Archive for the ‘JJ’ Category

I recently learned of the Dog Welfare Campaign. It’s a multi-organizational and international effort to educate the public about dog behavior and the problems of using aversives in dog training.


I discovered this campaign after reading through a number of statements from professional veterinary associations on the topics of the use of punishment, particularly the use of punishment by a very well known TV celebrity.

Within the last year, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a position statement on the use of punishment and the American College of Veterinary Behavior issued a position statement concerning the training methods employed by the TV personality Cesar Millan.  The ACVB stance is based on the aversive training techniques commonly found in the way that he addresses behavior problems in dogs.  While they did not mention him by name, the association was made when the ACVB made their statement regarding the partnership between the manufacturer of Frontline and Heartgard pet products with Millan.

In mid-December, the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association issued a news release. This time they specifically mentioned Cesar Millan.  The release announced that these two UK associations were teaming up with welfare organizations, behaviorists and trainers “to warn of the possible dangers of using techniques for training dogs that can cause pain and fear, such as some of those seen used by Cesar Millan ‘The Dog Whisperer.’” To this end, they have put together the Dog Welfare Campaign. And while the site speaks specifically to dogs, the principles are the same for all animals.

The detrimental side-effects of the use of aversive training have been well documented for decades. As seen from above, the veterinary field is becoming increasingly involved and recommending that caregivers use positive reinforcement for behavior modification. Further, they urge individuals to know who it is you are going to for any type of training or behavior issue. Anyone can call themselves a behavior expert; it is up to you to know the individual’s qualifications and methods. Unfortunately, a well-credentialed trainer may still use heavy-handed, aversive training techniques.

Worse, a celebrity trainer can get away with this example of flooding and learned helplessness on a cable network channel. In the first few seconds, he tightens his hold on the leash and then he kicks the dog! This is then followed by the dog biting him. He then continues to lead and choke the dog to the point that he can grab the dog’s neck and force it to the ground. The dog has gasped for breath a few times, and is clearly out of breath and “fight” by the time he has pinned it.


So how is it that these trainers are still out there, with some obtaining celebrity status? Some of it is certainly that there is a general lack of understanding; education is certainly part of it. But it is easy to find yourself caught up in the way they are explaining what they are doing. Language is powerful and by using the “right” words, aversive training can be made to sound not so bad at all. A few months ago, Cesar Millan did an online Q&A with the Washington Post.  I kept the transcript of that discussion, knowing that it could provide good material to discuss. Nothing in the online chat reached the level of severity seen in that video, but the use of aversives is still present.

Let’s examine one question and answer

Ellicott City, Md.: Hello, Cesar! I watch your show all the time, and I adore daddy and Junior! I have an 8-year-old Maltese/Bichon mix who will only obey commands for treats. She’s very smart, but also very obstinate. How do I wean her off the treats, and get her to obey just because I give a command?

Cesar Millan: This is a classical case where the dog outsmarts the human. To reconnect with common sense, we are going to do the exercise with a leash and we are not going to say a word. We are just going to use body language. So if we move our hand up we want our dog to sit down. If the dog doesn’t sit down then we are going to help him by gently and firmly pushing his rear to the ground. What this is doing to the dog is to make him curious about this unusual way of being from you which is no sound or scent involved — just a silent energy and body language. What this does for you as a human is it encourages you to use natural resources. You become the food. You become the treat. Keep sessions short but you must follow through.

The best place to start here is probably by doing a functional analysis. The behavior we’re looking at is the dog sits down. The antecedent is pushing his rear to the ground. And the consequence is the hand is removed from the dog’s rear.

Background: Dog doesn’t sit when hand is raised.

A: Push dog’s rear to ground

B: Dog sits down

C: Hand removed from dog’s rear

Probable future behavior: Dog is likely to sit down more often.

This is a fairly clear example of negative reinforcement. The behavior of sitting is likely to increase or maintain (reinforcement) to remove (negative) the pushing hand.

Now, let’s look at this from the human’s point of view.

A: Dog doesn’t sit down

B: Push dog’s rear

C: Dog sits down

PFB: Human is likely to push dog’s rear more often.

