Natural Dog Training in New York City

Natural Dog Training in New York City
Featuring All 100+ Articles Lee Charles Kelley Wrote About Dogs for from 4/09 to 2/13, Plus New Articles Written in the Same Vein!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Clever Crows, Frisbee Dogs & Emotional Displacement

Are Crows Really Smarter Than 7-Year Olds? 

Boosters & Scoffers, Believers & Skeptics 
A new study claims that New Caledonian crows have the ability to understand cause and effect at the same level as, or possibly higher than, second-graders. (“Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows,” Plos One, 3/26/14.)

First, a little background. New Caledonia is an archipelago located in the Coral Sea, west of Australia. The crows inhabiting the islands are one of the current “it” species in cognitive science research (along with dogs and chimps) because of their ability to use tools (among other things). Like all crows, they’re members of the corvid family, which includes rooks, jays, magpies, and ravens, all very “intelligent” birds.1,2,3,4,5,6,7 

From the abstract: “Understanding causal regularities in the world is a key feature of human cognition ... Our results indicate that New Caledonian crows possess a sophisticated, but incomplete, understanding of the causal properties of [water] displacement, rivaling that of 5–7 year old children.” 

Is this true? 

That’s hard to say. First, only six crows were tested and only four took part in all six tests. Two of the crows were apparently “not motivated,” but we’re never told what this means, nor given any information about their body language. (Yes, crows exhibit body language!) Were they cautious, wary, skittish, distracted, withdrawn, bored, angry? We’re not told. The researchers go directly from instinct to intellect, skipping over the most important aspect of learning and behavior—emotion.

Why is this information lacking? The researchers have no problem telling us what they believe these birds are thinking. Why is no attention given to how they’re feeling, especially since crows are very emotional and wildly uninhibited about expressing their feelings?

In Rational Animals? (2006, Matthew Nudds & Susan Hurley, eds.), comparative psychologists Michael Tomasello and Josep Call distinguish between two types of cognitive scientists: boosters and scoffers. “Boosters interpret behavior in psychologically rich ways; scoffers prefer psychologically lean interpretations. The ultimate boosters think there are no significant differences between human and nonhuman cognition.”

I would describe these as two types as believers and skeptics. And I’ve found that whenever researchers start comparing the cognitive abilities of animals to those of young children they’re probably “believers,” meaning they operate under the “differences-of-degree-not-kind” fallacy, based on a selective interpretation of Darwin.8 

Another important thing to note is that several scientific “skeptics”—most notably Derek Penn, Keith Holyoak, and Daniel Povinell—have shown that many behaviors of crows and other corvids can be explained through simpler models.9 

Comparing Apples and Pre-Packaged Frozen Apple Pie 
Of course I’m a dog trainer, not a scientist. But if New Caledonian crows show higher cognitive abilities than other crows, or even other corvids, the first line of inquiry should be to find out what those differences are; focusing on supposed differences between crows and children should not even be on the table until you’ve a) carefully examined how emotion, rather than intellect, might explain their behaviors, and b) compared the foraging techniques, habitats and genetics, etc., of New Caledonian crows with other, perhaps more ordinary crows.

That said, these crows are amazing. They can use sticks and even bend wires with their beaks to poke into holes and get at food. Some of the crows studied were able to displace water in a tube by dropping stones until the water level rose, enabling them to reach a “reward.”10 

But since we’re discussing comparative cognition, what can 7-year olds do that crows can’t, and in fact, could never do? 

A lot. They can use pencils and crayons to write and draw pictures, they can use pencil sharpeners, tie their shoes, dress themselves, brush their teeth, put on their jammies, talk to one another and their parents, siblings, teachers, and anyone they meet, on a wide variety of topics, go trick-or-treating, sing “Happy Birthday.” They can do simple arithmetic, read and write, take piano lessons, go to karate class, play sports and learn the basic rules of fair play. They can operate doorknobs, car door handles, refrigerator doors, microwave ovens, they can make simple meals like breakfast cereal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They can ride scooters, talk and text on smart phones, operate DVRs and do their schoolwork on computers (the first word some babies learn nowadays is “tablet”). Plus they can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

