Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Your personal experience is not the highest truth

In a previous post, I described some common cognitive biases and how they may be relevant to animal training. In this post, I am going to focus on arguably the biggest reason why we believe the things we do, and why it is actually a pretty rubbish thing to base beliefs on. I am talking about personal experience.

Personal experiences are powerful

Personal experiences change the way you see the world. How many times have you heard something like "I wouldn't have believed it, except I saw it myself"? Have you said it yourself? I certainly have. When we have a memorable experience, we naturally become very convinced of it. It only takes one experience to make us into a believer. What happens when we are a believer?

Believers are attached to their beliefs

Believers are highly vulnerable to confirmation bias. As a believer, we preferentially seek evidence that supports our belief. We fail to notice all the times our belief does not hold true. We actively avoid evidence that refutes our belief. We are also vulnerable to cognitive dissonance, which means evidence that refutes our belief makes us feel very uncomfortable. To ease this discomfort, we have three basic choices:

1. We can change our beliefs and/or our actions so that they align with the new information.
2. We can seek new or revisit old information that supports our belief, thus increasing our conviction in it and reducing the conflict created by the refuting information.
3. We can discredit or downplay the refuting information, thus reducing its importance and the conflict it creates.

EVERYONE feels cognitive dissonance sometimes. It is a good reason to be gentle with those that have beliefs that conflict with yours, and give them space to decide how they will handle the dissonance you have brought into their life.

But, I saw/smelled/heard/felt/tasted it!

The tragic thing is that our personal experiences are not reliable. We put far more stock in them than we really should. The senses that we rely upon so heavily are malleable and open to interpretation. Here are some reasons why we should not be so convinced by our own personal experiences:

Memory is malleable - It is quite disturbing how malleable our memories are. Just asking someone if they remember something specific can result in them remembering it when asked again months later, even though it never occurred. False memories have been planted in people in several experiments using doctored photos, fabricated journal entries, and even just suggestion. See Loftus (2005) for a fascinating account. What we remember happening may or may not have actually happened.

People are not very good at probability - We have a poor sense of what is likely and what is unlikely. Unlikely events can actually occur quite often purely by chance where there are large numbers involved. This means we will underestimate the occurrence of coincidences.

People find meaning in meaningless stimuli - We are wired to find meaning and patterns. This is adaptive for us, but it also means we are prone to falsely identifying patterns, and linking two events together that may have actually been unrelated. For example, let's say I tried two training interventions at the same time, as well as homeopathy, and saw an improvement, which resulted in me believing homeopathy is effective, even though the improvement could have been a result of any number of things.

(image source)
We see what we expect to see - Expectation biases prime us to see or hear what we expect to. If I go into an internet discussion, and you are used to disagreeing with me, you will see evidence of my stances you disagree with in what I say, regardless of whether I was thinking about them when I typed my message. This one is particularly dangerous in animal training, because we wouldn't use an intervention we didn't expect to work.

Things have relative meaning to us - We will tend to give things meaning by their relative relationship to other things we know rather than judging them on their own merits. We we will tend to make decisions based on how the information is presented to us, which is known as the framing effect. For example, we could be given the same two choices, but phrased in two different ways, and we might make different decisions based on how the choices were framed. You would think that you would make the same choice every time, but you pick the one that SOUNDS better rather than the one that is logically better.

So, there are a bunch of cognitive things we do that aren't so reliable. So what? I still know what I saw. Science doesn't know everything. And my experiences are valuable. 

Yep, that is your cognitive dissonance talking. Do you know what you saw? Really? Hopefully this article has made you question that, because you should. It is the exact reason why we have a careful and thorough scientific method. Because it is SO HARD to be free of bias. No, science does not know everything, but where there are data and they are of good quality and have been analysed well, we really have a responsibility to think about changing our beliefs if that data conflicts with them. Those data were collected because our personal experiences are unreliable. The data are supposed to be more reliable. And, of course your experiences are valuable. Most especially to you! Studies have been conducted based on personal experiences, and this is a wholly acceptable reason to conduct a study. But, the point is to find out if the personal experiences are true, or just a factor of bias or misinterpretation. Nonetheless, oftentimes in training we don't have scientific data. We only have personal experiences. What should we do? Be as sure of your personal experiences as you can be! That means objective recordings of baseline behaviour so that progress can be tracked throughout treatment. It is tedious, and I am yet to convince a client to do it, but numbers are more convincing than your subjective experiences.


Wicklund, Robert A., and Jack Williams Brehm. Perspectives on cognitive dissonance. Psychology Press, 2013.
Lommen, Miriam JJ, Iris M. Engelhard, and Marcel A. van den Hout. "Susceptibility to long-term misinformation effect outside of the laboratory."European journal of psychotraumatology 4 (2013).
Loftus, Elizabeth F. "Planting misinformation in the human mind: A 30-year investigation of the malleability of memory.Learning & Memory 12.4 (2005): 361-366.
Gigerenzer, Gerd. Calculated risks: How to know when numbers deceive you. Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. "The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth.Cognitive Science 26.5 (2002): 521-562.
Tuyttens, F. A. M., et al. "Observer bias in animal behaviour research: can we believe what we score, if we score what we believe?." Animal Behaviour 90 (2014): 273-280.
Levin, Irwin P., Sandra L. Schneider, and Gary J. Gaeth. "All frames are not created equal: A typology and critical analysis of framing effects."Organizational behavior and human decision processes 76.2 (1998): 149-188.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Dominance in Dogs - Does it exist and what does it mean?

12/8/14 Edits: I have added some things since this went live, to clarify some points I made poorly. Edits appear in italics.

Dominance continues to be an issue of great controversy amongst dog trainers, scientists, and enthusiasts. And little wonder, considering the sometimes inhumane and deeply misguided things people have done to dogs in the name of dominance. A vehement rejection of these practices has led to a wild swing away from dominance, and claims that dominance does not even exist in dogs. It is no small ask, but to truly investigate this issue, we need to put aside our preconceptions and ignore emotional connotations. Come with me on a journey of the science of dominance in domestic dogs, but leave everything you think you know at the door. 

What is dominance?

Before we go anywhere, we first need to know what people mean when they use this word. It has many meanings in different contexts, so let's be clear we are talking about an ecological context, or how animals interact with each other and their environment. Within the ecological context, we are referring specifically to social dominance, which is how individuals interact with each other in order to gain access to resources. Resources are anything that will help an animal survive. Resources are often limited, so an animal in a social group will sooner or later be in competition with others in their group for limited resources. Social living has many benefits when it comes to resources, so social animals need ways to figure out who gets access to resources and when, without getting into fights, which are dangerous. Inevitably, social animals that live together will have many such contests over resources. Dominance becomes stable where one individual is typically dominant over another in a variety of contexts. 

