Reflections on my conversation with Marc Bekoff

I just got to have Marc Bekoff on my podcast! We talked about Jessica Pierce’s and Marc’s latest book: A Dog’s World – Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans.

I translated this book to German, and it recently got released by Kynos Publishing. Since I usually stay in touch with “my” authors in the translation process, I grabbed the opportunity to invite Marc on a Zoom chat.

In this episode, I acknowledge the relevance of A Dog’s World to pet dog owners today, and I challenge Marc on the conclusion drawn in the book: that the species dog would survive (or turn into a new species) if all humans disappeared. It’s the latter part that I want to talk about some more after further thinking about the book and our conversation.

Survival in a posthuman world

What I’m still grappling with is the idea that dogs would survive without us. My openion (and yes, this is VERY MUCH an opinion because we can’t test this scenario in a meaningful way) is that dogs would go extinct in a world without humans.

Jessica and Marc believe that many dogs would not only survive, but thrive in a world without us.

Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos

Where we come from

Only in the course of this conversation did I realize how different the points of origin of our respective arguments are, and how our respective conclusions followed, perhaps quite naturally, from exactly these anchor points we already had long before this conversation.

Marc’s longest field research project, I believe, was on the lives and behavior of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. As an ethologist, Marc observes behavior and writes ethograms (a list of observable behaviors and their contexts) about different species in their natural environment. In Marc’s case, these species were primarily wild canids.

Marc is a dog lover who has also spent many days at dog parks, observing the interactions of Boulder’s dog park dogs through an ethological lens. Marc has researched, by reading everything that is available in terms of observational studies, the lives of free-roaming domestic dogs around the world, and observed feral dogs arund Boulder. On the podcast, Marc points out that the ethograms of domestic dogs and wild canids is nearly indistinguishable.

Marc has also lived with dogs: companion dogs who were off leash when Marc was out with them around Boulder, CO. Marc observed the behaviors these dogs would engage in in their off-leash lives. (They were only out and about off leash when Marc was with them – so probably living degrees of freedom similar to my own dog, who is not a free-roamer.)

Taking the similarity of the ethograms, the independence of Marc’s own dogs and a group of feral dogs who would make occasional trips to the dumpster but also hunt outside of Boulder, Marc and Jessica Pierce conclude that there would absolutely be individual dogs – enough to form new wild populations – surviving the demise of the human species.

Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos

The anchor point of my ship train of thought is different. I am a dog trainer. The dogs in my life are usually sports or working dogs, or very active companion dogs of high-maintenance breeds, or not so active dogs living with highly sophisticated dog folks who are most definitely not average pet dog homes. I have never had a pure pet dog myself, and neither do most of the folks I work and interact with today. My personal interest and the areas into which I am trying to stretch are behavior analysis, psychology, neurology, and behavioral medicine. I have no degree in any of these fields, but I try and learn as much as I can about them. I also live in a part of the world where many (most?) dogs are homed free-roamers. I love observing them; I consider their life quality high, and I have dedicated a Youtube Channel to them.

When I think “domestic dog,” what comes to mind is not the general pet dog population: I think of dogs who live with geeky trainers on the one hand, and free-ranging dogs on the other hand. I sometimes forget that there are also pet dogs.

When Jessica and Marc think “of “domestic dogs,” I suspect they think of pet dogs on leashes and in dog parks on the one hand and wild canids on the other hand.

What I agree on with Jessica and Marc

I fully agree with Jessica’s and Marc’s conclusions about how the lives of pet and companion dogs could be improved, and how we can draw these conclusions by looking at the behavior of free-ranging dogs today.

The sociability and ability to form groups and packs is something I see a lot in free-roamers, so we’re on the same page there as well. I don’t doubt that dogs will be (variable degrees of) sociable and able to form packs. Free-roaming dogs already do.

Alloparenting also occurs in domestic dogs that are kept in groups when breeding as well as in free-roaming dogs. Again – I have no doubt posthuman dogs could alloparent (and some would do so if they survived).

I don’t doubt that they will hunt solitarily either – I know plenty of dogs who will do so when given the opportunity (these are not free-roamers, but sports and working dogs). What I wanted to be convinced of, however, was the cooperative hunting part – something I’ve never seen and find hard to imagine.

The food resource thing …

I have never – NEVER – seen free-roaming dogs who did not depend on anthropogenic food resources. Even the feral dogs around Boulder that Marc mentions visit the dumpster. That makes me suspicious of whether they could survive if they had to rely on hunting. When Marc’s student saw them hunt cooperatively – did these dogs actually take down prey, or were they just chasing, like many dogs would, without actually killing/consuming? I am not clear about this. Even if they killed, but did not consume – I don’t think we could call that cooperative hunting. For hunting to be hunting, doesn’t it need to end in eating the prey? (I don’t know; I’m sure there is a definition though.)

What even is a feral dog?

A feral dog is a domestic dog who isn’t tame. A dog like this will have a bigger flight distance than other free-roamers. I have seen very few feral dogs in my life, and they usually look as if they were starving because they are too scared to visit the dumpster on a regular basis.

How do feral dogs happen? I suspect a truly feral dog has missed out on any and all human contact during the sensitive socialization period, as a very young puppy. This can happen if a free-roaming dog has puppies away from their home – say in a forest where humans rarely go -, and the dog’s humans don’t look for or don’t find the puppies.

Why are there so few of them? Because most of them will die! Your chances of survival are much higher if you are not feral and can access human handouts and the waste we generate.

Wouldn’t there already be feral dogs everywhere today if it was easy to be one?

I also suspect that if dogs without humans were a realistical scenario, we’d already see successful secondarily wild dogs who have no contact with humans whatsoever, and who hunt cooperatively. As far as I know (and I may be totally wrong – please comment with resources if I am!) these dogs do not exist today. (It has been argued that Dingoes are not feral dogs, but true wild canids. That said, I have read that there are secondarily wild dogs on the Galapagos Islands. I haven’t had time to look into them yet. If these dogs were truly feral and descended from the domestic dog, and were not dependent on any anthropogenic food resources – this would be a convincing argument for me that under specific and rarely occurring circumstances, the species dog might be able to survive in certain locations in a post-human world.)

The posthuman dog future I imagine, based on my anchor point

From my current point of view, given the dogs I see, I think most pet dogs, if left loose in a world WITH humans, would make decent free-roamers and enjoy the trash we leave behind as well as our handouts. They’d have social relationships etc. Working dogs like mine would also enjoy killing all the livestock around town (which would result in them getting poisoned or shot).

If I imagine the fate of dogs in a world without humans, these same dogs would eat all the trash we left behind, and then feast on the livestock (easy prey) as well as urban rats and pigeons (also easy prey). And then, they’d die, mostly in the transition dog generation (the generation of dogs who still had human contact).

I have a hard time imagining dogs learning to hunt cooperatively in the little time they have after all the livestock and trash are gone. Most of them will die, and the few that survive … Will they be neutered? In that case, they’re in a genetic dead-end street. Will enough of them be both intact and able to hunt cooperatively? I really doubt it because the free-roaming dogs today – remember that’s about 80% of the world’s dog population! – have been selected (naturally, if you will, by humans killing dogs who kill livestock) to NOT hunt. I’m not sure if “average pet dogs” will be able to hunt. Working dogs certainly would (solitarily at least), but there are so few, and they are so far apart, that they may never meet each other. And if you’re a working dog (other than a terrier), you may be too big to sustain yourself on the kind of prey you may be able to catch by yourself once the livestock is gone. And the livestock will be gone because it will either die without us or be killed by transition dogs.

A thought experiment

I just googled, and according to a dubious source (but that’ll do for my thought experiment), a 100g jack rabbit contains 173 calories. Now let’s see how many calories an adult dog needs. Say Game’s RER is 650, and if she had to stustain herself by means of hunting, her caloric needs would be 650 x 2-5, which, if I’m calculating this correctly (and I may not), makes 1295 caloiries. That’s a lot more than a single rabbit. If Game had to sustain herself on jack rabbits she’d have to catch 1295 divided by 173 makes 7.5 jackrabbits every day. That is A LOT of rabbits. I cannot imagine a world in which my dog would successfully catch this many rabbits on a daily basis.

We’d also have to look at the energy spent on hunting a rabbit. Since this calculation is based on the caloric needs of an active working dog, let’s say if all of Game’s hunts were successful, she would meet her caloric needs every day with 7.5 rabbits. But she is unlikely to succeed every time. So how many calories would she loose with each rabbit that got away? How many calories does it cost to hunt one rabbit? (I do not know.)

In any case, if two rabbits, after a high-energy chase, got to safety, Game would be losing rather than gaining calories. Consequently, that very same day, 7.5 jack rabbits would not be enough anymore – she’d have to successfully hunt, kill and consume, say, 9 to make up for the energy spent on the ones who got away. This is even less likely because every hunt is tiring, and hunts #8 and #9 have a smaller chance of success because of it.

Dogs don’t need to eat every day. So Game could go a while without eating 7.5 rabbits a day and still do okay. She’d gain experience hunting with every attempt – but she’d also spend energy on every attempt, successful and unsuccessful. After several days of not eating, there may be peak performance due to peak motivation, but then that performance will go down unless Game was highly successful at peak motivation. So by the sheer amount of rabbit hunting required, I don’t think it is realistic for a dog of Game’s size to survive as a solitary hunter. Most solitary hunting canids are smaller than she is. (There are solitary coyotes or foxes, for example, and they get by hunting bunnies and rodents (and, given the contents of the scat I’ve seen around Guanajuato, lots of cactus fruit). Game is heavier than they are.)

