Saturday, January 1, 2011

Dogs' Psychology - Lessons from The Dog whisperer

Dr. Doolittle was a legend a few years ago, but it is now a reality. Cesar Millan understand dog's communication in full. So much to the point that he can transform years-long habitual behavior of dogs in a matter of minutes and he can explain behaviors which appear inexplicable. He can make dogs act a certain way by using and reading body language. He understand them by observing their facial expressions, the way they breath, bark, what direction they're facing and how they hold their tail.
These are also all the things dogs use to understand one another, making him a true master of "speaking dog-ish".

Cesar's show, The Dog whisperer, airs on the National Geographic channel (link for more info).
The show is about training humans to understand what dogs really need and through that to correct the behavior of the dog and make the dog into a calm, happy follower.
[Episodes are always available on Hulu for free (link) to give you an idea of what the show is like if you have never watched it.]

The show focuses on particular problems with particular dogs, but through dealing with that, it reveals the world of dogs' psychology in depth.
In this post I would summarize what I've learned about dog's psychology from the show and then do a comparison between the similarities and differences I see between dog's psychology and human psychology.
I am sure that the summary would not be complete, as my understanding of dogs' psychology based on the show is partial. But I will summarize what I've gathered.
Cesar's knowledge of dogs is a breakthrough in the field of animal psychology and should, in my opinion, be helpful to understanding human psychology since we are an animal too, though of a different kind.

One main essential of dogs' psychology is that dogs always live in a pack, and they behave according to the norm of the pack, which is set forth by the pack leader. Dogs in the wild travel in packs and a pack always has a pack leader.
The pack leader is the dog which is most confident, high on physical energy and dominant.
"Dominant" is a state of mind every dog (and animal) can have. Some dogs are more genetically inclined to it while others are more genetically inclined to be submissive followers, but every dog is capable of these two states: submission and dominance which they will assume depending on the conditions around them. In fact a lot of animals have these states of mind, including birds, cats, humans. A bird is capable of telling a dog what to do using body language, just as a human can project serious leadership which a dog will follow, or a more passive state of mind, in which case the dog will take charge and assume the role of pack leader. Social roles of leadership or of a follower exist throughout the animal world because animals are social beings and they depend on their species for survival at least early years and in most species beyond that time as well.
The distinction between a leader and a follower is central to dog's psychology. Once a leader is chosen for a pack, the pack will protect the leader.

The pack leader is chosen by dogs by two things: his level of energy (how active he is) and his dominant state of mind (if he is ready to take charge of other dogs).
Whenever the circumstances are that a particular dog is the strongest (mentally) in his environment, he will start acting dominant (while in a stronger pack it would be a follower).

A "dominant" behavior is a behavior in which the animal assumes the role of telling others around it how to behave. It sets the example and punishes or warns those who do not follow.

Animals communicate through emotions, or state of mind and everything they read off of one another is used to understand the state of mind the other dog is at. From a distance, they use body language to figure out how a dog feels about their presence and about the environment. If a dog is fearful they might avoid it so not to get involved in a fight, or the pack may bite it to snap it out of the weak state of mind. Dogs see fear or insecurity as weakness and they punish a weak state of mind. From evolutionary point of view, this makes sense, since a pack in the wild must survive and a weak state of mind will be detrimental to its survival. An interesting point to note is that Human beings don't do this (punish or abandon a weak state of mind) - our behavior is guided by ideas (as I shall discuss later). So if our idea is that a weak state of mind is good, people will nourish it.
In the dog world, however, dogs expect one another to be strong and be responsible for their own state of mind. If a dog is too weak or if it misbehaves and slows down the pack, or is fearful, it will be bitten into behaving or abandoned if it does not overcome its weakness.
I am unsure how dogs act when a pack member is injured. I don't think they desert it, but I am unsure. Dogs get emotionally attached to their pack members, as can easily be seen in the relationship they have with their owners. A dog gets ecstatic when a human returns and sad when the human goes away. If a pack member dies, the pack grieves for about a month, after which they move on.

To go back to dog's communication: As I said, dogs communicate through reading each other's emotional state of mind. they do the same with all other animals, including humans. It is incredible how, while people are not readily capable of identifying each other's state of mind, a dog can easily detect it. A person may seem fine and merry to other people but if he's nervous a dog will pick up on it right away and may attempt to protect the human by becoming aggressive. In any case, the dog always knows how the human really feels.
I think people read one another's emotions as well and use it to decide how to behave, however, not with the same level of accuracy and not with automatic accuracy as dogs seem to have. I should note that dogs are not born with this knowledge; puppies are quite clueless and they may come close to aggressive or fearful dogs, but they learn over time because of seeing the consequence and behavior associated with the body language, sounds and scent that they gather.

