Posts tagged ‘behavior’

Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism and Myth

“We shall be forever disappointed in psychology if we insist on one true, final way to conceptualize the nature of the mind.” 
Douglas Candland

A lot of the power of myth lies in its ability to help us describe, clarify and share difficult concepts and situations.  The personal and cultural narratives of myth give us a kind of intellectual shorthand to process ideas that are otherwise difficult to imagine or explain.

Myth is a vital part of psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst helps his patient create a myth that explains the basis of his problem. The myths created in therapy don’t need to be true; they just need to help the patient reframe his problem in an adaptive way. The value of psychoanalytical constructs lies not in their truth but in their utility.

Behaviorism is rooted in the precepts of Morgan’s canon*.  Radical behaviorists reject the use of any data that cannot be strictly defined, measured and tabulated. One of the basic premises of radical behaviorism is that the study of behavior should be conducted as a natural science (like chemistry and physics) and that behaviorists should avoid references to un-measureable inner states of organisms. The behaviorist’s focus is on the conditioning processes that affect behavior not the mind that engages in it. 

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, focuses on understanding the un-measureable, un-definable unconscious motivations that drive behavior.  It’s the philosophical opposite of of behaviorism.

So… why is it that so many who describe themselves as “dog behaviorists”** take an approach to problem-solving that could best be described as the psychoanalysis of our pets?  While focusing (often obsessively) on the Skinnerian behaviorism of stimulus-response, a disturbing number also seem to feel compelled to engage in creating complex myths to explain why Rover humps the kids and the cat pees outside its box.

Psychoanalysis is based on the construction of myth – behaviorism on the reduction of behavior to causative elements.  And putting these two, disparate ideas together to treat animals just doesn’t make sense. In “Feral Children and Clever Animals  Douglas Candland wrote, “The Freudian analysis of the mind is an analysis of the human mind, not the animal mind, for as encompassing as the theory is, psychoanalytic explanations demand the use of language for use as data.”

Psychoanalysis is for language-using, narrative-dependent human minds – not for animal minds. 


Your dog doesn’t belong on a therapist’s couch.  He doesn’t use or need myths to make sense of his world.  General associative ideas centered on context and previous experiences are far more important to him than even very simple, image-based narrative ideas are. Your dog doesn’t create stories about the world to help him put things into context for future processing – he’s an existentialist.  He lives in the moment.

Perhaps the biggest problems in taking a psychoanalytical approach to dog behavior problems is that in most cases the myths we create to explain our dogs’ behavior problems are based on our hopes, our fears, and our umwelt – not the dog’s.   This wouldn’t be a problem if, like the myths employed in psychoanalysis, the narratives created by the behaviorist and dog owner helped reframe the dog’s issues in a way that led to a solution. But this often isn’t the case.  Unfortunately we have a strong human tendency to look for absolution before we look for explanation.  And our dogs suffer needlessly because of it.

I believe that we do a better job of helping dogs work through their problems when we leave myth out of the mix. As dog owners and trainers we should strive to dispassionately observe and assess the context, history and evolution of the problem without framing it some kind of unneccessarily complicated backstory.  Avoid the complex narrative explanations your human mind craves and focus your energy on following a general approach to rehabilitation that you can change and refine as needed.  Don’t let some myth of the dog’s previous existence – whether real or imagined – stand in the way of finding the approach your dog needs to heal and move ahead.

Your dog doesn’t need to understand his problems. He just needs you to create a path he can use to walk out of them. 

*          “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” 

**        According to the Animal Behavior Association: “There is no standard terminology for describing people who help with animal behavior problems. Titles such as animal behaviorist, applied animal behaviorist, pet behavior counselor or animal behavior consultant are all used by people doing this sort of work. At present, there is no licensure for these titles so anyone can call themselves an animal behaviorist, etc. with no training or experience in the field.”

