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, 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?”

Do Dogs and Wolves Form Dominance Hierarchies? No!

Sorry, Dr. Bekoff, I Stand by What I Wrote—And Here Are 3 Reasons Why
Originally published in slightly different form on January 1, 2013 at
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
African Proverb
Competition vs. Cooperation
Dr. Marc Bekoff recently wrote an article here stating, in no uncertain terms, that dominance hierarchies are real. He backed this up by saying that this is the current scientific consensus.

I’m not denying that the consensus exists. But it seems to me that we may have been seeing this issue backwards. Another way of looking at it is that members of a wolf pack are not in competition over resources, nor are they seeking biological advantages over one another. The pack is about pooling resources, sharing them—not about fighting over them.

Here I’ll give 3 very simple, very clear and specific reasons for why I believe that dogs and wolves do not form dominance hierarchies.

1) Dominance = A Vertical Chain of Command
It seems to me that a true dominance hierarchy is a top-down system with a clear and invariable vertical chain of command. Examples in human society are the military, educational systems, and families.1

In animal groups the deciding factor of who’s dominant is reportedly about who controls access to resources: food, water, the best place to sleep, mating opportunities, etc. Yet none of the human systems I mentioned above are about controlling access to resources; they’re about enforcing obedience to authority. If a soldier, student or child disobeys, there are clear consequences. But in canine packs and multiple-dog households, if a supposedly subordinate animal has possession of a bone or a toy, he or she is often allowed to keep it despite the fact that the more dominant dog may also want it. There is no clear, vertical chain of command.

Dr. Bekoff has observed this himself: “Complicating the picture is the phenomenon of situational dominance. For example, a low ranking individual may be able to keep possession of food even when challenged by another individual who actively dominates him or her in other contexts. I’ve seen this in wild coyotes, dogs, other mammals, and various birds. In these cases possession is what counts.”

Situational dominance? Possession is what counts? From what I understand these ideas simply do not gibe with the definition of a top-down system.

2) Dominant and Submissive Labels Are Meaningless
In his book Dog Language, Dr. Roger Abrantes explains how to tell if one member of the pack is feeling or acting dominant it “will make its body appear large and stiff.”

But is this specific form of body language is always consistent with actual dominance over others? If, for example, a dog or wolf wins or controls access to resources by acting in a “submissive” manner, wouldn’t that animal, by definition, be dominant?

One example is the conflicts that seem to arise between a breeding pair over how to “disburse food to the young.” This typically starts when the breeding male brings a dead animal such as a hare back to the den where the female is waiting with her pups. 

She comes out of the den. The male stands tall and stiff. The female starts to crouch low to the ground, but keeps coming toward him. The closer she comes the more “dominant” his posture becomes. Hers, meanwhile, becomes more and more “submissive.” This continues until the female, nearly rolling over on her back, snatches the dead animal—the “resource”—right out of the male’s jaws while he just stands there, frozen.

Who’s most dominant here? Obviously the female; she clearly gains total and complete control of an important resource. Yet her posture is defined as “submissive.”2

It seems to me that the words we attach to these postures should always relate to an animal’s “rank and status” in any given situation, under any and all conditions and circumstances.

3) Female vs. Male Perspectives
In canids, group formation is a function of prey size. According to Ray Coppinger, wolves who settle near garbage dumps don’t form packs. Coyotes, who are usually solitary, will form packs when small prey is scarce. Etc., etc.

Since dominance is supposedly about conflicts over who controls access to resources, and since the primary resources for wolf packs are large prey animals, if the pack is a dominance hierarchy my feeling is that we should see constant conflicts over access to the prey animal. Yet hunting seems to be a cohesive, cooperative effort on the part of all pack members. And even when the animal has been killed, no one animal always eats first.

If wolves actively cooperate with one another, and actually share resources, then why has science focused so much attention on dominance in wolves?

The problem may have something to do with gender perception or what I would call sexual semiotics: it’s been shown that male researchers often tend to focus their attention on agonistic behaviors while female researchers are more interested in affiliative behaviors.3

In the 1960s, for instance, when Thelma Rowell studied the baboons in Uganda, the accepted idea was that they lived in a clear male dominance hierarchy, were extremely competitive, and were constantly fighting over food and females.

Yet Rowell found that baboon society was peaceful. Aggression was rare between males, and they rarely stole food from one another. This caused Rowell to conclude that baboon society was one of “active cooperation.” She even went so far as to say that dominance hierarchies only exist because the observer creates them.