A further development of the dominance concept is to look at "formal dominance", which may be thought of as signals of dominance and submission that are one-sided. These allow animals to avoid aggression in contests and 'negotiate' who will defer to whom. Deference is an important concept, here. The subordinate individual will defer to the dominant animal, and thus, dominance is more often supplied by the subordinate individual, not enforced by the dominant individual. This is important to remember! Trainers that say they are enforcing their dominance over a dog probably don't really understand what it is. Some signals of formal dominance have been proposed in dogs in play and in the presence of resources

Formal dominance signals are one-sided. One dog directs them towards another, but not the other way around. Image 
A dominance construct is most valuable when the dominant animal in any given situation is predictable before there is a contest and an outcome. So, while we might talk about dominance signals and interactions, what we are especially interested in is how these play out in multiple scenarios with different resources, and whether we can predict the outcomes of dominance interactions based on previous interactions or current signals - in other words, dominance relationships. This article will therefore emphasise predictors of dominance, and social groups where there are clear dominance relationships. This does not always occur! Dogs are social acrobats, and can find many paths to group harmony. Don't undersell them by assuming they are on a path without checking if it's the one they are actually on. 

Does dominance exist in domestic dogs' interactions with other dogs?

Yes. The scientific literature is actually quite clear on this point. Studies find that at least between two dogs in situations where they are both exposed to a resource, such as food, one dog will typically win out, usually without violence. This is an evolutionarily stable strategy, and is widespread in social species of all kinds. Check the references listed at the bottom of this post for more details.

Is there a social hierarchy in dogs?

Stable dominance relationships should lead to a linear or almost linear hierarchy. A linear hierarchy is where Dog A is dominant over Dog B, Dog B is dominant over Dog C, and Dog A is dominant over Dog C. A non-linear hierarchy is usually seen in triads. So, Dog A might be dominant over Dog B, Dog B is dominant over Dog C, but Dog C is dominant over Dog A. Furthermore, if there are several individuals in the group, there may be very few dominance interactions between some individuals and far more between others. Imagine that Dog E is 4 dogs from the most dominant dog, Dog A. If Dog A is anywhere near a valued resource, Dog E may be staying well out of the way. It has been argued that dogs may have dominance interactions, but not form a linear hierarchy because in some cases individuals may not interact with each other much at all, and in others, individuals may interact frequently, but no dominant animal is established. Scott and Fuller found in the 60s that some dogs did not establish a dominant and subordinate relationship when in contest with another dog. However, the first study examined a group of male, neutered dogs with no scarce resources, and did no tests for linearity in behaviours. The second established dominance soley through contest over a meaty bone, ignoring formal dominance signals. It may be that these are not good representatives of dog society. Another researcher found that there was little parental behaviour in free-ranging dogs, and no social hierarchy

Social hierarchies come in different types. Image

Other researchers have found evidence for linear hierarchies in domestic dogs. Hierarchies were determined in small numbers of feral dogs in West Bengal (see references to Pal), although it is unclear whether behaviours used to investigate dominance and submission in these studies were asymmetrical like the formal dominance signals discussed earlier. A recent study of 27 free-ranging dogs in Italy examined which behaviours were performed towards which dogs and found that a suite of agonistic (e.g. threat signals, chasing, growling, snarling, etc.) behaviours and submissive (e.g. looking away, flattening ears, tail and head down, crouching, etc.) behaviours were one-sided and their pattern of occurrence within the group was linear. This means that they found behaviours that were good indicators of dominance and submission, predicted which dogs would defer to whom and which dogs would win contests, and this resulted in a linear hierarchy. Another recent study in dogs at a dog daycare centre also found that submissive and agonistic behaviours revealed a linear dominance hierarchy, and a similar study that is yet to be published in full also found a linear dominance hierarchy by the same means, and identified active submissive postures (crouched, on back) and licking muzzle as the best indicators of dominance. 

The take home message here is that linear hierarchies can exist in dogs, but not necessarily must. Dogs in our homes may or may not form a linear hierarchy. Keep in mind one-sidedness. Studies that have found linearity used careful collection and analysis of data. This was not arbitrary, so beware applying it arbitrarily to your own situation. 

But, wasn't dominance in dogs originally extrapolated from studies on captive wolves, which were later found to be flawed?

Dominance in wolves is alive and well. Image
Yes. Which does not mean dominance does not occur in dogs. It means that the original studies in wolves a) should not have been based on artificial groups in captivity where stress may have heightened conflict, and b) should not have been applied to dogs. Data can actually be collected on dog social groups. And where that data has been collected, dominance exists, and social hierarchies are often recorded. To be absolutely clear about the wolf situation, wolves certainly do have social dominance. It is just more a factor of age and experience than the exchange of dominance and submission signals - although, age is a factor in dogs as well, with older dogs usually being more dominant. Some canine researchers argue that dominance in dogs is actually quite similar to dominance in wolves based purely on data and behaviours that indicate dominance. 

Does social dominance apply in our homes where resources are plentiful?

The work by Bradshaw et al. and Trisko suggests that it probably depends to some extent on the individuals that make up the group, who will in turn dictate the unique dynamics of that group. Resources aplenty may reduce or remove a lot of the pressure on dogs to form hierarchies. But, dogs are opportunistic by nature. They don't necessarily know that resources are plentiful, or care. There are also situations in homes where resources may not be plentiful. Proximity to and attention from an attachment figure (e.g. owner), high value food like bones, food that is dropped on the floor accidentally are all likely to be in limited supply, and some dogs may just never feel that their resources are safe. That may be because it's not (e.g. humans or other dogs regularly take them), or it may be because they live in a generally unpredictable environment, or it could just be that is who they are. It is not necessarily because a leader in the group has not stepped forward to tell them when they can and can't have something.

Does dominance play a role in interactions between dogs and humans?

It is sometimes argued that the concept of dominance in the dog-human relationship may well do more harm than good. It is also sometimes argued that dogs obviously know humans are not dogs, and they do treat humans differently to dogs, so perhaps do not consider them as part of their social group. My research group published a review paper in 2012 that makes the point that dogs use dog language to try to communicate with people, just as people use people language to try to communicate with dogs. If dogs are using their own social language to communicate with us, is it reasonable to assume that they view us as social objects? If they view us as social objects, could they consider us potential competitors in some situations? Considering resource guarding can certainly be directed towards humans, maybe so. 

