Dominancia – dar sentido a lo que no lo tiene!

Traducido por Natalia Cuadrado y Isabel Ferrer (from the original in English Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense).

El tema de la dominancia se nos ha ido de las manos. Solo hay una cosa más absurda e inútil que molestarse en demostrar que la dominancia existe, y es el intento de demostrar que la dominancia no existe. Yo voy a cometer el primero de estos actos inútiles.

 

Dog Language by Roger Abrantes

Las posibles combinaciones de comportamentos agresivos, temerosos, dominates y sumisos en los caninos sociales (de “Dog Langauge” de Roger Abrantes, ilustración protegida por copyright de Alice Rasmussen).

 

Dominancia, en el lenguaje corriente, significa «poder e influencia sobre otros». Quiere decir supremacía, superioridad, predominancia, dominio, poder, autoridad, mando, control. Tiene tantos significados y connotaciones que es difícil saber cómo utilizar la  palabra en tanto término científico preciso aplicado a las ciencias del comportamiento. Además, los científicos que la utilizan (así como los que la repudian) no se han esforzado demasiado por definirla de una manera exacta, lo que ha contribuido a la actual confusión, discusiones sin sentido, desacuerdos y afirmaciones absurdas.

Es mi intención poner remedio a esto, primero demostrando que la dominancia sí existe, y después estableciendo que hace referencia a un mismo tipo de comportamiento, independientemente de la especie en cuestión. A continuación, daré una definición precisa, pragmática y verificable del término, que será compatible con la teoría de la evolución y nuestros conocimientos sobre la biología. Finalmente, expondré que, si bien es cierto que una buena  relación (beneficiosa y estable) no se fundamenta en continuas demostraciones  de dominancia/sumisión por parte de los mismos individuos ante los mismos individuos, eso tampoco implica que la dominancia no exista en perros (y en cualquier otra especie). Negar la existencia de la dominancia en perros se ha convertido en una argumentación muy difundida para afirmar que no debemos construir una relación con nuestros perros basada en la dominancia.

Es absurdo sostener que la dominancia no existe cuando tenemos tantas palabras que describen todo lo relacionado con ella. Si no existiera, no tendríamos siquiera una palabra que hiciera referencia a ella. El hecho de que el término exista quiere decir que la hemos visto a nuestro alrededor. Podemos afirmar que la hemos observado  y que el término (1)  hace referencia únicamente a determinadas relaciones humanas, o que (2) se refiere a determinadas relaciones tanto entre humanos como entre otras especies animales. La segunda opción parece más atractiva, considerando el hecho de que es muy improbable que una condición en particular solo se dé en una única especie. Eso entraría en conflicto con todo lo que sabemos acerca del parentesco entre las especies y su evolución.

Sin embargo, no es descabellado sostener que el término no es aplicable para describir el comportamiento de determinadas especies. Al contrario, dos especies que han evolucionado desde un antepasado común hace billones de años han desarrollado características propias y difieren del antepasado común y entre ellas. De igual modo, especies muy cercanas, que se separaron hace sólo unos miles de años de un antepasado común, pueden presentar  características similares o iguales entre ellas y respecto al antepasado común.  Algunas especies comparten muchos atributos en común relativos al fenotipo, el genotipo y/o la conducta; otras comparten menos, y otras ninguno. Todo depende de su antepasado común y de su adaptación al entorno.

Los seres humanos y los chimpancés (Homo sapiens y Pan troglodytes) se han separado de su antepasado común hace seis millones de años, de manera que podemos esperar que existan más diferencias entre ellos que entre los perros y los lobos (Canis lupus y Canis lupus familiaris), que se separaron de su antepasado común hace sólo unos 15-20 mil años (y de ninguna manera hace más de 100.000 años). Hay más diferencias en el ADN del hombre y el chimpancé que en el del perro y el lobo (que son prácticamente idénticos salvo por unas pocas mutaciones). Los hombres no pueden reproducirse con chimpancés, mientras que los lobos y los perros pueden tener descendencia fértil. Los hombres y los chimpancés son dos especies completamente diferentes. Los lobos y los perros son dos subespecies de la misma especie.

Teniendo en cuenta estos hechos, podemos esperar que los lobos y los perros compartan un gran número de similitudes, cosa que así es, no solo físicas sino también conductuales. Cualquier lego en la materia lo afirmaría. Sus similitudes a uno u otro nivel son lo que les permite cruzarse entre sí, producir descendencia fértil y comunicarse. Nadie ha cuestionado que los lobos y los perros presentan un amplio repertorio de comportamientos de comunicación en común, y con toda la razón, ya que múltiples estudios confirman que son capaces de comunicarse perfectamente. Sus expresiones faciales y posturas corporales son muy parecidas (exceptuando ciertas razas de perros), con pequeñas diferencias que son menores entre sí que las diferencias culturales que podemos encontrar entre poblaciones de seres humanos geográficamente alejadas.

 

Wolf Pack

En una manada estable, los lobos suelen presentar una conducta dominante y sumisa y rara vez una conducta temerosa y agresiva.

 

Si los lobos y los perros pueden comunicarse, podemos concluir que los elementos básicos y determinantes de su lenguaje deben ser los mismos. Esto quiere decir que aunque han evolucionado en ambientes aparentemente diferentes, mantienen los elementos más anclados de sus características genotípicas. Esto puede ser por tres motivos: (1) los genotipos compartidos son vitales para el organismo, (2) los entornos en que viven al fin y al cabo no son tan diferentes, (3) la evolución necesita más tiempo y condiciones más selectivas  (debido a que actúa sobre los fenotipos) antes de que los genotipos cambien de manera radical. La primera razón significa que hay más maneras de no sobrevivir que de sobrevivir, o en otras palabras, que la evolución necesita tiempo para desarrollar formas de vida diferentes y viables; la segunda razón significa que aunque los lobos y los perros (mascotas) viven actualmente en entornos muy diferentes, el fenómeno es todavía reciente. Solo hace unos cien años que los perros están plenamente humanizados. Hasta entonces, eran nuestros compañeros, nuestros animales domésticos, pero todavía tenían un elevado grado de libertad y los factores selectivos exitosos eran básicamente los mismos de siempre. No eran todavía mascotas y la cría no estaba totalmente (o casi totalmente) controlada por la selección humana. La tercera razón  significa que quizás un día (de aquí a un millón de años o más), tendremos dos especies totalmente diferentes, perros y lobos. Para entonces, no podrán cruzarse, no producirán descendencia fértil y presentarán características completamente diferentes. Habrán cambiado el nombre, a quizá llamarse Canis civicus o Canis homunculus. ¡Sin embargo, todavía no hemos llegado a eso!

Según las últimas tendencias, el «comportamiento dominante» no existe en el perro, lo que plantea algunos problemas serios. Hay dos maneras de defender esta idea. Una es desechar el concepto «comportamiento dominante» por completo, lo que es absurdo, por las razones que hemos visto antes: el término existe, sabemos más o menos lo que significa y podemos utilizarlo en una conversación con cierto sentido. Por lo tanto, debe referirse a un tipo de comportamiento que hemos observado. Otra argumentación es afirmar que los lobos y los perros son completamente diferentes y, por lo tanto, incluso aunque podamos aplicar el término para explicar el comportamiento del lobo, no podemos utilizarlo para describir el comportamiento del perro. Si fueran completamente diferentes, la argumentación sería válida, pero no lo son, como ya hemos visto. Por el contrario, son muy parecidos.

Una tercera alternativa es construir una teoría totalmente nueva para explicar cómo dos especies tan cercanas como el lobo y el perro (de hecho, subespecies) pueden haber desarrollado en un periodo de tiempo tan breve (miles de años) tantas características radicalmente distintas en un aspecto, pero no en otros. Esto nos llevaría a llevar a cabo una extensa revisión de todos nuestros conocimientos biológicos, lo que tendría implicaciones que van más allá de los lobos y los perros, y ésa es una alternativa que considero poco realista.

 

English: Saarloos Wolfdog male Polski: Samiec ...

Híbrido de perro-lobo (Imagen via Wikipedia).

 

Una aproximación mucho más atractiva, en mi opinión, es analizar los conceptos que utilizamos y definirlos bien. Así podremos emplearlos con más sentido cuando abordemos las diferentes especies, sin incurrir en incompatibilidades con el mundo científico.

Tener una definición apropiada de «comportamiento dominante» es importante, porque el comportamiento que implica es vital para la supervivencia del individuo, como veremos.

Me parece que es un enfoque pobre desechar la existencia de hechos que  están detrás de un término sólo porque el término está mal definido, por no decir que es políticamente incorrecto (lo que significa que no se ajusta a nuestros objetivos inmediatos). El comportamiento dominante existe, simplemente está mal definido (cuando se define). Muchas discusiones relacionadas con este tema no tienen sentido porque ninguna de las partes sabe exactamente de qué habla la otra. Sin embargo, no es necesario tirarlo todo por la borda. Por lo tanto, propongo definiciones precisas tanto del comportamiento dominante como del resto de términos que necesitamos para entenderlo: qué es, qué no es, cómo ha evolucionado y cómo funciona.

El comportamiento dominante es un comportamiento cuantitativo y cuantificable manifestado por un individuo con el objetivo de conseguir o conservar el acceso temporal a un recurso en particular, en una situación en concreto, ante un oponente concreto, sin que ninguna de las partes resulte herida. Si cualquiera de las partes resulta herida, se trata de un comportamiento agresivo, no dominante. Sus características cuantitativas varían desde un ligero aplomo hasta una clara afirmación de la autoridad.

El comportamiento dominante es contextual, individual y está relacionado con los recursos. Un individuo que manifiesta un comportamiento dominante en una situación específica no necesariamente lo va a mostrar en otra ocasión ante otro individuo, o ante el mismo individuo en una situación distinta.

Los recursos son lo que los organismos perciben como necesidades vitales; por ejemplo, la comida, una pareja reproductiva, o parte del territorio. La percepción de lo que un animal puede considerar un recurso depende de la especie y el individuo.

La agresividad (el comportamiento agresivo) es el comportamiento encaminado a eliminar la competencia, mientras que la dominancia, o la agresividad social, es un comportamiento dirigido a eliminar la competencia de un compañero.

Los compañeros son dos o más animales que conviven estrechamente y dependen el uno del otro para su supervivencia. Los extraños son dos o más animales que no conviven estrechamente y no dependen el uno del otro para sobrevivir.

El comportamiento dominante es especialmente importante para animales sociales que necesitan cohabitar y cooperar para sobrevivir. Por lo tanto, se desarrolló una estrategia social con la función de tratar la competencia entre compañeros con unas desventajas mínimas.

Los animales manifiestan comportamientos dominantes con varias señales: visuales, auditivas, olfativas y/o táctiles.

Mientras que el miedo (una conducta temerosa) es un comportamiento dirigido a eliminar una amenaza inminente, el comportamiento de sumisión, o el miedo social, es un comportamiento orientado a eliminar una amenaza social de un compañero; es decir, la pérdida temporal de un recurso sin que nadie se haga daño.

Una amenaza es todo aquello que puede herir, provocar dolor o lesiones, o disminuir las posibilidades de un individuo de sobrevivir. Una amenaza social es cualquier cosa que pueda producir la pérdida temporal de un recurso y que provoque un comportamiento de sumisión o una huida sin que el individuo sumiso termine lesionado.

Los animales manifiestan el comportamiento de sumisión mediante diferentes señales: visuales, auditivas, olfativas y/o táctiles.

Un comportamiento dominante o sumiso persistente de los mismos individuos puede dar lugar o no a una jerarquía temporal con determinadas configuraciones según la especie, la organización social y las circunstancias del entorno. En los grupos estables que ocupan un territorio definido, las jerarquías temporales se desarrollan más fácilmente. En los grupos inestables, en condiciones del entorno cambiantes, o en territorios no definidos o no establecidos, las jerarquías no se desarrollan. Las jerarquías, o más bien las estrategias implicadas, son Estrategias Estables Evolutivas  (EEE), que son siempre ligeramente inestables, que oscilan constantemente alrededor de un valor óptimo según el número de individuos de cada grupo y las estrategias individuales que cada uno adopta en un momento determinado, Las jerarquías no son necesariamente lineales, aunque en grupos pequeños y con el tiempo, las jerarquías no lineales parecen tender a ser más lineales.

Algunos individuos tienden a mostrar comportamientos dominantes y otros a mostrar comportamientos sumisos. Eso puede depender de su configuración genética, su aprendizaje a una edad temprana, su historial, etc. Eso no significa que lo determine un solo factor, sino que se trata de una compleja mezcla. Llamémoslo tendencia natural, lo que no quiere decir que no sea modificable. Es un hecho que algunos individuos son más autoritarios que otros, mientras que otros son más condescendientes, por muchas razones. No estamos diciendo que esto sea bueno o malo, simplemente exponemos un hecho; que sea bueno o malo —no en un sentido moral— más bien significa que es más o menos ventajoso según el contexto. En los encuentros cara a cara, en condiciones de igualdad, hay más probabilidades de que los individuos adopten la estrategia con la que se encuentran más cómodos, manteniendo por lo tanto su historial de básicamente dominantes o básicamente sumisos.

Cuando están en un grupo de mayor tamaño, tendrán la misma tendencia de desempeñar los roles con los que se sienten más cómodos. Esto puede cambiar, sin embargo, debido a la estructura formada accidentalmente del grupo. Imagina un grupo con varios individuos con una mayor tendencia a tener comportamientos sumisos que dominantes, y con sólo unos pocos individuos con la tendencia opuesta. En una situación así, un individuo por naturaleza sumiso tendrá más posibilidades de acceder a un recurso y tener éxito mostrando un comportamiento más dominante. El éxito genera éxito, y poco a poco, este individuo, que en otras condiciones sería predominantemente sumiso, se encuentra con que es principalmente dominante. Si la situación permite al individuo cambiar su estrategia preferente, los demás también tendrán las mismas oportunidades. El número de individuos dominantes aumentará, pero el número de individuos dominantes que puede sostener un grupo no es ilimitado, porque en un momento dado será más ventajoso asumir el papel de sumiso, según los costes y los beneficios.