We know that social friction exists in dogs and wolves. But is it really about dominance? I’m no scientist, but I think that’s a legitimate question.

Granted, the “data are there,” meaning that the dominance model has plenty of statistical numbers to back it up. The problem, if there is one, may be that statistics are often dependent on which behaviors the observer deems relevant, which may bring us back to sexual semiotics.

Thelma Rowell writes, “A zoologist … must always return to the question of selective advantages. … It is so very obvious that monkeys enjoy being together that we take it for granted. But pleasure, like every other phenomenon in life, is subject to, and the result of, evolutionary pressure—we enjoy a thing because our ancestors survived better and left more viable offspring than their relations who did not enjoy (and so seek) comparable stimuli.” (Haraway, 1978, p. 51.)

Following this line of reasoning—and operating on the principle that the wolf pack’s function is to hunt large, dangerous prey—what’s more important or more likely for success? A social structure built on dominance, aggression, and fear? Or one built on the pleasure of being in one another’s company, snuggling up when it’s cold, licking each other’s fur, playing with each other when you feel like it, all of which, over time, create feelings of harmony and cohesion rather than tension divisiveness? (The pack would still exhibit the same structure, it would just be more of an affiliative heterarchy rather than a dominance hierarchy.4)

Would wolves define themselves by the occasional flare-ups that take place when environmental stressors increase social friction, or by the constant internal emotional pull they feel for the simple pleasure of being in one another’s company?

It’s impossible to say. However, as a dog trainer my observations suggest that dogs would prefer to live in harmony with us, and with one another. I also know that in dogs, dominance is often a symptom of anxiety. When you reduce a dog’s anxiety, whatever dominance tendencies that dog had, simply disappear.

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1) In her book Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds, Linda Marie Fedigan defines a linear dominance hierarchy as “a straight-line rank ordering of animals drawn up by the researcher according to what the researcher perceives to be an animal’s relative abilities to intimidate, obstruct or control another’s bodily movements and thus win such conflicts or use resources first.” (94)

2) Some might argue that in wolf packs males perceive females as a resource rather than as rivals, so they make pains not to exert dominance over them, only over other males, but if that’s the case, then dominance isn’t a social behavior but a sexual one, a topic for another discussion at another time.

3) “Numerous observers among primatologists and science studies scholars have suggested that women observed differently. For some, women’s patience makes them ideal observers.” (“Culture and Gender Do Not Dissolve Into How Scientists ‘Read’ Nature: Thelma Rowell’s Heterodoxy,” Vinciane Despret, Dept of Philosophy, University of Li├Ęge, Belgium; 2009, p. 4.)

4) As its name implies a heterarchy derives its structure comes from differences in temperament. Following this idea, some pack members would be seen not as more dominant, necessarily, but more direct, while others aren’t necessarily submissive, they would just have a tendency to be indirect. These variations may very well be necessary for the pack to succeed during the hunt.

Canine PTSD: Case History No. 4—Oddy & Penny

Why do some dogs develop PTSD while others don’t?
Originally published in slightly different form on December 20, 2012 at

PTSD Develops in Different Ways in Different Dogs
This is the 4th in a series of case histories of dogs who may have suffered from PTSD, which statistics suggest may be much more common in pet dogs than it is in military dogs.

This series of posts is meant to be a helpful diagnostic tool for veterinarians, shelter and rescue workers, as well as dog owners and dog trainers to hopefully prevent more cases of Canine PTSD from going undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. (A Canine PTSD symptom scale can be found here.)

The first case history (of my own dog Freddie) can be found here. In Freddie’s case, I witnessed the original trauma first-hand, and saw the resulting behavioral disorder that developed very quickly as a result. There was no guesswork. This is the easiest type of case to diagnose, the one where the owner was witness to the original trauma.

A second case involved a boxer named Fancy whose stress was probably the result of being kept in a crate at the vet’s office during an important social development phase. Fancy’s story can be found here.

A third case, of Noodles, a dachshund, who was biting his owners, his dogwalker, and eventually me, can be found here. Noodles was easier to diagnose than Fancy because his affect and behaviors were off the charts.

Now comes the story of Odysseus and Penelope (Oddy and Penny), two miniature schnauzers who were attacked by another, much larger dog, while out on a walk. Penny actually came pretty close to dying from her wounds, and was in the hospital clinging to life for several days. She pulled through, but, oddly enough, didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress. Oddy, on the other hand, who wasn’t hurt as badly, did.

Why the difference?

