The 20 Principles of Genes, Environment and Breeding

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Golden with puppies.

Hereditary traits are inherited equally from both parents. However, the mother will have more influence on the puppies’ behavior than the father because she spends more time with them.

 

Genes code for the traits an organism will show, physical as well as behavioral, but genes are not all. The environment of that organism also plays a crucial role in the way some of its genes will express themselves.

Genes play a large role in the appearance and behavior of organisms. Phenotypes (the appearance of the organism) are determined, in various degrees, by the genotype program (the sum of all genes) and the interaction of the organism with the environment. Some traits are more modifiable by environmental factors, others less. For example, while eye color is solely determined by the genetic coding, genes determine how tall an individual may grow, but nutritional, as well as other health factors experienced by that organism, determine the outcome. In short: the environment by itself cannot create a trait, and only a few traits are solely the product of a strict gene coding.

The same applies to behavior. Behavior is the result of the genetic coding and the effects of the environment on a particular organism. Learning is an adaptation to the environment. Behavioral genetics studies the role of genetics in animal (including human) behavior. Behavioral genetics is an interdisciplinary field, with contributions from biologygeneticsethologypsychology, and statistics. The same basic genetic principles that apply to any phenotype also apply to behavior, but it is more difficult to identify particular genes with particular behaviors than with physical traits. The most reliable assessment of an individual’s genetic contribution to behavior is through the study of twins and half-siblings.

In small populations, like breeds with a limited number of individuals, the genetic contribution tends to be magnified because there is not enough variation. Therefore, it is very important that breeders pay special importance to lineages, keep impeccable records, test the individuals, and choose carefully, which mating system they will use. Failure to be strict may result in highly undesirable results in a few generations with the average population showing undesired traits, physical as well as behavioral.

We breed animals for many different purposes. Breeding means combining 50% of the genes of one animal (a male) to 50% of the genes of another animal (a female) and see what happens. We can never choose single genes as we wish and combine them, so we get the perfect animal, but knowing which traits are dominant, which are recessive, and being able to read pedigrees helps us.

 

Siberian Husky puppies.

Litter mates share on average 50% common genes, but only on average. Each got at random 50% of its genes from the male (father) and 50% from the female (mother), but not necessarily the same 50% from each (Photo by TheHusky.info).

 

Here are some guidelines for breeding (inspired by “20 Principles of Breeding Better Dogs” by Raymond H. Oppenheimer). The objective of the following 20 principles is to help breeders strive for a healthy and fit animal in all aspects, physically as well as behaviorally.

1. The animals you select for breeding today will have an impact on the future population (unless you do not use any of their offspring to continue breeding).

2. Choose carefully the two animals you want to breed. If you only have a limited number of animals at your disposition, you will have to wait for the next generation to make any improvement. As a rule of thumb, you should expect the progeny to be better than the parents.

3. Statistical predictions may not hold true in a small number of animals (as in one litter of puppies). Statistical predictions show accuracy when applied to large populations.

4. A pedigree is a tool to help you learn the desirable and undesirable attributes that an animal is likely to exhibit or reproduce.

5. If you have a well-defined purpose for your breeding program, which you should, you will want to enhance specific attributes, but don’t forget that an animal is a whole. To emphasize one or two features of the animal, you may compromise the soundness and function of the whole organism.

6. Even though, in general, large litters indicate good health and breeding conditions, quantity does not mean quality. You produce quality through careful studies. Be patient and wait until the right breeding stock is available, evaluate what you have already produced and above all, have a breeding plan that is, at least, three generations ahead of the breeding you do today.

7. Skeletal defects are the most difficult to change.

8. Don’t bother with a good animal that cannot reproduce well. The fittest are those who survive and can pass their survival genes to the next generation.

9. Once you have approximately the animal you want, use out-crosses sparingly. For each desirable characteristic you acquire, you will get many undesirable traits that you will have to eliminate in succeeding generations.

 

Wolf mother and cubs.

Adult wolves regurgitate food for the cubs to eat. Many dog mothers do the same (Photo by Humans For Wolves).

 

10. Inbreeding is the fastest method to achieve desirable characteristics. It will bring forward the best and the worst of your breeding stock. You want to keep the desirable traits and eliminate the undesirable. Inbreeding will reveal hidden traits that you may consider undesirable, and want to eliminate. However, be careful, repeated inbreeding can increase the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits.

11. Once you have achieved the characteristics you want, line-breeding with sporadic outcrossing seems to be the most prudent approach.

12. Breeding does not create anything new unless you run into favorable mutations (seldom). What you get is what was there to begin with. It may have been hidden for many generations, but it was there.

13. Litter mates share on average 50% common genes, but only on average. Each one got at random 50% of its genes from the male (father) and 50% from the female (mother), but not necessarily the same 50% from each.

14. Hereditary traits are inherited equally from both parents. Do not expect to solve all of your problems in one generation.

15. If the worst animal in your last litter is no better than the worst animal in your first litter, you are not making progress.

16. If the best animal in your last litter is no better than the best animal in your first litter, you are not making progress.

17. Do not choose a breeding animal by either the best or the worst that it has produced. Evaluate the total breeding value of an animal by means of averages of as many offspring as possible.

18. Keep in mind that quality is a combination of soundness and function. It is not merely the lack of undesirable traits, but also the presence of desirable traits. It is the whole animal that counts.

19. Be objective. Don’t allow personal feelings to influence your choice of breeding stock.

20. Be realistic, but strive for excellence. Always try to get the best you can. Be careful: when we breed animals for special characteristics, physical as well as behavioral, we are playing with fire, changing the genome that natural selection created and tested throughout centuries.

 

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References

Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Behavior is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Behavior does not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to control a stimulus. Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time, a particularly advantageous behavior spreads throughout the population. The disposition (genotype) to display a behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), It requires, though, maturation and/or reinforcement for the organism to be able to apply it successfully. Behavior is, thus, the product of a combination of innate dispositions and environmental factors. Some behaviors require little conditioning from the environment for the animal to display it while other behaviors require more.

