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Thursday, 2 April 2015

51 Shades of Grey: Misuse, Misunderstanding and Misinformation of the Concepts of “Dominance” and “Punishment”

Guest post by: Simon Gadbois, PhD, of the Canid Behaviour Research Laboratory at Dalhousie University (@GadboisSimon & Facebook).

Simon Gadbois at SPARCS 2014
Ha the 80’s… So nostalgic of the eighties. Finishing High School, starting University, the best and the worst music of the past 50 years. Speaking of the things we are not missing: mullets and pony tails (I am so sorry mother, everybody was doing it…), parachute pants and stonewashed jeans (please don’t tell me they are coming back), shoulder pads, blue eye shadow, and punitive/coercive dog training methods…

The 90’s were refreshing. We started the Decade of the Brain (the new fixation and obsession with neuroscience), started to focus on dogs as genuine research subjects, and indulged in pretty radical re-thinking of everything having to do with dogs and wolves. A lot of good came out of the 90’s. But a lot of myths were also created. It was also the start of a new appreciation for science in general. Popularization of science and knowledge translation became the focus of some scientists. Some did it well. Very well. Others confused popularization with oversimplifying and polarizing issues between “right” and “wrong”, and encouraged the idea of a “truth” and the wrong idea that science is about “facts” or about “proving” things.

Let’s examine some of those ideas. First, science does NOT prove anything. Science can only be “quite sure” (at best) about something. Mathematics (a tool of science) can offer “proofs”, but the scientific process itself is not about proving anything. It does not matter if you used null hypothesis significance testing, Bayesian statistics, or any other method. If there is one thing we know about research as scientists, it is about what we are not 100% sure about. Unfortunately some scientists and non-scientists want to be convincing, and use very strong language to make their points. Many would defend that strategy by arguing that they have to convince trainers that they are doing it wrong. It seems that there is a new movement now going to rectify some of those created myths and misunderstandings. Some of us engaged in some of these comments (e.g., Roger Abrantes, Marc Bekoff, Monique Udell, myself) are often getting criticized for appearing to go against the current. Interestingly, from a scientific perspective, we are with the current. I will expand on this below.

One thing that plagues the knowledge translation process in canine science is the fact that the public has access mostly to books (albeit written by scientists). A little known fact is that most scientists don’t write books (or blog posts, or Facebook comments)… They write scientific papers, present posters and give talks to peers at scientific conferences. Why? Because many, if not most, are not interested in sharing with the public what they do. They do not have the time to write books, because, after all, peer-reviewed papers, not books, will get you tenure, other promotions, and scientific funding. The result is interesting: Most non-scientists in the dog world have a very biased perspective of who is actually well-known in the canid science world. They will name Coppinger, Klinghammer, Miklósi, Mech, etc. (all truly great scientists, for the record, along with some much less well known ones in scientific circles), and overlook other giants in the field. It always baffles me that individuals interested in wolves do not know Carbyn, Fentress, Frank, Ginsburg, Harrington, Moran, Murie, Paquet, Peterson, Pimlott, Zimen, and so many others that are unavoidable contributors of the field (in number of publications as much as scientific contributions and reputation). Although most of them have not written books, or at least not after the 90’s, they have undeniable clout in the field of wolf research (one of my PhD supervisors, John Fentress, is finishing a book as I write this).

So what are examples of confusions that arose from some popularized canine science? Here is a short list of myths. Let me just comment right away that anybody I know that a) actually worked with wolves or studied animal learning, and, b) actually read the scientific papers, would not make the statements below:

1. Punishment does not work and is always cruel.

2. Dominance does not exist in wolves.

3. Dog evolution has nothing to do with wolves.

There is quite a bit to say on each of these items. Note also that, on purpose, the statements are very black or white. In fact, especially with the corrections, clarifications, and even retractions of the past few years from some individuals, many of you will think I am unfairly dramatic. Well, I agree to some extent, but considering what I read on Facebook and elsewhere, this is at least the “dark” end of the spectrum.

