Communication is the transmission of information from one individual to another, which is designed to influence the behavior of the receiver. In a simple communication system, a source encodes and transmits a signal, which is detected by a receiver, and decoded into meaningful terms. The effectiveness of animal signals is influenced by the physical environment, the nature of the receiver, and the influence of other signallers. Different sensory modalities are best suited to different habitats. Much depends, therefore, upon the physical nature of the habitat (McFarland, 2006)
Animal signals are “behavioral, physiological, or morphological characteristics fashioned or maintained by natural selection because they convey information to the other organisms” (Otte, 1974, p.385).
In the complexity of human language, the prototypic units are specific sounds, sound categories, and sound combinations. But, certain human languages consist of gestural units rather than phonological units, and it is sufficiently flexible to permit other types of units as well.
Phonetic syntax exists in animal languages (Cleveland & Snowdon, 1982), but compared with the human phonological system than the human syntactic system. Lexical syntax has also been observed in natural animal languages (Cleveland & Snowdon, 1982; Robinson, 1984), albeit in a much more limited sense than in human languages.
So, we can conclude the need for communicating clearly and precisely in interspecific communications.
Before continuing, let me state that I’m not evaluating or judging the working methods of any professional. We are free to decide which kind of relationship we want to create with the other species. My approach is not better or worst than any other. My actual work is the result of almost two decades of practical experience with regular updates based on my scientific and empirical knowledge and my technical and ethical limits. My mentors taught me, and now I talk to my students and colleagues, that we are permanent students, that we should always look for more with critical thinking and the humility that we will never know everything.
It all starts with the terms and signals we use. We need to scientifically define them, according to some behavior modification principles:
A signal => A behavior.
A signal => A behavior => A consequence
Note: The correct term is reinforcer, not reward: “The strengthening effect is missed, by the way, when reinforcers are called rewards. People are rewarded, but behavior is reinforced. If, as you walk along the street, you look down and find some money, and if money is reinforcing, you will tend to look down again for some time, but we should not say that you were rewarded for looking down. As the history of the word shows, reward implies compensation, something that offsets a sacrifice or loss, if only the expenditure of effort. We give heroes medals, students degrees, and famous people prizes, but those rewards are not directly contingent on what they have done, and it is generally felt that the rewards would not be deserved if they had been worked for.” (Skinner, 1986, p. 569).
Note 2: I have heard some claims about the neuroscience perspective, that writes about “reward learning”. Although we all have the right to choose how we want to approach the subject, it is important to know that when we are modifying behaviors, we are using “behaviorism”, not neuroscience. If so, please have the kindness to send me which neuroscience techniques are used for it.
Note 3: I don’t understand the current rejection of behaviorism or the behavior itself. Has this approach become less lucrative or trendy? Although we all have the right to choose how we want to approach the subject, it is essential to know that, as I said above, when we are modifying behaviors, we are using “behaviorism” that is not only limited to Skinner or Pavlov. There are several theories of learning, which the major are: Functionalistic (Thorndike, Skinner, Hull), Associationistic (Pavlov, Guthrie, Estes), Cognitive (Gestalt theory, Piaget, Tolman, Bandura), Neurophysiological (Hebb) and Evolutionary (Bolles).
Note: Resulting from all his linguistic experience throughout the world, Dr. Roger Abrantes (2013) suggested the use of the word “inhibitor” rather than “punishment” in his book “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Should Know”. When translated directly from the English to the other languages, especially Latin languages, “punishment” also has religious connotations.
Note 2: This can sound a bit of contradiction with the rewards/reinforcer term. Not exactly. As a Latin language origin speaker, I understand and agree with the “inhibitor” term, since “punishment” has a punitive/aggressive meaning, and some religious connotation when translated. Inhibitors not. They are described in behaviorism (e.g: Pavlovian Conditioned Inhibition) with a similar meaning as “punishment” in the Skinnerian view. The same doesn’t happen with “reinforcer” and “reward” when translated.
Note: I defend that all training based on fear or intimidation, should be considered, by definition, “coercive training” or “coercive behavior (from the trainer)” rather than “aversive.”
