About wolves and dogs

In the world of training there are some questions that reemerge from time to time giving rise to enthusiastic opinions on both sides. One of these topics is the reliance on comparisons between dogs and wild wolves.

The controversy is currently on fire in Biology and I intend to explain its state of affairs in the present article so that readers are able to ground their personal opinions on a more scientific basis. I will attempt to be brief, though I have to recognize that I am seldom successful in that regard.

Not so long ago wolves and dogs were deemed to be two different species from the taxonomic stand. Taxonomy groups animals into families, genus, species and so on depending on how close to one another they are thought to be. In order to assess this evolutionary proximity, morphological/anatomic similarities and differences (i.e., form and structure) were typically taken into consideration. Such classification method required some guess work and heavily depended on the analysts’ sagacity to interpret the observations made. By using these yardsticks, dogs (canis familiaris) were separated from wolves (canis lupus).

The classification methodology just described has changed due to developments in the study of the genome. DNA studies have caused reconsideration of many different species and substantial reorganization of their taxonomy. Conclusive data support the conclusion that dogs belong to the lupus species. Hence the most relevant organization in the world dealing with taxonomy (i.e., Integrated Taxonomic Information System –ITIS- and Mammals Species of the World) currently classify dogs as canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of wolves.

Does this mean that dogs are tantamount to wolves and that we can draw a strict parallelism between them? The answer is no.

Ethology has proven that ecology determines behavior. Thus, for instance, Iberian wolves (canis lupus signatus) live in small packs composed of an adult couple and one or two offsprings. There are seven individuals at most in these packs, what leads to simple and relatively primitive social interactions compared to, for instance, arctic wolves (canis lupus arctos) whose packs can reach thirty individuals. The size of the pack determines crucial aspects like home range and prey size.

Ecology has an important influence on hunting techniques. Iberian wolves practice stalking and hunting raids, depending on the type of prey they are after, whereas other lupus subspecies do not make use of such techniques.

Let me quote from Signatus.org:

“Usually when they attack flocks of domestic animals wolves stalk in a coordinated manner. When confronted with the obstacle of shepherd dogs, one of the wolves will let himself or herself be seen in order to lure the dogs’ attention. When the prey consists of rabbits, one or several wolves will beat the area while the rest observe, usually close to the access of the hutch where the rabbits will flee when they are pursued.”

Also available at: faunaiberica.org and animalesenextincion.es

In sum, the behavior of wolves is far from uniform. Furthermore, in relation to dogs we ought to take account of the domestication process. After the experiments carried out by Belíayev, we know domestication has changed dogs’ way of learning as well as their relationship with the environment.

Belíayev worked with silver foxes, a species used in the fur industry. By selecting for tameness the Russians wanted to obtain specimens who would be easier to manipulate, in order to cut costs down. After a few generations they obtained foxes who could be easily manipulated and who were friendly with humans. It was also found that tamed animals had improved skills for learning through operant conditioning, higher social plasticity, lower instinctive rigidity and a decreased cognitive confrontation of problems (Beliáyev 1969, 1979, 1981, 1982). On a different note, the story had a happy end for the wolves since due to a change in the color and patterns of the fur they were considered useless for the industry.

These differences regarding tameness and living environments lead all scientists to agree that dogs and wolves are two different etho-species. In simpler words, they differ in their behavior. In fact, due to the existence of such outstanding behavioral differences more and more ethologists are arguing in favor of a different way of classifying species on the basis of whether they have followed a different course of evolution, as it is the case with wolves and dogs, as well as with Right whales in the North Atlantic and the Pacific regions.

Taking these criteria into consideration the ICZN and the ITIS currently admit the term canis familiaris as a valid synonim of canis lupus familiaris for the purpose of scientific works, articles and communications.

Summing up, today we know that dogs are a subspecies of the wolf, given their genetic proximity, but that they are a different etho-species because of their ecology (constantly lying on a sofa in our living room while our children cuddle them) and the process of domestication has had a dramatic impact on their conduct, setting their own course of evolution, one that differs from any of the other members of the lupus genus. Therefore, it is correct to make comparisons between dogs and wolves to obtain data, but a strict parallelism is not possible since it would neglect prominent differences.

As it is usually the case, it’s neither black nor white.

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Benefits of stress (II)

WARNING: This is an extremely long article, one of those my webmaster bitterly complains about!

In a previous article I analyzed the general benefits of working with stress. As Fernando Silva commented then, if we are unable to teach our own dogs to work with little doses of stress and to manage them correctly, our hands will be tied for training other people’s dogs in commercial works, behavior modifications or, for that matter, to train high quality conducts for dog sports.