You see, science is about shades of grey. Science seeks a consensus. Science seeks converging evidence. That rarely translates into “black or white” statements. Science is about synthesis, open-mindedness, even compromises. Pitting theories against each other is part of the process. But the point is to get to a golden middle. To that idealized “truth” that some promise you. Regardless of what they say, scientists are idealists (and human). Sometimes they get carried away by their convictions and opinions. My father gave me a gift early in my life as a young scientist. In the 50’s, he was a graduate student of Jean Piaget at La Sorbonne. From what I understand, my father struggled very much in trying to reconcile North American and Continental European psychologies. In the process though, he became quite a dialectician, something he taught me through his careful consideration of any argument I would try to make or idea I would put forward (although I was not fully aware of it at the time). The process is simple: State a thesis (e.g., “punishment does not work”). Find the “evidence” for it, argue for that point. Then, state the antithesis (e.g., “punishment works”). Same process, gather the data, argue for that point. Finally, and most importantly, formulate the synthesis. It likely won’t be black (thesis) or white (antithesis), it will be something in the middle, in the shades of grey. His gift was to teach me to be a relativist and never accept dogmatism, in science, or in anything else in life.

Source: Flickr/Col and Tasha Two
Very quickly, the statement, “punishment does not work”, is easy to deconstruct. Obviously (and sadly) punishment (mostly) works. If any of you try to use science to make the statement “punishment does not work”, you are in trouble. There are literally thousands of scientific papers and hundreds of scientific books (e.g., the classic Handbook on Operant Conditioning, Honig & Staddon, 1977; Domjan, 2003*) that will confirm this: Using punishment can suppress, if not inhibit completely, behaviours (it is, after all, the definition of the term). The question in this case is about the statement itself. The statement misses the point: What are the side-effects of punishment? That is the question! And as I often argue, then we fall into ethical arguments more so than scientific ones. I often find scientists and dog trainers not courageous enough in just making an ethical statement. My approach is to ask the question “what kind of relationship do you want with your dog, one based on coercive and punitive interactions, or one based on friendship, communication and mutual understanding?”. There is another important issue associated with the arguments against punishment. Not all punishment is “punitive” and coercive. The scientific definition simply suggests that a punishment will at least reduce the frequency (count per unit of time), duration or intensity of a behaviour. Nothing here suggests the necessity of using shocks, or hitting, kicking, yelling, etc. Somehow, the connotation of the scientific term took a dark turn.

Any student in experimental psychology has done at least one cognitive computer task where the computer gives feedback for accurate (sound A) or inaccurate (sound B) responses. This is typically done so the subject can update its knowledge of the task and change its response pattern to increase performance. Is it not fascinating that the same idea will repulse many trainers? The idea of saying (softly) “no”, or “nuh uh” or use a non-reward marker (a very fancy terminology to say “punishment”) seems to get people all up-in-arms. Why? Well, technically, if “no” means “that was not the right choice” or “don’t do that again”, and the dog does not repeat the behaviour… it was a punishment. It is actually what I like to call information. Simple. We like information as humans, because it accelerates learning, it helps us make sense of the world, it helps us make sense of a set of rules in a game. When I was learning classical guitar in the 70’s, I was very happy to have my teacher tell me what I was doing right, and what I was doing wrong. It was less frustrating to know about my mistakes, than trying to guess what I was doing wrong. He was paid to tell me this. Why do we deprive our dogs of that information? In my lab we work a lot with border collies. I have seen border collies go nuts if they are told only what they do right, and are ignored when making a wrong choice (for example, in a matching-to-sample task). In fact, ignoring wrong responses becomes very aversive, without really telling the dog what to avoid doing. Interesting, is it not? That will sound familiar. Positive reinforcement-only trainers will often make the argument that punishment won’t tell the dog what to do. Mmmh… that’s right… but it won’t tell the dog what to avoid doing either. This becomes very obvious in some complex tasks with multiple choices, meaning multiple possible mistakes or misses. But again, you are not “punishing” (with the modern, non-scientific connotation), you are informing.

To summarize this discussion on punishment:

1. Punishment works… but if punitive and coercive, it does not make it good or ethical.

2. Punishment is not necessarily punitive or coercive.

3. Information (feedback) about good choices (positive feedback) and mistakes (negative feedback) accelerates learning and decreases frustration… even if technically the negative feedback part, by definition, is “punishment” (as it gets the dogs to reduce or eliminate responses).