A dog that challenges the leadership of an existing pack will immediate draw to himself alert and aggressive behavior from that pack. They detect the challenge from the way the dog moves, hold itself, breathes and looks. Direct eye gaze is a sign of a challenge. Dogs hat get along don't normally gaze at one another. So if a dog stands with its head and tail held high, breathes shallowly and gazes at its surroundings, he is declaring that he has come to own and lead and he will be treated according to this message that he is sending.
Dogs don't actually have a language, like people. Their barks communicate emotions, but not specific words.

A central concept in dog's psychology is ownership. It is not the same concept as in the human world. Dogs don't regard ownership as "the one who created it owns it" as humans do nowadays. In their world, the pack leader owns whatever the pack hunts and the leader decides when the rest of the pack gets to eat. The pack respects the pack leader and will allow it to dictate the time and order of feeding, though they may fight among themselves (a fight which the pack leader will break by punishing the one who started it).
From dogs' perspective, dogs own objects, space and other dogs (or animals).

To compare to humans: Humans beings communicate through highly abstract concepts (which are developed from observations). Dogs are not capable of abstracting to such a level, nor are they capable of creating things beyond hunting. The human race survives through altering its environment, creating things from it to survive, while dogs exploit the environment without creating things from it. Human beings can understand the concept of force, for example, in its scientific sense, while dogs can only get "I push, it moves" but they don't relate a rock falling and moving stuff to another dog pushing them, while the human mind is constantly for the lookout for such generalizations. This is why we have the concept of "force", which generalizes rocks, people, atoms and stars while dogs only go as far as "I push, it moves". This is why us humans have a language and why we need it. Words communicate specific concepts, while dogs stay on the basic level of emotions to understand one another and the world around them. Dogs do generalize (or abstract) on some level: they have a mental group for "the young" (puppies, babies and other animal youngs), females and males, they identify members of different races (they can make a conclusion about the whole human race, for example, and act accordingly to every new human they meet, showing that they distinguish humans as a group).
However, beyond such abstractions, their brain does not abstract further.

Dogs' psychology is simple - it is as if one took a human being on all their psychological complexity and stripped them off of their ideas; leaving simple, emotion-based reactions to observe.

I'll present several examples illustrating the underlying similarity in dog's psychology and human psychology.
Example #1: Dogs who are fearful or insecure tend to be aggressive, because they expect harm to come to them from other dogs, even when there is no sign of it. Humans exhibit the same behavior though it is harder to see it in such simple terms because they would always have reasons for thinking or acting hostile.
Another example: An insecure dog that gets affection from one member of a household will act more aggressive around that human because they derive a sense of confidence against the others when being close to that individual. This behavior also exists in humans. AKA the insecure bitch that finds sudden courage to open her mouth on another member of the "pack" when she is around her good friend, which is also a member of the group.

Example #2: Both dogs and humans have a need to be productive as tied to their self esteem and happiness. Lack of a "job" or productivity leads to depression. Many cases in the show showed dogs who were lifeless and depressed and became happy when given a job such as sheep herding, carrying laggage for the human, pulling the human or tracking scent. It makes the dogs feel proud. This is the same in the human world. There's nothing like lack of a productive purpose to bring a man down and make him feel worthless.
One show featured a dog who was cooked the best Italian food out there and the owners begged the dog to eat it. It came to the point that the dog became like a rag and wanted nothing to do with the food. It was only after a few weeks of training in a new environment that the dog relearned to come to the food and work for it that the dog regained its enthusiasm for life.

Example #3: The way to gain the trust of a fearful dog is by slowly approaching it from the side - making oneself visible yet making slow progression without direct confrontation or sudden movements. The same is true with people, though less so in the physical realm and more in the conversation realm. One does not present personal questions, but carefully tries to talk about a favorite subject to the fearful individual and so on. The execution is different but the underlying approach is the same.

Example #4: In relationships, dogs have four components: trust, respect, affection and submission/ domination. They may trust someone to be good to them and yet disrespect that individual by jumping on them or taking their stuff. They can be fearfully respectful of someone yet distrust them, and they can either be submissive (a follower) to someone or attempt to lead them and feel as if they "own" them, or be equal pack members. It is fairly easy to see these components because dogs show these emotions in direct physical form: If they distrust someone they will not get close to them, and so on. Their affection depend on the energy (or state of mind) of the other dog. Some dogs are a good match in temperament while others are not.
In the human world respect and trust are fundamentals in relationships (and submission/ domination are also present). Trust and respect in the human world are not expressed in jumping on one another, but in more subtle ways via communication and actions. Affection in the human world, however, has vastly different roots than dogs'. Dogs feel affection toward their pack members, and particularly toward dogs which match their energy and temperament. Dogs are selective too toward individuals, as are humans. However, human beings develop affection based on complex subconscious ideas. We develop a subconscious understanding of what we consider good traits and bad traits and then feel affection toward people who have those traits. Temperament does not play a central role in determining whom we would like or dislike.

