Friday, January 27, 2017

Demon possessed dogs vs. Behavioral Science.

Warren Ellis once said "Don't summon anything that you can't banish." He was referring to demons of various types, mostly supernatural, but summoning demons of any sort can be a real problem. In the usual stories they cause massive problems, and they don't want to go away.

Despite our advanced technological society, the idea of blaming demonic possession (maybe not literally, but the principle is there) and magical answers to problems exist in our modern world. They even intrude into the world of dog training. Some people seem to see the issues they are having with their animals' behaviors to be akin to demons, and they search for magical answers.

That can be understandable. Dogs with serious behavior problems can seem to be nearly demonic, and we seem to summon more than our fair share of vexing problems through our own action or inaction.

Psychology has a term for expecting results from unrelated action to cause change. That term is "magical thinking". Technically, magical thinking is the "fallacious attribution of causal relationships between actions and events" (Wikipedia) and occurs both in anthropology and psychology. Baseball players do it all the time: rubbing the ball exactly six times before windup on the mound, for instance.

Many people look for behavior problems to have "magical" solutions. Clients are looking for the right incantation, the right potion, the right amulet to cure their pet's behavior ills. A magic leash, an electronic collar, a pill, an answer that requires no effort. One step, one quick wave of the magic wand by a trainer and Voila! the problem is gone!

Dog trainers are sometimes just as bad. They look to action totally unrelated to the motivations, drives, and emotional state of a dog to make significant change. They also misinterpret a dog's reaction to a certain action to make it appear that a particular result is achieved, rather than properly assessing the effect-and then they are surprised when the dog's response is not predictable, at least under their explanation.

The late scientist Carl Sagan wrote a book in 1995 titled Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The book dealt with science overall in the world, and no, Sagan did not believe that the world was haunted by demons. Sagan saw science as a light, a guide, to investigating and understanding our world and leading us towards a better way of seeing. We as scientific trainers and behavior consultants can look at dog training and use the same candle of science to lead us out of the dark, musty corridors of magical thinking when it comes to our dogs.

The science of behavior analysis tells us that there are describable, quantifiable components to any complex behavior such as "aggression". Observation and analysis tells us, for instance, that dogs typically don't "just snap" and go into full attack. Instead, there are triggers that precipitate certain actions. There are steps and signals-even if they proceed more quickly that we appreciate. Body position, muscle tension, narrowing and focus of the eyes, tension of the lips and/or exposure of teeth: these are all part of what is called "just snapping". The problem is that many do not recognize the signals, and instead look at the dog as "possessed" and somehow evil and unpredictable.

Let's look at the contrast between magical thinking and scientific analysis.

Examples of Magic vs. Science  in dog training.

Magic: My dog's behavior is stubbornness or evil and I just need to apply force and violence to change it.

Science: Behavior is understood and correctable by knowing what your dog needs and how he/she sees the world.

Magic: I will "feel the energy" from my dog. (Try explaining this one with a straight face in Court).

Science: I will learn the body language and signaling my dog uses to communicate.

Magic: I will use trainer X's special techniques or "system" to quickly, guaranteed, fix my problem.

Science: I will use methods such as positive reinforcement, verified by experiment and observation, in a clear and quantifiable way to patiently achieve the behavior change that I want. I will also understand that my dog is a sentient being and may make good-or bad-decisions.

Magic: I will "dominate" my dog and teach them their place.

Science: I will communicate clear boundaries for my dog in a way they understand and be consistent and fair in my expectations.

Magic: I will exercise dominion over my dog and he/she will follow me unquestionably.

Science: I will understand my dog's needs and drives and work with my dog to achieve a partnership. with that approach we will have a deeper, cooperative relationship.

Magic: My dog doesn't need treats or praise to get results: they just "know" what they are supposed to do.

Science: Dogs learn from clear example, guidance, and repetition. Reinforcement causes the particular behavior to be more likely to recur, and the dog learns more quickly and reliably.

When I evaluate a dog, particularly a bite case, and especially when that dog has severely injured or killed a human, I have to use the principles of behavior analysis and close, informed observation, to develop a picture of that animal. Trust me: I am not looking for "energy" levels or possession. This dog had proven they have the ability to do lots of damage, and thinking that my "energy" is going to keep me safe is simply foolish. What keeps me safe is a combination of planned moves, clear communication with the dog in terms they understand, building trust, recognizing early warning signals, observing closely-and a healthy dose of Kevlar.

I look for signals and behaviors that let me try and assess possible causes based on understanding canine behavior. I look for sensitivity to particular action. I look for pain response. I look for conditioned responses to certain cues.

Then I take this observed behavior, describe and quantify it, and present it in my behavioral report. I identify specific actions and reactions, and am able to document those behaviors with exact description and usually a video record that I can show and narrate. This makes the case clear, and aids prosecution - or exoneration - based on specific, understandable, scientifically based analysis. Put a case in front of a judge and jury and try to counter an observable quantity with vague terms like vicious, mean, evil, or "bad energy" and see the difference. I have yet to see any expert in court show "bad energy". They simply don't make a "bad energy meter". I will take your "bad energy" and raise it two sets of DNA analysis and a bite mark comparison and win every time.

In training and less severe cases, scientifically based methods have a number of advantages over magical thinking. First, they work. All the time. They are understandable, and do not require a "shaman" or special person to make changes in undesirable behavior. The methods can be reproduced, no matter the breed or personality of the dog, and no matter who is administering the training. Science based methods are predictable. Unlike magical methods, we can assess the effect on the dog clearly and avoid or eliminate those methods that cause pain, discomfort, confusion, or negative reactions. We can be kind and humane applying these methods, and we can analyze where problems are without leaping off into the fog of myth and belief. After all, magic requires belief. Science doesn't care if you believe in it or not-it just is.

Science based methods are not cold and impersonal. Science gives us better understanding of our dogs and their language. It helps us understand more deeply. It helps us communicate clearly. It helps us guide our dogs with compassion and kindness in a way they understand.

So try science. Science doesn't substitute numbers for emotion. Science is instead a process and a way to build positive and lasting relationships between us and our companions, a candle to light our way. Light a candle every chance you can and help beat back the darkness of harmful myths and irrational belief. And stop summoning problems with chants and incantations that make no sense.