 

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior.

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are therefore only approximate and as pictures allow.

 

An organism can forget a behavior if it does not have the opportunity to display it for a period, or the behavior can be extinguished if it is not subject to reinforcement for a period.

Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from a maximization of utility and towards a maximization of fitness.

Social behavior is behavior involving more than one individual with the primary function of establishing, maintaining, or changing a relationship between individuals, or in a group (society).

Most researchers define social behavior as the behavior shown by members of the same species in a given interaction. That excludes behavior such as predation, which involves members of different species. On the other hand, it seems to allow for the inclusion of everything else such as communication behavior, parental behavior, sexual behavior, and even agonistic behavior.

Sociologists insist that behavior is an activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to social behavior, which has both. This definition does not help us much. All above-mentioned behaviors do have a social meaning and a context unless ‘social’ means ‘involving the whole group’ (society) or ‘a particular number of its members.’ In that case, we should ask how many individuals we need in an interaction to classify it as social. Are three enough? If so, then, sexual behavior is not social behavior when practiced by two individuals, but becomes social with three or more being involved, which is not unusual in some species. We can use the same line of arguing for communication behavior, parental behavior, and agonistic behavior. It involves more than one individual, and it affects the group (society), the smallest possible consisting of two individuals.

Agonistic behavior includes all forms of intraspecific behavior related to aggression, fear, threat, fight or flight, or interspecific when competing for resources. It explicitly includes behaviors such as dominant behavior, submissive behavior, flight, pacifying, and conciliation, which are functionally and physiologically interrelated with aggressive behavior, yet fall outside the narrow definition of aggressive behavior. It excludes predatory behavior.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, which caused the least disadvantages.

Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat.

Submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival.

Aliens are two or more animals that do not live close together and do not depend on one another for survival.

A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

 

Canine ethogram for social and agonistic behavior.

Canine ethogram for social and agonistic behavior. The colors illustrate that the categories are constructed by us. When a behavior turns into another one is a matter of convention and interpretation (illustration by Roger Abrantes).

 

The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors (please, click on the diagram to enlarge it).

 

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PS—I apologize if by chance I’ve used one of your pictures without giving you due credit. If this is the case, please e-mail me your name and picture info and I’ll rectify that right away.
Related articles

References

 

Pacifying Behavior—Origin, Function and Evolution

— by Roger Abrantes

Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facerefacio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior. There are two ways of classifying pacifying behavior: (1) to include all behaviors with the function of diffusing social conflict, and (2) to restrict it to a particular range within the broader spectrum of conflict decreasing behavior (see diagram below). This author prefers the latter because the broad use of the term in the first option makes it synonymous with conflict decreasing behavior in general, without reference to any particular sub-class of this behavior.

Roger Abrantes And Rottweiler.

This Rottweiler female shows me friendly behavior licking my face and ear. I show that I accept her friendly behavior by turning my face away from her, closing my eyes and mouth and making champing noises. Mostly, dogs show friendly and pacifying behavior to humans as they do to other dogs (photo by Lisa J. Bain).

Pacifying behavior is closely related to friendly behavior (including greeting behavior), insecure, submissive and fearful behavior. In general, the differences between these behavior displays are quantitatively small, but we can classify them separately and qualitatively according to their respective sub-functions. An animal pacifies another using a complex sequence of different behaviors as we can see in the diagram below. An animal very seldom shows a single behavior. Also, the same behavior may achieve different functions depending on its intensity, and the sum of all behaviors displayed at a given moment.

Pacifying behavior did not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to manipulate an opponent. Initially, it was probably just a reflex. Like all phenotypes, it happened by chance and evolved thereafter.

Pacifying Behavior in Canids

Pacifying behavior in dogs: licking own lips, licking and pawing (images by Alanic05 and Colorado Great Pyrenee Rescue Community).

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time pacifying behavior spread throughout the population. Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from the maximization of utility and towards the maximization of fitness.

pacifying behavior animals

Many species show pacifying displays in their behavior repertoire (photos by J. Frisch, AFP and Aleixa).

The origin of pacifying behavior—Animal A facing aggressive opponent B registers (sensory system) B’s behavior, processes it (neurological system) and responds with a behavior. The aggressive animal B registers this behavior (probably an infantile behavior); some behaviors tend to pacify it (probably eliciting parental behavior) while others do not. The pacified state of B benefits A and reinforces its behavior, i.e. it is likely it will repeat the same behavior in similar circumstances. Most importantly, animals that show appropriate pacifying behavior (such as A) survive conflicts and avoid injury more often than not and subsequently pass their genes onto the next generation.

Pacifying behavior also pacifies the pacifier, which is an important feature of this behavior. By displaying pacifying behavior, an insecure animal attempts to regain some security (homeostasis) by displaying a behavior it knows well and has previously served to reassure it.

Dog and Cat

Cat and dog use the pacifying behavior of their own species to communicate with one another successfully because of the common characteristics of the behavior (photo by Malau).

Some pacifying behavior has its origins in neonatal and infantile behavior and only becomes pacifying behavior through redirection and eventually ritualization. Other forms of pacifying behavior rely on concealing all signs of aggressive behavior. Sexual behavior can also function as pacifying. Young animals of social species learn pacifying behavior at a very early age; it is important for young animals to be able to pacify adults when they begin interacting with them. The disposition (genotype) to display the behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires reinforcement for the young animal to be able to apply it successfully. In canines, adults (initially the mother at the time of weaning) teach the cubs/pups the intricacies of pacifying behavior, a skill they will need to master in order to prevent or resolve hostilities that could cause serious injuries.

Even though pacifying behavior is more relevant and developed in social species, we also find pacifying displays in the behavior repertoire of less social species. Animals successfully use the pacifying behavior characteristic of their species with individuals belonging to other species (if possible) because of the common elements of pacifying behavior across species. It is not unusual to see our domestic animals, dogs, cats and horses interacting peacefully and exchanging pacifying signals. Dogs also show friendly, insecure, pacifying or submissive behavior to their owners and other humans with their species characteristic displays. Licking, nose poking, muzzle nudging, pawing and twisting are common behaviors that dogs offer us.