This is not to draw a line between resource guarding and dominance. There are many reasons why a dog may resource guard and it is not considered a good indicator of dominance. Studies found submission the strongest indicator, followed by agonistic and dominant behaviours or postures. Remember that to establish a rank, there needs to be one-sidedness in multiple scenarios. If a dog still greets you with lots of submission, the fact that they also resource guard against you simply means that it's probably not because they think they are socially dominant. 

Does dominance play a role in dog training?

This is a really key question, and not easy to answer. In general training, it probably has little bearing. However, owner-directed aggression is not uncommon, and is frequently assessed as caused by social conflict between dog and human, or possession aggression. Many dogs may exclusively display submissive signals towards humans and never present a problem on this front. Many people almost instinctively instigate something like Plenty In Life Is Free (PILIF), Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF), Learn to Earn, Say Please, or variations thereof. These protocols do many things (check my post on NILIF for details), but one key thing is they train a dog to defer to humans over resources. A dog learns that to get what they desire, they must first follow the directions of the human. This may be quite protective against social conflict between human and dog. For those dogs that do display dominant signals towards humans, it is critical to assess why before attempting a treatment. Dominance is not simply all owner-directed aggression, and a dog may try to control a situation that distresses them by directing the same agonistic behaviours and signals that they may use in dominance interactions with other dogs towards humans that are distressing them. Treating a dog that does not feel safe with a deference protocol is unlikely to make it feel safe. Safety trumps everything, including dominance and dominance hierarchies, and therefore must be considered first and foremost in any behavioural problem. Furthermore, where dominance signals and threats are being directed towards a human and there is an absence of submissive signals in any context, it should absolutely not be treated in any way that is even remotely confrontational, and that includes how you might apply a deference protocol. A multi-pronged and non-confrontational treatment tailored by a behaviourist is recommended. 

Dominance and leadership - what it ain't

It is most important to stress that dominance and leadership in dog society is not typically aggressive, and submissive behaviours are better predictors of social rank than dominance or aggressive behaviours. Leadership is not demanded by a dominant member, but maintained by subordinates WANTING to be close to leaders and therefore following them. Dominance interactions are often a very subtle exchange of signals that we as humans could not hope to copy, not least of all because we do not have things like mobile ears and tails that are important parts of this communication. A few general recommendations can be extracted from this literature exploration.

1) The clumsiness of human body language is not suited to the subtlety of dominance and submission signalling in dogs. Trying to talk dominance to your dog the way a dog would is likely to result in excessively strong signals to a dog, which may in turn be confusing, threatening, or obnoxious. This could in fact provoke aggression rather than reduce it. Alpha rolls, poking or kicking, making harsh noises, staring at dogs... all of these signals are over-bearing and intimidating to dogs. They will act submissive because you are threatening them and they don't understand why. They are trying to tell you that whatever you want, you can have it, just please don't hurt them. Or they may just retaliate and bite you.

Dominance is often given through submission rather than enforced by the dominant individual.

2) Dominance is not demanded or enforced so much as offered by a dog's own free will through submission. Dogs can be taught to habitually defer to humans through a deference protocol such as NILIF. It needn't be strict and should not be harsh. Routine rules like going through doors first, eating first, and insisting dogs stay behind you or below you are not necessary and oftentimes meaningless to dogs. Dogs are usually focused on resources that are important to them in the moment and how to get them rather than social status as an abstract concept. Unless they show you that these things are resources to them by attempting to secure and protect access to them, there is no need to pay any attention to them yourself. Even then, dominance can be taken neatly out of the picture in most cases by simply making access to resources happen when the dog does as you ask them to. Be careful not to confuse simple resources with concepts of dominance. A bed may put a dog higher and closer to you, and you might think it yours, but it's also very comfortable, and it smells like you, whom they want to be close to. That is what matters to them, not that it's yours. 

3) If you want to be a good leader for your dog, you should be the kind of person they want to be around. Being the kind of person that gives them clear instructions and makes it rewarding to follow those instructions will make you attractive to your dog. 

A final word - Is my dog dominant over me? Or my other dog? Or a dog at the park? Or the mailman?

I wrote this article because I was tired of attempting to explain over and over that actually, science has NOT debunked dominance in dogs, or dominance hierarchies, or dogs as pack animals, for that matter, although I didn't cover that one. Just because it is a poorly understood concept does not mean it has no value or that it should be discarded, and to discard it is to run against current scientific thinking. If we accept dominance in dogs, it does not mean that we have to therefore accept that we must dominate our dogs, or that rank reduction is sensible, or that our dogs are out to rule the household, if not, the world. On the contrary, we just need to understand what it's for - reducing conflict. This may leave you wondering whether there is an aspect of dominance to your own relationship with your dog, or your dog's relationships with other dogs. Here is a simple, practical guide. Please note that research in this area is lacking, and this could change in the future.

1. Remember there are dominance interactions and dominance relationships. Your dog may negotiate with others over resources using dominance and submission signals, yet not have a clear dominance relationship with those individuals. In other words, there may be plenty of peaceful give and take and no clearly dominant or subordinate individuals.
2. Submission is the best predictor of dominance, so if a dog is submissive towards you in greetings, and defers to you (looks to you for direction) around resources, your dog probably sees you as dominant in your relationship, even if it is aggressive towards you in other scenarios. Aggression does not equal dominance. 
3. Dominance interactions are defined by outcomes (who gets the resource), and should be thought of as a two-way negotiation towards a peaceful outcome. A dominance relationship is where that negotiation has been successfully made many times before, and barely needs to be made anymore. Negotiations should become quite subtle and non-aggressive, and may be barely detectable. If you have a dog that is routinely aggressive or threatening and shows dominance signals in several scenarios, and rarely shows submissive signals, the dog may perceive the dominance relationship as unstable, which is super stressful for the dog. This should be dealt with by a professional behaviourist. It is the exact situation where attempting to enforce dominance is dangerous, and fights between dogs can escalate. 


