Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dogs Have a Theory of Mind, But Whose Mind Is It?

If Dogs Can't Think, How Do They Know What We're Thinking? 
Originally published in slightly different form on July 30, 2010 at 

Fancy Holds a Stay

Dognitive scientist Brian Hare's new book is getting some press these days. There was a recent piece in the New York Times on his work showing that dogs will follow where a human points while chimps not only won't, but can't seem to learn how to.

Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College was quoted in the Times article: “To me, part of being a dog scientist is acknowledging up front how little we know about their cognition. Science has just begun to investigate the dog mind, and our current understanding is minimal. It would be honest to admit how mysterious this other mind really is.”

I don't think it's all that mysterious. I just think it's very different from our usual way of thinking. 

The following is a piece I originally wrote for

Dogs are amazing animals. They have an ability to read us like no other species can. Sometimes they know more about us than we know about ourselves. They also score higher on certain so-called "mind-reading" tests than chimpanzees, where the goal is to see which animal can more reliably follow a visual cue given when a human being points at or even looks toward a prey object.

Dogs can learn to do this quite easily, chimps can't.

To some people this clearly indicates that dogs have a first level Theory of Mind. What does that mean? 

If you and I were sitting across from each other and I pointed at something behind you, you would either look to see what was back there or ask, "What is it?" That's because we both know you don't have "eyes in the back of your head." The conclusion that some dognitive scientists seem to have come to recently is that Muttsy has pretty much the same capacity you and I do, while our closest cousins, chimpanzees, don't. (Stanley Coren was in the news last spring, promoting the idea that dogs aren't just smarter than chimps, they also have better math and language skills than toddlers.)

If you think about it, the belief that dogs are smarter than chimps or toddlers challenges two of the most basic assumptions of modern mainstream science.

1) Consciousness is only a by-product of certain bio-energetic processesmost notably the firing of neuronstaking place inside a self-contained organ called the brain.

2) Evolution follows a specific course where, as organisms evolve into higher forms, they tend to become more and more developed, and their levels of development can be clearly seen in their anatomical features, including specific structures found within their brains.

On the evolutionary scale, we would place the canine, chimp, and human brain in that order canine > chimp > human in terms of relative size, the number of neurons they contain, and the various bells and whistles (neurological substructures) they each possess. 

So, logically speaking, in order for dogs to be "smarter" than chimps or toddlers, we'd either have to ignore the basic principles of evolution, or we'd have to redefine consciousness as something not entirely dependent on the number of neurons firing inside the brain.

Another problem is that these studies always seem to involve getting the dog to find a toy or treat, meaning he's asked to take part in a game involving the "search" aspect of his prey drive. And since dogs are group predators at heart, this means that if the dog's mind is already primed to follow whatever cues might help with the search for prey, it increases the likelihood that a dog will do what we want him to.

Meanwhile, if you were to simply point behind your dog, without first establishing a similar context of searching for a treat or a toy, and particularly if there was nothing actually there, the chances are good that your dog wouldn't look behind him. I've tested this myself with a few dozen dogs, where either I or their owners have pointed behind the dog and said, "[Dog's Name], look!" And so far none of them have been able to follow where we were pointing; they either gave us a blank stare, or looked for something directly in front of them.

My little "field study," as unscientific as it may be, involves a much a larger number of test subjects. Plus, the percentage of dogs that don't exhibit a ToM (100% so far) is much larger than the percentage that do when the tests are skewed by establishing the behavior in the context of a hunting game. 

This suggests that something besides a ToM may be at play.

While there are interesting, and possibly important aspects of Hare's work, there’s another problem. He keeps saying that wolves can’t learn to follow human cues when, in fact, recent research shows that they can. Dr. Monique Udell has shown that you simply have to spend some time letting the wolves “get to know you.” (Hare also skews his results by only allowing dogs who show an affinity for playing cooperative hunting games to be part of his studies.) 

This brings up another problem: the phenomenon of group consciousness, which is found in all social animals, but is seen most clearly and readily in how dogs form a kind of shared consciousness, both with other dogs and with their owners.

If we see the human/dog dynamic as a self-organizing system, it would make sense that, on a certain level, dogs would automatically be better at reading our signals (particularly if it involves their prey drive) than chimps would, because both dogs and humans have an evolutionary history that involves hunting large prey animals by working in concert. (That hunting-partner relationship still continues whenever we play with our dogs.)

One of the hallmarks of self-organizing systems is that the system is always smarter than the sum of its parts. So the fact that a dog's brain has less carrying capacity than oursfewer neurons, fewer bells and whistlesworks to his advantage. Once a dog has established a working relationship with us, he automatically becomes "smarter," not because he can think for himself, or has a ToM, but because that's how such systems operate. We bring our intellect and emotions to the relationship, dogs bring their intstincts and emotions. Emotion is the common ground.

One of my clients told me a story recently of how she and her husband and their boxer, Fancy, had come home from a walk and had gotten off the elevator. They expected Fancy to go racing to the front door the way she usually did. Instead she stayed right in front of the elevator, refusing to budge, no matter what they said or did.

