Posts Tagged ‘animal behavior’

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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Days are going by fast at Chicken Camp. Wendy and I are rapidly learning a
mountain of new information from Bob’s lectures and especially from the
hands-on practice sessions. As Bob often says, those white feathered
ladies are the real teachers!

We were given the task to train our two chickens to peck the white center
of a black disk, initially. Then they were gradually promoted to pecking a
similar, smaller target affixed on a vertical plank. So far so good, and
most of us were able to get good behaviors within a reasonable number of

Then Bob asked us to put the pecking under stimulus control (on cue), the
cue being the red light of a laser pointer. Laser on, peck; laser off, no
peck. Simple, in principle. SO very difficult, in practice, since the
pecking behavior had such a strong history of being reinforced without a cue.

But wait, it gets more interesting. Bob would do a chicken evaluation at
the end, where the bird will be required to peck on cue, and stand still
doing nothing at all – with the light off for a whole 12 seconds. If you
know anything about chickens, you’ll know that things like scratching, for
example, are very, very intrinsically reinforcing to them!

The fact is, chickens move FAST. You have to be very careful to time your
click just right on the peck, and turn on your light at the very precise
moment of the right behavior (cues are reinforcers!) or you’ll end up with
a bird “convinced” she can turn on the laser light with a bob of her head
or worse! Holy crow.

Training is a mechanical skill. I am finding it out the hard way! Between
holding the cup with the clicker and the feed, operating the laser behind
the plank, and thinking, my brain functions are strained to the max.
Thank goodness the sessions are only a few minutes long…

Cueing is turning out to be a lot tougher than we thought but oh, so very
fundamental to training. This is one crucial Camp, and we are already
thinking of taking it again next year. If we can survive this one, that

That’s all for now. Happy training!

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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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