Boitani L, Ciucci P, Ortolani A. 2007. Behaviour and social ecology of free-ranging dogs. In: Jensen P, editor. The behavioural biology of dogs. Wallingford (UK): CAB International. p. 147–165. 
Bauer, Erika B., and Barbara B. Smuts. "Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris.Animal Behaviour 73.3 (2007): 489-499.
Bradshaw, John WS, Emily J. Blackwell, and Rachel A. Casey. "Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?." Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 4.3 (2009): 135-144.
Scott, John Paul, ed. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Cafazzo, Simona, et al. "Dominance in relation to age, sex, and competitive contexts in a group of free-ranging domestic dogs." Behavioral Ecology 21.3 (2010): 443-455.
Trisko, R.K., 2011. Dominance, Egalitarianism and Friendship at a Dog Day Care Facility. PhD Thesis. University of Michigan.
van der Borg, J.A.M., Schilder, M.B.H., Vinke, C., 2012. Dominance and its Behavioural
Measures in Group Housed Domestic Dogs. Proceeding in Canine Science Forum 2012, Barcelona. 
Schilder, Matthijs BH, Claudia M. Vinke, and Joanne AM van der Borg. "Dominance in domestic dogs revisited: Useful habit and useful construct?"Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research (2014).
Rooney, Nicola J., John WS Bradshaw, and Ian H. Robinson. "A comparison of dog–dog and dog–human play behaviour." Applied Animal Behaviour Science66.3 (2000): 235-248.
McGreevy, Paul D., et al. "An overview of the dog–human dyad and ethograms within it.Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research7.2 (2012): 103-117.
Fatjo, Jaume, et al. "Analysis of 1040 cases of canine aggression in a referral practice in Spain." Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 2.5 (2007): 158-165.
Bonanni, Roberto, et al. "Effect of affiliative and agonistic relationships on leadership behaviour in free-ranging dogs." Animal Behaviour 79.5 (2010): 981-991.
Herron, Meghan E., Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner. "Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117.1 (2009): 47-54.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Boldness in Dogs

As part of my PhD project, I conducted a survey on dog personality. This is a summary of the findings with a little commentary on personality in dogs.

Why study dog personality?

The study of dog personality may play an important role in better understanding our dogs and why they behave the way they do. Different dogs can respond to signals and experiences in a variety of ways. Some of that variation may be explained by their personality. Finding ways to measure personality so that dogs’ personalities can be compared may eventually help us learn how individual dogs are likely to behave in the future, and how we might be able to select dogs that suit particular roles, and support or manage dogs that may have difficulties in human society because of who they are.

How do you study dog personality?

There are two main ways to measure personality in dogs. One is by recording behaviour, and the other is by asking people who know the dogs to answer questions about their behaviour. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, recording behaviour produces very high quality data, but only shows the dog’s behaviour in a limited set of circumstances. Surveys can collect data on a dog’s behaviour in a much broader set of circumstances that may better represent their usual behaviour, and can collect a lot more data. But on the downside, it’s difficult to determine how people interpret questions in the survey and how much of their dog’s behaviour they are aware of. There are ways around this, though. We can investigate whether different people that know a dog answer the questions the same way, which is called inter-rater agreement. We can also check whether the results from surveys are repeatable by having people do the survey twice, which is called test-retest reliability. And we can check whether answers to survey questions are related to dog behaviour that is recorded by scientists. Kenth Svartberg has published several papers along these lines, which can be found online for free. 

Survey data is subjective. That does not mean it is not scientific. It can be dealt with in very scientific ways. If I had a dollar for every time someone said a survey was flawed, or survey data was useless because it was too subjective, well... I'd be able to eat out for a day. Anyway, my survey was, like most scientific surveys, carefully researched and planned. It was constructed to investigate the shy-bold axis and coping styles in dogs. The shy-bold axis is known from a range of species, from fish to humans. Several studies in dogs have examined how boldness may be seen in dog behaviour (see Svartberg's work). A survey and recording behaviour were both used in these studies, and it was found behaviour recorded and answers to the survey were related in some areas, showing that the survey questions were meaningful. Many of those questions were incorporated into my survey. My survey also included some questions on coping styles, which refers to the way individuals may tend to behave when stressed. These questions were new and therefore it wasn’t clear if they would be meaningful.

Survey results

The first step in analysing the survey data was to find out if there were patterns in the answers provided that could describe personality traits. This was done using a Principal Components Analysis (PCA), which is a way to find out (in this case) how traits can be described by people's answers to several related questions? There was one such pattern. This trait included high scores for willingness to approach strangers whether they were humans or dogs, and for willingness to play with other dogs or humans. The trait also included low scores for anxiety or fear related to dogs or humans or novel objects. This is quite similar to – although not exactly the same as – how boldness has been described in other studies of dogs. So we called this trait boldness.

The next step was to see if boldness was influenced by other factors. We tested if it was influenced by the dog’s age, their breed, their breed group, their sex, whether they were desexed or entire, where they were obtained from, how old they were when obtained, and the age and gender of their owner. The results were very interesting. No characteristics of the owners or where and when the dogs were obtained had an effect on boldness. Boldness was influenced by breed, and by breed group. The boldest group was the guardian group, which included mastiff types, livestock guardians, and the Doberman. The next boldest group was the spitz breeds, including sled dogs, Akitas, and Shiba Inu. Next was the gundog group, including retrievers, pointers, spaniels and setters. Next boldest was the herding group, then the terrier group, and then the sighthound group, which included such breeds as greyhounds and whippets. Next was mixed breeds, then scenthounds such as beagles and harriers, and the least bold group was the companion group, which included toy breeds. These results are shown below. 

Relative boldness in breed groups. Asterisks show significantly difference to Companion group. X-axis labels: Guardian, Northern, Gundog, Herding, Terrier, Sighthound, Mixed, Scenthound, Companion. 
The herding and gundog groups were broken down again into sub-groups based on their original purpose. The tending sub-group (GSD, Belgian shepherds) was the boldest, then loose-eyed (e.g. Collie, Shetland sheepdog), heading (e.g. Border collies, Kelpies), and driving (e.g. Cattle dogs). In the gundog group, the retrievers were the boldest, and all other gundog sub-groups were about the same.

Male dogs were significantly bolder than female dogs, and entire dogs of both sexes were significantly bolder than desexed dogs of both sexes. Previous studies have also identified male dogs as bolder than female dogs, and entire dogs bolder than desexed dogs. However the effect in previous studies wasn’t always strong or consistent. The effects of desexing on a dog’s personality are not well understood, but this is one of several studies to present data that suggest there is an effect. 

Most interestingly, boldness decreased as age increased. So older dogs were less bold than younger dogs. This suggests that boldness is not fixed and may change over the course of a dog’s life. Older dogs may be less inclined to be social, which has been seen in other species.

The boldest breeds were generally the most popular breeds in Australia based on ANKC registration numbers. For example, Labrador retrievers, Rottweilers, Miniature poodles, German shepherd dogs, and Staffordshire bull terriers all had high boldness scores and are amongst the most popular breeds in their respective breed groups, which raises an interesting question of whether they are popular because they are bold or if their popularity has prompted selective breeding towards boldness.

Final word

I admit to feeling frustrated about the state of dog personality research. For all that we have tools like inter-rater agreement and test-retest reliability to assess the validity of survey data, I don't know that it really does enough validating. Inter-rater agreement seems to vary with the trait in question, typically being high in dogs for most traits, but low in others (e.g. Ley et al. 2009; Sinn et al. 2010; Rooney et al. 2007), which is not well understood. Possible explanations for this include different levels of acquaintance with the dogs in question, communication between raters, how well each rater understands the species, and whether some animals or traits are inherently harder to judge than others (see Gosling 2001 for further discussion). We know this, yet studies tend to be designed to discover whether there is inter-rater agreement rather than identifying reasons why inter-rater agreement may be different between traits, so the discrepancies remain a mystery. Similar problems exist in test-retest reliability procedures that test the stability of traits and whether their measurement is repeatable over time. High test-retest reliability has been reported for some traits over short time-frames (up to 6 months), but lower over longer periods of time (1-2 years). Discrepancies also exist between studies. For example, aggression was reported to have high test-retest reliability over 6 months in one study, but low in another over the same period. These inconsistencies were also shown in a recent meta-analysis of dog personality studies, although the study nevertheless concluded there was moderate consistency in personality traits reported in the dog literature. Discrepancies in results may be because of one or more of a variety of conditions, such as a lack of standardisation in methodology, subjectivity of interpretation of behavioural observations, or a lack of validation of both behavioural observations and data collected by a survey. Validity is supposed to mean we know we are collecting data on what we say we are collecting data on. How can we say surveys are valid if it kind of depends on what part of the survey you are talking about and we're not entirely sure why that is? The field may benefit from a more mathematical approach to defining personality, perhaps based on probabilities of performing various behaviours and measurements such as latencies, extinction curves, and standardising the number of trials. More numbers, I say! Perhaps this could iron out some of the inconsistencies and allow for better validation. In this way, a framework for understanding and explaining personality may be built from validated data rather than fitting the data to an already established (and possibly invalid) framework. And that's my 2 cents.

Further reading

Starling, M., Branson, N., Thomson, P., McGreevy, P. (2013). “Boldness” in the domestic dog differs among breeds and breed groups. Behavioural Processes, 97, 53-62. 
Starling, M., Branson, N., Thomson, P., McGreevy, P. (2013). Age, sex and reproductive status affect boldness in dogs. The Veterinary Journal, 197 (3) 868–872
Ley, Jacqui M., Pauleen C. Bennett, and Grahame J. Coleman. "A refinement and validation of the Monash Canine Personality Questionnaire (MCPQ)."Applied animal behaviour science 116.2 (2009): 220-227.

Svartberg, Kenth. "A comparison of behaviour in test and in everyday life: evidence of three consistent boldness-related personality traits in dogs."Applied Animal Behaviour Science 91.1 (2005): 103-128.

Sinn, David L., Samuel D. Gosling, and Stewart Hilliard. "Personality and performance in military working dogs: Reliability and predictive validity of behavioral tests." Applied animal behaviour science 127.1 (2010): 51-65.

Rooney, Nicola Jane, et al. "Validation of a method for assessing the ability of trainee specialist search dogs." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 103.1 (2007): 90-104.

Netto, Willem J., and Doreen JU Planta. "Behavioural testing for aggression in the domestic dog." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52.3 (1997): 243-263.

Goddard, M. E., and R. G. Beilharz. "Individual variation in agonistic behaviour in dogs.Animal Behaviour 33.4 (1985): 1338-1342.

Fratkin, Jamie L., et al. "Personality consistency in dogs: a meta-analysis."PloS one 8.1 (2013): e54907.

Gosling, Samuel D. "From mice to men: what can we learn about personality from animal research?." Psychological bulletin 127.1 (2001): 45.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Stanwell Park Beach and the Scarborough Hotel

The Sutherland Shire is full of great places to take dogs, but it's also right by the northern Illawarra, which is also full of great places to take dogs. On Good Friday, we took our two dogs for a little sojourn down the coast. First a play at the beach, and then lunch in the dog friendly beer garden at the Scarborough Hotel.

Stanwell Park Beach. Image - Hadi Zaher

Stanwell Park Beach

Stanwell Park is a really gorgeous place just south of the Royal National Park. To get there from the Shire, you can either come down the freeway and exit at the Helensburg exit, then travel down Lawrence Hargrave Drive, which does a strange, tight turn to the right at Stanwell Tops just before Bald Hill Reserve where there are often hang-gliders when the wind is good. It then winds down the hill and goes through Stanwell Park. Exit off Lawrence Hargrave Drive just as you come into Stanwell Park. There is an access road where there are a few shops. Then take the second left onto Station St, which takes you down to a car park. You need to cross the creek to get to the unrestricted dog area, which runs along the north side of the grassy reserve. There is a cute footbridge. 

The other option coming from the Shire is to go through the Royal National Park. It is a nice drive, but if you have dogs you cannot stop in the park or you could be fined. You can come through from the Loftus end and simply drive all the way through on Lady Wakehurst Drive. Or you can enter the park just by Waterfall Station and travel down McKell Rd until you reach the T-intersection with Lady Wakehurst and turn right. Lady Wakehurst Drive eventually butts into Lawrence Hargrave Drive at the intersection just past Bald Hill.

There is one main beach in Stanwell Park, and the part of it that is north of the lagoon is open to dogs at any time and the other part south of the lagoon is open to dogs on a timed arrangement. In the summer (September school holidays to ANZAC day), dogs are allowed on this part of the beach before 9am and after 6pm. The rest of the year, dogs are allowed here before 9am and after 4pm. There is a very large grassy area where dogs must be on leash adjacent to the beach. There is also a children's playground, BBQ facilities, and a cafe where dogs are not allowed. 

South of the lagoon (outlined in orange) is a timed zone for dogs. North (outlined in green) is unrestricted.


The unrestricted part of the beach north of the lagoon is relatively small compared to other dog beaches in the area. It is about 200m long, so long enough for a game of fetch and a swim, but not a long walk. At low tide it is larger and you can go onto the rock platform. South of the lagoon is another roughly 500m of beach dogs can go on as well if you visit early or late in the day.


Stanwell Park is a small community and people are very friendly in our experience. The beach carries the same dangers of potential fish hooks and pufferfish that any other beach carries. It is back from the road, but there are no dunes between the beach and the road. There are tall cliffs of sandstone at the northern end. They are beautiful, but don't get too close. There are signs warning of falling rocks.