They chalked this up to some kind of weird, "boxer disobedience." It was only after the husband put his key in the lock, found it wouldn't turn, then looked up at the number on the door, that he realized they'd gotten off on the wrong floor. Fancy wasn't disobeying after all. Her owners weren't paying attention to their surroundings, but she was! 

Here's my take on how and why this happened.

Initially, Fancy and her owners were in a group mind-set; they all had the same desire: to go home. To Fancy, when her owners got off on the wrong floor, and urged her to come with them anyway, they weren't acting in accordance with that desire, which is why she balked. She wasn't being disobedient; in fact she was quite faithfully obeying the group's shared desire to go home, despite the fact that her owners unwittingly kept urging her to do otherwise. 

I think dogs have an innate ability to tune in to the way we feel. But our mental thought processes would be similar to the static found between radio stations. And by tuning in to our feelings, dogs create an emotional channel between our minds and theirs. This enables them to influence the way we feel about them, which automatically changes the way we think as well. So when people tell me they can sometimes see a "thinking process" going on in their dogs' eyes, I would say that the dog's mind probably isn't adding and subtracting all the possible variables about what to do or how to act in a specific situation, she's probably behaving more like a radio dial, tuning in to the proper frequency that would put her and her owner on the same wavelength.

That's my thesis, anyway. 

 This wouldn't require us to rewrite the laws of evolution or neuroscience. We'd just have to see dogs from a slightly different point of view: theirs instead of ours.
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1) Brian Hare seems to have co-opted my term "dognition" and applied it to his work. I could be wrong of course. He may have "coined" that term on his own, as I did.

2) Kevin Behan has also written about The Times article here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SeaWorld Is Giving Its Star Performers a Raw Deal

If Conditioning Is a Business Transaction, Orcas Are Getting Screwed
Originally published in slightly different form on March 10, 2010 at

It’s been three years since Dawn Brancheau was killed at SeaWorld by Tilikum, one of the orcas she worked with. Now a new documentary tells us what we pretty much already knew: being kept in a small tank is what turned this free-roaming cooperative hunter into a killer.

I’m not an expert on dolphins or killer whales, though I do know that orcas are one of only three types of mammal that routinely hunt animals that are larger and more dangerous than themselves (the others are wolves and human beings). So I’ll confine my remarks to what I think is relevant: the overall ineffectiveness of operant conditioning when it comes to asking an animal of any kind to suppress its instinctive needs and urges in trade for food rewards.

In my view, most of the initial commentary (or cover-up) on this tragedy missed the point.

Thad Lacinak, a former head trainer at SeaWorld, told ABC’s “Good Morning America-->” that he blamed Tilikum’s trainer, Dawn Brancheau, saying she made a mistake by letting her ponytail drift in the water in front of him. This idea was echoed in an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Whale May Have Seen Ponytail as Toy.” In that article, Lacinak was quoted as saying, “[The ponytail] was a novel item in the water, and he grabbed hold of it, not necessarily in an aggressive way. He’s like: ‘I'm going to play with you.’” 

This is disingenuous to say the least. On the one hand you have these highly intelligent animals, capable of extremely precise behaviors, not only in terms of the tricks they’re able to perform at amusement parks, but in how they interact with one another in the wild, particularly while playing or hunting. On the other, we’re supposed to believe that such an animal is capable of mistaking part of the human anatomy for a toy? What toys could they possibly be using that could be so easily mistaken for a ponytail?

The idea that Tilikum was “just playing” also contradicts eyewitness accounts of people who actually saw the attack in person (Lacinak didn’t). One witness said the orca was “thrashing her [Brancheau] around pretty good. It was violent.” Another said, “He shook her violently.” This particular witness had taken her children to SeaWorld numerous times, had seen the shows performed over and over, and knew Tilikum by sight. She had a clear sense of his usual behavior and personality, so it’s not as if she couldn't tell the difference between playfulness and violent aggression.

Plus all the whales were clearly agitated and upset on the day of the attack. The trainers had to cancel some of the scheduled performances because, as they told park visitors, "the whales were not cooperating." If that’s the case, this suggests that either they were very sick or that something very important was missing in the way that they’d been trained, particularly since in their native habitat, orcas are one of the most cooperative non-human animal species on the planet, ranking right up there with dogs and wolves.

Karen Pryor, who’s a key figurehead in the “positive” training movement, and who once trained dolphins for a living, defended SeaWorld’s training practices. “[The trainers at SeaWorld] have sophisticated training based on sound scientific principles.” Pryor went on to say, “That kind of animal is bound to be unpredictable.”

So Pryor is not blaming Dawn Brancheau, or SeaWorld’s training practices; she’s blaming Tilikum, because he’s unpredictable.

On Pryor’s website, the following message was posted. “Dolphins and [killer] whales are the first to be kept in captivity to be trained by truly modern, force-free methods as opposed to avoidance training or the traditional ‘do as I say or else’ way. Sea World has mastered ways of training without using fear or force, setting what we believe to be the gold standard for humane and intelligent training.”