So while tool use in animals is amazing, there’s a gigantic difference between that and human technology. Our “tools” are not only pervasive (deeply embedded into everything we do) they’re also recursive: meaning they generate endless variations of themselves.11 Think of the difference between the simple design of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane compared to modern passenger jets, military aircraft, satellites, moon rockets, space shuttles, drones, and so on. Each bit of technology spawns another, generally improving the performance of each iteration, also introducing newer and newer forms of technology into the marketplace. In fact air travel has changed nearly every aspect of human life—culture, religion, politics, commerce, agriculture, journalism, medicine, the arts, law enforcement, warfare—and has even re-shaped the landscape of the Earth, the Moon and Mars. And it all started with a very simple design.

So comparing our cognitive abilities and technology to those found in crows isn’t like comparing apples and oranges, it’s like comparing apples and pre-packaged, frozen apple pie. But this is what boosters do: they exaggerate similarities and downplay differences. 

Angry Birds, Darwin & Freud 
I should point out that Darwin was of two minds about the differences between human and animal consciousness. On the one hand, he felt strongly that they were differences of degree, not kind, as the believers believe. However, he also said that if turned out there were differences of kind, the dividing line would be human language, which has turned out to be the case.  

Darwin also wrote extensively about similarities in the expressions of emotions in humans and animals, one area where we really are similar, an area that’s too often ignored by comparative psychologists.  

Darwin’s ideas were a major influence on a Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud, who began his career as a neurologist. But once he turned his interest away from neurons and synapses to the human psyche, he proposed a simple template for human psychology, one that can also be applied to animals. Freud said that strong drives and emotions can be likened to the flow of water in a hydraulic system. When the water is dammed up, it puts pressure on the psyche, causing the person or animal to act in order to try to relieve that pressure.

One way that both humans and animals have of reducing this pressure is to project emotional energy onto objects of attraction, a process Freud called cathexis. (I first learned of this concept from Kevin Behan’s book Natural Dog Training; although Behan doesn’t use the term cathexis, he does write extensively about how feelings of attraction and resistance are the bedrock of animal consciousness.)

In a State of Flow 
With that in mind, there are two foraging behaviors in New Caledonian crows that may be important in understanding why some of them were able to “pass” 4 of the 6 tests set for them by researchers. The first is that they routinely grasp candle nuts in their beaks, then drop them onto rocks from a high enough position so that the outer shell breaks. (The researchers mention this ability, and say it may have pre-disposed the birds to drop pebbles into the water used for some of the tests.) The second behavior is that they’re able to chase and catch flying insects in mid-flight. Mid-flight! That’s an amazing ability, one that would clearly be hampered by linear, rational thinking.

This is reminiscent of how some athletes talk about “being in the flow,” where a batter or wide receiver will be totally tuned-in to the trajectory of the baseball or football. It’s also reminiscent of the way Frisbee dogs launch themselves in the air to intersect their targets. Dogs and crows, and human athletes, all do these amazing things by projecting their emotions onto an object of attraction, enabling them to precisely follow the object’s trajectory no matter what.

Now I know it may seem like a stretch to compare crows with canines, let alone human athletes. But since we’re already comparing crows and 7-year old children, it might be interesting to take a quick look at some of the similarities humans, dogs, and by extension, wolves, share with crows. For one thing, crows are highly social animals. And while they don’t hunt large, dangerous prey, as wolves and humans do, they are social foragers. So they do work together at times. Plus they sometimes gang up on and harass much bigger and more dangerous birds like hawks and eagles. And if they’re in the right mood, they’ll even dive bomb dogs, humans, and cars.  

(And just as a side note, both dogs and crows enjoy snowboarding!)

This brings us to tool use in dogs. 

Spontaneous Tool Use in Dogs (canis familiaris)? 
About 20 years ago a friend called to tell me that his Doberman mix, Senator, had exhibited spontaneous “tool use” at the dog run. A hole had been dug, over time, in one corner of the run, until it was about 2 feet deep. Senator had been chasing a tennis ball that rolled into the hole. He tried to dig it out but couldn’t reach it with his paws, which only increased his frustration. 