April 17, 2009 at 7:03 pm 10 comments

Worth a Look


From Chas Clifton over at NatureBlog this link to a story on honey laundering. Sadly, instead of a how-to piece on extracting honey from the comb it’s an expose of [sigh] yet another scheme by Chinese businesses to sneak cheap, contaminated goods into foreign food supplies. We suggest you read the Telegraph story at the link — and make sure you’re buying local  honey.

One of my google alerts provided this interesting report on a possible link between canine aggression and an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.  A word of caution; the Italian researcher team made a point of noting that they found a correlation between omega-3 fatty acid deficiency but that they had found no evidence that the deficiency caused  increased aggression.  That said, omega-3’s are a pretty innocuous group of compounds, so if your dog’s “got issues” adding them to his diet shouldn’t be a problem. As usual, if you’ve got concerns – talk to your vet.

ChienDogBlog does a bangup job bashing AKC breed standards. Apparently kids who fail high school English now have two career choices.  They can go on to write really bad corporate memos, or get hired by AKC to invent breed standards.

Last, but certainly not least, from GunDogDoc this excellent video on The Tailgate Exam.  The file takes a while to load, but it’s well worth the wait.  Dr. Joe Spoo demonstrates how to give your dog a field examination that will help you detect — and prevent injuries.  Folks, this isn’t just for hunting dogs.  The owner of any dog that spends time outdoors needs to know these skills.  Go. Watch.

January 5, 2009 at 4:35 am 3 comments

A Mechanism for Culture and Morals in Dogs?

Last month’s breaking story that researchers had demonstrated that dogs detect and respond to incentive inequities may have been big news to some on the interwebs, but the idea that dogs make moral judgements wasn’t news to most dog lovers.

Moral judgements can be defined as evaluations of the actions or character of another made with respect to applicable cultural values. Moral reasoning is the set of conscious, intentional, narrative mental processes that most philosophers and scientsts have have historically believed were used to transform available information into moral judgements.

This rationalist approach says that we arrive at moral judgements primarily through a process of deliberation and reason. Moral emotions like sympathy and indignation affect the process but have supporting rather than controlling roles. In the rationalist model we methodically weigh issues of harm, justice and fairness in our minds before making moral judgements.

But… if moral reasoning is a purely (or even mostly) explicit, cognitive process based on mental narrative we shouldn’t expect to find it in dogs, apes, bees or mole rats — should we?


In philosophy the conflict between reason and emotion was originally seen as that between the divine and the animal. Our deeply rooted prejudice that reason and narrative must rule over emotion and perception predates Cartesian dualism and Rousseau’s noble savage. And, to some extent, it continues to exist because  reason and narrative are a whole lot easier to study than emotion and intuition are.

If we toss some of those deep-seated rationalist prejudices aside and consider the idea that implicit, intuitive, emotional processes may play a much greater role in our moral judgement making than generally accepted — it might help us explain how dogs and mole rats could have the capacity to make moral judgements.

The social intuitionist model introduced by Jonathan Haidt in 2001 proposes that we employ subconscious perceptual and intuitive processes to make moral judgements, then create our rationalizations for these judgements after we’ve made them.

What?  Haidt is saying we don’t use logical and reason to evaluate the moral quandaries we find ourselves embroiled in until after we’ve made judgements? Yup. That’s exactly what he’s saying.  And if he’s right, when we make the smug assumption that our moral positions are based on logic, facts and reason (and that the positions of those who disagree with us are based on little more than mindless ideology and self-interest) —  we are, at least — half right!

Is there really any meat to the social intuitionist model? Well one bit of evidence supporting the model is studies that have shown that our emotional and affective reactions to moral issues are far better predictors of our judgement than our rational evaluation of the potential harm or good associated with those issues.  But, you’re saying — if we really do make moral judgements in a largely intuitive way, why does it feel like we’re making them in a logical way? Well, maybe because the mental efforts we engage in in creating those post hoc rationalizations feel like introspection.  They are, after all, similar processes. Cognitively speaking, searching for the memory of a narrative, judgemental process isn’t much different from looking for the plausible arguments we can use to defend our judgements. Add to that the fact that these processes occur so quickly in our minds that they’re hard to consciously differentiate and the fact that they are, of course,  correlatively linked and it becomes very difficult to say whether the rational chicken or the intuitive egg came first.

