Preparedness and Selective Association

Learning is a basic adaptive mechanism exhibited by the vast majority of animals. It plays a profound role in a dog's success or failure in adjusting to its social and physical surroundings. As noted above, learning takes place within a biobehavioral context formed of many unlearned, innate mechanisms that supply a dog from birth (and before) with a varied repertoire of reflexive and instinctive adjustments to the environment. All animals come into the world preadapted to sense and attend to a limited set of stimuli; predisposed to feel and respond to a select group of unconditioned stimuli with emotionally significant arousal; programmed to act within a fixed range of ways (albeit variably within that range); and prepared to learn certain things and select associations, but not all things are learned or associated with an equal ease (Seligman, 1970). For example, although puppies can easily master the house-training routine, another animal like the chimpanzee, although considered by ethologists to be much more intelligent than the dog, may require laborious efforts to achieve voluntary control over alimentary functions—if at all. The chimp's evolutionary niche has placed little selective pressure on such variability in its elimination habits. The preparedness hypothesis suggests that certain conditioned stimuli and unconditioned stimuli are more readily associated than others, and, in the case of instrumental learning, the connection between a particular response and its consequences is more rapidly learned than others.

Preparedness affects dogs in both beneficial and adverse directions. Many phobic and emotional reactions are innately programmed and readied for potentiating experience (Seligman, 1971; LoLordo and Droungas, 1989). Dogs are prepared to enjoy close social contact with conspecifics and human companions but are unprepared to cope with loneliness and extended periods of separation. They are prepared to adjust socially within a highly structured and regimented social order but may become socially confused and overly competitive within an environment lacking the presence of a dominant figure modulating such competitive tendencies. The dog's sensory capabilities, like other animals, are attuned to a narrow field of species-typical activity. Not only must dogs be able to differentiate relevant from irrelevant information impinging on their senses, they must also be able to isolate it from competing background stimulation, attend to the specifics over time, and organize the information into meaningful associations from which to assess its significance and to decide on a course of effective action. Many of these functions occur more or less automatically by virtue of the way information is obtained and processed in the animal's brain.

Sensory Preparedness

Organisms are biologically prepared to selectively attend and respond to stimuli, depending on an apparent innate recognition of their significance. For example, Tinbergen (1951/1969) observed that young ducks and geese selectively respond to a cardboard silhouette depending on its orientation and direction of movement. When the model was moved to the right, it had the appearance of a short neck and long tail or hawklike attributes that evoked strong escape reactions. On the other hand, when the model was moved toward the left, it had the appearance of a long neck and short tail, i.e., the attributes of a goose in flight. This latter presentation evoked no response in the birds tested. Tinbergen also theorized that predators develop a search image formation in order to locate diffi-cult-to-find prey animals equipped with an-

tipredator adaptations (Fantino and Logan, 1979). Through experience involving successful hunts, the animal learns what to look for that is specific to the camouflaged or hidden prey animal. Gradually, the predator learns to attend to these specific attributes when searching for food.

Although not experimentally demonstrated in the laboratory, dogs appear to be more alert and attentive to the presence of accelerating (slow to fast) movements as opposed to decelerating (fast to slow) ones. Accelerating movements may be innate sign stimuli for escape/withdrawal behavior. Under natural conditions, slow-to-fast movements are more often associated with danger (e.g., a falling rock, swooping hawk, or stalk-and-chase movements of predators), certainly more so than movements exhibiting a fast-to-slow pattern (e.g., retreat). These opposing patterns of motion may be recognized by the distinctive patterns of retinal stimulation they produce. Command cues spoken with a clipped slow-to-fast inflection are typically much more effective than commands spoken in a drawn-out fast-to-slow manner. Similarly, strange and loud noises attract more attention than familiar and quiet sounds.

