Originally published in slightly different form on April 15, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
For those who haven’t read my previous articles in this series, I’ve defined the 4 Quadrants of Drive Training as Attraction & Resistance, and Tension & Release. I’ve already discussed the last two in some detail. Here I’ll be discussing attraction and resistance.
First of all, everything in the universe is geared toward seeking out connections with some other facet of existence. From sub-atomic particles on up to the need some of us feel to log on to Facebook each morning, the entire universe is about making connections. The underlying theme of how these connections get made—whether it’s the way sodium and chlorine atoms hook up to produce salt, how a bloodhound sniffs a criminal’s trail, or how two people find each other across a crowded room—it’s about physical, chemical, magnetic, or emotional attraction. Things can’t form connections if they’re not experiencing some form of attraction.
It’s pretty easy to see a dog’s feeling of attraction manifest itself when he pulls on the leash to get to another dog, or when he chases a squirrel, or jumps up on a person he likes.
The flip side of attraction—which could be either repulsion or emotional resistance—isn’t as clear cut, but can be seen vividly in the difference between the way a dog pulls toward an object of attraction along a straight line as opposed to taking a more circular approach. In my view (based on Kevin Behan’s energy theory of canine behavior), the curvature indicates that the dog’s feeling of attraction has met some form of resistance, either internal or external. In fact if the resistance is strong enough, the dog won’t dog even look at it or acknowledge the so-called object of attraction.
Biologists talk about approach and avoidance, which are behaviors. Attraction and resistance are emotional states. A dog can sometimes be seen approaching someone while having very strong feelings of resistance toward that person, i.e., approaching very slowly, with the head and tail hung low. A dog can also have a strong attraction for something and hold perfectly still, not approaching it at all.
One of the rules I follow in training is that when using games like fetch or tug to elicit an obedience behavior, you should always quit before the dog starts to get tired or bored. This is very important because what starts out as a pleasurable learning experience can quickly become the opposite, which will result in slower response time, and may even devolve into a general lack of interest in listening or obeying at all.
How can you tell when the dog is starting to get tired or bored?
I recommend studying Turid Rugaas’s “calming signals”—a dog’s behavioral postures and micro-expressions—which I’ve discussed previously, and which Rugaas sees as being produced with the conscious intent to communicate to another dog or person. Since dogs produce these behaviors when people and other dogs can’t see them, I tend to think of them as “tells,” the kind of postures and micro-expressions poker players read when trying to determine whether their opponents are bluffing. In my experience, canine tells can be successfully used to determine whether a dog is feeling more resistance than attraction in any given situation.
So one way to determine when a dog is getting tired or bored with a game goes back to the difference between a straight line and a curve. If Fido chases the ball ten times, and brings it directly back each time, in a straight line, it means he’s still emotionally invested. If, on the eleventh throw, he begins to come back in a more curved fashion—no matter how subtle the difference—his interest has started to wane, his heart is no longer in the game, and it’s time to take a break.
Of course, we could interpret this behavior in any number of ways. The dog is simply tired. The dog’s sense of smell is starting to override his joy in playing, etc. But I think it’s extremely helpful to be able to interpret canine behavior through the lens of attraction and resistance.
A new study, “Social eavesdropping in the domesticated dog,” shows the importance of understanding canine behavior from the dog’s rather than the human’s point of view. In their abstract, the researchers strongly suggest that dogs have some very highly developed thought processes, putting them on a scale with chimps1 in terms of their ability to determine whether others in their social group are of a generous or stingy nature.
The study was set up in a small room, with four humans and a number of dogs, tested one at time. In the video record, you can see one human sitting in a folding chair, holding the dog on a leash, facing two more people seated at the opposite end of the room, not far away, facing one another. They hold containers of food, sausages, etc., and occasionally have a nosh or two from their own containers.
After they nosh a bit, a fourth person enters, going back and forth, in the dog’s line of sight, asking each in turn if she can have some food.