So — what are the mental mechanics behind the social intuitionist model? Dual process models state that two different cognitive processes function together when we make judgements and solve problems. Implicit processes occur quickly, effortlessly, unconsciously and automatically (they are the basis of intuition and perception).  Explicit, rational processes are slower, require more effort and are, at least in some ways, accessible to our conscious mind. These two sets of processes  operate in parallel – but they can sometimes come to different conclusions. The implicit processes evolved before the rational ones did, they arise earlier in ontogeny, they’re triggered sooner in decision-making activities and (except in psychopaths) they have a more powerful and lasting hold on our minds when the two processes conflict.  And — conveniently for us, they’re also believed to govern most of what goes on in animal minds.

So now we’ve made the link back to animal minds. Historically, most scientists and philosophers have believed that animals weren’t capable of making moral judgements or having a code of ethics. These ideas were supported by the rationalist view that moral judgements were based on reason and narrative. The social intuitionist model, on the other hand paw, provides a plausible mechanism for morality to occur in animals.

But why would animals need to be able to make moral judgements?

Haidt proposes that a sense of morality is evolutionarily adaptive for intensely social species. Remember, moral judgements are evaluations of the actions or character of others made with respect to applicable cultural values. When you’re a social species, it’s good highly adaptive to have mental processes that allow you not just to tell friends from enemies, but also to be able to differentiate between cheaters and those who cooperate with you. And while dogs, apes and mole rats may not be capable of creating the kind of culture that includes opera or ice hockey, their societies do have sets of rules and mores that govern behavior. These prescriptive rules (which cover things like reciprocity in food sharing, reconciliation, consolation, conflict intervention, and mediation) are  those that individual members learn to respect through active reinforcement by the group at large. And they are an important part of the cultural basis of social morality in humans too.

So, take a group of animals that live in a social setting. Give them a set of rules that not only govern interactions but also, conveniently, provide a basis for making value judgements about others. Add the implicit, intuitive, emotional processes that may form the basis for creating moral judgements — and you’ve got the parts you need for simple culture and moral systems to evolve.

Now the idea that dogs are capable of recognizing and responding to incentive inequities (i.e., fairness) makes perfect sense.

While dogs and mole rats may have simple moral systems, it’s important to keep in mind that these moral systems must be very different from ours. Not only are they based on different cultural value systems but they’re also operating on different cognitive and perceptive hardware.  While your dog may be able to make and understand simple moral judgements, unlike you, he as absolutely no desire (and probably little or no ability) to rationalize or justify his moral judgements.

The social intuitionist model might help explain why dogs and other animals seem to live in the moment.  An event happens, they process it quickly and intuitively, react accordingly and then just get on with their lives. They’re not bothered by that annoying (and sometimes pointlessly socially complicating) process of   rationalization and justification.  The model might also help dog trainers like me explain to pet owners why FiFi craps on their pillow through stress and displacement, not to exact revenge for some past slight.

January 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm 6 comments

Dog Breeds and Brand Names

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, sign, symbol, design, or combination of these intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers so as to differentiate them from those of other sellers”.

The brand name is what a consumer associates with a product and offers and represents. For example: McDonalds is a brand recognized even by preschool children. They can’t read the name, but they recognize the logo and, most importantly, they equate that logo and brand name with the experience that that logo means to them.  Adult consumers expect that when they purchase a specific brand, they will get a consistent product no matter which store they purchase it from. This consistency of service and products, results in brand loyalty.   

Many people today seem to equate dog breeds with brand names.  They think that if they get a new Labrador to replace the one they lost, the new dog should be as much like the old one as one Chevy Blazer is to another. What these people fail to realize is that the concept of breed is far more complex than simply applying a label to a dog that looks and acts in a certain way. 