So Game would likely have to go after larger prey, and large prey can often only be overwhelmed by means of cooperative hunting. Will dogs really figure that out in time? I have my doubts. The largest prey animal I know fairly well are (Austrian) deer, and they are fast and flighty. It’s certainly possible to hunt them cooperatively, but I imagine it would require a lot of practice. And transition dogs may not have that time. Especially because, being dogs, they would not gather to brainstorm for a future of hunting while there still were anthropogenic food resources. Instead, they would – evolutionarily myopically, if you will – focus only on these easily accessible resources until they ran out of them. (Just like we humans and our fossil fuels, really. We’ll only implement meaningful changes once we’re past that climate change tipping point, and at that point, our changes will make little or no difference for many folks around the world, because the places they live today will have become uninhabitable for our species. This is an opinion, not a fact, and I would love for it to be wrong.)

Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos

There may be dogs (smaller than Game) who can sustain themselves on bunnies and the like. But will they happen to be close enough to another transition dog to breed? Maybe in rare cases. Will their puppies survive? Few will, I assume, because the survival rate of wild canids and free-ranging dogs is very low.

The anthropogenic world as the dog’s niche

After thinking about all of this some more, my opinion still is that dogs won’t survive without us – even though during the conversation itself, I was trying to be open to the possibility that they would.

I would not say that the ecological niche of the domestic dog is the human household (80% of the world’s dog population is free-roaming), but I would say that their niche is the anthropogenic world. And this niche will disappear with us. I’m not optimistic they’d adapt to a new niche fast enough … even if they all happened to be free and outdoors when we humans disappeared from the planet. I think of their niche as the anthropogenic world in the same sense I think of this being the niche of urban rats and pidgeons. In my opinion, all three of the above would die after eating all the resources we left behind when disappearing. I suspect this will be the fate of everyone who is considered a Kulturfolger animal in German.

I also realize that this very much is an opinion based on my background, my work and my interests. I can absolutely see how a different background, like Marc and Jessica have it, will lead to completely different conclusions!

Why does everything have to be so annoyingly relative?

Coming at a topic from different angles can lead to misunderstandings or talking past each other – I think this, too, happened to us. And it just goes to show how difficult it is for folks from different fields, who have different jargons they take for granted, to understand each other! For example in my conversation with Marc, this happened when Marc used the word “engram.” This term also appears in A Dog’s World (once). I had never come across it before, and researched a little when translating the book. Conveniently, the German equivalent is “Engramm.” It’s basically the same word with the same Greek root. In the book, Marc writes:

“We’ve provided a range of ideas about what the evolutionary trajectories of posthuman dogs might look like. A recurring theme has been trying to understand and appreciate the ancient impulses and memory traces that still lurk in dogs’ brains—the indelible engrams that still influence what they do and how they feel and which will shape how they do without us.”

(Page 157 in my copy of the publisher’s PDF)

I looked up the meaning of the term when I was translating, but I can’t say I feel like I understood it. The way Marc uses the term, it seems to refer to a kind of collective memory of generations long past. Something that isn’t “active” – basically something that isn’t “online,” but could theoretically be brought online again by life circumstances. From digging into the topic a bit, it seems to still be controversal whether engrams actually exist.

On the podcast, Marc used the term engram again, and I asked whether this would work like a modal action pattern. (“Model action pattern” is in my active vocabulary; I know its definition: it is a behavior chain that is released by a certain stimulus and usually displayed through to the end (it is difficult to interrupt). It hardly varies from one occasion to the next or between individuals. Modal action patterns are more like a highly complex reflex you don’t consciously control than advanced and varied social communication. Modal action patterns are NOT offline, but very much online, and they are innate. An example is the hunting sequence of the wolf: search – eye-stalk – chase – grab-bite – kill-bite – consume. Another example is the herding behavior of the Border Collie, which is a modified hunting sequence: it goes from search to eye-stalk to chase, and ends there.

Anyways, so I asked Marc whether an engram was like a modal action pattern, only that it would be brought online by necessity rather than already being online and simply being displayed when a certain stimulus was present.

Marc ended up basically giving me the definition of a modal action pattern. But whatever an engram is, it can’t really be a modal action pattern – unless there is a field (psychology? ethology?) that uses “engram” in the way behavior analysts use “model action pattern,” and the terms actually mean the same.

But cooperative hunting – not hunting, but the cooperative part – can, by its very nature, not be a modal action pattern. Modal action patterns are rigid and hard to change, and cooperation is flexible and adaptive. So Marc didn’t answer my question, and I don’t think that was on purpose, but either because Marc isn’t familiar with the way “modal action pattern” is used by dog trainers or because I didn’t manage to formulate my question clearly! Argh! Or maybe I’m using an outdated definition of modal action pattern!

Cooperative hunting is by its very nature varied because different individuals have different roles. In a word: I still don’t understand what exactly an engram is. In both a German article and the English Wikipedia article, it seems to be about memories of something that happens in your lifetime, and (maybe) the physical location where these memories are stored in the brain. But this is not the way Marc uses the term, as far as I can tell: cooperative hunting can’t be an experience being remembered by an individual dog who has never had the experience of hunting cooperatively.

I don’t think it has been shown that it is possible to “remember” the social behavior of our very distant ancestors. Sure, we are influenced – both through social learning and genetics and in-utero/in-petri-dish experiences by biological relatives and the folks around us. But these are not distant ancestors! So I am still confused about the engram explanation of cooperative hunting, and this is frustrating to me. We were discussing a topic we were both passionate about (dogs), and we didn’t speak the same jargon. I’m used to talking to behavior folks and dog trainers, and we have a shared vocabulary! Marc is probably used to talking to ethologists or pet folks. With the former, there is a shared jargon (which I do not speak), and the latter probably don’t ask the kinds of questions I ask. Anyways, if someone reading this can explain the meaning of “engram” to me, please leave me a comment!

Communication is fucking hard!

In the end, this is probaly the take-away from the conversation I find most fascinating: it is difficult to understand each other if you don’t have a shared vocabulary! And it is really the anchor point of our experience our our field that informs our opinion! When you start with wild canids and compare their ethograms with domestic dogs, you’ll conclude that because they are very similar, they will also be able to hunt cooperatively. (At least if you are Jessica Pierce or Marc Bekoff.)

When you start with working dogs (and know little about wild canids) and observe free-roaming dogs who depend on anthropogenic food resources, you don’t think they will master cooperative hunting. (At least if you are me.)

Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl – and Game’s tail!

And really, this is a metaphor for so many things in life! Depending on where we’re coming from, we’ll find strong arguments to support our respective opinions. (Yay, confirmation bias! Yay, anchoring effect!) We may be fully convinced of them. And yet: some of them are opinions, not facts. It’s both hard and worth striving for to hold both these truths at the same time: on the one hand, our convictions themselves on the basis of which we are who we are in this world. And on the other hand, the fact that some of these convictions will always be opinions we can’t currently fact-check. And that’s fine. Complicated – but fine. Doesn’t make them less valid. But sure makes everything a whole lot more complex.

There are facts, of course. I am not a relativist. I see facts, and will fight for them, especially if they are facts I care about on a deep and personal level. But whether or not dogs would survive in a world without us? That’s not something we will ever be able to know.

Mental health through the lens of radical life changes, and the virtuous cycle of pet ownership, Guatemalan travel and catnip smuggling

This is episode 6 of our podcast, Our One Wild and Precious Lives (and Our Dogs). I’m really proud of this one – it turned out really well, if I may say so myself! Thank you, Peter and Val, for being vulnerable and brave and brilliant with me!

I’ll be adding the link to the episode below so you can all listen – but before I do, I want to ask you all a favor. If you are reading this (potentially because you’re a subscriber to my blog), and if you’ve been enjoying the podcast episodes I’ve put out so far – every second one is dog geeky, and every other one is about living abroad, being brave, vulnerability, mental health, politics, queer lives etc … So if you’ve been enjoying them, please subscribe to the podcast on one of the podcast platforms as well! We’re on all the major platforms. AND please, if you’ve been REALLY enjoying things, leave us a rating on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and a nice review on Apple Podcasts! I’m not making money podcasting; I’m just having a lot of fun doing it – and seeing the listener numbers increase makes my day. Ratings and reviews will give the podcast greater exposure, and that means positive reinforcement – more listeners! – for me. Thank you so much!

I myself am super lazy when it comes to reviewing podcasts. I’ve got SO many favorites I haven’t taken the time to review yet. So I’m setting myself the goal to review one independent podcast I love for every review I get, to pay it forward! Thanks, folks!

Alright – on to this episode I really, really like! I’ll embed a link, and you’ll find the episode description below.

In this episode, Chrissi and Peter talk to Valerie Russell. Originally from the US, she has studied forensics in the UK and worked in law enforcement in the New York metropolitan area for many years. After severe depression and a PTSD diagnosis, Valerie started her life from scratch: she moved to Guatemala and opened Due South Travels, a unique and successful travel business. Val is one of the first people I (Chrissi) met in Guatemala, and I admire her on SO many levels. She is brave, courageous, authentic, and simply good people.

In this episode, we talk about mental health, all the things the animals we share our lives with do for us, the broken system of law enforcement and health care in the US, and smuggling cat nip. We hope you enjoy this conversation as the three of us did!