Por lo tanto, el número de individuos dominantes y sumisos no sólo depende de la tendencia natural del individuo, sino también de la configuración de los grupos y sus características. Si compensa tener un papel dominante o sumiso  en el fondo es algo que depende de los costes y beneficios y del número de individuos que adoptan una estrategia en particular.

Entender las relaciones entre comportamientos dominantes y sumisos como una EEE (Estrategia Estable Evolutiva) abre perspectivas de lo más emocionantes, que pueden ayudar a explicar los comportamientos adoptados por un individuo determinado en un momento dado. Un individuo sumiso aprenderá a desempeñar el papel de sumiso ante otros individuos más dominantes y el de dominante ante otros más sumisos. Eso significa que ningún individuo es en principio siempre dominante o siempre sumiso; todo depende del contrario y, por supuesto, del valor de los beneficios potenciales y los costes estimados.

Por consiguiente, las jerarquías (cuando existen) siempre serán ligeramente inestables según las estrategias adoptadas por los individuos que forman el grupo. Las jerarquías no son necesariamente lineales y sólo se dan en pequeños grupos o subgrupos.

En opinión de este autor, el error que hemos cometido hasta ahora es considerar la dominancia y la sumisión como algo más o menos estático. No hemos tenido en cuenta que estas características, como los fenotipos y todos los demás rasgos, están constantemente bajo el escrutinio y la presión de la selección natural. Son adaptativas, muy variables y altamente cuantitativas y cuantificables.

Como tal, la dominancia y la sumisión son rasgos dinámicos que dependen de diversas variables, visión que es compatible con el desarrollo del comportamiento a un nivel individual, las funciones genéticas, la influencia del aprendizaje y, cómo no, la teoría de la evolución.

La dominancia y la sumisión son mecanismos maravillosos desde un punto de vista evolutivo. Es lo que permite a los animales (sociales) vivir juntos, sobrevivir hasta que se hayan reproducido y transmitir sus genes (dominantes y sumisos) a la siguiente generación. Sin estos mecanismos, no tendríamos animales sociales como los seres humanos, los chimpancés, los lobos y los perros, entre muchos otros.

Si un animal resolviera todos los conflictos intergrupales con comportamientos agresivos y temerosos, estaría agotado cuando se viera obligado a buscar la comida, una pareja reproductiva, un lugar seguro para descansar o cuidar de su progenie (y todo ello disminuiría las oportunidades de sobrevivir tanto de él como de sus genes). Por consiguiente, se originó y desarrolló la estrategia del compañero y el extraño. Es imposible luchar contra todos todo el tiempo, de manera que con los compañeros se utilizan mecanismos que consumen poca energía en las confrontaciones.

Los comportamientos dominantes y sumisos controlan asimismo la densidad de población, ya que dependen del reconocimiento individual.  El número de reconocimientos individuales que es capaz de realizar un animal debe tener un límite. Si este limite es muy alto, el reconocimiento se vuelve ineficiente, inactivando la estrategia compañero/extraño; en ese caso, las expresiones de miedo/agresividad sustituirán a los comportamientos de sumisión/dominancia.

La estrategia de sumisión es sabia. En lugar de enzarzarse en vano en una lucha desesperada, puede resultar mucho más provechoso esperar. Recurriendo a un comportamiento pacifico y sumiso, los subordinados a menudo pueden seguir los pasos de los dominantes y aprovechar oportunidades que les dan acceso a recursos vitales. Mostrando sumisión, gozan además de las ventajas de pertenecer a un grupo, en especial la defensa ante los rivales.

Las jerarquías funcionan porque el subordinado normalmente se aparta, mostrando un típico comportamiento apaciguador, sin signos aparentes de miedo. Por lo tanto, el dominante puede sencillamente desplazar al sumiso cuando está comiendo o cuando desea un espacio. Las jerarquías en la naturaleza a menudo son muy sutiles, difíciles de descubrir por el observador. El motivo de esta sutileza es la razón de ser de la propia dominancia-sumisión: el animal subordinado suele evitar los encontronazos y al dominante tampoco le entusiasman las escaramuzas.

Pelear implica cierto riesgo y puede dar lugar a graves lesiones, o incluso a la muerte. La evolución, por consiguiente, tiende a favorecer y desarrollar mecanismos que limitan la intensidad de los comportamientos agresivos. Muchas especies tienen claras señales que expresan la aceptación de la derrota, lo que pone fin a las peleas antes de que se produzcan lesiones.

Aprender a reconocer las señales-estímulos es la tarea más importante para las crías nada más nacer. Les salva la vida. La lección más importante que aprende un joven social después de aprender las señales–estímulos fundamentales para mantenerse con vida es la capacidad de transigir. Mantiene la salud de la vida social del grupo. La selección natural lo ha demostrado, favoreciendo a los individuos que han desarrollado comportamientos que les permiten permanecer juntos. Otros animales, los depredadores solitarios, no necesitan estos rasgos sociales. Estos organismos encuentran otras maneras de mantener su metabolismo y reproducción.

Aprender a ser social significa aprender a transigir. Los animales sociales pasan mucho tiempo juntos y los conflictos son inevitables. Tiene su lógica que desarrollen mecanismos con los que responder a las hostilidades. Limitar el comportamiento de agresividad y miedo mediante la inhibición y la ritualización sólo es parcialmente seguro. Cuanto más social es el animal, más obligatorios son los mecanismos eficaces. La agresión inhibida sigue siendo una agresión; es como jugar con fuego un día de viento. Resulta eficaz para animales menos sociales o menos agresivos, pero los animales muy sociales y más agresivos necesitan otros mecanismos.

A largo plazo, seria muy peligroso y agotador estar constantemente recurriendo a la agresión y el miedo para resolver problemas triviales. Los animales presentan síntomas de estrés patológico después de un tiempo en que se sienten constantemente amenazados o necesitan atacar constantemente a otros. Esto significa que los depredadores sociales necesitan otros mecanismos aparte de la agresividad y el miedo para resolver animosidades sociales. Tengo la teoría de que los animales sociales, a través de la ontogenia de la agresión y el miedo, desarrollan otros dos comportamientos sociales igual de importantes. Mientras que una agresión significa: «lárgate, muérete, no vuelvas a molestarme», una agresión social significa: «lárgate, pero no demasiado lejos, ni demasiado tiempo». Igualmente, el miedo social dice: «No te molestaré si no me haces daño», mientras que el miedo existencial no permite transigir en nada: «o tú o yo».

La diferencia significativa entre los dos tipos de comportamientos agresivos parece ser la función. La agresión se emplea para tratar con los extraños, y la agresión social se emplea para tratar con los compañeros. En cambio, el miedo y el miedo social son tanto para el trato con los extraños como para el trato con los compañeros. Éstas son diferencias cualitativas que justifican la creación de nuevos términos; de allí que se hable de dominancia y sumisión.

¿Qué significado tiene esto en nuestra manera de entender a nuestros perros y nuestra relación con ellos?

Significa que todos nosotros mostramos comportamientos dominantes (seguridad en uno mismo, afirmación de la autoridad, firmeza, contundencia) y sumisos (inseguridad, aceptación, concesión, capitulación), según diversos factores, por ejemplo: estado de ánimo, posición social, recursos, salud, el oponente en cuestión, y eso se da tanto entre los seres humanos como entre los perros (y los lobos, por supuesto). Esto no tiene nada de malo, excepto cuando presentamos un comportamiento dominante en situaciones en que sería más ventajoso presentar un comportamiento sumiso, y viceversa. A veces podemos ser más dominantes o sumisos, y otras veces menos. Se trata de comportamientos muy cuantitativos y cuantificables, con muchas variantes. No hay una única estrategia correcta. Todo dependerá de la flexibilidad y la estrategia adoptada por los demás.

Por supuesto, nosotros no construimos las relaciones estables y beneficiosas a largo plazo basándolas en los comportamientos dominantes o sumisos. Éstos son comportamientos necesarios para resolver los inevitables conflictos sociales. Construimos las relaciones basándolas en la necesidad de compañía –tanto nosotros como los perros (y los lobos, por supuesto)– para resolver problemas comunes relacionados con la supervivencia y preferentemente con un nivel aceptable de confort. No construimos las relaciones basándolas en las jerarquías, pero éstas existen y desempeñan un papel importante en determinadas circunstancias –tanto para los seres humanos como para los perros (y para los lobos, por supuesto)-, a veces más, a veces menos, a veces nada.

Construimos nuestra (buena) relación particular con nuestros perros basándola en el compañerismo. Los necesitamos porque nos dan una sensación de logro que no parece que consigamos en otra parte. Ellos nos necesitan porque el mundo esta superpoblado, los recursos son limitados y como dueños les proporcionamos comida, protección, cuidados, un lugar seguro y compañía (son animales sociales). ¡Es muy duro ser un perrito y estar solo en este mundo tan grande! A veces, en esta relación, una de las partes recurre a un comportamiento dominante o sumiso y eso no tiene nada de malo siempre y cuando las dos partes no exhiban el mismo comportamiento a la vez. Si ambos muestran comportamiento dominante o sumiso, tienen un problema: habrá un conflicto que se resolverá la mayor parte de las veces sin lesiones (eso es lo maravilloso de la dominancia y la sumisión), o uno de los dos tendrá que dejarse de tonterías e imponer su buen juicio.

Una buena relación con nuestros perros no requiere ningún mecanismo en particular ni misterioso. Ocurre básicamente lo mismo con todas las buenas relaciones, teniendo en cuenta las características especificas de la especie y los individuos implicados. No necesitamos nuevos términos. No necesitamos nuevas teorías para explicarlo. No somos, al fin y al cabo, tan especiales, y tampoco lo son nuestros perros. Estamos todos construidos a partir del mismo concepto y con los mismos ingredientes básicos. Sólo necesitamos buenas definiciones y un enfoque menos emocional y más racional. Utiliza tu corazón para disfrutar de tu perro (y de tu vida) y tu razón para explicarlo (si lo necesitas), y no al revés. Si no te gustan mis definiciones, crea otras que sean mejores (con más ventajas y menos desventajas), pero no malgastes tu tiempo (ni el de nadie) con discusiones sin sentido y reacciones viscerales. La vida es preciosa y cada momento malgastado es un bocado menos del pastel que has devorado sin siquiera darte cuenta.

Así es como yo lo veo y me parece hermoso: ¡que disfrutes de tu pastel!

R—

 

Related articles

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  • Mech, L. D., Adams, L. G., Meier, T. J., Burch, J. W., and Dale, B. W. 1998. The wolves of Denali. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Mech, L. David. 2000. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center,
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Packard, J. M., Mech, L. D., and Ream, R. R. 1992. Weaning in an arctic wolf pack: behavioral mechanisms. Can. J. Zool. 70:1269-1275.
  • O’Heare, J. 2003. Dominance Theory and Dogs. DogPsych Publishing.
  • Rothman, R. J., and Mech, L. D. 1979. Scent-marking in lone wolves and newly formed pairs. Anim. Behav. 27:750-760.
  • Schenkel, R. 1947. Expression studies of wolves. Behaviour, 1:81-129. 
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Van Hooff, J.A.R.A.M., and Wensing, J.A.B. 1987. Dominance and its behavioral measures in a captive wolf pack. In Man and wolf: advances, issues, and problems in captive wolf research. Edited by H. Frank. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Boston.
  • Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1976. On the regulation of pack size in wolves. Z. Tierpsychol. 40:300-341.
  • Zimen, Erik (1981). The Wolf: His Place in the Natural World. Souvenir Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Gracias a Simon Gadbois (merci), Tilde Detz (tak), Victor Ros (gracias), Sue McCabe (go raibh math agate) y Parichart Abrantes (ขอบคุณครับ) por sus sugerencias para mejorar este artículo. Los fallos que puedan quedar son cosa mía, no suya.

Impreso en castellano la primera vez en Border Collie Magazine.

Dog Training—Let Reason Prevail Over Force!

Roger Abrantes and Boxer doing retrieve

“Whether you (or I) follow a particular line of morality is not a necessary consequence of any model of social behavior. Moral stances are solely your (or my) decision” (Picture by Lisa J. Bains).

The dog trainers’ dispute about training methods blazes on unabated, with the erroneous and emotive use of terms such as dominance, punishment and leadership only adding fuel to the fire. There is no rational argumentation between the two main factions, one of which advocates a “naturalistic” approach and the other a “moralistic” stance. The term ‘dominance’ generates particular controversy and is often misinterpreted. We can detect, in the line of arguing about this topic, the same fundamental mistakes committed in many other discussions. By taking the controversy over dominant behavior as my example, I shall attempt to put an end to the feud by proving that neither side is right and by presenting a solution to the problem. Plus ratio quam vis—let reason prevail over force!

I shall demonstrate that the dispute is caused by:

(1) Blurring the boundaries between science and ethics. While ethics and morality deal with normative statements, science deals with factual, descriptive statements. Scientific statements are not morally right or wrong, good or bad.

(2) Unclear definitions. We cannot have a rational discussion without clear definitions of the terms used. Both sides in the dispute use unclear, incomplete definitions or none at all.

(3) Logical fallacies. The opposing sides commit either the ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ ‘the moralistic fallacy,’ or both. We cannot glean normative statements from descriptive premises, nor can we deduce facts from norms. The fact that something is does not imply that it ought to be; conversely, just because something ought to be does not mean that it is.

(4) Social conditioning and emotional load. As a result of inevitable social conditioning and emotional load, some terms develop connotations that can affect whether we like or dislike, accept or reject them, independent of their true meaning.

(5) Unclear grammar. The term dominance (an abstract noun) leads us to believe it is a characteristic of certain individuals, not an attribute of behavior. The correct use of the term in the behavioral sciences is as an adjective to describe a behavior, hence dominant behavior.

Bottom line: We need to define terms clearly and use them consistently; otherwise rational discussion is not possible. We must separate descriptive and normative statements, as we cannot derive what is from what ought to be or vice versa. Therefore, we cannot use the scientific concept of dominant behavior (or any descriptive statement) to validate an ethical principle. Our morality, what we think is right or wrong, is a personal choice; what is, or is not, is independent of our beliefs and wishes (we don’t have a choice).