Some other dogs came over and Senator, who had social anxiety issues, grabbed a Frisbee lying nearby. The other dogs saw the tennis ball, and they too tried to extricate it by digging at it, again with no success. Then Senator, with the Frisbee clamped between his jaws, came over to the hole again, and tried to use the Frisbee to pull the tennis ball out of the hole. He gave it several tries but eventually gave up.

“That’s an example of tool use, right?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s cool, but I don’t think it counts. I think it has to be repeated, otherwise it’s just a random event.”

My friend thought Senator’s behavior might have been the result of a linear rational thought process, but I looked at it from a simpler perspective. First, Senator’s anxiety created a feeling of wanting to bite the other dogs. Part of him was reluctant to do that, so he picked up the Frisbee and bit it instead. This is called emotional displacement (another Freudian concept). It didn’t diminish his desire for the tennis ball, though. So now, instead of having one emotion directing him toward one goal, he had two emotions, both actively involved in motivating his behavior. He didn’t want to let go of the Frisbee because it was acting as a “pacifier,” yet he still wanted that tennis ball. So he used the Frisbee to form a connection between his teeth and the ball. And that, I think, is the genesis of this one-time example of spontaneous tool use in canis familiaris: Senator projected his emotions onto the tennis ball, while he was also in the act of displacing his aggression onto the Frisbee. 

Causal Reasoning or Emotional Displacement? 
Meanwhile, the crows in the recent study were a) taken from their homes in the wild and put into an unnatural environment (a human-built aviary), were b) taught how to operate the mechanisms involved, c) were experts at how to grab stone-like objects (candlenuts) in their beaks and drop them, and d) like all avian and mammalian predators, they were able to project their emotions onto objects of attraction in a behaviorally-sophisticated yet non-rational way.

Since the crows had been displaced, they were likely experiencing a certain amount of stress and anxiety. We don’t know if they were, but they had been taken from their natural habitat and forced to participate in the various tests designed to determine their intelligence. So part of their motivation to plunk stones into the tubes may have been purely emotional, similar to Senator’s emotional displacement. Still, to my way of thinking, the main ingredient has to be their prey drive, which is an elaboration of a simpler drive that exists in all animals, plants, on down to single-celled organisms, even molecules and atoms.  Sigmund Freud saw this as a pristine, undifferentiated form of Eros, a kind of pre-sexual, sexual energy.12 

I know that describing this primal force in Freudian terms, is going to create problems for some, but I think it’s important to consider this idea, at least for the moment, because nothing in nature can survive without making connections. Predators connect with prey. Prey connect with plants. Plants connect with sunlight and soil. Sperm connect with ova, continuing on down to the smallest organisms on earth. That’s biochemistry, that’s the dance of life.  

So whatever mechanism caused the New Caledonian crows to want to drop stones in a tube to raise the water level, it’s more likely related to an ability to feel a strong attraction to “prey” (morsels of meat), and to project their emotions onto that “prey” than it is to a carefully thought-out, rational process.

That said, I can see why some researchers would find it hard to think along those lines because hunting behaviors are instinctive, and the kind of behavioral flexibility observed in these and other corvids goes beyond instinct. But drives are not instincts. Instincts are inflexible while drives are highly adaptable. In fact, the drive to connect may be one the main “drivers” of adaptation and evolution.

So to my way of thinking, it’s not a thought that causes the crows to bend wires and drop stones to create water displacement. It’s a combination of having a desire, along with the capacity for projecting emotional energy onto objects of attraction, with an added potential for emotional displacement.

But then what do I know? I train dogs for a living. 

“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”


1) “Mirror-induced behavior in the magpie. (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition,” (Prior et al, August 19, 2008.) 

2) The “claim that mark-directed behavior is evidence for mirror-self-recognition has been called into question. The fact that some children after witnessing a mark on their mother’s nose touch their own nose indicates that the passing of the mirror test might be a false positive (Mitchell, 1993, p. 304). The fact that children of some cultures are reported not to pass the mark test even up to the age of 6–7 years, suggests that the failing of the mark test might also be a false negative.” (Rochat & Zahavi, Consciousness and Cognition, # 20, pps. 204-213, 2011.) 

