Posts filed under ‘behavior science’

Look before you leap

The desire to avoid unpleasant things is incredibly strong. Nobody likes being dirty, diseased, distressed or disappointed. We dislike these sensations so much that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid them.

While avoiding unpleasant things is adaptive in a lot of situations (that’s obviously why we evolved to seek the release of it), there are times and places where is does more harm good.

The thing is, avoidance often only offers a temporary solution. No matter how terrified you are of the dentist’s chair, you can only put sitting in one off for so long. Sooner or later (barring an early death) a problem will arise that is so painful and/or debilitating that the discomfort it causes will over-ride your fear. And instead of a simple check up and cleaning you’ll end up having your fear reinforced.

Avoidance doesn’t just feed our anxiety and drive us to procrastination, there is also a large body of data demonstrating that the things we learn through escape and avoidance are extremely resistant to extinction. Because escape and avoidance evolved to help us survive in situations like those shown in the video below, lessons acquired through these drives can be extremely difficult to unlearn.

To avoid falling into the trap of maladaptive avoidance behavior you need to realize that unless you are in a near miss situation where immediate action is required to escape disaster, you should use your higher mental processes to assess a situation before chasing after the immediate gratification offered by simple avoidance.

The trap of avoidance is easy to all into and, unfortunately, avoidance reactions can inadvertently set off complex chain reactions that lead to unexpected problems. This happens in a broad range of situations as illustrated in a couple of recent news items.

First, in Scientific American blogs, Rob Dunn writes about how our desire to avoid sickness though widespread use of antibacterial soaps, wipes and surface treatments appears to be making us sicker instead of healthier. Dunn writes:

…Allison Aiello, a professor at the University of Michigan, recently surveyed all of the experimental or quasi-experimental studies published in English between 1980 and 2006 on the effectiveness of different hand washing strategies [2]. Aiello focused on studies that compared different strategies, for example the use of normal soap versus the use of antibiotic soap, in terms of their effect on the probability of developing gastrointestinal or respiratory illness. Our intuition is that antibiotic soaps and wipes should make everyone healthier. Aiello’s results were something else entirely.

Aiello’s first result was fine enough, but it set the stage for the trouble to come. She found “the use of nonantibacterial soap with hand hygiene education interventions is efficacious for preventing both gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses.” In other words, if you wash your hands with soap (and are educated about washing your hands with soap) you are less likely to get sick. Score one for intuition and grandma’s admonitions. But then things went terribly wrong.

Aiello next considered the antibiotic soaps and wipes now used, in one form or another, by 75% of American households. Odds are that you use them. Go check your labels. Sadly, Aiello and colleagues found that antibiotic soaps and wipes with triclosan were no more likely than good old-fashioned soap to prevent gastrointestinal or respiratory illness. In Aiello’s words, “There was little evidence for an additional impact of new products, such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers or antibacterial soaps compared with nonantibacterial soaps, for reducing either gastrointestinal or respiratory infectious illness symptoms.”

Dunn cites studies that indicate that chronically ill people who used antibiotic soaps actually suffered from an increased susceptibility to coughs, colds and infections when compared to those who used regular soaps. He also discusses how, triclosan, the active ingredient in most of these products, is spreading it through the environment where it appears to be creating an ugly chain of unintended consequences.

In an interesting parallel, Lori Gottlieb’s How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, published in the July/August edition of The Atlantic illustrates how our desire to help those we care about avoid unpleasant feelings can actually turn them into chronically unhappy and unfulfilled people (bold emphasis is mine).

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA … believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.

Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it. In many cases, Bohn says, the child recovers fine on her own—but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.


Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, they won’t develop “psychological immunity.”

“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’”

The mental systems you rely on to cope with stress, like those that make up your immune system, need regular challenges to stay fit and healthy. If a child is taught that every effort he makes will be treated as a success and that child never gets any kind of negative feedback on his performance, he’ll never learn to cope with adversity or limits. (And the same applies to your dog.)

But — putting efforts into helping your child or your dog avoid discomfort in the short term is a lot easier than making and implementing a plan to teach them how to avoid and cope with it on their own in the long term.

While avoidance motivation can help us figure out that a problem needs to be solved, outside of near miss situations, avoidance-based decision making is only adaptive when we use it to choose a specific goal and a course of action to achieve it. And that’s not easy to do.

Our avoidance drives aren’t specific. When you’re in avoidance mode you’re only focused on feeling good (or at least less bad) in the moment and all other goals are pushed aside.

If you’re a gazelle living living on the African savanna, avoidance reactions keep you alive. A gazelle’s only long term goals are to survive and reproduce, and avoidance reactions suit this kind of life well. A human with a job and a mortgage lives in a far more complex world and has a very different set of goals. We need to be able to select and maintain our focus on goals that can require years or even decades of effort to achieve. And that’s hard to do, because every day avoidance sets enticing little traps to divert us.

July 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm 5 comments

The importance of being observant

Things are not always what they seem!

July 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm 2 comments

Cesar’s Rules – a ‘must read’ review

My friend Alison Lever recently wrote a wonderfully detailed and perceptive review of Cesar Millan’s latest book, Cesar’s Rules over on infopet. Go, read the whole thing now.

Alison discusses Cesar’s philosophy on living with dogs, his evolution as a trainer and compares popular behaviorism with Cesar’s dog psychology. Her observations on life with dogs in a small Spanish village provide an insightful bridge between Millan’s rural Mexican roots and the experiences of American dog owners.

I was especially struck by her discussion on the importance of touch in our relationships with dogs. In my puppy and beginning classes I spend much of my time teaching people how to use touch and other aspects of body language effectively. This is something I feel that I’ve always known and I’m sure that (like Cesar) I picked these skills up during summers spent on my grandparent’s farm when I was a young child.