Bottom line: If we cannot handle the low level of stress caused by confining our dogs in the car for a couple of hours, as Mr. Silva explains, or the stress arising from a trip to a new location, as it happens to those who take part in sport competitions of any kind, or the stress deriving from the implementation of any of the available handling / safety protocols designed for the treatment of fearful dogs or some types of aggressive dogs, or even the stress caused by the learning of a difficult behavior, we will be unable to train most of the times. Thus we will have to renounce to work precisely with those dogs who would benefit the most through an improved quality of life in the medium term.

In sum, it is imperative to teach dogs to manage stress. As a matter of fact this learning produces two main benefits:

  • Dogs will progressively become less stressed out when confronted with the same stimuli or with environments that formerly resulted in high levels of stress.
  • Dogs will no longer appear to be insecure, unstable or nervous when something affects them. Their attitude will change progressively as they become capable of confronting problems in a confident manner.

The first point mentioned above contributes to improving the excessively emotional reactions so characteristic of sensitive dogs (e.g., Border collies or Malinois) when they are challenged with changes in the scenario. Very often these dogs exhibit worry, excessive surprise and even fear in the face of certain changes to the environment. I have witnessed how dogs impeccably trained with fully respectful methods reacted with fear in such circumstances. Facts that novel trainers misinterpreted as meaning that the dog had been mistreated and harshly trained. This was not the case. Simply put, these dogs can be compared to brilliant scientists who are unable to present their work publicly because the crowded atmosphere inhibits their communication skills and make them appear as intellectually clumsy. Thus we need to train their stress management abilities. In order to get there the most common mistake we should avoid is overprotection. As a matter of fact, trainers tend to avoid presenting stressful situations instead of teaching dogs the tools to sort out such situations.

The second point referred to above is even more important because it determines whether dogs will learn to enjoy themselves when confronted with levels of stress sensibly graduated. This effect can be compared to the case of persons growing in the face of adversity. We all agree that there are few feelings that beat the satisfaction stemming from successfully overcoming a difficult task that we perceived as a problem (e.g., the training of a particularly complex exercise, taking part in a tough competition and so on). This implies a dramatically important change in frame of mind for our dogs, from considering a situation as a source of worry to seeing it as a chance to have fun applying the skills they master. The shift depends on the acquisition of mastery in stress management. I think most of the great trainers I have come across do not emphasize their successes as much as how their dogs kept working and growing in the face of adversity, for there are few things as moving as taking part in a competition and, in the most difficult situation, noticing how your dog increases in implication and tenacity.

As a matter of fact, the benefits deriving from good stress management are so important that some researchers have devised ways to replicate stressful experiences while taking the associated risks away, so as to improve performance and learning punctually. These stress “simulators” are based on three main yardsticks:

  • Arousal levels: Stress always implies an increase in the degree of physical activation. Thus if we manage to increase the level of arousal over the regular thresholds we will be able to rip improvements in attention, reaction times as well as in the skills to discriminate relevant information. The best part is that this can be achieved without any of the risks associated with actual stressful events. It suffices to start by exercising dogs a bit to speed their physiology up. This simple intervention substantially improves performance, self-satisfaction and welfare.
  • Novelties in the environment: The introduction of anything new under the sky triggers a minimum amount of adaptive stress. By presenting novelties to dogs in an intentional and calculated manner we can improve their capacity to adapt, their attention skills, their sustained concentration and all of the benefits already commented in the first part of this article. And without risks. Thus researchers found that automatic improvements in the ability to analyze problems, better results and a decrease of distractions followed by simply changing the workplace of various workers.
  • A break from routine: Routines calm and eliminate stress. When researchers changed the routines of several workers, thereby increasing their stress levels, a very interesting effect emerged. At the beginning all workers claimed that the change would be detrimental to their work and their performance, as it was bothering to change their customary way of doing things. However, after a period working out of the routine, the results achieved in terms of performance, time and quality of the work showed improvements. Even more surprising, the workers’ feelings of satisfaction had also increased. This can be a temporary effect aimed at eliminating the possibility of suffering residual stress. After a change of routine the return to the normal situation prevents the stress from building up residually and having negative effects.

By using these three principles we will set good foundations for stress management, something that will allow us to reap the benefits without incurring the losses of stress.