3)Social cognition by food-caching corvids. The western scrub-jay as a natural psychologist.” 

4) Scrub jay behavior & stress. 

5) (“New Caledonian crows attend to multiple functional properties of complex tools,” James J. H. St Clair and Christian Rutz, Royal Society Publishing, 10/7/2013.)

6) “Recent mirror studies with two corvid species have reported contrasting findings. Jungle crows, Corvus macrorhynchos, showed no self-contingent behaviour when confronted with mirrors, whereas Eurasian magpies, Pica pica, reportedly passed the ‘mark’ test for self-recognition. We investigated mirror-induced behaviour in wild-caught New Caledonian crows, Corvus moneduloides. We first documented the response of 10 naïve crows to a 50 × 40 cm vertical mirror. The crows responded to their mirror image with social displays and engaged in search and mirror-directed exploratory behaviour. Their agonistic social displays towards the mirror did not decrease in frequency over time. We then gave two of these crows and two naïve ones a mirror-mediated spatial location task with a horizontal mirror. All four crows successfully used the horizontal mirror to locate hidden food. Therefore, they were able to exploit the correlation between an object’s mirror reflection and its location in the real world. This suggests that New Caledonian crows may also have the ability to develop an understanding of how mirrors represent objects in the environment, despite the lack of self-directed behaviour in front of mirrors. Our study fills an important gap in mirror studies on corvids, which are considered to be the primate equivalents of the avian world.” (“New Caledonian crows’ responses to mirrors,” Animal Behaviour, November 2011, Pages 981–993.)

7.) New Caledonian crow, “Betty,” fashions a hook out of wire to reach food.

8.) Charles Darwin: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. They are also capable of some inherited improvement, as we see in the domesticated dog compared with the wolf or jackal. If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.” (The Descent of Man, 1871.)

9.) “We are not claiming (cf. Emery & Clayton, in press; Tomasello et al. 2003b) that corvids – or other nonhuman animals – are limited to reasoning about concrete, occurrent [observable vs. potential or hypothetical] cues in the immediate environment. To the contrary, we believe it is obvious that nonhuman animals are perfectly capable of keeping track of past events, as well as forming general abstractions about observed behavioral regularities, and that they can use these multifarious representations in a flexible and adaptive fashion (see again Penn & Povinelli 2007b; Povinelli & Vonk 2004). Our claim is simply that nonhuman animals’ representations do not extend to higher-order relations involving mental states.” (Darwin’s Mistake, Penn, Holyoak & Povinelli, 2008.)

10.) The concept of “rewards” is outdated, though it’s still widely used. In his paper “Dopamine and Reward: Comment on Hernandez et al. (2006),” Randy Gallistel of Rutgers writes, “In the monkey, dopamine neurons do not fire in response to an expected reward, only in response to an unexpected or uncertain one, and, most distressingly of all, to the omission of an expected one.” [Italics mine.] In another article, “Deconstructing the Law of Effect,” Gallistel poses the problem of learning from an information theory perspective, contrasting Edward Thorndike’s model, which operates as a feedback system based on “rewards,” and a feedforward model based on Claude Shannon’s information theory.

It’s also well-known that shaping animal behavior via operant a certain amount of time and repetition (as well as changing the “pattern of reward”). But in the feedforward model learning can take place instantly, in real time, making it a more viable form of learning for animals in nature. This means that what some scientists call “reward pathways” should probably be called attentional, or mnemonic pathways, since dopamine’s purpose seems to be to make us remember salient environmental patterns, both positive—“I want to do that again!”—and negative—“I hope I never have that experience again!”

11.) “Stuart Kauffman has noted that the invention of the internal combustion engine led to the invention of the automobile, which led to the invention of inflatable rubber ties, windshield wipers, asphalt paving, roadside motels, fast food, toll booths, and drive-through wedding chapels in Las Vegas. Each invention opens up new niches for future inventions, and components from one invention are often recycled into new forms. … some inventions, such as the automobile, set off major avalanches, and some set off only small avalanches (the size of which Kauffman believes follows a power law).” (The Origin of Wealth, Eric Beinhocker, 246-247.)