Other dogs and owners

We don't visit Stanwell Park Beach often. In our limited experience, it has been no different to any other dog beach in the Illawarra. There are other dogs, they are off leash, owners vary in how they manage their dogs. However, we were there on a public holiday with spectacular weather and we only saw a few other dogs. 

Further notes

There are some bird species on beaches and rock platforms in the Illawarra that are threatened. As such, if you see them, please be responsible and keep your dogs from bothering these birds. The most common one we see is the Sooty Oystercatcher. It is unmistakable. It is a large, black bird with a long, bright, orange/red beak.

Keep dogs away from Sooty Oystercatchers. Image Duade Paton.

The Scarborough Hotel

The Scarborough Hotel is a short drive south from Stanwell Park Beach. Back on Lawrence Hargrave Drive, over the spectacular Sea Cliff Bridge (which you can stop and walk the length of with the dogs if you wish - it's about 1km and the views are lovely), and about another 2-3 km south. The Scarborough is on Lawrence Hargrave Dr. There is a car park, but at busy times it is likely to be full. There is street parking around, though, and another couple of car parks just north of the hotel.

This place gets very busy in nice weather on weekends and public holidays, but the dog friendly beer garden out the back is quite large, and has great views of the ocean. To access the beer garden without going through the hotel, walk down past the main entrance to a disabled access next to a second car park. There is a pool fence and gate. 

Beer garden at the Scarborough Hotel.

The beer garden is pretty big, so even if there are other dogs there, you can be comfortably away from them if your dog is likely to get upset about other dogs nearby. Be sensible and keep your dog on leash and make sure it doesn't bother other patrons. We had several people come up to us to meet our dogs, but you know, our dogs are stunningly attractive and perfectly behaved and all that. ;)

The food at the Scarborough is pretty decent. There is only one vegetarian meal on the menu (a pumpkin salad), and otherwise it is standard pub fair. The quality of the food is quite good, and the hot chips are excellent. They are well equipped to handle the holiday crowds. I recommend the Mars bar cheesecake. It is surprisingly understated!

Keep your eyes out for whales in the right season (April-August and September-November). I think there are a few rocky reefs around the hotel that would keep them farther out, but you never know. We often see whales from several headlands in the northern Illawarra. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Negative Reinforcement - The good, the bad, and the ugly

Disclaimer: I am mostly a behavioural scientist. I know about animal behaviour from the outside. I know about measuring emotional states, assessing welfare, and looking for behavioural indicators of stress. Some of the topics in these blog posts on negative reinforcement are not my strongest areas. I can only offer my interpretation of the literature. I am certainly open to discussing alternative interpretations.

Negative reinforcement (R-, NR) is an operant conditioning quadrant. Quadrants basically predict how stimuli will affect the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of future behaviour depending on whether they are rewarding or punishing and whether they are added or taken away. In the case of negative reinforcement, future behaviour increases in frequency, duration and/or intensity when something is taken away. In other words, the animal will learn to perform a behaviour in order to gain relief from something they find aversive. Some well known trainers have created what's called a humane hierarchy of training methods as a guide to rank training methods on how humane an intervention they represent. Negative reinforcement is conspicuously far up on these humane hierarchies, prompting many trainers to stringently avoid it. This seems like a tenuous reason to condemn an entire learning quadrant. It makes a few very broad assumptions, such as even the mildest aversive experiences strong enough for an animal to want to avoid have no place in training behaviour. Is having someone brush past you, making you feel too close to them so that you step away really the same beast as having someone scream in your face until you move? I use extreme examples to show the breadth of the quadrant we're talking about. Some forms of negative reinforcement are extremely mild and some are jumping on the toes of downright punishment. And is avoiding an aversive experience always less humane than, say, reinforcing a different behaviour. Has anyone ever asked you to do something still like lie down when you'd rather be running away? But you can have a chocolate if you lie down. Thanks, but I think I'll run.  So what's the story? Can negative reinforcement be a humane way to train an animal? How do we assess that? Let's have a good look at the related scientific literature and see if we can reason out an answer. 

Susan Friedman's "humane hierarchy"

It would seem like the place to start is examining what it feels like for an animal to be negatively reinforced. Perhaps this is the most important question and yet the hardest to answer. I can present what we know of emotions and welfare in animals. I am hesitant to delve into neurotransmitters, neuroanatomy, and stress physiology because it is not my area of expertise. My understanding of the literature may be simplistic. Yet, there are claims being made that negative reinforcement should be avoided on that basis, so let's have a quick look at it. 


These are chemicals that carry signals throughout the brain. The type of neurotransmitter is important, as is where it is going, but do not for a second think that this is remotely straight forward. The brain is crazy complicated, and very adaptable. Our understanding of it is not complete. Some neurotransmitters are associated with 'good' emotional experiences. One example is dopamine, which is heavily implicated in reward and the anticipation of good things happening. That is a good feeling! But, the lack of a certain type of dopamine receptor inhibits learning of both positive and negative associations with a physical place, and an active avoidance task. That suggests dopamine is implicated in unpleasant feelings as well... All right, so there's also serotonin involved in negative reinforcement. According to recent research, serotonin may have a role to play in how both rewarding (appetitive) and punishing (aversive) stimuli are processed. What does that mean? It means we don't really know exactly what serotonin does and we are probably going to need to study specific serotonin receptors to better understand it. So then there is noradrenaline, (or norepinephrine to use the American name), which is implicated in negative reinforcement learning and also features strongly in stress responses. Its role in stress responses is largely an arousing one, which, as it happens, appears to enhance memory and learning in discrimination tasks. It would be important in understanding what this all means to an animal to know where the neurotransmitters were going and what neural systems were involved. I would go into this except it would probably take me years to understand it enough to be able to condense it into a blog post. Suffice to say, nothing is straight forward in the brain. Even the amygdala, which everyone 'knows' is all about fear, flight and fight and freezing, also plays a critical role in positive emotional states


The concern about neurotransmitters and neuroanatomy involved in negative reinforcement may be in its association with stress and negative emotional states. So let's try there for some clearer answers. Is negative reinforcement stressful to animals? First, let's define what we mean by 'stressful', here. The body's stress response is very adaptive and can handle everything from minor stressors such as being hungry to major "I'm going to die" moments. And it covers positive experiences as well. A dog that is chasing a ball is very aroused and will be experiencing elevated stress hormones. The strength of a stress response is typically proportional to the intensity of the emotion associated with it. A strong stress response associated with a negative event basically means a lot of fear or anger, but a weak stress response means being a little perturbed. The strength of stress responses can be measured in a variety of ways, but most commonly through concentrations of stress-related hormones such as cortisol, either in blood, urine, or saliva. It is not quite an exact science. Check out this excellent blog post for a really nice summary of the issues. At any rate, lots of normal, everyday things raise cortisol concentrations, and cortisol (and glucocorticoids, and other stress-related hormones) are not "bad" per se; we need them! This system is fabulous at what it does, which is to keep us engaged and motivated when we need to be, and to keep us safe and help us recognise opportunities and threats and take appropriate action. We can't learn without stress, and we don't remember things that weren't very stressful all that well. But stress can be very unpleasant, and prolonged or frequent stress responses are dangerous and can cause serious disease and illness. Most people in modern society have experienced chronic stress in some form. It is not fun. To delve into this fascinating topic more, I cannot recommend Professor Robert Sapolsky enough. He has many videos available free on YouTube and his book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" is entertaining and very informative and still one of my favourites. 