But watch out! These three simulators are so effective –remember the close link between stress and amusement- that those who rely on them on a frequent basis can become addicted (do not forget that stress leads to the production of endorphins) and may lose the motivation to work without stress. This explains cases of workaholism, persons who need a permanently high level of arousal, novelties and new challenges to feel good. They are on drugs!

It also explains why so many Agility dogs seem to show extremely high levels of stress during the events. Recently a friend of mine who competes in Agility commented the case of her Border collie with me. She did not understand why the stress levels were so high in the field. He was a couch potato at home and walked and played in the countryside several days per week, as a normal dog. The social structure at home was also normal, he got along well with the other dogs, and my friend had always trained and treated him with respect. The reason for this behavior is that Agility is an unintentional but brutal stress simulator: high level of physical activation, environmental changes (competitors often go to different fields in a matter of weeks) and changes in routines (each field differs from the rest). This is why Agility tends to generate addiction. In these cases the solution is not to prevent the dog from activating, something that cannot realistically be achieved, but to teach the dog to manage the stress from the beginning so that it does not start building up in the course of different competitions and training sessions. That kind of stress is similar to that exhibited by people who lose their heads for a hobby, as it is more closely related to excitement in anticipation of the amusing experience than to any negative experience!

How to manage stress in these peculiar exciting environments will be the topic of the last part of this trilogy. I hope you are enjoying this saga about the benefits of stress for dog training and their general quality of life, always provided it is adequately managed.

 

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The benefits of stress

Last year a modest soccer team, Alcorcón, gave Real Madrid a proper ticking-off. Alcorcón won 4-0 and a new idiom was coined in Spanish language to celebrate the event: “el Alcorconazo”. Analysts agreed that one of the main reasons for this unusual defeat was that Real Madrid was too relaxed, whereas their rivals did their best. In fact, people blamed Real Madrid players for not being sufficiently stressed, unlike their rivals, and ready to confront the competition.

It is typical that whenever we speak about stress in relation to dog training, or more generally in relation to dogs, we emphasize its negative consequences. However, we regularly forget to mention the numerous benefits stemming from this adaption mechanism. Due to this biased view stress is becoming one of those “evils”, full of harmful consequences, something necessary to avoid at any price.

However, research has shown the many benefits of stress when it is correctly managed. In fact, if stress was not beneficial it would not have developed as an adaptive mechanism in the first place. It exists because it works and it helps in the assessment of many different situations and in dealing with them.

Nowadays we know that stress is not only convenient but essential in order to succeed in sports and to achieve artistic creation, that it enhances enjoyment and eliminates the dependency from external reinforcers, and that it is an indispensable element for personal growth in each of us.

We should take into account that stress is an individual and internal process. Its causality can be modified, thus there is no fix relationship between cause and effect: what stresses some dogs, may leave others unaffected. To put it in more simple words: Stress is not something that happens TO the dog, but something that happens IN the dog. It is important to bear this consideration in mind while training and not to consider those factors generating stress as if they were fixed. Stressors are dynamic and that is why one of the worst strategies to deal with them is to systematically avoid all stressful situations. This way the dog will progressively become more and more sensitive, and hence the stress response will progressively be triggered by stimuli of a lesser magnitude.

But then, how should dog guardians deal with stress? Given that it is an internal process which can be modified, the most useful and effective strategy consists of teaching dogs to manage it so that they will not trigger the stress response in relation to stimuli which do not represent an actual danger. This progress has a great potential for alleviating the situation of dogs with phobias and those who are particularly sensitive.

Once the dog has learnt how to manage the stress, we will not just be able to avoid its detrimental effects, but also to exploit its many benefits.

Stress has several benefits for dog training provided it is correctly managed:

  • Strong implication and compromise with the work. The dog enjoys the activities to the maximum.
  • Self-reinforcement, due to the correct activation of stress mechanisms the dog experiences the activity as reinforcing in itself, what makes the use of external reinforcers superfluous.
  • The dog has more fun because enjoyment is directly linked with stress. Most of the activities that we find enjoyable give rise to stress too (eustress), and this relationship holds also in the opposite sense: we enjoy those stimuli that trigger eustress in us.
  • Reduced latency (i.e., increased speed), the responses offered under stress are faster and more assertive.
  • Attention training, stress contributes to focusing all the attention on important issues. As a consequence there will be automatic improvements in relation to:
    • Concentration.
    • Skills to ignore trivial stimuli unimportant for the task.
  • Improvements in resilience, defined as the capacity to resist stressful situations without suffering negative effects and to overcome such situations positively. In other words, it seems that it is necessary to train with stress in order to avoid its negative effects.
  • Dogs develop the feeling of controlling the situation at issue, and hence the negative elements that they may encounter are managed proactively and perceived as something that they can overcome. As a result they become more self-confident.