Dogs on that Iowa farm didn’t have much formal training, but they had good manners and they understood what was expected of them. Even though they rarely, if ever, came in the house, they existed as fully integrated – and fulfilled – members of the extended family, like many of the dogs in Alison’s village in Spain.

The current fashion of treating dogs like voters (independent agents whose behavior should only be manipulated by indirect methods) strikes me as insulting to dogs and to their human owners. So when Ian Dunbar is quoted as saying that “Most human hands cannot be trusted,” I can’t help but wonder if the man hides some kind of dark secret.

Dogs are brilliant social creatures not just capable of tolerating, but rather thriving on, a full range of social input. And, with only rare exceptions, people aren’t mindless violent brutes. We all make mistakes in handling dogs – but those mistakes are an unavoidable and valuable part of life.

I believe that the growing fashion of “hand’s off” philosophy is having a terrible effect on dogs in the US today. Some trainer friends and I have been commiserating about how difficult it is to get our clients to commit to going beyond very basic management and bribing to deal with problem dog behavior. As the idea that “human hands can’t be trusted” gains traction, our society is losing the ability to use our bodies effectively to communicate with dogs (and also with each other). These skills are most effective when we learn them intrinsically, as a part of our culture (see the writings of Edward Hall for more on this), and I am deeply concerned that if we continue down this road it will be difficult, if not impossible, to turn back.

Based on Alison’s review, even though I’m not one of Millan’s fans (or detractors) I’ve added this book to my ‘must read’ list.

May 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm 7 comments

Play and pornography

The Puppy Lingerie Bowl - Play and porn mixed up in one sick, but very amusing little package

Like pornography – while I can’t really define exactly what play is, I’m pretty sure I’ll recognize it when I see it.

An article over at The Scientist where Jef Akst writes about play in “lower” animals caught my eye a while back. Akst discusses controversy over what play is and why it evolved.

There’s no broad agreement on how to define play. While most of us will agree that sprightly spaniels and rollicking retrievers are enjoying a kind of play that very much resembles the kind of recreations we humans enjoy, it can a bit more difficult to see that reflection ourselves in the actions of ‘lower’ creatures like reptiles.

Akst writes that:

During a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, biopsychologist Gordon Burghardt decided to peek in on a Nile soft-shelled turtle its keepers affectionately called “Pigface.” Pigface had been a zoo resident for more than 50 years, and Burghardt had seen him before, but this time, he noticed something a bit curious—Pigface was playing basketball.

“It was by itself,” recalls Burghardt, currently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and “it had started to knock around” a basketball provided by its keepers. The year was 1994, and play had only rarely and anecdotally been reported in animals other than mammals, but he thought that might be what Pigface was doing. The 1-meter-long turtle exuberantly pushed the ball around its aquatic enclosure, swimming through the water with ease as it batted the ball in front of it with its nose. “If you saw a dog or an otter going around batting a ball, bouncing around and chasing it, and going back and forth and doing it over and over again, we’d have no problem calling it play,” he says. “And that’s what the turtle was doing.”

Is a turtle capable of play? Is a lady bug? Is an amoeba?

What kind of mental equipment does an animal need to engage in play and how can we recognize play in animals whose lives and thoughts, whose umwelts, are universes away from ours?

Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the biggest problems in the study of play is that there isn’t a widely accepted set of formal rules on how to define it. Not deterred by the controversial nature of the topic, Burghardt decided to create a set of criteria to recognize play behavior in non-human species.

Burghardt’s rules for play are:

  1. Play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed.
  2. Play is spontaneous, voluntary, and/or pleasurable, and is likely done for its own sake.
  3. Play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious.
  4. Play is repeated but not in exactly the same way every time, as are more serious behaviors.
  5. Play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.

I think it’s interesting note that play, as Burghardt defines it, seems to be exactly the kind of behavior that an emotionally-driven, goal-directed organism would engage in when it had a bit of free time to enjoy. And as I wrote in an earlier post, recent work on the emotional regulation of behavior may provide insight on how the immediate emotional reward of ‘positive’ emotions like joy, success and connection could create an innate ‘play drive’ even in very primitive animals.

In her 2009 article, What Do People Want to Feel and Why? Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Maya Tamir wrote:

The approach that views emotion regulation as instrumental proposes that what people want to feel depends on both pleasure and utility. When immediate benefits (i.e., immediate pleasure) outweigh long-term benefits (i.e., delayed pleasure derived from successful goal pursuit), people should prefer pleasant emotions. When long-term benefits outweigh immediate ones, people should prefer useful emotions.

If this is true, when we’re in pursuit of a short-term goal we should have an innate drive to do the thing that makes us feel good in the moment. And if you’re a well-fed social animal who feels safe and secure – play would be a fun, and potentially highly adaptive way, to spend that time. Play isn’t just fun, it encourages exploratory behavior. It can provide social advantages. It increases confidence and physical prowess.

And if play evolved largely or, for that matter even partly, as an adaptive way to spend free time, that might explain why we don’t see it as often in tortoises (or lady bugs) as often as we do in terriers. According to Burghardt:

These criteria may explain why play appears to be so much more common in mammalian species, than in reptiles, fish, or invertebrates, Mather says. There are few situations where cold-blooded animals are safe, comfortable, and well fed, as they must constantly deal with regulating their body temperature, avoiding predators, and finding food. Conversely, mammals are warm-blooded and often have extensive periods of parental care, which provide a safe and comfortable childhood. Cold-blooded animals in captivity, on the other hand, may find themselves in much more relaxing settings.

This may also explain why dogs who’ve been rescued from severe neglect or abuse often don’t seem to understand the idea of play. Because these poor beasts have rarely, if ever, been in situations where they were safe, comfortable and well fed — they’ve never had an opportunity to learn how to play.

