counterbalancing impulse to submit once the dust had settled. A competitive struggle sorted this into a hierarchy of rank with a “top dog,” “alpha personality,” or “leader of the pack” at the peak of the pyramid.

The problem is that sometimes an inferior animal is able to control the behavior of its superiors by controlling access to certain resources. In this new way of looking at social behavior, a dominant individual doesn’t achieve status, it achieves access. And no individual is inherently dominant or submissive, rather there is a spectrum of “personality types.” 

Emergence theory has also been applied to hierarchies in animal groups. In emergence theory, each relationship is determined by a local set of circumstances independent of the larger matrix of interactions. Dominance and submission emerge from such relationships as opposed to being some inherent, genetic quality contained within each animal.

The Bold and the Dutiful
A good summation of this new definition can be found in an online article entitled "Why Won't Dominance Die?" written by former police-dog trainer, David Ryan. It was written to discredit Cesar Millan’s approach to dog training.

In it, Ryan talks about the concept of dominance in dogs as a “meme,” a word coined by biologist Richard Dawkins to describe self replicating ideas that inhabit our minds and get passed along from one individual to another as if they were cultural viruses or genes. In Ryan’s view the dominance theory of dog training is a harmful meme, and like a super-virus, it’s extremely resistant to extinction.

“The concept of ‘dominance,’” Ryan says, “has never been a quality of an individual, but the product of a relationship. Ethologists label an animal dominant over another once there is a trend towards the second animal deferring in encounters between the two.”

He goes on to say that there are two types of dog, the bold and the shy, and that a “smooth relationship [between the two] is one in which each knows the other’s preferences and defers accordingly.”

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
I would argue that we’ll never be able to replace the old notion of dominance with the one Ryan proposes because they’re essentially based on the same underlying “meme.” If dominance is about access to a resource (so that social life is not a constant struggle for status), don't all individuals crave access? Isn't it better to end up at the dominant end of a relationship and thereby enjoy unfettered access to resources?

Obviously yes. So the constant struggle for social ascendancy is merely being replaced by a constant struggle over resources. Of course the new school says that, no, social life isn’t a constant struggle because the dominant/subordinate relationship ameliorates aggression. But the old model said the exact same thing, and still does.

Plus, if dogs vary in terms of bold vs. shy (as opposed to dominant vs. submissive), how is a shy (i.e., inhibited) individual ever going to gain control over a resource?

It turns out that a shy dog can attain dominance by getting to the resource first, possession being “9/10ths of the law.” And, once in possession, a shy dog becomes emboldened, while the bold dog—whose access is now blocked—becomes more shy in nature. This suggests that control confers boldness and that lack of access confers its polar opposite. Remember, in the old definition, status confers, induces, or augments the trait of dominance. In the new definition access is the controlling factor.

So I would argue that just saying dogs vary in terms of bold versus shy fails to articulate the true dynamic from which the relationship emerges just as the old definition failed to do so.

The Problem With Cesar Millan
Finally, Ryan’s piece was directed at Cesar Millan, our most famous proponent of the dominance model of dog training. But in Ryan’s critique what exactly is the beef? According to this new definition, Cesar is doing it right 99% of the time. (We should discount the really rough stuff because Cesar would argue these are last ditch cases about to be euthanized and represent but a small portion of his methodology even though they occupy a disproportionate share of the viewing time).

Cesar explicitly argues for a subtle manipulation of the innate desire within a dog to please its “pack leader,” along with massive doses of exercise. What’s wrong with that?

Of course Cesar is behind the times. He should be calling himself the pack parent rather than the pack leader. But he’s on solid behavioral ground according to both the new and old definitions of dominance. He controls a dog’s access to every resource and therefore he “emerges” as the dominant in this context, the dominant in that context, the dominant in all contexts.

He may be mistaken about a hierarchal pack leader, he may not be able to articulate that dogs are in a constant struggle for access to resources as opposed to social ascendancy, etc. But if the dog sees him as being in control of every resource then, operationally-speaking, what’s the difference? Cesar’s belief in his role as pack leader emerges from the social construct he engineers, and it’s engineered in accordance with the modern, accepted definition of dominance.

This is why I think Ryan and others will find it impossible to replace the old meme with this new one since they both have the same two fundamentals in common, a) control over another’s behavior, and b) the idea that sociability is about competition not cooperation. 