This is all very good, yet it’s also the kind of blind-faith, behavioral science propaganda that really gets me steamed. It always comes down to the moral superiority of operant conditioning over traditional methods, rather than oc’s actual effectiveness. 

“Yes,” they’re saying, “operant conditioning didn’t work with Tilikum, but we’re still the 'gold standard’” So what exactly is this gold standard that failed Tilikum and got Dawn killed?

In another article, this one in the Milford Daily News, Pryor compared operant conditioning to a business transaction, saying the trainer trades something the animal wants—such as food, praise, a head rub, or a toy—for a behavior the trainer wants the animal to produce. Pryor says this mimics “the way animals learn, out in nature.” 

That’s the problem. Operant conditioning is not based on the way animals learn in nature. It's a synthetic version of learning, based primarily on the way animals learn and behave in a lab. No animal in nature has the time or conveniences for learning new behaviors one at a time. That can get a wild animal killed in no time flat.

And that’s just half the problem. The other half is that if learning really is like a business transaction, then the orcas (and other animals, like pet dogs) are getting a raw deal. Anyone who actually thought about this for more than half-a-second would know that there is no way that doing tricks for a pailful of fish or a head rub could ever hope to equal—in terms of an orca’s natural energy exchange with the environment—the process of traveling roughly 500 miles a week, through open water, to chase and kill prey animals (gray, baleen, and, rarely, sperm whales), that may be more than three times their own size.

So the gold standard used to teach these animals tricks is simply not geared toward releasing the amounts of energy these huge predators need to release daily in order to feel satisfied and relaxed. That’s why operant conditioning methods can't help but fail in the crunch, as they did three years ago in Orlando.

Evolutionary biologist Ray Coppinger, when discussing the flaws inherent to applying the dominance paradigm to training pet dogs, said that even though the alpha theory held prominence within the scientific community for a very long time, “No one really believed in it. The data wasn't there.” Here we have the opposite. The experimental data is on the side of operant conditioning. And yet time after time it proves itself to be critically ineffective, and in some cases inhumane.

In a perfect worldwhere operant conditioning was really effective, all the time with all species, behavioral scientists wouldn’t need to solve behavioral problems in dogs by prescribing drugs. And no dog owner would be told that whenever a dog’s prey drive prevents him from obeying, all you have to do is “Up the value of your treats!”

And in this perfect world I’m wishing for, Dawn Brancheau might still be alive. From all reports, and from looking at the footage of her working with the animals she trained, this was an intelligent, energetic, caring, and dedicated animal lover. The only thing she did wrong was to trust in and believe the hype about behavioral science.

Thats not to say that the operant conditioning model is totally and completely ineffective. Its not. I use it all the time myself (at least I often use something that seems quite similar). I just don't fool myself into thinking its the be-all and end-all of dog training. It’s one tool. That’s all it is.

I think it’s time not only to re-think the advisability of keeping marine mammals in small tanks and forcing them to do tricks for treats (really—how smart is that?), we need to start start looking at animal behavior in the way Pryor suggests, as a simple business transaction. Once we do, we’ll see that for an animal that routinely hunts animals three times its own size, out in the open water, the orcas are getting a really bad bargain when all they're given to do with their energy each day is a few tricks for treats.

They need something more. That’s what Tilikum was trying to tell us. It’s a shame that Dawn Brancheau, along with her friends and family, had to suffer. But if this tragedy is to have any meaning, we'd better stop a moment and listen to what this killer has to say.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is the Urge to Bite the Key to Canine Intelligence?

Why do some dogs know the names of all their toys?

Bite-ables vs. Comestibles
In  The Intelligence of Dogs (1994), Dr. Stanley Coren made the then-astounding claim that dogs have roughly the same linguistic skills as two-year-old children, an idea that has since gone mainstream.

After reading Dr. Coren's claim, I wondered if it were really true, so I set up a simple series of tests to see if my Dalmatian Freddie could distinguish between the names of his five favorite toys. Within about 20 minutes, he learned to differentiate pretty well, although he’d sometimes choose the empty Poland Spring water bottle (his favorite) when I'd cued him to take one of his other toys1.

A few days later I decided to test his ability to distinguish between five different types of food: a piece of chicken, a piece of cheese, a liver treat, a faux chocolate (carob) treat, and a biscuit. The olfactory bulb in dogs (which processes their sense of smell) is roughly forty times the size of that in humans (relative to each species’ brain size), so I thought it would be much easier for Freddie to differentiate between objects with different odors than toys. But no matter how slowly and carefully I tried to teach him the names of the edible objects, he couldn’t do it.

Clearly there are very sharp delineations between one type of food and another, perhaps more so than between one type of toy and another. So why the difference in Freddie’s performance?

I think it’s telling that in recent years two border collies, Rico and Chaser, have shown amazing “vocabulary” skills. Rico knew the names of over 200 of his toys. Chaser knew the names of over 1,000. But their vocabulary skills were limited to one type of object: something they could pick up with their teeth and carry around in their jaws.

