Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Can Manipulation of Body and Communication Signals Change Behavior?
We love our dogs, don’t we? We love to watch them play, love when they’re attentive - follow us literally and figuratively, when they are affectionate and soft, and some of us even love when they act doggish: zoom in wide circles, bark with excitement, dig in the snow, sniff'n'mark, drag a log out of a pond, roll in yucky stuff - well, perhaps love is too strong a word regarding the last one.
Dogs, we say, are honest and incapable of wearing a social mask, and we love that too - until they express that they feel aroused, anxious or angry. Those signals: the tension and warning stares; the barks, whines and growls; the tucked-under tail and bristled hair, we don’t love. We accept dogs’ frankness only when they “say” what we like, and aim to extinguish their not so sweet signals – either with inflicting punishment or applying reinforcement. With some dogs, either method effectively manipulates signals, but the important question is if we also successfully influence future behavior.
A few years ago scientists conducted an experiment in which people were asked to carry a pencil between their lips for a few minutes several times a day. Carrying a pencil, of course, resembles a smile. Scientists knew that hormones and neurochemicals dictate behavior, but what they wanted to find out was if it happens the other way around: If molding the body affects brain chemicals. Indeed, there were measurable changes in the test subjects, so it seems to be the case.
Since humans and dogs are physiologically similar, the notion to use that information to help dogs is apparent: If we manually flatten raised hair, move ears forward, lift the tail, could we increase a dog’s feel-good neurochemicals and make him relaxed, confident and proud? This is what one renowned trainer, who cited the above study at a seminar, proposed, albeit with a question mark because she wasn’t quite convinced. Neither was I, and there is scientific evidence that shows that although behavior seems to influence brain chemistry, it does not change brain circuitry, and that is an important distinction.
When a person smiles spontaneously, because they feel joyful or experience something funny or inspiring, the brain’s emotional center in the limbic system fires up. In comparison, when a person is prompted to smile, for example a politician for a photo op during an election campaign, neurons in the cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain, light up. There are muscles in the face that are not under voluntary control, and are only involved when the smile is genuine, emotional. To an onlooker, a smiling person might be regarded as happy and affable, but that doesn't mean it is real.
Likewise, I believe that a dog's submissive display isn't necessarily real either, and I have observational evidence that backs it up. One dog in particular sticks out: A juvenile Labrador retriever named Abby who, for a few months, joined a loosely formed walking group I belonged to in Calgary.
Abby, when she arrived, greeted each of our dogs, at any given day 10-15 of them, in a very groveling fashion. She did it every time anew, and every time was promptly growled at by just about every dog while she was still on her back, and after that, after they let her get up, everyone happily roamed together for the remainder of the walk.
Our dogs’ growls upset Abby’s owner. She felt that since her dog so exaggeratedly submitted, ours shouldn’t be so offensively aggressive, and wanted them disciplined. Discipline, she shared with us, they implemented from day one as outlined in the training guide they followed: The Monks of New Skete’s “The Art of Raising a Puppy”. Although we were a little stumped by our dogs as well, we didn’t intervene because they were typically quite appropriate, even with newcomers. We, as a group, speculated that perhaps they knew more than we humans did.
As it turned out, we and our dogs were correct. As Abby matured, a different personality surfaced. No more groveling, no more submission, but high arousal, attacking and bullying dogs, and offensively barking at people. Eventually, Abby got into so much trouble that they stopped coming.
The original version of “The Art….” advises the alpha roll, the forceful putting a pup on her back, and I wondered then if Abby’s initial submission was feigned, and our dog savvy dogs, perceptive of subtleties in body language, saw it for what it was: Learned and superficial rather than felt deference.
People can manipulate crude body language, but not the finer expressions that reflect a dog’s emotional state: facial muscle tension, dilated pupils, an open or closed mouth with retracted or puckered commissures. Most people have difficulties comprehending dog communication when it is loud and clear, never mind subtleties. Dog savvy dogs, however, know - and perhaps smell, the emotional state and intent and decide, based on that, how they want to greet, or if. Manipulating a dog, including turning one around so the other can sniff butt and genitals, without understanding what is going on, leaves a lot of room for mistakes.
Trainers who use negative reinforcement instead of physical molding to extinguish undesired expressions do pay attention to those finer signals. They orchestrate situations in which the dog is exposed to the problematic trigger close enough that the trigger is indeed perceived as problematic. As long as the dog responds with unwanted signals, neither handler nor trigger do anything, but as soon as she gives appeasement, curious or friendly signals, the trigger releases the pressure by increasing the distance. Whatever is reinforced is repeated, and trainers who use negative reinforcement to treat reactivity claim that when practiced enough, the operant conditioned friendly expressions will lead to an authentically friendly dog. Again, I have doubts, and again, studies as well as real life experience seem to substantiate them.
In an experiment, human test subjects were instructed to move their facial muscles to mirror a specific emotion: anger or happiness. Like the pencil between the lips study, the scientists wanted to see if consciously invoking an expression would lead to the corresponding emotion, and indeed the participants reported that they felt respectively angry or happy. So at first glance, deliberately producing body signals appears to bring about the feeling, but closer investigation and evidence from electrophysiological recordings revealed that the artificial smiley and angry faces created different brain wave patterns than those generated by real smiles and real anger. The brain just can’t be fooled.
In addition, the test subjects were not happy or angry at any particular thing, which is of course the case when we work with dogs who react to very specific and real stimuli: mainly other dogs and/or strangers.
I encountered dogs who were shaped with negative reinforcement, and from a distance indeed didn’t snarl any longer but displayed sociable signals, one even play bowed, but reacted when the distance decreased and pressure became overwhelming. The one that play bowed attacked when she was within teeth range. Had she changed her mind about dogs? Obviously not.
Like body molding, shaped friendliness void of the emotion behind it is mock friendliness, and mock friendliness puts people in a false sense of security. There is a real risk that the dog becomes more dangerous. Like punishing the growl, we suppress the dog’s natural warning vocabulary when we reinforce the ones we like better. Before you had an aggressive dog who signaled it and you could take action; after punishment and shaping for sociability, you have one who doesn’t and the attack comes unannounced. Furthermore, people typically approach closer when they see friendly body signals, and in that case you want to be certain that your dog IS friendly, and not just acts friendly.
Yes, we have accounts that insecure people feel stronger when they consciously walk tall and with conviction, and anxious ones who become more centered in stressful situations when they practice relaxed breathing, but don’t forget that when people fake it till they make it they do that voluntarily, without external manipulation and shaping.
Even then, an assertion such as: “I carried a pencil between my lips for a few weeks and permanently lost my fear of spiders” sounds ludicrous. I am sure phobic folks wish a cure was so easy.
In my opinion, if we want honesty from the dog, anything emotional must come freely from the dog, and not be shaped, prompted or manipulated. If a dog feels afraid or angry, reflected in his body signals, I respect that. It is preposterous human arrogance to decide for the dog what signals she should give. That doesn’t mean I ignore problem behaviors, but that I try to change the underlying issues instead of expressions. If I am successful, the signals I don’t like will disappear automatically and authentically.
Many owners want what I want: a canine companion who feels relaxed, curious and confident, content and happy. You get that not with manually lifting the tail, but when you facilitate opportunities for the dog to succeed.
During a tracking workshop, our German shepherd friend Fin found the hidden person and was overjoyed. No food reward was needed to motivate him to do it again.
Will once successfully snatched a ball from her nemesis Gracie. She carried it in a way that it hung out of her mouth for all to see. Will never carried a ball that way before or after.
Our Aussie Davie snubbed all her dog friends at the park after a herding workshop. Even before I told the group what we had been up to, they commented that she was different.
Our Newf Baywolf hightailed and pranced after he finally dislodged a big branch he was working on for a good 10 minutes.
No fake signals in any of these dogs, but expressed, authentic joy – pride, there is no better word to describe it.
So, can we manipulate the signals a dog gives? Absolutely.
Should we? My answer is no.