Free resources for anyone who wants to take their dog training skills to the next level

A friend (who already knows quite a bit!) recently asked me where to learn more about dog training – and I started putting this list together. It’s not complete (there are so many great resources out there!), and the order is random: I just went in the order I thought of things. There is no deeper meaning or ranking to it. I have not read every single post, listened to every single podcast episode, or seen every single video on the Youtube channels recommended (except for my own content). However, if a resource is mentioned in this post, it is because it has caught my attention, and I have seen/read/listened to and enjoyed at least some of its content. My list is not restricted to any particular training philosophy.

Youtube channels

Kikopup (Emily Larlham)
Free Ranging Dogs (weekly videos about body language and canine behavior)
Nate Schoemer
School of Canine Science (Nando Brown, Jo-Rosie, Dean Nicholas)
Leerburg Dog Training (Michael Ellis, Forrest Micke, Ed Frawley et al.)

Podcasts

The Canine Paradigm (Glenn Cooke & Pat Stewart)
Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast (Melissa Breau)
Drinking from the Toilet (Hannah Branigan)
Cog Dog Radio (Sarah Stremming)
Animal Training Academy podcast (Ryan Cartlidge)
The Bitey End of the Dog (Michael Shikashio)
The Functional Breeding Podcast (Jessica Hekman)
… and of course my new podcast: Our One Wild and Precious Lives (and our dogs) (Chrissi & Peter McGarry)
Something to Bark About (Chad Mackin)
Dog Training Conversations (Jay Jack & Chad Mackin)
Working Dog Radio (Ted Summers, Eric Stanbro, Alesha Brandt)
Dog Talk with Dr. Jen (Jennifer Summerfield)
GRC Dog Talk (Jay Jack)
Fenzi Food for Thought (Denise Fenzi)
Learn, Laugh, Bark (Jake Schneider)
Yolopup
CAAWAT (Constructional Approach to Animal Welfare and Training) (Sean Will & Maasa Nishimuta)
Knackfrosch & Gummistiefel (German language; Eva Berginc & Florian Schneider)

Blogs

This one, of course!
Fenzi Dog Sports Blog
Dr. Jen’s Blog
Eileen Anderson
The Collared Scholar
Patricia McConnell
Shade Whitesel
Denise Fenzi
Deb Jones
Sue Alexander
Tania Lanfer
Kayla Fratt
Sarah Stremming

Facebook

Denise Fenzi puts out lots of public high-quality dog training content
I publicly post free dog-related resources too (some of the time, when I’m in an FB mood)

Other stuff

Growing up FDSA (free e-book)
Free webinar on conservation dog training by Kayla Fratt of K9 Conservationists
Free webinar by Marco Ojeda and Chrissi on the free-roaming dogs of Mexico and Guatemala
Free presentation by Barbara Heidenreich: the secret life of if/then contingencies


If you have your own recommendations for FREE resources, leave them in the comments! I’ll remove advertising and recommendations for paid content. Apart from that – go ahead and share away! Add a link, what type of resource it is, and why you are recommending it!

Let’s Podcast!

My friend Peter and I started – drumroll – a podcast! Here is my very first (short and sweet) episode. Like, share, review and subscribe, as they like to say! Supposedly, this is particularly useful on Apple Podcasts because it does voodoo with the rankings. In any case, we’ll take any R+ on any platform, so keep it coming!

You can listen on all the major podcast players, or right here, which is also where you’ll find links to Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Amazon Music and Radio Public!

New episodes will be released every second Tuesday. If I’ve got time, I’ll write a blog post about them – if not, you’ll find them under the new “Podcast” page in the menu, or in the podcast player of your choice! I’m aiming for bi-monthly episodes … Maybe one day, there will be more, but at the moment (and since editing takes up A LOT of my spare time), that’s what you get!

I’m really grateful to Peter for joining me on this new adventure (you are awesome, Peter!), and really excited about this project. As the benevolent dictator, I get to rant about anything I want on the episodes I do by myself (evil laugh), and this, my friends, makes me happy. May our listener enjoy (or suffer through it, but bear with me)!

I’m also proud of myself: it’s going to be an exercise in anti-perfectionism since I’m planning to not perfectly polish or heavily script any of it. You’ll get the real me (and the real Peter, and our real dogs) – sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny (the European kind), sometimes melancholic, sometimes dark. Flawed, beautiful, awkward, brave and vulnerable, and occasionally brilliant (aren’t we all?).

For now, I’m leaving you with the Mary Oliver poem that inspired the title.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Indeed, I know how to pay attention, how to fall down, get back up, and be wild (oh, so very wild) and soft as well. And if it were up to me, I’d be strolling through fields all day. With dogs, and barefoot. (Preferably on a fall day. Summers are too hot.)

Listen to Episode 1:

The 3 Ts of working with marker cues

There are three things we’ve seen FDSA students struggle with over and over again – even advanced students and excellent trainers! We’ll call them the 3 Ts: Timing, Tautology, and Treat Placement. This post gives you an overview. If you’re going to delve further into marker training for precision behaviors, the 3 Ts are something you want to print out and tape to your fridge!

Timing

The marker cue needs to happen before you deliver the primary reinforcer.

Example: click – pause for a split second – treat.

Tautology

You want a single marker cue before the primary reinforcer.

Example: “Get it” is my marker cue for tossing a treat for the dog to chase.

“Get it!” – pause for a split second – toss treat.

Do not add a click before or after your verbal marker! “Get it” itself is your marker – and it’s the only one you need.

Treat (or toy etc) placement

This is a subcategory of timing related to location specific marker cues (LSMs). If you use location specific marker cues (i.e. you want a different marker cues to indicate different modes of treat or toy delivery), you MUST say your marker cue before reaching into your treat pouch or moving your toy. “Otherwise,” to quote Shade Whitesel, who says it better than I ever could, “you are just teaching the dog that 5 different marker cues all mean the same thing: look at the hand to see where and what you will get.”


Whether the 3 Ts are obvious or not in any exercise or class you are working on; whether they are being addressed directly or lingering in the background: they will always be by your side. Keeping an eye on them will make you a better trainer, and take your dog’s understanding of what you are trying to teach them to the next level!



~ ~ ~



Registration for the June term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy opens on May 22! Check out our schedule to pick your class!

The Gidget Metaphor: of dogs, humans, and the tohubohu of doing fine

I know a beautiful black Standard Poodle named Gidget. She’s 2.5 years old, and lives with a wonderful human who’s ready to do pretty much anything for her: Brandy.

Gidget is an anxious dog. Not when she’s home with fellow Poodle Kona, or practicing cooperative care behaviors with Brandy in her house. Not even when she’s in her familiar car crate. These are safe spaces for her. She gets to be herself. At least, she doesn’t seem anxious in these contexts – we can’t ask her because she doesn’t speak human.

She does, however, get anxious in new places. And even in certain familiar ones. Gidget is a perfectly normal Poodle in that she has certain things she really enjoys, such as going on hikes and making dog friends on the trails. What’s hardest for her is not the hike itself. Nor is it being in her safe space in the car. It’s the transition between the two: making the seemingly HUGE effort to get out of the car, and get to the trail head.

We all know that control over your own outcomes is a primary reinforcer1, don’t we? Choices are great? So Brandy and I decided to give Gidget more control over her choice of exiting the car crate in the first place. We started with a treat test: can you take treats in the car? If so, great! If not – no pressure. You can stay in the car. If Gidget could eat, Brandy would release her from the car. Next, we’d use the 123 walking game in combination with a start button behavior. This way – we thought – we could let Gidget choose whether or not she wanted to walk from the car to the trail head or venture into other new environments, or whether she’d rather get back in the car.

In my experience as a dog trainer, dogs tend to opt in more and enjoy themselves more the more agency they are given. I hoped that Gidget would feel this way, too!

A detour: what is the 123 game?

The 123 game is one of Leslie McDevitt’s CU (Control Unleashed) pattern games. It’s based on the assumption that familiar patterns help us navigate familiar and unfamiliar environments. The basic version of the 123 game is very simple: the point is not for the pattern to be complex, but for it to help both human and dog to implement it quickly and even in distracting environments. Here’s how it goes:

Count your steps as you are walking forward: one – two – three. Feed a treat from your hand at three. Count out loud again as you keep walking: one – two – three. Feed a treat at three, and so on. In the basic version of the game, the treat always happens at 3, and the dog doesn’t have to do anything – you count as you walk, and they eat every three steps. It’s predictable, and it can be incredibly helpful to get a dog from one end of a training building to the other, from your car to the agility field, or simply across the street. Both the predictability and the eating help the dog and give them something other than the environment to focus on. You, as the human, also have clear and easy instructions about what to do (as opposed to what not to do: “Don’t pull on the leash, don’t tell your dog to heel,” etc.).

Another detour: what is a start button?

A start button behavior is any behavior the dog has learned to use as a cue for the human to do something, or for the human to ask the dog to do something. We use start buttons a lot in cooperative care and voluntary sharing – but really, there is no end to their application. Common start buttons include visual targets (looking at something or someone; making eye contact) and tactile targets (for example a chin rest on a hand or object, or stepping and staying on a platform).

Rather than feeding each treat from her hand, Brandy put the treat on the ground, next to her shoe, anytime she got to 3. Like in the basic version of the game, you will be walking and counting your steps, and your dog will eat at 3. However, the difference is that now, you’ll stop at 3, then put down the treat and wait for your dog to eat. And you will only start moving/counting again if the dog offers a start button behavior: if they look up at you. This turns the 123 game into requested approach training (RAT).

