Sunday, 31 July 2011

Talking to Dogs

Quite rightly, people who “know” about animal behaviour warn against the danger of anthropomorphizing. If you treat your dog as a human being with human feelings and thoughts you will encounter problems sooner or later. However, this drive towards letting dogs be dogs, and avoiding communication with them in “human” ways forgets, I think, the important fact that dogs have evolved, or more rightly, co-evolved, as a companion species to us humans (something both Temple Grandin and Donna Haraway consider in their books). It is commonly said that the domestic dog barks more than wolves ever do, precisely because it has evolved to communicate with humans in a way that is closer to our own primary way of communicating: language.

Of course dogs are essentially non-verbal; they don’t have language the same way we have. They do, however, have the ability to learn to associate certain sounds, words, with things and actions. We can easily teach them to “sit” and they quickly learn what “walkies” means. Studies have also shown that dog owners can often recognize differences in their dog’s bark: if it means danger, play or aggression. As I have considered before, dogs also use other sounds, such as whining, to communicate their needs to us. So dogs do avail themselves of sounds to communicate, but they don’t connect and combine these sounds into the complex system we call language. While we primarily use language to communicate to our dogs, it is doubtful whether dogs consider sounds as either their or indeed our primary means of communication between our two species.
To a certain extent the warning against anthropomorphizing when trying to communicate with your dog is an important one. You often hear people in the “know” about canine behaviour berating dog owners for talking to their dogs. We have all heard a story about this or that silly dog owner who, wagging their finger, tells their dog “Naughty boy, Fido. I have told you once, and I will tell you again, that you are not allowed to pee on the carpet. If you do it again you will have no dinner”, or some such. Indeed, Fido most probably does not understand that his owner is disappointed at repeating his prohibition, what this prohibition is about and the future threat regarding it. Yet, and surely all dog owners are guilty to some extent here, we persist in talking to our dogs as if they understood language as well as children, at least.
Indeed, language comes so naturally to us that we find pretty much impossible not to talk to our dogs, even when we doubt how much they understand. And you know what, I don’t thing talking to your dog is wrong at all. In fact, I would say, talking to your dog is essential to communicating with them. The reason is precisely because language is so natural and important to us humans. If dogs are non-verbal, most humans are hyper-verbal. Indeed, for most of us it is virtually impossible to formulate any thoughts without language. (Grandin’s thesis in her book is that autistic people think far less in language, and more in pictures than the “normal” human, and therefore think more like animals that most of us do.) What I am getting at is that we have to talk to communicate, because we cannot think without language. We have to verbalise our intentions to make them clear, even to ourselves.
Poor Fido in the example above, while he does not understand specific prohibitions or threats, most probably has a “guilty” look on his face, “because he knows he’s been naughty”, according to the anthropomorphizing owner. Actually, of course, Fido is looking glum because he understands some of the intention behind his owner’s words, if not the particular details. He gets the disappointment, the anger and the threat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is looking extra worried because he cannot work out what and why and when. That is what we need to remember to clarify to our dogs in ways other than language when we talk to them.
Nevertheless, dogs do read our intentions very well. They know when we are angry or pleased, and other more complex things too, like when we want them to stay or come. Cesar Millan calls it “energy”, others explain it through body language. Whatever it is, us humans usually channel it through words. When I tell my dogs to stay, I consciously and unconsciously project my intention through my body and some sort of “vibes”. I raise my palm to them, and I am sure my body also assumes a certain posture. I expect that my dogs read my body and my mood as much as the word “stay” that I have just uttered. However, and this is the key for me, I need to say the word in order for my body to project that intention. I can probably replicate the stance, but to really feel that I want them to stay, I need to say or at least think the word. This is why I think that talking to our dogs is important. We rely on language to form our thoughts and intentions.
So I talk to my dogs all the time, and I am sure that our canine-human relationship benefits from it. I tell them when they are doing something right and when they are doing something wrong, of course. But I also tell them why they need to wait just a little bit longer for that walk they are really keen to go on. I am sure they don’t understand that I just need to finish paragraph I am writing, and it will be ten minutes, and then we’ll go, but I am pretty sure that they understand that they need to wait some time because my attention is needed elsewhere, as they go back to their beds with a sigh. They may have not understood the words and the specifics, but they have sure got my intention. And I needed to verbalise that intention in order to communicate it to them successfully. Whatever you may think dogs are not mind-readers. They are very good readers of emotions and thoughts as they appear in our body language, and so much of our body language is mitigated through our – verbal – thoughts.
While we have to avoid excessive anthropomorphizing, we shouldn’t forget the human in the human-dog relationship, because, surely, if we forget our own nature we are likely to run into just as many problems as if we forget our dog’s nature. When living with and communicating with dog we have to heed their needs, of course. If Fido is to understand exactly what his owner wants from him, his owner needs to take care to supplement his verbal communication with practical, well-timed non-verbal pointers. However, we also need to understand ourselves and the way our own minds work, if we are successfully to communicate with anyone else at all, let alone our dogs. We need to talk to think, and our canine companions benefit from the kind clarity of intention that only verbalizing our thoughts can give us humans. If we don’t know what we want ourselves, how could we expect our dogs to know?