Solution to the problem: The present dispute focuses on whether we believe it is right or wrong to dominate others (as in, totally control, have mastery over, command). It is a discussion of how to achieve a particular goal, about means and ends. It is a moral dispute, not a scientific quest. If both sides have similar goals in training their dogs, one way of settling the dispute is to prove that one strategy is more efficient than the other. If they are equally efficient, the dispute concerns the acceptability of the means. However, if either side has different goals, it is impossible to compare strategies.

My own solution of the problem: I cannot argue with people who believe it is right to dominate others (including non-human animals) as, even though I can illustrate how dominating others does not lead to harmony, I can’t make anyone choose harmony or define it in a particular way. I cannot argue with people who think it acceptable to hurt others in order to achieve their goals because such means are inadmissible to me. I cannot argue with people who deny or affirm a particular matter of fact as a means of justifying their moral conduct, because my mind rejects invalid, unsound arguments. With time, the rational principles that govern my mind and the moral principles that regulate my conduct may prove to be the fittest. Meanwhile, as a result of genetic pre-programming, social conditioning and evolutionary biology, I do enjoy being kind to other animals, respecting them for what they are and interacting with them on equal terms; I don’t believe it is right to subjugate them to my will, to command them, to change them; and I don’t need a rational justification as to why that’s right for me*.

Roger Abrantes and Bulldog

“I do enjoy being kind to other animals, respecting them for what they are and interacting with them on equal premises; I don’t find it right to subjugate them to my will and dispositions, to command them, to change them; and I don’t need a rational justification for why that’s right for me” (Picture by Lisa J. Bain).

Argument

1 Science and ethics are not the same

Science is a collection of coherent, useful and probable predictions. All science is reductionist and visionary in a sense, but that does not mean that all reductionism is equally useful or that all visions are equally valuable or that one far-out idea is as acceptable as any other. Greedy reductionism is bound to fail because it attempts to explain too much with too little, classifying processes too crudely, overlooking relevant detail and missing pertinent evidence. Science sets up rational, reasonable, credible, useful and usable explanations based on empirical evidence, which is not connected per se. Any connections are made via our scientific models, ultimately allowing us to make reliable and educated predictions. A scientist needs to have an imaginative mind in order to think the unthinkable, discover the unknown and formulate initially far-fetched but verifiable hypotheses that may provide new and unique insights; as Kierkegaard writes, “This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”

There are five legitimate criteria when evaluating a scientific theory or model: (1) evidence, (2) logic, (3) compatibility, (4) progression, and (5) flexibility.

(1)  Evidence: a scientific theory or model must be based on credible and objective evidence. If there is credible evidence against it, we dismiss it. It must be testable and falsifiable.

(2)  Logic: If a theory or model is based on logically invalid arguments or its conclusion are logically unsound, e.g. drawing valid conclusions from false premises, we must also dismiss it.

(3)  Compatibility:  If a theory or model shows crucial incompatibility with the whole body of science, then it is probably incorrect. If it is incompatible with another model, then we have a paradox. Paradoxes are not to be discarded, instead worked on and solved (or not solved as the case may be). Since “Paradoxes do not exist in reality, only in our current models of reality,  […] they point the way to flaws in our current models. They therefore also point the way to further research to improve those models, fix errors, or fill in missing pieces.” In short, “scientists love paradoxes,” in the words of Novella.

(4)  Progression: A scientific theory or model must explain everything that has already been explained by earlier theories, whilst adding new information, or explaining it in simpler terms.

(5)  Flexibility: A theory or model must be able to accept new data and be corrected. If it doesn’t, then it is a dogma, not a scientific theory. A dogma is a belief accepted by a group as incontrovertibly true.

Science provides facts and uncovers important relationships between these facts. Science does not tell us how we should behave or what we ought to do. Science is descriptive, not normative. In other words: we decide what is right or wrong, good or bad, not necessarily depending on what science tells us.

Morality and science are two separate disciplines. I may not like the conclusions and implications of some scientific studies, I may even find their application immoral; yet, my job as a scientist is to report my findings objectively. Reporting facts does not oblige me to adopt any particular moral stance. The way I feel about a fact is not constrained by what science tells me. I may be influenced by it but, ultimately, my moral decision is independent of scientific fact. Science tells me men and women are biologically different in some aspects, but it does not tell me whether or not they should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. Science tells me that evolution is based on the algorithm “the survival of the fittest,” not whether or not I should help those that find it difficult to fit into their environment. Science informs me of the pros and cons of eating animal products, but it does not tell me whether it is right or wrong to be a vegetarian.

Ethologists study behavior on a biological and evolutionary basis, define the terms they use, find causal relationships, construct models for the understanding of behavior and report their findings. Ethologists are not concerned with morality. They simply inform us that the function of x behavior is y. They don’t tell us that because animal x does y, then y is right or wrong, good or bad, or that we ought or ought not do y.

The model I present in “Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense” is a scientific model that complies with all five of the requirements listed above.

(1)  It is based on overwhelming data, i.e. given my definition of ‘dominant behavior,’ one cannot argue that it does not exist.

(2)  The conclusions are logically consistent with the premises.

(3)  It is consistent with our body of knowledge, particularly in the fields of biology and evolutionary theory.

(4)  It explains what has been explained before and in more carefully defined terms.

(5)  It accepts new data, adjustments and corrections (the current version is an updated version of my original from 1986). The model tells us nothing about morality. No single passage suggests that we should classify any particular relationship with our dogs as morally right or wrong. You will have to decide that for yourself. As an ethologist, I’m not concerned with what ought to be, only with what is. Echoing Satoshi Kanazawa, if I conclude something that is not supported by evidence, I commit a logical fallacy, which I must correct, and that’s my problem, but if my conclusion offends your beliefs, then that’s your problem.

Therefore, whether you (or I) follow a particular line of morality is not a consequence of any model of social behavior. Moral stances are solely your (or my) decision. It is not correct to draw normative judgments from descriptive claims. If you do so, you either commit the ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ the ‘moralistic fallacy’ or both, as I shall explain below (see point 3).

2 Unclear definitions

Having just pointed out the rigors of science, I must concede that the scientific community does bear some responsibility for the present dispute in as much as definitions and use of terms have sometimes been sloppy. Some researchers use particular terms (in this case ‘dominance’) without defining them properly and with slightly different implications from paper to paper.

Wikipedia writes: “Dominance (ethology) can be defined as an ‘individual’s preferential access to resources over another’ (Bland 2002). Dominance in the context of biology and anthropology is the state of having high social status relative to one or more other individuals, who react submissively to dominant individuals. This enables the dominant individual to obtain access to resources such as food or access to potential mates, at the expense of the submissive individual, without active aggression. The opposite of dominance is submissiveness. […] In animal societies, dominance is typically variable across time, […] across space […] or across resources. Even with these factors held constant, perfect dominant hierarchies are rarely found in groups of any size” (Rowell 1974 and Lorenz 1963).

It explains a dominance hierarchy as follows: “Individuals with greater hierarchical status tend to displace those ranked lower from access to space, to food and to mating opportunities. […] These hierarchies are not fixed and depend on any number of changing factors, among them are age, gender, body size, intelligence, and aggressiveness.”

Firstly, defining ‘dominance’ instead of ‘dominant behavior’ seems somewhat imprudent for a science that is intrinsically based on observational facts. It suggests we are dealing with an abstract quality when in fact we are referring to observable behavior (see point 5 below). Secondly, it implicitly equates ‘dominance’ with hierarchy (social status), which is misleading because some hierarchies may be supported by conditions other than dominant behavior. The use of the term ‘dominance hierarchy’ creates a false belief. Clearly, the terms dominance and dominant behavior are attributed with varying meanings, a highly unadvisable practice, particularly in stringently scientific matters.

As John Locke wrote in 1690 (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding),  “The multiplication and obstinacy of disputes, which have so laid waste the intellectual world, is owing to nothing more than to this ill use of words. For though it be generally believed that there is great diversity of opinions in the volumes and variety of controversies the world is distracted with; yet the most I can find that the contending learned men of different parties do, in their arguings one with another, is, that they speak different languages. ”This has contributed […] to perplex the signification of words, more than to discover the knowledge and truth of things.”

To remedy this, I propose in “Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense” a set of carefully constructed definitions that are compatible with behavioral science and evolutionary theory, whilst paying special attention to the logical validity and consistency of the arguments. I’m convinced that we would avoid many pointless disputes if all those dealing with the behavioral sciences were to adopt such definitions.

Roughly speaking, there are currently two main schools of thought in dog training. For our present purpose, we shall call them ‘Naturalistic Dog Training’ and ‘Moralistic Dog Training.’ Of course, there are various other stances in between these two extremes, including a significantly large group of bewildered dog owners who do not adhere to any particular ideology, not knowing which way to turn.

Naturalistic Dog Training (aka the old school) claims their training echoes the dog’s natural behavior. They don’t provide a proper definition of dominance, but use it with connotations of ‘leader,’ ‘boss,’ ‘rank,’ implying that dominance is a characteristic of an individual, not of a behavior. In their eyes, some dogs are born dominant, others submissive, but all dogs need to be dominated because their very nature is to dominate or be dominated. They use this belief to justify their training methods that often involve punishment, flooding, coercion, and even shock collars, if deemed necessary, by the more extreme factions. For them, a social hierarchy is based on (assertive) dominance and (calm) submission, the leader being the most dominant. Their willingness to accept the existence of dominant behavior is motivated by their desire to validate their training theories, but their interpretation of the term is far from what ethologists understand by it.

Moralistic Dog Training (aka positive reinforcement training) distances itself from punishment, dominance, and leadership. They don’t define ‘dominance’ properly either, but use it with connotations of ‘punishment,’  ‘aggression,’  ‘coercion,’  ‘imposition.’ They claim dominance does not exist and regard it as a mere construct of philosophers and ethologists aimed at justifying the human tendency to dominate others. Their view is that we should nurture our dogs as if they were part of our family and should not dominate them. Therefore, they also distance themselves from using and condoning the use of terms like ‘alpha,’  ‘leader’ and ‘pack.’ The more extreme factions claim to refrain from using any aversive or signal that might be slightly connected with an aversive (like the word ‘no’) and deny their using of punishers (which, given the consensually accepted scientific definition of punishment, is a logical impossibility). Their refusal to accept the existence of dominant behavior is motivated by their desire to validate their training morality, but their interpretation of the term is again far from what ethologists understand by it.

An ethological definition of ‘dominant behavior’ is (as I suggest in “Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense”): “Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.”

This is a descriptive statement, a classification of a class of behaviors, so we can distinguish it from other classes of behaviors, based on the observable function of behavior (according to evolutionary theory). It is clearly distinguishable from the statements of both opposing mainstream dog-training groups in that it does not include any normative guidance.

3 Logical fallacies

logical fallacy is unsound reasoning with untrue premises or an illogical conclusion. Logical fallacies are inherent in the logic structure or argumentation strategy and suit irrational desires rather than actual matters of fact.

An argument can be valid or invalid; and valid arguments can be sound or unsound. A deductive argument is valid if, and only if, the conclusion is entailed by the premises (it is a logical consequence of the premises). An argument is sound if, and only if, (1) the argument is valid and (2) all of its premises are true. The pure hypothetical syllogism is only valid if it has the following forms:

If P ⇒ Q and Q ⇒ R, then P ⇒ R

If P ⇒ ~R and ~R ⇒ ~Q, then P ⇒ ~Q

This mixed hypothetical syllogism has two valid forms, affirming the antecedent or “modus ponens” and denying the consequent or “modus tollens”:

If P ⇒ Q and P, then Q (modus ponens)

If P ⇒ Q and ~Q, then ~P (modus tollens)

It has two invalid forms (affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent).

The naturalistic fallacy is the mistake of identifying what is good with a natural property. In this fallacy, something considered natural is usually considered to be good, and something considered unnatural is regarded as bad. The structure of the argument is “P is natural, therefore P is moral” or “P is natural and non-P is unnatural, natural things are moral and unnatural things immoral, therefore P is moral and non-P immoral.” G. E. Moore coined the term naturalistic fallacy in 1903 in “Principia Ethica.” It is related to the ‘is-ought problem,’ also called ‘Hume’s Law’ or ‘Hume’s Guillotine,’ described for the first time by David Hume in 1739 in “A Treatise of Human Nature.” The ‘is-ought fallacy’ consists of deriving an ought conclusion from an is premise. The structure of the argument is “P is, what is ought to be, therefore P ought to be.”

The moralistic fallacy is the reverse of the naturalistic fallacy. It presumes that what ought to be preferable is what is, or what naturally occurs. In other words: what things should be is the way they are. E. C. Moore used the term for the first time in 1957 in “The Moralistic Fallacy.” The structure of the argument is, “P ought to be, therefore P is.”

Roger Abrantes and Shakira

“There is no evidence that dogs attempt to dominate others or that they don’t. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that dogs (as most animals) use different strategies depending on conditions including costs and benefits. Sometimes they display dominant behavior, other times they display submissive behavior, and yet other times they display some other behavior” Picture by (L’Art Au Poil École).

The line of argumentation of Naturalistic Dog Training is: Dogs naturally attempt to dominate others; therefore, we ought to dominate them. We can transcribe this argument in two ways (argument 1a and 1b):

Argument 1a

(A) If the nature of dogs is to attempt to dominate others, then I ought to train dogs according to their nature. (P⇒Q)

(B) It is the nature of dogs to attempt to dominate others. (P)

Therefore: I ought to train dogs by attempting to dominate them. (Q)

Argument 1b

(A) If dogs dominate others, then it’s right to dominate others. (P⇒Q)

(B) If it’s right to dominate others, then I have to do the same to be right. (Q⇒R)

Therefore: If dogs dominate others, then I have to do the same to be right. (P⇒R)

We cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is.’ Arguments 1a and 1b commit the ‘naturalistic fallacy.’ Both arguments seem formally valid, except that they derive a norm from a fact. There is no logical contradiction in stating, “I ought not to train dogs according to their nature.” They are also unsound (the conclusions are not correct) because premises P are not true.

There is no evidence that dogs attempt to dominate others or that they don’t. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that dogs (like most animals) use different strategies depending on conditions, which include costs and benefits. Sometimes they display dominant behavior, other times they display submissive behavior, and other times they display other behavior. Even when particular dogs are more prone to use one strategy rather than another, we are not entitled to conclude that this is the nature of dogs.