Another parallel between play and pornography is that both activities can sometimes incorporate a dark or disturbing side. In “Taking Play Seriously” an article published in the New York Times back in February of 2008 Robin Marantz Henig writes:

Sutton-Smith’s 1997 classic, ”The Ambiguity of Play,” reflects in its title his belief that play’s ultimate purpose can be found in its paradoxes. During his years at Columbia’s Teachers College and the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton-Smith, a psychologist and folklorist, took careful note of how play could be destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. He collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ”being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.” Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ”phantasmagoria,” where children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.

Why would such an enriching activity as play also be a source of so much anarchy and fear? Sutton- Smith found one possible answer by reading Stephen Jay Gould, the author and evolutionary biologist. The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ”possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.” Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ”the key is flexibility.”

So part of the function of play appears to be to introduce variety and balance to our lives. Given that idea, the fact that play embodies a dark side doesn’t surprise me. There’s no light without dark. Contrast is interesting and it’s informative. You can’t really know what something is until you know what it is not.

Play offers animals a safe way to explore a wide range of the good/bad, gentle/violent, boring/beautiful things in their world. It’s a form of mental feedback that encourages flexible behavior.

And now coming back to the idea of the subjective, value-laden definitions we assign to play and porn – I have to say that now I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what play is…

Akst, Jef (2010). Recess The Scientist, 24 (10), 44-44

Tamir, M. (2009). What Do People Want to Feel and Why?: Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18 (2), 101-105 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01617.x

February 9, 2011 at 10:22 pm 7 comments

Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer

Cesar Millan is the most loved – and the most hated – dog trainer in the world today. Adored by millions of fans, Millan is also vilified by many dog trainers.

Right, wrong or indifferent – I find it amusing that such volumes of hatereude* are launched against a man who doesn’t even describe himself as a dog trainer.

But if Cesar Millan isn’t a dog trainer – what is he?

I think that Cesar Millan is a self-help guru very much in the mold of his mentor Tony Robbins. The Dog Whisperer acknowledges that Robbins has been a strong influence on his life, and in his books the he talks about how he uses self-help techniques like visualization, scripting and inner dialogs to help his human clients change their behavior.

While he provides some basic how-to advice on dog training I find it ironic that his handling methods, which I suspect Millan does not see as the primary focus of either his philosophy or his television series, are the stimulus that elicits most of the wrath directed at the man from dog trainers. Cesar says that he trains people, and indeed, The Dog Whisperer spends a lot more time talking about changing human behavior than he does about training dogs.

And I think that Millan’s mentor, life coach Tony Robbins, might have profited (pun very much intended) from studying Millan’s television success. While National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer series has hurtled Millan to the forefront of an expanding financial empire, NBC recently canceled Robbins’ reality series “Breakthrough” after one of the most disappointing debuts in recent television history.

While I knew that Millan was a student of Robbins’ program I had not thought much about the link between the two of them until I ran across a webcast of the first episode of Robbins’ series online the other day. In the first minutes of the episode I was immediately struck by how similar Robbins’ mannerisms and speech patterns were to those you’d see on an early episode of The Dog Whisperer. It was like watching an amped up Whisperer who had decided to leave the dogs at home. The resemblance was so strong I expected Robbins to say “tchzzzt” and poke his clients in the shoulder to redirect their attention when they balked at following his suggestions.

Both shows are built on a similar formula:

Troubled family narrates a touching story of heartbreak and tribulation;

Charming, successful, trendy, macho guru interviews family in a way that inspires them to acknowledge their part in creating and/or maintaining the  dysfunction in their lives;

Guru aggressively pushes individual family members well outside their comfort zones to elicit breakthrough experiences;

Individual family members then have touching on-screen epiphanies that we are led to believe will lead to life changing transformation; and

The show ends with guru providing a compelling step-by-step narrative on how his system transformed their lives and why it can transform yours too.

Sure the formula varies a bit from episode to episode – but writing for television is a bit like making soup. If you’ve got a good a basic recipe you can play with proportions and ingredients and still get very good results. And for psuedo-televangelical series like these, the most important ingredient is the guru’s ability to be credible, inspiring and motivational.

“Breakthrough” starts with a close up shot of a very macho looking Robbins saying: “I’m gonna make you do stuff you don’t wanna do, I’m gonna make you face stuff you don’t want to face.” And this idea of pushing people (and dogs) far outside their comfort zones to achieve a “breakthrough” epiphany is one of the main tools used by both men to change their clients’ behavior.

Why? Well, in episode one Robbins says:

“How do you breakthrough whatever unconscious concept we have about what’s possible? All a breakthrough is is a moment in time when you get an insight or you see a truth or you have an experience that once it happens the veil disappears and you just take back control of your life, not just today, but long term. And we’re looking for ways to trigger people to have those breakthroughs.”

The aggressive push to epiphany is probably one of main reasons that Millan’s series has been so successful (it’s also the basis for a lot of the criticism directed at the man), because watching his human and canine clients cope with these physically and emotionally stressful situations is interesting to watch.

Robbins’ show featured dramatic scenes where he pushed people out of their comfort zones though the methods he used were a lot bigger in scale (and budget) than Millan’s.

Both men are skilled at creating powerful positive experiences for their clients. And while these experiences may provide intense emotional highs for their clients and, at least in Millan’s case, they also sell well as entertainment, I’m not convinced that they lead to effective long-term change in most cases.

In light of these similarities, why has Cesar’s show been phenomenally successful and Robbins’ a dismal failure? First, the Dog Whisperer has a much easier job. Dogs accept change far more readily than people do, so Millan’s job lies largely in getting dog owners to accept their place in the problem and take a few, usually relatively simple steps, to effect the needed change.