The video below shows Gidget learning the start button version of the 123 game in her yard. Notice how Brandy waits for Gidget to make eye contact before she starts counting again! The taking and eating of the treat interrupts the behavior of paying attention to Brandy, giving Gidget an opportunity to offer eye contact again once she’s ready – or not if she’s done.

What is requested approach training?

Requested approach training (RAT) is Leslie’s term for CU games that empower the dog to direct how close they will get to something, or how close something will get to them.

In the RAT version of the 123 game, you’ll stay put as long as your dog sniffs the ground or looks around rather than up at you. This is what we did with Gidget once she had learned the game at home, and we took it out into the world: it was up to her if she wanted to go further from the car. If she did, she’d look up at Brandy after eating, which was Brandy’s cue to walk and count three more steps. If Gidget didn’t look up within 5 seconds, Brandy would turn around, and they would return to the car: Gidget got to go back into her safe space. No need to venture out into the big and scary world unless you want to!

Windows of opportunity

Windows of opportunity to offer a certain behavior – such as 5 seconds for Gidget to make eye contact after eating – serve an important purpose in this kind of training: if you just waited your dog out indefinitely, sooner or later, they would look up at you. So even though you wouldn’t be actively “making them” move ahead, it would not be a real choice. It is only a real choice when the dog can opt out easily. A clearly defined window of opportunity is one way for the dog to opt out. (Another one is not taking the treat on the ground.)

How we imagined the training would go

Once Gidget knew the game, we took it to a quiet, low distraction parking lot. I imagined that after a little practice, Gidget would happily cue Brandy to take her all the way to the trailhead on the other side. After all, we already knew that Gidget loved the car, and loved the hike – it was just the space in between that wasn’t her favorite place in the world.

How it actually went

I (because of the kind of human I am, the fact that I knew Brandy would do a great job, and my own love of patterns) like to imagine things working out beautifully – but that’s not what happened for Gidget.

The video below shows Gidget’s first 123 session in the real world. You may want to watch the second attempt (where I didn’t add freeze frames) more than once to notice both lip licks! You can also use the gear wheel in the bottom right corner of the Youtube video to slow the clip down to half its original speed – it’ll help you notice subtle body language details.

It took approximately 10 sessions to get Gidget comfortable with three to four 123 reps before she asked to return to the car. The video below shows a BIG difference from that first attempt! But you can see that it is still hard for her: rather than looking right up at Brandy after eating, as she did in her yard, it takes her 4-5 seconds (the entire window of opportunity) to offer the respective next start button. At this stage, we plateaued for a while.

Plateauing means we need to change something. So we did!

Treat scatters in 123

We integrated a treat scatter into the 123 RAT game to help Gidget calm down on the way out into The Big World: when Gidget scanned (insecurity) or sniffed (if there isn’t anything worth sniffing, this is often a displacement behavior) for more than 5 seconds without offering eye contact, we integrated a treat scatter (as suggested by my wonderful colleagues Leslie McDevitt and Jennie Murphy) anytime Gidget wasn’t able to offer her start button behavior (eye contact) after eating the previous “3” treat. She could usually eat the scatter, and it relaxed her nicely. A lot of the time, she’d be immediately able to offer her start button behavior after finishing her scatter. Post scatter, we gave her a second 5-second window to offer eye contact. If she didn’t, Brandy and Gidget would return to the car.

Below is Gidget’s very first rep with scatters – and she nails it! She makes it up to SEVEN 123s with the help of scatters (Brandy’s scatter cue is, “Find it!”).

The very next time they went out to do scatter 123s in Gidget’s first training environment (if I remember correctly), she met the goal Brandy had set for her: ten 123s without asking to go back to the car! Success in environment #1! Gidget only needed ONE scatter during these ten 123 reps, even though it was a windy (noisy!) day!

Environment #2

When we went to a second environment, the same initial challenges presented themselves, and Gidget’s body language and her trouble taking treats showed us that she wasn’t ready to choose to walk away from the car. The second place Brandy tried was also relatively calm – but there was more traffic.

When opting out and then released to go back to the car and hop back in her crate, Gidget’s body language would change: she’d shed the tension; her tail went up. She looked relieved.

The video below is from the first 123 field trip to environment #2. Notice that Gidget can’t eat the treat Brandy puts down at 00:05. This is her opting out. Brandy reads her well, and takes her back to the car right away.

Hikes – yay or nay?

We knew that Gidget really enjoyed her hikes. She had a great time exploring nature trails with Brandy and her Poodle sister Kona, sniffing all the things, looking for critters … Gidget genuinely likes hiking, and her body language shows it! The video below shows clips of Brandy playing hide and seek with Gidget, taking turns praising and rewarding auto check-ins, and a recall – it’s a video Brandy took for my Out and About class at FDSA and allowed me to share here. Look at her tail carriage, the happy face, how she runs with a bounce in her step, and how proudly she carries her tail! This is a Poodle who’s having a blast on her hike, and lots of fun with Brandy – not a Poodle who’d rather be sitting in a crate in a car!

Leadership versus Choice

After seeing just how much Gidget struggled in environment #2 (more than I would have liked to see after our work in environment #1), I asked myself: what happens when Brandy takes the lead and doesn’t ask Gidget whether she would like to go further towards the trail (and away from the car)? I had been operating under a “choice is best” paradigm, and this was a good reminder that dog training is a study of one. Just because choice is best for some or even most dogs doesn’t automatically make it the right approach for Gidget. Only Gidget can tell us what is the right approach for Gidget! I asked Brandy to show me what walking away from the car in environment #2 looked like if she clearly took the lead:

Not being given a choice – like Brandy used to do pre-123 – ended up working better for Gidget than being asked to voluntarily opt in. She just couldn’t easily opt into leaving a safe space voluntarily, even if on the other side of leaving this space, something great – such as a hike – awaited. Notice the lack of scanning the environment, and Gidget’s higher (more confident) tail carriage in the video above! It’s hard to believe that this is the same place as in the first 123 video in environment #2!

This brings up a number of interesting questions and observations:

  1. Some dogs, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some dogs have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
  2. Transitions are hard. For some dogs, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
  3. Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a dog like Gidget … just live her life at home, in her house and yard, and skip all hikes unless she voluntarily opts in?
  4. Should we medicate dogs like Gidget? (Gidget already is on medication for generalized anxiety. How should we define that “the meds are working” though? Are they working if the dog is able to follow your lead and have a good time? Or are they working only once the dog is able to opt in voluntarily?)

These questions don’t have clear-cut answers. In the end, we are making dogs live in a world designed by and for humans. And it is going to be the human who ends up making all of the above choices for their dog. Different humans will make different choices, and that’s okay: we all love our dogs, and do our best to give them a good life. It’s just that our definitions of a good life, and how we weigh factors such as getting exercise outdoors, freedom to choose etc. is different for every one of us. One dog owner may think that hiking matters more than freedom of choice, and vice versa, and neither one would be wrong: there simply is no objective answer, no matter how much we wish there was.

Let’s think about humans!

I know humans like Gidget. If you’re a human like Gidget, you might struggle to take the first step in a conversation or the planning of an event, even if that first step would eventually lead to an enjoyable activity. Or maybe you struggle to leave your safe space, and can’t quite put your finger on the reason why. Maybe you beat yourself up about it (which doesn’t help anyone, but is an easy go-to that distracts from the actual issue at hand).

The thing is: Gidget isn’t wrong – she’s very much right about the world. It is indeed scary and unpredictable. It’s just that most animals – including most humans and most dogs – are really good at pretending it isn’t. Objectively speaking though, just because nothing bad happened yesterday doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen today. That’s a fact – it’s not just paranoia. And just like Gidget, there are humans who know that the world is a scary and unpredictable, overwhelming place to inhabit. The majority of us pretending that everything is fine isn’t helping if you happen to be someone who can’t pretend. If anything, it makes things worse.

This is fine by KC Green2

However, it is certainly easier to exist in the world if we can make ourselves feel safe. It’s an ability I treasure. Anxiety sucks, and given a choice, I’ll trade it for the illusion of safety every time. No questions asked. (But then again, that’s just me. And we’re all different.)

Let’s ask the questions that have come up for me in the course of following Gidget and Brandy’s journey – but let’s ask them about humans (like Gidget) this time. Maybe they will be easier to answer for our own species than for dogs. Maybe we can tap into a shared human experience, and find some answers.

  1. Some humans, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some humans have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.

If we take “performing the task satisfactorily” as a measuring stick, some humans will perform better with clear leadership than with choice. They have a hard time doing something fun if the bridge between the status quo and the potentially fun goal involves a decision to step out of a safe space. Yes – this is certainly true, even if not universally so. I’d venture it is true for most children in some situations, and for some adults in most situations.

You’ve probably seen a version of this image before …

An example from my childhood

As a child, I used to be scared of making phone calls. Even phone calls to set up a playdate with my best friend. I loved playdates with my best friend, but I knew her parents would answer the phone, which meant I would have to remember the script one is supposed to follow when talking to someone’s parents on the phone. The whole situation was stressful. When I’m stressed, I’m bad at remembering scripts. I kept asking my parents to make these phone calls for me instead. But the rules were clear, no matter how much I pleaded: I had to call myself, or there would be no play date.

I remember the feeling vividly, even today. Especially my mom: if I explore my feelings around this topic, even now, there is a part of me that feels hurt and let down because she didn’t offer to make the call for me. Which is interesting given how many years have passed! Back in the day, I would usually try to bargain and beg, but end up making the call myself. It would always be highly stressful. It wasn’t something that got easier over time – it just kept being hard. Day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t know why it was equally hard every time. After all, I kept practicing the script of talking to someone’s parents, and I kept successfully setting up playdates. The motivation of seeing my friend outweighed my fear of the call: I’d make the call (the behavior was stable because it kept getting reinforced), but I’d always feel bad about it (it didn’t get counterconditioned).