As for dominance… ugh… what a mess that one is… and the confusion between dominance (as status vs. as a trait), dominance hierarchies, aggression, aggressiveness, agonistic behaviours, rank, status, etc. People citing papers that are supposed to reject the dominance concept when they actually simply redefine the alpha role (not roll) and in fact even suggest parents have a firm hold on the pups (i.e., being quite disciplinarians)… yes, that Mech paper (1999). The same author that more recently published on dominance in wolves (e.g., Mech, 1999; Mech, 2000; Peterson, Jacobs, Drummer, Mech, Smith, 2002) because he actually never denied the existence of dominance hierarchies, and the same author that writes to Marc Bekoff about Bekoff’s great piece “Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs, and Other Animals” published in another blog platform in February of 2012: “… a quick scan of the (name removed) article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like (name removed)’s has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance.”

In an online essay by Mech, he also writes "Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al. 1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead. Thus, the most practical effect of social dominance is to allow the dominant individual the choice of to whom to allot food." Ironically, Mech pointed towards more tension between the breeding male and the breeding female, or between parents and progeny, than I believe we ever saw or documented at the Canadian Centre for Wolf Research (a captive pack in a 4 hectare enclosure; e.g., Fentress et al, 1987; Gadbois, 2002). So much for the idea that captive wolves are more likely to show dominance than wild ones! I am still waiting for the evidence (actual data) suggesting that captive wolves are more stressed than wild ones. So far, I see only the opposite trend, or no difference at all.

For my part, I adhere at least partially to “role theory”, proposed by scientists like Bernstein, Fedigan, Gartland, and Mech (Mech, 1999 writes about “division of labour”, a similar concept). In wolves, it is clear that the dominance hierarchy is in place to determine the breeding pair (as only the formerly labelled “alpha male” and “alpha female” typically breed; wolves are “technically” monogamous). This is clearly seen via noticeable peaks in aggression in (captive and wild) packs during the breeding season (January to March). Our main captive pack at the Canadian Centre for Wolf Research rarely displayed significant aggression or dominance conflicts outside of the breeding season (with some exceptions over the 30 year life of that pack). And even during the breeding season, my Master’s student Barbara Molnar re-analyzed my PhD videotapes to find that they still engaged in almost 3 times more affiliative behaviours (e.g., play) than agonistic behaviours during that more “conflictual” time of year!

Photo: Dennis Matheson

We also forget that not all packs (captive or wild) are the same. Some form nuclear family groups (mom, dad, pups of the year). In those groups you are less likely to find any dominance hierarchy. Why? Well, for one, wolves don’t “enter” the dominance hierarchy until they are sexually mature (at puberty). In principle this is not until their first Winter/Spring, and often not until the following breeding season, in other words, well into their second year. So those “nuclear” or immediate family units (like the Arctic wolves of Ellesmere) cannot compare to wolves that form extended family groups that are multi-generational (with cousins, uncles, aunts, even grandparents, being part of the group). In those family units, there will be individuals interested in breeding beyond the breeding pair. This will create conflicts (note that in principle, in larger packs, some subordinates could end-up never having a chance to breed unless they challenge the breeding individuals).

Another forgotten characteristic of dominance hierarchies, in wolves, humans, or any other animal, is that they are in place in order to avoid conflict and aggression, not contribute to it. In fact, wolves use mostly ritualized aggression, not contact aggression.

To summarize this discussion on dominance:

1. Dominance and dominance hierarchies exist in wolves.

2. It is not all about dominance, in fact, they would rather have fun with their buddies.

3. Dogs are not wolves.

Well, that last point raises yet another issue… Actually, modern molecular genetics is pretty clear about this: They kind of are the same… In the past decade, the debate is more about when and where the “split” occurred. But to play the dialectical game here again… they kind of are “not the same”. We spent centuries working on selectively getting rid of aggressive behaviour in wolves and purposively making them more docile… Why insist on still seeing them as wolves? Have we failed our artificial selection (selective breeding) experiment, or are we just obsessed ourselves with status and rank (think corporations, the military, academic ranks, sibling rivalries)? And again, what kind of relationship do you want with your pet? Personally, I would rather have a friend than a competitor or slave. I don’t get the paranoia, or the servitude angle. That is why I pick dogs as pets, and not grizzlies or wolverines.