This diagram shows the placement of pacifying behavior in the spectrum of behavior in canids. The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors. A conflict is any serious disagreement, a dispute over a resource, which may lead to one or both parts showing aggressive behavior. Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Pacifying Spectrum

The spectrum of pacifying behavior in canids (by R. Abrantes). The colored background illustrates and emphasizes that behavior is a continuum with fading thresholds between the various behaviors. The vertical lines are our artificial borders, a product of definition and convention.

 

References

  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. Dog Language. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Grasp Behavior—Advanced Dog Language.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Nudge, Muzzle Grasp And Regurgitation Behavior.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Why Do Dogs Like To Lick Our Faces?
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Is it possible for all of us to become givers—no takers at all?

—by Roger Abrantes

 

Bird Mouse Alturism

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all gave without expecting anything in return? What a beautiful world we would have. At one time or another, most of us have embraced such thoughts. But is it possible at all? Is it possible for all of us to become givers—no takers at all?

An evolutionary biologist will tell you right away that it is not possible. Every behavioral strategy, when adopted by everyone in a group, is vulnerable to any variation or mutation that will carry a slight advantage. Were we all to become givers, we would be at the mercy of the first taker that would show up. More takers would follow for if it works for one, it works for others as well.

All relationships are a trade, a “give and take.” How much we give and how much we take depends on the benefits and costs involved. The goal is to come out of any trade with gain. Occasional deficits are acceptable as long as the overall balance stays on the plus side. That is the law of life. We spend energy to gain energy, to keep alive. Sometimes, we need to plan long-termed. There are both benefits and costs that we do not incur immediately. The law is still the same: the balance must end up on the positive side or life will end.

Apart from our dream of a better world full of unselfish givers, it looks at first sight like taking and not giving is the most profitable strategy. The problem is that we cannot all be takers. Takers can’t take from takers, they can only take from givers. Thus, it would appear that the givers would always be at a loss, but that is not the case. Givers receive from other givers, and they don’t spend energy fighting with takers. On the other side, takers spend energy when facing other takers without gaining anything. While giver/giver allows both to come out on the plus side of the balance, taker/taker always comes out with a deficit.

Givers and takers keep each other at bay. The ideal number for each, so that there is stability, depends solely on the value of benefits and costs.

To analyze how different strategies influence one another, the evolutionary biologist strips the strategies to their core and assigns some values to the variables, i.e. benefits and costs.

Let’s assume that when a taker meets a taker, they benefit nothing and spend much energy. When a giver meets another giver, they both give and take equally, and they spend some energy (they have both benefits and costs). When a taker meets a giver, the taker benefits 100%, and the giver spends energy (costs). We set the value of benefits and costs as follows:

  • benefit (b) 20 (conferred by the givers to anyone)
  • cost (c) -5 (the cost of giving)
  • taker/taker cost (e) -50 (this is the energy takers spend when fighting one another to take without giving).

Let’s now calculate the percentage of takers and givers necessary to achieve an equilibrium so that both strategies give the same profit.

The proportion of takers = t
The proportion of givers (g) = (1-t)
The average payoff for a giver (g) is G = ct + (b+c)(1-t)
The average payoff for a taker (t) is T = et + b(1-t)
There is an equilibrium (stability) when G=T.

 

Strategy Opponent’s strategy
Takers Givers
Takers e b
Givers c b+c

 

Example 1—With the above values for benefits and costs, 10% takers and 90% givers gives both a profit of 13 and there is stability. If the cost of takers fighting one another decreases, then it pays off (for more individuals) to become a taker.

Example 2—The figures in example 1 seem to suggest that takers should avoid one another as much as possible. Let’s say they do it in three out of four times. Then, and still with the same values, the number of takers can rise to 40%, and we still have an equilibrium, i.e. an ESS (Evolutionarily Stable Strategy). However, the profit will be less for both givers and takers, namely 7—more takers equals less profit for all.

That is a good example of what happens in our capitalistic human societies dominated by the idea of taking more and more. Takers take all they can but end up poorer than if they took less. The capitalistic instinct says, “take more,” but a more rational approach would clearly show that taking less would amount to profiting more. The strategy of taking maximally works only for a limited time. In the end, it backfires (depression, recession, etc.) because it upsets the balance between the available strategies, which, by then, have become evolutionarily unstable.

Example 3—Encounters between takers ar very expensive. What if takers would avoid takers all the time? In this case, the number of takers can rise up to 80%. Beyond that the strategies become evolutionarily unstable. The interesting is that even thought there would be stability with such a high number of takers, both takers and givers would come at a loss of -1. That is not at all a healthy strategy for any individual, let alone a group. It’s the sign of a society in decay. It’s what happens in a group, which is dominated by greed and selfishness.

Example 4—Since our wish is a world full of givers let us see how we can maximize the number of givers. We need to change the values for benefits and costs. Let’s decrease the cost of giving and increase the costs incurred by takers when fighting one another.

  • benefit (b) 20 (remains the same)
  • cost (c) -1 (lower cost than above)
  • taker/taker cost (e) -100 (much higher cost than above)

With these values, we can reach a maximum of 99% givers versus 1% takers. Both will have a profit equal to 18.80. Note that this the highest achieved profit in all our simulations.

The only variables that reduce the number of takers are the cost (e) and the probability of facing another taker. If we keep the values of benefits and costs the same as initially (b=20, c=-5) the costs of the struggle between two takers must rise to -500 for the strategies to be evolutionarily stable. The profit, then, would be 14.80 instead of 18.80.

These are artificial figures we use to analyze the necessary conditions for an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy to emerge. We may question the unlikeliness of the costs of an interaction to rise as high as we have set the taker/taker encounters. And yet, conflicts between male Northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, often end with a critical injury or the death of one of the parties. The costs are high, but so are the benefits: in Northern elephant seals, fewer than 5% of the males are responsible for 50% or more of the copulations. A red deer stag, Cervus elaphus, has about a 25% chance to be injured permanently from fighting (like in our example 2).