12) In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1924), Freud writes, “Even though it is certain that sexuality and the distinction between the sexes did not exist when life began, the possibility remains that the instincts which were later to be described as sexual may have been in operation from the very first.” (The Freud Reader, 615, 618.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Jealous Dogs, Marc Bekoff & the Fallacy of Degree-Not-Kind

Was Darwin Wrong? No!

A new study on dogs has been touted as proof that they can be jealous when their owners pay attention to another dog, even a make-believe, stuffed dog. The researchers are careful to say this is not the same thing as human jealousy, it’s more like a genetic pre-cursor.

They begin by citing an earlier paper where dog owners were asked to recount specific cases of emotion, including jealousy in their dogs. That study found that “when the owners gave attention and affection to another person or animal, the dogs seemed to engage in attention-seeking behaviors (pushing against the owner or in between the owner and the rival, barking/growling/whining) and ... aggression.”

I’ve seen this behavior a lot in my training practice in New York. Its really just a simple attachment disorder, one thats usually found in dogs who’ve been given too much “positive” attention by their owners.1 

However, I’m not really interested in the jealousy study as much as I am in the take that evolutionary biologist Mark Bekoff and psychological researcher Stanley Coren have on it. That’s because they both wrote about it last week, and they both share what I think (and hopefully will show) is a mistaken idea about Darwin’s thoughts on the differences in consciousness between humans and animals. And since real jealousy requires high-level humanlike thought processes (which I’ll discuss below), I see this as an opportunity to clear the air a little on what Darwin really thought about consciousness. 

Differences of Degree, not Kind 
On his blog at, Marc Bekoff writes about jealousy in dogs, but takes the researchers of this recent study to task for making a distinction between human and animal emotions. “The idea that dog jealousy is a ‘primordial form’ of jealousy doesn't sit well with me,” he writes. Then he invokes the concept of “evolutionary continuity” and provides the reader with a link to an essay he wrote about that subject in 2011.

“Charles Darwin,” says Bekoff in that older piece, “stressed that variations among species are differences in degree rather than kind. … so if we have something ‘they’ (other animals) have it too. This is called evolutionary continuity.” [emphases and ellipsis mine] 

Is this true? 

Not exactly. Here’s what Darwin said: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” (The Descent of Man, 1871, 101.) [emphasis mine] 

That’s a strong statement. Yet in the section just before it Darwin was discussing how apes are similar to human beings in their ability to form emotional bonds and make familial attachments, while pointing out that they still lack the human ability to reason. 

There can be no doubt writes Darwin, that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. An anthropomorphous ape, if he could take a dispassionate view of his own case, would admit that though he could form an artful ploy to plunder a garden—though he could use stones for fighting or for breaking open nuts, yet that the thought of fashioning a stone into a tool was quite beyond his scope. Still less, as he would admit, could he follow out a train of metaphysical reasoning, or solve a mathematical problem, or reflect on God, or admire a grand natural scene. Some apes, however, would probably declare that they could and did admire the beauty of the colored skin of their partners in marriage. They would admit, that though they could make other apes understand by cries some of their perceptions and simpler wants, the notion of expressing definite ideas by definite sounds had never crossed their minds. They might insist that they were ready to aid their fellow-apes of the same troop in many ways, to risk their lives for them, and to take charge of their orphans; but they would be forced to acknowledge that disinterested love for all living creatures, the most noble attribute of man, was quite beyond their comprehension.

That paints a very different picture than the one Bekoff presents because he seems determined to shrink the differences Darwin spoke of to an almost insignificant level. 

Simple vs. Complex Emotions 
Dr. Stanley Coren also wrote about the jealousy study, and is also a firm believer in the fallacy of degree-not-kind, meaning he’s afflicted with the same ideological blind spot affecting Bekoff.