Another important difference is that Millan offers his clients concrete bits of training advice along with those trademark Dog Whisperer truisms while Robbins just focused on a few abstract motivational platitudes. Another important factor was that, at least in my opinion, Robbins’ show came across as more infomercial than tutorial.

Robbins’ “helping families in crisis in only 30 days” focus on a quickie fix seems to be a perfect fit for today’s drive-through mentality so I understand why network executives gambled on “Breakthrough”. But I think that the show failed because while people may buy into the idea that a few whiz-bang tricks may fix their dogs’ problem behavior, at least at some deep level they’re aware that quick-fix pop psychology methods won’t cure their own issues.

My advice to Tony Robbins, should he get another shot at a television series: tone it down, take it slower and give your most valuable advice away on the show. Millan tells fans all of his training secrets in the DW series – and they line up in droves to pay for more.

*Hatereude – pleasure derived from the hatred of a shared enemy.

August 30, 2010 at 9:55 am 12 comments

A breath of not-so-fresh air

That whiff of a buddy’s just-back-from-lunch garlic, onion, tomato, salami and beer breath may kill your appetite, but to a mouse it provides a powerful incentive to grab a pizza and beer for himself.

As reported last week at Science News:

For rodents, any food smell combined with breath odor sends an irresistible “eat this” message to the brain, reported Thursday.

Carbon disulfide, a metabolic byproduct found in the breath of many mammals, stimulates specialized cells in the mouse nose, scientists report in the journal Current Biology.

These cells send a signal to specialized structures within the mouse brain that links an incoming odor with food that’s safe to eat, researchers said.

Olfaction arises from the interaction of several astonishingly complex subsystems. And they do a lot more than just detect odors. While some receptor systems help animals detect and decode a wide range of chemosensory input others affect and regulate specific kinds of behavior.

GC-D cells are a set of neurons in the main olfactory epithelium that detect specific hormones and urinary stimuli. Although GC-D cells were first identified back in the 1980’s, there’s no evidence that they play a role in odor recognition. So why are they present in some mammalian noses?

According to Science News:

Special nasal cells, called GC-D cells, seem to respond to the CS2 in rodent breath, experiments by Munger and his colleagues reveal. A mouse that smells cinnamon on a buddy’s breath will choose cinnamon-scented food over any other flavor, the researchers found. And it doesn’t even have to be another mouse: Cotton balls laced with a food odor and CS2 did the trick. But mice without working GC-D cells lost the ability to interpret this chemical message and they didn’t copy their compatriots’ food choices, the team reports.

The new work provides a molecular explanation for how these rodents learn what’s OK to eat, says neuroscientist Emily Liman of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For people and other primates, food preferences are mostly learned visually (or compelled via threats of no dessert). But for nocturnal creatures such as rodents, visual cues are limited. So it makes sense that there’s a scent signal, Liman says.

This safe-to-eat signal is so powerful that a mouse who has eaten poison will return for more if it catches a whiff of the poison on another mouse’s breath, says behavioral scientist Bennett Galef of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. “The strength of this social learning on food choice is huge,” says Galef, whose research revealed that mixing CS2 with rat poison drew four times as many rodents to the bait.

Humans and most other primates lack GC-D cells. Our eyes are as important as our noses in helping us decide what to eat. GC-D cells are present in dogs and many other mammals and, if mice are an accurate model, their noses play an important role in determining their food preferences.

We’ve known that carbon disulfide was important in helping mice and rats identify food sources for a long time but their link to the GC-D cells is a new discovery. Bennett Galef’s earlier research on carbon disulfide led to its widespread use as an attractant in rat poison. He wrote:

By signalling “safety,” CS2 increases the attractiveness of materials to which it is applied.

Carbon disulfide may increase the effectiveness of poison baits in ways that extend beyond simple enhancement of initial intake. Results of 4 recent sets of experiments indicate that experience with the smell of a diet, either on the breath of a conspecific, or in association with CS2, interferes with rats’ ability to acquire a subsequent aversion (bait-shyness) towards that diet.

The GC-D cells’ influence on food preference could help explain why every time a new pup or foster dog who eats poop stays at our place the rest of the pack starts eating poop again too.

The use of carbon disulfide as an attractant in rat poison may explain why dogs are attracted to eating it.

It could also explain why my dogs have no interest in a new Nylabone until I spit on it, and why Audie likes to sniff our breath after we eat.

And – because humans lack GC-D cells, it may also help explain why we don’t understand dogs’ great interest in sniffing urine, stale breath and feces.

Pizza breath - Nom!

July 25, 2010 at 12:50 pm Leave a comment

Missing the point?

A recent blog post by Jesse Bering over at Scientific American caught my eye today. Bering looks at a study published by Monique Udell, Nicole Dorey and Clive Wynne earlier this year in the journal Animal Behavior. Udell et al. claim to have demonstrated that stray dogs think about human social behavior and intentions in a fundamentally different way than our pet dogs do.

Bering recently returned from a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria and writes that:

Stray dogs are about common as squirrels there, and from what I saw, most of Sofia’s human population also has about as much interest in strays as Americans in the suburbs have in the squirrels living in their backyards. A June, 2010 estimate placed the figures at around 9,500 dogs running loose in the Sofia confines. So when you’ve got that many animals—even man’s best friend—in a relatively small, concentrated city (not to mention one with its own human homeless problems in the form of the ostracized Romanian Roma, or “gypsies”), mass desensitization is sadly inevitable. But this human-dog indifference is even more striking because it appears to be mutual.

I watched incredulously as the Sofia strays ambled casually down the sidewalks like proper Bulgarian citizens. They stepped aside politely for human pedestrians before continuing on their way, stopped patiently to look both ways before loping across frantically organized, crowded freeways, mingled with one another at storefronts and had their mangy coats tousled by the whooshing tires of passing commercial trucks while in the midday heat they slept quietly in tree-shaded gutters mere inches from the road. Most of these animals are multigenerational strays, which means that they are the offspring of strays who were the offspring of strays and so on, and on, for many breeding generations. Natural selection must work quickly indeed under such conditions: these are the descendents of the craftiest ancestral dogs of yesteryear Sofia, those who survived puppyhood without being crushed by some juggernaut and who managed to live long enough to pass on their wily natures to their offspring. Too much reliance on humans or interest in human behavior may well be maladaptive to these dogs’ overall genetic interests within this selective context, given the situation. I love my dogs, Gulliver and Uma, and they’re pretty smart as far as dogs go. But they wouldn’t last two minutes on the streets of Sofia.

The ability to read and correctly interpret human behavior is a vital skill if you’re a stray dog who wants to survive in an urban environment. The hordes of people who surround him are boon and a threat at the same time. A stray dog has to be able to judge whether a strange human’s intent is aggressive or benign in a nanosecond.

But while domestic dogs have been the focus of several studies on social cognition, feral dogs remain a resource for information that’s rarely been mined. Until recently, that is.

I wasn’t able to pull up a free copy of Udell et al.’s study and I’m too cheap to buy one, but Bering writes that:

Udell and her group in Florida, however, say that these impressive social cognitive abilities in dogs may not represent the “default” canine cognitive system. In their review of this literature on dog social cognition, the authors point out that:

The currently available data suggest that populations of dogs differing in [breeding] and in environmental and lifetime pressures might display different behavioral responses to the actions of humans. Despite this fact, the great majority of subjects in studies of the origins of domestic dogs’ human-compatible social cognition have been pet dogs living in human homes, with human-oriented working dogs representing the remainder of the subject pool.

In other words, Udell and her coauthors’ contention is similar to arguments made by many researchers studying human psychological evolution—that our ability to make claims about “human nature” are seriously limited by the fact that the data upon which such claims are made are derived almost entirely from middleclass American undergraduate students between 18-22 years of age and recruited from a psychology department subject pool. She’s basically arguing that existing social cognition research on Canis lupus familiaris has largely neglected large demographic swells of the species and therefore does not necessarily paint an entirely accurate portrait of this species’ natural (default) psychological stance.

Comparing feral dogs to pet dogs is a lot like comparing undergraduates to middle-aged suburban housewives – but… I think Udell et al. made a bigger mistake if they extrapolated data collected from truly feral dogs living in shelter environments to those living free on the street or, for that matter, to dogs in general. Feral dogs in shelter environments are like early Native Americans forced into confinement camps. Trapped in an alien environment they have little or not control over, they won’t respond in a way that’s normal for them, much less the species in general. While they may be an interesting group to study, their behavior is not characteristic of the population at large.

We’ll get back to that point later. Meanwhile, back at the lab Udell et al. administered two different pointing comprehension tests to dogs at an animal shelter. The goal of the study was to assess the relative importance of a dog’s life experience in shaping his ability to understand human pointing gestures. The use and interpretation of pointing and other indicative gestures are important because they can tell us a lot about an animal’s higher cognitive abilities.

Index finger pointing is an innate skill in humans but it’s not the only way we send and receive directional and attentional cues. We also do it by shifting our gaze, turning our heads and re-orienting the position of our bodies. Dogs don’t have fingers so they may need to learn to interpret finger pointing gestures. I believe, however, that dogs do have some innate skills in using and understanding other types of pointing gestures.

And indeed there is strong evidence they do. Bering writes:

Several years ago, Duke University psychologist Brian Hare and his colleagues reported some striking evidence showing that domestic dogs performed above chance on a variety of human-guided selection tasks—including studies in which human experimenters pointed to different objects in the room. At the time, these data were interpreted as showing that dogs have human-like social cognition allowing them to understand cooperative intent in humans. In fact, whereas tame wolves fail to score above chance in such studies, domestic dogs even outperform chimpanzees on similar pointing tests, suggesting that we may have more in common psychologically with dogs than with species for which we’re taxonomically (much) more closely related. This prompted Hare to argue that the co-evolution of humans and the domestic dog had created in the latter a genuine ability to reason about human mental states.

Some of our human understanding of pointing gestures develops over time. In very young children (babies and toddlers) pointing is used primarily as a request. These kinds of declarative pointing gestures are the human equivalent of what I refer to as the “That! That!” point in my dogs. It’s the nose and gaze aimed with laser beam intensity at an object of desire that is literally or culturally out of a dog’s reach. In a declarative point a dog will stare fixedly at the object for long periods of time. If the dog thinks his dimwit owner has missed (or is ignoring) the gesture, he may turn and give her a brief inquisitive (please?) or cross (hey dimwit, over HERE!) look before returning his attention to the object.

As a human child matures she will start to use pointing gestures to guide your attention to things she thinks you may find interesting.  The indicative or “Hey, look at That” point is seen as a sign of an increased cognitive maturity in a child because its use indicates that the child is able to understand when others are and are not aware of something. That she has developed a theory of mind.

I believe that dogs (at least some of them) use indicative pointing gestures too. When Audie notices that one of our hens has escaped the back yard fence he’ll run to me with a very alert posture and work to catch my eye while stepping, dancing or making short darts to and then away from me. This “Timmy’s in the well!” attitude contrasts sharply with the still, fixated postures characteristic of a dog’s declarative pointing gestures.

Once he gets my attention Audie will lead me to the place where he found the lost hen (or dead raccoon or some other Thing of Vital Import) and use animated body postures combined with quick back and forth glances to direct my attention appropriately. The ability to use indicative and declarative gestures would imply that dogs have some ability to understand them as well.