Today, I’m not afraid of making phone calls. The adult I am is not a human like Gidget – quite the opposite. I’m an adult who seeks out places and experiences others might consider dangerous. I like climbing abandoned buildings, and I sometimes dream of being a war journalist. I’m also an adult whose favorite dogs are dogs like Gidget. I like working with them, thinking about them, learning from them, and earning their trust.

But unless I’m expecting a client to call, I don’t answer my phone. Even if I know the number – unless I’ve scheduled a phone date with you. I prefer making calls to answering them. And I very much prefer written or in-person communication to phone calls overall. If you are someone I talk to on the phone every once in a while, know that you’re an exception, and very important to me.

If I had a child, I probably wouldn’t force them to make that call – I’d give them the option, maybe try and encourage them to give it a try sometime. But if they really wanted the playdate, and really didn’t want to talk on the phone, I’d do it for them. Why? Two reasons. One, I don’t want them to hold a grudge against me 30 years after the fact. And two, I don’t think the reason I’m not afraid of making phone calls anymore is the fact that I had to practice making them as a child. I can’t be sure because human minds work in mysterious ways – but I believe the reason is simply that I grew up to be a confident adult, and would have either way. I don’t think having to make phone calls as a child had any benefits for me.

Here, listening to my opt-out (making the phone call for me) would have been a better approach. I suspect the actual playdate was always too far away in time in order for me to get counterconditioned (change my feelings about phone calls) about setting it up in the first place. We keep pretending that humans are able to learn from reinforcers that are far removed in time – but truly, are we? I’m not so sure.

Another childhood example

When I was a kid, my mom would often visit her relatives on weekends. My dad would prefer to stay home. Both wanted me to be with them and share their weekend. And the choice was mine: did I want to go see the big family, or do fun things with dad? I remember it felt torturous. I’m sure my parents weren’t aware of it. They were doing the best they could, and probably trying to increase my agency (like Brandy and I tried with Gidget and the 123 game). But boy, weekends were hard!

One, I enjoyed both doing things with my dad, and visiting my mom’s family. I don’t think any of the two was intrinsically preferable to me. Two, for Chrissi, the child, it wasn’t a choice between two activities – it was a choice between who to make happy. Choosing to stay with my dad would make my mom unhappy, and choosing to go with her would make my dad unhappy. My job, my raison d’être, was to make both of them happy, which was both impossible and felt like a failure on my part.

Sometimes I picked my mom, but asked her to stop the car a few hundred meters from the house, got out, and walked back home to stay with my dad after all. Other times I picked her on the condition that we would leave by a certain time so I’d still have time with my dad in the afternoon – maybe I could make both of them happy! I’d enjoy the day, but always keep an eye on the clock, and then I’d remind her of our agreement … and she would generally ignore it. For whatever reason, I ended up trusting her word again the next time. And the next time after. I remember this whole part of my childhood, even though it consisted of weekend experiences I genuinely liked (time with dad; time with mom’s family), first and foremost as stressful.

In this second case, what would have been the best way to handle things? I probably benefited from both kinds of experiences – family time and dad time. If my parents had agreed on a schedule and just stuck to it, not fought about it, and shared that schedule with me rather than letting me pick one, life would have been a lot easier.

Let’s go back to dogs for a minute!

How does this compare to Gidget, the Poodle, and dog training in general? I’ve seen dogs who try so hard to please their person, independent of what they actually want themselves (hint: a lot of the time, these dogs are Border Collies). This is one reason windows of time are important.

I don’t think Gidget felt this kind of pressure: she isn’t the kind of dog who’s extremely prone to feeling this way, and Brandy did a great job making sure Gidget never felt “wrong” when she chose to go back to the car.

Still, in a way, both childhood examples apply to Gidget: IF Gidget is going to go on hikes, she’ll benefit from clear leadership as opposed to choice: today, we’re going on a hike. Tomorrow, you’ll stay home (a safe and fun place, too). Brandy will make it for her, and take the lead (Brandy will make the phone call for Gidget, so to speak).

  1. Transitions are hard. For some humans, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.

I know kids as well as adults this is true for. Some (all?) kids benefit from a heads up: “In 5-10 minutes, we’re going to head home! Just letting you know so you can wrap up the game you are playing.” (My friend, the one I mentioned earlier and who, maybe thanks to all the phone calls I made back in the day, is still my friend 3 decades later, does this for her kids today, and I LOVE it!)

It’s also true for some adults. It’s not the case for me, so I’ll have to do some guessing here. I know people who are often late because they struggle with leaving place A in order to get to place B in time. Maybe as long as it is early, the anxiety about the outside world outweighs the social obligation of leaving now in order to get to place B in time. Once you look at the clock and see that the time of the meeting in place B has already arrived, the social obligation outweighs the anxiety, and you do leave place A. Which will make you late. If the person who has been waiting for you at place B was on time, they may be grumpy by the time you get there – which makes it even less likely that you’ll leave earlier the next time. Being greeted by grumpiness or judgyness is a punisher. It’s a vicious circle.

I’m not sure what would lessen this kind of struggle for adult humans. In kids, maybe we should minimize their decision time (1 minute of stress a day is better than 15 minutes of stress a day?), and give them a heads-up for transitions that will be made for them (“we’ll leave in 10 minutes”)? Maybe adults benefit from establishing routines that make it easier to do A, B, C? Tag points? Therapy? Turning outings into rituals on a regular schedule rather than spontaneous events? I don’t know. I know what I would try myself: therapy, meds, and gamification. But that’s just me, and things that have helped me with other, totally different struggles. If I were a human like Gidget, neither one of these might appeal or make sense to me.

  1. Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a human like Gidget …live their life at home, in their house and yard, and skip all hikes/outings/cocktail parties/agility group classes if they never opt in?

Let’s take another look at dogs first.

I’d venture it varies from dog to dog. Dogs who get a lot of enrichment at home and have a big yard, their human is home all day and plays nosework games and trains and plays at home – maybe that’s where they are happiest. Get a vet who’ll do home visits, and you’re covered on that basis, too. Life is free(er) of stress, but still enriching.

If your yard is not quite as big, and/or your dog truly enjoys activities that are only available outside of it (such as hiking for Gidget) – maybe a choice-based approach simply isn’t the one to go with. Do what works for your dog, not what works for most dogs, or what is currently in vogue in the dog training communities you are a part of.

And what about humans? Very difficult to say! As for adults who enjoy meeting friends, but can’t leave their house … again, it depends. If they live with a big happy family or with friends or partners, maybe they don’t need to leave, or can live perfectly happily while only rarely leaving. I have my doubts – but maybe they are unfounded.

For adults who live alone, this looks like a major life quality issue to me. If you crave social interactions (or mountain biking, or agility classes), but are finding it impossible to leave your house, this is a problem. Maybe one option would be to have friends come pick you up at previously agreed times/days. Again, I think it depends on the individual if this reduces or increases stress though: what if the agreed-upon day happens to be a bad day, but you can’t get yourself to cancel because that, too, would require interacting with people, which feels impossible sometimes? You need people you trust, but what if your anxiety doesn’t allow you to trust anyone?

  1. Should we medicate people like Gidget?

I have opinions – but that’s all they are: opinions, not facts. I say, yes, if whatever you are experiencing on a medium to long term basis is seriously affecting your quality of life – go get therapy, and get meds on board! There is a whole menu of medications that decrease social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety, which are probably some of the root causes of transition struggles and decision paralysis. For humans, I’d say that if you feel like Gidget in the first 123 video in environment #2 more days than not, it may be time to get help. There is an endless supply of shitty things happening in the world around us. It’s easy to externalize the way we feel that way. But if you feel this way on a consistent basis (however rational it may be to be affected by the shitty things going on! Yes, it’s rational, but that is not the point!), the cause is something inside of you – not something outside of you. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. As in, something outside of you is always going to be bad: if it’s not the Coronavirus, it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If it’s not that, it’s the rapid decline of US democracy into orderly fascism. If it’s not that, it’s climate change. You can’t wait out the bad things, because they never stop. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. Here’s the good news though:

I know, I know, this is a simplification. Your Wellbutrin and your Prozac aren’t neurotransmitters. But you get the point.3

I really don’t think medication and therapy should be last resorts – for dogs4 or humans. I’m on medication, and it has significantly improved my life quality. I’ve also been in therapy, which has improved my understanding of myself and the people around me. I’ve also seen therapists who, I felt, had no idea what they were doing – you need to find the right person for you, just like the right medication. If the first person or medication you try doesn’t help – there are others out there that might do the trick! The menu is large. You just have to take the first step.

Knowing that the first step is the hardest, if you know me and struggle with this – by all means, reach out! I’d be happy to hear from you and happy to talk through it on an entirely non-medical, personal-experience-based basis (maybe even on the phone). I can also just listen. Or hold up your end of the conversation too, if that’s what you prefer. It’s okay to need people. It’s okay for life to be hard. It’s okay if you’re not fine, you all. And if you are not a human like Gidget? Look out for your friends who are! Give yourself and them the same grace and compassion you have for dogs like Gidget.

Sources

(1) Friedman, Susan. “He said, she said, science says.” (Good Bird Magazine, Spring 2005)

(2) This is fine – full comic and deconstruction of the meme (The Verge, 2016).