Also interesting is that the value of the benefits does not change the proportion of takers versus givers, only the profit. For example, with b=40, the profit is 34.60 (versus 18.80 and 14.80 for the other values for benefits in the examples). The values we used are all fictive, but it doesn’t matter. They show us the trends created by increasing or decreasing a variable. To evaluate real situations, we can use realistic figures inasmuch as we can get them. We can assign values to benefits and costs according to gain or loss of calories, body weight, number of progeny, available mating partners, fitness or even quality of life (if we find a reliable way to measure it).

The conclusion is that there will always be givers and takers—or that any strategy needs a counterpart to form an ESS. We can influence the trend of adopting one or the other strategy with the benefits and costs involved, but we can’t eliminate either one completely—and this is the universal law of life. In other words: every mountain has a sunny and a shady side.

 

The Mathematician Rat—An Evolutionary Explanation

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Giant Gambian Pouched By Xavier Rossi

Giant Gambian Pouched finds a landmine (photo by Xavier Rossi).

JG is a rat, a Cricetomys gambianus or Giant Gambian Pouched Rat; she is also a Hero Rat, a landmine detector at Apopo in Tanzania. In December 2009, she performed uncharacteristically badly and puzzled everybody as Hero Rats don’t make mistakes. What was the problem with JG? Had she lost it? Had the trainers made a crucial mistake?

Apopo in Morogoro, Tanzania, trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis and the little fellows are very good at what they do. In Mozambique, Apopo has so far cleared 2,063,701 square meters of Confirmed Hazardous Areas, with the destruction of 1866 landmines, 783 explosive remnants of war and 12,817 small arms and ammunitions. As for tuberculosis, up until now the rats have analyzed 97,859 samples, second-time screened 44,934 patients, correctly diagnosed 7,662 samples and discovered 2,299 additional cases that were previously missed by the DOTS centers (Direct Observation of Treatment, Short Course Centers in Tanzania). More than 2,500 patients have since been treated for tuberculosis after having been correctly diagnosed by the rats.

In December 2009, I was working full time at Apopo in Morogoro. I wrote their training manual, trained their rat trainers, supervised the training of the animals and analyzed standard operating procedures. At the time of writing, I still do consultancy work for Apopo and instruct new trainers from time to time. Back then, one of my jobs was to analyze and monitor the rats’ daily performance and that’s when I came across the peculiar and puzzling behavior of JG in the LC3 cage.

Problem

LC3 is a cage with 10 sniffing holes in a line and the rats run it 10 times. On average, 21 holes, randomly selected by computer, will contain TNT samples. We train rats in LC3 everyday, recording and statistically analyzing each session. We normally expect the rats to find and indicate the TNT samples with a success rate of 80-85%. Whenever the figures deviate from the expected results, we analyze them and try to pinpoint the problem.

On December 19, we came across a rat in LC3 that did not indicate any positive samples placed from Holes 1 to 6. She only indicated from Holes 7 to 10. In fact, from Hole 1 to 6, Jane Goodall (that’s the rat’s full name) only once bothered to make an indication (which was false, by the way). From Hole 7 to 10, JG indicated 10 times with 9 correct positives, only missing one, but also indicated 11 false positives. Her score was the lowest in LC3 that day and the lowest for any rat for a long time. What was the problem with JG? She seemed fine in all other aspects and seemed to know what she was doing. Why then did she perform so poorly?

Giant Gambian Pouched Rat By Silvain Piraux

Giant Gambian Pouched Rat searching TNT in a line cage (photo by Silvain Piraux).

Analysis of searching strategies

Whenever an animal shows such a behavior pattern, and it appears purposeful rather than emotional, I become suspicious and suspect that there is a rational explanation.

In order to analyze the problem, I constructed simulations of two searching strategies: (1) searching ALL HOLES, and (2) SKIPPING Holes 1 to 5 (I didn’t want to be as radical in my simulation as JG). In addition, I ran simulations with two different sample placement configurations: (1) evenly distributed between the two halves, i.e. two positives in Holes 1 to 5 and two positives in Holes 6 to 10; and (2) unevenly distributed — one positive in the first five holes and two positives in Holes 6 to 10.

In order to run the simulation, I needed to assign values to the different components of the rat’s behavior. I chose values based on averages measured with different rats.

  • Walking from feeding hole to first hole (back walk) = 3 seconds.
  • Walking from covered hole to covered hole = 1 second.
  • Walking from uncovered hole to uncovered hole = 2 seconds.
  • Analyzing a hole = 2 seconds.
  • Indicating a positive = 4 seconds.
  • Walking from last hole to feeding hole = 1 second.
  • Eating the treat = 4 seconds.

All time variables were converted into energy expenditure in the calculation of energy payoff for the two strategies and the different configurations. Also the distance covered was converted into energy expenditure. The reinforcers (treats) amounted to energy intake. In my simulation I used estimated values for both expenditure and intake. However, we could measure all values accurately and convert all energy figures into kJ. 

The results

RatTable1
In terms of energy,  (in this simulation I make several assumptions based on reasonable values, e.g. the total energy spent is a function of distance covered and time spent), the results show that when the value of each treat is high (E gain is close to the sum of all treats amounting to the sum of energy spent for searching all holes), it pays off to search all holes (the loss of -5.50 versus -7.88). The higher the energetic value of each treat, the higher the payoff of the ALL HOLES strategy.This is a configuration with four positives (x) and six negatives (0). The results show that neither strategy is significantly better than the other. On average, when sniffing all holes, the rat receives a treat every 31 seconds, while skipping the first five holes will produce a treat every 31.5 seconds. However, there is a notable difference in how quickly the rat gets to the treat depending on which strategy the rat adopts. ALL HOLES produces a treat on average 5.75 seconds after a positive indication. SKIPPING produces a treat 3.5 seconds after a positive indication. This could lead the rat to adopt the SKIPPING strategy, but it’s not an unequivocally convincing argument.