Size & Texture (Mouth Feel) vs. Shape (Visual)
A new study may explain why Rico and Chaser’s language skills were centered specifically around bite-able objects, and perhaps why Freddie failed to recognize the names of food objects, but was easily able to differentiate between the names of his toys.

This study was done with another border collie named Gable, and it suggests that a dog’s brain may be designed to pay more attention to the size and texture of toys (how they feel between the dog’s teeth) than to their physical shape (how they look).

In their paper, “Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important?” Drs. Emile van der Zee, Helen Zulch, and Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln (in England), write: “We taught the dog arbitrary object names (e.g. dax) for novel objects. Two experiments showed that when briefly familiarized with word-object mappings the dog did not generalize object names to object shape but to object size. A fourth experiment showed that when familiarized with a word-object mapping for a longer period of time the dog tended to generalize the word to objects with the same texture. These results show that the dog tested did not display human-like word comprehension, but word generalization and word reference development of a qualitatively different nature compared to humans.”

They go on to speculate that this difference may be due to evolutionary differences: for proto-humans the visual system was a primary source of information, implying that for dogs and wolves, “mouth feel” may have been more important.

Language Acquisition vs. Pattern Recognition
Like Dr. Coren, the teams of researchers who worked with Rico and Chaser claimed that each dog's ability to associate words with toys was comparable to the linguistic skills of a three-year-old child, ignoring the fact that the dogs' skills related to only one class of objects whereas toddlers have a much broader, wide-ranging grasp of vocabulary. Plus kids can use words to express their internal states. They can also use words related to simple concepts not just physical objects, they can differentiate between nouns and verbs, and they can use simple sentences and understand grammar, something even chimps can't do. Even 7-month old babies, when raised in a multi-lingual household, can differentiate between two different forms of grammar.

So while the abilities of these dogs are truly amazing, they have less to do with language acquisition than with pattern recognition, an evolutionary pre-cursor to language.
Still, why border collies? Why aren't other breeds as good at this?

Suppressing the Urge to Bite
Like all dogs, border collies are descended from wolves. And their predatory instincts have been shaped by humans to emphasize certain aspects of the wolf’s prey drive in order to perform specific types of work beneficial to our needs, while suppressing aspects that aren't as helpful. In border collies the desired aspects of the wolf’s prey drive relate to how wolves gaze at or stalk a herd of animals and then get them to move en masse. The most undesirable aspect is the urge to bite or kill the sheep, so those behaviors have been genetically suppressed.

Remember, the so-called linguistic abilities of Rico, Chaser and Gable relate to a specific class of objects: things they can bite, chew on or hold between their teeth. This suggests that their gifts of intelligence may actually be located in their teeth and jaws, not their brains!
However, if the urge to bite has been genetically suppressed in border collies, one might easily imagine that they would have very little interest in toys. Yet the opposite is true. Border collies can become obsessed with their toys. That’s because suppression doesn’t get rid of the urge to bite, it just "puts a lid on it," which can often increase its intensity.

What do I mean by this? Well, when a dog "works sheep" from dawn to dusk, she's putting in a very long hard day, and most of her drive energy gets used up with little left over for her chew toys. But for dogs raised as pets, the only way to use up anything close to that amount of energy is through some type of play, which usually involves something bite-able: a ball, a tug toy or a flying disc. (There's an old saying: "If you don't give your border collie a job she'll use her teeth to re-decorate your house.")

So what if we were to test border collies on their ability to memorize the names of objects unrelated to their urge to bite, for instance food items (as I tried with Freddie), or items of clothing, pieces of furniture, etc?2

Is the Urge to Bite Relevant to Learning?
Our current understanding of how learning takes place (or one of them) is that dopamine is released, either in connection with the establishment of a new pattern or a change in an expected one. This creates feelings of pleasure, ensuring that the animal repeats that specific behavior.

If we look at my two informal "studies” with Freddie, as well as those involving Rico, Chaser, and Gable, we can see that the urge to bite may be the most important factor in how dogs learn. If learning is about pattern recognition and dopamine-release, then dogs seemingly get more pleasure when they detect patterns while grasping things with their teeth than they do when detecting them visually. It may also mean that, at least for dogs like Freddie, there’s more pleasure to be had through biting a toy than there is through eating a favorite treat3.

I can’t say for sure, but this may be part of what motivated noted author and behavioral scientist Dr. Karen London to write recently, in The BARk Magazine, that the use of the term "prey drive" has become increasingly popular in recent years.

“When most people talk about prey drive in dogs,” says London, “they are referring to the enthusiasm and strong motivation that makes dogs sharp on the course, eager to participate and reliably give their all in competition or in play. I suspect that the term ‘prey drive’ is here to stay, and I sure hope that the joy of dogs who possess it also remains with us forever.”

Amen to that.

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1) The chewable objects I used were a rawhide, a tennis ball, an empty Poland Spring water bottle (his favorite), a plush chew toy, and a rubber chew toy. To make it harder, I gave them similar sounding names: “boney,” “bally,” “bottie,” “baby,” and “birdy.”

I showed Fred each of them in turn, referring to them as “boney,” “bally,” “bottie,” “bitey,” and “birdie,” and let him take each one in his mouth as I repeated their names. I deliberately used words that sounded somewhat similar to see if Freddie had the ability to distinguish between them despite their similarities, just as children do. Then I told Fred, “Get the boney,” (etc.) and gave him each object in turn, repeating their names. The next step was to say the name of an object, and tell Freddie to “get it!” I tested him each day, for short periods of time, and after about a week, he got pretty good at it.

The edible objects were a piece of chicken, a piece of cheese, a liver treat, a faux chocolate (carob) treat, and a chewable biscuit. I called these objects “chicko,” “cheddar,” “chiver,” “chocko,” and “chomsky” (after linguist Noam Chomsky).

2) Another thing to consider is the difference between cats and dogs. Housecats are very clever animals; in some ways, they’re much smarter than dogs. Is it possible to train a cat to remember the name of its chew toys? Of course not. Dogs like chew toys while cats prefer the kind they can swat at with their paws. Besides, while cats have hunting instincts, their prey drive—the ability to sustain that set of hunting instincts over a period of time—is nowhere near as strong as a dog’s. (A cat might, on its own, find it fun to try to herd a flock of sheep for a few minutes, but it could never perform the task for hours on end as border collies do.)

3) I’m not against using food in training. It’s a very useful tool, particularly as a means of “breaking the ice” with a dog, establishing a social connection, and for its calming effect.

However, as positive trainer and blogger Eric Brad noted recently, food rewards can sometimes have a negative impact on learning because they distract the dog from focusing on the desired behavior; all the dog can "think" about is getting that reward. This is exactly what happened when I tried to teach Freddie the names of his favorite treats. He had no interest in learning them; he just wanted to eat them.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Simple Formula for Understanding Aggression

Looking at Aggression From the Dog's Point of View

“The primary purpose of aggression is not to hurt and maim but rather to change the behavior of another creature. For that reason dogs clearly signal their aggressive intentions before acting.” 
—Dr. Stanley Coren.

“If any of the parties [in conflict] incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant.” 

According to the Journal of The American Medical Association the number of dog bites in America topped 4.5 million in 2010. This means that 4.5 million people—many of them children—were the victims of canine aggression in just that one year.

One obstacle to solving the problem may be that aggression doesn’t seem to be a simple behavior or even a simple set of behaviors. There are over 250 definitions of aggression in the scientific literature. The ASPCA lists 12 types of aggression in dogs.

Another thing to consider is that our current understanding of aggression has some inherent paradoxes. It's often classified as a survival-based behavior, designed to protect an animal’s survival or the survival of its genetic code. Yet acting in an aggressive manner can endanger an animal, undermining both aspects of its “survival” value. This is especially true of dogs: the quickest way for a dog to be euthanized is to bite someone.

To confuse matters further, in human society the word aggression is often used as a positive. A businessperson might be praised for having an aggressive business model. We might talk of a painter or choreographer showing a new aggression in their work. There are “aggressive” forms of cancer. The word can even be applied to invasive plant species.

And clearly if two of the world’s leading experts on dogs—Dr. Stanley Coren and Dr. Roger Abrantes (both quoted above)—see canine aggression in two seemingly opposite ways, there’s not much chance the rest of us can attain any kind of clarity on this. (Coren says that the purpose of aggression is not to harm others but to change their behavior while Abrantes says that the difference between dominance displays and actual aggression is that aggression is done to cause injury.)

That said, using some principles adapted from modern affective neuroscience, from Freud, and from Aristotle's principles of dramatic structure, I’ll attempt here to provide a simple definition that explains all forms of aggression in all mammals including humans 

What You See Is What You Get
All scientific explanations of natural phenomena—including animal behavior—should be based on what’s observable, measurable, testable, and repeatable; we can’t know what intrinsic qualities might motivate an animal behavior’s behavior, we can only know what we can see, measure, test and replicate. As Dr. Abrantes noted on his blog recently, “We must distinguish between what we reasonably can claim to know and what we presume or assume.”

Unfortunately, while this is sound science, it seems to almost force us to project human-like thought processes onto animal behavior.

Here are 3 examples, taken directly from Drs. Coren[1] and Abrantes:

1) “A dominant dog will make its body appear large and stiff.”
2) “An aggressive dog will curl his lips back to signal aggressive intent.”
3) “The purpose of aggression is to change the behavior of another creature.”

Here's a list of what we can reasonably claim to know, and what's actually being assumed in the 3 examples above.

1) We can know that a so-called dominant dog’s posture will become more stiff and erect at some times than at others, and that that this usually happens during times of social friction. But we can’t know that he’s deliberately making “his body appear larger.”[2]
2) We can know that a dog’s lips sometimes curl back when he’s feeling aggressive. But we can’t know or assume that he’s doing it to signal his intent.[3]
3) Finally, we can know that during a display of aggression the aggressee’s behavior may change in ways that might cause the aggressor to stop aggressing, but we can’t know that the aggressor had this desired outcome “in mind.”

What kinds of things can we know about a dog's internal states?

I think by carefully observing canine body language, and by finding commonalities in human and canine responses to certain stimuli, we can reasonably presume to know at least a little something about how dogs might feel. 

Getting Under the Hood
Of course it's easy for me to stand on the scientific sidelines and criticize how the principle of objectivity almost forces us to anthropomorphize animals. But my position as a dog trainer is that in order to successfully deal with aggression, we have to know what’s motivating the dog. When you take your car to a mechanic, you want someone who can get under the hood, find the problem and fix it. 

So what’s under the aggressive dog’s hood? What motivates aggression?

I think it’s a system of some very simple instincts and emotions. 

This can be problematic for some scientists, who were taught that an animal's internal states (thoughts and emotions) are unknowable. As Dr. Abrantes writes in the comments section of recent blog article: “Emotions … are difficult to deal with because we cannot objectively observe, register, describe or measure them.” 

Modern affective neuroscientists would disagree. Charles Darwin himself wrote an entire book on the similarities between The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Modern researchers like Jaak Panskepp and Tim Dalgleish have located the specific neural substrates controlling human and animal emotions. They’ve gotten under the hood.

Even without the work done by modern neuroscientists, I think it’s entirely possible to see things from a dog’s perspective and still be objective. After all, much of human behavior originates in the older parts of the brain (the reptilian complex and the limbic system), shared by both dogs and humans. In fact while there's a huge disparity in size between the canine and human neo-cortex, there's very little difference (relative to body size) between the older parts of both the canine and human brain. These parts of the brain in mammals haven't evolved much in the last 250,000 years while the human neo-cortex has. So we just have to tap into the instinctive centers in our own minds to find homologues of instincts and emotions that form the motivations for most canine behavior, including aggression. 

Aristotle, Dramatic Conflict, and Aggression
Humans are social beings. So are dogs. If you’re reading this on the internet, you’re using a set of tools that allow you to feel connected to other people and to various forms of information. If you’re like some people (a lot of people, apparently), you don’t feel completely grounded unless your smart phone, tablet, or computer are always nearby.

No organism on earth can survive for long without the ability to form connection. Dogs clearly have a need to feel connected, particularly to their owners, and to certain objects of attraction which provide them with feelings of pleasure. I call this “the drive to connect,” derived from the Freudian concept of cathexis, or projecting one's pent-up emotions onto objects (persons and things) in the environment, etc. (Natural Dog Training guru Kevin Behan calls this the “drive to make contact.”) Humans project their unresolved emotions onto hobbies, family members, even movie stars. Dogs project their emotions onto tennis balls, their owners, squirrels, pigeons, and other dogs.

Freud was heavily influenced by Greek philosophers and dramatists like Aristotle and Sophocles. When outlining the principles of drama, Aristotle said that dramatic tension is created when the protagonist’s desires come up against an obstacle caused by a) another character’s behavior, b) the world at large, or c) inner conflicts within himself.

Of course there has to be a precipitating event; some unforeseen occurrence has to interfere with the protagonist’s normal, every day life, his emotional "homeostasis." It’s that initial change in circumstances or internal feelings that sets him down a comic or tragic path.

In the biological sciences, events that disturb an animal’s homeostasis are known as stimuli. A need (like food) or desire (like wanting to play) stimulates the animal, interrupting his homeostasis, creating tension, which, in effect, pulls or motivates the animal to move toward an object of attraction/aggression.

If an obstacle presents itself or comes into the animal’s path and prevents him from attaining his goal, he can a) find a way around it, b) give up momentarily to try again later, or c) push right through it.

It’s my hypothesis that c) is what precipitates all forms of aggression in animals. Pushing past an obstacle is aggression in its most basic form. It's a definition that can be applied to dogs attacking people or business leaders who aggressively pursue their financial goals, etc.  

As to whether these feelings will motivate a dog to actually attack another dog, person, or animal is—at this level of understanding—depends on other variables such as temperament type, past history, even something as simple as the dog’s physical health. 

What about offensive, defensive and predatory aggression?
If a dog’s emotional balance is adversely affected by the stimulus of a strange dog coming into his “personal space,” or by a stranger (like a mailman) entering his yard, etc., those would be precipitating events, causing the dog to feel threatened, and motivating him to interact in such a way as to return to homeostasis, i.e., a non-threatened feeling state. In neither case could we reasonably assume that the threatened dog is acting aggressively to “change the behavior” of the other being, defending what he thinks of as his “territory,” or attempting to dominate others (put himself in a higher social position).

So using the Aristotlean model the dog's desire is to feel safe and to feel connected. And the obstacle is the appearance of another being that stimulates feelings of danger. The danger doesn't need to be real, either. It may be that the person or other dog triggers physical memories of past experiences of danger the way the sound of chopper blades makes the war veteran feel as if he's back in battle again.

As for predatory aggression, that too can be successfully explained using this basic model. Hunger, and the movements of the prey animal, are the stimuli. The changing terrain and the potential for the target animal’s escape are the obstacles.

Are my hypotheses based on what’s observable and testable?

