Dissecting Behavior

Dogs, Science, and the Biology of Behavior

Month: May, 2013

Pseudo-behavioral science

Recently I saw a study from the Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior shared via the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1397788/#!po=50.0000).  In it, the authors claim that a higher rate of reinforcement for a behavior creates a stronger resistance to the extinction of the behavior when reinforcement is removed: a very broad claim given the niche experiment.  Reading the abstract, most anyone would be happy to accept their claim, especially professionals who are always on the prowl for more evidence to support their particular belief system.  However, this is a great example of why we have to be careful about what sources we decide constitute science.

There are several problems in the JEAB study linked above:

First, two experiments with 3 to 4 starving rats (of one species) in strict confinement cannot be expected to explain the behavior of other healthy animals such as dogs:

“The subjects were 4 male Long Evans hooded rats, about a year old at the start of the experiment. Obtained as juveniles (about 150 g), they were gradually (over several months) brought to a weight of 335 g (± 15 g) and maintained at that level by free access to food blocks in their home cages for 1 to 1.5 hrs after each session. (Ator, 1991, provides a rationale for this method of food deprivation for rats)” [emphasis my own].

It should be highlighted that one of the rats died after condition 6 and a second rat did not follow one of the extinction conditions because it appeared ill.  Yet the deprivation, which resulted in illness or death in 50% of their animals, is rationalized and considered necessary.

Second, it is unclear if they actually found anything.  In addition to the small population and no statistically significant findings, this study is a general discussion on mathematical principles, not behavioral observations.  Both experiments reported in the study required manipulation of their data in order for it to fit their hypothesis.  Let me repeat, the authors willingly admitted to throwing out data they ‘didn’t like’.  The authors justify this as removing an outlier, but some pause has to be taken because it is not scientific to willfully remove data in order to prove a hypothesis or theory.  Thankfully, the authors do contribute this paragraph appropriately:

“Basing conclusions solely on adjusted data, however, can be risky. For any set of data, some adjustment can be found to generate whatever new relation one might wish for. If the adjustment is selected arbitrarily, the relation that emerges will be arbitrary as well and thus misleading about the relevant behavioral processes. The question, then, is whether a particular adjustment can be justified on grounds beyond its ability to produce a particular outcome.”

It is beyond the realm of my understanding that radical behaviorists believe that this formula accurately depicts the phenomenon of the process of behavioral extinction, regardless of species, function, and ecology: log(Bx/B0) = -x(c+dr)/ra .  It is especially incredible to me that such hypotheses are being generated due to results that are undergoing fraudulent statistical p-hacking whereby statistics are calculated over and over and populations and data adjusted until the authors find the results they are looking for (which in this study couldn’t even result in any results being statistically significant).  A real scientist would never throw out a chunk of their data so they could prove a mathematical formula fit a complex biological behavior, nor would they observe the death and illness of half their animals as something only needing mention in a footnote of the appendix.

This is not science; this is torture and mathematical perversion.

An interview with Marc Bekoff

Marc and Bessie

Marc and Bessie

Few names are as synonymous with “pioneer” as Marc Bekoff. An authority on behavior, sociality, and play in mammals (first through canids and then more broadly), Dr. Bekoff has a truly large and wide-ranging bibliography to match his incredible career. He has brought us hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific research publications, essays, and book chapters, and has written 23 books on animal emotions, cognition, play, and compassionate conservation. In 2000, he co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall. Among his numerous honors, he was presented with the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for his major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior and the St. Francis of Assisi Award by the Auckland (New Zealand) SPCA. Ethologist and ethicist Marc Bekoff has been an extraordinary advocate for the welfare of all animals and it is one of my greatest honors to interview him here today.

What inspired you to study animal behavior?

Bekoff: I was always interested in animal behavior. My parents told me that when I was around 3 years old I began ‘minding animals’ and always asked them what animals were thinking and feeling. I published a book called ‘Minding Animals’ in 2002 based on this conversation with my wonderful parents. I love learning about other animals and still write about them in scientific and mass-market books, and essays for Psychology Today.

Marc Bekoff and Adam Miklosi with wolf

Marc Bekoff and Adam Miklosi with wolf

Why is play so much fun?

Bekoff:  Play is fun because when animals including humans are playing they are relaxed and stress free, and simply are able to enjoy themselves with their family and friends. Play is also contagious—just watch dogs join their buddies at a dog park and frolic on and on and on. This always make me smile and want to join in.

How important is play when trying to understand the behavior of social mammals?

Bekoff:  Play is incredibly important because it is essential that animals play when they are young in order to become socialized, card-carrying members of their species, and also for them to get physical activity and cognitive training. Two colleagues and I have suggested that play is ‘training for the unexpected’.

Have the ethics of behavioral research changed over the course of your career?

Bekoff:  Absolutely. It seems like every week something ‘good’ is happening for further protecting animals from wanton and horrific abuse in a wide variety of venues. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to protect animals from being abused.

What role has research played in discovering the inner lives of animals, including dogs, and how does this affect research and how we should treat animals in the future?

Bekoff:  Rigorous scientific research has clearly shown that other animals are sentient beings, very intelligent, extremely emotional, and moral, and that we must never cause intentional and unnecessary pain, suffering, and death.

Marc with Cormorant

Marc with Cormorant

If I’m not mistaken, Michael W. Fox was a teacher for you in grad school. What was it like being a student of Michael’s?

Bekoff:  Yes indeed he was. He was an exemplary mentor and always was there for me. I learned an incredible amount from Michael in many different arenas, lessons that I tried to use with my own students. Michael was always a forward-looking thinker and walked his talk. He was and remains an inspiration to me and to many others.

Your schedule of speaking engagements is remarkable, what brought you to SPARCS?