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Friday, 15 July 2011

Reading List - Animals in Translation

“The Aboriginies have a saying: ‘Dogs make us human.’”
This quote may sound like a romantic cliché, but it is meant in all scientific seriousness. This book by Temple Grandin, who has been called “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”, isn’t merely a collection of amusing anecdotes from Grandin’s fascinating life with autism and with animals. Each story convincingly illustrates her theory that people with autism think more like animals, than “normal” people do. Together these stories and ideas form a handbook of how to understand and deal with animal behaviour, that is not only convincing, but also very entertaining to read. When you get to the “Behaviour and Training Troubleshooting Guide” at the very end of the book, a remarkably thorough yet concise summary of the basics of ethology, you realize what a wealth of knowledge Grandin possesses and has just imparted in the most delightful way.

Some of my favourite bits:
“Unfortunately, when it comes to dealing with animals, all normal human beings are too abstractified, even the people who are hands-on. That’s because people aren’t just abstract in their thinking, they’re abstract in their seeing and hearing.  
Normal humans hold an abstract idea of the world, which results in inattentional blindness - they see the world as the expect to see it, filtering out unimportant or unexpected detail.
When an animal or an autistic person is seeing the real world instead of his idea of the real world it means he’s seeing detail. This is the single most important thing to know about the way animals perceive the world: animals see details people don’t see.”
So much failure to understand and thus to modify animal behaviour comes from the fact that we just don’t see (or hear, or smell, or feel) what they are seeing. Consequently we have no, or even the wrong, idea of the motivation for the behaviour. Grandin’s argument that animals, like autistic people, are far more sensitive to details, such as changes in the environment, bright lights and stange noises, makes sense. Even just looking at the world from the same angle as my dogs, and keeping in mind that their sense of colour, contrast and perspective is different, makes it clear why, for example, those stairs in our house seem so scary to them – they don’t look like steps, that is, things that would support one’s feet, but as some strange slope, and as a precipice from above!
The Scary Stairs

Grandin allows that animals do have feelings, which, although not the same, are connected to basic core emotions that humans also experience, such as rage, fear, social attachment and play. One of these core animal and human emotions, according to Grandin, is not easily described in only one word: curiosity/interest/anticipation. Recent research indicates that this emotion is seated in a part of the brain separate from the reward and pleasure centre:
“This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might me nearby, but stops firing when the animal sees the actual food itself. The SEEKING [capitalised term coined by Jaak Panksepp] circuit fires during the search for food, not during the final locating or eating of the food. It’s the search that feels so good.
Very compelling stuff when you have two greyhounds that never catch anything but nevertheless throw themselves into the chase with abandon. Grandin draws parallels with human addictive behaviours, and I think one needs to bear this idea in mind when trying to deal with certain behaviours – removing the apparent “reward”, or even offering an alternative reward, will have little effect – it is the chase that is the point here. And we can all identify with that. Indeed, curiosity and exploration bring much pleasure to us human as well as our animals. Expecting your dogs not to be curious or not engage in some form of exploratory and predatory behaviour is at best going to lead to disappointment and at worst to behavioural disasters. Providing a safe space for them to explore is imperative.

