Drifting Toward Animal Behavioral Awareness

DSC_6397In retrospect I can appreciate how becoming proficient in animal behavior, like most animal-related professions, consists of a process that in some ways mimics the co-evolution of humans and other domestic animals. First you understand the normal behaviors of the animals around you at the same time as you acknowledge that those animals also are trying to make sense of human behavior.  At some point in this process, you also realize that it would help enormously if you understood your own normal and problem behaviors too.

Had the term existed in my youth, I’m sure many would have have considered me a poster child for biophilia. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in nature and animal behavior and what a part of being human they were. By the time I got my first dog when I was around 9 years old and became interested in companion animal behavior and training, a system known as behaviorism was well-established in human and animal education.

Like all newbies I felt good when I applied the method and it worked. When it didn’t, in my childish way at first I switched to the only other option to reward the system offered: punishment.  But because I didn’t like how either doling this out or being the recipient of others’ punishment made me feel about myself and them, I intuitively refined my approach in hopes of bringing any outliers into line. This typically meant using an enhanced version of whatever reward I was using at the time. If that didn’t work I tried to convince myself that it didn’t for some reason beyond my control.

But as I gained more education, experience and confidence, it became clear that sometimes the method simply did not work. That’s when I began to ask myself, Why did behaviorism break down?  Of all I read to answer this question, nothing generated a brighter light bulb moment than an article written more than 50 years ago that clearly explained why behaviorism failed, often when it was needed the most.

Those familiar with behaviorism probably have guessed I’m referring to Keller Breland and Marion Breland’s “The Misbehavior of Organisms”  published in the American Psychologist in 1961. But before you say, “Been there, read that” and pick up your treat bag, shock collar, or drugs in preparation for your next training session, I ask you to consider reading it again. A lot has changed in both the human and animal–and especially canine–populations. Fifty years later this article still contains insights capable of triggering Aha! moments for those open to them.

Based on their real-world (as opposed to controlled laboratory) experiences using behaviorism and operant conditioning on more than 6,000 animals belonging to more than 38 species, the Brelands argue that ethologists Konrad Lorenz  and Nicolaas Tinbergen were correct. Both had warned their counterparts in psychology that knowledge of their animal subjects’ normal behavior  was essential to understanding and predicting the animals’ behavior in other circumstances. This still remains true. Even so a well-fed stream of research continues to flow, filled with animal studies that dismiss any role normal animal behavior patterns may play in their responses to our demands. (These studies also ignore the role of the psychobiological effects of the bond, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

When the Brelands zeroed in on when behaviorism broke down as a function of normal species behavior, they became aware of what they called “instinctive drift”. This referred to the tendency of some animals to drift away from any trained behavior toward one belonging to their normal behavioral repertoire.

Permit me to pause here long enough to a) confess that yes, I’m well aware that the word “instinct” swirls about in its own little tempestuous behavioral/ethological terminology teapot and b) note that I’m using the term as the Brelands did, to denote a natural more deeply embedded behavior than the artificial one they wanted the animal to learn.

In the Breland’ particular case, the animals drifted away from the trick behaviors the Brelands wanted them to display toward those associated with the animals’ normal repertoire of food-related behaviors. This makes sense if you think about it. In keeping with behaviorism protocol, the animals most likely weren’t fed much if at all before sessions to guarantee a maximum response to the food reward. But because the animals were hungry, some of them perceived the nonfood objects that were part of the trick as potential food. In one case, the Brelands wanted to train  raccoons to rub wooden coins in a miserly way then then put the coins into a bank to earn a food reward. But because feeling and sometimes dunking their food in water before eating it one component of normal raccoon feeding behavior, you can understand why some of the animals refused to comply. Instead those animals repeated the part of the artificial sequence that mimicked the natural one, but refused to put the coins in the bank. They also ignored the food rewards.

Had the Brelands not realized the futility of exposing these animals to this kind of training and tried to force them to display the desired behavior by using more palatable treats or even punishment, it seems likely that the frustration associated with this unfilled sequence would have driven some of these animals to compulsive or aggressive displays. In these and other cases, the energy-efficient natural pattern that evolved for locating and consuming food over eons overrode the irrelevant (to the animal) meaning the trainers inadvertently assigned to a segment of this process for their own purposes.

Because valued companion animals live in environments where their people routinely feed them, it would seem that similar drifts would occur less often if at all. However, the combination of restriction of movement combined with a reliable human-bestowed food supply is a relatively new phenomenon in human relationships with dogs. (While most pet owners do feed their cats regularly, a fair number of these animals do remain free to come and go pretty much as they please.) I would even go so far as to venture that it was a combination of this confinement and complete control of the animal food supply and the increase in human leisure time that enabled behaviorism to gain such a foothold in post-WWII  United States.

Prior to then the bulk of today’s companion animal species probably shared a more mutualistic relationship with people tempered by the physiological and behavioral changes associated with human and animal domestication. If we accept that domestication results in animals who are more physiologically and behaviorally immature than their wild ancestors (i.e., neoteny) which as a biologist I do, then the person would function as protector of the animal. For grazing animals initially this may have meant securing safe places for the animals to forage and moving them to and from those areas. For dogs and cats, it may have meant giving them access to human garbage or the vermin human garbage or foodstuffs attracted.

This minimal human intervention permitted the animals to do what they normally did when they had enough food and security to do so: mate, reproduce and successfully raise their young. In grazing animals, the human reward for this would be the by-products of this process: a means of transportation, milk, meat, skins and wool.  Dogs would benefit humans by alerting people to or driving off animals the dogs considered a threat to themselves. Dogs and cats would hunt vermin to fulfill their own nutritional needs which unintentionally, but fortuitously, would benefit humans whose own food supply the vermin threatened.

In these situations human and animal species did what evolution primed them to do—get what they want using the least amount of energy—which in this case was food. Whether an animal eats vegetation, prey, or a combination of the two, animals who must expend more energy gaining the food than they get from digesting it will not survive.

Given this normal animal behavioral awareness can you understand why some  animals being commanded to display what to them are irrational behaviors instead may opt for time-tested ones that enhance their stability in that environment? Why they might move away from us and instead target the deliveryman when we hysterically yell, “Come!” because our  body language and relationship with them communicates our  inability to protect ourselves and them?

In cases like this where the cost of obeying the out-of-context command far exceeds any benefits, can you see why there may not be a yummy enough treat in the world to make that animal obey?

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