RatTable2

However, when the energetic value of each treat is low, skipping holes will reduce the total loss (damage control), making it a better strategy (-17.88 versus -25.50).

RatTable3
However, if we run a simulation based on an average of three positives per run, with one in the first half and two in the second half  (which is closest to what the rat JG was faced with on December 12), we obtain completely different results. This first analysis does not prove conclusively that the SKIPPING strategy is the best. On the contrary, it shows that, all things considered, ALL HOLES will confer more advantages.

RatTable4
The energy advantage is also detectable in this configuration, even when each treat has a high energetic value (a gain of 3.13 versus a loss of -0.75).With this configuration, the strategy of SKIPPING is undoubtedly the best. On average, it produces a reinforcer every 27.5 seconds (versus 28.7 for ALL HOLES) and 2.5 seconds after an indication (versus 5 seconds).

RatTable5
Conclusion

This second simulation proves that JG’s strategy was indeed the most profitable in principle. However, the actual results for JG are completely different from the ones shown above, as they also have to take into account the amount of energy spent indicating false positives (which are expensive).

It is now possible to conclude that the most advantageous strategy is as follows. Whenever the possibilities of producing a reinforcer are evenly distributed, search all holes. It takes more time, but on average you’ll get a reinforcer a bit quicker than if you skip holes. In addition, you either gain energy by searching all holes, or you limit your losses, depending on the energetic value of each reinforcer. Don’t be fooled by the fact you get a treat sooner after your indication when searching all holes then when skipping.

Whenever the possibilities of producing a reinforcer are not evenly distributed, with a bias towards the second half of the line, skip the first half. It doesn’t pay off to even bother searching the first half. By skipping it, you’ll get a lower total number of reinforcers, but you’ll get them quicker than searching all holes and, more importantly, you’ll end up gaining energy instead of losing it.

Finally, avoid making mistakes by indicating false positives. They cost as much as true positives in spent energy, but you don’t gain anything.          

An evolutionary explanation

Of course, no rat calculates energetic values and odds for certain behaviors that are reinforced, nor do they run simulations prior to entering a line cage. Rats do not do this in their natural environment either. They search for food using specific patterns of behavior, which have proven to be the most adequate throughout the history and evolution of the species. A certain behavior in certain conditions, depending on temperature, light, humidity, population density, as well as internal conditions such as blood sugar level etc., will produce a slightly better payoff than any other behavior. Behaviors with slightly better payoffs will tend to confer slight advantages in terms of survival and reproduction and they will accumulate and spread within a population; they will spread slowly, for the time factor is unimportant in the evolution of a trait. Eventually, we will come across a population of individuals with what seems an unrivalled ability to make the right decision in circumstances with an amazing number of variables, and it puzzles us because we forget the tremendous role of evolution by natural selection. Those individuals who took the ‘most wrong decisions’ or ‘slightly wrong’ decisions inevitably decreased their chances of survival and reproduction. Those who took ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions gained an advantage in the struggle for survival and reproduction and, by reproducing more often or more successfully, they passed their ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions genes to their offspring.

This is a process that the theory of behaviorism cannot explain, however useful it is for explaining practical learning in specific situations. In order to explain such seemingly uncharacteristic behaviors, we need to recur to the theory of evolution by natural selection. This behavior is not the result of trial and error with subsequent reinforcers or punishers. It is an innate ability to recognize parameters and behave in face of them. It is an ability that some individuals possess to recognize particular situations and particular elements within those situations, and correlate them with specific behavior. What these elements are, or what this ability exactly amounts to, we do not know; only that it has been perfected throughout centuries and millennia, and innumerable generations that accumulate ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions—and that is indeed evolution by means of natural selection.

 

Related articles

References

  • Catania, A. C. (1997) Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 4th ed.
  • Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, 6th, ed.

 

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The Wolf Within—The Truth About Why We Fear the Wolf

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Our love-hate relationship with the wolf, the animal that shares 15 thousand years of common ancestry with man’s best friend, the dog, suggests a deep conflict, one that is well hidden and maybe closer to each of us than we dare to admit. Are we hiding a skeleton in the closet? Why do we take great pains to understand and be good to our dogs whilst we hunt the wolf mercilessly?

 

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

 

Back in time, there were no wolves or dogs, only Canis lupus perantiquus (my name), the common ancestor of Canis lupus lupus, Canis lupus familiars, and 37 other subspecies. Humans, by then Homo sapiens sapiens, developed, not surprisingly, a particularly healthy relationship with this Canis lupus perantiquus. Both shared common interests, and humans were still just one of many species. The relationship was mutually beneficial and resulted in some humans favoring certain perantiquus and certain perantiquus finding human company particularly rewarding.

Natural selection favored the fittest and, as usual, species changed over the years. These changes can be so extensive that some species turn into new ones; others only into new subspecies. The Canis lupus perantiquus changed under selective pressure from humans and their environment and became Canis lupus familiaris. In a sense, we created this subspecies and all its variations to serve and protect us.

Some species react strongly to stimuli they have not experienced for thousands of years, the scent of a predator, for example. These alarming and life-saving key stimuli remain in the species’ gene pool, a kind of genetic memory. It is very unlikely that our fear of wolves stems from this kind of genetic memory; if we were that afraid of the wolf, we would never have gotten as close to it as we did. Perhaps we were afraid of the wolf in primitive times, but thousands of years of living in close proximity and cooperating would have changed that, as the least fearful members of both species would have benefited from the other. In those days, we can presume that the wolves that were least afraid of humans and capable of cooperating had better chances of survival and propagation (and ultimately turned into dogs); and conversely, the humans that were least afraid of wolves and were better at cooperating were more successful hunters, therefore survived and propagated (and ultimately turned into dog owners). Our fear of the wolf makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but perhaps it does from a psychological one. After all, we seem to fear what most resembles us—the enemy within!

Our fear and hatred of the wolf began long after the domestication, when humans took the first steps to distance themselves from nature, to enslave and exploit it—it happened when we invented agriculture. In the beginning, there was no war, only small-scale feuds provoked by the occasional domestic animal being taken by a wolf. The large-scale extermination of the wolf is not due to a single factor, but to an intermingled combination of factors that include mythology, religious zeal, environmental changes, economic incentives, and a deep psychological scar, as we shall see.