Udell et al. wondered whether or not this ability to understand human pointing gestures is innate in dogs. Their thesis was that if stray dogs performed as well as pet dogs on pointing tests it would indicate the ability is innate. If they did not, some form of experiential learning is required to develop the skill.

Bering writes:

The most significant findings from Udell’s studies were these. Although the strays performed above chance when the experimenter was kneeling on the floor and the tip of the experimenter’s finger was rigidly held 10 cm from the target can, unlike the domestic dogs in prior studies these strays failed to respond correctly to the pointing gesture when such an obvious physical cue was removed. On pointing trials in which the experimenter’s finger was 50 cm from the closest edge of the target container at full extension and then her arm was retracted back to a neutral position before the subject was allowed to make a choice, the strays’ performance fell to chance levels. This distinction is critical for the debate over whether domestic dogs have some semblance of theory of mind, because in the first instance at least, dogs may be using a simple behavioral heuristic such as “pick-the-box-closest-to-the-hand” that does not require human-like social cognition in which they are inferring cooperative intent.

The data shows that the shelter dogs tested displayed inferior skills at interpreting two basic human indicative pointing gestures. This would appear to indicate that there is at least some learned component involved in dogs’ abilities to interpret pointing gestures.

In an article titled “Ontogeny’s impacts on human-dog communication” Clive Wynne, Monique Udell and Katherine Lord discuss how they studied 6 to 24 week old puppies’ skills at interpreting three different human pointing gestures. They report that “In each case, the oldest dogs performed better on each point type than the youngest dogs.”

This provides additional evidence that these skills have an acquired component – but… a study strikingly similar to Wynne et al’s conducted by Tanya Behne, Malinda Carpenter and Michael Tomasello on human toddlers in 2005 produced, well…  strikingly similar results. So it appears that we need to learn these skills too.

Udell et al. chose to study stray dogs from American shelters because they were interested in testing a population of dogs who hadn’t had a chance to learn human gestures in a home environment. But Wynne et al.’s work indicates that even spending a few months or even weeks in the company of humans who use pointing gestures meaningfully with them provides puppies with enough exposure to significantly improve their ability to understand these gestures. This leads me to wonder whether the dogs in Udell et al.’s study performed poorly because they were feral – or because there were in a highly stressful shelter environment. (Or maybe just because no human had ever communicated meaningfully with them before.)

Do feral dogs lack the ability to correctly interpret human body language? Perhaps those living in rural areas do, but when I watched the video of stray dogs at large on the streets of Moscow below, the first thing I noticed was how effortlessly they interpreted subtle cues from the people around them.

I also thought it was interesting (and a little depressing) that they displayed far better manners than most pet dogs do.

I think it would be a lot more interesting to test feral dogs at large in their natural environment using different kinds of indicative gestures. Finger pointing, gaze, head / facial orientation and body orientation gestures are used by humans (and dogs) to signal location and intent. Feral dogs need to be brilliant students of human behavior and intent to survive in urban environments and I wouldn’t be surprised if they performed significantly better than pet dogs at interpreting subtle cues – when tested in their natural environment.

It would also be interesting to study how being in the stressful environment of a shelter affects dogs’ performance at these kinds of tasks. The poor performance of the dogs in Udell et al.’s study may have been related more to the stressful environment they were tested in than their level of skill. If this is true it has important implications for shelter dog testing.

July 21, 2010 at 11:08 am 6 comments

Go with the flow

I just finished reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience”.  Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work focuses on happiness, creativity and success.  He is best known for his work on flow.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s own words, Flow is the state of:

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Focus and concentration are the foundation of flow. When we’re engaged in flow we engage all of our physical and emotional resources to act and learn. And, flow isn’t just a way to maximize our potential, it is also very a strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind.

Most researchers seem to think that flow is a uniquely human trait. I find this odd because it seems to me that flow is the natural state for a mentally balanced dog. In my experience, dogs have an absolutely wonderful natural tendency to become completely immersed, and find great joy in, even the simplest of tasks.

Flow is a complex abstract concept. If you’re interested you really need to read Csikszentmihalyi’s book. For those who want the Cliff Notes version, this video presents an accessible short description of flow:

The video emphasizes the importance of flow in education. When we are challenged in ways that stretch our skills without stretching them too far, we tend to move into flow. I think that this is true for dogs as well as for humans.

Flow is important to dog training in two ways.

First, if you experience flow regularly as you work with your dog, not only will you be driven to seek out more of the good feelings elicited by the positive experience, being in the flow state also puts you on the right track to master the art of dog training.

Second, when the dog experiences flow during training sessions not only does he get more out of the work — because the work itself becomes intrinsically rewarding he’ll learn to look forward to training sessions.

How can we harness the power of flow? According Csikszentmihalyi there are five essential steps involved in transforming the performance of physical acts into flow*. The first time I first read these steps I was shocked by their striking similarity to a class handout I wrote some time ago explaining how to set up a dog training session.

Combining Csikszentmihalyi’s steps with mine I came up with the following blueprint to achieve flow in dog training:

  1. Start by setting an overall goal that includes several measurable sub-goals. Having a plan in place, even an informal mental plan, before you get started helps keep you focused on the task at hand. Measurable stepwise sub-goals help provide a sense of accomplishment along the way.
  2. Find ways to measure your progress. Define how you plan to measure success at each step in the process. This will keep you on task and remind you to keep giving your dog helpful input as you work. Humans have an unfortunate tendency to obsess about end goals. It’s important for us to remember that in flow the journey, not the destination, is our goal.
  3. Make successively finer adjustments both to your performance and to your dog’s performance as you progress. Strive for better performance in many different sub-parts of the task. Working on different parts of a task helps keep training interesting. Mastering one part of a task also frees mental resources to focus on other parts.
  4. Look for ways to use your training skills to deal with unexpected outside forces that act as distractions. Use novelty to keep your dog (and yourself) interested in the work. Remember the importance of surprise in learning.
  5. Increase the level of difficulty as your skills and your dog’s skills improve. Regularly adding new challenges improves skills and helps prevent boredom.