There are also some interesting passages relating to the much discussed idea of dominance in Grandin’s book. Grandin clearly has no interest in joining either camp regarding canine behaviour and training, and she makes some very interesting points. On the one hand, she clearly states that dominance and hierarchy plays a central role in predator animals: 
All animals who live in groups – and this is most animals – form dominance hierarchies. Animals are not democratic and there is always an alpha animal, and often a beta animal, too. […] Dog owners must establish themselves as the alpha, period. This is the one rule you must not ignore.” 
However, establishing yourself as the alpha to your dog does not mean breaking it into submission for Grandin. She discourages the alpha roll, but encourages owners to make their dogs assume the sumbmissive roll voluntarily through play and training.

Indeed, playing with your dog does not mean giving up alpha status, argues Grandin. Higher ranking dogs play with lower ranking ones frequently, and themselves assume the submissive position at times. Play strengthens social bonds, and teaches correct social behaviour. A good example is the game of tug-of-war, often discouraged by trainers, on the basis that it inspires dominance in dogs. Grandin recounts a study into how the game affects behaviour:
“The researchers had people either win or lose a series of tug-of-war games with retrievers, and then watched how the dogs behaved. The losers were more obedient after playing the game – but so where the winners. All the dogs were more obedient after playing tug-of-war with humans! And none of the dogs suddenly got more dominant […] One study doesn’t prove anything, but I think it is probably both safe and fun to play tug-of-war with your dog, and it might even be good for him. Just remember one thing: the study also found that the dogs who lost every time were a lot less interested in playing any more tug-of-war. Apparently a dog doesn’t like losing all the time any more than a person does.”
In my experience dogs whose owners engage positively with them, whether by walkies or games or cuddles, are more likely to attentive and thus obedient. I have said it before: you have to give your dog a reason to want to be your friend, let alone to listen to your command. Not only are dogs social animals and need interaction, but humans and dogs have a special relationship as companion species. In fact, it appears that part of our evolutionary make-up is shaped by our interaction as species.
“Going over all the evidence, a group of Australian anthropologists believes that during all those years when early humans were associating with wolves they learned to act and think like wolves. Wolves hunted in groups; humans didn’t. Wolves had loyal same-sex and nonkin friendships; humans probably didn’t, judging by the lack of same-sex and nonkin friendships in every other primate species today. (The main relationship for chimpanzees is parent-child). Wolves were highly territorial; humans probably weren’t – again judging by how nonterritorial all other primates are today.
By the time these early people became truly modern, they had learned to do all these wolfie things. When you think about how different we are form other primates, we see how doglike we are.”
This may sound like another romanticization of the dog-human relationship, but Grandin points to biological evidence of brain evolution. All domesticated animal species brains shrunk compared to their wild ancestors, most likely because many functions such as alertness for predators and searching for food were no longer necessary. Dog brains shrank too, compared to wolf ones. However, so did human brains, just at the time when evidence of burial with dogs is seen, around 10,000 years ago. As Grandin says, what is interesting is which part of the brain shrank in dogs and people:
“In all of the domestic animals the forebrain, which holds the frontal lobes, and the corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank. But in humans it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olfactory bulbs, which handle smell, which got smaller […] Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks. Dogs and people coevolved and became even better partners, allies and friends.”
Mesolithic Natufian (in present Israel)
burial with puppy, ca. 10,000 BC.