However, in order to exploit these benefits without falling into the negative side, it is crucial to be very strict in fulfilling the following requirements:

  • Provide a clear and quick response to the stressful event, the solution to the situation should be immediate and easy to reach for the dogs, either because they know it perfectly or because they can easily deduct it.
  • Provide only short activation periods. If we extend the working session for too long two results are likely, either the beneficial effects will disappear or the dog will become “addicted” to working under stress and we will not be able to do without it to maintain the quality of the training. In both cases we will face the problems we already know stress causes.
  • Provide enough time and leisure activities for the dog to recover. Stress is designed to provide its benefits when it is activated for brief periods of time and occasionally. Therefore, it is very important to allow the dog go back to normal after the activation period. One simple way to do this is to let dogs practice their favorite activities (e.g., running in the countryside off-leash).
  • Ensure the good physical condition of the dog so that the additional arousal does not give rise to tensions or muscular problems that prevent the dog from enjoying it. Stress is physically exhausting. Therefore, no benefit will be achieved if the dog is sick or in poor physical condition.
  • Activate your dog only occasionally, not in every single training session. It is quite easy to be tempted to forget this recommendation after witnessing the many and important benefits deriving from stress, both for the training and for the general quality of life. A skilful trainer may obtain high performance from dogs at the price of making them addicted to stress. However, any benefits for the quality of life of the dog will completely vanish and the stress will show its detrimental side.
  • Autonomy, the results of combining stress with a strict training style where even the smallest mistakes are immediately corrected are devastating. For the dog to feel control over the situation and the stress to have benefits it is of paramount importance that the responses are perceived with a certain degree of leeway, not as something exact and that cannot be changed.

The benefits of stress are becoming so popular that some interesting models for simulating stress are being proposed. This would allow us to reach the benefits without taking the associated risks. I had included the explanation of these models (as well as its tentative application to dogs) in the original draft of this article but my webmaster reckons that my articles should not be longer than two pages and you have already read three. Hence, I will publish this as a second part in a few weeks. Hope you enjoy it!

I promise you that I will write about our work at the Zoo soon. However, I owed this article about stress to Eliseo Rodríguez

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Not only dogs: Now also sea lions, parrots and dolphins

Hi everyone,

In a previous post I hinted that we were on the verge of closing a very important agreement for EDUCAN. Today I can finally announce that the project is already on its feet!

We have signed an agreement with ZOOS IBÉRICOS, an entity that belongs to Parques Reunidos which is the company that owns more zoos and aquariums all over the world. The purpose of the agreement is to implement our cognitive-emotional training methodology with various species. We will start with sea lions, parrots and dolphins at the Madrid Zoo.

Since I am thrilled with the project I would easily exceed the limits of the post. To prevent it, I will just quote the section of the agreement with ZOOS IBÉRICOS referring to this partnership. I have edited the document just adding bold characters to emphasize what I believe are the most relevant pieces of information. This will also please my “webmaster of the universe” who always insists on me to use bold characters to emphasize important passages in blog articles.

OBJECT OF THE AGREEMENT

The main object of the partnership between the two parties to the present agreement is to design, implement and evaluate the results of the application of new training protocols for various species. For this purpose the main yardsticks will be the three pillars of the cognitive-emotional training methodology: (1) the exploitation of the cognitive skills of each species, (2) the assessment of their emotional state, and (3) the understanding of their unique social behavior patterns.

This main objective can be broken down in two different operational aims:

1. Improved animal welfare:

The new protocols will pursue the improvement in the quality of life and working conditions of the animals. Regarding the choice of behaviors, both parties agree to give priority to animal welfare over other considerations like the appeal to the public and how spectacular the chosen conducts seem to be.

According to recent ethological findings animals generate conduct differently depending on whether they are in an environment where they have to fight for survival (i.e., scenarios characterized by predatory risks, resource scarcity or the need of an active defense of the territory) or in a welfare environment (i.e., scenarios where there are plenty of resources and no foreseeable risks for the animal).

Most of the current training techniques, including many of those relying on positive reinforcement processes, are based on the survival environment paradigm, what worsens the results even with animals who enjoy an optimal quality of life.

One of the main technical and ethical purposes of this partnership is to develop working protocols based on the way animals generate conduct in welfare environments. This means that animals will not work driven by the need to ensure their survival but solely by the motivation to improve their physical, emotional and social welfare.