Stress is also not always as simple as isolated events. There are unique stress responses for all kinds of stressors, which speaks to just how finely tuned stress responses are. There is a large body of literature on uncontrollable versus controllable stressors and how exposure to various kinds of stressors moulds future stress responses. All of these changes are 'good' in that they are adaptive and help animals best handle the cards they have been dealt. But some hands are terrible and the best you can do is try to minimise how much you lose out. Some hands offer the beginnings of a better hand down the track.  An example of where stress adaptation may be the beginnings of something better is in what is usually called stress inoculation. Animals that have learned to control stressors are more resilient in the face of future stressors. They try for longer to make things better for themselves when they are stressed, which means they are more likely to succeed and less likely to sink into despondency. They also show more curiosity, better emotional processing, and better cognitive control. All of these things are good for an individual animal. It will help an animal respond appropriately to stress and also handle mild challenges in their life better, such as social situations and impulse control.

So if stress is an important part of everyday life and plays critical roles not just in keeping us safe, but also motivating us, helping us remember and learn, and in some cases has a positive effect on future experiences and responses to stress, then how do we assess the role of stress in negative reinforcement and whether it is good stress, unpleasant stress, or beneficial stress?

At a basic level, looking at what animals find negatively reinforcing can tell us what they wish to avoid, and therefore, what they find unpleasant. Indeed, this has been proposed as an indicator of welfare by a leading animal welfare scientist. And we do find indications that training animals with negative reinforcement results in less approach behaviour towards people, and stronger emotional responses towards people, and these animals are also less engaged with their handlers than animals trained with positive reinforcement. And this brings us to an enormous body of research in avoidance learning, which is where things get interesting.

Active avoidance and stress inoculation

Avoidance is something we all do, keeping ourselves safe, comfortable, and healthy. Lots of research has been done on avoidance learning in animals, but I'm going to focus on active avoidance because it is most like what trainers do when they use negative reinforcement to train animals. Active avoidance is where an animal performs a behaviour on cue to avoid an aversive event. An example we might see often with animals is dashing under furniture to hide when a child comes into the room. The presence of the child cues the avoidance behaviour. Another variation is escape behaviour, where the animal learns to perform a behaviour to 'switch off' an aversive experience. So the animal dashes under the furniture when the child is too rough with it. Both are sensible strategies. The animal gains immediate refuge. But we wouldn't think this was necessarily an ideal sequence of events. Active avoidance is associated with a large elevation in cortisol concentration during the learning phase. It is distressing for animals when they are exposed to something unpleasant. Their distress is generally proportional to how strong the unpleasant experience is (brushing past vs yelling in face). And if their response (run and hide) is one that requires a fair bit of energy, their arousal will be elevated as soon as they see what they will need to run from. Heightened arousal means more intense feelings. Furthermore, if their response isn't always reliable in gaining them refuge, or they sometimes miss the cue, or the cue comes often and randomly, that is a layer of uncertainty that will make them very vigilant and very focused on potential threats to the point where they are likely to see them where they don't exist. All in all, not good.

But what if they are exposed to something unpleasant and have a reliable way to handle it? Is it just as distressing? A significant drop in cortisol concentrations occurs once an avoidance behaviour has stabilised. It does not drop to baseline, because it is arousing to perform an avoidance behaviour no matter how nonchalantly. But the drop in cortisol correlates with an increase in behaviours associated with a relaxed state, suggesting that fear has diminished quite a lot. Commonly, there is no outward appearance of fear or distress, and this nonchalance has been noted by several researchers. Animals are not frantically performing an avoidance behaviour to stave off the bad things. In fact, they tend to wait until the last possible moment to perform it and otherwise go about their usual business. Humans also report reduced fear and an increased sense of control when they use active avoidance during phobia treatment. Furthermore, studies suggest that animals that are taught active behaviours to successfully avoid aversive experiences learn to suppress their natural freezing responses, which in turn enables them to control the stressor through operant means. Freezing up helplessly is considerably worse from a stress perspective than actively coping because it is probably experienced more intensely. Active coping also leads to stress inoculation, which we have already discussed. 

So it seems like successful avoidance is not necessarily associated with significant fear or distress. How could that be? The animals still don't like the aversive they are trying to avoid, right? If they are trying to avoid something it must be unpleasant. That's what Dawkins' suggestion for negative reinforcers as indicators of poor welfare was all about. It turns out there may be some pretty cool and strange things going on...

Safety signals

Bear with me while I give a brief but necessary background, here. A safety signal tells an animal that they are safe in the immediate future. It is trained by giving the animal an aversive experience and then pairing the ABSENCE of that aversive experience with a particular signal. So the signal comes to mean "You are safe for now". Safety signals appear to be able to inhibit fear surrounding an uncontrollable aversive experience AND inhibit the anxiety expressed after that event. This is pretty amazing stuff when you think about it. Safety signals themselves are not entirely negative reinforcement because no response is necessary so no particular behaviour is being reinforced, although an aversive experience is required in order to train one. But, an operant behaviour can take on a similar role, and these are learned through negative reinforcement.