To my mind our companionship with dogs is crucial to remember.  They are not toys, ornaments or status symbols, not there just for your company, for your entertainment, or for the kids. Like Donna Haraway suggests in her The Companion Species Manifesto, which also puts forward the theory of canine-human co-evolution, we are in a relationship of “reciprocal possession” with dogs, and this relationship demands two-way respect. For a happy and harmonious relationship with our dogs we need not just to understand their behaviour but to interact with them, as we both evolved to work and play – indeed live – together. If you’re not prepared to give them that, don’t get a dog. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sniffing Bits

I am always surprised and a little saddened when I meet yet another dog-owner who tells their dogs off for sniffing other dogs' bits. “That’s disgusting, Fido. Stop it!”, seems to be a common reaction to one of the most important rituals of canine greeting. Not only is it entirely unnecessary to tell your dog to stop smelling other dogs' bottoms, but it’s also detrimental to their wellbeing and potentially to their behaviour.

Jean Donaldson in her excellent book The Culture Clash sets up a scenario to make us imagine how life might be like for a pet dog in a human world: imagine humans were living with a superior species, whose language they did not understand and who set rules for human behaviour, often running counter to what humans felt was natural. One such rule forbids humans to smile at strangers, or shake hands with their friends. In fact, they are told off and even punished if they do so.

Although Donaldson over-eggs the pudding when it comes to the incomprehension between humans and dogs, I think she makes a valid an important point with this analogy about greetings. Both humans and dogs are highly social species, and greetings are central to social behaviour. Restricting the ability to greet both your own and other species (the problem of how to greet a dog correctly - as a human - is going to have to be the subject of a whole different post), is likely to make any human or dog miserable.

Even more crucially, it is also likely to restrict and even deteriorate an individual’s ability to interact socially. I am convinced that the apparently silly, but surprisingly widespread, interdiction against sniffing bottoms and bits is part of the problem with anti-social dogs. Of course, a lot of other factors are also responsible, and there is to a certain extent an evil cycle at work, where people are wary of letting their dogs meet other dogs, let alone come close enough to sniff each other, due to the prevalence of badly socialized dogs. However, I feel that keeping dogs apart from one another, and preventing them from interacting in a natural way, is not going to improve things, quite the contrary.

Is it a wonder that dogs struggle with getting on if we are not allowing them to greet each other politely. A human smile and handshake signals good intentions and a willingness for peaceful interaction, and so do doggy greeting rituals, and sniffing and allowing oneself to be sniffed is a big part of those rituals. If smiles and handshakes were discouraged, even forbidden, how would you know who was friend or foe? Would you not be more likely to take a defensive, even an aggressive stance to all strangers?

While I would always advise caution, although I wish I did not have to, when meeting and approaching strange dogs with your own, I would call for people not only to allow their canine companions to interact more, but also encourage them to engage in the full glory of canine greeting rituals, bits and all. 

Saturday, 9 July 2011


The topic of correction is one that I have spent quite some time thinking about, and I still am. I have much to learn, and would love to hear your thoughts and comments. What I am sure about is that the term correction is important in itself – as opposed to punishment. Correction is about learning, and punishment is about justice. Dogs are not moral beings, and have no concept of right or wrong in the moral sense. They don’t feel guilt the way we do. Therefore punishing a dog is at best a waste of time, and at worst detrimental to the dog’s physical and mental health.

While I am increasingly finding that behavioural changes are best achieved by conditioning through positive reinforcement, I am also pretty sure that appropriate and well-timed corrections are necessary and beneficial to the interaction with, and training of any dog. Like children, dogs do need boundaries for their own wellbeing and safety, and in order for life in a human-dog household to be a comfortable and happy one for all species involved.

A dog cannot be allowed to steal food, go to the toilet indoors, show aggression to family members, chew furniture, bark excessively or engage in other kind of dangerous, destructive or anti-social behaviour. Some consider the enforcement of these “house rules” as a matter of hierarchy and dominance, and I am still undecided on this theory, but I do know that it is a matter of pragmatics. If you allow your dog to get away with these behaviours you won’t be happy, and so your dog won’t be either.