A wonderful side benefit of a flow-centered training program is that, because it is strongly intrinsically rewarding, sharing time in the flow state enhances the relationship between you and your dog. It also provides excellent cross-training  opportunities to enhance your dog’s ability to exercise self-control.

* Chapter 5, page 97.

June 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm 3 comments

See no evil. Read no evil. Cite no evil.

The internet hosts hundreds of articles warning you about the dangers of electronic training collars (e-collars). Ruth over at Spot Check recently summarized a few of the most often cited studies in a post on the heated rhetoric surrounding the recent ban on the use of e-collars in Wales. Her post was the inspiration for this one.

The literature is full of references to studies by Schalke et al., Schilder and van der Borg and more recently, Herron et al. whose authors warn us that e-collar training (and indeed, any use of aversives) is unpleasant, painful, frightening — and pointlessly ineffective.

If you spend some time reviewing these articles, as I recently did, you might assume that no research supporting the use of e-collars is currently available.

And you’d be wrong.

Given the widespread references /cites to studies that support the idea that e-collars are not only cruel and abusive, but that they can also elicit aggressive behavior — imagine my surprise when I came across an article providing strong evidence that e-collars were astonishingly effective in rehabilitating aggression in dogs.

Daniel F. Tortora’s study, titled “Safety Training: The Elimination of Avoidance-Motivated Aggression in Dogs,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 1983. The article is only available by purchase but is well worth $11.95 if you have an interest in this area. (Note: the article was also published in Australian Veterinary Practitioner in 1984, 14 (2), 70–74.)

Tortora took an elegantly simple approach to treating what he referred to as “avoidance-motivated aggression”. He proposed that because avoidance-motivated aggression is learned and maintained as an avoidance response, the most effective way to counter-condition it would be to teach the dogs nonaggressive avoidance responses.

Tortora defines avoidance-motivated aggression as “a form of instrumental aggression that involves attacks or threats of attack directed toward one or more of the dog’s human caretakers”. Avoidance aggression typically starts out as aggressive avoidance responses to things like physical discomfort (such as from grooming), intrusions on areas that the dog views as his territory and commands he doesn’t want to comply with. According to Tortora, these dogs usually suffer from a lack of training and predictability in their lives and therefore feel like they lack control over their environment.  They behave like they expect bad things to happen and the only way to prevent the bad things is through aggression. When their frustrated owners resort to after-the-fact punishment, the dog’s expectations are reinforced, a feedback loop is created and the dog’s aggression escalates.

Tortora’s proposed remedy for this common, dangerous and difficult to remedy form of aggression consisted of teaching the dogs “nonaggressive, prosocial habits” such as AKC’s CDX level obedience exercises. He predicted that the probability of post-training aggressive behavior would be inversely proportional to the number of obedience exercises a dog gained proficiency in. The program also included teaching the dogs a conditioned safety signal that was used to reinforce good behavior and build the dogs’ confidence.

All exercises were introduced with the slip collar, then e-collar training was overlayed onto the introductory work. The e-collars used could emit two different tones, and tones and stimulation could be delivered separately or in conjunction with each other. The dogs were trained to perform 15 different commands at increasing levels of difficulty. These included: stand, down, come, go, hold, drop, sit, off, place, fetch, in, stay, play, no, heel, and hup. As commands were mastered, they were practiced in environments of increasing distraction. The dogs were initially trained by experienced trainers (Tortora doesn’t describe their qualifications but all were apparently able to train the dogs to a minimum of CDX level around significant distractions) in a board and train environment. Once the dogs were able to consistently perform the exercises under distraction without the e-collar, training was transferred to their owners, who used the e-collar only as needed to proof exercises.

Tortora stated that the dogs could be safely returned to their owners because: “Safety training with companion dogs, however, produces changes of long duration, perhaps even permanent changes. These changes in behavior readily transfer readily from the trainer to the dog’s owners and others.”

Many people are concerned that the stress of e-collar training will make dogs fearful or aggressive. While the dogs developed an initial conditioned anticipatory fear reaction during the escape training portion of Tortora’s program, their fear was extinguished during the subsequent avoidance and proofing stages. Upon reviewing these results, Tortora stated “It seems that the impact of safety reinforcement is to make the dog less fearful generally and better able to withstand trauma.”

How effective was this work? Well, in the abstract Tortora states that the program:

… resulted in complete and permanent elimination of aggression in all of the 36 dogs tested. In addition, it produced extremely extinction-resistant prosocial avoidance responses, significant increases in the dogs’ emotional stability, an avoidance-learning and safety acquisition response set, and improvements in measures of the dogs’ “carriage.”

Take a few minutes to let that sink in. If a study demonstrated similar results for clicker or food lure training it would be cited on tens of thousands of sites across the internet. The author would be the darling of popular dog magazines and a regular presenter at dog training conferences. Heck, I bet he’d even have his own television show – and (unlike another popular television dog trainer) there wouldn’t be a torch and pitchfork mob out to lynch him.