Note 2: By definition, all animal trainers use reinforcers and inhibitors and aversives, since we cannot control 100% the environment and it is the receptor (dog, horse, etc.) that will say if the consequence is a reinforcer or inhibitor in the present conditions. Training based on 100% reinforcements or 100% inhibitors is something technically impossible, biologically unnatural (relation of the costs x benefits of the organisms and ESS) and a mistake to all who believe it and can make with it slogans, marketing campaigns or using argumentum ad verecundiam. That’s a fact that all behavioral science students know, even if they don’t admit it or using other words to describe it. But that’s not the question here. The subject here it’s about choices and how we want to have a relationship with (our own and) other species. The way I communicate with other species, I will show below. This way, it is my choice.
Note 3: About some studies and training techniques:
1- A study doesn’t prove anything. Science is a process, not a conclusion. A study shows a result based on the hypothesis and methods used in a specific situation, which creates more questions for further studies. We should be careful with the language used when promoting them.
2- All the papers I’ve researched, and I invite you to do the same, I never found the qualifications or experience of the trainers (very important for a study, since everyone can say that is a trainer), and an individual observation of the dog’s daily environment, their routines, etc. Some of the studies have a lack of this information, are based on the owner’s opinion, observation in a close study place (comparative psychology), or in environments with previous associations.
3- Concluding the previous note, it is my opinion that labeling, classifying or using unclear definitions (or popular ones) about training methods in a study is a dangerous and biased path that invalidates it from its hypothesis.
I’m seeing a current (and increasing) trend stating that “fear is an emotion and emotions are not reinforced.” There are also few mentions about classical conditioning that “doesn’t reinforce nothing.” When I look for its references, I just found popular articles with a few allusions to neuroscience and the amygdala function, with a very passionate speech, in my opinion.
This trend is being used even by academic experts and in professional courses as (another) an “absolute truth.” This “of course theory” worries me much more about the level of limitation for individual thinking and questioning that creates, and how the science is being placed in a place that didn’t reach yet.
I’ll give you basic neuroscience and behaviouristic perspective about the emotions. You can find all the references at the bottom of this article.
I don’t have “a point” about this subject. I’m full of questions, not certainties. But one thing I’m sure: There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding related to these subjects. So, I recommend you to search about it with critical thinking, questioning all professionals about academic references, and making some of the questions below. In the end, make your choice in which speech fits better for you.
Emotions and feelings:
Note: Psychologists, for example, see hunger as a motivational or a homeostatic state
Learning and emotions:
Emotional states proprieties on dogs:
Note: ‘Dogs feeling guilty’ is one of the popular myths in the dog training world. This one creates severe punishment situations in dogs and ‘funny’ videos on the Internet.
As professionals, we should be prudent. Our current knowledge only allows us to say that the dog exhibits pacifying behavior and, in behavioristic terms, that the dog associates a specific approach (verbal or bodily) of the human with something unpleasant, not with something it did hours ago. We cannot confirm or deny guilt in dogs. We don’t know if it exists or how dogs show it.
These are complex concepts to explain in other species (even in ours). By stating they fell guilty, we may make the mistake of anthropomorphism. By denying it, we may make the mistake of anthropodimorphism.
You shouldn’t fear to say “I don’t know,” or “I cannot prove it” in these specific subjects.
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” – Carl Sagan
“A difference of degree, not of kind.” – Charles Darwin
Dr. Roger Abrantes (2015) in his book “Animal Training, My Way” considers that a relationship must be based on mutual respect independently of who is in it. Interacting with social species, allow us to create a bonding. 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 (Abrantes, 2015).
Abrantes (2015) also refer we need to understand the other species and feeling a certain empathy with him. He describes emotional empathy as “the capacity to respond with an appropriate sentiment to someone’s psychological states” and cognitive empathy as “the capacity to understand someone’s perspective or feelings”.
Feedback exists between two variables whenever each affects the other. Positive feedback exists when the value of y tends to increase the value of x, which in turn increases the value of y.
Positive feedback systems are inherently unstable, but they can have certain advantages in complex systems containing built-in constraints.
Negative feedback systems are characterized by the situation where the value of x is diminished as the value of y increases. The consequence is that the value of y therefore decreases.
The value of y is then said to be under negative feedback control. Such negative feedback systems are common in the control of animal behavior.
I have an empirical approach to movement and motivation in animal training to be published in 2020. Bellow, I’ll give you a general idea of what I’ve been working (and still working) in the last 11 years about it.
