A different way to teach
Understanding behavior from an ecological, evolutionary, and developmental stand
There are three different levels which interact among themselves and that we need to take into consideration while undertaking the study of behavior, namely the ecological, evolutionary and developmental levels. Without understanding them we will be incapable of figuring our dogs out and unable to work with them fully respecting “what cannot be seen”, which will often be the most important bit.
The evolutionary level marks the possibilities and limits to dogs’ behavior: their physiology, cognitive potential and innate natural behavioral tendencies, including those of an emotional and social sort. For instance, we know that dogs are social animals who tend to establish affective and hierarchical relations with other individuals. We also know that they are predators prone to pursue a running hare. It would be absurd that those of us who love dogs overlook the need to acquire some knowledge at this level. Such information should contribute not only to understand and love dogs better but also to train them better.
The developmental level refers to the way in which the different evolutionary possibilities will materialize in each individual dog: what will be learnt and how, the unfolding of emotions and how the dog will manage them. Crucial aspects such as the rise in cognitive potential or the plasticity of the different social behaviors are shaped at this level, making of each dog a unique and differentiated individual, resulting from the intersection between genetic background and personal experiences. Based on this level we can develop tools to build and direct the dog’s behavior and learning in an appropriate manner.
Finally, the ecological level deals with the objectives of dogs, that is, why they learn and generate behavior. In other words, it is the motivation behind the previous two levels since the latter ultimately serve to fulfill the adaptive objectives governed by the dog’s ecology. This level should provide us with a comprehensive perspective over the usefulness and functionality of our job as trainers. In this sense, it is of the utmost importance that we propose the right objectives to our canine friends for them to develop and reach their full potential so that they can maximize their happiness.
The tetradimensional behavior analysis (TBA): An ECO-EVO-DEVO approach
The work of trainers has often been reduced to the knowledge and implementation of a bunch of the most common and simple guidelines governing associative learning. However, this oversimplification can backfire by giving rise either to inconsistent results or to the development of dog specific dysfunctional behaviors.
Therefore, this traditional option should be deemed insufficient if our objective goes beyond teaching dogs a few skills and tricks. If the objective we pursue through training is to make our dogs more competent socially, happier and more integrated beings, we need to rely on a broader model, necessarily based on the eco-evo-devo approach, though still useful on a practical level to study behavior and intervene on it.
Our proposal to effectively analyze behavior at ecological, evolutionary and developmental levels consists of assessing behaviors within four different dimensions as a way to ascertain what is going on at those three different behaviorally relevant levels. Such four dimensions refer to the physical, emotional cognitive and social components.
It is important to notice that a given behavior will not be solely physical, emotional, cognitive or social. Any of our dogs’ observable behaviors will be characterized by particular values in each of the four dimensions.
Currently there is a wealth of knowledge on the relationship between, on the one hand, observable behaviors and, on the other hand, the parameters used to evaluate each of the proposed dimensions. They have eco-evo-devo values which are relevant, broad and profound.
We know, for instance, that there is social friendship between dogs and persons, or that dogs possess certain cognitive skills like the abilities to solve problems or to learn socially. It is advantageous to exploit this knowledge to incardinate behaviors within a prospective framework that contributes to predicting the most effective way to work.
In this way we find out, for instance, that dogs will not perform in the same manner regardless of the handler. They will outperform themselves when they are with a beloved person with whom they have a sound bond. In a secure environment dogs are able to try out new things. In contrast, dogs will underperform when they are with a stranger or with someone to whom they are excessively attached. Overall, by taking these variables into account, we will be able to design an optimal way to work in each possible scenario, ultimately reaching not only quality behaviors but also a sound reorientation of the relationship between dogs and handlers or owners. Similarly we know how important it is to maintain the social value of the relations between the dog and us in the course of training, and the consequent risk of polluting the dog’s vision over training by becoming materialistic when we do not resort to social reinforcers.
In addition, the four dimensions proposed match perfectly with the definition of health offered by the World Health Organization (WHO): “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”.The Tetradimensional model for Behavior Analysis provides a working structure that allows us to determine, assess as well as actively improve our dogs’ health understood in a broad and holistic manner. It does not make sense to rely on models for behavior analysis and training which are not valid tools to improve the health of our canine learners given that taking care of their health is one of our most immediate and inescapable responsibilities.
The tetradimensional behavior intervention (TBI)
The knowledge and analysis of behavior is a necessary requirement to be able to modify such behavior in a consistent, safe and sound way for the dog, which is our ultimate objective as dog trainers, shared also by other professionals specializing in the management and improvement of canine behavior.
The Tetradimensional Behavior Intervention (TBI) consists of any intervention aimed at modifying the dog’s behavior in a certain direction and with a certain objective relying on the Tetradimensional Behavior Analysis (TBA) as the baseline and using both the adequate evolution of the dimensional values corresponding to the behaviors and the observable behaviors finally exhibited by the dog as the tools to do the job and to assess its progression and success.
Training -either for handling and living with a dog, or for the sake of carrying out any special form of training for working dogs or sport dogs- , behavior modification and the treatment of social, emotional or cognitive problems can all be structured as Tetradimensional Behavior Interventions (TBIs) with the only need to apply specific protocols of interventions for each of these different areas.
With the Tetradimensional Behavior Interventions we have the possibility to plan training that not only achieves or eliminates certain behaviors from a dog’s repertoire, but also contributes to learners starting to consider the alternative adaptive behavior as valuable in itself thus decreasing the appeal of inadequate behaviors.