(3) A meme from Pinterest that has been showing up on all kinds of social media platforms.

(4) Check out this post by my FDSA colleage Jennifer Summerfield for a veterinary take on the topic: “Behavior Medication: First-Line Therapy or Last Resort?” Dr. Jenn’s blog, November 14, 2016.

PS: Thank you, Brandy and Gidget, for exploring the 123 game with me, for hanging in there throughout windy, cold and rainy days, and for allowing me to share your videos! You are wonderful, and I feel lucky and grateful to have met you both!

The Puzzle Week, Part 24: Setting and respecting boundaries (two lessons for humans)

I’ve decided to split my remaining Puzzle material into a few more posts – they are just getting too long otherwise. Today’s post only has one video, but it is one I truly love, and could watch over and over again. It makes me laugh because it’s cute and goofy – but if I change my point of view, I can also see it as a metaphor.

Social skills: successful communication

An adult free-ranging dog tries to charm Puzzle, and get her to play. Puzzle isn’t afraid – she could walk away or hide behind me. She doesn’t feel the need to hide or flee, but she clearly says, “No!” by turning her head away and NOT engaging. The other dog works hard, but isn’t intruding in her space. He is being gentle, and self-handicapping by making himself small and rolling on his back. He doesn’t get frustrated or impatient – he just works very hard, and keeps respecting Puzzle’s boundaries.

The reason we know this is good communication – even though it doesn’t go anywhere – is the fact that Puzzle is able to stay put. She was sitting on this step before the other dog got here, and she stays in the place she picked for herself throughout the conversation. She doesn’t feel threatened. Yet she clearly knows that he is communicating with her, and she responds politely and clearly: “No.”

These are great communication skills on both parts. Watch this – maybe more than just once. The next time you need to either set a boundary for yourself (see Puzzle) or respect someone else’s boundaries (see the adult dog), remember this video!

Two lessons for humans

  • Set your own boundaries kindly. You don’t need to yell, and you don’t need to hide from or stonewall the other person.
  • Accept the boundaries of others gracefully. No need to get frustrated or annoyed. Just do your best. Dogs don’t generally take things personally – for example, this adult dog won’t be unable to sleep tonight because he’ll obsess over what he should have done differently. He will get up (after the video ends), wag, and move on with his life. Don’t take things personally. Be more like this dog.

The Puzzle Week – Part 21: Social Learning

I used to call dogs learning about social interactions from other dogs “social facilitation” – but I just learned in Kristina Spaulding’s excellent Fundamentals of Ethology course1 that this not technically the correct term! Turns out that social facilitation does not meet the criteria of social learning: it just means that a certain behavior increases in animal A when animal B is present. When B is not present, animal A does not show the same increase in behavior. No learning has taken place!

So … what is social learning?

What, then, is social learning, exactly? And what’s the correct term for the interaction I used to call social facilitation? Let’s see. Social learning is learning by means of observing others. Kristina (again, in her fantastic Ethology course, which you should definitely take the next time it runs) refers us to a definition by Wynne and Udell2. They have three criteria for social learning:

  1. The behavior is not innate – it must be learned.
  2. It must be learned in a specific way: by means of social transmission.
  3. As a result of the learning process, the behavior also occurs in the absence of the demonstrator.

There are four kinds of social learning: imitation, emulation, stimulus enhancement, and local enhancement. Note that social facilitation is not on this list: while there is social transmission, a socially facilitated behavior does not occur without the demonstrator being present.

What is social facilitation?

Dancing might be an example of sopcial facilitation: I’m not into it. But if a friend convinces me to go out, I’ll dance if they do (preferably after having a beer or two). However, I won’t dance in the absence of said friend. Having gone dancing with my friend will not cause me to go back to the music venue, and dance on my own, or with other people. Once my friend has gone home, so will I, and I’ll be glad to go back to not dancing. I’d venture my dancing meets the definition of social facilitation, but not the definition of social learning because it does not occur in the absence of my friend, the demonstrator.

Back to social learning!

What are the 4 types of social learning?

Imitation

Imitation is a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. The learned behavior replicates either the motor pattern or the form of the behavior.

Say an alien just landed on earth and sees a human drop a coin into a coke machine, and then drink a refreshing beverage. The alien, who has never encountered a coke machine, then also drops a coin in the machine and enjoys a soda. Going forwards, the alien is able to get a coke whenever they want (as long as they have access to coins and coke machines): through imitation, they have learned to work coke machines the same way humans do. If they used their hands to drop coins into the slot, we’d call it true imitation (they imitated the motor pattern). If they used their trunk to drop cpins into the slot, we’d call it functional imitation (they imitated the form of the behavior, but not the exact motor pattern).

Emulation

Emulation is also a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. However, unlike imitation, the form or motor pattern of the behavior isn’t directly imitated. Instead, the observer just recognizes that a solution to a problem is available. Let’s look at a different alien. They watch a human drop a coin into the coke machine, and out comes a refreshing beverage. Yummy! Looks like it’s possible to get cold drinks from that big box with the Coca Cola logo on it! The alien now smashes the coke machine with its trunk, pieces of broken glass and plastic everywhere, and in the midst of it all, there are bottles of cold beverages, which the alien now enjoys. Assuming that I understand things correctly (no guarantee there), this is emulation. When the alien encounters another coke machine in the future, even if there’s no human present to demonstrate the coin-inserting action, the alien will know that there are likely cold beverages in it, and, if thirsty, will smash it with its trunk to gain access to it.

Stimulus or local enhancement

Animal A’s behavior causes animal B to notice an environmental stimulus, or a particularly interesting spot in the environment.

Dog A sees a cat and stares at it – dog B sees dog A staring at something, and follows their gaze – now dog B also sees the cat, and stares as well. Ta-da! Stimulus enhancement!

Dog A sniffs a certain spot. Dog B notices dog A’s interest in said spot, and heads over to sniff it as well. Ta-da! Local enhancement! Look how easy I’m making this sound!

Let’s clear up my former misuse of the term social facilitation!

So what do we call a situation where animal A observes animal B’s interaction with animal C, and doesn’t only copy their behavior right then and there (imitation), but learns something for the future? What if dog A is shy towards other dogs, but, after observing dog B’s confident interactions, becomes less shy themselves, even in B’s absence? Well, we’ll just call it social learning. Plain and simple.

If A copied a specific play move of B’s, we’d call it imitation (especially if it wasn’t an innate play move, I suppose). If A learned that it was possible to get strange dogs to play (there is a solution), but came up with their own way of initiating play (different from B’s play style), we’d call it emulation.

Once A is confident around other dogs, they might notice a potential playmate after B does, and then initiate or join the fun: stimulus enhancement! In case of doubt, just call it social learning.

And what the heck is social contagion?

Social contagion is a subtype of social facilitation. It is not social learning. In social contagion, observing a behavior causes the observer to engage in the same behavior – without knowing why they are showing the behavior.

Maybe this is social contagion? In any case, it’s hilarious:

Maybe this is social contagion, too! Game is chasing something to fetch it. Puzzle doesn’t know why she is running – she just does what Game does:

What about social support? Yours truly has been throwing that term around, too!

Indeed, I probably have. It’s such a lovely term, isn’t it? Social support. I want to give and receive it from my friends! I want to bathe in it! I want to be socially supportive of my dogs! That said, I don’t think social support is an ethological term. Assuming there is no agreed-upon ethological definition, it won’t serve us in the analysis of dog/dog interactions. It’s a nice buzzword though, so I might keep it around to spice up my paragraphs when its meaning is clear from the context. In any case, since you asked, I looked up its definition in the APA dictionary of Psychology. According to them, social support is

the provision of assistance or comfort to others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and social stressors [my emphasis]. Support may arise from any interpersonal relationship in an individual’s social network, involving family members, friends, neighbors, religious institutions, colleagues, caregivers, or support groups. It may take the form of practical help (e.g., doing chores, offering advice), tangible support that involves giving money or other direct material assistance, and emotional support that allows the individual to feel valued, accepted, and understood. […]”3

The first sentence is useful for observers of canine behavior. The rest is anthropocentric, and irrelevant for our purposes.

Where are all the puppy videos?

I know, I know, you’re here to watch puppy videos, not to get hung up on terminology. But I want to get better at using the correct biological terms for the situations and encounters I’m describing. Explaining them to other people and making up examples is my favorite way of remembering stuff. So here you go! All mistakes and all misleading explanations and examples are my own, and not Kristina Spaulding’s. She actually knows what she’s talking about, while I’m only just learning. As Brené Brown would say, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Feel free to point mistakes out to me (kindly and constructively, because that’s how we do things around here!). And if you are hungry for more geeky ethology, check out Kristina’s classes on her website and at the IAABC foundation.

Alright – back to the cute puppy videos! My next post is going to have lots and lots of dog/dog socialization videos. I promise! To keep this fun, we’ll be playing a game! After reading this post, I want you to tell me what you see in the upcoming videos: social learning? What kind of social learning? Social facilitation? All or none of the above? Hang tight – my next post is coming soon, and it will be gameshowesque.

Sources

(1) Spaulding, Kristina. Fundamentals of Ethology. IAABC Foundation, January 2022. (Will be running again in May – don’t miss it!)

(2) Wynne, Clive D.L and Udell, Monique A.R. Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior & Cognition. London, Red Globe Press: 2020. (Note that I have not read this book, but I believe this is the resource Kristina Spaulding is referring to.)

(3) “Social support,” in APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed March 9, 2022.

