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?


Lorenz And Geese.

Konrad Lorenz and his geese showing the effect of imprinting.


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.


"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.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

Can two training methods be equally good?

Treat Training Dog Cartoon

I receive many emails with questions about animal behavior. Most of them involve practical issues, but, now and then, someone poses a more complex question. Here is my answer to one of the latter, one I’d like to share with you because it deals with important issues for our understanding of animal behavior and training.

Dear ….,

Thanks for your comment, which gives me the opportunity to clarify a few issues. By no means, I see animals as biological robots or do I regard the Skinnerian approach as the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth, quite the contrary (please, consider the following passages from “Mission SMAF—Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training”).

“In fact, I suspect that [communication] even involves more than what science can describe with the intrinsic limitations of its key concepts and methods, no matter how stringent they are.”

“It seems to me, therefore, that our goal must not be to oppress or suppress emotions, but rather control them and use them advantageously. Emotional arousal proves to be necessary to learn and the right amount of emotional arousal even shows to increase the efficiency of learning processes.” (A very non-Skinnerian statement, I would say).

As to my own method to analyze learning processes in artificial set-ups (like in animal training), I write: “In a crude sense, SMAF is an oversimplification of complex processes […] certainly not an attempt to reduce complex mechanisms to a few formulas. In the end, [its] value depends solely on its successful application to solving practical problems; beyond that it has no value.”

Operant conditioning (when we use it correctly) is an efficient model of behavior for animal training because we control the conditionals to a certain extent (as Pavlov explains in its original writings, not the subsequent translations). Whilst operant conditioning is adequate to analyze behavior at a particular level, beyond that it is too crude a tool. To do that, we need evolutionary models and tools like variation, selection, adaptation, fitness, function, evolutionary strategies, ESS (evolutionarily stable strategies), cost and benefit, etc. Thus, my approach to behavior is based on evolutionary biology and philosophically sound argumentation.



The core of the argument is reductionism, the view that we can reduce complex processes to the sum of its simpler parts. In a sense, all science is reductionistic. We attempt to explain complex processes with a few notions well organized in little boxes. This is a process that seems to suit our human brain particularly well.

However, we must bear in mind that our interpretations, independently of how good they are, are just our pictures of an illusive reality. They explain parts of it from particular angles so we can make sense of it. Newton and Einstein, the classical example, are (probably) both right, only explaining reality at two different levels.

There’s nothing wrong about being a reductionist if only we do not get greedy and attempt to explain far too much with far too little as in, “That’s it, this is the way things are. Period.” Simplifying gets us often to the point, which complicating and oversimplifying, both have missed.

In animal training, one theory or one method can be as good as another depending on its foundations, approaches, what it attempts to explain and what practical purposes it intends to serve. If both are based on reliable evidence, use well-defined terms, and are logically sound, there’s little to choose between one or the other.

If only animal trainers would understand that, I believe we would forgo many senseless disputes.

Then again, we can brag about being the most emotional creatures on this big blue marble of ours, can’t we?


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Laughter is the Shortest Distance Between Two People

We laugh, but we are not the only ones.

We laugh, but we are not the only ones.

As I’m sure you have figured out by now, I enjoy finding proof that we humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, are not that different from other forms of life. We share many characteristics with the other living creatures with whom we share our planet. Today, I have one more example for you—laughter.

Laughing is an involuntary reaction in humans consisting of rhythmical contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system. It is elicited mostly by external stimuli like being tickled. We associate it primarily with joy, happiness, and relief, but fear, nervousness and embarrassment may also cause it. Laughter depends on early learning and cultural factors.

The study of humor and laughter is called gelotology from the Greek gelos (γέλιο) meaning laughter.

Chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans display laughter-like behavior when wrestling, play chasing, or tickling. It is difficult for us to recognize their laughter because it is generated by alternating inhalations and exhalations that sound to us like breathing and panting.

Rats display long, high frequency, ultrasonic vocalizations during play and when tickled. We can only hear these chirping sounds with special equipment. They are also ticklish, as we are, and certain areas of their body are more sensitive than others. The rat laughter is associated with pleasant feelings. Social bonding occurs with the human tickler, and the rats can even become conditioned to seek the tickling.*

A dog’s laughter sounds similar to a normal pant. Performing a sonograph analysis of this panting behavior shows that the variation of the bursts of frequencies is similar to the laughing sound. When we play this recorded dog-laughter to dogs in a shelter, it can contribute to promoting play, social behavior, and decrease stress levels.*

Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Maybe it is simply the shortest distance between any two living creatures. Keep laughing, my friends!


* Panksepp & Burgdorf, 2003, ‘Laughing’ rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?; Simonet, Versteeg & Storie, 2005, Dog-laughter: Recorded playback reduces stress related behavior in shelter dogs.