2. Research:

The aim is to apply state-of-the-art knowledge on ethological issues to animal training, as well as to evaluate the results deriving from this implementation.

The present project is pioneer in:

a. Exploiting the cognitive processes known in each species for the purpose of training animals. Until now operant conditioning has been the main working tool for animal trainers. Operant conditioning has the advantage of being applicable to all of the species typically involved in animal training programs. However, cognitive ethology has proven that different species can have various mental processes like problem solving, learning by imitation (as shown in Pepperberg’s rival model in relation to psittacidae). […] “[B]y taking advantage of these specific capabilities the quality of the work will increase. Since many of the referred cognitive processes are self-reinforcing, their use drastically reduces the need to rely on external sources of reinforcement and helps attaining more consistent conducts while improving the emotional state of the animals. In other words, animals enjoy offering the behaviors and see them as goals in themselves rather than as mere gates of access to food (i.e., the normal state of affairs when primary extrinsic reinforcers are relied upon). Cognitive processes have the further advantages of allowing self-assessment to animals and improving their intrinsic reinforcement capabilities.

A further advantage of the new methodology is that training sessions will work as environmental enrichment interventions thereby improving animal welfare. In addition, fewer sessions will be needed to maintain the behaviors, the improvements will be achieved faster and the quality of the work will be more solid.

b. Evaluating and fine-tuning the emotional state of animals during training sessions and shows, decreasing their levels of distress and improving stress management by trained animals, promoting positive emotional states in them and developing reliable instruments for tracking emotional welfare in trained animals.

c. Developing protocols to take advantage of those social processes characteristic of the species, like affective bonding, so that the interaction between animals and trainers in the course of the working sessions and exhibitions becomes a desirable and self-reinforcing objective. Nowadays we know that affection is an important drive in many species of social mammals. Notwithstanding the fact that many trainers have exploited these aspects intuitively for a long time, this working methodology has not been tested in a systematic and scientific manner. Thus one of the objectives of this partnership is to create protocols for those species covered by the project.”

…and a last excerpt from this agreement: “one of the tasks entrusted to EDUCAN consists of:

– Designing protocols, schemes and working techniques for different species.”

Overall, it constitutes a VERY exciting project which is going to demand lots of work from us (probably we will have to restrict some commercial activities to be able to sleep once in a while). However, it is a huge step towards the long due paradigm update in relation to animal training.

I am very grateful to Miguel Bueno Brinkmann, biologist and head curator of birds and sea mammals at the Madrid Zoo, and Pablo Roy, head trainer for sea lions at the same institution, for their interest and invaluable help in making this project come true.

I AM DEFINITELY THRILLED

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Training in welfare environments (I)

In a previous article I commented about welfare or comfort signals which can be used to evaluate how dogs are feeling. My topic today regards one of the main pillars of our work: the different learning and conduct generation that dogs exhibit depending on whether they are in a survival environment or in a welfare environment.

Given the importance of the topic for the design of training techniques, this will only be an introductory article. Actually the methodologies for teaching and learning vary dramatically between both scenarios. An adequate understanding of the underlying relationships will enable us to make a systematic treatment of the mechanisms that guarantee that dogs enjoy working, as well as to replicate the training, without excessively relying on the talent of either the dog or the trainer.

First, I need to clarify that working in one type of environment or the other does not determine the quality of the work. In both scenarios we can rely on either positive or negative stimuli to promote learning. Then, what is the difference? What varies is the way these stimuli are used.

  • In survival environments animals have no guaranteed access to resources (e.g., food and water) and their safety is not taken for granted either.
  • In welfare environments animals have abundant resources as well as guaranteed security.

As noticed earlier, some species –including dogs and human beings- have a different way of learning and generating behavior depending on whether they are in one kind of environment or the other.

It is important to realize that in welfare scenarios the aim of dogs is to have a good time, increase their welfare, whereas in survival scenarios the aim is to obtain resources crucial for survival and security. The behavior differs and so the learning does.

It is crucial to understand this bifurcation because probably most of us live in a welfare scenario. Let me put an example. Almost certainly some of you have been looking for a particular item, even visiting different shops for days in order to find it. It does not matter what the item in question was, that damned Charlie Patton Yazoo L-1020 record, a particular book or some other thing. Probably when you returned home you found an empty fridge. You probably thought, “I’m exhausted, I don’t feel like going to the supermarket at the moment. I’ll do it tomorrow.” Summing up, we are capable of generating an enormous amount of conduct to get something which is not an actual need and yet we refuse to walk round the corner to buy food, that is, a primary resource crucial for survival. Isn’t it weird? No, it is not. The explanation is simple.