The Chicken Experiment

San Marcos La Laguna is teeming with free-roaming chickens. They are in the streets, they are in the yards, they are behind fences and outside of fences. Roosters cockadoodledoo all night, and chickens, big and small, enjoy their life (until they don’t).

Where we used to live for the past 2.5 years, there was one trail that led past chickens and turkeys. My dogs initially craved a bite or two, but soon learned to walk past without giving it much thought. They accepted that killing chickens just wasn’t in the cards for them. 

When we got to San Marcos la Laguna – the first stop of our slow travel road trip – Game showed me she had generalized her walking-past-chickens skills. I walked her off leash, and she was great at strolling past chickens without paying attention to them. Until The Day That Changed Everything.

The Day That Changed Everything

Our morning walk to the lake led us past a metal gate with a gap below, just tall enough for a chicklet to squeeze out into the street. One morning, we were walking past the gate as usual, minding our own business, when a little chicklet ducked under the gate, and tried to cross the f*ing road. By the time I noticed the wee bird, it had strolled right under Game’s muzzle. “What’s that?” Smack! Game lowered her Baskerville-muzzled nose, and that chicklet’s road-crossing intentions were cut short. Game was delighted! Who knew that smashing down your muzzle makes the little feather toys stop moving! So much power! So much fun!

(I found the owner, apologized, and paid the equivalent of US$15 dollars for the chicklet. Yes, that’s certainly the price of a whole flock of grown chickens, but I’d have paid twice as much, too. It was my fault; I certainly deserved the financial punishment.)

Game is a smart dog capable of single-event learning. Going forwards, she didn’t look at chickens like she used to (the way she looks at furniture: boring; whatever). She now looked at chickens – big and small, black and white and brown and red and stripey, egg-laying or cockadoodledoing – like this:

A recall challenge

I wanted to continue having Game off leash in this town of free-roaming fowl. I was only going to stay for a few weeks, but I have never met a recall challenge I didn’t like. I could, of course, also have made this a “leave it” challenge – most trainers probably would; “leave it” seems more intuitive in this context. But recalls are my thing, so that’s what I went with.

I remembered an interesting episode from The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat. In this episode, Pat modifies the prey drive of his sister’s newly adopted Greyhound to keep him from eliminating the family cat. Pat doesn’t approach this as a recall issue – but his training intrigued me, and I decided to use my chicken challenge to try something similar.

If you haven’t listened to the Greyhound Versus Cat episode on the Canine Paradigm – do so before reading on! Pat’s story will help you understand what I am doing in the videos below. It’s also a great podcast episode. I wouldn’t do it justice by trying to summarize it – just check it out yourself. And in the unlikely case that you haven’t heard of The Canine Paradigm before, get ready to add a new podcast to your personal favorites!

So many new things to try!

I had never used existential food to convince a dog not to chase a prey animal. While I train with kibble a lot in everyday life, I’d generally use higher value reinforcers for something as difficult as a recall away from a chicken. I have also never fed an entire meal after a single click.

Would a large amount of food make up for its lower value (kibble is low value, but an entire meal is a big reward)? Would Game be able to eat an entire meal without lifting her head, and thinking chicken thoughts, right away? Or would it take a while for her to learn that interrupting the behavior of eating caused the restaurant to close? I couldn’t wait to find out.

The Game plan, part 1

I came up with the following rules:

  1. Game was going to earn both her daily meals – breakfast and dinner – for chicken recalls.
  2. For a single chicken recall, she would receive an entire meal.
  3. If she stopped eating (i.e. lifted her head), I’d take away the food.
  4. The next opportunity to eat would only come around at the following mealtime, which, again, would happen in a chicken context.

Session #1

Criteria: No recall cue. I’ll click for her choice to reorient to me after figuring out she can’t get to the chicken.

Session #3 or #4:


Criteria: I’m adding a recall cue, but will reward her even if the leash tightens before she comes back. (I will require the leash to stay loose a few sessions further down the line.)

An unexpected injury

While we were training our way through the chicken challenge, Game hurt herself (she’s a head-through-the-wall kind of dog – it happens surprisingly often). I put her on limited activity for a week. No running, no playing, no training – except for her two daily short leash walks culminating in a chicken recall at meal time.

Session #5ish

Criteria: same criteria as the previous session.

You can see greater intensity and arousal in the video below: if Game’s exercise needs aren’t being met, she turns into a little maniac. She REALLY wants to go for that rooster, and she can’t finish her meal (I learn that if she’s on limited activity, this protocol is setting her up to fail):

My stubbornness pays off!

I stuck with the protocol though, and got to a place where the line would stay loose between the recall and Game returning to me for an uninterrupted meal. (There’s some sessions that I didn’t record.)

Upping the ante: off leash; chickens kept safe behind a fence

Once Game could reliably recall away from chickens without tightening a leash or long line, I found a place she could be off leash, with the chickens safe on the other side of a fence.

Session 10ish:

The rep below is not perfect – you can see Game hesitate before responding; then she realizes there’s no way to get across the fence and comes back. If there had been no fence, the session below would have resulted in a fatality.

Session 11ish:

This one is better: there is the tiniest hesitation (I know what her whiplash turn-on-a-dime-s look like, and this isn’t quite it – but she’s almost got it):

… and we did it: by the subsequent session, I got that perfect turn on a dime with the chickens behind a fence!

The Game plan, part 2: off leash Game with unprotected chickens!

It was time to get some chickens of my own, and up the ante: I wanted to try this off leash and without a fence, and I wasn’t going to subject someone else’s chickens to this experiment.

I LOVE environmental rewards, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to integrate them into the second part of my training plan (here’s where my plan wildly diverges from what Pat Stuart did with his sister’s Greyhound: no cats were going to be harmed in Pat’s training! The questionable ethics you are about to read about are entirely my own.)

The morality of it all

I have no qualms about eating meat, or feeding my dogs meat, and I also have no issues with (quickly) killing an animal in order to eat it. (I do have issues with livestock or wildlife being killed for reasons other than eating.)

I planned on getting two chickens (that way, I’d be able to have at least two reps, even if the first one didn’t go as planned). I’d use the chickens in my training, and then we would eat them. First, I would recall Game away from a chicken in a crate, and reinforce with her usual meal. Then, I’d recall her away from the same chicken outside of the crate, and reinforce with a release to run back and kill the chicken. (I decided that being quickly killed by a dog is no more inhumane than being killed by me, the human. The chicken was going to die and be eaten either way, so using it as a reinforcer seemed morally acceptable to my pragmatic self.)

I was particularly curious about how this experience would translate to the chickens we met in the street: would Game be more likely to engage with me in order to earn that once-in-a-million jackpot of killing (my theory was that she would), or would she become more likely to try and kill on her own time (my theory was that she wouldn’t)? I was determined to find out!

Time to purchase some chickens

I had to run an errand in Antigua, a city some 150km from San Marcos. It was the perfect place to buy chickens from someone I would never see again. I went to a farming supply store that sells chickens, and doesn’t ask questions. And there they were: a big wire cage with lots of poultry crammed in, clucking and sticking their heads out. They were black-and-white barred chickens. My favorite kind, because from a distance, they look like a mad novelist scribbled all over white birds in black ink. They are pretty. I’m sure they are also tasty – if not to humans, then certainly in a raw meal for my dogs. 

I stood there watching the chickens in the cage, and then, just like that, I didn’t want to buy them anymore. It would be lying if I said I couldn’t buy them anymore – it wasn’t that. I’m not particularly sentimental about death; neither my own nor that of another animal. They were going to die sooner or later, and their current life wasn’t exactly amazing. But I looked at their less than ideal existence, crammed into that cage. I imagined their several hours long, less-than-ideal journey back to San Marcos, in a cardboard box, in my hot car. All just to be killed once we got there. It seemed quite pointless, especially since Game and I were going to leave the town of free-roaming poultry soon anyways.

I told myself to remain standing there for another minute, and remind myself of the facts: this was my one chance of buying two chickens far from the scene of the murder I was plotting, and following through on my training plan.

A minute or two later, I still didn’t want to do it. And so I didn’t, because at some point in the last decade, I’ve learned that it is perfectly okay to walk away from a perfectly good plan.

The anticlimactic ending

Game spent the remaining week and a half in San Marcos on a leash around the chickens roaming the streets. And then, we left for Huehuetenango, a city that doesn’t have free roaming chickens – or at the very least, we didn’t meet a single one. I’d like to say that the chicken store chickens lived happily ever after – but that’s pretty unlikely, so I’ll need to end this story on a different note: the feeling I remember. As I walked away from the chicken store, I felt a moment of humaneness. The kind that makes your heart jump. I thought to myself: “I’m humane sometimes. Sometimes, I am kind.” And for a moment, that thought (however misguided it may seem) made me smile. 

Resources mentioned in this post:

Pat Stuart & Glenn Cooke, The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat (podcast)

Retirement, Social Comparisons, and Theories of Intelligence

What makes for a life we enjoy? Work we enjoy? What do we need to be content and comfortable in our own skin, and in our place in the world?

I tend to come across this question on a regular basis, and from all kinds of angles. The last time I thought about it – especially the angle of work – was when I talked to a guy on Tinder. He was in his early forties, and about to retire from a finance job in NYC. He had just bought a house at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala – his retirement home. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

This was intriguing – I had never met anyone whose life plan included retiring in their forties. My own life plan entails working until I die: I LOVE what I do; I can’t see myself ever not wanting to do it. I am already living exactly the life I want to live (something he was referring to being able to do after retirement). Retirement isn’t part of my plan.