Safety behaviours

 New research shows that it is inherently rewarding to avoid an expected aversive event - in other words, avoidance itself can be a form of positive reinforcement. Wha...? How does THAT work?? It has been suggested that there comes a point where an animal is not so much avoiding the aversive stimulus but approaching safety. Let's call these safety behaviours. It's not necessarily an official name. This is a pretty poorly understood area of science and I am not aware of anyone that has tested whether these behaviours have the same properties as a safety signal. They can be escape behaviours or avoidance behaviours in that they may switch off something unpleasant or avoid it completely, and that's how they become safety behaviours. It seems like a slippery distinction that could be used to justify some quite terrible things that are done to animals using negative reinforcement in the name of training, so let's be very clear about what this means. Safety has to be real to be sought. This means several things for the development of safety behaviours: 

1) It needs to be very clear to the animal that safety has now been attained - ideally, a specific signal (safety signal, possibly a cue or marker can take on this role). 
2) That safety has to be real and meaningful to the animal, not simply declared by a trainer or handler. 
3) Learning a behaviour to attain safety is actually quite hard in many circumstances, because animals already have natural behaviours they will tend to use when they feel threatened. If they are being taught a behaviour that runs counter to their goals (i.e. get distance from the scary thing), they may never be reliable or never learn it at all. 
4) The effectiveness of safety signals are inversely proportional to the strength of the threatening stimulus - in other words, the ability of safety signals to inhibit fear is influenced by arousal. The more threatening something is, the more aroused an animal becomes, and the more aroused they are, the less effective a safety signal will be in inhibiting fear. In short, if someone routinely threatens to clobber you with a baseball bat, it won't make you feel very safe to know that they never will as long as you run to the other side of the room whenever they make the threat. But if someone routinely threatens to swat you with a newspaper, knowing they won't as long as you run to the other side of the room probably will make you feel pretty nonchalant about the threat. 
5) Animals that are regularly becoming afraid are most likely going to become pessimistic, even if they are practiced at avoiding aversive experiences and seeking safety. 

There is no line between "animals like safety" and "I should therefore create scenarios in training where I can reward them with safety." They like safety, but they like tangible rewards more, and if we want happy, optimistic animals, we should be very much focused on giving them as many opportunities to access tangible rewards as we can. We should also be very aware that their sense of safety comes first to the point where if they feel unsafe they will be primarily motivated to seek safety. Food, play, social contact... all of these things come secondary to seeking safety. We should therefore make their safety our first priority. Compromising their sense of safety ourselves is not clever and runs counter to our goals if we want happy animals first and foremost. Training safety signals and safety behaviours can and should be done opportunistically. If you are able to keep your dog safe and protected from aversive experiences at all times, you do not need safety signals. Although it may mean your animal is both more sensitive to aversive experiences and may experience them more intensely. I do not believe it is in any animal's best interests to attempt to protect them from all aversive experiences. They have evolved a truly wondrous system to handle them, just as we have. We just have to be careful that what they experience is well within their coping abilities and does not have a lasting impact on their mood or health. 

Animals look after their safety first and foremost.

Safety behaviours can also play a role in the treatment fears and phobias by increasing the acceptability of exposure. This has, to my knowledge, only been done in humans where safety behaviours can be quite problematic. However, in some circumstances they can offer a stepping stone to further treatment, making sufferers feel less fear during exposure and they tend to approach closer to the object of their fear. I have done this with a wild hare and found indications of similar results. The hare was taught to 'ask' for space by pulling away from me. If he pulled away, I respectfully did not follow or I backed up. He soon began allowing me to touch his flanks, head, and legs, which put him in a very vulnerable position, as if I had wanted to grab him (something that is probably always on a hare's mind), I was in an excellent position to do so. 

Emotional state

All this talk about the ambiguity in neuroscience, stress, and even approach and avoidance behaviours has left us with a bit of a quandary. If neuroscience is crazy complicated, and sometimes stress is good, and sometimes avoidance is positive reinforcement, and safety signals inhibit fear, and negative reinforcement can be very scary or barely register and everything in between, how can we tell if negative reinforcement is an ethical training approach? I believe the answer is in emotional states. Possibly because I have done a lot of work in detecting emotional states. But really, emotional states are at the center of all this. Whatever the animal is experiencing, it should be detectable in behavioural changes, although they may be subtle and take some careful observation. Whether stress or avoidance is good or bad will directly influence emotional state, either positively or negatively, and that will affect behaviour.

An animal will tend to develop a positive mood if they experience a lot of good things, and if they experience unpleasant things, they will tend to develop a negative mood. There are passing few ways to reliably measure emotional state in animals, which is why I was able to do a PhD on it. Lacking the ability to measure neural activity, cortisol concentrations, reward sensitivity, and cognitive bias, we are left with the terrible inadequacy that is behavioural indicators. The biggest problem with behavioural indicators is that they are hard to identify and open to interpretation. There are a few behaviours we know in dogs are associated with elevated cortisol concentrations in an environment where this is almost certainly due to emotional distress, such as increased urinating, physical activity, and increased displacement behaviours (lip licking and paw lifts in particular). In turn, there are very few indicators of positive emotional state. Play is one, and anticipatory behaviour surrounding rewards is another. It is pretty hard to identify positive anticipatory behaviour in dogs because the work hasn't been done, but it's probably fair to say if they are looking something like the picture below, we're on the right track. 

Anticipatory! Image Eric Danley

This is not as useful as we might hope. These are behaviours generally associated with major, chronic stress. It is quite unlikely that we would see this as a result of simply using negative reinforcement in training. Even if we ONLY used negative reinforcement in training. We need something more sensitive. While we can't formally measure cognitive bias and reward loss sensitivity, we can look for it in everyday behaviour. 

1. Exploration and approach behaviour - We would expect a reduction in exploration and approach behaviour if emotional state is tipping towards negative, and an increase where the emotional state is tipping towards positive. It fits in very nicely with what we know about optimism. The horse study cited earlier showed horses trained with negative reinforcement were less explorative and approached people less, which suggests the training has a negative effect on the horses' emotional state. This will hurt our training goals if we like to shape behaviours!

2. Interest in training - If an animal becomes less willing to participate in training, which may manifest in distractibility, nervousness, skittishness, lots of displacement behaviour (sniffing the ground, staring into the distance, scratching, anything to delay having to train), disinterest, and general unwillingness to approach either the trainer or the training environment, this is BAD. It suggests the animal does not enjoy training. We want to see them engaged and readily coming to you, prick eared and leaning forward. Unless they don't have visible ears. Then just leaning forward.

3. Willingness to offer behaviours - Animals in a negative emotional state are expected to be behaviourally suppressed to some degree. They will not really want to try new behaviours and may be reticent to offer those they know even when cued because it is risky to them. If we have an animal that is either offering behaviours on its own or can easily be coaxed into doing something new, they are most likely in a positive emotional state. 

4. Sensitivity to reward loss - Animals that are in a negative emotional state feel keenly when they think they have missed out on a reward they were expecting. In training this may manifest in relative slowness and reluctance particularly where reward rate has decreased or when attempting to move to a variable reinforcement schedule. 

So... what's the verdict?

Click here for an analysis of the literature and my take on the ethics of using negative reinforcement in training and behaviour modification (plus a reference list).