We know that we are not going to starve to death. In fact, we can probably obtain food whenever we want to. Once a primary resource is guaranteed its value as a motivator decreases. In contrast the self-reinforcement value and the extra-quality of life represented by our desired item gains a greater value as a motivator. This is one of the first differences between welfare and survival scenarios. In a welfare environment any thing or event that is self-reinforcing effectively work as positive stimulus, whereas primary stimuli lose effectiveness. In survival scenarios the opposite holds.

A second difference between the two types of scenario regards the way animals manage negative stimuli. For a negative stimulus to trigger conduct in a survival environment, it has to be clearly perceived by the learner. Moreover, if it is to work, it has to give rise to a negative emotional state that warns the animal about a possible risk. In contrast, in a welfare scenario it is much more effective to rely on low intensity negative stimuli. These are capable of interfering with the enjoyment of pleasant activities but without overruling the positive emotional state stemming from the latter. As a consequence, dogs will generate a great amount of conduct to offset the interference to keep enjoying the pleasant activity. This is the reason why it is so effective to introduce minor bothers in shaping sessions (e.g., attaching a post-it or a rubber band to the dog). This strategy also helps dogs to confront problems and teaches them to manage stress.

It is important to know that we cannot jump from one kind of environment to the other at will. We have to choose one of the two categories for each kind of work and be coherent henceforth. If you plan to rely exclusively on food as a reinforcer, it is better to propose a survival environment, because then food will have greater value and the learning obtained will be more consistent and of a higher quality. On the other hand, if your dog has a great time solving problems and experiences training as an aim in itself, pick up a welfare environment.

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Training facial expressions

A few days ago a colleague of mine commented to me about the difficulties she was facing in finding new suitable conducts for practicing free shaping with her dog. On the one hand, the dog knew so many conducts that it was far from easy to think of a new one. On the other hand, the number of choices was further limited by physical ailments since the dog was old and suffered from hip dysplasia. Thus my friend was afraid that her dog would be deprived of this joyful source of mental activity precisely when it was most needed.
Let me clarify from the outstart that my favorite mental activation task is not the practice of free shaping but rather problem solving. Nevertheless, I was sorry to learn that my friend and her dog were no longer able to keep on practicing the exercises that they both had enjoyed in the past.

I know what many of you would have said in my position: just be creative. I told her the same, though the tough part was to find new conducts. No matter what I proposed, this dog knew how to do it. Being creative is not that easy!

What girls! They really knew everything from A to Z. That is, until I mentioned the training of facial expressions. In my opinion facial expressions is the most challenging group of conducts one can train with a clicker and, for the same reason, the one that is more helpful for trainers who want to improve their skills.

Facial expressions can be broken down into three independent units: eye expressions, position of the ears and of the lips. Some people choose to include the head position too but, compared to the other three units, this is much simpler to capture. Thus trainers can spend many hours focusing on one of the three branches and, subsequently, merging different combinations of them. As a by-product of this intensive practice trainers will find that they become much more skillful and can capture conducts involving bigger muscles effortlessly.

Where should you start? Follow a gradual task approach and start with someting rather simple like squinting the eyes. This will take you a while because prompting and capturing conducts that depend upon such small muscles is a sui generis practice indeed. One could say that facial expressions within the free shaping domain compare to neurovascular surgery in the context of hippocampus-amygdala surgery, such is the degree of precision and finesse required.

Once you hace succeeded in scanning the eyes, try to capture an upward movement of the lips. Complete the exercise shaping the conduct of folding back the ears. But remember that you are not allowed to press on your dog to get results.

So far so good? Next step, you can create different conducts singling out isolated elements or combining them in groups of two or three. This is only the beginning for now you can start teaching different actions involving each one of the three expression units referred to above, eyes, ears and lips. Try to capture the behavior of moving the eyes downward or upward, not the head just the eyeballs. Next, scan the forward motion of the lips as if your dog was about to say “wuf!”. Try to shape tense lips, ears up …

Finally, combine all the pieces of conduct to create different facial expression puzzles. It will take you many months before you run out of options. Who said thad dog trainers cannot play with Mr Potato? A further advantage of these calm conducts is that they suit all dogs, also old ones like my friend´s.