In other words, dog owners are still being taught to see their dogs as rivals not partners.

Dominance and Submission as Forms of Flow?
I suggest we turn to Dr. Adrian Bejan’s book, Design In Nature, to help us see hierarchy from a new perspective. In it Bejan, argues that nature does not work according to principles of control but principles of flow.

For instance, in Bejan’s view a forest is a hierarchy of a few very large trees relative to many smaller forms of vegetation. The various plants aren’t competing for light, water or nutrients. The tallest ones arent trying to dominate the shorter ones. The forest simply emerges as the most efficient way to conduct and improve the flows of all currents contained within it (nutrients, air, water, stress). Each organism is seen as an engine within a larger one, all contributing to improve of access for all to the underlying currents. The hierarchy self-organizes not around competition or cooperation, but around the current.

So instead of asking of dogs: “Who’s in control of whom?” (old school) or “Who’s in control of what?” (new school) I think we should be asking, “What is the current around which a dog’s social structure emerges?” And I think if we look at canines without imposing humanlike thoughts on to their behavior we might be able to see such a current emerge.

A linear definition imbued with the notions of control and competition cannot be made to conform to the principles of flow. And I believe that only flow can accurately reflect the true workings of the animal mind. Dominance is based on human thought processes, the comparison of one abstraction relative to another, along with comparison of past, present, and possible future moments in time. But flow—whether a flow of emotion or information—is felt viscerally and unconsciously, and is always capable of being apprehended in the now moment. 

Kevin Behan
Natural Dog Training
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Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Wolves Hunt Bison & Why Dogs "Steal" Food

Here's the post the got me kicked off the PsychologyToday website.


The Perfect Laboratory for Studying Stress in Canines
In a recent episode of the PBS series Nature—Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo—wildlife filmmaker Jeff Turner used both land and aerial cameras to get some spectacular footage of the daily lives of a pack of wolves living in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border between Alberta and British Columbia and is 5 times the size of Yellowstone.

Since a great many wolf documentaries are filmed in Yellowstone, and since I switched on the show a little late, I thought that that’s where this one was taking place. But after watching for about ten minutes it occurred to me that the behaviors exhibited by this pack were different from what I’d seen in footage of Yellowstone wolves. These wolves seemed more relaxed, more easygoing, and more comfortable with their surroundings.

It might seem strange to some, but I feel that studying wolves in Yellowstone is a bit like studying them in a wolf sanctuary or other un-natural setting. That’s because the park is not their natural habitat; they’re originally from British Columbia, and were forcibly re-located to Wyoming as a means of restoring the park’s balance of nature.

It’s true that the wolves in Yellowstone are now several generations removed from the original ones, transplanted there. And I freely admit I don’t know enough about genetics, epigenetics, or DNA to even be able to guess how long it would take a species to adapt itself from one habitat (British Columbia) to another (Wyoming). But it seems to me that certain behaviors exhibited by some of the wolf packs in Yellowstone are similar to the stress-related behaviors found in captive wolves.

Since I’ve never studied wolves directly—either in captivity or in the wild—a reasonable person would probably wonder, “How can a dog trainer, living in New York City, possibly pretend to know what’s natural and unnatural in wild wolf behavior?”

That’s a good question—a very good question. And yet New York is a perfect laboratory for studying how stress informs and influences the behaviors and body language of dogs. Plus I don’t see myself as a dog trainer, necessarily, but as a canine stress-reduction facilitator. And since the typical responses to stress seen in dogs are very similar—and in many cases exactly the same—as found in wolves, I think it's not out of the question to sometimes extrapolate from one to the other.

Eros & Thanatos, Wolves and Buffalo
At any rate, toward the end of Turner’s film, the pack is attempting to hunt a herd of buffalo. Their usual technique is to find the smallest or weakest member and separate it from the herd. But there don’t seem to be any calves or aging animals available.

Then, out of nowhere, the pack leader takes off running, far, far ahead. Turner comments that the wolf has “seen something,” but when the camera cuts to a higher angle, there doesn’t seem to be anything for him to see, just empty landscape.