In fact, the concept of what a breed is often creates confusion today, even among experts. 
·         To a geneticist a breed is: a population of animals whose breeding is controlled and whose out-crossing is limited, so that genetic selection can be exercised on it.
·         Webster defines a breed as: “a homogeneous grouping of animals within a species, developed by humans,” and Oxford defines a breed as: “a line of descendants perpetuating particular hereditary qualities.”
·         Multi-breed dog registries such as the AKC define an individual animal’s breed by its parentage.

All of these definitions leave room for interpretation.

A dog breed might most accurately be described as a grouping of descendants categorized using criteria relevant to the behavioral and physical qualities desired by the people who selected the line of genetic descent.

Most dog breeders seek to achieve some degree of predictability in the appearance and behavior in the animals they produce but all dog breeds display a range of physical qualities and temperaments. Too much deviation is problematic because the goal is to differentiate one breed from another. However, some deviation is advantageous as it results from a broader genetic base. When a breed becomes extremely uniform because of a very narrow genetic base serious problems from inbreeding can occur.


When breeders select for certain physical and behavioral traits within a breed, they also have to select for some degree of variation in that trait. Behavioral traits, like shyness or protectiveness, are created by a combination of inherited behaviors.  Because of this, each breed will include a continuum of inherited behavior traits and those at the extreme ends of the scale will likely not be desirable.  So, we can end up with some Labradors who don’t hunt and some Bloodhounds who don’t track. 

While studies show that genetic variation within a breed of dogs is significantly less than variation between breeds, dog breeds should not be thought of as brand names.  A pet owner who purchases a German Shepherd expecting to get Rin Tin Tin (or a Golden Retriever who will be just like the last one they had) – without doing research into the genetic background of that specific dog – will very likely be disappointed in the dog they get. In extreme cases, these people may get rid of the dog because it did not meet their expectations. While you should expect to find a certain degree of uniformity in the appearance and behavior within dogs of a specific breed, it is also important to remember that all dogs are individuals and these individuals can vary widely in their genetic makeup. 

Your dog is an individual.  Regardless of what breed he is, he has his own likes, dislikes and personality traits. Cherish those differences, don’t resent them

January 12, 2008 at 5:51 pm 2 comments

Fur-Kids or Kindred Spirits?

Humans have always felt a strong kinship with animals.  Our ancestors believed that animals were aware and that their lives and communications were as meaningful as ours.  They were better able than we are to find meaning in subtle nuances of animal behavior because their survival depended on it – and because they saw animals as kindred spirits who understood the world in a different way than they did. 


Today most humans live in an environment far removed from the one our ancestors’ relied on for their survival, and most of us find it more difficult to recognize and understand the deeper meaning underlying animal behavior than our ancestors did.  We still feel a strong connection to animals, but changes in our environment and cultures have drastically changed the way we experience that connection.  Instead of seeing animals as kindred spirits with different perspectives and ways of life, many of us now think of them as amusing copies of our human selves.  Animals as kindred spirits, guides, teachers and partners have given way to fur-kids wearing designer dog coats.


This common, excessively anthropomorphized view may be part of the reason why many behaviorists and sociobiologists believe that assigning human, or human-like emotions and intentions to animals is a scientific taboo (as it has been since the time of Descartes).  But in a recent reversal, instead of denying the similarities between us, some scientists are studying how the emotions, modes of communication and motivations of animals do, in many ways, resemble our own.

The problem is not that we anthropomorphize, but that we tend to do it in the wrong ways. 

If we view anthropomorphism as a means, rather than an end, and use it to study the ways that animal behavior resembles human behavior we may gain valuable insights.  Research on the qualities that we share with them may help us better understand the areas where their perspectives differ from ours.  If, on the other hand, we adopt anthropomorphism as an end in itself, we simply stop at assigning human values and motivations to animals.  And when we do this, not only do we lose an incredible opportunity to expand our horizons, but we condemn them to a life and a set of expectations that they can never meet or be fully content with.

“So many baffling aspect of animal behavior are like that – baffling only because we fail to appreciate that the animal’s range of senses is not the same as our own: different but not always inferior.”  Hans Brick “The Nature of the Beast

January 5, 2008 at 8:18 pm Leave a comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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