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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Anonymous said...

I happened to catch this episode, and was glad I did. I appreciate your thoughts on what made the wolf break off from the pack and herd and run full speed towards something he must have "seen". I agree that there's no way he could have visualized something that far away. I disagree, however, that he couldn't have smelled the two buffalo. The point about him being immersed in the rest of the herd is valid; however, it doesn't mean that he didn't smell the other buffalo. If it's true that the older bull was dying, then it may be that the wolf could smell that. I don't discount the idea of "feel" at all, as well as the bio-energetic field you mention. My point is that I don't think it's fair to discount the possibility of scent. I would propose it was perhaps a combination of those factors.

And from personal experience, if counter cruising is considered stealing food, then I can emphatically say dogs do not care if the lights are on or not. If there is food to eat, they will find it! And it doesn't matter if I'm in the room or not! :-)


LCK said...

Hi Faith,

Thanks for the comment!

You're absolutely right. The sense of smell shouldn't be ruled out altogether. It's quite possible that the lead wolf was able to differentiate the scent of the dying buffalo from the herd surrounding him.

I also think it's possible that this could explain the wolf's sudden running toward that scent, where picking up a visual cue would probably have caused him to move toward the bull in a more cautious manner.

Thanks too for your insight into counter-cruising! And, yes, I think they are the same thing.


Anonymous said...


Do you know what synchronicities are? I had never heard of Rupert Sheldrake until I read this column. Then I went to his website, which led me to his books. So today, I ran across an article about Sheldrake, which had a link to a TEDx talk he gave.

Amazing how things like this happen. And honestly, in the past few years synchronicities happen a lot more in my life. I'm sure they were always there, but now I'm more open and aware of them. I'm paying attention. Perhaps it's a matter of energy and flow? I don't know enough about the concept to say this is the case, but I believe thought energy is more "powerful" than most will admit. It's like the feeling of being stared at (interestingly, something about which that Sheldrake has written) - isn't that energy?

"When the student is willing, the teacher will appear." This is so applicable in my life! As I become more willing to challenge my own belief in paradigms, I'm more open to different concepts. It's quite enlightening!

I'm very sorry to hear about what happened to your blog in Psychology Today. I was excited that there seemed to be a way to access the archives, however, it appears when the entries are longer than one page, the second page was not archived. Is there any chance you will post the material on this blog, or can you not do that because it was a part of Psychology Today? Whatever the case, please keep writing!


LCK said...

Hi Faith,

Thanks for the wonderful comment.

Yes, synchronicities are interesting. The concept was developed by Wolfang Pauli (quantum physicist) and Carl Jung (psychiatrist).

As for the pieces I wrote for, I'm trying to figure out a way to make those pesky 2nd pages show up when you click on the links, but I'm not devoting much energy to it now.

I can legally post anything I wrote for anywhere I want to. On my website, where I've provided links to archived versions fo the website I felt it was incumbent on me to let people know that the editors seem to feel that they don't want to be associated with everything I wrote for them over the last 4 years. But other than that caveat, every single word I've written belongs to me.

Thanks again,


Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this (and I was actually led here from your wonderful review on "Don't Shoot the Dog"), and you mentioning how we might "want" the dog to eat the food with the lights out reminded me of how biases can influence the results of an experiment. It is one of the topics covered in one of my classes (Pygmalion in the Laboratory in the American Journal of Psychology is what your statement reminded me of) and I really appreciate finding someone who seems to know more about the holes in the law of effect and operant conditioning and whatnot. I have spent the past 4 years doing independent research on dog training and behavior and I heard the same arguments over and over again until I went to school for animal behavior. Now I feel like I am back to square one because people haven't applied the more "correct" theories to dog training so it has been difficult for me to transfer this new found knowledge to my independent studies.

Thank you for publishing this and I hope I can learn from you. It is too bad that Psychology Today didn't let you stay.

Unknown said...

Thank you for elaborating on the hype about dogs knowing our point of view (my first thought was "we can't ask a dog, so how could they possibly prove that!) so if the dog ate a treat in the dark, we can only say that the dog ate the treat in the dark...anyways, thank you for publishing this article! It reminded me of how experimenter bias can influence the results because you said that perhaps the experimenter wanted the dogs to eat the treats (which could lead to holes in the experiment, but I am planning on looking for the actual article to see the procedure as well).

I'm sorry to learn what happened with Psychology Today. I actually found you through the wonderful review you left for "Don't Shoot the Dog!" I've been looking for others who have learned the holes in operant conditioning learning theory since I learned about it in class and I consider myself enlightened in a way. I consider myself a "confused positive trainer" since I use those methods but I cannot accept "why" they work.

Anyways, thank you so much for publishing this. On my little blog I have my research paper that is my first jab at explaining dog behavior through a feed forward perspective. If you have the time to take a look, I would love the feedback!

LCK said...

Hi Kirsten,

Thanks so much for your comments. (There are two, but while they seem to go over some of the same ground, I'm happy to leave them both up for all to read.)

I would love to read your research paper. Where did you get the idea for using a feed-forward model, Randy Gallistel?

Anyway, I can't wait to read it.

Thanks again,


Kirsten said...

Oh gosh this is the first time I've posted here so that was on accident but oh well!

And I used the feed forward approach because the class was based on that so I was required to do apply it honestly, but I do agree with it so I tried my best to apply it to dogs and how training techniques evoke different behaviors in dogs. Thank you!

LCK said...

Hi Kirsten,

I'm definitely looking forward to reading your paper. In fact, I can't wait to see it!


Unknown said...

Thank you! I hope you like it. Here is my paper on my blog (I hope this works!)

LCK said...

Thanks! I'll read it today!

LCK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LCK said...

Sorry, my previous post got mangled.

Thanks for letting me read read your paper. I'm impressed!

I would love to discuss it with you more, but via email or a telephone conversation if that's okay.

You can contact me directly at


LCK said...

Hey Kirsten,

Check out some of Randy Gallistel's papers on the feedforward model of learning.

Also, google "Time and Associative Learning" by Peter Balsam and Randy Gallistel (C. R. Gallistel).


Anonymous said...

Lee -

Thanks for posting those links. I'm reading through Deconstructing the Law of Effect right now - very interesting!