Dog trainers and owners alike have long recognized the value of altering the tone and amplitude of the voice to influence a dog's behavior. Repeated "kiss" sounds and whistles are familiar ways to stimulate a dog's attention and to arouse action. Similarly, soft and drawn-out word tones are commonly used to calm an agitated dog, whereas abrupt and repeated verbal prompts may be used to alert and put a dog on guard. Although dogs may not be able to understand the precise conceptual meaning and intent of the words used to communicate with them, they are very keen and responsive to the manner in which the words are spoken. For example, saying "No" in a high-pitched and upbeat tone of voice will likely evoke in a dog a preparatory response in anticipation of a rewarding outcome rather than worrying the dog about the possibility of impending punishment. Of course, in this example, classical conditioning probably plays an important role in the elaboration of the dog's response. However, it does appear that high and gentle tones of voice are more easily associated with rewarding outcomes, whereas low and forceful tones are more rapidly connected with punitive ones. Clearly, the tone and other characteristics of auditory stimulation appear to influence how dogs interpret information conveyed by verbal communication. Tone of voice conveys information to dogs about a trainer's emotional state and his or her immediate intentions, much like whining and growling convey very specific and different intentions among dogs. In other words, the meaning of the word signal appears to be most dependent on the way it is asserted rather than any abstract meanings conveyed by the word itself.

These observations suggest that dogs exhibit some degree of innate responsiveness to auditory stimulation based on the qualitative or quantitative characteristics of the acoustic signal presented. Clearly, socially significant auditory signals utilize various means to shape and infuse intentional meaning into the signals used to communicate needs. Patricia McConnell has explored the possibility that various physical alterations of acoustic stimuli may elicit differential changes in a dog's general activity level. Her investigation into this phenomenon began by interviewing over 100 trainers from all over the world (McConnell, 1990b). She found that the general style of auditory signaling used by animal trainers shared a fairly universal and definite pattern. The vast majority of trainers used rapidly repeated auditory signals to excite activity, whereas they used long and drawn-out signals to inhibit activity. Besides vocal sounds and whistles, she found that most trainers used repeated hand claps, finger snaps, tongue clucks and clicks, leg slaps, or "lip smooches" to increase activity in dogs. According to her interview records, no trainer ever mentioned using such signals to inhibit behavior. She observed that animal trainers would often give one sort of signal (e.g., two brief whistle blasts) to direct a dog into some action and then rapidly repeat the same sound to speed up the desired response. In one study comparing the effects of various signals on the approach behavior of puppies,

McConnell found that the strongest approach response toward a hidden person was evoked by repeated hand claps.

As a result of these interviews and related observations, she hypothesized that short and repeated ascending tones tend to stimulate behavioral excitation, whereas long and descending tones tend to exert an inhibitory effect over behavior. To test this hypothesis, she raised a mixed group of 20 Border collie and beagle puppies, carefully avoiding the use of expressive tones of voice, finger snaps, whistles, and claps (McConnell, 1990a, 1992). Only quiet and monotonic speech was permitted around the puppies, with most control being exercised by employing visual signals. At 4 months of age, 14 of the puppies were divided into two groups that received training to come or sit-stay on signal. Group 1 was trained to come in response to four brief ascending tones (150 milliseconds at 1500 Hz ascending to 3500 Hz) and to stay in response to one continuous descending tone (750 milliseconds at 3500 Hz descending to 1500 Hz). Conversely, group 2 was trained to come or stay in response to the same signals used to train group 1, but in reverse—that is, the continuous descending tone was associated with coming, whereas the repeated ascending tone was used to signal puppies to stay. After 10 days of training, the signals presented to the two groups were reversed. Although an apparent trend toward more efficient acquisition and increased activity was evident in group 1 (i.e., when "come" training was carried out in the presence of the repeated ascending tone), the overall effects of the training arrangement reached statistical significance only after the two groups were retrained to respond to the opposite set of signals. Even so, the significance detected by the study was not based on acquisition measures per se but rather stemmed from the elicitation of increased activity levels (viz., forepaw steps) occurring as the result of the presentation of the repeated ascending tone. Unfortunately, the study failed to show a significant differentiation between the two signals with respect to stay training and the acoustic inhibition of behavior. Overall, the results are somewhat disappointing and in conclusive with regard to the existence of an innate acoustic mechanism differentially sensitive to repeated and continuous signals—at least in the form used in the study. In the case of puppies, the differential effects of the signals presented show a definite trend consistent with McConnell's hypothesis; however, the results fail to demonstrate a very robust effect. Further, some effort should have been made to isolate potentially confounding influences differentially exerted by ascending versus descending tones on the behavioral effects attributed to repeated versus continuous signals. This would have required the incorporation of additional compound stimulus test arrangements such as repeated-descending versus continuous-ascending groups, with which to compare any additive or subtractive influences of tonal direction on activity in the presence of continuous or repeated signals.