If you are a clicker star we also have an advanced level, you know, the sort of things one is advised not to try at home without first consulting a professional. Do you think you can manage to shape a different expression in each side of your dog’s face? Try scanning one eye open while the other remains closed, an ear up and the other down, or half of the lip up, as if your dog was about to growl, while the other half is relaxed. If you are good enough your dog will be offered a juicy Hollywood contract starring as two face’s best friend, one of the villains in the Batman movie saga.

Once you have completed the training give me a call for I will be envious, though I am pretty sure that by that time there will be 15 videoclips with 300 different facial expressions uploaded in youtube by former agility world champion Pere Saavedra. C’est la vie…

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Learning and thinking through mental images (and II)

Thinking through images is faster and more fixed than doing it through symbols, however it is less refined and precise.

This is clearly seen with an example: if we think of digital watches and watches with hands*, it is quicker to recognize the time on the image based one (hands), with one look we know what time it is, whereas when we look at the numbers on a digital clock we need a longer glance and greater mental effort. Instead the information that the mental image gives us is less accurate, we will often respond to the person who asked the time with phrases like “ten past”, while the digital will give us highly exact information like “and twelve “. This shows us that the way we receive and process information is very different in dogs and in humans. Dogs, because of their thinking through mental images, are faster in receiving information and, consequently, in their response to this information.

This speed is a problem for us, we need much more time to set our heavy mental machinery in motion, and dogs often go ahead of us during training and respond to situations that we are just beginning to consider. If we do not take into account this difference in speed, we find ourselves in very frustrating situations with ineffective training.

* Of course, the hands are also symbolic because they represent data of another nature, but learning to read it is clearly visual and results in the construction of a consistent mental image that practically all people share (as the image of the finger to the mouth to ask for silence, our response in shutting up is faster when people make this gesture to us than if they ask us in words in which we take a few seconds to process).

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Education vs. Training

In some cases, dogs that compete in complex training disciplines with a high level of results are extremely awkward companions, it being very difficult to live with them, which relegates them to a life in kennels or other spaces outside the nuclear family. Why is this? Why would a dog that gets very high scores in complex obedience exercises not be well integrated into the social group in harmony? It is certainly true that in many of these individuals, a strong character and a very high level of activity is selected that make their management more complex.

But this, which is a good reason why these dogs give problems to novice owners, should not justify the fact that expert trainers who know, seek and prepare these dogs are not achieving normal coexistence for them.

The main reason for this situation is the confusion between learning and education, training typically uses learning processes (normally operant conditioning or cognitive processes) that make the dog motorize its behaviors based on motivations of a purely individual interest. Education is a different process that must be addressed from a different perspective.

Education is a special type of learning (or a combination of multiple types of learning) that aims to correct integration, maturity and effectiveness of individuals in their social group. You must therefore use affection, common goals and another series of characteristics needed in the balanced adult.

Education is especially important in altricial animals, as long childhoods mean a dependence on the mother and other members of the group for a relatively long period of time. Thus a training model that does not take into account the relationships of the puppy with his/her social group is not only less effective but very likely to lead to dysfunctional adults.

To achieve these objectives, education must meet a number of specific assumptions, knowledge of which is particularly interesting for us in order to know how to integrate the dog into our home environment as well as possible. Training and education must go hand in hand to obtain a social and manageable animal.

If the dog is bred in company- in addition to other people-, of social and well-behaved dogs, it allows free and prolonged interaction, it is likely that education is constructed correctly. Nevertheless, only dogs that come into contact with people during childhood may have some shortcomings, either through ignorance or through applying training ideas without sufficient ethological consistency.

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Receiving discreet and graded signals

Although my students of April 2008 onwards have this information in the updates to the book delivered in our courses, several people have told me that it is a largely unknown topic and it was worth making this “cut and paste” job; with my apologies to those who already know the text.

Dogs are animals capable of receiving discreet and graded signals about their environment and social group.

Discrete signals are on/off signals, they have different intensities or the intensity difference is irrelevant to the main message. They are usually related to the emergence of resources or dangers, so the clarity is the most important parameter, not receiving or misinterpreting a signal of this kind can have a serious economic or vital impact for the dog. Discrete signals are usually related to events of interest that are outside the social group.

Graded signals are those subject to variations in shape and/or intensity according to the emotional state of the issuer. They are the most used within the social group and allow interactive situations between two subjects. For this reason, they are the most important for coexistence.