Mythology, such as Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables, evoke the wolf as evil, untrustworthy, conniving and cowardly, a greedy thief that will go to great lengths to devour a poor, little lamb, child or old person. Tales of Werewolves also exacerbated our fear and hatred of the wolf.

Religious convictions support our hatred of the wolf. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-29). European farmers and American settlers were devout Christians, and they didn’t need a clearer incentive to declare war on all that crept upon the Earth. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-29)—and the wolf became the ultimate target and symbol of their mission.

There is a clear association between the wolf and the wild, the wilderness and the untamed. As Burbank puts it, “The New World wilderness, where the Pilgrims found themselves, was a sinister adversary, home of tribal savages who practiced evil. The Puritans regarded the wilderness itself as a howling beast, a wolf inspired by the Devil. In their desolation, they sojourned and their journey reminded them that believers wandered in a world of sin, a spiritual wilderness replete with Godless enemies and insane beasts that wanted only to consume the righteous.” (Burbank 1990:80)

Farming and the keeping of domestic animals in enclosures combined with the decimation of the wolf’s natural prey, forced the wolf to get closer to human settlements and to feed upon the occasional livestock. Today, most wolves avoid livestock when they have enough wild prey, but the wolves of the 1800s faced extreme food shortages and preyed upon cattle and sheep. That wasn’t a problem for rich farmers. Even the smaller family farms could have survived the subsequent economic loss. Nevertheless, governments attempted to solve the supposed problem by creating bounties in return for the head of a wolf. Besides shooting them, wolf hunters used traps, poison, denning (excavating a den and killing the cubs) and biological warfare (infecting captive wolves with sarcoptic mange and releasing them into the wild)—and so wolfing became a lucrative business.

Mythology, religious zeal, and the economy go a long way towards explaining the hatred but don’t explain everything. One thing is to control competition (it happens all the time in nature). Another is to embark on radical extermination and, what’s more, find pleasure in the practice of torture (such as setting wolves on fire, skinning them alive, hanging them, etc.). Such barbarism suggests the real reason for our hatred is well hidden and maybe closer to our hearts than we care to believe or dare to face.

As with all organisms, human evolution happens quietly and slowly unless some sudden, drastic environmental change prompts the selection of unusual traits. The human brain was the sudden, single, dramatic cause that prompted a huge leap in the evolution of the species—and it was not an external cause, it came indeed from deep within us. The human brain enabled man to devise farming, then science and technology, and ultimately an anthropocentric religion. Farming enabled us to multiply far beyond the average rate up until that time and to colonize the entire world. Advancements in science and technology gave us the tools to subdue all life on the planet. Religious convictions provided us with motive and momentum beyond all rationality.

There is a high price to pay when evolution equals revolution. The (relatively) quick adoption of dualism and a mechanistic view of the world forced us to part with holism and animism, and left us with deep scars. In order to obey God, conquer the world and subdue all that crept upon our planet, we had to sever our connection with the natural, unruly, uncivilized world. To live up to the moral laws of Christianity, we had to go against our nature, denying who we were and where we came from. We had to cover our tracks. All that reminded us of our holistic past had to be oppressed, suppressed, forgotten. The wilderness in general and the wolf in particular reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. It became them and us. They were symbols of the unruly, the untamed and we, the purveyors of God’s wishes and civilized order. They symbolized what we were, not what we wanted to be. We had to subdue our own wild side, a legacy from our ancestors from many millions of years ago, which had proved highly efficient for survival, yet was despised and denied by the Holy Church. We were imprinted with religious zeal, which elicited the need to stifle the symbolic wild wolf inside each one of us; and we denied our origins, a strategy that was always only going to work on a short-term basis. A conflict of identity was inevitable; the werewolf represents perhaps our struggle to switch from an organic to a mechanistic worldview.

While the dog represents what we aspire to be, the wolf stands for what we refuse to acknowledge as part of us. The dog represents control, reminds us of our power, and is testimony to our ability to tame the wild. The wolf is our guilty conscience, it reminds us of our humble origins, represents the freedom we gave up, the togetherness we abandoned.

Through his fables, Aesop contributed to the creation of many myths that were detrimental to the wolf by depicting it with all the characteristics we despise most. Unknowingly, hence most ironically, in one uncharacteristic fable, he epitomizes our age-old conflict. In “The Dog and the Wolf,” the dog invites the starving wolf to live with him and his master, but when the wolf discovers that it involves being chained, the wolf replies, “Then good-bye to you Master Dog. Better starve free than be a fat slave.”

We became fat slaves by our own choice; and the wolf poignantly reminds us that there was a time when we had other options—herein the dog (wolf) lies buried*.

“Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy was in us,” says Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon from 1986. Echoing Taylor, I’d say: we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us. As long as we will remain in denial of our inheritance, the scar won’t heal, and the enemy will remain well entrenched within us—and so will we keep fighting the wolf.

Keep howling!

 

* “That’s where the dog lies buried,” means “that’s what lies behind.” This idiomatic expression exists in many languages, e.g. “da liegt der Hund begraben” (German), “siinä on koira haudattuna,” (Finish), “där är en hund begraven” (Swedish), but not in English. Most interestingly, the Swedish expression “att ana ugglor i mossen” (to suspect owls in the bog) meaning almost the same, comes from the Danish expression “der er ugler i mosen.” Originally, it wasn’t “ugler,” but “ulver” (wolves), which makes more sense since an owl in the bog is nothing special. Since the two words in some spoken Danish dialects are difficult to distinguish from one another, it was translated incorrectly into Swedish, and the expression re-introduced in Denmark with owls substituting wolves. The expression and its history was too good for me not to use it in the context of this article. I hope the native English speakers will regard it as an enrichment of the language, rather than a nuisance.