Example #5: Calm assertive leader vs. frustrated punishment: Dogs follow a calm assertive leader - one that corrects behavior or punishes behavior not out of anger or frustration, but out of intent to set things moving on the right track, keeping in mind the value of the pack member being punished. When a human attempts to punish a dog with anger or frustration the dog will not accept the human as a leader. This is very similar to how human leadership works and how parental leadership works (or does not work). Kids that are punished with anger and frustration do not obey their parent nor respect them - they learn to sneak behind their back or openly defy them even if physical punishment is likely to be administered. However, parents which practice calm assertive limitations on their children gain their children's trust and respect and the kids are disciplined and not rebellious.

Example #6: Grief or sorrow are considered a weak state of mind in the dog world. A dog which is grieving will not be chosen for a leader. In the human world, people feel an almost innate need to hide negative emotions past childhood. Outbursts of cry, for example, are almost never done in public, and when they do, kids past the age of 6 would normally pick on a kid who is doing it and would see it as a weakness. I believe, however, that this inclination can be overriden by cultural ideas. If someone is brought up to think that crying in public is admirable they will do so, however, it seems to an irrational thing to do. Sorrow is recognition of loss of value. It is a vulnerable state of mind, in which normal functioning and survival is harder. A happy, calm individual who has lost nothing can easily function well, think and perform well, but a grieving individual will function slower and in less efficiency.

Example #7: Both species automatically show emotions in body language and facial expressions. Dogs learn to read it, humans may or may not (though the obvious, unsubtle expression are almost automatically learned).

Turning to the fundamental differences between humans and dogs: I see two fundamental differences: Humans beings are motivated by emotions, but their emotions are determined by their ideas. Our ideas are far more complex than dogs' because we have such an amazing ability to abstract. Our mind is built to seek similarities and differences and group them together into generalizations. Only humans can see the similarity between an open sea and an open future (one is physical, the other referring to career and social options which is a completely different field).
The extent to which our ideas determine our motivation and action is so extreme, that a person can feel content killing themselves if they are convinced it is good. The ethical idea of sacrifice is highly abstract - dogs are cognitively incapable of it and so are guided by simple conclusions and instincts. Dogs can never knowingly harm themselves because they can never reach such a high level idea of 'sacrifice'. Instead, they learn right and wrong from physical pain and pleasure.
The second difference, which is a result of the first, is that human beings create for survival, while dogs exploit their environment and travel. It is the cognitive difference, which in turn creates the difference in intelligence that allows humans to invent and create things from our environment. Because of this, people settle down in a home while dogs need to travel daily. If they don't get their power walks, they feel depressed.

The fundamental similarities are: our emotions. We have the same emotions with the same value judgment behind them, only, again, in the human world, our emotions are based off of far more complex ideas and analysis of things. Human beings experience additional emotions which dogs do not have, such as admiration, hatred (according to Cesar dogs are only aggressive but not hateful) and more. However, basically the emotions have the same universal value judgment. Sorrow means loss of a value, happiness means gaining a value, fear means danger to values. It is interesting to note that anger in humans leans on our abstract ethical principles, while dogs get aggressive if they feel threatened, but they do not abstract principles of good and evil and therefore do not feel anger as a moral emotion, but as a simple reaction to someone harming them in one way or another (such as taking their food away). Similarly, dogs feel affection but don't fall in love or admire. They respect, based on the energy someone is having, but not based on their character, as humans do. Jesus in the dog world would have been considered a whiny weak member and would be kicked out the pack. In the human world he is admired by many. This is because their admiration is based primarily on the traits of character and not on the "energy" the person has. A person can have consistently weak state of mind of constant sorrow and yet be admired. Never in the animal world.
Another fundamental similarity is that we are both social and sexual creatures. I think these are built into us in the form of innate psychological and physical needs.

The last thing I have to say in conclusion is that I hope Cesar will some day write a book documenting all his knowledge of dogs' psychology and how they live in the wild. It is a remarkable achievement and the value of his knowledge goes far beyond teaching a few dogs how to get along with their owners. It can contribute tremendously to the field of psychology.