Ep. 31: Ethology v. Interpretation

Mar 31, 2020

"My dog is distracted by the grass" or "My dog is not focused". These are common things we may hear others, or even ourselves, say when we are doing Scent Work. But what information does this really give us? Are we able to maximize on actionable plans on these statements alone, or are we missing a bigger piece of the puzzle?

In this episode, we discuss the differences between ethology and interpretation with Michael McManus, delving into the advantages of using ethology to help in developing better training plans and approaches in Scent Work.


  • Dianna L. Santos
  • Michael McManus


Dianna L. Santos: Welcome to the It's All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast we talk about all things Scent Work. That can include training tips, a behind the scenes look of what your instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode we're speaking with Michael McManus about ethology and interpretation of behavior. Before I start diving into the podcast episode itself, let me just do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University, Canine Fitness university, and Family Dog University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible and we're very fortunate to have a client base that's worldwide. For Scent Work University in particular, we provide online training that is focused solely on Scent Work. This includes our online courses, webinars, seminars, as well as a regularly updated blog and podcast like what you're listening to today.

Since you know a little more about me, let's advance to the podcast episode. We're going to listen in on a conversation that I had with Michael McManus about ethology and interpretation of behaviors as it relates to Scent Work. All right, so why don't we tackle the ethology thing first?

So if you could educate everyone listening, what exactly is ethology and what's the best way for them to try to wrap their heads around what that is in relation to nose work or scent work?

Michael McManus: Yeah, sure. My favorite definition of ethology is interviewing animals in their own language, in their native language. And I think the best way to understand ethology, especially in the context of dog training, is that in a way, ethology is a response to behaviorism, which right now in the dog training world, behaviorism and calling yourself a behaviorist are kind of catchy marketing terms that are being used. And not a lot of people know the history of this. And I think if people study the history of this, one, it doesn't have the most savory history. And two, it doesn't mean what most people think it means. In fact, one of the things I tell my students is, when you go to a dog trainer who calls themselves a behaviorist, that's actually, for me, a red flag.

There are behaviorists, true, honest to God behaviorists out there, but most of the people out there who call themselves dog behaviorists, what they mean is that they study dog behavior, which isn't what behaviorist is actually means in the psychological sense. So let me start with behaviorism and then explain ethology in response to that.

So behaviorism, what it really seeks to do is understand an animal through its measurable behavior. And that emotion and what the animal is thinking and feeling... Anything internal to the animal is off limits and not worth discussing because it's only the measurable behavior of an animal that really matters. And it, at least at the beginnings of behaviorism, there was this idea that really, a human and a mouse and a pigeon are all the same thing. They're not significantly different. They all learn the same ways. They all learn using [inaudible 00:03:18] conditioning, you could still see the threads of this logic in modern day dog training where people want to deny the fact that breed tendencies exist. And that genetics are important in temperament and things like that. But anyways, so that's why the behaviorists, what they were known for were throwing rats in mazes and shocking them and giving them cheese and then extrapolating big huge things about human behavior based on these things.

And don't get me wrong, there was a lot of really amazing discoveries learned through behaviorism, but ethology comes up and starts asking questions about that, what's beyond that? What's behind that black box that behaviorism says we don't look at? Ethology says, well look, not all animals learn the same way. Some animals seem to learn... Know things before they ever learn it. So for example, little baby animals, if it were a matter of learning to learn how to find its mother's nipple and suckle, if it was a matter of learning, then there would be a whole lot of dead baby animals. But for some reason they all seem to be able to do this. By and large there's some amount of information that is encoded at that time. The understanding of genetics and behavior, the link between those two aren't fully understood, but still there's something encoded in the animal ahead of time that seems to not be influenced by learning and very hard to alter through punishment and reinforcement.

So these are what used to be called instinctual, although most ethologists don't like the word instinct anymore and they prefer innate behaviors now. And when we're dealing with things like nose work, innate behaviors are very important. And when we're dealing with dogs in their natural element, so that's nose work, hunting, bite work, hurting any of these types of venues. We're dealing with the dog, what the dog comes pre programmed with, and it's modifiable and it's adaptable to its environment. But it is to a certain extent hardwired in. And if you think it's something that we've created ourselves, then we're kind of diluting ourselves, if that makes sense.