Remember, as a dog trainer, I would classify the behavior these researchers call a primordial form of jealousy as an attachment disorder. For it to be true jealousy there would have to be an ongoing set of recursive thought processes involving three very distinct cognitive abilities that dogs clearly don’t have but that humans do: 
1) the capacity to see oneself as being separate and apart from others (requiring a sense of self and a Theory of Mind),

2) the ability to entertain thoughts about enjoyable past experiences with the object of one’s affections, and fears about possible future events impairing or ending that relationship (requiring mental time travel and hypothetical thinking) and

3) the ability to engage in an internal mental narrative (requiring the use of language). 
Getting Back to Darwin 
I have struggled with this issue of the differences between human and animal consciousness for years, starting from when I first read about the “differences in degree, not kind” concept in Stanley Coren’s first book on dogs. After all, Coren and Bekoff are trained scientists. In fact, Dr. Bekoff is an evolutionary biologist! To me this meant that despite whatever thoughts or feelings I might have had on the subject I must have been missing something that these men knew and I didn’t. It was only after I actually read Darwin’s original statements that I realized my gut feelings had been right all along, and that Coren and Bekoff were, as far as I can tell, in error. 

Heres how Dr. Coren interpreted evolutionary continuity in his 1992 book, The Intelligence of Dogs: “Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, that the only difference between the intelligence of humans and that of most of their lower mammalian cousins ‘is one of degree and not of kind.’” (43.)

Here Coren says Darwin was discussing intelligence, which is only one aspect of the mind, human or animal. He’s also paraphrasing Darwin in a way that may suggest something other than what Darwinwho spoke specifically of higher animals not lower mammalian cousinsintended (though it may not).

Remember, Bekoff tells us that evolutionary continuity means that if humans have a certain cognitive or emotive capacity, then other animals have it too. But I dont think that’s what Darwin was saying. I think he was saying that if animals have certain primal instincts and emotions then we have probably retained them as part of our evolutionary history, so that our minds are locked in a “struggle between our higher and lower impulses.” (The Descent of Man, 100)

I’m happy to admit that I may be offering a much, much leaner interpretation of Darwin, as skeptics are said to do (and are supposed to do). Yet it seems to me that Bekoff may be framing his argument in a richer way, perhaps doing so more as an animal lover than a scientist. Because it isn’t that “if we have certain cognitive capacities then animals have them too…” That would suggest that if we can read and write then animals have the same capacity. Or if we can predict the motion of heavenly bodies with mathematical precision, or create new medicines to heal the sick, then animals must have similar capacities. What evolutionary continuity really means is that we inherited earlier, evolutionary pre-cursors to the kinds of emotional and cognitive thought processes that have created an immense, almost immeasurable difference between the lowest man and the highest animal.3 

One Final Problem 
The final problem is that Bekoff and Coren have, I think, engaged in a selective interpretation of Darwin. Because a few sentences after he discusses the concept regarding “differences of degree not kind, Darwin says: “If it be maintained that certain powers such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.” [emphasis mine.]

Bekoff’ says that we share with other mammals and vertebrates the same areas of the brain that are important for consciousness and processing emotions. Emotion is one thing. It’s still a bit slippery for some scientists, but thanks to researchers like Jaak Panksepp we know that there are some simple emotions that do exist, in both dogs and humans, and that they’re located (or at least they can be stimulated electrically) from within the limbic system. 

However, consciousness is another matter. Bekoff doesn’t say exactly what it is, or what parts of the brain he believes we share with lower animals that gives us both consciousness (or whether his definition of consciousness means self-awareness), but while I would agree that the older parts of the brains found in mammals (the reptilian complex and the limbic system) are almost exactly alike in humans and other species, and are even roughly the same size (when accounting for body size), the human neo-cortex is far bigger, far more developed, and far more complex. And there are also far more bits of neurological architecture that make us very, very different from most other animals (except some cetaceans), and most of these bits have to do with the development of language, or are supported in some way by our linguistic abilities. Together they constitute a very clear difference of kind, which—remember—Darwin said might turn out to be the case.