While I understand that the literature can be (and often is) cherry-picked to support preconceived notions even in peer-reviewed studies, I am absolutely stunned by the dog world’s shunning of Tortora’s work. His article is very rarely cited in recent studies related to ecollars, aversives, dog training and aggression — and when it is, it is not unusual for him to be misquoted or taken out of context. (details on that below the break)

Given the outstanding success Tortora had in rehabilitating aggressive dogs and the fact that his article appeared in a well-known journal published by the American Psychological Association, why are studies published by Schalke, Schindler and Herron (and opinion pieces written by Pat Miller) touted as landmark studies on e-collar use while his work languishes in anonymity?

Using e-collars to train dogs is a controversial and emotionally-charged issue. This is largely because, as Steven Lindsay writes:

… the word shock is loaded with biased connotations, images of convulsive spasms and burns, and implications associated with extreme physical pain, emotional trauma, physiological collapse, and laboratory abuses.

Shock scares us. Despite the fact that electrical stimulation can now be used to relieve pain, most people simply cannot come to terms with the idea that a ‘shock’ can be used as anything but a terrifying and harshly punitive bolt from god.

Unlike those commonly in use today, early electronic training collars could only  be used in a harshly punitive way – and much of the laboratory research that has been done on shock, aversion, escape and avoidance was horrifyingly cruel. Along with the strongly negative connotations associated with the word “shock”, the ugly history of the use of shock in behavior modification studies also affects our feelings and opinions about its place in dog training.

The current literature on the use of aversives (especially electronic ones) in dog training shows a striking lack of articles that present results that call popular ideas favoring positive reinforcement only dog training into question. And unfortunately, as we recently saw in Wales, the results published in these studies are being used to further a political agenda.

There are far too many cases where great scientific advances were made based on a piece of odd, apparently anomalous or unpopular bit of work that could very easily have fallen by the wayside. Rejecting, ignoring or suppressing data and ideas that don’t fit in with popular thought is a dangerous kind of censorship. And it is crucial that we do all we can to it in a world where science has an increasingly important effect on the personal and regulatory decisions we make.


Below the break: Links and brief summaries of recent literature related to using e-collars to train dogs, and some notes on the journals the articles are published in.


April 27, 2010 at 10:30 am 39 comments

Are We Having Fun?

Over at ScienceBlogs The Thoughtful Animal has a recent post on his excellent new blog on how to tell the difference between real aggression and play fighting in dogs. Thoughtful’s post follows Marc Bekoff’s lead and focuses primarily on play signals. He writes:

Actions called play signals have been observed in many species which appear to engage in play. It is generally accepted that these behaviors serve as signals to communicate the initiation (“I want to play”) of play. One behavior that is used a LOT by dogs (and their evolutionary cousins, wolves and coyotes) is the bow.

Dr. Marc Bekoff (who blogs at Psychology Today) from the University of Colorado, Boulder wondered if the bow was used as a play signal, and how it functioned. He hypothesized that the bow might serve an additional function beyond initiation; it might support the maintenance (“I still want to play”) of ongoing social play.

While I agree that the play bow is an important signal in canine communication, I don’t think it is the only – or even necessarily the most important – signal dogs use to communicate whether they intend their actions to be interpreted as friendly or aggressive.

A signal I see a lot between dogs who want to initiate or continue play is a slow, rolling, side-to-side head shake. The dog smiles as his head makes a smooth figure-eight motion. Sometimes the head roll accompanies a play bow, sometimes it doesn’t. Another play signal I’ve observed is a curving, prancing side-step away from the desired playmate. The step is accompanied by a smile and a toss of the head. A dog that really wants someone to play with him will sometimes make a series of these unmistakably flirtatious steps.

The things that tie the play bow, head roll and flirt step together are the shape and structure of the dog’s movements. A friendly, relaxed, non-aggressive dog (i.e. a dog that wants to play) interacts in smooth, flowing, arcing, rhythmic motions. His body is loose, his movements follow arcs and curves and his expression is soft and relaxed.

The rhythm and intensity of a dog’s movements also tell us a lot about his intent. When a dog is relaxed and ready to play one movement flows into another in smooth transitions. The dog rolls, he lopes, he bounds, he bends. His gestures are a polite blend of approach and retreat. His movements and emotions are in balance.

An over-stimulated, stressed, frightened or aggressive dog (i.e. the dog that isn’t going to play) interacts in more intense erratic and linear motions. His body is stiff, his gaze and expression are intense and he approaches in a direct line, not a polite curve. His legs thrust into the ground like pistons, they don’t sweep along the surface. He stares instead of making quick flirtatious glances.

The over-stimulated dog doesn’t move or react in a smooth, rhythmic way. And as he reaches increasing levels of arousal, the dog’s movements transition quickly from staring to pacing, from relaxing to freezing, or from trotting to bolting. These rapid changes in state are key indicators that a dog has exceeded a threshold in reactivity – and it’s important to be aware of them. A dog in a transitional state has moved from balance to instability.

He’s a hair-trigger just waiting to go off.

That is what I look for when I watch dogs interact. The transition from balance to instability. It’s an enormously important factor and one that a lot of people miss. I believe that this is one why so many people describe dog fights and dog attacks as ‘coming out of nowhere.’

And, while I agree that it is important in canine communication, I don’t believe that the play bow is the only, or even the most important, signal dogs use to indicate their desire to play. And I also disagree with Thoughtful’s notion that:

These findings suggest that the bow is not used to stretch the muscles, or because it is a good position from which to increase the range of movement. Instead, it seems to serve a particular social communicative function.

While in many young dogs the bow may be used most often to indicate a desire to play, sometimes dogs perform the motion simply to stretch their muscles. The lowered position of the stretching bow is generally held a little longer than it is in the play bow, the stretching dog’s neck is often extended upward instead of held loosely or cocked to one side and the dog will also sometimes sigh or groan as his body stretches.

Still – it’s an interesting post and a fine new blog. Go read it.

UPDATED links 4/20/10

April 19, 2010 at 11:58 am 8 comments

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