Waltzing at the Rhythm of Life

Guinea pig camp

The first time I realized it for real was maybe 20 years ago. I was giving a horse workshop in LA, and they had gotten me a Mustang stallion to work with.

I looked at him for a moment as he looked at me. There was no defiance or diffidence in our gazes. We were just two lost creatures thrown in the arena of life. I cannot know what he thought at that moment. Maybe he was dreaming about running in the great plains of the mighty North-American continent where his ancestors once roamed freely. As to me, I found myself longing for home, for the comforting peace of my South-Andaman sea. None of us dared to move. The seminar attendees were absolutely silent, sensing or expecting they were going to get value for their money.

I might have been as reticent about the situation as the horse was. I don’t know who started it—maybe the horse, perhaps me, or both at the same time. As we began walking, suddenly, we were in sync. Slower, quicker, left, right, stop, we were mirroring one another: no words, no big gestures, just motion. We were not adversaries, not in opposition. We were partners at that moment. Our differences did not matter; our similarities did. We were like dancing together. If one of us missed a beat, the other would immediately step forward and follow up.

Many years later, in a completely different environment, I experienced the same again. I was diving in the magnificent South Andaman, so spellbound by the underwater beauty around me that I think I forgot I was just a human out of my natural environment. Without realizing it, at first, I found myself following the movements and the rhythm of a school of snappers swimming in front of me. Before I knew of it, there were another fish all around me, and they didn’t seem to be bothered at all by the presence of this bubble-making, definitely not a fish-like creature. For the first time underwater, I felt I was not a stranger, a visiting tourist.

Life has a rhythm, I learned. Since then, I’ve applied the rhythm factor to all my interactions with animals independently of species. When I train dogs, I always begin by getting acquainted with the dog, walking with the dog rhythmically forth and back. Once we have established contact, all the rest works much smoother, independently of what we’re supposed to do.

Yesterday, I showed it to my Guinea pig camp attendees. We worked on coordinating the movements of the team mates like a school of fish. I think it became clear, yesterday, what I meant days earlier when I emphasized how crucial it was for us to control ourselves, our movements and our emotions. Once they were all synced, the Guinea pigs fell in, and the results did not wait to show up.

Yesterday was the day we “waltzed with the Guinea pigs” at the rhythm of life.

Waltzing with the piggies at the rhythm of life. Victor Ros (Ethology Institute’s Graduate Trainer) working with Guinea pig in Pancalieri, Italy, in 2013. Being a skilled horseman, Victor knows the importance of rhythm (filmed by Roger Abrantes).

Motivation—Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way


Motivation is a term we all use, and we believe everybody understands. We think we know what it means and that others do too—but do we truly understand motivation?

Motivation is a problematic term beginning with its definition. For the present purpose, let me define motivation as what compels an animal to do what it does, as the sum of all factors (internal and external) which cause an organism to behave in a goal-seeking way. At least, now you know what I’m talking about (and what I’m not talking about).

The traditional view of motivation builds upon a single feedback principle. The brain senses a change in the animal’s internal state, which leads to a build-up of drive for the animal to perform the appropriate behavior. The drive gives rise to appetitive and consummatory behavior, including a search for suitable external stimuli. When the animal encounters these, some activity as eating or drinking takes place. That is all too oversimplified and includes terms in themselves difficult to define, e.g., drive—but it will do as a starting point.

There is not one single theory of motivation, but the general tendency is clear. Some researchers have been keen to stress that motivation aims at reducing stimulation to its lowest level. Thus, an organism seeks the behavior most likely to cause a state of no stimulation. However, recent theories of motivation picture animals trying to optimize rather than minimize (or maximize) stimulation. These theories account for exploratory behavior, variety-seeking behavior, and curiosity.

The concept of motivation applies to communication patterns. There is no behavior without motivation, except for strict Pavlovian reflexes, and even this is arguable. Motivation is decisive in the various behaviors animals use as communication means and in learning processes.

The instinct theory states that motivation depends on an organism’s biological make-up. Animals are born with specific, pre-programmed innate knowledge about how to survive and reproduce. Darwin explained the survival of an organism as resulting from the instinct for survivalThe first behaviorists also recurred to instincts to explain motivation.

Ethology, including the contributions of Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, defined instincts as unlearned behaviors and responses. The drive reduction theory assumes that animals have needs, which motivate them to behave in specific ways. Drives are internal states of arousal, e.g., hunger and thirst, which the organism attempts at reducing. The organism seeks to reestablish homeostasis. Though no longer entirely satisfactory, the early ethologists’ approach is still helpful to understand behavior at a particular level.