Conclusion: whether science proves that dogs display or don’t display dominant behavior has nothing to do with whether or not it is morally right for us to dominate our dogs.

The line of argumentation of Moralistic Dog Training is: We ought not to attempt to dominate our dogs; therefore, dogs do not attempt to dominate us. We can transcribe this argument in two ways (argument 2a and 2b):

Argument 2a

(A) Dominance is bad. (P⇒Q)

(B) Dogs are not bad. (R⇒~Q)

Therefore: Dogs do not dominate. (R⇒~P)

Argument 2b

(A) If [dominance exists], it is

. (P⇒Q)

(B) If it is

, [dogs don’t do it]. (Q⇒R)

Therefore: if [dominance exists], [dogs don’t do it]. (P⇒R)

We cannot derive ‘is’ from ‘ought.’ Arguments 2a and 2b commit the ‘moralistic fallacy.’ Argument 2a is formally invalid even if the premises were true because the conclusion is not entailed in the premises (it is the same as saying red is a color, blood is not a color, so blood is not red). Argument 2b sounds a bit odd (in this form), but it is the only way I have found of formulating a valid argument from the moralistic trainers’ argument. It is formally valid but it is unsound because it commits the moralistic fallacy: in its second line, it derives a fact from a norm. It assumes that nature doesn’t do wrong (or what is good is natural), but there is no contradiction in assuming the opposite.

Conclusion: the fact we believe it is morally wrong to dominate our dogs does not mean that dogs do not display dominant behavior. We are entitled to hold such a view, but it does not change the fact that dogs display dominant behavior.

4 Social conditioning and emotional load

The choice of word by ethologists to coin the behavior in English, i.e. ‘dominant,’ also contributes to the dispute. Curiously enough, the problem does not exist in German where dominant and submissive behaviors are ‘überlegenes verhalten’ and ‘unterlegenes verhalten.’

All words we use have connotations due to accidental social conditioning and emotional load. A scientist knows he** cannot afford his judgment to be clouded by his own accidental social conditioning or emotions. A defined term means that and only that. It’s not good, not bad, not right, not wrong, and the issue of whether he likes it or not does not even enter the equation. As an individual he may have his own personal opinion and moral viewpoint, but he does not allow them to affect his scientific work. As individuals, we all have our own likes and dislikes because we are constantly being conditioned by our environment. Culture, trends, movements, environments, relationships and moods, all bias our attitudes towards particular terms. Nowadays, for reasons I will leave to historians and sociologists to analyze, the words ‘dominance’ and ‘submission’ have negative connotations for many people. When people, all of whom are subject to social conditioning, fail to distinguish between the scientific meaning of the words and their everyday connotations, they repudiate them, which is understandable.

Conclusion: a class of behavior that animals use to solve conflicts without harming one another is what ethologists call dominant and submissive behavior. This behavior, in the way I describe and define, exists (see above). You may not like the terms or indeed the behaviors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. ‘Red’ is a characteristic of an object that provides particular information to our eyes as a result of the way it reflects or emits light. We can argue (and we do) about the definition of ‘red,’ what is red, what is not, when it becomes orange, but we do not deny that red exists. You may object to the name ‘red’ but objects will continue to reflect or emit light in a particular way that produces what we call red (or whatever we choose to call it). A ‘red flower’ (or a display of ‘dominant behavior’) is not an abstract concept, but a real, detectable thing, whilst the concept of ‘redness’ is an abstract notion, as are the concepts of ‘dominance,’  ‘height,’  ‘weight,’  ‘strength,’ etc…

5 Unclear grammar

Another problem is that we use the word dominance as a noun (an abstract noun in contrast to a concrete noun) when in this case it is (or should be) a ‘disguised adjective.’ Adjectives don’t make sense without nouns (except for adjectival nouns). Dominance is an abstract noun, something that by definition does not exist (otherwise it wouldn’t be abstract), except as an abstract notion of ‘showing dominant behavior’ and as in ‘dominant allele,’  ‘dominant trait,’  ‘dominant ideology,’ ‘dominant eye,’ etc. However, the behavior of alleles, traits, ideologies and eyes, which we call dominant or classify as dominant, exists. For example, the question “Do dogs show dominance towards humans?” uses the abstract noun ‘dominance’ as an adjectival noun instead of the more correct ‘dominant behavior’. This can be confusing for some as it suggests that dominance is an intrinsic quality of the individual, not the behavior. Therefore, I suggest that, in the behavioral sciences, we henceforth drop the adjectival noun and only use the term as an adjective to behavior. This is a very important point and a source of many misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding the character of behavior.

Behavior is dynamic and changeable. An individual displays one behavior at one given moment and another a while later. The popular view maintains the notion of a ‘dominant individual’ as the one that always shows dominant behavior and the ‘submissive individual’ as the one that always shows submissive behavior, which is not true. Dominant and submissive (dominance and submission) are characteristics of behavior, not individuals. Individuals may and do change strategies according to a particular set of conditions, although they may exhibit a preference for one strategy rather than another.

It is the ability to adopt the most beneficial strategy in the prevailing conditions that ultimately sorts the fittest from the less fit—moral strategies included.

Have a great day,

R

______________

* This is my normative judgment and as such no one can contest it.

** The most correct form would be ‘he/she,’ or ‘he or she,’ but since I find it extremely ugly from a linguistic point of view (my normative judgment) to use this expression repeatedly, I chose to write, ‘he’ though not by any means neglecting the invaluable and indisputable contribution of my female colleagues.

References

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  • Abrantes, R. 2011. Dominance—Making Sense Of The Nonsense.
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Thanks to Anabela Pinto-Poulton (PhD, Biology), Simon Gadbois (PhD, Biology), Stéphane Frevent (PhD, Philosophy), Victor Ross (Graduate Animal Trainer EIC), Parichart Abrantes (MBA), and Anna Holloway (editor) for their suggestions to improve this article. The remaining flaws are mine, not theirs.

The Mathematician Rat—An Evolutionary Explanation

Giant Gambian Pouched By Xavier Rossi

Giant Gambian Pouched finds a landmine (photo by Xavier Rossi).

JG is a rat, a Cricetomys gambianus or Giant Gambian Pouched Rat; she is also a Hero Rat, a landmine detector at Apopo in Tanzania. In December 2009, she performed uncharacteristically badly and puzzled everybody as Hero Rats don’t make mistakes. What was the problem with JG? Had she lost it? Had the trainers made a crucial mistake?

Apopo in Morogoro, Tanzania, trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis and the little fellows are very good at what they do. In Mozambique, Apopo has so far cleared 2,063,701 square meters of Confirmed Hazardous Areas, with the destruction of 1866 landmines, 783 explosive remnants of war and 12,817 small arms and ammunitions. As for tuberculosis, up until now the rats have analyzed 97,859 samples, second-time screened 44,934 patients, correctly diagnosed 7,662 samples and discovered 2,299 additional cases that were previously missed by the DOTS centers (Direct Observation of Treatment, Short Course Centers in Tanzania). More than 2,500 patients have since been treated for tuberculosis after having been correctly diagnosed by the rats.

In December 2009, I was working full time at Apopo in Morogoro. I wrote their training manual, trained their rat trainers, supervised the training of the animals and analyzed standard operating procedures. At the time of writing, I still do consultancy work for Apopo and instruct new trainers from time to time. Back then, one of my jobs was to analyze and monitor the rats’ daily performance and that’s when I came across the peculiar and puzzling behavior of JG in the LC3 cage.

Problem

LC3 is a cage with 10 sniffing holes in a line and the rats run it 10 times. On average, 21 holes, randomly selected by computer, will contain TNT samples. We train rats in LC3 everyday, recording and statistically analyzing each session. We normally expect the rats to find and indicate the TNT samples with a success rate of 80-85%. Whenever the figures deviate from the expected results, we analyze them and try to pinpoint the problem.

On December 19, we came across a rat in LC3 that did not indicate any positive samples placed from Holes 1 to 6. She only indicated from Holes 7 to 10. In fact, from Hole 1 to 6, Jane Goodall (that’s the rat’s full name) only once bothered to make an indication (which was false, by the way). From Hole 7 to 10, JG indicated 10 times with 9 correct positives, only missing one, but also indicated 11 false positives. Her score was the lowest in LC3 that day and the lowest for any rat for a long time. What was the problem with JG? She seemed fine in all other aspects and seemed to know what she was doing. Why then did she perform so poorly?

Giant Gambian Pouched Rat By Silvain Piraux

Giant Gambian Pouched Rat searching TNT in a line cage (photo by Silvain Piraux).

Analysis of searching strategies

Whenever an animal shows such a behavior pattern, and it appears purposeful rather than emotional, I become suspicious and suspect that there is a rational explanation.

In order to analyze the problem, I constructed simulations of two searching strategies: (1) searching ALL HOLES, and (2) SKIPPING Holes 1 to 5 (I didn’t want to be as radical in my simulation as JG). In addition, I ran simulations with two different sample placement configurations: (1) evenly distributed between the two halves, i.e. two positives in Holes 1 to 5 and two positives in Holes 6 to 10; and (2) unevenly distributed — one positive in the first five holes and two positives in Holes 6 to 10.

In order to run the simulation, I needed to assign values to the different components of the rat’s behavior. I chose values based on averages measured with different rats.

  • Walking from feeding hole to first hole (back walk) = 3 seconds.
  • Walking from covered hole to covered hole = 1 second.
  • Walking from uncovered hole to uncovered hole = 2 seconds.
  • Analyzing a hole = 2 seconds.
  • Indicating a positive = 4 seconds.
  • Walking from last hole to feeding hole = 1 second.
  • Eating the treat = 4 seconds.

All time variables were converted into energy expenditure in the calculation of energy payoff for the two strategies and the different configurations. Also the distance covered was converted into energy expenditure. The reinforcers (treats) amounted to energy intake. In my simulation I used estimated values for both expenditure and intake. However, we could measure all values accurately and convert all energy figures into kJ. 

The results

RatTable1
In terms of energy,  (in this simulation I make several assumptions based on reasonable values, e.g. the total energy spent is a function of distance covered and time spent), the results show that when the value of each treat is high (E gain is close to the sum of all treats amounting to the sum of energy spent for searching all holes), it pays off to search all holes (the loss of -5.50 versus -7.88). The higher the energetic value of each treat, the higher the payoff of the ALL HOLES strategy.This is a configuration with four positives (x) and six negatives (0). The results show that neither strategy is significantly better than the other. On average, when sniffing all holes, the rat receives a treat every 31 seconds, while skipping the first five holes will produce a treat every 31.5 seconds. However, there is a notable difference in how quickly the rat gets to the treat depending on which strategy the rat adopts. ALL HOLES produces a treat on average 5.75 seconds after a positive indication. SKIPPING produces a treat 3.5 seconds after a positive indication. This could lead the rat to adopt the SKIPPING strategy, but it’s not an unequivocally convincing argument.

RatTable2

However, when the energetic value of each treat is low, skipping holes will reduce the total loss (damage control), making it a better strategy (-17.88 versus -25.50).

RatTable3
However, if we run a simulation based on an average of three positives per run, with one in the first half and two in the second half  (which is closest to what the rat JG was faced with on December 12), we obtain completely different results. This first analysis does not prove conclusively that the SKIPPING strategy is the best. On the contrary, it shows that, all things considered, ALL HOLES will confer more advantages.

RatTable4
The energy advantage is also detectable in this configuration, even when each treat has a high energetic value (a gain of 3.13 versus a loss of -0.75).With this configuration, the strategy of SKIPPING is undoubtedly the best. On average, it produces a reinforcer every 27.5 seconds (versus 28.7 for ALL HOLES) and 2.5 seconds after an indication (versus 5 seconds).

RatTable5
Conclusion

This second simulation proves that JG’s strategy was indeed the most profitable in principle. However, the actual results for JG are completely different from the ones shown above, as they also have to take into account the amount of energy spent indicating false positives (which are expensive).

It is now possible to conclude that the most advantageous strategy is as follows. Whenever the possibilities of producing a reinforcer are evenly distributed, search all holes. It takes more time, but on average you’ll get a reinforcer a bit quicker than if you skip holes. In addition, you either gain energy by searching all holes, or you limit your losses, depending on the energetic value of each reinforcer. Don’t be fooled by the fact you get a treat sooner after your indication when searching all holes then when skipping.

Whenever the possibilities of producing a reinforcer are not evenly distributed, with a bias towards the second half of the line, skip the first half. It doesn’t pay off to even bother searching the first half. By skipping it, you’ll get a lower total number of reinforcers, but you’ll get them quicker than searching all holes and, more importantly, you’ll end up gaining energy instead of losing it.

Finally, avoid making mistakes by indicating false positives. They cost as much as true positives in spent energy, but you don’t gain anything.          

An evolutionary explanation

Of course, no rat calculates energetic values and odds for certain behaviors that are reinforced, nor do they run simulations prior to entering a line cage. Rats do not do this in their natural environment either. They search for food using specific patterns of behavior, which have proven to be the most adequate throughout the history and evolution of the species. A certain behavior in certain conditions, depending on temperature, light, humidity, population density, as well as internal conditions such as blood sugar level etc., will produce a slightly better payoff than any other behavior. Behaviors with slightly better payoffs will tend to confer slight advantages in terms of survival and reproduction and they will accumulate and spread within a population; they will spread slowly, for the time factor is unimportant in the evolution of a trait. Eventually, we will come across a population of individuals with what seems an unrivalled ability to make the right decision in circumstances with an amazing number of variables, and it puzzles us because we forget the tremendous role of evolution by natural selection. Those individuals who took the ‘most wrong decisions’ or ‘slightly wrong’ decisions inevitably decreased their chances of survival and reproduction. Those who took ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions gained an advantage in the struggle for survival and reproduction and, by reproducing more often or more successfully, they passed their ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions genes to their offspring.

This is a process that the theory of behaviorism cannot explain, however useful it is for explaining practical learning in specific situations. In order to explain such seemingly uncharacteristic behaviors, we need to recur to the theory of evolution by natural selection. This behavior is not the result of trial and error with subsequent reinforcers or punishers. It is an innate ability to recognize parameters and behave in face of them. It is an ability that some individuals possess to recognize particular situations and particular elements within those situations, and correlate them with specific behavior. What these elements are, or what this ability exactly amounts to, we do not know; only that it has been perfected throughout centuries and millennia, and innumerable generations that accumulate ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions—and that is indeed evolution by means of natural selection.