They’re no less observable or testable than most of the explanations for aggression we have now, explanations that rely on assumptions about a dog’s internal mental states rather than on his or her internal emotional or embodied feeling states.

But for now, I think this gives dog trainers and dog owners a new way of looking at aggression, from the dog’s point of view. And once we know that a dog's aggression is essentially an attempt to relieve feelings of pressure, tension, and stress, we can find ways to show the dog how to find an alternative outlet for those feelings. 

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1) Coren's area of scientific expertise is sensory processing, not canine behavior.

2) Abrantes makes this statement without seeming to consider how it's possible for the animal to know what he looks like, either to himself or others.  

3) A more logical explanation is that the dog's lips curl back reflexively, an unconscious behavior, designed by Nature to get the soft flesh of the lips out of the way of the teeth when a dog has a strong urge to bite. I knew of a pit bull named Augie who lacked this reflex, and was constantly biting through his own lips, even while attempting to chew on a stick or bone. 

I've also witnessed numerous incidents where an aggressive dog's lips didn't curl back until after the other dog had his back turned. Clearly in such cases the aggressor is not "signalling" his aggressive intent (since the other dog can't see him), but in all likelihood initially suppressing the urge to bite while facing the other dog. Then when the other dog has his back turned, the aggressor's urge to bite, no longer suppressed, comes back up to the surface, causing the lips to curl back involuntarily.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"The Eyes" Exercise

Here's a video of me doing "The Eyes" Exercise with Fancy.
What a good doggie! 

She's very advanced at this. Note how I can almost bounce my hand off her face and she still (mostly) stares at me instead of going for the treat.

Also note how I'm holding the treat in such a way that Fancy sees an "empty space" between my thumb and forefinger. This is an important part of how the exercise should be done.

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The Importance of Play, Part II

Here I go, dipping into the archives again. This was culled from an online discussion group (Doggie Bag online), discussing the question, "Do Dogs Play?" The moderator (for whom English is a second language) was of the opinion that they don't. She was also of the very strong opinion that they do form hierarchies. From May, 2006...

 The debate continues over on the dog behavior board I mentioned in an earlier post. I had left off by saying that the idea of hierarchy comes from captive wolves, who were unable to use their predatory energy. As a result, the behaviors they exhibited were based on stress and were not natural. I also made the point that in domesticated dogs hierarchies may seem to form in multiple dog households, but that this behavior is also unnatural and stress-related, partly due to the fact that dogs don't have the full complement of the prey drive that's present in wolves.

MODERATOR:With all due respect, but are you sure only because we tried to breed the hunt out of our fellas they are cripples when it comes to hunting now? I agree, that our dogs might not be the first choice when it comes to hunting elks. But I sure do believe that they are perfect killers of mice, rabbits and birds. Which, by the way, forms the basic food ressource for most canines beside insects - and enables perfectly to live without large prey.

KELLEY: I have never denied your last point, but find it irrelevant overall. As for the first point, I never said that domesticated dogs aren't capable hunters of small prey. I said they don't have the full complement of the prey drive necessary for pack hunting that wolves do, and that the missing pieces of the prey drive are one cause of the underlying stress in domesticated dogs.

MODERATOR: In other words: prey drive and hierarchy are not related.

KELLEY: I say they're directly related, despite all expert opinion to the contrary. In fact, you keep using the word hierarchy which as far as I'm concerned is off the table. There is no hierarchy in canines. The prey drive is directly related to the social instincts in canines, but those social instincts do not include the formation of a hierarchy. The whole idea of it doesn't make any sense. To me it makes more sense that the pack is a bottom-up heterarchy, ruled by differences in temperament which are necessary only for hunting large prey.

MODERATOR: Yes and yes: dogs do show a lot of the same sequences as wolves and yes, they can be easily compared. However, keep in mind that wolves are not always equally to wolves. Behaviour and social structure depends on the direct environment. And a wolve high up north is faced with other external influences than one in Ethiopea...

Which means: all canines have similar behaviour patterns - but also a whole lot different ones depending on their direct surroundings.

KELLEY: I agree, but the underlying structure hasn't changed. It's one reasons wolves are so adaptable to changing environments.

MODERATOR: Lee, I agree to the point of play. But you really have to get over that "let us hunt large prey"-issue.

Let me explain it to you in a different way: cats are designed to hunt. And even prey a whole lot larger than they are themselves. Look into the wild Africa and watch a cheetah hunt an antilope. Perfect. You know why you never see a wolve hunt deer or elk on his own? Because he is genetically not designed to do so. Their theeth are not made for the killbite as the ones of the cat. The muzzle is way too long for that.

Their front legs contain no muscle and the bones are not flexible, which means that they can rund fast due to the lack of muscle-weight - but can not pull down their prey for the kill (like cats for example). In other words: they are perfect runners -but not the perfect hunters.

KELLEY: Exactly. Because wolves, or their predecessors, didn't have the physical capacity to take down a large prey animal on their own, they had to either adapt by radically changing their body structure (which didn't happen), or they had to adapt the way they did adapt, which was to develop social skills and instincts, that enabled them to kill the large. Instead of larger teeth and more powerful muscles and larger bodies, they developed emotionally, which in the end made them more adaptable to hunting large and small prey. And which also made them adaptable to living in a human society as well.