Entangled Schnauzers
First it’s important to understand how the dogs’ personalities differ. They’re roughly the same age. Penny is about two months older than Oddy. She’s also much smaller; Oddy is almost the size of a standard schnauzer. And while they have some surprisingly similar character traits in some ways, they’re also quite different.

When I first met them, I found that Penny was very playful, a little mischievous, and liked to roll over on her back for tummy rubs. She was much smaller than her “brother,” but seemed to be in charge of things. She also seemed to dislike going on walks, which I thought might have been a repercussion from the attack, but was told that she’d always been like that.

Oddy, on the other hand, didn’t know how to play except with Penny. He also exhibited more tension, stress, and showed less emotional elasticity than his “sister.” For instance, I never saw him roll over on his back for a tummy rub or for any other reason.

They would play together every day, but if Penny found another dog she liked to play with Oddy was unable to join in. All he could do was stand there, barking at the interloper.

Penny had been a part of the household since puppyhood while, for various reasons, Oddy had been kenneled at the breeder during certain important developmental phases, and hadn’t been brought into the household until he was nearly six months old. I don’t know for certain that this accounts for the difference in their responses to the traumatic event, but there is evidence showing that children in foster care may be five times more likely to develop PTSD following a trauma than kids raised in a traditional family setting.

Personally, I believe that the dog-human bond which develops during puppyhood bears some important similarities to having a normal childhood with loving human parents.

All that aside, there may be another reason Oddy was more affected by the event emotionally, though Penny sustained the most physical damage.

Life-Threatening Physical Injuries & Narcissistic Hypercathexis
In 1920 Sigmund Freud wrote about the symptoms of PTSD (then referred to as “war neuroses”). He said that “two characteristics emerge prominently: first , that the chief weight in their causation seems to rest upon the factor of surprise, of fright; and secondly, that a wound or injury inflicted simultaneously works, as a rule, against [their] development.” (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920, Freud Reader, 598.)

If this is true, it might explain why Penny didn’t develop symptoms of PTSD, and why Oddy did. It also explains why, generally speaking, a soldier who isn’t seriously injured is more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than those who are.

First, I think it’s important to understand why Freud refers to what we now call PTSD as a neurosis. Neuroses are anxiety-based behaviors or sets of behaviors, where the energy invested in them is out of balance, either with the normal reasons for producing such behaviors or with the amount of energy that might normally be expended on them. In dogs the 1st might be something like humping inanimate objects or chasing cars, and 2nd might manifest as separation anxiety or obsessive guarding of toys or other objects. Second, most if not all neuroses are the result of repressed emotional energy, which is true in both humans and dogs.

In Freudian terms, the mind’s “control panel” (the ego) has the job of deciding which internal and external stimuli (excitations) should be a) paid attention to, b) ignored, c) have their energies blocked (repressed), or d) have their energies projected (cathected) onto persons or objects in the environment including the subject’s own body. So the gross physical traumathe sheer mechanical force that accompanies a serious, life-threatening injurydemands that none of the mind’s energy can be wasted on “mere trifles;” it all has to be projected onto the body itself so as to facilitate and enable healing. Or as Freud put it, “the physical injury, by calling for a narcissistic hypercathexis of the injured organ, would bind the excess of excitation.” (610)

Meanwhile, for the subject whose injuries aren’t as serious, those same emotional energies aren’t projected (or cathected) onto the body, they’re repressed by the mind, resulting in what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat,” which is one of the chief features of PTSD (i.e., the subject is unconsciously compelled to repeat the initial trauma over and over).

Furthermore, Freud made it quite clear that fright, fear, and anxiety were not synonyms; they represented clear distinctions in how we relate to danger. Anxiety, he said, “describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one. ‘Fear’ requires a definite object of which to be afraid. ‘Fright,’ however, is the name we give to the state a person gets into when he has run into danger without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise.” (598.)

Once again, if we look at the stories we hear from veterans about how their PTSD developed it’s not uncommon to hear them say that the danger “came out of nowhere,” or “I wasn’t prepared for what happened.” And since PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is a state of “constantly expecting … danger or preparing for it,” this makes sense.

While I don’t believe dogs think about their experiences, or try to explain or understand them through internal monologues, I think the basic principles can still be applied.

If I’m right, then Penny’s injuries necessitated that whatever psychic (mental or emotional) energy she had available at the time be focused (or projected) solely on to the tasks of self-preservation and healing. Meanwhile the excess energy the traumatic event had stimulated in Oddy had no place to go. It got stuck, which in turn created an unconscious compulsion to repeat the event, over and over.

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