My observations and practical analysis suggest that this system if correctly applied to the individual, creates a natural balance in communication during the training in order to receive the desired behaviors, and to prevent the undesirable behaviors provided by the factors that can be influenced at the moment; It increases the attention of the human to all present stimuli, increasing the probability of avoiding/preventing them; and it can be implemented together with other learning techniques (e.g social/asocial observational learning).
Some factors that influence the M&M system
I have a view that we should not “training” just because yes. So, I always use these three questions before spending the time and energy of myself and the other species.
Dr. Roger Abrantes (1993) has created a training language called SMAF, an acronym to Signal, Meaning, And Form. SMAF is a language to describe learning with all its components. Its objective is to enable us to plan our session with the highest possible degree of precision and analyze the expected and observed results, regardless of the species. SMAF defines and transcribes terms and processes (e.g., reinforcers and inhibitors, reinforcement schedules, etc…).
Below, I will illustrate the most common signals we use to teach a dog with their meaning and form.
To simplify, I will write a single line with:
The skill to teach => The meaning of the signal => The form of the signal.
Note: I do not use the “stay” (or “wait”) signal. I don’t see any sense of it at the moment. My ethological background and practical experience made me question how a “do nothing” concept can be understood by other species (or even by our)? In my opinion, reinforcing the increase of the duration of a given signal, like “sit,” seems to be a clear and the easiest way to teach the “stay,” which is already included in the signal. The “wait” signal can easily be taught with the “yes-no” skill.
As I wrote above, we are permanent students. Sometimes, everything we are doing simply doesn’t work. It happens sometimes. I always tell to my students, colleagues and dog owners that, when it happens, we should stop. The silence, observation, and thinking are the best teachers at that moment (image below).
I suggest the article below from Dr. Abrantes, with an interesting perspective about the subject.
In conclusion, it much more than training, just enjoy every moment with your dog, cat, horse, guinea pig, etc.
Last update: March 8th, 2020.
Abrantes. R. 2013. The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Abrantes, R. (2019). Do Non-Human Animals Have Consciousness? Ethology Institute. Retrieved Mar. 8, 2020.
Adolphs, R. & Anderson, D.J (2018). The Neuroscience of Emotion, A New Synthesis. Princeton University Press.
Abrantes. R. 2015. Animal Training My Way—Merging Ethology and Behaviorism. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Barata, R. (2008). Movement and Motivation System in Dog Training—An Empirical Approach. Personal Portfolio (Expected to be published in 2020).
Barata, R. (2009). Reward or Reinforce? vs Punish or Inhibit?. Personal portfolio (unpublished).
Barata, R. (2009). Training tools and Fashionism. Personal portfolio (unpublished).
Barata, R. (2010). Lead Respect. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).
Barata, R. (2014). To stay, or not to stay?- that is the question. Personal portfolio (unpublished).
Barata, R. (2014). Animal Training and Pseudoscience—critical reasoning. Personal portfolio (unpublished).
Barata, R. (2016). Signals precision in animal Training. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).
Barata, R. (2019). Positive reinforcement. Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior. Springer.
Batenson, P. (2017). Behaviour, Development, and Evolution. Openbook Publishers.
Chance, P. (2014). Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, 7th, ed.
Cleveland, J., & Snowdon, C. (1982). The complex vocal repertoire of the adult cotton-top tamarin (Sanguinus oedipus oedipus). Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 58, 231-270.
LeDoux, J. (2012). “Rethinking the emotional brain.” Neuron 73 (4): 653–76.
McFarland, D. (2006). A Dictionary of Animal Behaviour. Oxford University Press.
Olson, M. & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2016). Theories of Learning, Ninth edition. Psychology Press.
Otte, D. (1974). Otte, D. (1974). Effects and function in the evolution of signaling systems. Annual Review of Ecological Systematics, 5, 385-417.
Robinson, J. (1984). Syntactic structures in the vocalizations of wedge-capped capuchin monkeys (Cebus olivaceus). Behaviour, 90, 46-79.
Skinner, B. F. 1986. What is wrong with daily life in the Western world? American Psychologist, 41(5), 568-574. Retrieved Jun. 29, 2019.
Watson, J.C., Arp, Robert. (2015). Critical Thinking—an introduction to reasoning well. Bloomsbury Academic
Zahavi, A. (1987). The theory of signal selection and some of its implications. In U. P. Delfino, ed., International Symposium on Biology and Evolution. Bari: Adriatica Editrice, pp. 294-327.