Have a great day!

R—

Related articles

References

  • Catania, A. C. (1997) Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 4th ed.
  • Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, 6th, ed.

The 20 Principles of Genes, Environment and Breeding

Golden Retriever Mother and Puppies

Hereditary traits are inherited equally from both parents. However, the mother will have more influence in the puppies’ behavior than the father because she spends more time with them.


Genes code for the traits an organism will show, physical as well as behavioral, but genes are not all. The environment of that organism also plays a crucial role in the way some of its genes will express themselves.

Genes play a large role in the appearance and behavior of organisms. Phenotypes (the appearance of the organism) are determined, in various degrees, by the genotype program (the sum of all genes) and the interaction of the organism with the environment. Some traits are more modifiable by environmental factors, others less. For example, while eye color is solely determined by the genetic coding, genes determine how tall an individual may grow, but nutritional, as well as other health factors experienced by that organism, determine the outcome. In short: the environment by itself cannot create a trait and only a few traits are solely the product of a strict gene coding.

The same applies to behavior. Behavior is the result of the genetic coding and the effects of the environment on a particular organism. Learning is an adaptation to the environment. Behavioral genetics studies the role of genetics in animal (including human) behavior. Behavioral genetics is an interdisciplinary field, with contributions from biologygeneticsethologypsychology, and statistics. The same basic genetic principles that apply to any phenotype apply also to behavior, but it is more difficult to identify particular genes with particular behaviors than with physical traits. The most reliable assessment of an individual’s genetic contribution to behavior is through the study of twins and half-siblings.

In small populations, like breeds with a limited number of individuals, the genetic contribution tends to be magnified because there is not enough variation. Therefore, it is very important that breeders pay special importance to lineages, keep impeccable records, test the individuals, and choose carefully, which mating system they will use. Failure to be strict may result in highly undesirable results in a few generations with the average population showing undesired traits, physical as well as behavioral.

We breed animals for many different purposes. Breeding means combining 50% of the genes of one animal (a male) to 50% of the genes of another animal (a female) and see what happens. We can never choose single genes as we wish and combine them so we get the perfect animal, but knowing which traits are dominant, which are recessive, and being able to read pedigrees helps us.

Siberian Husky Puppies

Litter mates share on average 50% common genes, but only on average. Each litter mate got at random 50% of its genes from the male (father) and 50% from the female (mother), but not necessarily the same 50% from each (Photo by TheHusky.info).


Here are some guidelines for breeding (inspired by ‘20 Principles of Breeding Better Dogs’ by Raymond H. Oppenheimer). The objective of the following 20 principles is to help breeders strive for a healthy and fit animal in all aspects, physically as well as behaviorally.

1. The animals you select for breeding today will have an impact on the future population (unless you do not use any of their offspring to continue breeding).

2. Chose carefully the two animals you want to breed. If you only have a limited number of animals at your disposition, you will have to wait for another generation to make any improvement. As a rule of thumb, you should expect the progeny to be better than the parents.

3. Statistical predictions may not hold true in a small number of animals (as in one litter of puppies). Statistical predictions show accuracy when applied to large populations.

4. A pedigree is a tool to help you learn the desirable and undesirable attributes that an animal is likely to exhibit or reproduce.

5. If you have a well-defined purpose for your breeding program, which you should, you will want to enhance specific attributes, but don’t forget that an animal is a whole. To emphasize one or two features of the animal, you may compromise the soundness and function of the whole organism.

6. Even though, in general, large litters indicate good health and breeding conditions, quantity does not mean quality. Quality is produced by careful study, patience to wait until the right breeding stock is available, evaluating what you have already produced, and above all, having a breeding plan that is at least three generations ahead of the breeding you do today.

7. Skeletal defects are the most difficult to change.

8. Don’t bother with a good animal that cannot reproduce well. The fittest are those who survive and are able to pass their survival genes to the next generation.

9. Once you have approximately the animal you want, use out-crosses sparingly. For each desirable characteristic you acquire, you will get many undesirable traits that you will have to eliminate in succeeding generations.

Adult wolves regurgitate food for the puppies to eat. Many dog mothers do the same (Photo by Humans For Wolves).


10. Inbreeding is the fastest method to achieve desirable characteristics. It brings forward hidden traits that may be undesirable and you want to eliminate. However, repeated inbreeding can increase the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits.

11. Once you have achieved the characteristics you want, line-breeding with sporadic outcrossing seems to be the most prudent approach.

12. Breeding does not create anything new unless you run into favorable mutations (seldom). What you get is what was there to begin with. It may have been hidden for many generations, but it was there.

13. Litter mates share on average 50% common genes, but only on average. Each litter mate got at random 50% of its genes from the male (father) and 50% from the female (mother), but not necessarily the same 50% from each.

14. Hereditary traits are inherited equally from both parents. Do not expect to solve all of your problems in one generation.

15. If the worst animal in your last litter is no better than the worst animal in your first litter, you are not making progress.

16. If the best animal in your last litter is no better than the best animal in your first litter, you are not making progress.

17. Do not choose a breeding animal by either the best or the worst that it has produced. Evaluate the total breeding value of an animal by means of averages of as many offspring as possible.

18. Keep in mind that quality is a combination of soundness and function. It is not merely the lack of undesirable traits, but also the presence of desirable traits. It is the whole animal that counts.

19. Be objective. Don’t allow personal feelings to influence your choice of breeding stock.

20. Be realistic, but strive for excellence. Always try to get the best you can. Be careful: when we breed animals for special characteristics, physical as well as behavioral, we are playing with fire, changing the genome that natural selection created and tested throughout centuries.

As always, have a great day!

R—

References

Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior

Behavior is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Behavior does not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to control a stimulus. Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time, a particularly advantageous behavior spreads throughout the population. The disposition (genotype) to display a behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires maturation and/or reinforcement for the organism to be able to apply it successfully. Behavior is, thus, the product of a combination of innate dispositions and environmental factors. Some behaviors require little conditioning from the environment for the animal to display it while other behaviors requires more.

 

Canine Ethogram Social Agonistic Photos

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are therefore only approximate and as pictures allow.

 

An organism can forget a behavior if it does not have the opportunity to display it for a period of a certain length, or the behavior can be extinguished if it is not reinforced for a period.

Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from maximization of utility and towards maximization of fitness.

Social behavior is behavior involving more than one individual with the primary function of establishing, maintaining, or changing a relationship between individuals, or in a group (society).

Most researchers define social behavior as the behavior shown by members of the same species in a given interaction. This excludes behavior such as predation, which involves members of different species. On the other hand, it seems to allow for the inclusion of everything else such as communication behavior, parental behavior, sexual behavior, and even agonistic behavior.

Sociologists insist that behavior is an activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to social behavior, which has both. However, this definition does not help us much because all above mentioned behaviors do have a social meaning and a context unless ‘social’ means ‘involving the whole group’ (society) or ‘a number of its members.’ In that case, we should ask how many individuals are needed in an interaction to classify it as social. Are three enough? If so, then sexual behavior is not social behavior when practiced by two individuals, but becomes social when three or more are involved, which is not unusual in some species. We can use the same line of arguing for communication behavior, parental behavior, and agonistic behavior. It involves more than one individual and it affects the group (society), the smallest possible consisting of two individuals.

Agonistic behavior includes all forms of intraspecific behavior related to aggression, fear, threat, fight or flight, or interspecific when competing for resources. It explicitly includes behaviors such as dominant behavior, submissive behavior, flight, pacifying, and conciliation, which are functionally and physiologically interrelated with aggressive behavior, yet fall outside the narrow definition of aggressive behavior. It excludes predatory behavior.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, which caused the least disadvantages.

Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat.

Submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival.

Aliens are two or more animals that do not live close together and do not depend on one another for survival.

A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

Canine Ethogram

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are, therefore, only approximate and as pictures allow.

 

The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors.

As always, have a great day!

R—

PS—I apologize if by chance I’ve used one of your pictures without giving you due credit. If this is the case, please e-mail me your name and picture info and I’ll rectify that right away.

References

Pacifying Behavior—Origin, Function and Evolution

Roger Abrantes and Rottweiler

This Rottweiler female shows me friendly behavior licking my face and ear. I show that I accept her friendly behavior by turning my face away from her, closing my eyes and mouth and making champing noises. Mostly, dogs show friendly and pacifying behavior to humans as they do to other dogs (photo by Lisa J. Bain).

Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facerefacio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior. There are two ways of classifying pacifying behavior: (1) to include all behaviors with the function of diffusing social conflict, and (2) to restrict it to a particular range within the broader spectrum of conflict decreasing behavior (see diagram below). This author prefers the latter because the broad use of the term in the first option makes it synonymous with conflict decreasing behavior in general, without reference to any particular sub-class of this behavior.

Pacifying behavior is closely related to friendly behavior (including greeting behavior), insecuresubmissive and fearful behavior. In general, the differences between these behavior displays are quantitatively small, but we can classify them separately and qualitatively according to their respective sub-functions. An animal pacifies another by means of a complex sequence of different behaviors as we can see in the diagram below. An animal very seldom shows a single behavior. Also, the same behavior may achieve different functions depending on its intensity and the sum of all behaviors displayed at a given moment.

Pacifying behavior did not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to manipulate an opponent. Initially, it was probably just a reflex. Like all phenotypes, it happened by chance and evolved thereafter.

Pacifying Behavior Canids

Pacifying behavior in dogs: licking own lips, licking and pawing (images by Alanic05 and Colorado Great Pyrenee Rescue Community).

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time pacifying behavior spread throughout the population. Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from maximization of utility and towards maximization of fitness.

Pacifying Behavior Animals

Many species show pacifying displays in their behavior repertoire (photos by J. Frisch, AFP and Aleixa).

The origin of pacifying behavior—Animal A facing aggressive opponent B registers (sensory system) B’s behavior, processes it (neurological system) and responds with a behavior. This behavior (probably an infantile behavior) is then registered by aggressive animal B; some behaviors tend to pacify it (probably eliciting parental behavior) while others do not. The pacified state of B benefits A and reinforces its behavior, i.e. it is likely it will repeat the same behavior in similar circumstances. Most importantly, animals that show appropriate pacifying behavior (such as A) survive conflicts and avoid injury more often than not and subsequently pass their genes onto the next generation.

Pacifying behavior also pacifies the pacifier, which is an important feature of this behavior. By displaying pacifying behavior, an insecure animal attempts to regain some security (homeostasis) by displaying a behavior it knows well and has previously served to reassure it.

Dog and Cat

Cat and dog use the pacifying behavior of their own species to communicate with one another successfully because of the common characteristics of the behavior (photo by Malau).

Some pacifying behavior has its origins in neonatal and infantile behavior and only becomes pacifying behavior through redirection and eventually ritualization. Other forms of pacifying behavior rely on concealing all signs of aggressive behavior. Sexual behavior can also function as pacifying. Young animals of social species learn pacifying behavior at a very early age; it is important that young animals are able to pacify adults when they begin interacting with them. The disposition (genotype) to display the behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype  would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires reinforcement for the young animal to be able to apply it successfully. In canines, adults (initially the mother at the time of weaning) teach the cubs/pups the intricacies of pacifying behavior, a skill they will need to master in order to prevent or resolve hostilities that could cause serious injuries.

Even though pacifying behavior is more relevant and developed in social species, we also find pacifying displays in the behavior repertoire of less social species. Animals use successfully the pacifying behavior characteristic of their own species with individuals belonging to other species (if possible) because of the common elements of pacifying behavior across species. It is not unusual to see our domestic animals, dogs, cats and horses interacting peacefully and exchanging pacifying signals. Dogs also show friendly, insecure, pacifying or submissive behavior to their owners and other humans with species characteristic displays; licking, nose poking, muzzle nudging, pawing and twisting are common behaviors that dogs offer us.

This diagram shows the placement of pacifying behavior in the spectrum of behavior in canids. The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors. A conflict is any serious disagreement, dispute over a resource, which may lead to one or both parts showing aggressive behavior. Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Pacifying Spectrum

The spectrum of pacifying behavior in canids (by R. Abrantes). The colored background illustrates and emphasizes that behavior is a continuum with fading thresholds between the various behaviors. The vertical lines are our artificial borders, a product of definition and convention.

As always, enjoy a peaceful day,

R—

References

  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. Dog Language. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Life’s All About Food And Sex

Pandas at the Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand.

To offer food to females in exchange for sex works well for most males in various species, except when one eats too much of it. At the Chiang Mai Zoo in Northern Thailand, the male panda, is apparently too fat to have sex and his partner, the female Lin Hui, has lost interest. Zoo keepers have done everything to spice up their sex life including showing them movies of other pandas having sex!... (photo from Chiang Mai Zoo).

The other day I went to my favorite bar (and yes, of course it’s Irish) to drink a couple of beers, play some pool and have a bit of fun. The regulars, my mates, are an eclectic mix of professions, trades, ages, economic status, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, all with very different interests in life. Mostly, we just have fun, drink beers and martinis, play pool, discuss football and holidays, complain about how everything got to be so expensive and the incompetence of politicians, and we laugh at a good as well as a bad joke. Sometimes, someone throws in a kind of provocation, a more complex question.

“Cheers, mate!” someone shouts to me from across a table. “You’re a biologist, so you may be able to answer my question for the day: what’s life all about?”

Fruit Fly Boozing

Sex-deprived fruit fly males drink alcohol four times more than others (photo from Geekologie).

“Cheers to you too, mate. You can’t ask a thing like that. That’s not a bar question,” I say. “But, no problem there. Life is all about food and sex,” I add, taking a slug of my wonderfully cold beer and confirming my view that the first beer always tastes the best.

“Hey, I’m asking a serious question,” he protests, “gimme a serious answer!”

“I’m giving you a serious answer. Everything living organisms do is to get either food or sex. Food is a great thing. Firstly, it is necessary to survive and you need to survive in order to have sex, because, if you’re dead, you can’t have sex. Secondly, females in particular love food because they need food to survive, so they can have sex, so they can have progeny; and their progeny needs food, lots of food.”