 

The Thai Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

— by Roger Abrantes

 

We all know Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the brave mongoose from Kipling’s ‘The Jungle book.’ This is the story of Mah Noy, the brave dog from Koh Lanta Yai in Southern Thai.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose hero from Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

Koh Lanta Yai (เกาะลันตา) remains one of  Thailand’s well-kept secrets (I shouldn’t even reveal the name). It is relatively close to the better-known islands of Koh Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, but is practically inaccessible, requiring two flights, a long drive, and two ferry trips. Tourists are few and far between on this particular South Andaman island and it is virtually devoid of Western influence, except for a few resorts for those who want a taste of unspoiled paradise. Koh Lanta Yai is the biggest of 52 islands of which only 12 are inhabited.

Of course, it’s much easier for me to get to Koh Lanta, as I am resident on a neighboring island only 43.5 nautical miles away. The beaches of Koh Lanta are idyllic: the sand unsullied the water clear and warm (about 86-88º F) and the underwater world along the coral reef just breathtaking (although not literally, I’m happy to say). I always look forward to my diving assignments nearby, drifting above the Staghorn and the Anemone corals monitoring the various species’ fortunes. What a great job!

Thai Fisherman With Dog

Thai fisherman like to have their dogs with them for company and practical purposes.

When I’m working in Koh Lanta, I always go ashore in the evening and stay in modest accommodation right on the beach. On one of these occasions, just before sunset, I was sitting in front of my bungalow, cleaning my equipment, when two children came along to talk to me, as always, curious about foreigners.

I had seen them both before; they belong to the food booth where I often eat, just behind the bungalow. We talked about the sea and the fish and about my diving gear, which of course fascinates them.

After having washed my gear, I decided to walk the 30 yards up the cliff to grab something to eat, and the kids followed me. My Thai is not as good as I would like, but my inadequacies have their advantages. As it is so difficult to pronounce words correctly, I nearly always commit embarrassing mistakes that produce a great deal of giggling—and giggling is the best way I know to decrease distance between strangers.

Woman with her dog: Thai street food booth

Thai street food cooking and selling is a small family business and since dogs are part of the daily life in Thailand it is not unusual to see them with their owners at work.

“Khun cheu aria?” (What’s your name?), I asked the little boy who was giggling the most and who happened to have one of his front teeth missing.

He told me his name, which sounded funny to me. Thais have all sorts of interesting nicknames, and they are especially fond of animal names. Elephant, shrimp, crab, fish, bird, duck, rabbit, turtle, and even chicken are common names—but I’ve never heard a nickname like this little boy’s. It was then that his mother, Poo (Crab), the owner of the food booth, told me the story.

Five years earlier, two days after giving birth to the now gap-toothed boy, Poo was cooking dinner whilst the family dog catnapped behind the cradle where her newborn baby was happily babbling away to himself.

Thais usually cook outdoors. It’s always warm and they don’t like the smell of food indoors. The dog was typically Thai, of unknown origin, the size of a small spaniel, with an unruly black and white coat, and friendly, deep brown eyes. They had found him on the street a couple of years beforehand and had fed him. For want of a better name, they called him just (หมาน้อย), Mah Noy. He stayed around and finally moved in a couple of weeks later after conquering their hearts. The pressure of natural selection for dogs in Thailand is on kindness. The kindest dogs have a greater chance of survival and pass on their ‘kinder’ genes to their progeny.

On that particular day, Mah Noy gave Poo such a fright she almost lost hold of her hot pan, which could have resulted in serious burns. The dog had suddenly emitted a deep growl and then in two agile, determined jumps, just missing the baby’s cradle, he launched himself on top of a cobra, biting it firmly behind the head.

Thai boy and puppy

Mah Noy (หมาน้อย), the boy, got his unusual name for a good reason.

The Andaman Cobra (Naja sagittifera) is an impressive snake, measuring about three to four feet in length. The effects of its venom are devastating; it is capable of killing a human in 30 minutes.

Poo was terrified, rushed to pick up the baby, and ran out of the front gate into the street where she began shouting for her husband. Na (short for Chai Cha Na = victory) came running to the scene and charged into the backyard to grab a spade. The cobra was lying a few feet from the dog, apparently lifeless, but, just in case, Na cut it in two with a well-aimed strike with the spade. Mah Noy looked up at him, gasping for air, and barely able to wag the tip of his bushy tail. Na understood right away that the dog was dying, picked him up and, holding his dog firmly on his lap with one hand, he rode his motorbike as quickly as he could to the local vet.

On the way to the vet, Mah Noy peed and pooped on his lap. Na stopped to get a better grasp on the dog. Mah Noy looked at him, gasped for air for a last time and gave a final wag of his tail. Na understood it was too late for the vet and the strong fisherman from the South Andaman Sea began to weep like a child, right there on the side of the road to Klong Dao, in the fading light of the day on which he had come so close to losing his first-born baby boy.

When Na got home to Poo and their newborn, they buried Mah Noy in their backyard and placed a yellow marigold on top of the grave (yellow is the color of friendship for Thais). That evening, they decided to call their baby boy หมาน้อย, Mah Noy, which in Thai means ‘puppy.’

Sawasdee khrap,

ชีวิต ที่ด

 

Bonding and Stress

by Roger Abrantes

 

Dog and Child by Elena Shumilova

Dog and Child in a bonding moment (photo by Elena Shumilova).

 

Bonding in animal behavior is a biological process in which individuals of the same or different species develop a connection. The function of bonding is to facilitate co-operation.

Parents and offspring develop strong bonds so that the former take care of the latter, and the latter accept the teachings of the former. 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 week 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 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 is strongly bonding.

 

Never Give Up By Cuttestpaw

The strongest bonds originate under times of intense experiences (photo by Cuttestpaw).

 

Behavior like grooming and feeding seems to release neurotransmitters (e.g., oxytocin), lowering innate defensiveness and 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 phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular 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 obvious 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 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.

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 now! 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-commital and also non-commitable,” 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 it 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.

Of course, 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, formation of memory, creation of bonds, and learning—and too much stress or for too long works against it.