Dianna L. Santos: That makes perfect sense. And I think that is something for a lot of people to chew on. There's a lot of information in that very short bit that you provided. But it provides, I think, good clarity, particularly for other professional instructors and trainers of what all these things actually mean. And I think the distinction between the behavioralism and the ethology side is an important one that both are relevant. Both are there, but it's important to see the difference. So could you then talk about how people who may say, wow, this sounds really interesting, this whole ethology thing, but my dog gets distracted sniffing grass. So could you maybe walk through how to help people view their dogs doing nose work? Through a more ethology lens than one of doing interpretation.

Michael McManus: Yeah. So yeah. And that was a great way that you worded that because that's exactly the way the average person would word it. And it's the most, if you're thinking with an ethology mindset, that wording of question doesn't even make sense. The dog getting distracted by grass. What would distraction mean from an evolutionary standpoint? The dog's paying interest in the grass because it thinks it should pay attention to the grass. Not because there's was odor and there's grass and the dog's like, well, which one should I pay attention to? And which one will... It's not like the dog is choosing to be distracted. So that's the first thing. The word distraction distracted in and of itself is an interpretation. So understanding that we're totally biased to make interpretations rather than interpret behavior. So instead of saying my dog is distracted by grass or whatever it is, and so a great example of this is, Oh my dog looks guilty when I come home and he's pooped in the house.

That's a standard ethological problem that we already know the answer to. The dog doesn't look guilty, that's your interpretation. The dog isn't guilty there. Scientists still out on whether or not dogs can even feel guilt. But anyways, so when it comes to your dog being distracted by grass, let's stick with that example. Instead of saying your interpretation, your feeling about it, let's study the behavior itself. Okay? So what does that look like? The dog is keeping his nose low to the ground for an extended period of time. Okay, what's extended? Let's time it, let's film it and time it, see how long it is. Okay, so now we want to compare and contrast that to the way my dog hunts in an interior search or container search or any other search where my dog isn't as distracted. So now I film him and I look at the interior search and I say, Oh wait, my dog actually spends a lot of time with his nose on the ground, even an interior search.

But I don't feel like he's as distracted. Why? Because I have a bias that makes me believe that my dog is more distracted in exteriors and maybe my dog's just distracted in general, or maybe the nose to the ground doesn't have anything to do with being distracted or not. Whatever, again, whatever distracted means. So now we're measuring this behavior, nose on the ground and maybe even bypassing odor where the dog should normally catch odor, which that takes a leap of faith to make that judgment as well. But that's fine. Let's accept that for now. So then, okay, what things would my dog not... What environments does my dog not sniff the grass if there is grass, so what could I do? Could I put another dog in the grass? So let's say I have a dog out in the yard with some grass and he's very distracted.

What happens if I put a second dog in there? Is the dog still sniffing the grass or does the dog perk its head up and start interacting in social behavior? Okay, that's interesting. So it's not like my dog is purely distracted by grass. Now, I had no one situation where my dog is, if you will, distracted by a dog.

Now what if I have food in my hand open, and I'm showing it to my dog? Is my dog still sniffing the grass, being distracted by the grass or is the dog being distracted by the food in my hand? Okay, so now the dog wants the food in my hand and it's not sniffing the grass. Okay. So it's again, what we're seeing is that your dog has a priority system in there. And we're getting this by measuring the behavior and now all we have to do is figure out how to make odor one of those things that's important enough to the dog. That it's more distracting to the dog than the grass, so to speak. And by, instead of just calling your dog distracted and being upset about it, we can measure behavior, figure out what behaviors we like, figure out how to generate those behaviors, what stimulus has produced those behaviors, and then provide the right environment for the dog to express the behaviors we like.