“Maybe for other animals,” he argues. “But for us humans, there’s more to life than food and sex. What about science, for one?”

“Very simple—science is a means to an end. Why do you think there are many more male scientists than female? Because they need to invent easy ways to get food to give to females, because the females then get all crazy about them and they have sex. Then, they get more progeny who need more food, which implies more science, more sex…”

“You’re far out, mate, we’re more than that. We have a soul, we produce great art!”

“Most good art is produced by unhappy males. How often do  you hear of a great, happy artist? Do you know why they are unhappy? Because they don’t get the sex they want. That’s why they produce art. Females like beauty because the more beautiful sons or daughters they have, depending on the species, the more grandchildren they will have. Also, artists are normally safe, they are sensitive and it is unlikely they will kill their progeny. So, males produce all the art they can to impress the females so they have sex with them. Then, they get more progeny, and the progeny needs more food, which…”

“OK, I got it,” he says, “artists are sensitive, but what about power?  I guess you’ll say it’s another way of getting sex.”

“You’re right. You’re a quick learner. Powerful males can in theory provide better for their progeny so females like powerful males. For the males, this is good news because if they don’t have a clue about art, they can always try to become rich or powerful, which are basically the same thing. Power means more sex because progeny that are well provided for survive longer, have more sex and have their own progeny, which means grandchildren. This means they need more food, more science…”

“What if I’m not good at art or at the power game?”

“Then, mate, you are in deep s… in terms of sex, but don’t worry, it happens to most males in most species. You can always bluff. Most males do.”

“Well, that’s maybe why I’m here drinking with my mates…”

“Could be. Fruit fly males deprived of sex drink four times more than their mates that have sex.”

“You’re kidding me!” he exclaims.

“No, I’m not, that’s scientific proven. It’s all a question of maintaining the levels of a neuropeptide in the brain and if you can’t have sex, booze seems to do it—for fruit files, that is. Fruit flies don’t play pool though, so no worries about that,” I say.

“Doesn’t sound fair to me,” he replies, “but who programmed this bloody thing anyway? Don’t tell me it was…”

“Nobody. Genes have only one goal, which is to reproduce, no matter what genes we’re talking about. It’s all about surviving and reproducing, eating and copulating. It’s like an algorithm, a very simple one indeed.”

“Not that I’m complaining, mate, not too much anyway, but it does bother me. It seems like the females control everything.”

“They do. In most species they choose the males. Virtually all females will mate and reproduce. For the males, it’s a lot more difficult. Competition is fierce and females are picky. Many males never get a chance. That’s why they have to trick the females with all their cunning, but food is the best and most direct way. Males try desperately to improve their chances, in some species by means of attractive exteriors, in others by appearing powerful. Basically, it’s all a bluff to impress the females.”

“So, the females are picky so they can get the best progeny and the best progeny of the progeny. Did I get that right?’

“Too right, mate. Males bluff, but females get better and better at calling their bluff because their main concern is to produce good progeny.”

“OK, I understand that and I can see what the females get, but one things beats me: what about the males, what do they get?”

“Sex.”

Have a beautiful day!

R-

Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense

Roger Abrantes and Wolf

A relationship is a natural thing! (Photo by Monty Sloan)


Stable and profitable relationships
are not built in the long run by means of a series of dominant and submissive displays. Instead, these behaviors are necessary for resolving inevitable social conflict. Both humans and dogs (and wolves, of course) build relationships on the need for partnership in overcoming common problems related to surviving and, preferably, achieving an acceptable level of comfort. Relationships are not built on hierarchies, but they do exist and they do play an important role in certain circumstances—for humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course)—sometimes more, sometimes less and sometimes not at all.

Illustration showing the possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines (From "Dog Language" by Roger Abrantes, illustration by Alice Rasmussen). Copyrighted illustration.

Illustration showing the possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines (From “Dog Language” by Roger Abrantes, illustration by Alice Rasmussen). Copyrighted illustration.

 

In everyday language,dominance means “power and influence over others.” It means supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, preeminence, predominance, mastery, power, authority, rule, command and control. The word has so many meanings and connotations that we cannot simply pick a dictionary definition and employ it as a scientific term in the behavioral sciences. Terms need to be accurately defined in order to avoid misunderstandings, meaningless discussions and nonsensical claims. Unfortunately, the scientists who use this term (as well as those who repudiate it) have not managed to define it satisfactorily, thus contributing to the current confusion about the nature and function of dominant behavior.

I intend to remedy this by:

(1) demonstrating that dominance is an observable characteristic of behavior;

(2) establishing that it refers to one and the same class of behaviors independent of species;

(3) presenting a precise, pragmatic and verifiable definition of the term, which is compatible with evolutionary theory and our body of biological knowledge;

(4) arguing that, even though it is true that a good (in terms of being profitable and stable) relationship does not rely on continuous displays of dominance/submission from the same individuals toward the same other individuals, this does not imply that dogs cannot show dominant behavior.

Denying that dominant behavior exists in dogs has become a popular argument to defend the claim that we must not use ‘dominance’ to build a relationship with our dog.

Indeed, the discussion on dominance has run away with us; and there is only one thing more absurd and futile than attempting to prove that dominant behavior exists and that is attempting to prove that dominant behavior does not exist. In the following, I shall commit the first of these futile acts.

Wolf Pack

In a stable pack, wolves mostly display dominant and submissive behavior and seldom aggressive and fearful behavior.

 

It is absurd to argue that dominance (as an attribute, a property) does not exist when there are so many words for it, depending on context and nuance. If it didn’t exist, neither would these terms. The numerous synonyms and connotations suggest, not only that the term is hard to define, but also that a property of behavior has been observed whose features are sufficiently dissimilar to other properties to make it worth classifying and naming. Whether or not the name or names given are appropriate or well defined is another story, and has no influence whatsoever on the behavior in question. We can argue that this attribute (dominance) has been observed and that (1) it only refers to particular human relations, or that (2) it refers to particular relations among humans as well as some other animal species. The second option seems more appealing, considering that it is highly improbable that a particular condition would only exist in a single species. This would go against all we know about the relatedness and evolution of species.

However, there is nothing implausible about stating that the term does not apply to describe the behavior of a particular species. On the contrary, two species that diverged from a common ancestor billions of years ago have evolved and developed characteristics of their own and now differ, both from the common ancestor and from one another. By the same token, closely related species, which diverged from a single common ancestor a few thousand years ago, will show various characteristics, similar or equal to the common ancestor and to one another. Some species share many common attributes in terms of phenotype, genotype and behavior, others less, some none at all. It all depends on their common ancestry and their adaptation to the environment.

English: Saarloos Wolfdog male Polski: Samiec ...

Wolf-dog hybrid (Image via Wikipedia).

Humans and chimpanzees (Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes) diverged from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago, so we can expect them to have fewer common attributes than wolves and dogs (Canis lupus lupus and Canis lupus familiaris) which  only diverged from a common ancestor  about 15 to20 thousand years ago according to recent studies (and by no means, more than 100 thousand years ago). The DNA of humans and chimpanzees differs to a greater degree than that of wolves and dogs (which is almost identical except for a few mutations). Humans cannot interbreed with chimpanzees; wolves and dogs can interbreed with each other and produce fertile offspring. Humans and chimpanzees are two completely distinct species. Wolves and dogs are two sub-species of the same species.

These facts considered, we could expect wolves and dogs to show a great number of similarities, which indeed they do, not only physically but also behaviorally—and any laymen will attest to that. Their similarities on certain levels are what makes it possible for them to mate, produce fertile offspring, and communicate. Nobody questions that wolves and dogs have a very large, common repertoire of communication behaviors; and rightly so, for multiple observations have confirmed that they do communicate perfectly well. Their facial expressions and bodily postures are remarkably similar (except for a few dog breeds) with only a few small differences, these being smaller than cultural differences between humans from some geographically separated settlements.

If wolves and dogs can communicate, it follows that the basic and crucial elements of their languages must be the same. This means that even though they evolved in apparently distinct environments, they retained the most anchored elements of their genotypic characteristics. This could be for the following reasons: (1) the common genotypes are vital to the organism, (2) the environments were not so crucially distinct after all, (3) evolution needs more time and more selective conditions (since it operates on phenotypes) for the genotypes to begin to differ radically.

Point (1) above means that there are more ways of not being alive than being alive, or, in other words, that evolution needs time to come up with different, viable life forms. Point (2) means that even though wolves and (pet) dogs now live in completely different environments, the phenomenon is still too recent. It is only in the last century that dogs became so overly domesticated. Until then, they were our companions. They were domestic animals that still maintained a high degree of freedom and depended (mostly) on the same successful selective factors as always. They were still not pets and breeding was not totally (or almost totally) controlled by human selection. Point (3) means that we might one day (in a million years or so) have two completely distinct species: wolves and dogs. By that time, they will not mate, will not produce fertile offspring and will perhaps show some completely different characteristics; and we may change the dog’s name to Canis civicus, or Canis homunculus. However, we are not there yet!

Recent trends claim that “dominant behavior” does not exist in dogs, which poses some serious problems. There are two ways to argue in favor of such thinking. One is to dismiss “dominant behavior” outright, which is absurd as, for the aforementioned reasons, the term does exist, we know roughly what it means and we use it in conversation. It must, therefore, refer to a class of behaviors that we have observed. Another argument is to claim that wolves and dogs are completely different and therefore, even though we can apply the term to explain wolf behavior, we cannot use it to describe dog behavior. If they were completely different, the argument would be valid, but they are not, as we have seen. On the contrary, they are very similar.

A third alternative is to propose a brand new theory to explain how two such closely related species, as the wolf and the dog (actually sub-species), can have developed in such a short period (thousands of years) with so many radically different characteristics in one aspect, but not in others. This would amount to a massive revision of our entire body of biological knowledge, with implications far beyond wolves and dogs—an alternative I find unrealistic.

A far more appealing approach, it seems to me, is to analyze the concepts we use and define them properly. This would allow us to use them meaningfully when dealing with different species without running into incompatibilities with the entire body of science.

An accurate definition of “dominant behavior” is important because the behavior it encompasses is crucial to the survival of a certain type of individuals, as we shall see.

To dismiss the existence of facts underlying a term, just because that term is ill-defined, not to mention politically incorrect (which means that it doesn’t suit our immediate goals) seems to me to be a poor approach. Dominant behavior exists, but it is badly defined (when defined at all). Most discussions involving dominant behavior are meaningless because none of the parties know what exactly the other is talking about. However, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water! Therefore, I suggest precise definitions of dominant behavior and the terms we need to understand: what it is, what it is not, how it evolved and how it functions.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Resources are what an organism considers to be life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. The perception of what an animal may consider a resource is species as well as individual related.

Aggressiveness (aggressive behavior) is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival. Aliens are two or more animals that do not live closely together and do not depend on one another for survival.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a particular social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, whilst conferring greatest benefit at the least cost.

Animals show dominant behavior with various signals: visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

While fearfulness (fearful behavior) is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat, submissive, or social-fearfulness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

threat is a stimulus that most often precedes a behavior that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is a threat (a threatening behavior) from another individual or group of individuals that may cause submissive behavior or flight resulting in the temporary loss of a resource, but not injury.

Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals: visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

Persistent dominant or submissive behavior from the same individuals toward the same other individuals may or may not result in a temporary hierarchy of a certain configuration, depending on species, social organization and environmental circumstances. In stable groups confined to a defined territory, temporary hierarchies will develop more readily. In unstable groups under changing environmental conditions or, in undefined or non-established territories, hierarchies will not develop. Hierarchies, or rather the strategies involved, are Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (ESS), which are always slightly unstable, swinging forth and back around an optimal value, depending on the number of individuals in the group and the strategy each individual adopts at any given time. Hierarchies are not necessarily linear, although in small groups and over time, non-linear hierarchies seem to have a tendency to become more linear.

Some individuals have a stronger tendency to show dominant behavior and others to show submissive behavior. This may depend on their genetic makeupearly learningexperience, etc. There is no one single factor to determine this, rather a complex mixture. Let us call this a natural tendency; this is not to say it is not modifiable. It is a fact that some individuals can be more assertive than others, while others can be less so. Neither is ‘good’ or bad’ in a moral sense, simply more or less advantageous, depending on context. In one-to-one encounters, all things being equal, individuals are more likely to adopt the strategy they feel most comfortable with, hence maintaining their history of mostly displaying dominant behavior or mostly displaying submissive behavior.

When in a larger group, they will have the same tendency to play the roles they feel most comfortable with. However, this may change due to the accidental makeup of the group. Imagine a group with a large proportion of individuals that are prone to showing submissive rather than dominant behavior, and with only a few members showing the opposite tendency. In this scenario, an individual with a tendency to mostly show submissive behavior would have more chance of gaining access to resources by showing more dominant behavior and being successful. Success breeds success and, progressively, this individual with a tendency to display submissive behavior finds itself more frequently opting for a dominant strategy. If the scenario gives rise to an individual changing its preferred strategy, then others will also have the same opportunities. The number of individuals showing dominant behavior will increase, but only to a certain point, as the group cannot sustain too large a number of individuals adopting a dominant strategy. In order to avoid the risk of injury, it will eventually be more advantageous to adopt a submissive strategy, depending on benefits and costs.

Therefore, the number of dominant and submissive individuals in a group (which means individuals adopting one or other strategy as their preference) depends, not only on the natural tendency of the individuals, but also on the proportions of behavioral strategies within the group. Whether it pays off to play a dominant or a submissive role is ultimately a function of benefits and costs and the number of individuals that adopt one particular strategy.

Understanding the relationship between dominant and submissive behavior as an ESS (Evolutionarily Stable Strategy) opens up exciting perspectives and could help us to explain the behavior adopted by any given individual, at any given time. An individual will learn to display submissive behavior toward the more dominantly acting ones, and display dominant behavior toward the more submissively acting. This means that no individual always behaves dominantly or submissively as a principle, instead it all depends on the opponent and, of course, the value of the potential benefits and estimated costs.

As a corollary, hierarchies (when they exist) will always be slightly unstable depending on the strategies adopted by the individuals in the group; and they won’t be linear except in small groups or sub-groups.