The person on the left always says “No” in a sharp, yet not very loud voice. And although the camera is set up so that we can’t fully see the person on the right, she speaks in a friendlier tone, and gives the “beggar” a bit of food each time she asks. During this portion of the video, the dog seems mildly stressed (his mouth is open, he’s panting). You can also see some stress-related micro-expressions whenever he’s looking at or away from the “stingy” person. But tellingly, whenever he looks at the generous person, his eyes are always locked onto hers.
After going through this procedure several times, the beggar disappears. Then the person holding the dog releases him, allowing him access to the food. In this case the dog went toward the “generous” person, ignoring the “stingy” one completely, which is what 2/3s of the dogs reportedly did.
Here’s how the researchers interpret their results: “Eavesdropping on third-party interactions has been observed in a number of species and is considered an important source of information in decision-making processes ... We found that the dogs were capable of eavesdropping on human food-sharing interactions, and vocal communication was particularly important to convey the human’s cooperative versus non-cooperative intent.”
There are two red flags here for me: “decision-making” and “intent.”2 Do dogs make behavioral choices? Yes, all the time. But making a decision implies careful deliberation, weighing one’s options, and choosing the “best” one based on some internal, linear thought process, which in this case would include categorization, logic, and mental time travel. Behavioral choices only require an emotional, not an intellectual process. As for understanding another being’s intent, that falls directly under the aegis of theory of mind, an idea which has been discussed and debunked here quite thoroughly on numerous occasions.
I could be wrong, but I see this is an example of dognitive scientists not making enough of an effort to see things from the dog’s point of view.
Granted, there’s no way of knowing for sure what a dog—or if a dog—is thinking, or exactly how their minds actually work. However the rules of science—Ockham’s razor, Morgan’s canon, and the rule against anthropomorphism—dictate that the simplest explanation, as long as it satisfactorily explains all aspects of a phenomenon, is probably the best. And I think everything in this study can be explained quite satisfactorily through the principles of attraction and resistance.
Here’s what I mean. The researchers are on the mark about “vocal communication” being a deciding factor (which they found surprising). That’s simply because dogs tend to feel more attracted to people who speak to them in a sweet, happy, inviting tone of voice than to people whose voices are harsh and guttural. So naturally 2/3s of the dogs studied gravitated to the person with the nicer voice. They felt more attraction toward that person because of the sound of their voice; it’s that simple.
Dogs learn to distinguish between nice and harsh tones of voice beginning in puppyhood when the nice voice was associated love, affection, and treats while the harsh voice was usually associated with punishment. There may also be some merit to the idea that different sounds and tones of voice have inherently pleasant and unpleasant wavelengths, which would mean that the dog’s response to our tone of voice is not just about how the dog was conditioned, it may also—to a certain extent—be hardwired. (This is an idea that merits looking into via scientific study.)
So why did 1/3 of the dogs not make a distinction when begging for food? Without more information it would be hard to say. But one possible explanation is that these dogs had a stronger attraction for the food than the others, and their attraction overrode the negative impact the “stingy” person’s voice might’ve otherwise had. Or it may be that the owners of these dogs had used a harsh tone of voice on them in ways that induced the dog to overcome their feelings of resistance to order to gain access to the owner’s love, i.e., by acting “submissive” or “apologetic” (in the owner’s eyes, not the dog’s).
This is why I think understanding how dogs feel the world—primarily through valences of attraction and resistance—is not only important for people designing studies with the hope of finding out how dogs really do think (meaning through their instincts and emotions), it’s also vitally important for dog trainers and dog owners.
Next time you’re watching your dog behave in ways that aren’t entirely clear to you—and you wonder “Why is my dog doing that?”—take a step back and look at the behavior from this new perspective. You might be surprised to learn that nearly everything your dog does can be explained through the principles of attraction and resistance.
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1.) In order for dogs to be as “smart” as chimps, their brains would have to be as big and as complex as a chimp’s brain, which is far from the case. However, if we look at a dog’s social intelligence through the principles of emergence theory, or from the perspective of embodied, embedded cognition, then we’d be closer to finding the truth.
2.) There are actually three red flags if you include the use of the word “eavesdropping,” which means listening in to someone’s conversation to find out what they’re saying. This term seems to have been borrowed from previous studies with this very important linguistic aspect denuded.