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My daughter was invited to the circus last week by a classmate celebrating her 7th birthday. The circus comes regularly to a very nearby venue, but I’d successfully avoided it up to this point. The kids all enjoyed themselves, of course, and were especially excited to see real live elephants and tigers. I remember my own awe as a child being exposed to such creatures.
To say I felt conflicted would be an understatement, especially while watching the lions and tigers perform. It’s hard to know exactly how much of such an act is scripted versus accidental. But a number of those big cats looked genuinely pissed, and the third time one of the females balked at a cue and then ran at the trainer, it did not look choreographed.
Likely all part of the show on some level, but is that even any better?
My three-year-old son pretty much summed up the absurdity of the evening when he exclaimed quizzically, “Look, it’s tigers on stools!”
Why yes, my son. This is how men demonstrate their physical prowess and mental superiority over other living creatures–by making them sit on stools.
Or, in the case of the majestic killer whale, by housing them in fishbowls and training them to splash tourists.
The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.
That post was flip in some respects, but the business of keeping killer whales for fun and profit is not. It does speak directly to my problem with gauging the humaneness of a training program purely according to which learning quadrants happen to dominate. And sadly, it speaks to the power of money to distort our judgement.
I think it’s well established that a higher percentage of clicker-trained killer whales actually kill their trainers than do dogs trained by any method. I do not mean that as an indictment of clicker-training. I mean it as a challenge to the dual myths that A) killer whales are a model of reliable behavior compared to dogs, and B) their handling is a model of humane training.
What we do to killer whales is an atrocity without moral justification, in my opinion. They suffer lives of abject deprivation, void of any genuine opportunities to self-reward. They are prisoners of our selfish desire to engage with an intelligent species that wants little to do with us, absent our trapping and keeping them like lab rats.
Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confining walls of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And to the extent I personally find the level of management involved in captive marine mammal training to be abusive, I think there is some danger associated with modeling dog training practices after that example.
© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.
Following the assessment, a trainer should have some sense as to how a number of factors may be contributing to the reactive dog’s behavior. I tend to think of these factors in terms of three key areas:
- Baseline response to trigger (absent other factors)
- Dynamic between dog and handler (relationship/history)
- Skill deficit (dog and handler)
Each area relates to one dimension of a comprehensive training strategy. Of course, there are some cases where only one or two of the above factors are truly in play, but those are rare in my experience. Most reactive dogs I encounter can benefit from all three areas being addressed, at least to some extent.
So, my training program will involve various measures of the following:
- Socialization (when feasible), desensitization, counter-conditioning
- Leadership and management coaching
- Formal obedience (including handling instruction)
There is some overlap among them, too. Basic leash handling instruction, for example, relates to leadership, management, and obedience. Using food in proximity to a known trigger, may both reward compliance with a cue and have a counter-conditioning effect.
My immediate goal when beginning work with a reactive dog client, is to give him or her a way to handle the dog more productively in those real-life situations that are impossible to avoid, give them some exercises for building their dog’s attentiveness, responsiveness, and overall skill-level in the mean-time, and teach them some basic principles regarding what promotes leash reactivity versus what promotes better behavior.
My long-term goal is to build a dog/owner team that
- Experiences substantively less stress in the face of triggers
- Enjoys a healthy, balanced relationship involving clear communication
- Has the skill necessary to cope with a wide array of real-life situations, including compliance with basic cues under stress or distraction
In other words, I want the dog to have a more relaxed and/or positive (not always the same thing or equally desirable) emotional response to any former triggers, but also want the owner to have enough influence over the dog (via their relationship and their obedience practice) that he or she need not depend on the dog exercising good judgement on its own in every case. Instead, the dog should be prepared to defer to his owner’s judgement when required, reflecting his owner’s attitude rather than acting on his own.
NOTE: The IAABC Facebook Chat on Leash Reactivity starts at 1PM Eastern Time (12PM Chicago). Please join me via IAABC’s FB page.
© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.
Please join me Tuesday afternoon on IAABC’s Facebook page, for a one-hour chat on the topic of leash aggression and reactivity. I’ll be sharing what I know, or at least what I’m capable of typing in an hour, about assessing and addressing this category of behavior problem. Questions welcome, along with any input from fellow trainers.
IAABC FB chats are open to dog owners and professionals. The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.
If at all possible, I’ll post a few introductory thoughts on the topic here a day or two ahead, just to get the ball rolling. Along with practicing typing with two hands.
Meanwhile, back at the kennel… April saw the long awaited launch of See Spot Run’s new website (replacing the dinosaur we built back in 2004). Thanks to Lauren Wozney of Pathways Creative, who also moonlights as a training assistant.