Bekoff:  I like very much bringing what we know about dogs and other animals to a wide audience because the fields of animal behavior and cognitive ethology, the study of animal minds and what’s in them, are incredibly exciting. Almost daily we’re learning more and more about the amazing cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals and it’s essential to share this information with as wide an audience as possible.

Would you say that your relationship with dogs and other canids have shaped aspects of how you view the world? If so, in what way?

Bekoff:  Yes it has. I’ve learned many life lessons about trust, friendship, devotion, kindness, compassion, empathy, and love from the animals with whom I’ve shared my home, the land around my home, and from those who I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to study. My life would have been and would continue to be empty without the nonhuman animals with whom I’ve had contact in a wide variety of situations.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention to our readers about you or the upcoming conference in Redmond?

Bekoff:  Try to attend! It’ll be a wonderful gathering and there will be a lot of information that’ll be shared with you all.

Dr. Bekoff will be speaking at SPARCS in Redmond, WA on June 28th and June 29th to discuss the emotional lives of animals and how research and science can “rewild” our hearts.

For more information regarding SPARCS, please visit www.CanineScience.info; to learn about Dr. Bekoff’s other upcoming appearances around the world and his publications, please visit his homepage at www.MarcBekoff.com. Thank you Dr. Bekoff.

Zeke likes his ball

Zeke likes his ball


This interview was originally published March 25th here

Stress and learning

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

In 1908, Yerkes and Dodson published findings of a remarkable phenomenon they discovered regarding the relationship between arousal and performance.  The law asserts:

  1. The speed of learning and performance increases with arousal; however, it quickly reaches an optimal intensity where learning and performance then deteriorate.
  2. Both weak stimuli and strong stimuli result in slow habit-formation.
  3. The more difficult the task, the lower the optimal level of arousal for maximum performance.
  4. “A stimulus whose strength is nearer to the [minimum] threshold than to the point of harmful stimulation is most favorable to the acquisition of a habit.”  (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908)

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Hebb's graph of the Yerkes-Dodson Law (image source: wikipedia)

Hebb’s graph of the Yerkes-Dodson Law (image source: wikipedia)

Two things eventually arise from dog training methods that involve prolonged arousal or stress.  First, as cognitive function deteriorates, behavior becomes resistant to extinction.  Thus if our objective is to make a particular behavior diminish or stop, in actuality the stress initially preserves the ineffectual behavior (Schwabe & Wolf, 2011).  As stress continues to move in the “high” range of the graph above, corticosteroids are actively being pumped by the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to support sympathetic nervous system activity (commonly referred to as “fight or flight”).  When these systems are stimulated excessively—because the physical well-being of an animal is at harm—an animal’s learning for a survival strategy impedes learning of the task/behavior (Joels et al., 2006).  Eventually, as learning and performance come to a halt, a dog enters a state of learned helplessness.

Harsh punishment and the “Hang” – a dog’s fight for survival

In a case study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (Grohmann et al., 2013), a German Shepherd was diagnosed with severe cerebral edema resulting in ischemic brain damage from a training session with its owner.  When the dog failed to perform desirably, the owner “disciplined” the dog by hanging it on its leash with an equipped choke chain for 60s.  Brain ischemia, or cerebral ischemia, is caused when there is a lack of oxygen rich blood flow to the brain causing cerebral hypoxia and brain death—in layman’s terms: death or brain damage by strangulation.  Other presenting conditions included:

  • Anxiety
  • Panting
  • Tachycardic (racing heart beat)
  • Severe disorientation
  • Pleurothotonus (abnormal and sustained involuntary muscle contractions)
  • Blindness
  • Bilateral mydriasis
  • Left-sided facial motor paralysis

Medical differentials for the presenting conditions included diffuse axonal injury, vascular ischemia, increase in intracranial pressure, and hemorrhage.  The dog was euthanized after the diagnosis was made and the owner declined a postmortem examination.

All I can think about when I read stories like this is: what was going through the mind of that poor dog, an emotional and sentient being, as the choke chain cut off blood and oxygen to the brain?

What is dog training

Dog training is literally the act of teaching a dog to perform a certain task—whether it is a sit or to stop lunging on leash—a task which ultimately requires the dog to make a successful decision.  This is a complex physiological process that involves 3 things: the cognitive processing of relevant information, the estimation of relationships between actions and their potential consequences, and use of executive functions to optimize decision-making performance (Mair et al., 2011).

Prolonged and severe stress has deleterious effects on cognitive function, memory formation, and performance (McEwen & Sapolsky, 1995; Yerkes & Dodson, 1908)

Owners and trainers need to abandon confrontational methods and techniques, teach dogs ‘English as a Second Language’, talk to them like a loving parent, learn their cognitive landscape by playing and interacting with them, and enjoy the fact that they are not a robot: they are an individual with complex biological emotions and thoughts.


Grohmann, K., Dickomeit, M. J., Schmidt, M. J., & Kramer, M. (2013). Severe brain damage after punitive training technique with a choke chain collar in a German shepherd dog. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2013.01.002

Joëls, M., Pu, Z., Wiegert, O., Oitzl, M. S., & Krugers, H. J. (2006). Learning under stress: how does it work? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(4), 152–158. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2006.02.002

Mair, R. G., Onos, K. D., & Hembrook, J. R. (2011). Cognitive Activation by Central Thalamic Stimulation: The Yerkes-Dodson Law Revisited. Dose-Response, 9(3), 313–331. doi:10.2203/dose-response.10-017.Mair

McEwen, B. S., & Sapolsky, R. M. (1995). Stress and cognitive function. Current opinion in neurobiology, 5(2), 205–216.

Schwabe, L., & Wolf, O. T. (2011). Stress increases behavioral resistance to extinction. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(9), 1287–1293. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.02.002

Yerkes, R., & Dodson, J. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.