Oh, one other thing. Darwin also believed that dogs could be jealous. But then, while he was one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, he wasnt a dog trainer. And sometimes it’s the carpenter, the gardener, or the dog trainer who knows more about their particular field of study than anyone else (not always, but sometimes). 

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1) The kind of attention usually given these dogs actually prevents them from feeling bonded with the owner. That’s because dogs are designed to work for a living, not to be an object of affection (or at least not just that). So what happens is that when the owner’s attention is drawn elsewhere—particularly toward another dog, a family member, or, in some cases, something as simple as a phone call—, the dog may go into a very real panic state and start barking furiously until the owner either scolds the dog (which, while negative, is still a form of attention), or consoles the dog with hugs and kisses.

2) One way to determine if an animal has self awareness is the mirror test. It’s not a very good one, but no dog has ever passed it.

Another way to find out if an animal has self awareness is to look for von Economo neurons in the brain. These spindle cells (called VENs) are found in more abundance in persons with psychiatric disorders where the patient exhibits an exaggerated or hyper sense of self-awareness, and in lesser numbers in persons whose disorders involve a lack of self-awareness.

3) Darwin’s ideas were instrumental in shaping Freud’s view of psychology because he realized, as did Darwin, that many of the psychological ills that humans suffer from are the result of unresolved energy created, in part, by ancient, primal emotions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How Wolves Hunt Bison & Why Dogs “Steal” Food

This was my final post at, the one that got me fired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still he races on, full speed, toward some unknown target. My feeling was that the lead wolf must have detected some kind of weakness in the bio-energetic field up ahead, probably emanating from a dying buffalo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Hierarchy Without Dominance: The Pack as a Flow System?

Two days before deconstructed my blog, they also pulled this guest post by Kevin Behan, author of Natural Dog Training & Your Dog Is Your Mirror.
“It is difficult to resist the idea that general principles underlie non-hierarchical systems, such as ant colonies and brains. And because organizations without hierarchy are unfamiliar, broad analogies between systems are reassuring. But the hope that general principles will explain the regulation of all the diverse complex dynamical systems that we find in nature, can lead to ignoring anything that doesn’t fit a pre-existing model.”
—Deborah M. Gordon “Control Without Hierarchy,” (Nature, March, 2007.) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of Kevin’s thoughts on the problem of dominance in dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Behan
Natural Dog Training
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Do Dogs Have a “Mind’s Eye?”

Can We Communicate With Dogs Using Mental Images?
Originally published in slightly different form on January 22, 2013 at 

The Dog’s Visual System
One of the ways cognitive scientists describe how the human and animal mind both process visual information is through mental representations or “cognitive maps” of physical objects in their environment. You show the dog a ball. He sees the ball, but how does he see it? Does the dog’s visual system create an internal representation of the ball in his mind?

Can a dog also see pictures of things in his mind that lie outside his visual field? For instance, if you throw a ball and it goes under the sofa, you can usually tell from the dog’s behavior that he “knows” the ball is there, even though he can’t see it. But does some part of his mind also picture the ball being there? Another example: when a wolf is chasing a deer and deer disappears momentarily behind some trees an outcrop of rock, does the wolf “think” the deer has vanished, or does he follow the same trajectory as before, as if mentally tracking the deer’s movements in her mind?

Of course we can’t know for certain if the dog actually has a picture of the ball in his mind or if the wolf visualizes the deer’s trajectory, but we do know that dogs dream in much the same way we do because—as Dr. Stanley Coren has pointed out—they exhibit REM sleep: why would the dog’s eyes be moving rapidly if there was no internal visual component to his experience? And if his eyes are closed, then such images must exist within the “mind’s eye.” 

Find the Toy! 
Does your dog have a favorite toy? When you say, “Get the [fill in the blank]!” does the dog bring the toy you named? Most dogs do. They’ve formed a memory-bank, through a combination of pleasurable emotions and pattern recognition: the aural pattern of the word “ball” is matched in the dog’s mind with the visual pattern of the ball’s shape, along with the pleasurable feeling of having the ball in his mouth.