To summarize our current knowledge on the origin of dogs:

1. Dogs: They are virtually undistinguishable from wolves, genetically speaking. It is certainly easier to see the similarities than the differences. Somehow these days it is trendy to talk about the differences.

2. Dogs and wolves: They are at the very least extremely close in evolutionary terms. Coppinger discusses this in terms of genealogy, Fentress used to refer to the evolutionary bush (as opposed to an evolutionary tree). Great metaphors in both cases.

3. Obviously domestication induced changes. That was the whole point. Pointing out differences to advance the idea that they are different species is forgetting what artificial selection is about (e.g., inducing neoteny).

For people that may have followed some of my posts on the internet over the past 20 years (Facebook, the old “applied ethology listserv”, “human ethology” list, etc.), I know I will sometimes exasperate some with my relativist attitude and (now you know) my dialectical style… But science is NOT about all-or-nones and black or white judgements, at least, not for long. Science is not infallible, nor is it dogmatic. Science is an attitude, a cognitive style, a method. And I do not accept the idea that the popularization of science and knowledge translation mean that you need to oversimplify the information, especially when communicated to people that will educate others about behaviour, dogs and wolves. Maybe some scientists think that the public is not smart enough to be given all the information and nuances necessary. I would rather give the public the benefit of the doubt and let them decide.

As Spring is upon us, wolves already think about dens, pups, play and fun and leave the politics behind for another year. I wish you the same, until next time.

Waiting for the testing room to open
Simon Gadbois, Ph.D.
Canid Behaviour Research Laboratory

Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

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Lab Facebook Group 

Note: The Dalhousie University Canid Behaviour Research Team uses force-free, positive methods of training dogs for olfactory detection, discrimination, identification, tracking and trailing. All dogs are pets volunteered by their owners and are selected for temperament, trainability, scent abilities, and play drive (i.e., “work” drive). For that reason, 95% of our volunteers are border collies or border collie mixes.

* Domjan writes in fact, in this popular textbook (p. 302, 2003, 5th edition) “On the basis of a few experiments Thorndike (1932) and Skinner (1938, 1953) concluded that punishment was not a very effective method for controlling behavior and that it had only temporary effects at best (see also Estes, 1944). This claim was not seriously challenged until the 1960’s, when punishment processes began to be investigated more extensively (Azrin & Holz, 1966; Campbell & Church, 1969; Church, 1963; Solomon, 1964). We now know that punishment can be an effective technique for modifying behavior (Dinsmoor, 1998)."

Images via Canid Behaviour Research Team photo and Facebook pages.

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy our guest post by Cat Reeve, a member of the Canid Behaviour Research TeamCat and Dogs: seeking solutions with sniffing canines and science, or see all of our guest contributors.

Domjan, M. (2003). The Principles of Learning and Behavior. Thomson - Wadsworth.

Fentress, J.C., Ryon, J., McLeod, P.J., & Havkin, G.Z. (1987). A multidimensional approach to agnostic behavior in wolves. In Frank, H. (1987) Man and wolf: Advances, issues, and problems in captive wolf research: Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Gadbois, S. (2002). The socioendocrinology of aggression-mediated stress in timber wolves (Canis lupus). PhD dissertation, Dalhousie University.

Honig, W. K, & Staddon, J. R. (1977). Handbook of Operant Behaviour. Prentice-Hall.

Mech, D. (2000). Leadership in wolf, Canis lupus, packs. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 114, 259-263.

Mech L.D. (1999). Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77 (8) 1196-1203. DOI:

Mech, L.D., Wolf, P.C., & Packard, J.M. (1999). Regurgitative food transfer among wild wolves. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77, 1192-1195.

Peterson, R.O., Jacobs, A.K., Dummer, T.D., Mech, L.D, & Smith, D.W. (2002). Leadership behavior in relation to dominance and reproductive status in gray wolves, Canis lupus. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 80, 1405-1412.

© 2015 Simon Gadbois | Do You Believe in Dog?