Explaining behavior in terms of instincts proved unsustainable because we could always coin a new instinct to describe an unexplained behavior. Sociobiology attempted to remedy that. Evolving from the instinct theories of ethology, it added a crucial genetic component to motivation.

The theory of physiological regulation explains motivation in terms of some complex processes of the nervous system.

The consensus these days is that though we know more or less what motivation means, we cannot account exhaustively for all the factors determining it. Prudent judgment and open-mindedness seem, therefore, advisable in this matter and at this moment.




Breland, K. & Breland, M. (1961) The misbehavior of organisms. American Psychologist 16: 681–84. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040090.

Catania, A. C. (1984) Learning, 2d ed.Prentice-Hall. ISBN-10: 0135276977.

Colgan, P.W. (1989) Animal Motivation. Springer Netherlands. DOI:10.1007/978-94-009-0831-4.

Cooper JO (2007) Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson Education. ISBN: 978-0-13-129327-4.

Dawkins, M. (1990) From an animal’s point of view: Motivation, fitness, and animal welfare. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13(1), 1-9. DOI:10.1017/S0140525X00077104.

Dawkins, R. (1982) The extended phenotype. W. H. Freeman. ISBN-10: 0716713586.

Freud S (2012). A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Renaissance Classics. ISBN: 9781484156803.

Hughes, B.O., Duncan, I.J.H. (1988) The notion of ethological ‘need’, models of motivation and animal welfare. Animal Behaviour, Volume 36, Issue 6, 1988, Pages 1696-1707. ISSN: 0003-3472.

Lorenz, K. (1950) The comparative method in studying innate behaviour patterns. Symposium of the Society for Experimental Biology 4: 221–68. http://klha.at/papers/1950-InnateBehavior.pdf.

Lorenz, K. (1981) The Foundations of Ethology. Springer. ISBN: 978-3-211-81623-3.

McFarland, D. J. (1989) Problems of Animal Behaviour. Longman Scientific & Technical. ISBN-10: ‎0582468205.

Salamone JD, Correa M (2012) The mysterious motivational functions of mesolimbic dopamine. Neuron76 (3): 470–85. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021

Tinbergen, Nikolaas (1951). The Study of Instinct. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780198577225.

Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of Ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie20 (4): 410–433. DOI:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1963.tb01161.x.

Wilson, E.O. (1975) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Harvard University Press. ISBN: 0-674-00089-7.

Featured image: Motivation—Where there’s a will, there’s a way (photo by unknown).

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Once a While We Should Focus on What Our Animals Can Teach Us

One of the most exciting aspects of the Guinea Pig camps, as far as I’m concerned, is how they evolved throughout the times.

Learning is an ongoing process and in spite of having held many GP camps, I still learn new fascinating details for every camp I have the privilege to conduct.

For example, for each camp we held, it became increasingly clear how important it is to build a good and trusting relationship with the little Guinea pig before we even consider teaching it any skills. If the piggy does not trust you, it won’t work. This should be obvious, but in these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

We also learned how efficient we can be when combining ethology with behaviorism, a daunting task many consider virtually impossible—but it is not.

Let me explain. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. Ethologists do not interfere with the animals, and as such there is no training theory to find in ethology. There is, however, much to find about interaction, communication and living together.

Behaviorism studies the behavior of animals in artificial setups. Behaviorists attempt to control the environment best possible to achieve the results they want by manipulating stimuli and consequences. As Pavlov showed, to control the environment is a much more difficult task than researchers first assumed.

Combining ethology with behaviorism means to apply the knowledge we have about the natural behavior of the animals with which we work with the principles of behavior modification that we know will lead us to proven results under controlled conditions.

It is not as easy as it looks because as soon as we leave a proven track, we are on our own. Suddenly, we have no longer a recipe to follow. We need to improvise, to dig deeper in ourselves, to find the empathy that will connect us to the animal we train. The rules, we so painstakingly have memorized, do not seem to work any longer. This is an illusion, though, for the rules work all right—though only after a myriad of tiny, individual adjustments, so that they end up resembling exceptions. In that, Guinea pig camps excel. I’ve seen it time after time in the faces of the camp participants: a mixture of excitement and doubt, comparable to what I see in my diving students the first time they jump into the sea to discover that they can actually breathe under water.