MODERATOR: Lee, I assume we will never get an agreement on the importance of hunt for the social life of dogs. Regarding the fact that you built your training on the hunt issue and I prefer modern ethology, I doubt we will ever be able to settle this.

KELLEY: Yes, you're right that we probably won't see eye-to-eye on the existence or non-existence of a social hierarchy in canines. However, since we are talking about play here, and since there can be no question that play is directly related to the hunting instincts of predators, I think it's interesting to note that a dog I've been working with for the past three weeks or so, a dog who had aggression problems, and no interest in socializing with other dogs, is now mostly non-aggressive and will even initiate friendly contact at the dog run. He won't play with complete and utter abandon yet with other dogs he doesn't know well (one of my goals), but when we started he wouldn't even go sniff other dogs at the dog run. He'd just sit or lie down and look around without making any kind of social contact at all. (His owners say he'd been like this for about two years, long before they hired me.)

How did I effect this change? I stimulated his prey drive by teaching him to play fetch (among other things, like tug and chase-me). That's pretty much it. You can read all about the process and his daily progress on my blog, if you like.*

Look, I've been training dogs via their prey drive for about thirteen years, and I've seen this happen time after time: when you stimulate and satisfy a dog's prey drive he quickly becomes more openly social. You can quote all the "experts" in the whole world who say there's no connection, but I've seen the proof of it with my own eyes far too often to be convinced by any counter-argument. THE PREY DRIVE HOLDS THE KEY TO SOCIALIZATION IN DOGS, AND PLAY HOLDS THE KEY TO THE PREY DRIVE.

MODERATOR: Lee, without meaning to be disrespectful: Are you sure that dogs, aggressive towards humans after abuse and other dogs after bite incidents, only have to chase the neighbours cat four times a day and will be the perfect pal afterwards with perfect play behaviour?

KELLEY: That would be like trying to cure heroin addiction with morphine. And though it might take the edge of a dog's aggression, it wouldn't cure it. No, I'm talking about structured play, under the trainer's control.

In regards to dogs who've been abused by humans, a great deal of time and effort has to first go into earning back the animal's trust. No dog I know of who's been abused will automatically want to play with his owner or trainer right out of the box. His prey drive has to be coaxed to the surface and allowed expression in whatever way the dog feels comfortable, still within acceptable parameters. If the dog wants to PLAY with the cat, that might be fine in the beginning. If the dog gets excited about the sound of a spoon being dropped in the kitchen and wants to grab that spoon and "kill" it by shaking her head around, that's cool, too. (See Chapter 38 of my novel, A NOSE FOR MURDER; this is not a plug, the book is currently out of print, but an excerpt is available on my website.)

With dogs who've developed fear of other dogs (and all aggression is based on some kind of fear), you have to not only bring the dog's prey drive to the surface, you have to make him feel comfortable around other dogs. One of the things I did with Boomer was take him for a walk with one of his mortal enemies. That's it. With the help of the other dog's dogwalker, we took the two boys for a walk along the Brooklyn Promenade. (When two dogs walk parallel to one another it dissipates the aggression.) Doing this doesn't solve the aggression totally, it just gives the dog a temporary respite so he can learn that he doesn't necessarily have to protect himself all the time.

This thread is about play, and I've learned that the key to healing wounded emotions in dogs is structured play. There is a vast difference between teaching a dog to chase a ball, bring it back to you, and drop it at your feet, and letting him chase a cat. Boomer, the dog I'm training now wouldn't play fetch at all before I started. Now he's wild about it. All the aggressive energy he's been holding inside, energy that was constantly erupting into fights with other dogs, now has an acceptable outlet. So not only does he no longer feel the same need to start fights with other dogs, he's more capable of wanting to seek out friendly social contact on his own.

Dogs want to be social. It's their thing. For years we were taught that the way to deal with aggressive dogs was to show them who's alpha, scare them, punish them, keep them in line. And that works, as long as you're always around to control their every move. But that aggressive energy hasn't been repolarized or redirected, only repressed. The dog has only been taught how to put a lid on the pot of the pressure-cooker, not how to USE that energy, which has got to have an escape valve.

Now we're told that a dog needs to be desensitized to emotional triggers, or shown that nothing in life is free, which again doesn't teach him HOW to use his natural energy properly, it only puts a damper on it. There's still no safety valve, no outlet.

What IS the proper way to use that energy? To focus it on games where the predatory sequence is completed, where the dog gets to chase and bite. The more you do that, in a structured way, the closer the dog will be to his true nature as a group predator. And nature is never wrong.

The kind of training I do was developed by Kevin Behan, who used to train police dogs for a living. He also studied with an old German SchutzHund master before becoming a master trainer himself. He was the first one to see a connection between the prey drive and the social instincts in canines. When dogs play, their natural-born predatory energy and their social needs are given a safe, acceptable outlet that's under the owner's control.

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