Correcting these behaviour should not be a difficult or fraught experience, especially if you are starting from puppyhood. Usually a “no” said with a stern voice together with a determined posture, and if necessary a gentle but firm push away, or quick tug at the leash, should be enough. The actual word is not important, of course, and I think it is best to find one that comes naturally (for example, Cesar Millan uses that “tssst” sound because that is how his mother used to tell her children off). I usually go for a sharp “ah-ah”. Some repetition will inevitably be necessary, but after a while you will find that the “no” or “leave”, or whatever, is enough to stop the dog doing what he or she is doing.

Timing is crucial to good correction. The correction must come during or immediately after the offending behaviour. If you miss this time-window, it is better not to correct, as you will end up confusing your dog and teaching them nothing at all. This is even more important if you find that you need to step up the intensity of the correction. While I have found that I can very effectively correct the vast majority of unwanted behaviour by the above method, some things need something more drastic, or indeed, something else altogether.

This is where I am still working by trial and error. A big lesson I have learned, though, is that not all unwanted behaviour is best dealt with by correction. In fact, I am now of the opinion that the first approach to changing behaviour should be trying to find a positive reinforcement for an appropriate, alternative desirable behaviour. Working with what the dog wants to make it do what you want, is simply the easiest way in most cases.

I have previously written about my feeding time ritual, which I realized worked wonders to correct my dogs' begging behaviour. As my dogs have to lie down and wait before they get fed, every time, they tend to lie down when they want someone’s food – rather than sticking their noses in people’s faces. I think the principle is applicable to a range of behavioural issues, but it needs a little bit of lateral thinking to figure out how to harness the dog’s desires to modify their unwanted behaviours.

I also had quite some trouble getting Cassie to come back to me when called, and continuing corrections using a long lead seemed to have very limited effect. She was clearly aware when she wasn’t on the lead and I couldn’t get her. I then decided on an intense programme of conditioning – using toys and varied tasty treats, I called her back to me frequently in a range of situations, reinforcing the idea that coming back equals treat. (You can read more about my methods for recall training here). She is not 100% but I have seen an incredible improvement in her recall. Working with Cassie has definitely changed my opinion on the efficacy of correction for certain behaviours and certain dogs. Coming back is something you need your dog to want to do, and Cassie seems simply more responsive to positive reinforcement.

In most circumstances Eddie has been much more receptive to correction, and learned our “house rules” very quickly. He also usually heeds my corrections at a distance. However, cats are a different story. Eddie is extremely aggressive to cats, barking and trying to chase and catch them if he can. My usual “ah-ah” has limited effect, as has a tug on the leash. I used a rattle-can, but he got quickly de-sensitized to it. Prodding him in the side has had certain effect, but for best results I have had to place myself right in front of him and stare him in the eyes while telling him off. This is quite hard to do when you have two dogs on the leash, which has meant that since I have got Cassie, his cat-aggression, which I felt I had under some control previously, has got progressively worse again. Cassie is not as excited by cats on her own, but she feeds of Eddie’s frenzy, in turn spurring him on. I have therefore recently tried the remote controlled spray collar with some very good early results.

I was reluctant to try it for a long time, as I had given it a go when I first got Eddie with almost no effect. I realize now that this was probably because he was just out of kennels, and I used it in the park where there were lots of squirrels about. At that stage, Eddie was just too excited and overwhelmed by all the stimuli around him. Now he is far more receptive to me in general, and I am hoping for a better result with the collar. On the few occasions I have used it this time, he has immediately stopped barking and straining for the cat, stepped back and looked at me. I am hoping that repetition will give me a longer-term effect, where the simple “ah-ah” suffices to deter him. I will report back on my progress.

So, I am still learning about correction, when and what works, and when it doesn’t. I would be very interested to hear your experiences, views and opinions on this topic. Please comment below or email

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