Two border collies in the past 10 years or so have shown an amazing ability to remember the names of their toys. Rico knew the names of over 200 toys. Chaser knows the names of more than 1000. (It’s interesting that canine memory tests usually involve toys, not household objects like furniture, clothing, or cooking utensils.)

Stanley Coren tells of a study showing that dogs may be able to make mental connections between symbolic [iconic] representations of physical objects and the objects themselves. The suggestion is that this goes beyond pattern recognition and puts a dog’s level of cognitive development on par with that of a 2 -3 year-old child.

“It is usually not until after a child’s second or third birthday,” writes Coren, “that they can infer what an adult wants when they are shown a replica of an item as an example. … nonhuman animals find this very difficult, if not ... impossible. However dogs seem to be a special case…”

In the study, “Domestic dogs comprehend human communication with iconic signs,” 5 dogs were tested (all border collies, by the way, including the famous Rico) separately in their own homes where, in separate tests, they were shown replicas of 3 objects: one an exact replica of a toy, another a miniaturized version of another toy, and the third a photograph of still another toy.

All 5 dogs lived as pets with their owners. 3 were experienced at playing fetch, the others were not. When the dogs were shown a replica of an object, they were then asked to go into the next room, find the object in question (out of 8 possible choices), and bring it back. The command given was “Bring here.” The object’s names were not mentioned.

According to the researchers, the 3 experienced fetchers brought the exact replica and the life-size version of the miniature at a percentage rate that was well above pure chance. The 2 inexperienced dogs didn’t do as well. When it came to fetching the object shown in the photograph, that was more difficult for all but one of the dogs.

Kaminski et al conclude that “the most reasonable interpretation of dogs’ success in the replica tasks is that they understood that by showing the iconic sign the human was trying to communicate something to them.”

That would depend on what definition of communication is being used. Certainly there are a number of tests showing that dogs (and in some cases, even wolves) show a sensitivity to human gestures and eye contact, and may be able to take cues from humans in this way, though this works best if the cues are part of a game involving the dog’s (or wolf’s) hunting instincts.

Either way it seems clear that the dogs felt (not understood) that the humans wanted them to do something—fetch a toy. 

Is Something Else Going On?
Former Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake writes, “My research on telepathy in animals (published in detail in a series of papers found here) led me to see telepathy as a normal, rather than paranormal. ... aspect of communication between members of animal social groups.”

Even Lloyd Morgan (of Morgan’s canon) entertained the possibility that animals communicate via mental images. In The Limits of Animal Intelligence—when describing a dog coming home from a walk, tired and hungry—Morgan wrote, “I for one, would not feel disposed to question that he has in his mind’s eye a more or less definite idea of a bone.” (1892.) Morgan goes on to define “idea” as a visual image.

If Morgan is right, that dogs can communicate through visual images, then this could mean that the dogs in the 2009 study might not have been responding to the iconic representations of toys they were being shown by their owners, but to the pictures of those objects held in the owner’s mind! (The lack of success with the photos could be explained by the fact that they were 2, not 3 dimensional, making it slightly harder for both dog and owner to translate the images to real objects.)

A 2011 study shows that detection dogs will sometimes give false positives when their handlers think they know where certain substances have been hidden. The conclusion drawn there was that the handlers unconsciously tipped off the locations to the dogs. But I think this too could have been the result of unintentional telepathic communication via mental images.

In order to test whether mental images were at play in the iconic communication study, we would repeat it, as it was initially done, but add 2 extra controls: neither the researcher nor the owner would be allowed to see the icon shown to the dog. This could be accomplished by having each object (or photo) put into a box with a door that could be opened and closed. A third party would place the object (or photo) in the box, and would assign that box with a number to be checked later against the object that the dog retrieved. The owner would then open the door and show the dog the object without being able to see it for him or herself.

If the dogs still retrieved the toys at a rate higher than chance, we would know that the dogs were responding only to the image of the object they had viewed, not whatever mental images the owner and researcher may or may not have had in mind.

If not—if the dogs’ retrieval rate fell below pure chance—we would have some evidence that something else (perhaps of a telepathic nature, perhaps not) was going on in this study. 

“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”