Above is a shot of See Spot Run’s new home page. Follow the link to view the whole site. It’s still a work in progress in a number of respects, but we’re nonetheless very proud. Comments welcome.
On a side note, Lauren also joined me in attending the IAABC conference in Rhode Island in late April, where we were pleased to meet and exchange thoughts with a number of fellow trainers, including Connecticut trainer Michael Shikashio of Complete Canines, and Brian Burton and Sarah Fraser of Instinct Dog Behavior & Training in NYC.
I also had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Susan Friedman, who was presenting at the conference, to discuss some concerns regarding the current application of her Humane Hierarchy within the field of dog training. Those concerns, and Dr. Friedman’s own thoughts, will be the subject of an upcoming post.
In the office of my kennel, we have a small iron statue of a Boston Terrier in a display case. His nominal purpose is to model a micro prong collar, but he is actually stationed there for my personal amusement, as a minority of dogs will forever mistake him as a fellow canine. My own dearly departed Parson Russell was one such number. In fact, the statue was a gift from my husband and for a time was stationed in our kitchen, but had to be removed to the kennel due to my Lucy’s determination to fight to the death with it.
Disclaimer: I know nothing about penguins. But I know a thing or two about equipment.
My husband called me from his car to alert me to a story on NPR he thought I needed to hear. I think his exact words were, “So, I’m listening to the radio, and there’s a penguin expert complaining about a new scientific study, and she sounds exactly like you. And she sounds really pissed.”
He was right, though. Her comments in response to the penguin study, the results of which are published in the current issue of the journal Nature, sounded eerily like my comments in response to a number of “shock collar” studies I’ve read. And, in another striking parallel, her tone did come across as rather annoyed.
The study, conducted by a team from the University of Strasbourg in France, claims to answer conclusively the question of whether the flipper bands used by scientists to track penguins in fact significantly compromise their chance of survival. From the radio transcript:
The French team put traditional metal bands on 50 King penguins that live near Antarctica. Fifty others had much smaller radio-frequency transponders. Ten years later, the survival rate for banded birds was 16 percent below the unbanded birds.
Yvon Le Maho, the chief biologist, says at first there was little effect. Then during the first 4.5 years, survival rates for the banded birds dropped about 30 percent below the unbanded birds.
“In other words, only the superathletes are surviving,” Le Maho says.
The numbers were even worse for breeding, banded birds producing 39% fewer chicks.
Le Maho found that banded birds took longer to forage for food in the ocean and they were slower to get to breeding sites in the spring. That meant adults had less time to raise their chicks before heading off for lengthy foraging trips in the winter.
“At some time, they have to leave while their chick is too young and too poor in [reserves of] body fuels to withstand the winter,” Le Maho says.
According to ukwired, the “[French scientists] say continuing to use the tags would in most situations be unethical.” This despite other studies that show such bands to have minimal effect.
“There was a debate about whether bands have an effect or not – and you could find studies and some would say ‘yes’ and some would say ‘no’,” said Claire Saraux from the University of Strasbourg and the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).
“So our idea was to try to make sure – instead of doing one-year studies, to try to find out what’s going on over 10 years,” she told BBC News.
This study… eclipses everything else”
Case closed, non?
But what about that lady on the radio that sounded like me? Dee Boersma is described as one of the world’s leading penguin experts, and it turns out she has a different opinion. From the NPR transcript:
The French study, she says, “shows that the bands that they used on King penguins harmed the King penguins — I have no doubt about that. But all bands are not created equal. It depends on what material that they are made of, it depends on how they are shaped, it depends on how they are fitted to the individual penguin. It depends on what penguin species it is.”
You mean to tell me that all nifty flipper bands are not in fact the same? That the “traditional” bands used in the French study may not fairly represent all such bands? That maybe an aluminum band is mare harmful than a plastic one? That how the bands are applied in the field actually has some relevance? Sacreblue!
But listen for yourself:http://www.npr.org/2011/01/12/132859946/flipper-bands-can-harm-king-penguin-population
(and if that embed doesn’t work, follow the below link)
Oh, and just one more note on the above penguin study. It seems that if we take its results at face value, it may undermine previous studies on the effects of climate change, which have used the survival rate of tracked penguins as an important barometer.
What’s my point? It is that science, at least as practiced by mere humans, is often fallible, and rarely Godlike.
That said, it does seem logical that putting even a minute drag on one of a penguin’s flippers would have some ill-effects over the course of its lifetime, which I understand can be up to 20 years or more. And I agree that this is a problem, both for the penguins themselves, as well as for our ability to take meaningful data from our study of them.
The question is regarding the true scope of this latest study. Its authors claim it is “conclusive,” and that it “eclipses” all previous studies. But is demonstrating scientifically that something can do harm equivalent to demonstrating that it will do harm in a majority of cases? I would say no.
© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.