EDUCAN and Dognition, towards a new technology of behavior. Cognitive technology, of course!

As dog trainers we are behavior technologists. Hence, we need to have a technology that translates the raw knowledge acquired by basic scientists into tools which are applicable to the education of our canine learners on a daily basis.

However, the technology available in the dog world was developed within a dated framework which is now under strain and needs to be overcome. Despite being effective it precludes us from exploiting the new discoveries and from offering services of a higher quality.

The science of behavior has changed its focus in recent years. It used to be limited to observable conducts whereas now it pays prominent attention to the study of the cognitive processes underlying such behaviors.

A further change concerns the fact that behavior analysis used to focus on general learning processes, those which are common to a majority of animal species. In contrast it has now started paying attention to the learning capacities peculiar to each species and even to each individual within a given species.

Finally, since dogs had not awaken the interest of researchers focusing on behavior, their way of acting used to be inferred on the basis of comparisons with other species, either rats and pigeons studied in laboratories or wolves observed in a natural environment. Nevertheless, in recent years dogs have been exhaustively studied with regard to their cognitive skills, both individual and social, as well as in relation to their communicative abilities and their way of interacting with humans.

At the end of the 1990’s EDUCAN started to develop a new technology of behavior designing protocols and intervention guidelines that took advantage of this wealth of new scientific knowledge available. Since then we have being making a sustained effort and, of course, my new book , “Your Dog Thinks and Loves You” further progresses in the same direction.

At that time those scientists working in the field were changing the way we understood dogs but did not show too much interest regarding the practical application of their discoveries. Today this has changed too and Dognition is the stepping stone in this line of research.

Dognition is a website cofounded by Brian Hare who is the author of “The Genius of Dogs” and the Director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center. Within its panel of experts Dognition counts with some of the leading researchers on canine cognition. Its objective is to offer owners custom results about their dog’s cognition. This is done by proposing games that owners can play with their dogs in the comfort of their own homes.

Dognition is thus developing technology for cognitive assessment, an effort that dovetails nicely with EDUCAN’s mission: the development of technology that allows the provision of cognitive training and education.

To better understand the importance of Dognition’s technological contributions, consider the example below. My colleague Javier Moral, Dean of Studies at EDUCAN, and I teach our training courses. However, our way to prepare the materials for the class differs widely. Javier’s intelligence, on the one hand, is very visual and so there are plenty of colors, arrows, overall views and other graphic representations in his notes. On the other hand, mine are totally different because I focus on words to learn. Thus, I summarize, create overviews and phrase the contents that I have to explain to students in alternative ways. Doubtless, if one of us had to prepare for the class with the notes of the other, it would be an ordeal and our performance would certainly be inferior. However, neither of us is more intelligent than the other. Simply put, our cognitive skills are different and, here is the bottom line, the working methodology needs to be in consonance with such peculiarities to make the utmost of the cognitive capacities of each one of us.

Likewise, we are aware that our children do not learn in the same manner. Hence in order to help them develop their full potential we identify activities where they excel and wisely combine them with others that contribute to develop weaker areas. We should do the same with our dogs.

However, the currently available training technology only offers (offered ) resources that serve to exploit general cognitive skills, those which are common to many species. Such strategy may provide quality tools when we want to teach circus skills or merely mechanical and repetitive routines. However, such tools are barely sufficient to provide an integral education for our dogs and at any rate they are suboptimal. This is particularly evident with regard to individuals belonging to breeds that diverge from the average standard on one side or the other. Good trainers are capable of deviating from the general rules to adjust to the needs of each individual learner. However, when they engage in this process trainers lack any technical criterion or, for that matter, any objective tools for the assessment of progress. In sum, they are solely relying on their talent which is clearly unsatisfactory.

This is the reason why Dognition and EDUCAN have come together in a project that fills both parties with hope. Its aim is to develop a new behavior technology that, in the first place, evaluates objectively and clearly how each dog learns, and then, to propose protocols and technical tools that suit each custom assessment.

And, since I know my followers well and I feel that you are about to ask it, I will tell you before you do. Yes, we are working on the translation of our websites and the rest of the information to the other party’s language.

This will not only lead to a new understanding of how to train dogs but it will also change our mind frame with regard to how we live together with dogs. Through training we will be able to help dogs blossom, live full and integrated lives, thus ultimately becoming happier.

A new and brighter era is dawning in the training and education of dogs world.

Share Button

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

Share Button

Welcome to “The Green Box”

Hello everyone

LA CAJA VERDE (The Green Box) is a space to share my insights and analysis after twenty years of studying, training and working with behavioral problems in dogs and cats.

On a conceptual level, I will comment on all activities and ideas related to knowing and managing the social, affective and cognitive engines of the species mentioned, especially when they can influence or be influenced by the relationship with people.

I will also gather and propose ways and means to implement and optimize the commercial training practice, and the training of the trainers, which I have done professionally for nineteen and eleven years respectively.

Finally, I will touch less directly on other issues related to the above, such as service and/or therapy dogs, sport work in its various forms, choice of training material

I suppose that if you have come here, it is because you are interested in something that I have mentioned, I hope you like the content of this blog and thanks for visiting LA CAJA VERDE.

Share Button