Still he races on, full speed, toward some unknown target. This is highly unusual for canines when spotting something unfamiliar in the distance. Unless it’s a dog seeing his owner's arrival, or a wolf seeing a long-lost pack mate, the usual approach would be much more cautious. So when I saw the wolf sprinting, full-speed, away from the buffalo herd my feeling was that he must have detected some kind of weakness in the bio-energetic field up ahead, probably emanating from a dying buffalo.

Sure enough, once the aerial camera (and the other wolves) catch up to him we see that he’s found two bulls—a young one and an aging one—standing near a small creek. But instead of chasing or harassing the bulls, the wolves actually ignore them, taking their time to drink from the creek, as if they had all the time in the world.

“The wolves,” Turner says, “don’t seem worried at all. It doesn’t seem like a hunt anymore. It’s strange. The wolves seem to only be focused on the older bull, like they’re waiting for something to happen.”

Sunset is approaching and Turner tells us he has to return to camp, promising to come back in the morning. When he does, he finds the wolf pack feasting on the carcass of the old bull. The circle of life is complete.

Turner doesn’t say it but I will: The pack leader didn’t see the two buffalo off in the distance. It’s unlikely that he smelled or heard them either, not because they were too far away but because he was already immersed in the scent of the herd he was harassing, and the sounds of their hoof beats.

So how did he know that a better target was located up ahead?

Dogs and wolves hunt by feel, and they feel things in terms of attraction and resistance. That’s how wolves target weaker animals. Smaller and weaker animals “radiate”—if you will—less resistance.

Why Dognitive Science Sees Things Backwards
This might seem like a strange U-turn, but I think this incident shines a light on how and why I think dognitive science keeps going astray in how they design and perform studies on canine cognition. They don’t do so from the dog’s point of view, but from their own, i.e., the human perspective.

For instance, a recent scientific study purports to show that dogs only steal food when the lights are off, suggesting that dogs are capable of understanding how humans see the world.
On the face of it this seems quite logical, but examined a bit more closely it’s not really designed for seeing things from the dog’s point of view. Eyesight is much more important to humans than it is to dogs. Yet instead of a study based on the dog’s default mode of information-gathering—its sense of smell—it’s designed around the human default mode—vision.

Remember what wildlife cinematographer Jeff Turner said when lead wolf suddenly ran off ahead of the buffalo herd? He said that the wolf “saw something” ahead, even though it turned out that he couldn't have seen anything from where he was.

Another thing is that dogs don’t seem to pay any attention to when the lights are on or off. The sound of the refrigerator door opening? They pay attention. The lights going off and on? No interest at all. In fact, in the hundreds of dogs I've observed in the past 20 years or so, and I have never seen a single one so much as bat an eyelash when I either turn the lights on or off.

Also, the conclusion—that dogs understand their owners’ perspective—only works if we ignore that this requires a sense of self. Since a sense of self is dependent on a class of neurons known as VENs, and a dog’s brain doesn’t come equipped with VENs, dogs can’t see themselves as separate from their owners and, in turn, can't understand that their owners’ perspective may be different from their own.

So it’s pretty clear that something besides understanding the owner's perspective (that the owner can or can’t see the dog) was going on when the lights were turned off. What could it be?

If canines hunt more by feel than they do by vision, then we might be on our way to understanding this more from the dog's perspective.

Let’s go back and look at the dying buffalo’s perspective (if we can). I don’t know if the buffalo knew his time was up, but I suspect he may've had two conflicting feelings: a desire to keep living despite his growing weakness and a desire to stop struggling against the inevitable.

So just as the wolves may have felt that the buffalo had these conflicting feelings, it's possible that the dogs in the recent study felt that their owners and the researchers had conflicting feelings about a) actually wanting the dogs to steal food when the lights were off but also b) wanting the dogs to behave themselves (the owners) and wanting to be as scientific and objective as possible (the researchers).

Feeling things out is a form of telepathy, which translates as the ability to feel things at a distance. The lead wolf in the PBS film certainly seems to have had such an ability, but all mammals and birds have it to some degree or another. (In humans it's called a "gut" feeling).

For those who distrust Rupert Sheldrake’s research in this area, there’s a simple way to test this. Re-do this and similar studies so that their aims are disguised completely, so that no one directly involved has even the faintest idea of what the dogs are expected to do. Once that control is in place, the results may be completely different.

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