Perhaps one of the most harmful effects on the education of the dogs that are derived from the vision of training as a sum of operative conditioning is “untraining” dogs to receive and evaluate the graded signals, the dog that limits itself to assessing the information coming from its social partners in black and white, will be an incompetent member of the group and will have difficulty establishing subtle relationships with its guide, it is taught to ignore signals not directly related to good or bad. What may be very beneficial at the beginning of training for its clarity, so that the dog learns new actions is not very useful when handling a trained dog, which is enriched with the nuances of the information that it receives from its guide.

To train it may be sufficient to use discrete signals, to educate we need the dog to enhance its nature to receive graded signals, as this will increase its ability to act properly in the family setting. Social mammals are particularly prepared for receiving and sending graded signals, as this allows an animal to know if their behavior is met with some joy, with some anger (or a lot) and to grade its social actions to which each individual in the group, in every situation, is receptive. So, the dog must learn to receive and send messages to the rest of the group with different levels.

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Wellbeing or comfort behaviors

Today we know that many animals, once their survival needs are covered, look to improve their wellbeing or comfort (Korttland 1940 makes the pursuit of comfort in animals explicit). The discovery of this characteristic showed us that the way of generating behavior -both social and individual-, and the learning of animals that have secure resources (food, water, resting place …) in sufficient quantity and quality and that also live in continually safe conditions is different from those without these guarantees. Thus we have the same species showing differences in their ethology as found in an ecological niche in the struggle for survival or pursuit of wellbeing.

There are a number of behaviors or movements that are indicators that a dog is in a state of wellbeing (Baerends 1960 coined the term “comfort movements”). The appearance of these behaviors on a frequent basis is an indicator of the quality of life and mental and emotional health of the dog, more reliable than the absence of signs of appeasement or the active pursuit of external reinforcements. Among the comfort or wellbeing behaviors of the dog are playing (social or individual), invitations to play, “wallowing” in the grass, resting upside down with the paws in the air, resting in open places instead of corners or closed places, seeking contact with the paws or nose, an “expansive” attitude, movement with jumps and sharp turns …. If these attitudes are continued and common, our dog will be in the optimal situation: its behavioral objectives will be intended mainly to “enjoy life” and not to fight for survival. Obviously a dog in a state of wellbeing will be able to enjoy training and living with us to a greater degree.

One of the characteristics of the comfort movements is that a large number of cases have no communicative purpose, a dog can wallow in grass without anyone watching it and of course when sleeping one way or another it makes no attempt to inform anyone of anything, of course if another dog or a person with knowledge sees it, they will know that it is happy and relaxed, respectively, but compared to behaviors of appeasement or aggression that are always made to transmit information to another individual, comfort movements do not necessarily have this informative objective, except in those cases where it wants to share its wellbeing by inviting us to play well!

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Learning and thinking through mental images (introduction)

Unlike we humans, dogs do not have a linguistic code that allows them to mentally operate with symbols (words) that represent things. We must therefore assume that they operate with sensory mental imagery (uni-sensory or multi-sensory) of those things that they know or learn. This is what makes our work most difficult, their way of thinking is totally different to ours, only some mildly autistic people (e.g Temple Grandin) who have the inability to think with words can tell us what the mental experience of working with sensory images is like. We can take a lot about how dogs really think from their experiences.

Much of our extraordinary ease in thinking about complex things come from our ability to encode information in symbolic form and process these symbols in our heads instead of directly using mental images, to illustrate this I would like to give the reader a little exercise: mentally evoke the image of a person you know, do not think of their name just picture them, ok, now imagine that they are riding a horse, when it gets there imagine that this horse, with your friend in the saddle, is jumping a fence. Well, if you did the exercise you may have noticed that, as more elements were incorporated into your visualization, it was more and more difficult and the image was not all as accurate as it could have been. Now think of the name of your friend and mentally repeat the phrase: Fulanito riding a horse and jumping a hedge. This really has not taken much effort, as these images have become symbols, processing them is easy, fast and restful. Dogs operate in the first, more laborious way.

Handling symbols is a way to optimize the computing capacity of the brain, this is what makes computers so smart: with a binary combination of simple symbols (zeros and ones) they can perform a lot of very complex mental processes. Why does this happen?When you think of images your brain has to devote a lot of effort to build the image: You must put some kind of clothing on your friend, think of a color for the horse, the shape and arrangement of the hedge, even though I did not request any of this, you need to do it to build the image, however this effort is not necessary to symbolize it in words, we don’t need to know the clothes, the color of the horse or any other data except the minimum that I have asked: Fulanito riding a horse and jumping a hedge. Dogs do not have this ability to translate symbols, thereby minimizing the amount of information relevant to that time, so their thinking is slower and requires a significant amount of sensory memories.

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