 

Your dog understands your yawn

 

Dog And Man Yawning

 

A yawn is a simple behavior, a reflex, with specific physiological functions. We are not the only ones yawning. Chimpanzees, bonobos, macaques, and dogs, among others, yawn as well. Although a simple behavior, yawning performs social functions as well. It is contagious, not only within a group of individuals of the same species but also across species as in the case of humans and dogs.

The original function of the yawn is not clear, several explanations being equally probable. One study suggests that yawning brings an influx of oxygen to the blood when it contains increased levels of carbon dioxide. Another explanation focuses on a particular necessity to stretch the muscles in the tongue and neck. A third explanation suggests that yawning helps to keep one alert, a crucial condition for any predator to be successful. Since social predators need one another to succeed, yawning developed into being contagious because of the benefits it confers. Another suggestion is that yawning helps to control the temperature of the brain. Some studies point out the connection between yawning and the neurotransmitters, e.g. serotonin and dopamine, that affect various emotional states. That could explain the pacifying function of yawning.

The simplest explanation for yawning being contagious is that the mirror neurons in the frontal cortex of various vertebrates, including humans and dogs, activate the corresponding area in the brain of others. Studies have shown that this mirroring effect occurs not only within the same species but also across species. Mirror neurons may be the ultimate explanation for imitation and allelomimetic behavior.

 

Wolf Yawning

Wolf yawning, a behavior shared by wolves and dogs and also common in other species (photo by Monty Sloan, Wolf Park, Indiana, USA).

 

Dogs yawn and studies have found that they are more prone to yawn when their owners yawn than when strangers do. These are serious studies conducted at the universities of Tokyo, Porto and London’s Birkbeck College. They discarded the possibility of the dogs’ yawning being a stress response by closely monitoring their heart rates during the experiments.

The dog’s yawn is similar to ours. It is often followed by the same characteristic sound. Yawning is popularly associated with tiredness or boredom. In reality, it can be an expression of embarrassment, insecurity, excitement and relief. Some humans yawn when they are in love, which can be embarrassing if it is mistaken for boredom!

Dogs certainly yawn when they are tired, but usually their yawning functions as a pacifying behavior (of themselves as well as an opponent). As we see in many other cases, a behavior originates with a particular function and acquires other beneficial functions later on. Yawning became a signal of friendship, of peaceful intentions. For example, a male dog may yawn if the female snarls at him during the mating ceremony. A self-confident dog yawns showing friendliness to an insecure opponent, and vice versa. Dogs yawn to us with the same intentions and results (if we care to register it and know what it means). They may also yawn as a displacement activity. An owner scolding his dog is a typical situation where we can observe a dog yawn. In some critical training situations prone to error, for example, in the so-called ‘stay,’ the behavior of the owner causes the dog to feel insecure. A yawn is likely to follow, together with licking and muzzle-nudging. When the owner changes behavior, say, by using a friendlier tone or more relaxed body posture, the dog ceases to display pacifying displays.

So, yes, your dog yawns at you showing that it is friendly and peaceful—and you can safely yawn back confirming that you are as well. Once again, don’t worry if some find it silly. Yawning, champing (chomping), licking your lips, squeezing your eyes shut, pouty mouth, the canine muzzle grasp, all work—and all communication means are valid as long as they promote understanding, wouldn’t you say?

 

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Does Your Dog Show Allelomimetic Behavior?

 

Howling Dogs.

Howling is allelomimetic behavior.

I’m sure your dog shows allelomimetic behavior, but don’t worry, it’s not dangerous, except when it is, and yes, it is contagious. Confused? Keep reading.

Allelomimetic behavior is doing the same as others do. Some behaviors have a strong probability of influencing others to show the same behavior. Animals keeping in constant contact with one another will inevitably develop allelomimetic behavior.

Dogs show various instances of allelomimetic behavior—walking, running, sitting, lying down, getting up, sleeping, barking and howling have a strong probability of stimulating others to do the same.

Social predators increase their rate of hunting success when they function in unison. One individual setting after the prey is likely to trigger the same response in the whole group.

Allelomimetic behavior.

More often than we think, it is our own behavior that triggers our dog’s allelomimetic behavior (photo by SunVilla).

The wolf’s howl is allelomimetic, one more behavior our domestic dogs share with their wild cousins. Howling together functions as social bonding. When one wolf begins howling, the whole pack usually joins in chorus, especially if a high-ranking wolf has initiated it. I bet that if you go down on your knees, turn your head up, and begin howling, (provided you are a half-decent howler) your dog will join you in chorus; then, it will attempt to demonstrate its team spirit by licking your face.

Sleeping and eating are good examples of allelomimetic behavior. Dogs and cats tend to sleep and eat at the same time. Barking is also contagious. One barking dog will easily set the whole neighborhood’s dogs barking.

Synchronizing behavior may be a life saver. In prey animals like deer, zebra or wildebeest, one individual has the ability to trigger the whole herd to flee. This trait is so important for self-preservation that farm animals like sheep, cows and horses still retain it. Grazing also tends to occur at the same time.

Allelomimetic behavior.

Running after a running child is more often an example of canine allelomimetic behavior than hunting or herding as many dog owners erroneously presume.

Allelomimetic behavior is not restricted to animals of the same species. Animals of different species who live together show allelomimetic behavior regularly. Dogs are good body language readers and tend to respond to certain behaviors of their owners without needing further instruction. An alerted owner triggers his dog’s alertness more often than the opposite.

Puppies begin to show allelomimetic behavior at about five weeks of age. It is an intrinsic part of your dog’s behavior to adjust to the behavior of its companions. Your behavior influences your dog behavior in many more instances than you realize.

Since we have selected and bred our dogs to be highly sociable and socially promiscuous, they tend to show extended allelomimetic behavior, not only copying the behavior of their closest companions, but of others as well. Next time you walk in the park and your dog runs after running children, you can casually comment, “Typical instance of allelomimetic behavior.” Not that it will solve any problem, if there is one, but you’ll be right and I bet you will impress more than a few of your fellow park walkers.

 

"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.
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