This time, the human is experiencing positive reinforcement. The behavior of pushing the rear likely increases (reinforcement) to have a sitting dog (positive). Notice that human is being reinforced for applying the aversive!

Now look at his answer again. The dog is not “curious about this unusual way of being with you…” The dog’s behavior is clearly a response to a physical push on its rear, not a “silent energy and body language.” And while it is true that the human has become the reinforcer via pushing, he is not a positive reinforcer like food or a treat. Your action is negative and something the dog is trying to avoid by sitting. Without the rosy language we can reword the answer to say,

If the dog doesn’t sit down then we are going to force him by pushing his rear to the ground. What this is doing to the dog is to give him no choice of removing this uncomfortable pressure on his rear, except to sit down. What this does for you as a human is it encourages you to use force more often to make your dog do what you want.

That doesn’t sound nearly so pleasant, and wouldn’t sell many books, ads, and TV time.  However, that is what I see as a far more fair representation of what is going on.


We’ll analyze other responses in a future post. These include the fallacy of dominance, constructs, and mind reading dogs.

There are a number of resources for more information on the problems with Cesar Millan and alternatives to his methods. The first two links below are an excellent place to start.








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Happy New Year!

[Note: This post was edited to avoid the potential confusion of the term punishment. For the purpose of studying behavior, punishment only serves to decrease a behavior. There is no value judgment associated with the use of the word punishment. However, there is a lot of negative association with the everyday use of the word. So, we felt it best to remove punishment and replace it with aversive stimuli. And, after all, we want to remove the use of all aversive stimuli in our daily interactions! Thanks to Sid Price for pointing out this potential source of confusion.]

From everyone at AEF, we want to wish everyone a Happy New Year!

We resolve for 2010 to provide more education for you and the animals that you care for.  We will do this in various ways including seminars, workshops, this blog, newsletters, and consultations. If you have ideas or suggestion for other ways that we can help you, please let us know, we’d love to hear them! Just send us an email – animaleducation@gmail.com.

We also have a new year’s challenge for you! We all try to use positive reinforcement with our animals and avoid using aversive stimuli, but how aware are you of the times when you do use a small amount of aversives? We all do it, often several times during the day.  We just are not paying attention to it. And, to make it more difficult to identify, our animals tend to be such good behave-ors, changing their behavior as a function of consequences, that it is even harder for us to notice what we’ve just done. So, the challenge is to “open your eyes” to those times you are using negative reinforcement or positive punishment. It might be that you block movement up your arm with your hand, slowly close a door on a bird “trying to escape” its cage, or shoo the dog away with your foot. Part of this challenge is that you need to note it – mentally, audibly, or, best of all, write it down. Many of us work so hard on addressing big behaviors without the use of aversives that we miss the small things. Once you become aware of your use of these aversives, you can develop more positive, less intrusive behavior-change strategies to have an even better relationship with the animals in your lives! Help others by sharing your findings and leaving a comment.

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AEF Symposium & LLP Wrap-up

It’s all over…

…the 2009 Animal Education Foundation Symposium was outstanding!  I’m so proud of everyone who worked so hard to make the weekend a success.  The speakers were excellent and nicely complimented one another.  The attendees were attentive and their desire to learn was very obvious (and encouraging!).  We are so lucky to have so many friends to help make our first major event so successful – thank you all for your support, even those unable to attend.  Not only was it great seeing familiar faces and strengthening those relationships, it was also encouraging to see so many new faces!  The weekend gave us new projects and new ideas for the future.  We’ll keep you update on those developments as they unfold.

Before I thank those individuals and organizations whose support made the weekend possible, I need to acknowledge Wendy Kiska and her tireless efforts in organizing and coordinating virtually everything before, during, and after the events.  Her dedication and hard work are the reason we were able to successfully and professionally put on the Symposium and Workshop.

Finally, AEF would like to thank all of the supporting individuals and organizations.  Thank you for making these events a success!