In the opinion of this author, the mistake we have committed hitherto has been to regard dominance and submission as more or less static. We haven’t taken into account that these behavioral characteristics, like phenotypes and all other traits, are constantly under the scrutiny and pressure of natural selection. They are adaptive, highly variable, and highly quantitative and quantifiable.

As such, dominance and submission are dynamic features depending on different variables, a view which is compatible with the development of behavior at individual level, genetic functions, the influence of learning and, not least, evolutionary theory.

Dominance and submission are beautiful mechanisms from an evolutionary point of view. They enable (social) animals to live together and survive until they reproduce and pass their (dominant and submissive behavior) genes to the next generation. Without these mechanisms, we wouldn’t have social animals such as humans, chimpanzees, wolves and dogs to name just a few.

If an animal resolves all inter-group conflicts with aggressive and fearful behavior, it will be exhausted when subsequently compelled to go and find food, a mating partner or a safe place to rest or take care of its progeny (all of which decrease the chances of its own survival and that of its genes). Thus, the alien and mate strategy originated and evolved. It is impossible to fight everybody all of the time, so a mate is confronted using energy-saving procedures.

Submissive and dominant behavior also control population density, since they rely on individual recognition. The number of individuals an animal is capable of recognizing must have a limit. If this number exceeds a certain level, it makes recognition inefficient and impedes the alien/mate strategy; fearful/aggressive displays then replace submissive/dominant behavior.

The strategy of submission is sound. Instead of vainly engaging in a desperate fight, waiting may prove more rewarding. By employing pacifying and submissive behavior, subordinates are often able to shadow dominantly behaving animals and profit from opportunities to gain access to vital resources. By showing submissive behavior, they retain membership of the group, which also confers several advantages—particularly defense against rivals.

Hierarchies work because a subordinate will often move away, showing typical pacifying behavior, without any obvious signs of fear. Thus, the higher ranking animal may simply displace a lower ranking when feeding or at a desirable site. Hierarchies in nature are often very subtle, being difficult for an observer to decipher. The reason for this subtlety is the raison d’être of the dominance-submission strategy itself: the lower ranking animal (adopting the submissive strategy) generally avoids encounters and the higher ranking (adopting the dominance strategy) is not too keen on running into skirmishes either.

Fighting involves a certain amount of risk and can lead to serious injury, or even death. Evolution, therefore, shows a tendency towards favoring and developing mechanisms, which restrain the intensity of aggressive behavior. Most species have clear signals that show acceptance of defeat and end combat before injury occurs.

Sign-stimuli are the stimuli that produce an instinctive behavior sequence. To recognize sign-stimuli is life saving for the infant immediately after birth. Compromise is the most relevant lesson a social youngster may learn after the fundamental life saving sign-stimuli. It maintains the fitness of a group. Natural selection has proved this, favoring the individuals that develop behavior that enables them to stay together—when they need to stay together for better survival. Other animals, e.g. the solitary predators, do not need such social traits. These organisms found other ways of dealing with the maintenance of their metabolism and reproduction.

Learning to be social means learning to compromise. Social animals spend vast amounts of time together and conflicts are inevitable. It is crucial for them to develop mechanisms to deal with hostilities. Limiting aggressive and fearful behavior by means of inhibition and ritualization is only partially safe. The more social the animal is, the more efficient its mechanisms for avoiding injury need to be. Inhibited aggression is still aggression; it is playing with fire on a windy day. It works well for less social or less potentially aggressive animals, but highly social and potentially aggressive animals need other mechanisms.

In the long run, it would be too dangerous and too exhausting to constantly resort to aggression and fear to solve banal problems. Animals begin to show signs of pathological stress when under constant threat or when constantly needing to attack others. This suggests that social predators need mechanisms other than aggressiveness and fear to solve social animosities. It is my suggestion that social animals, through the ontogeny of aggressiveness and fear, developed two other equally important social behaviors. If the meaning of aggression is “go away, drop dead, never bother me again,” the meaning of social-aggression is “go away, but not too far, or for too long.” Equally, social-fear says “I won’t bother you if you don’t hurt me,” while existential-fear does not allow any compromise—“It’s either you or me.”

The significant difference between the two types of aggressive behavior seems to be the function. Aggressiveness deals with the alien and social-aggressiveness with the mate. Conversely, fear and social-fear deal with alien and mate. These are qualitative differences that justify the creation of new terms, hence dominance and submission.

What does this mean for our understanding of our dogs and our relationship with them?

This means that we all show dominant (self-confident, assertive, firm, forceful) behavior as well as submissive (insecure, accepting, consenting, yielding) behavior depending on many factors, e.g. state of mind, social position, resources, health status, opponent—humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course). There’s nothing wrong with it, except when we show dominant behavior where it would be more advantageous to show submissive behavior and vice versa. Sometimes we may act more dominantly or submissively and other times, less so. These are highly quantitative and quantifiable behaviors, with many variables. There is not one single, correct strategy. It all depends on flexibility and the strategy adopted by others.

Stable and profitable relationships are not built in the long run by means of a series of dominant and submissive displays. Instead, these behaviors are necessary for resolving inevitable social conflict. Both humans and dogs (and wolves, of course) build relationships on the need for partnership in overcoming common problems related to surviving and, preferably, achieving an acceptable level of comfort. Relationships are not built on hierarchies, but they do exist and they do play an important role in certain circumstances—for humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course)—sometimes more, sometimes less and sometimes not at all.

We build our particular (good) relationship with our dogs on partnership. We need them because they give us a sense of accomplishment that we don’t seem to get anywhere else. They need us because the world is overpopulated, resources are limited and an owner provides food, protection, healthcare, a safe place and companionship (they are social animals). It’s too hard to be a little dog all alone out there in the big world! Sometimes, in this relationship, one of the parties recurs to dominant or submissive behavior and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they do not both show the same behavior at the same time. If both recur to the same behavior, they have a problem: they either run into a conflict that they will usually solve without injury (the beauty of the mechanisms of dominance and submission), or one of them will have to get his act together and find the bearings for both.

A good relationship with our dogs does not involve any mysterious mechanisms. It’s basically the same as with all good relationships, whilst taking into account the particular characteristics of the species and individuals involved. We don’t need any new terms. We don’t need any new theories to explain it. We aren’t, after all, that special, nor are our dogs. We are all built from the same concept and with the same basic ingredients. All we need are good definitions and a less emotional, more rational approach. Use your heart to enjoy your dog (and life), and your reason to explain it (if you need to), not the other way around. If you don’t like my definitions, feel free to come up with others which are better (with more advantages and less disadvantages), but don’t waste your time (or anyone else’s) on meaningless discussions and knee-jerk reactions. Life is precious and every moment wasted is one less bite of a cake that you’ve devoured without even realizing it.

That’s how I see it and it looks beautiful to me—enjoy your cake!

R-

Related articles

References

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Thanks to Simon Gadbois (merci), Tilde Detz (tak), Victor Ros (gracias), Sue McCabe (go raibh math agate), Parichart Abrantes (ขอบคุณครับ) and Anna Holloway (thank you) for their suggestions to improve this article. The remaining flaws are mine, not theirs.

The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Roger Abrantes and Dog

'No' is a signal. It means 'stop what you are doing.' It is not a punisher (photo from the EI archives).

Yes and no are two very short words, yet they convey the most important information many living beings can receive, on one level regulating their organic functions on another, their behavior, and ultimately, their survival. If I say these words don’t require any explanation, everyone would probably agree and yet we’d be wrong. Did you know that in some languages yes and no don’t exist?

In my book “Psychology rather than Power,” written in 1984, I define ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in dog training for the first time. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you’re doing now” and ‘no’ means “stop what you’re doing now.” I explain how to teach our dogs these signals and I emphasize that ‘no’ is not a punisher and that it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior. As the years passed, I reviewed, improved and refined all definitions, especially the ways to teach dogs these signals. In 1994, I wrote the first draught of SMAF, which provided the opportunity to analyze signals and teaching methods (POA=plans of action) with increased precision. The definitions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ remained the same, but we could now clearly distinguish between the two completely different ways in which dog owners and trainers were using the sound ‘no.’ One was as a signal as I describe; the other was as a punisher. The punisher ‘no’ was pronounced more harshly than the signal ‘no’ but was basically the same sound. Transcribing it into SMAF, we had no doubt that we were talking about two different stimuli. The signal is No(stop what you doing right now),sound(no) and the punisher is [!+sound](no).

Using a punisher as a signal to encourage the dog to do something is never a good idea as the function of a punisher is to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Conversely, the function of a signal is to produce a behavior which we increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration by reinforcing. Therefore, in order to increase the effectiveness of No,sound (the signal), we had to explain very carefully to owners and trainers that they should never use ‘no’ as a punisher. Amazingly (or perhaps not), many dogs could distinguish between the two ‘no’s,’ but we didn’t want to risk them forming a respondent association between the sound ‘no’ and an aversive. We should use any other sound (word), e.g. ‘phooey’ (‘fy’ or ‘føj’ in the Scandinavian languages) as a punisher.

Why the word ‘no’?

The word ‘no’ seemed to me at the time, the best option to convey, “stop what you are doing right now.” After all, implicitly or explicitly, this is the way most of us use this word (when we have it in our language, that is). Of course, some people cannot say ‘no’ properly, but the fact that some people have bad manners doesn’t detract from the meaning or the value of the word itself.

The magic words ‘yes’ and no

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are two words used for expressing affirmatives and negatives. The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are difficult to classify under one of the eight conventional parts of speech. They are not interjections (they do not express emotion or calls for attention). They are sometimes classified as sentence words or grammatical particles.

Modern English has two words for affirmatives and negatives, but early English had four words: yesyeano and nay.

If you’re a native English speaker, you know what yes and no mean and you have no problem using these words, from a linguistic point of view, that is. You might have a problem using the word no from a psychological point of view, but that’s a completely different story.

If you are a native English speaker and have never ventured into learning other languages, you probably believe there is no problem in simply answering any question with yes or no. After all, most things either are or are not, are either true or false, right? I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you by demonstrating that you are wrong.

Even though some languages have corresponding words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. For example, in Portuguese, Finnish and Welsh, you rarely answer questions with yes and no. Portuguese: “Estás bem?” (Are you OK?) “Estou” (I am). Finnish: “Onko sinulla nälkä?” (Are you hungry?) “On” (I am). Welsh: “Ydy Ffred yn dod?” (Is Ffred coming?) “Ydy” (He is coming).

In Scandinavian languages, French and German (amongst others), you answer questions with yes and no, but you have two different ways of saying yes depending on whether the question is an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question or an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question: Danish and Swedish (ja, jo, nej), Norwegian (ja, jo, nei), French (oui, si, non), German (ja, doch, nein).

So far so good, but if you venture into the Asian languages,  it gets far more complicated. Some Asian languages don’t have words for yes and no. In Japanese, the words はい (hai) and いいえ (iie) do not mean yes and no, but agreement or disagreement with the statement of the question, i.e. “agree.” or “disagree.” はい can also mean “I understand what you’re saying.” The same in Thai: ใช่ (chai) and ไมใช่ (maichai) mean “correct,” “not-correct.” In Thai you can’t answer the question “คุณหิวข้าวไหม” (Are you hungry?) with “ใช่” (correct). It doesn’t make sense for what is it that you are confirming to be correct? The right answers are “หิว” (hungry) or “ไมหิว” (not hungry). In all Chinese dialects, yes-no questions assume the form “A or not-A” and you answer echoing one of the statements (A or not-A). In Mandarin, the closest equivalents to yes and no are 是 (shì) “be” and 不是 (búshì) “to not be.”

Latin has no single words for yes and no. The vocative case and adverbs are used instead. The Romans used ita or ita vero (thus, indeed) for the affirmative and for the negative, they used adverbs such as minime, (in the least degree). Another common way to answer questions in Latin was to repeat the verb like in Portuguese, Castellano and Catalan (e.g. est or non est).  We can also use adverbs: itavero, etiam (even so), sane quidem (indeed, indeed), certe (certainly), recte dicis (you say rightly) or nullo modo (by no means), minime (in the least degree), haud (not at all!), non quidem (indeed not).

In computer languageyes and no appear as a succession of “A or B” conditions. If condition A is true, then action X. A computer’s CPU only needs to recognize two states, on or offyes or noone or zero for us to instruct it to perform complicated operations.

The theories of quantum computation suggest that every physical object, even the universe, is in some sense a quantum computer. The universe itself appears to be composed of yes and no. Professor Seth Lloyd writes: “(…) everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information—ones and zeros. (…) Atoms and electrons are bits. Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer.”

The way computers use yes and no is the closest to our own general use of these terms. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you are doing right now.” ‘No’ means “stop what you are doing right now.” This is the implied meaning of yes and no in the majority of the sentences. “Are you hungry?” The answer “yes” would result in you getting food and “no” in the opposite. “Shall I turn right? ” followed by a ‘yes’ would make me continue with what I intended to do and if followed by a ‘no,’ would make me stop doing it. A ‘yes’ in response to  “Did you buy rice today?” would prompt me to continue doing whatever I might be doing and a ‘no’ would lead me to interrupt what I’m doing to go and buy some rice. There are many other examples, but in general ‘yes’ prompts or encourages a continuation and ‘no’ does the opposite. There is nothing particularly positive or negative in either. Both are valuable bits of information that we can transform into behavior for our benefit. Both save energy, the most important resource for all living organisms.

Two peculiar aspects of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

As we have seen, some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ This is a cultural phenomenon. For example, in Japan and in Thailand, it is bad manners to be direct. Japanese and Thai people consider ambiguity to be a beautiful aspect of their language. The objective in courtesy is to convey the true meaning between the lines. The way the message is communicated should be as unclear as possible, especially when criticizing someone or rejecting an invitation. This linguistic feature is probably related to the sense of self-respect and honor that is so pronounced in both cultures, i.e. one doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, or lose face.

For example, I can’t say to a Thai employee that arrives late to work “Arriving late is not acceptable. Please, rectify this in the future.” If I do, I won’t have an employee coming to work at all the next day or maybe ever again. I’d have to say “If we had employees that arrived late, we would have to ask them to come at the right time, don’t you think?” That would have the desired effect. If you invite a Japanese to an event that he or she is not the least bit interested in, they will answer “I want to come, but unfortunately it is impossible on that day.” That would suffice for me to understand that they not interested without making me lose face. Suggesting another day (and missing the point) is considered impolite.

Thais use คฺรับ (khrap, by men), ค่ะ (kha, by women) and the Japanese use はい (hai) to show that they are listening to you because it is impolite for them to let you talk for any length of time without their acknowledgement.  However, it does not mean they agree with what you are saying, or that they will comply.

In terms of animal training, if a signal is “everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver” and a command is “a signal that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations,” the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are probably the closest we come to commands (‘yes’ means continue and ‘no’ means stop and, as with most behaviors, there are not many possible variations in continuing or stopping, if any).

Is ‘no’ a bad word?

‘No’ is not a bad word, on the contrary it is a very useful word. It conveys information in a precise and efficient way. To get ‘no’ as an answer is as important as getting a ‘yes.’ Both save us energy and lead us to our goal. Personally, I like the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ equally and I wished people would learn to use them properly and more often.

The other day, I went to a busy store at a busy hour with busy employees and I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait. I said to the employee: “I have a question that you can answer quickly with a yes or no. Do you have a Time Capsule 2TB?”

“I have one, but it’s reserved for a customer,” he answered.

“What does that mean? Is he coming to pick it up or not?” I asked again.

“Yes, he is.” He answered.

“Well, than that’s a no right?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Why couldn’t he just have said no the first time? It would have saved us all time: me, the other customers in the line, and not least himself.

Another example:

United Airlines desk at the gate boarding to ORD: I approach and ask: “Do you have an empty seat on this flight?”

The United operator answers me: “That depends on your ticket, sir.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I reply, “whether or not you have empty seats does not depend on my ticket, It depends on whether all the seats will have butts on or not.”

A colleague of hers smiles and checks. “Sorry, sir, this flight is fully-booked. I have one seat on the next flight, but… it’s business class.”

“No ‘but’, you can put a comma or an ‘and’ in there,” I say. It blows my mind. A seat is a seat and that’s what I asked for. A seat is not less of a seat because it is a business class seat.

“Excuse me, sir?” she says with a smile, plainly not understanding my remark based on linguistics/logic.

“Never mind. Here’s my frequent flyer card. I have an e-ticket for the 7.13 pm flight. Upgrade it on the card, please. Thank you.” I smile to her in an attempt to reinforce her for having been able to think clearly (yes/no) for two seconds and for checking availability on the next flight.

“Yes, sir.” Finally a short and precise answer!

Why couldn’t they have just answered first ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ until they got the next bit of information, if I had any to give them? It would have saved me (and them) time and energy. If the lack of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Asian languages is frustrating for the Western communicator, the refusal to use them or their incorrect usage in languages where they exist and are well defined is exasperating.

Why don’t some people like the word ‘no’?

Cultural differences apart, some people don’t like the word ‘no’ for the same reason that some dogs don’t like it either: because they associate ‘no’ with aversives. Parents are just as bad as dog owners in distinguishing between signals and punishers and they make the same mistakes which will later create problems for their children.

Of course, parents have to yell ‘no’ if  the toddler is about to  stick his fingers in the wall outlet (plug socket). There’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, and creates the aversive respondent association with ‘no’, is the constant repetition without a reinforcer when the behavior stops. The toddler only learns that sometimes parents go berserk and, has no idea why or how to avoid it. The toddler becomes so sensitive to the word ‘no’ that later on, like many others, he or she would rather live with regret than to risk hearing a ‘no.’ This conditioning can also happen later in life to which abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses all contribute.

An elementary mistake, committed by both parents and dog owners, contributes to the aversive connotation of ‘no.’ If we have to use punishment, we should never (ever) punish the individual, we punish the behavior. Punishing the individual is what creates traumas, a lack of self-confidence, the feeling of rejection, etc. Punishing the individual rather than the behavior can even produce aggressive behavior rather than decreasing the intended behavior.

The reason why some people don’t like ‘no’ has nothing to do with the word or the message conveyed, but with the aversive(s) to which it was (respondently) conditioned. To change that goes beyond the scope of biology, animal behavior and linguistics, and pertains to the realm of psychology.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘no’ and particularly not with the message it conveys. There is something wrong with abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses and ignorant people (all potentially abusive animal owners). To forbid the word ‘no’ or to replace it with another, e.g. ‘stop,’ does not resolve the problem. The only thing that does solve the problem is to educate people, to teach them to respect others independently of species, race and sex.

‘No’ in dog training

The signal ‘no’ is indispensable in dog training. I use it constantly when training detection dogs and rats, and the animals respond correctly with no emotional response at all. I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches, I reinforce it. I give the dog the signal ‘no,’ the dog changes direction, I reinforce it. If the dog stops and looks at me, I give the signal ‘direction’ with a stretched arm toward the desired direction, I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches and I reinforce it. If necessary, while the dog searches, I can signal ‘yes’ to encourage the dog to continue searching (‘yes’ functions here as a signal and a reinforcer, not an exception at all).

For those of you proficient in SMAF:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

PRS2. {No,sound => Dog changes direction => “!±sound”};

ALT2. {No,sound => Dog stops and looks at me => Direction,arm + Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

If necessary:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound” => Dog searches => Yes,sound};

/* Yes,sound also functioning as “!±sound */

In languages where there are no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ such as Thai, I use ใช่ (chai=correct) and หยุด (yut=stop) respectively for “continue what you are doing right now” and “stop what you are doing right now.” I don’t use ไมใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close to ใช่ (chai=correct).

Some trainers don’t allow their dog owners to say ‘no’ at all in their classes. This is an option, particularly if we have a class full of bad-mannered dog owners, but if our class consists of average, well-mannered owners, I cannot see any reason to do so. If they are not well-mannered, maybe they should learn good manners before beginning training their dogs; and maybe, by training them to be polite to their dogs, we could even make a change for the better in their lives in general by teaching them good manners toward their fellow humans as well.

Forbidding the signal ‘no’ in dog training is a grave mistake (and misunderstanding) in my opinion. Firstly, it is one of the two most crucial signals in life. Secondly we all need a quick, efficient signal to stop a behavior which might be life threatening for someone we care about (human or animal). Thirdly, it would be an untenable waste of time and energy if we had to resort to diverting maneuvers every time someone (our dogs included) did something undesirable.

Substituting the signal ‘no’ with other sounds (words) such as ‘stop,’ or ‘off’ doesn’t solve the problem. It only transfers the conditioning to those new words. The problem is that some people just can’t speak nicely to anyone. Most dog owners yell their dog’s name and they yell ‘come.’ What are we going to do about that? Forbid them to use their dog’s name and the word ‘come’? What’s the next thing we are going to forbid them? Rather then forbidding, it seems to me a much better option to teach them to communicate properly. We need to explain to them that the words they use, in the way they use them, are not signals but punishers and by definition they will not achieve the desired result, quite the contrary, they will get an undesired outcome. We need to show them how appropriate signals effect appropriate behaviors.

Bottom-line: The fact that some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that Latin uses quantifiers instead, suggests that there are cognitive as well as emotional elements connected to the meaning of both words. Maybe the logical human brain likes the precision and simplicity implied in ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but the emotional human brain doesn’t. The universe and computers have no queries with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ perhaps because they are not emotional. Perhaps ‘yes’ and ‘no’ appeared in some languages at a stage when action became more decisive than emotion. We don’t know. I haven’t been able to clarify any of these questions. Nevertheless, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ convey important bits of information in a succinct and precise way. In the languages, which contain them, we can use them correctly for our benefit.

Enjoy and don’t feel guilty because you are well-mannered and know how to say no.

R-

References

Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?

Male Lion (Panthera leo) and Cub eating a Cape...

Secondary sexual traits, as the mane of the male lion, are powerful cues (Image via Wikipedia).

In the behavioral sciences, there is some confusion about the meaning of the terms signal and cue (as with so many other terms) and some authors use it interchangeably. To make it even more difficult, communication theory also uses the same terms with slightly different meanings and in the theatre and movies world a ‘cue’ is actually a ‘signal.’

However, in behavioral sciences, the general consensus (see references below) is that signal and cue have the following meanings.

signal is a perceivable behavior or feature that has evolved and has acquired the specific characteristic of conveying information about the signaler or the signaler’s environment. Information (communication) changes the behavior or the beliefs of the receiver.

This definition of signal implies that if a signal changes the behavior of an organism, this change of behavior must be profitable to both sender and receiver more often than not, or otherwise, signalers would cease to send the signal and receivers would cease to respond. This definition distinguishes, in principle, a signal from coercion, although some signals may be coercive, e.g. threats.

In general, signals must be honest and reliable, or otherwise they cease to have any effect (receivers don’t behave appropriately) and they undermine communication (honest senders will not benefit from sending the signals). However, some signals can tolerate a certain degree of dishonesty, all depending on the costs and benefits for all parties. H. W. Bates discovered in 1861 that some (palatable) butterflies had an advantage in mimicking (Batesian mimicry) poisonous butterflies, which is detrimental to the poisonous butterflies inasmuch as it turns their signals of unpalatability less reliable. On the other side, some species use the same signals to convey the same information and they all benefit from it (Mullerian mimicry).

cue is any feature that an organism can use as a guide to display a particular behavior or series of behaviors. The classical example is the mosquito seeking a mammal to bite and flying up wind when it detects CO2. The CO2 is a cue for the mosquito, but it is surely not a signal sent by the mammal, which would prefer to remain undetected and not be bitten. Intentionality is the key element to distinguish signals from cues.

A cue is a regularity, a pattern that either is permanently ‘on,’ or is ‘on’ and ‘off” depending on specific conditions, e.g. a rock, a tree, or the position of the sun in the sky cues us of directions, and dark clouds cues us of impending rain. The rock, the tree, the sun and the clouds are not there to give us information, but they do if we interpret them correctly. A signal is more malleable, more intentional and we can turn it ‘on’ and ‘off’ in response to relevant cues in the environment, e.g. the warning cry that many species (signal) issue in response to the appearance (cue) of a feared predator.

Cues are traits or actions that benefit the receiver exclusively. The sun and the rock do not profit from us getting our bearings. When a mouse by accident makes a rustling sound in the leaves and attracts a predator increasing the risk of being killed, the sound is a cue for the predator about the location of its prey. When an alert animal deliberately gives a warning call to a stalking predator resulting in the predator giving up the hunt, this sound, the alert call, is a signal both for conspecifics and the predator. Different species can, thus, communicate by means of signals which both recognize and behave accordingly.

Secondary sexual traits are features that distinguish the two sexes of a species, but that are not directly part of the reproductive system. They are probably the product of sexual selection for traits, which give an individual an advantage over its rivals in courtship and competitive interactions. Secondary sexual traits are also cues for the opposite sex. They are not directly related to a better production of offspring, but are normally good indicators of better sperm quality or egg production, e,g, manes of male lions (Panthera leo) and long feathers of male peacocks (Pavo cristatus). In humans, visible secondary sexual traits include enlarged breasts of females and facial hair on males.

The study of signals and cues is more complex that it may appear at first sight. Cues can become signals. In 1952, Niko Tinbergen described ritualization as the evolutionary process whereby a cue may be converted into a signal, e.g. the canine behavior of baring teeth. In 1975, Zahavi described the handicap principle where the reliability of some signals is ensured because they advertise greater costs than absolutely necessary, e.g. the exaggerated plumage of the peacock.

We must understand correctly what the intentionality of signals means and not to confound the intentionality of the signal itself with its origin, development and evolution. Signals do not origin by design with a determined purpose. Some features or behaviors just happen at a certain time to be efficient for an organism in generating in another organisms the right behavior at the right time. If they convey an advantage to these organisms in their struggle for survival (and reproduction), they will spread in the population (provided these organisms reproduce). With time, they gain intentionality and become true signals, but their origin was accidental like everything else. This is the reason why I had to modify (some extensively) the definitions I use in this text and I had to create new ones—to make them compatible with the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Applying the principle of simplicity, as always, I suggest the following definitions:

signal is everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver. A cue is everything that unintentionally changes the behavior of the receiver.

These definitions open for the possibility to better distinguish between the intentional signals (proper signals) we send and the unintentional ones (which are cues). For example, many dog owners say “no” to their dogs meaning “stop what you are doing,” but their (unintentional) body language (cue) says “yes.”

In conclusion: signal is the most correct term to denominate what we use when we communicate with our animals; and signals may assume many forms, auditory (the words we use), visual (the hand movements and body language we use), olfactory (in canine detection work), tactile (a touch, very common in horse training) and probably also palatable.

So, enjoy the consequence of your (intentional) signals and be careful with any cues you may be (inadvertently) sending to your favorite animal. Enjoy as well your further studies of this fascinating topic: animal communication.

Keep smiling!

R-

 

References and further readings

  • Dawkins, M. S., and T. Guilford (1991). The corruption of honest signalling. Animal Behaviour 41:865–873.
  • Donath, J. (2007). Signals, cues and meaning (February draft for Signals, Truth and Design. MIT Press)
  • Hasson, Oren (1997). Towards a general theory of biological signaling. Journal of Theoretical Biology 185: 139-156.
  • Hauser, Marc D. and Mark Konishi, eds. (1999). The design of animal communication. Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (1995). Animal signals: Models and terminology. Journal of Theoretical Biology 177: 305-311.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (2003). Animal signals. Oxford University Press, UK.
  • McFarland, D. (1999). Animal Behaviour. Pearson Education Limited, UK.
  • Otte, D. (1974). Effects and functions in the evolution of signaling systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systemat- ics 5:385–417.
  • Saleh, N et al. (2007) Distinguishing signals and cues: bumblebees use general footprints to generate adaptive behaviour at flowers and nest. Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 2007, 1:119–127
  • Schaefer, H. M. and  Braun, J. (2009). Reliable cues and signals of fruit quality are contingent on the habitat in black elder (Sambucus nigra). Ecology, 90(6), 2009, pp. 1564–1573.
  • Searcy, W. A., and S. Nowicki (2005). The evolution of animal communication. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.
  • Tinbergen, N. (1952). The curious behavior of the stickleback. Scientific American December 1952.
  • Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection: a selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology 53:204–214.

 

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