"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.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

Evolutionary Strategies

Doves and Hawks

The traditional way to illustrate Evolutionarily Stable Strategies is the simulation of the encounter between two strategies, the hawks and the doves.

Evolutionary biologists imagine a time before a particular trait existed. Then, they postulate that a rare gene arises in an individual and ask what circumstances would favor the spread of the gene through out the population. If natural selection favors the gene, then the individuals with the genotypes incorporating that gene will have increased fitness.  To become established in a population’s gene pool, a gene must compete with the existing members of the gene pool and resist invasion from other mutant genes.

In considering evolutionary strategies that influence behavior, we visualize a situation in which changes in genotype lead to changes in behavior. By ‘the gene for sibling care’, we mean that genetic differences exist in the population such that some individuals aid their siblings while others do not. Similarly, by ‘dove strategy,’ we mean that animals exist in the population that do not engage in fights and that they pass this trait from one generation to the next.

At first sight, it might seem that the most successful evolutionary strategy will always spread through the population and eventually supplant all others. While this may sometimes be the case, it is far from always being so. Sometimes, it may even not be possible to determine the best strategy. Competing strategies may be interdependent in that the success of one depends upon the existence of the other and the frequency with which the population adopts the other. For example, the strategy of mimicry has no value if the warning strategy of the model is not effective.

Game theory belongs to mathematics and economics and it studies situations where players choose different actions in an attempt to maximize their returns. It is a good model for evolutionary biologists to approach situations in which various decision makers interact. The payoffs in biological simulations correspond to fitness, alike money in economics. Simulations focus on achieving a balance that would be maintained by evolutionary strategies. The Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS), introduced by John Maynard Smith in 1973 (and published in 1982), is the most well known of these strategies. Maynard Smith used the hawk-dove simulation to analyze fighting and territorial behavior. Together with Harper in 2003, he employed an ESS to explain the emergence of animal communication.

An evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) is a strategy that no other feasible alternative strategy can better, provided sufficient members of the population adopt it. The best strategy for an individual depends upon the strategies adopted by other members of the population. Since the same applies to all individuals in the population, a mutant gene cannot invade a true ESS successfully.

The traditional way to illustrate this problem is the simulation of the encounter between two strategies, the hawks and the doves. When a hawk meets a hawk it wins on half of the occasions; and it loses and suffers injury on the other half of the occasions. Hawks always beat doves. Doves always retreat against hawks. Whenever a dove meets another dove there is always a display and it wins on half of the occasions. Under these rules, populations of only hawks or doves are no ESS because a hawk can invade a population made up entirely of doves and a dove can invade a population with only hawks. Both would have an advantage and would spread in the population. A hawk in a population of doves would win all contests; and a dove in a population of hawks would never get injured because it wouldn’t fight.

However, it is possible for a mixture of hawks and doves to provide a stable situation when their numbers reach a certain proportion of the total population. For example, with payoffs as winner +50, injury -100, loser 0, display -10, a population consisting of hawks and doves (or individuals adopting hawk and dove strategies) is an ESS whenever 58,3% of the population are hawks and 41,7% doves, or alternatively that all individuals behave at random as hawks in 58,3 % of the encounters and doves in 41,7%.

Evolutionarily stable strategies are not artificial constructs. They exist in nature. The Oryx, Oryx gazella, have sharp pointed horns, which they never use in contests with rivals and only in defense against predators. They play the dove strategy. Up to 10% per year of Musk Ox, Ovibos moschatus, adult males die as a result of injuries sustained while fighting over females. They play the hawk strategy.

Peer-to-peer file sharing is a good example of an ESS in our modern society. BitTorrent peers use Tit for Tat strategy to optimize their download speed. Cooperation is achieved when upload bandwidth is exchanged for download bandwidth.

Life is a box of wonder and amazement, isn’t it?


"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.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

The spectrum of behavior

Behavior Spectrum

Behavior is like the spectrum of light: it is as difficult to say when yellow turns into orange as when one behavior turns into another. © Illustration by Roger Abrantes with drawings from Alice Rasmussen.

The conundrum of the behavioral sciences is that they are not exact sciences in the same sense as physics or mathematics. Behavior is like the spectrum of light: it is as difficult to say when yellow turns into orange as when one behavior turns into another. It is a continuum of quantity, perceptible throughout its duration, describable only when quantity turns into quality.

Friendly, insecure, pacifying, submissive and fearful behaviors are a continuum of quantity, as are content, self-confident, assertive, dominant and aggressive behaviors. The distinction between any two behaviors is a matter of function; the borderline separating one category from the other is a matter of observational skill, contextual parameters, and convention; the way we understand it all is a matter of definition.

Our brain likes to tidy up its stored information in small boxes, but once in a while, I like to turn them upside down. It’s good mental exercise.

© Illustration by Roger Abrantes with drawings from Alice Rasmussen.

"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.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.