Speaker Sponsors ($500+)

Jim & Diane Barry
Santa Barbara Bird Farm (Phoebe & Harry Linden)
Roses Pet Emporium (Margo Rose)
Richard & Kathryne Thorpe

Corporate Sponsors ($125+)

Animal Environments/Bird Cages by Carmen
Fallston Veterinary Clinic

Individual Sponsors

Dr. Meredith Davis, DVM
Don & Ann Fragale
Vanessa Hirsch
Keith Marton & Rebecca Murphy
Kraig & Karen Marton

Product Donations

Richard Thorpe

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I came across two interesting articles recently.   First, in Thailand primatologists have been observing macaques using human hair, coconut fiber, and twigs to floss their teeth.  The monkeys will pull hair right out of the heads of visiting

Credit: National Geographic Society

Credit: National Geographic Society

tourists and then use the hair as floss.  But what makes this a really amazing story is the finding that female macaques teach their young the flossing behavior!  Strands were placed around the monkeys’ habitat and when in front of juveniles, the females flossed slower and repeated the motions in a manner similar to the way a human might teach the same mechanics to a child.  Here is the National Geographic article that includes a video of these hygenic macaques.

While doing research for work, I came across a study that used a statistical technique that I’ve been using for my own analysis.  But the stats isn’t the story here.  This article comes from The Condor, where the authors studied the alarm calls of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) to predators.  Studies have shown that alarm calls that cause the birds to flee give good information as to the type of threat involved.  However, not a lot of research has gone into the alarm call that cause crows to mob.  These calls signal the extended family group to go toward the predator.  The authors used taxidermic mounts of a great horned owl and a raccoon as stand-ins for common crow predators.  The authors found that crows give the same vocalization for different threats, but change the level of intensity and duration of the calls depending on the immediacy (proximity of the owl) and level of danger (owl vs. raccoon).  There are a number of interesting bits of information in the study – the extended family structure and hypothesis behind some unusual vocalizations to name a few.

Click the image for something a little more anecdotal.

Mobbing crows

Mobbing crows

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This is my house!

This past weekend, Wendy and I went to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens.  Meadowlark has an annual photography expo, and the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia brings education birds for the photographers.  They are canned shots, but at least the birds get to spend some time outdoors.  We went to help, but it turned out they didn’t need much.  So, we spent a little time watching the birds, the handlers, and the photographers.  But the real story was the red-tailed hawk that has staked claim to the park.  As we were walking toward the photo shoot, I saw a few photographers with their cameras aimed up.  I looked up and saw a beautiful red-tail, perched on a limb and observing those below.

Its natural!

It's natural!

She appeared very calm, and I chalked that up to her seeing people in her park all the time.  As it turns out, I think she was more concerned about the saker and merlin falcons being potential resource threats.  About 10 minutes later, we were watching the merlin, and commenting on how great he was doing for only his second program, when I caught something flying out of the corner of my eye.  The hawk had flown near the saker, about 20 feet up in a tree.  She swooped a little low to another branch, then flew a little further away.  A few mintues later, she returned.  This time, she found a spot where she could easily see both falcons.  She stayed nearby for about five more minutes and then she disappeared into denser woods.



The bald eagle cam is back!  A pair of bald eagles has been nesting in Norfolk, VA for a few years now.  The Norfolk Botanical Garden, along with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, set up this webcam that gives incredible views of the pair.  The latest news is that there are three eggs in the nest!  Last year, the camera caught a great horned owl attack on the nest!  This is a really great educational resource that is available 24 hours a day.

Finally, I have to post a picture of the screechies that were also out last Saturday.  They’re too cute!

Grey & Red Phase Screech Owls

Grey & Red Phase Screech Owls

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Now we have a blog!

Well, AEF has finally entered the blogoshpere!  We’ll have a few contributors.  Hopefully, they will give us something good on a fairly regular basis.  I’m also envisioning having some special guest bloggers, too.  But time will tell on that one.  We are all really busy working on the Symposium and LLP.  Gathering sponsors, marketing, advertising, etc.  I’m sure July is going to come too quick.  Aside from that major event, we have some other really exciting projects in the works.  Look for announcements as they become finalized.

Green Heron – Photo Credit:Charles H. Warren

What did I learn today? Green herons will use food bait to lure fish!  Apparently, this is not so new news.  It’s been documented at least as far back as 1958.  They will forage for worms and even break up sticks to use as bait.   Another species that shows tool making behavior!

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