I thought about this some more, and talked about it with another friend. Interestingly, my friend agreed that having saved up enough money in order to retire would be a huge burden off their shoulders despite the fact that they, too, are passionate about their work!

This disproved my first hypothesis, i.e. that “FIRE“ing was appealing to people who didn’t particularly enjoy the work they did or had to do. My friend (not a FIRE person, btw.) wistfully considered the idea of having enough money to stop needing to work. This friend likes their work. A lot. They said they would probably continue doing the very same work they are doing right now after an imaginary financial independence-based retirement. They believe they would feel better doing the exact same thing if it did not generate an income they were dependent on. Being financially independent, they wouldn’t have to do the work they would still be doing: they wouldn’t have to worry about paying their rent, etc. I find this intriguing, given the fact that this particular friend already has about ten times the savings I do. They have health insurance, a pension plan, and they live twice as frugally as I: from my point of view, they have no reason to worry about being able to pay their rent as is. But apparently, they still worry! So … Why do they? Or maybe I should ask: why don’t I?

Two kinds of freedom

Looking back on both these conversations, I think there are two kinds of freedom that make retirement/financial independence appealing to the two people I sampled:

  1. The freedom to do whatever you want on any given day – the lack of obligation.
  2. The freedom from worrying about your future/financial security/health care etc.

One reason retirement isn’t something I actively pursue is that (1) I am already doing what I want. I experience significant personal freedom, agency, and self-efficacy on a daily basis, and I have changed the course of my life often enough to “know” that I can pretty much do whatever I want whenever I want: I’ve switched majors in college; I’ve dated guys and women; I’ve used different pronouns; I’ve lived in different countries; I’ve learned foreign languages; I’ve started two businesses; I’ve traveled …

In addition, I (2) do not worry about my future, my financial security, and my health care. Yes, I did worry about these things at some point in the past, but I haven’t in a long time. In fact, I believe I haven’t worried about these things since I started (1) doing exactly what I want!

(2) may also have to do with the way I compare myself to others. As a species, we can’t help thinking about ourselves in relation to those around us – it’s just what we do. The secret isn’t to stop comparing yourself to others altogether. The secret is in the directionality of the comparisons we make. Rachel Sherman and Keith Payne point out that there are two ways of comparing ourselves to others, and they result in two vastly different experiences of our own place on the ladder of success.

Upward versus downward comparisons

Upwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have more than we do. Downwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have less than us. People tend to have a default direction their comparisons take. I’m not sure what determines which tendency an individual ends up with – but according to Payne, it is possible to change what we default to. If you currently compare yourself to those who have more than you do, you might want to rethink your directionality: downward comparers tend to be more content and worry less than upward comparers.

My default mode of comparing is downward: several times a week – sometimes several times a day! – I realize how lucky I am. I have a big and central apartment, I have a car (which I am trying to get rid of, because who needs cars), I have a dog who I just took for fancy dental surgery to Mexico City without having to think twice, and I’m toying with the idea of hopping on a plane, and fly to the US and back for no other reason than to get a COVID vaccine. As opposed to most people in Latin America, my European Union passport grants me visa-free access to most countries in the world. A couple months ago, I applied to a postgraduate program I’d be able to pay for out of pocket if I got in and decided to accept the offer. This is not the norm. I am aware of my privilege, and I often marvel at it.

I have more than enough: if I found myself out of work tomorrow (highly unlikely), I’d have plenty of time to find something new before making rent would become an issue. I see myself as capable, versatile, adaptive, and likeable. I’m trilingual, and in my adult life, I’ve always found a way to fit in. I have no doubt that I’d find something new to do that I enjoy, even if it was something completely different from anything I have ever done. And if for some post-apocalyptic reason, all possible ways for me to make a living disappeared, I believe I’d still get by somehow. I always do. If I couldn’t sleep on someone’s couch, I’d sleep in the street. Things would be different, but I’d make do with less, and I’d be just fine.

This is the story I tell myself, anyways. It’s the story I believe, and it’s a story that has served me well. My friend might say I’m unreasonably optimistic – that I don’t see society for what it truly is: injust. Corrupt. Untrustworthy. (It’s not that I don’t see it – I do. I know the playing field isn’t level, and that the game is rigged. I just don’t dwell on it, and I still enjoy playing. Setbacks motivate me to try again, or try something else, or turn a negative experience into a great story. I have a tagulator, and a dog, and there is cheesecake in the world. What could possibly stop me?)

An incremental theory of intelligence: hard work pays off

Growing up, the messaging from my parents wasn’t that I was exceptionally intelligent. It was that I had to work exceptionally hard in order to stay at the top of my class. If I didn’t do well, obviously, it wasn’t because I was dumb but because I hadn’t worked hard enough. There was performance pressure (which did occasionally cause me anxiety) – but my ability to do well if I worked hard was never questioned. Consciously or not, my parents taught me an incremental theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed, and that performance is a function of effort.

I worked hard, and stayed fairly consistently in the top third of my class. Hadn’t I worked hard, I’d probably still have made it through somehow – but I’d have dropped to the bottom third in terms of performance. I knew that then, and I know it now. My performance potential is perfectly average. So what?

Maybe that is why the person I am today believes that I am capable of understanding and learning pretty much anything if I put in the work. University felt easy because my grades were directly related to my effort. Earning a scholarship to study abroad felt well deserved because I put in a ton of effort. Writing my MA thesis was a challenge I thrived on: I wanted to do well, so I worked hard, and did well.

I’ve got an above-average education level, but I don’t believe that my genetically determined frame of potential capability is any greater than that of the average person. It’s just that due to the combination of the random privileges I was born with (my white skin, my EU citizenship), my upbringing by parents that fostered an incremental theory of intelligence, and a bit of luck every now and then, I will be able to achieve most goals I want by working hard.

Most people do not share my random privileges, which may make them equally or less successful than I am even if they, too, hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Even if their genetically determined frame of potential capability is greater than mine.

people running on a race track

From where I’m standing, being successful means that you’re probably a privileged person who worked reasonably hard, and had a bit of luck along the way. It doesn’t mean your potential is greater than average. It doesn’t mean you are the one who deserves success more than your less privileged peers. It means that you had an advantageous starting position: you started out further ahead on the race track due to your skin color, gender, citizenship, economic background etc. And when the start pistol went off, you started running, just like the people next to and behind you. Being among the first to cross the finish line makes you no better than those who started behind you on the track (if you are like me – white, and European – that would be most people.)

It’s also nothing to be ashamed of: you did work hard, after all. We can be proud of ourselves and confident in our ability to learn new things while still recognizing that being born privileged is a huge part of our success. Both these things can be true at the same time – there’s no contradiction there.

An entity theory of intelligence: intelligence is fixed

The puzzling thing is that both FIRE dude and the friend I talked to have at least some of the same privileges, and an additional one that I do not have: maleness.

Looking around at my friends – most of whom have at least a BA, and many of whom have PhDs – I find it fascinating that they do not necessarily share my optimism (realism?): they are more pessimistic about their own financial and physical safety, and they feel less in control of their own outcomes than I do. The difference in our experience doesn’t seem to be related to objective, external factors (such as income levels).

I’ve noticed that I have friends who appear to consider themselves more intelligent than the average person. I’m basing this assumption on their stories of getting top grades up until the start of college “without doing any work.” I suppose these brag stories are indicative of an entity theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable; that you have a certain amount of it, and are stuck with that amount.

Some of these friends feel like imposters – as if their above-average, but finite amount of intelligence could only have taken them so far, and they’ve stumbled into a space their intelligence isn’t sufficient for dominating. Since their fixed amount of intelligence is their main asset, they are constantly in danger of being found out and exposed as a fraud who hasn’t earned their seat at the table of accomplishment.

My incremental theory of intelligence allows me to feel accomplished and capable when I succeed – it allows me to take credit for my success. It also allows me to accept failures, and approach them with a new strategy or greater effort on my next attempt. I do not attribute failure to a fundamental lack in ability, but to insufficient practice or effort. Just like the students in Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck’s study, it seems that the adults around me who hold an entity theory of mind are more likely to experience helplessness upon failing rather than adopting a positive strategy of trying again, or trying something different.

Conclusion

It seems to be easier to be content – and worry less – when you default to downwards comparisons, and hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Payne says it is entirely possible for an adult to change their direction of comparison. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck ran successful interventions among junior high school students, causing them to adopt an incremental theory of intelligence. I certainly hope that what they have found among junior high students still holds true for adults: it’s possible to change our world view, and become more optimistic and happier as a result. Is it likely to happen? Probably not, unless you make an effort. As adults, we are pretty committed to our philosophies of life, which continue being reinforced by our confirmation bias. But as a species, we’re also incredibly adaptable – maybe change is always at our fingertips. It’s certainly worth a try!

Something to think about

+ Do you default to upwards or downwards social comparisons? Does it differ depending on context? How does your default direction of comparison make you feel?

+ Do you hold an incremental theory of intelligence or an entity theory of intelligence? Where do you think you have learned to think of yourself/the nature of intelligence in this way? How has your theory of intelligence helped or hurt you in your adult life?

+ Are you financially independent/retired? If you are – what do you like and dislike about it? If you aren’t – would you like to be financially independent/retired? Why or why not? What would you do differently if you were?

Resources mentioned in this post

(a) Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck: “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition,” Child Development (Jan-Feb, 2007).

Sherman, Rachel – Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

Payne, Keith – The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects The Way We Think, Live, and Die