Dianna L. Santos: Okay. So I think for a lot of people they're going to hear that and be like, "All right, I guess. I really like calling my dog distracted though. But I guess I can try to get away from that. So now they're trying to say, okay, Michael, I'm going to try to be more in the ethology mindset, but now I don't know what to do. How do I then go about ensuring that I'm not slipping into interpretation when I'm trying to do my proofing exercises. Where, let's say that I'm setting something up and my dog is heavily invested in whatever it is I'm trying to proof against. The bagel with cream cheese in a closed box. And I'm like, "Oh, he's distracted. Oh Nope. Michael said that I shouldn't be interpreting. So he's just heavily invested in that bagel box" and now the dog is destroying the box. So how do you help people who are going to have a painful transition from interpretation to ethology? How do you then help them make that transition more smoothly?

Michael McManus: Yeah, and it isn't easy at first. I think one thing that's important is to be... There's no way to avoid observing in the moment, but try to, as much as you can, observe outside the moment. And that means videoing yourself and watching videos back. I think we talked about this recently with some people, but how many times have you watched a video of a search that you did at a trial or something like that and you watch it back later and you go, that's not what I remember happening at all. That's just such a great example of how our interpretation is completely biased. It makes us see things that you really didn't even happen. So videoing yourself is really important so that you can look at it neutrally and just catalog the behaviors you're seeing.

Then the next thing is when you bring up the example of the dog destroying the box to get the bagel with cream cheese. That's one that I always think is really interesting because like that's a dog to me that's showing the exact behavior that I want. Well, okay, I don't want a dog who's destructive in a search area for competitive reasons, but that's a dog who's very obedient to that odor of the bagel with cream cheese. The problem is that's not the odor we want them to be obeying. So the question is how do we screw this up so badly that the dog has that behavior in its repertoire but not when we want it? Right? That's our job to figure out how to motivate the dog that much. So you know, maybe should you be reinforced in your dog with baby bagel and cream cheese? Is that the simple solution that just use something your dog wants? And I do think that in general we're too stingy.

But,yeah. I think stepping back, watching videos and then instead of just saying, well, the distraction of bagel and cream cheese, so I'm just going to put tons of bagel and cream cheese distractions until my dog has flooded with it. Instead of saying that, say, well, okay, this bagel and cream cheese is producing the response I want. What happens if I pair that with odor? What happens if instead of making it a quote unquote distraction, I make it the target and then I somehow find a way to blend that into the odor to a point where eventually the dog will ignore the bagel and cream cheese and favor of odor because of how much more valuable I've made that odor.

Dianna L. Santos: And that is an excellent thing that people can actually walk away with is, with all of this and the discussion with ethology, is looking at the same exact situation or problem, but from a different angle of, and I think the way that you worded it was perfect, of your dog, again, not promoting destruction, but your dog is super interested in getting this bagel with cream cheese. That is exactly what you want them to have for their odor. So then using that as the pairing and then fading that over time or getting it so the dog understands, okay, if there's odor and bagel with cream cheese, fantastic. If there's just bagel with cream, no, I need the odor with it. I think that's an excellent thing for people to walk away from and actually use in their toolbox.

So is there anything else that you've noticed as either a CO, or a trial official or an instructor where there have been themes just throughout the sport or the activity that you said, Oh, if we just helped people, either instructors or competitors, handlers to look at this in a more ethological manner, it would really help. What do you think about... What's ever crossed your mind as far as that's concerned?

Michael McManus: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's, one of the things is how our own behavior influences the dog. A lot of people do focus on this a lot. And so I'm not saying it's like, it's not something that people are aware of, they are aware of it. But I think we could jump in a little earlier. And how, for example, presentation, I know this is kind of a controversial topic, but the goal of presentation is, I'm going to try to do what's called steelmanning. So defend the act of presentation in such a way that makes you say that's a great thing. Okay. So presentation means kind of pointing to or directing your dog towards a part of the search area to get them to search them.

And the goal would be to help the dog get into areas that they ordinarily aren't getting into. To make sure that you've covered the search area to and to proof the dog. So there's a lot of different reasons for presentation. But one of the things we don't realize we're doing, it's for example, we present the odor to our dog when we're doing non blind searches. This is a very common thing that a lot of people do. They don't even know they're doing it. Okay. Because it's a whole totally innate behavior of humans. We're not doing it because we've learned to do it. We're not doing it because we've been told to do it. We were just doing it accidentally. It's just in us. And what that does to our dog is it teaches the dog this concept that the handler knows where the odor is.

And this concept later comes to hurt the dog because then the dog looks to us for information and then we call that looking to us for information. Sometimes it turns into a false alert. Sometimes it turns into just an offering of behavior. Sometimes it turns into all... It can turn into a lot of different things. But the problem there isn't necessarily some kind of operant conditioning behavioristic model. The problem, in my opinion, is in ethology, it's a transfer of information. Is that we've taught the dog that we know where the odor is. And if we can learn how to not communicate that information to the dog, the problem by itself goes away without the handler even doing anything different, right? So even if, for example, and I'm not a fan of doing lots of blind searches, but I'm setting this up as a hypothetical, even if we just had the handler handle exactly the same way, but it was always blind.

So now the handlers presenting but presenting randomly, so it's almost never where the odor is. The dog would get better because the dog would learn the information of, the handler doesn't know where the odor is. It's not about what you're doing, it's about what you're thinking, what you're feeling, what that innate information transfer from two individuals, right? That's what's happening there. And that's what's happening every time you interact with your dog. There's an information transfer that you need to pay attention to. That to me is the most exciting thing about ethology. That's the part that I've learned the most from Roger Abrantes is, he'll take a dog on leash and he won't do anything special. He doesn't use any special equipment. He doesn't use anything like that, but it's just the way he holds himself, carries himself, what he's thinking and feeling. And that creates an information transfer that produces a completely different responses in a dog.

Dianna L. Santos: So for people who've listened to that say, "Okay, crap, now I've been providing this silent communication to my dog and now I'm worried. Michael, what do I do? What do I do to help that now?"

Michael McManus: Again, step back, film yourself, watch and become an ethologist. Watch and measure the behaviors. Be as neutral and if you do this right, it should feel boring. Okay? And I should say boring very tentatively because a lot of people will find this actually really interesting. So you'll watch it and okay, what am I... What are we looking for? Okay, I'm looking for, how many times does the dog's nose tilt above straight? And how many times does it tip below straight? And so we're just counting once up, once up, once down, once up, once down, once down. So then we end up with a total and we're starting to count all these super small discrete behaviors and there's no interpretation involved. But we start to notice certain things like wow, when the dogs front feet stand still for like three seconds, that's almost always where a dog has peed before, right?

So if any of you have attended to Sternberg's potty talk where she describes dogs peeing and pooping, you learn these things. She just watched films and films and films of dogs. She's a great ethologist and she just watched tons of tons of dogs peeing and pooping, and put together information about, what did they do? What do they actually do when they're about to pee in poop? Or when they're sniffing pee and poop and how can we read that? Right? So just re... And do that for yourself too. In fact, I have a game in my class. We call it a couple of different words, but the basic idea is the handler's is not allowed to move at all until the dog finds the hide. And one of the things I always ask my students to do, is to watch the handler.

So watch the handler as the dog moves closer to the odor, the handler will start to lean forward or they'll start to lean back. Or if the dog moves away from the odor, they'll turn their shoulders slightly towards the odor. Or they'll reach their hand up into their treat patch. They do all these tiny, tiny micro movements. They don't know they're doing it and they're just they're...If you can observe these actions and then, especially if you can observe them in yourself, then you might be on the path to controlling them so that you don't do them by accident.

Dianna L. Santos: That's a really great idea. So, would something... So two questions. So people are watching their videos, they're saying, "Oh my God, every single time that my dog is getting close to the odor, I hold my breath, I get really tense in my shoulders, and I reach for my treats!" So the first part of the question is, would it then behoove them to just do that randomly throughout the search?

And the second part of the question is, so if they had someone there to watch them, would it... Watch the dog as they're working so they can let them know, Hey they found it, go reward them. Would it also be beneficial for them to be out of sight from the dog completely. If they were doing something in their house for instance, and the dog is supposed to be searching in the living room, they could be like behind a door or something. And the person then said, okay, they found it. Go reward your dog. But then of course, you have to ask, well the person watching the dog is probably doing the same stuff. So we'll deal with question number one first. So should they be trying to throw these things into the search randomly or should they just be stopping themselves doing it altogether?

Michael McManus: The answer is both. They should be both a good trainer and they good handler. So a good trainer, their job is to train a dog so well that no matter how badly the handler handles, the dog still succeeds. Right? And the handle's job is the opposite of that. The handler's job is to handle so good that no matter how poorly trained the dog is, the dog still passes. Right? And so, you should be a good trainer, which is training the dog to deal with all these little signals that you give them, so that the dog ignores them. And also, don't do those things. Right? And then if you train a dog really well and you handle a dog really well, then you've got that perfect combo that takes you really far.

Dianna L. Santos: Okay. And as my previous question kind of brought up, so have you noticed in your years of doing this, that dog's key off of officials at trials?

Michael McManus: I, believe that they do. And I believe that in a lot of different ways. I think, not only do dogs key off of officials, I think handlers key off of officials, not just officials, the spectators and the volunteers and all of them. I mean, so when the sport just started it, they had to very quickly explain to photographers not to just take a bunch of photos when the dog got near the odor. That was a big clue to everyone. Right? So now the camera man is pretty good about taking pictures all the time.

But yeah, there's all sorts of micro signals. And we're really good at reading them. We don't think we are, but we are. We're really good at reading all these signals just like a dog is. So yeah. Then the other thing is, and I wondered this, I remember being a dog in white once, and I was walking up and the CO called me to the search and my dog ran up to him and sniffed his hand. And I watched my dog sniff his hand and then I went, okay, there's probably odor on his hand. And there's probably his hand scent everywhere that there's odor. And so, is the dog getting clues? How much information is my dog gathering from this one second encounter with the CO?

And I just sat there wondering that for the whole day. Just like I have no idea how much information my dog gathered from that because my intuition says it's a lot, way more than we think. So yeah, I think that that does happen. And I don't think there's any way to avoid it. I think another thing is, understand I'm saying all this stuff, I'm not pretending that it's easy or that it's even possible. I think that we can get better. And I think that dogs are really well suited to hunting for this stuff. So I think as long as you take just the minimal efforts to make yourself better. Focus on getting better, not being perfect cause that may or may not even be possible.

Dianna L. Santos: Right. And I think that's a good thing to point out. But the discussion I think can help on many levels, first, appreciating just how amazing our dogs are.

Second, realizing just how innate even our communication is. I mean, you think about if you're walking in the middle of Time Square when it's not in the middle of a pandemic, people aren't just constantly running into one another. We are constantly communicating with each other even just as humans. And also recognizing that there is a difference between what your dog is doing within a given moment, when they're doing scent work, nose work, and what you are interpreting them to be doing. And that a lot of this is us still just scratching the surface. And because we are not dogs, and we do not know exactly, Oh they sniffed in this molecule from the left nostril and they process it with this neuron. We don't know all that. So I think it's important with this discussion to have people understand the complexities of it while also, like you said, not getting them so wound up to like, Oh God, I'm never going to be able to be good again.

Was there anything you wanted to end this conversation about ethology or what people can think about? Or maybe some resources that they may be able to look into if they were interested in learning more about it?

Michael McManus: Yeah, the resources on ethology are becoming easier to come across. It's kind of gaining, it was dying for a while and now it's kind of coming back into popularity. So I'm a tutor at the Ethology Institute, Cambridge. And so if you're interested in learning more about ethology, please contact me. I'm more than happy to guide you through that. There are several great books. Raymond Coppinger released a book just before he died. What was it called? How dogs work? I think it's called. I'm going to look it up real quick as we're talking, but that's a great basic introduction to ethology, in response... Particularly about dogs.

If you get really into that and you really like ethology, there are more serious textbooks that you can read, but that's a great place to start.

Dianna L. Santos: Great. Well, thank you so much, Michael. This was a very interesting conversation and I think that it's going to really help people quite a bit. We hope that you found this episode interesting, informative and helpful. Happy training, and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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