And so here I am ready to start a new Guinea Pig camp, this time at the Wolf Park in Indiana. Wolves and Guinea pigs have nothing in common except that they both have much from which we can learn. We will commute between wolf enclosures and Guinea Pig training areas, listening to their stories and learning.

We tend to focus on what we can teach our animals, but maybe once a while we should turn it around and focus on what they can teach us.

Featured image: Our animals have a lesson to teach us. In these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

The Problem in Animal Training Is Not Technique but Attitude

Some years ago, I created my seminar “The Brave New World of Dog Training—Science with Brain and Heart,” which turned into “Animal Training My Way.” As the seminars progressed, it became increasingly clear to me that the crucial problem in today’s animal training is not technique but attitude.

“The Brave New World of Training—Science with Brain and Heart” was my attempt to deal with the following questions: Can we combine science with affection? Can we turn our dog training into a scientific exercise for our brains and a caring adventure for our hearts? Can we be efficient and affectionate?

Of course, it is possible to combine brain and heart, science and affection. What we can’t do is to drop it all in the same pot and cook it until it becomes an unrecognizable and tasteless mass—more or less as an Englishman cooks vegetables.

Science itself needs brain and heart. Staying in the culinary jargon, making science without the brain is like cooking an omelet without eggs, but using science without the heart is like cooking it in a lukewarm pan. The science, we study, and we ponder. When we’re done, we integrate it in what we are. The heart, we use to apply it all after it became an integral part of us, to be who we are.

It’s all a question of attitude. You can have the best technique of all and the most advanced gizmos in the world and yet to no avail if your stance, like an invisible leash, holds you back. And you can show poor technique and possess no gadgets at all and be immensely successful if your attitude is correct. I’ve witnessed it numerous times, from the Tibetan mountains to the rice paddies of the Mekong—people who knew nothing about learning theory, had never seen a training aid, yet living in perfect harmony with their animals.

When you train your dog, your horse, your cat, your Guinea pig, you shouldn’t be thinking of science. You should be yourself, the science already a part of you as second nature. You should be in control of yourself, relating to the animal you face as a living organism, an equal, a creature you meet for a brief moment in space and time. Then and there, you’ll discover that what we call things matters little; that gizmos are unimportant, and techniques irrelevant. You’ll relax, and you’ll appreciate the relationship, not the training, not your achievement, for you’ll have ceased to fight your craving for order and control. You’ll have realized that life is disjointed, and you’ll take it as it is.

Your training will improve dramatically because you’ll have joined them, those animals you train, horse, dog, cat or Guinea pig, never asking for meanings nor seeking justifications, craving neither for gratifications. Then, you’ll be one among many with the one and particularly unique value of being yourself, the proverbial ripple in the ocean—and that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?

Featured image: When you train your dog, your horse, your cat, your guinea-pig, you shouldn’t be thinking of science. You should be yourself, the science already a part of you as second nature (photo by Lisa Jernigan Bain).

How to Correct Superstitious Behavior


As I wrote yesterday, we created superstitious behavior in two Guinea pigs by being slightly off with the timing of our reinforcers. The piggies showed the erroneous association between some irrelevant behavior and the reinforcers. This accidental association is what we call superstitious behavior in animal learning. It is (not surprisingly) very similar to the way we form our own superstitions.

In our case, and fortunately, we discovered it early enough so we could correct it relatively easily. Skinner found that his pigeons would repeat superstitious behavior 10,000 times even in the absence of reinforcing, but their behavior had been accidentally reinforced many mores times than the behavior of our Guinea pigs.

The trainers, aware of the undesired behavior they had created in their piggies concentrated their efforts yesterday on extinguishing it. Fully focused on applying the reinforcers to the desired behavior at the right timing, they trained some sessions and by the end of the morning, it seemed both piggies had gotten it right. It was not an easy task because it required excellent observation skills and an exquisite sense of timing. Remember that we wanted to extinguish the superstitious behavior, not the correct “paw on tin” behavior that we had chosen as our preferred indication behavior for the location of the target scent.

We had a most satisfactory Guinea pig camp training day yesterday. Problems will always and inevitably arise and there is nothing we can do about it. Preparation is necessary and reduces the odds of running into problems considerably, but there are too many variables. We cannot reasonably expect never to encounter issues. Therefore, the key to success is to keep cool, analyze the issues, devise a plan of action to correct them, apply the plan and monitor its results. Sometimes, not seldom, we need to adjust our repairing plans a few times before we get the result we want. It’s all part of the process of training, and we’d better enjoy it. Getting upset does not lead us anywhere. On the contrary, in will only complicate further the resolution of the problems.

Since superstitious behavior is highly resistant to extinction, as Skinner demonstrated, and I explained yesterday, we should keep a sharp eye on the behavior of our animals. Remember that in most cases, it is us who create the erroneous associations between stimulus and consequence by accidentally reinforcing the wrong behavior. Reinforcers are powerful learning tools. With them, we can create (almost) all sorts of desired as well as undesired behavior.

ลูกปุย (Lūk puy) performed very well once we had extinguished his superstitious behavior. In the afternoon, he and his team passed the double-blind test in scent detection. I leave you here with the little movie of that moment. We will edit the footage we have and will publish later a movie of the work of the other (equally successful) teams. This was indeed a memorable Guinea pig camp and we were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn so many good lessons.

Thanks to all the teams and to Michael and Natalie McManus for hosting the camp. Life is great!

Featured image: Pawing is a common canine pacifying behavior. If we are sometimes a bit too late with our reinforcers and reinforce pawing instead of the behavior the dog just gave us, the dog may create an association between pawing and the reinforcer (and not the behavior we wanted). This is what we call superstitious behavior in animal learning (photo from WJLT).

Warning—You May Be Teaching Your Pet to Be Superstitious

Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident, a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.


Some cases of CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) could be superstitious behavior. The dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP cases are not even remotely connected with anxiety as the dog owners erroneously presume.

Yesterday, we saw two of our Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created the superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will follow sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations, so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.

ลูกปุย (Lūk puy) not only survived the day before yesterday but seems to be in top form, charming as always and showing his skills in scent discrimination.

Featured image: Warning: superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish.

Dramatic Second Day Guinea Pig Camp

Guinea pig camp

So many lessons to learnGuinea pig camps are intense. In the morning, one of the little ones was almost unconscious. At first, I thought he was dead. Guinea pigs are fragile and when they get sick, usually, it goes quickly downhill and there’s not much we can do about it. I notified everybody that he would probably die so no one would be shocked by it, and proceeded to give him emergency care: warmth, orange juice and rest. I also gave him a few “flakes” of cucumber and carrot, and he ate them, which was a good sign.

Danielle, of the team where he belonged, monitored his progress closely. Surprisingly enough, he improved rapidly, and, at noon, he seemed to have recovered. At 2 pm, he was working, going the full course of obstacles and learning the indication behavior “paw on cube” he will need to point out the target scent when we get to that step today.

I dubbed him ลูกปุย (Lūk puy). I have this habit of naming the Guinea pigs in Thai. His name means “fluffy baby” or “fluffy ball.” ปุย is a common nickname for Thai girls, but I don’t think he cares too much about that.

Here is ลูกปุย showing his newly acquired “paw on cube” skill.

Less than perfect is… perfect, seemed to be a lesson to learn from Michael’s team. His teammates are rookies, but dedicated and positive, and Michael is an excellent team leader. Everybody commits mistakes and, naturally, rookies error more often than experienced trainers. In order to progress, we must evaluate our POA (plan of action), analyze our mistakes and correct them—but that’s it, no more, period. Alas, I see many trainers getting too upset when things don’t go the way they want, which ends up working against their best intentions. Not so in Michael’s team, they took it cool and at the end of the day both their piggies were running the whole course and showing the indication behavior they should just perfectly.

To bring it all into perspective (see my blogs from yesterday and the day before), a little emotion and stress are necessary to learn and to achieve success—and too much defeats the purpose.

It’s all a question of balance. Amazing, isn’t it, what little creatures like the Guinea pigs can help us realize? Then again, there are lessons to learn everywhere if we care to watch and to listen. The difficult part in doing it, is that we have to, if only for a moment, forget ourselves, be aware that we are not the center of the universe even though it may appear to be so for us. Not easy, but doable and extremely gratifying, if you ask me.

Life is beautiful.

Featured image: Guinea pig showing target indication (photo by Manuel Castaneda).

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How Splendid They Are—or the Importance of Imprinting


First Guinea pig camp day. How splendid they are, the little Guinea pigs! Between three and eight weeks of age, they are curious, friendly and quick learners. They are so totally cute! (To put it in modern American English.)

The clip above, which I’m sure you watched as soon as you arrived at this page, is a quick iPhone recording to show you little Chupa-Chupa only two hours after the team started training it. It does not live up to the quality of the movies I usually show but bear with me. I just had to capture the moment and show it to you.

I must compliment Michael and Natalie for the brilliant job they have done imprinting and socializing the young Guinea pigs. Without it, we would have spent the whole day yesterday, and would spend most of today, habituating them to the environment, novel stimuli, humans, etc. As they are, the teams could teach them all the agility obstacles. This is the first time we have achieved it in one day, undoubtedly due to the perfect imprinting and socialization of the piggies.

Though this makes it much easier for the camp attendees to train the Guinea pigs, it also deprives them of the experience of going thru the laborious process of imprinting and socialization. Fortunately, we have a couple of older piggies, Michael and Natalie got later, for comparison.

I wished dog breeders knew more about these all relevant mechanisms in the formation of behavior. Imagine that all puppies were perfectly imprinted and socialized to the human world. I bet we would see a dramatic fall in problem behavior and wouldn’t that be splendid?

Imprinting describes any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior.

Imprinting affects subsequent social adjustment and sexual behavior among others. It occurs immediately after birth or early in life. Though critical for the future behavior of the animal, its preferences and aversions, the consequences of imprinting are not as rapid or as irreversible as Lorenz and the early ethologists thought.

Studies of wolf cubs show that although the period of imprinting is longer than in ducks, and most birds, it is just as important. Holding a wolf cub in our hands for three minutes a day in the first 10 days makes all the difference in its behavior towards humans later in life. The same applies to our domestic dogs, even if they are more flexible. The difference is that we have selected dogs for thousands of years for their sociability. They have probably many genes determining this trait, allowing imprinting for longer, or over several periods.

A sensitive period (or critical period) is a limited time in which an event can occur, usually resulting in some transformation. If the organism does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this time, it may be difficult, or even impossible, to develop some functions later in life.

Evidence suggests that there may be more than one type of a sensitive period. Recent studies point out that the critical phase for sexual imprinting occurs later than that for filial imprinting. Researchers discovered that learning components are more important than previously thought. There is evidence that cumulative learning entails the release of endorphins in the brain providing a comforting feedback and, thus, fixing the association.

As amazed as the camp attendees are with the speedy progress of their training (at the end of the first day, they have gone thru all agility obstacles, including weave poles), what left them flabbergasted today was the limited use of food treats and that we did not use training tools and gadgets at all.

This is training the ethology way, my preferred method of interacting with animals. We create a relationship of mutual trust and respect, with higher benefits than costs, leading by example, meeting the animal half-way, controlling ourselves rather than the animal.

Watch this space, my friends, I will tell you more tomorrow.

Featured image: Konrad Lorenz and his geese showing the effect of imprinting.

Stress Helps Learning

Duckling climbing (Stress helps learning)

Stress helps learning. I wrote in my last blog, “A tough nut to crack, on the other hand, is an everlasting memory binding the parties to one another.” There is a reason for that.

One of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the latest is on epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity not caused by changes in the DNA.

Stress hormones seem to boost an epigenetic process either increasing or decreasing the expression of certain genes. Stress hormones change particular cells of the brain that help memories to be easier retained.

We need to be careful, though. The term stress is dangerously ambiguous. “Stress is a word that is as useful as a Visa card and as satisfying as a Coke. It’s non-committal and also non-committable,” as Richard Shweder says. I’m talking of stress in a biological sense, the response of the sympathetic nervous system to some events, its attempts at reestablishing the lost homeostasis provoked by some intense event.

Being an evolutionary biologist, when contemplating a mechanism, I always ask: “What is the function of that? What is that good for? A mechanism can originate by chance (most do), but if it does not confer the individual some extra benefits as to survival and reproduction, it will not spread into the population.

Asking the right question is the first step to getting the right answer. Never be afraid to ask and reformulate your questions. At one point, you’ll have asked the question that will lead you to the right answer.

Why do unpleasant memories seem to stay with us longer than pleasant ones, sometimes even for the rest of our lives?

Situations of exceeding anxiety and stressful, intense experiences create unpleasant memories. It is important, if not crucial, to remember situations that might have hurt us seriously. It makes sense that the stress hormones should facilitate our retaining the memory of events occurring under stress.

Stress hormones do bind to the particular receptors in the brain that enhance the control of the epigenetic mechanisms involved in remembering and, hence, in learning. They do boost the epigenetic mechanisms that control the expression of the genes crucial for memory and learning.

Not all stress boosts learning. Too much stress produces the opposite effect. There is a difference between being stressed and stressed out. When we experience far too much stress, our organism goes into alarm mode where survival has the first and sole priority and memory formation decreases. Chronic stress does not promote learning either.

Bottom line: we need to be nuanced about stress. Events causing healthy stress responses are necessary for enhancing attention to details, the formation of memory, the creation of bonds, and learning—and too much stress, or for too long a period, works against it.

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Animal Learning

Bonding in Dogs

Bonding With Your Dog – Friendship With Your Dog.

Bonding in dogs is indeed an interesting topic. You’ll see in a short while what I mean.

Guinea pig camp starting tomorrow, Michael and Natalie of Ready, Sit, Go are busy with the last preparations, but there’s always time for a nice dinner and a couple of hours around the pool table. Fantasia on San Fernando in Burbank is my favorite pool hall and sports bar in the area. It has a relaxed atmosphere, a diversity of clients, good Brunswick 9-foot tables and Guinness on draught.

Pool is a great game. It requires technique, strategy, mind, skill, and it is a social activity. You play, talk, crack a joke or pick up a serious topic, and you have a good time with your mates (= buddies in the US).

Thinking about my blog for today, I asked Michael, “What should I write about?”

“Bonding,” he answered, “bonding in dogs”—and so bonding it is.

Parents and offspring develop strong bonds so that the former take care of the latter and the latter accept the teachings of the former. This serves both parties best. As a result of filial bonding, offspring and parents or foster parents develop an attachment. This attachment ceases to be important once the juvenile reaches adulthood, but may have long-term effects upon subsequent social behavior. Among domestic dogs, for example, there is a sensitive period from the third to the tenth week of age, during which normal contacts develop. If a puppy grows up in isolation beyond about fourteen weeks of age, it will not develop normal relationships.

Males and females of social species develop strong bonds during courtship motivating them to care for their progeny, so they increase their chances of the survival of 50% of their genes.

Social animals develop bonds by living together and having to fend for their survival day after day. Grooming, playing, mutual feeding, all have a relevant role in bonding. Intense experiences do too. Between adults, surviving moments of danger together seems to be strongly bonding.

Bonding behavior like grooming and feeding seems to release neurotransmitters (e.g., oxytocin), which lowers the innate defensiveness, thereby increasing the chances of bonding.

We often mention bonding together with imprinting. Even though imprinting is bonding, not all bonding is imprinting. Imprinting describes any type of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a specific life stage) that is rapid and (apparently) independent of the consequences of behavior. Some animals appear to be preprogrammed to learn about certain aspects of the environment during particular sensitive phases of their development. The learning is pre-programmed in the sense that it will occur without any visible reinforcement or punishment.

Our dogs in our domestic environments develop bonds in various ways. Grooming, resting with each other, barking together, playing and chasing intruders are strong bonding behaviors. Their bonding behavior is by no means restricted to individuals of their species. They bond with the family cat as well and with us, humans.

Bonding is a natural process that will inevitably happen when individuals share responsibilities. Looking into one another’s eyes is only bonding for a while, but surviving together may be bonding for life—and this applies to all social animals, dogs and humans included.

We develop stronger bonds with our dogs by doing things together rather than by just sitting and petting them. These days, we are so afraid of anything remotely connected with stress that we forget the strongest bonds ever originate under times of intense experiences. A little stress doesn’t harm anyone, quite the contrary. I see it every time I train canine scent detection. The easier it is, the quickest it will be forgotten. A tough nut to crack, on the other hand, is an everlasting memory binding the parties to one another.

I even suspect one of the reasons we have so many divorces these days is that we want everything to be easy, and oh so pleasant, that in the end, nothing is holding the two together—but that’s another story for maybe another time.

Guinea pig camp tomorrow—it’s time to bond with these loving little creatures.

Featured image: Bonding with your dog. (photo by pixabay, https://pixabay.com/en/dog-friendship-nature-trust-1861839/).

Learn more in our course Canine Scent Detection, which will enable you to pursue further goals, such as becoming a substance detection team or a SAR unit. You complete the course by passing the double-blind test locating a hidden scent. You take the theory online in the first three lessons. In lesson four, you train yourself and your dog, step by step until reaching your goal. We will assign you a qualified tutor to guide you, one-on-one, either on-site or by video conferencing.

Canine Scent Detection
Ethology Institute