From these findings, it appears that dogs are biologically prepared to increase nonspecific activity in response to brief and repeated acoustic signals. Although McConnell's study does not show a corresponding behavioral inhibition resulting from the presentation of long and continuous signals, it is clear from common experience that long and continuous signals do exert a calming and inhibitory effect on a dog's behavior. Many situations in nature attest to the activational effect of repeated tones, ranging from distress vocalizations in puppies to mating calls in birds. McConnell speculates that the dog's responsiveness to ascending repetitious sounds may be related to species-typical distress vocalizations, including whining, yelping, other repetitive sounds associated with intense arousal and care-seeking activity. Agonistic behavior may also provide an innate basis for the differential elicitation of increased activity versus decreased activity in response to acoustic stimulation of differing duration and tonal direction. A comparison of rapid alarm barking versus slow and continuous growling reveals distinctive innate features and effects. Rapid alarm barking serves to attract the attention and excitement of nearby con-specifics, alerting them and, perhaps, mobilizing them to join in and participate—that is, it has an excitatory effect on the group.

On the other hand, growling (a long, continuous social signal) may certainly attract the attention of the recipient, but it is more likely to elicit an inhibitory effect or result in the slow withdrawal or immobilization of the recipient target.

Cognitive Preparedness

The influence of behavioral preparedness should be given careful consideration when designing programs for modifying canine behavior. Dogs learn to perform some actions more rapidly or slowly, depending on the biobehavioral compatibility of the signal used and the behavior required to occur in the presence of that signal. Some signals and responses are more easily associated than others. For example, Lawicka (1964; Dobrzecka et al., 1966) found that dogs prefer spatially lateralized discriminative signals when learning a directional discrimination (go left/go right), while go/no go discriminations are more easily acquired when the discriminative cues are presented from the same location but varied in terms of tonal quality (Fig. 5.2). For example, in a simple go left/go right discrimination experiment, he found that dogs could learn the directional discrimination only if the discriminative tonal cues (high and low pitch) were presented from different locations relative to dogs. Although directional discriminations depend on spatially separated signals, such learning does not depend on the lateralization of the signals on a left-right axis. In fact, he demonstrated that dogs could learn to discriminate the correct left or right direction even if the signals were presented along a vertical axis, that is, by placing one sound source above the other. However, if the two signals were presented from the same location (a single speaker), then the go left/go right discrimination was frustrated and learned only with much difficulty, if at all. In another experiment, he found that dogs learned a go/no go discrimination much more easily if the discriminative cues came from the same source but varied in terms of tone. If the tonal signals were later-alized relative to the dogs, then the go/no go discrimination was impeded. Lawicka's exper

Was this article helpful?

0 -1
How To Housetrain Any Dog

How To Housetrain Any Dog

Fundamentals of Dog and Puppy Training. Although dogs shouldn't be attributed with having human characteristics, they are intelligent enough to be able to understand the concept of, and execute, certain actions that their owners require of them - if these actions are asked in a way that dogs find rewarding.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment