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Dr. Ps Dog Training

Modal Theory:
Relationship between Emotional
Status and the Cognitive & Learning
abilities of Domestic Canines

by Iain Macdonald (rrenroc@bigpond.com.au)
Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved,
no reproduction of this material is permitted
without written permission from the copyright holder.


Contents:
Introduction
What is a Mode?
What is a Drive?
What is a Modal Threshold?
Prey Mode
Social Mode
Defense Mode
Modal Theory Training Applications
Summary

Introduction

The Modal theory is a theoretical framework, which seeks to explain the extent to which canine behavior, cognition, and learning are influenced by emotional status. It puts forward the concept that the emotional reactivity causes a prioritization of environmental events/information. Such a prioritization ensures the dog treats all information with regards to relevance according to its emotional status at the time. This adaptive mechanism of information processing is vital for the survival of the dog in its natural state and is a powerful tool to be used in training the domestic canine.

What is a Mode?

A mode is an operational frame of mind the dog works in. This operational frame of mind will prioritize items/events in the dog's mind relevant to the mode in which the dog is currently operating. This mode is also easily described as an emotional state of mind. A mode does not lessen the cognitive abilities of the dog; rather it prioritizes the information to assist the cognitive functioning of the dog. Modes are often termed as drives in dog training literature but this implies an instinctive/automatic reactionary process that fails to fully encompass the workings of the dogs mind whilst in this state. Such terminology also makes it very difficult to quantify between innate potential and emotional responsiveness. It is often argued in scientific circles that true instincts are very rare and can be best described as chains of behaviors that we do not yet fully understand. There are three major modes the dog works in; defense, prey and social. The primary reason for all three modes of behavior is to ensure the survival of the individual.

What is a Drive?

Frequently mentioned in this article is the term drive, this refers to the innate reactivity potential of the dog in each of the three operational modes. This does not imply that the threshold is innate, it is a learned response, but frequently high or extreme drive dogs do have a low threshold. This innate potential can be impacted upon in critical periods of the pup's development. This impact can be positive or negative. A breeder which encourages retrieval in their pups when young (early as 4 weeks) will tend to produce high drive dogs, provided that a balance is reached in this building so as not to bore the dog, whereby the impact will be negative and the dogs innate drive will be lowered. A breeder who does not encourage such activities in the dog will tend to produce dogs of lower drive.

This impact on the innate potential of the dog is again basically a survival-orientated mechanism. If the dog has inborn potential but this is not encouraged by its environment it will tend to be lost or impeded as the drive is not required, or at least not in its upper levels for the dogs survival. This is the natural adaptively of the dog coming into play. Interesting to note is that early Swedish research pointed to the fact that high prey drives or at least a high retrieval drive was indicative of a highly trainable dog. This is supported by this theory as well except it is not the fact that a dog has a high drive which makes it a trainable dog per say, rather it is the ease in which the dog can be rewarded without confusion we see as the contributing factor. Either way, highly driven dogs are certainly more easily trained than less driven counterparts.

As stated high drives can be very desirable in a training sense. Indicators of high drives are as follows:

  • Prey: retrieval, chasing, possessiveness, etc.
  • Social: strong bonding, separation anxiety, etc.
  • Defense: aggression, high reactivity to threatening stimuli, protectiveness.
It should also be noted that whilst most working competitions now are consistently won by dogs which have drives which can be described as extreme and such drives are highly desirable in top level sport and working dogs, such dogs would not make good family pets. There is a fine line between extreme drives and neurotic behaviors and as such, an extremely driven dog, which does not have outlets for its innate drives, can easily become neurotic. Extremely driven dogs have almost a pathological need to work in that mode; a fanatical retriever that will physically attack a wall to get a toy is an example. This dog would not make a good pet and most breeders would consider it has poor temperament. This is not the case, the dog has an extreme drive and needs to work in this particular mode, training can modify it but such a dog is exactly what the Customs service considers to be a good candidate. A detection dog must operate at this extreme level or it will be less effective. This dog is quite stable when given an outlet for its innate needs; in fact, it is a willing worker, which is capable of cognitive processes while working far beyond those of less driven dogs. Neurotic behaviors will occur as its innate potential is ignored and other environmental factors attempt to over modify the animals behavior causing the dog to internalize its need for outlet in the particular mode.

In the case of mature dogs drives which have appeared to be non-existent can be built on but at no time will the mature dog ever regain the maximum potential it had as a pup if it is not encouraged through its critical periods. We can teach a dog to fetch but we cannot make an extremely driven dog from him if he wasn't born that way. The handlers ability also plays a considerable role, if the handler is able to provide support for the less driven dog prior to the dog losing motivation the dog can be carried along to perform at levels which are actually higher than its innate potential. Such environmental factors make it very difficult to describe drives with any degree of accuracy and makes assessment that much more difficult.

Drives should not ever be seen as a negative part of a dog but should definitely be considered when choosing a dog. Most people are unable to successfully handle an extremely driven dog without significant professional assistance. This would be the major reason why world-class working kennels are very particular where their pups are being homed. In the wrong hands, their world-class dog becomes a public nuisance. In this example, the fault lies not with the dog but with the handlers failure to: (1) be able to handle the dog, and (2) choose a dog which suits his or her own needs and abilities. A versatile dog will not necessarily be extremely driven; in fact, extreme drive if not backed by excellent handling skills and a balanced training program will frequently work against the dog. A highly driven but balanced dog should be the aim of all kennels apart from those, which specifically specialize in producing dogs designed to work in specialized areas.

What is a Modal Threshold?

A modal threshold is the level of stimulation of the innate drive required by the dog to switch into the most appropriate mode, emotive state, so as to best react to the current situation. These thresholds or triggers are always self-regulated. As trainers, we cannot externally force a dog to adopt a particular threshold to suit our needs. However, through conditioning that involves withholding of the appropriate reward (the dogs desired behavior), we can teach the dog to regulate its own threshold to suit our needs. In scent work, we require a low prey threshold (we want the dog to switch to prey mode rapidly) but in obedience, we require a far higher threshold to maintain control during heeling (we want the dog to resist the switch to prey until it has completed exactly what it is we want). In bite work, we require different thresholds for different exercises. Guarding an object requires a far higher threshold (resist the trigger) of defense than a face attack does (rapidly trigger).

Thresholds are activated or triggered at the emotional level of the dog. Each of the three modes has a particular emotive state that will immediately switch the dog over to the most appropriate mode for the current situation. These emotional states and their triggering emotions are: defense - fear, social - security, and prey - excitement. Of particular importance when assessing the integrity of this information is to understand that during the domestication process we have altered the dog significantly from its wild ancestors by encouraging and selectively breeding for individuals which retain many infantile behaviors throughout their lifespan. This has significantly impacted upon the dog in the prey mode, as such instead of the true emotive response of hunger a state of excitement/playfulness is now the trigger.

This alteration through domestication is understandable when a person realizes that it is largely through the medium of play that a wild dog learns its hunting skills (such behaviors are not as once thought, instinctive). It would then stand to reason that if we have retained the infantile state to a large degree that the dog which has no real needs to hunt its own food would retain the infantile trigger for such a behavior throughout its life. It is also fair to say that dogs with extreme drives in the prey area will tend also to be triggered by the more traditional hunting triggers. This can lead to owners having greater degrees of difficulty in controlling such extreme drive dogs and is why such dogs should not really be considered good candidate for family pets.

Prey Mode

In prey mode the dog will give a greater priority to events which are relevant to that mode such as rapid sideways movement, the desire to chase, etc. It should be again noted that a mode does not affect the cognitive abilities of the dog; rather, it prioritizes what is happening in the dog's environment with relation to the mode it is in. A dog in prey mode will still use its cognitive abilities to think its way through events to best achieve the result it desires (i.e., the raising and lowering of the threshold or trigger for a desired behavior). A dog will voluntarily control the desire to chase a prey object until it in itself is reasonably sure that the chances of this chase being successful are relatively high. Failure to do so would impact on the viability of survival for the individual. This internal control is a learned feature based on the particular experiences of the individual in question. The classic example of this mode in the wild state is the rapid escape of a rabbit as it bursts for cover will trigger a response in the dog to chase. In a training sense, the throwing of the object is what we use to lead a dog into retrieval exercises, be they for formal training or play. This rapid movement is triggering the dog's emotional response in exactly the same way as the fleeing rabbit.

Social Mode

Social mode is the most common mode in which a dog will operate. In this mode, the emphasis is placed on the dogs pack. Dogs have an innate need to belong to a pack, domestication has not altered this requirement rather it has incorporated humans into the dogs view of its pack. All control exerted by the handler is achieved through social mode. Such control is achieved by the handler acting as a superior of the dog's own pack and making a request of a subordinate. The dog's compliance to such a request is attained by the dog acknowledging the handler's social superiority. The dog's innate need for the security of its position in a pack is the trigger for this mode.

Defense Mode

Defense mode is always responsible for aggression, unless such aggression is of psychotic nature. All forms of aggression are triggered by a fear of something; this fear need not be directly attributed to the recipient of the aggression personally. Fear can be felt if the dogs position in the pack is threatened, a member of the pack is threatened, the packs territory is threatened, etc. As fear is such a black word in the dog world, this must be heavily stressed. A dominant dog for example will switch from social to defense anytime it feels that its position in the pack is under threat. It is not necessarily scared of the transgressor more it is fearful of the loss of station. Interestingly to note is that nearly all forms of non-psychotic aggression noted by canine research derive from a switch from social mode to defense mode. The exception being predatory aggression required for the acquisition of food. However, fear is also involved here, as the dog will be fearful of not being able to eat. It could also be argued that the social concerns of the pack also play a part in this as well but as yet this still remains very unclear. With this in mind, it brings the practice of training bite work from a prey basis into question as the ideal model of education for this activity. Surely an approach from a social mode would be more relative to the dog and would give an increased aggressive response and yet improve the control level of the dog in call off exercises.

Modal Theory Training Applications

To consider the impact of this theory on how we approach the training of the dog we should consider what mode the dog must be in to comply with what we have asked of it. We then must also accept as fact that since the purpose of the mode is to priorities events relative to the dogs needs it would be impossible for the dog to operate in two modes simultaneously. As a result, we can theorize that a dog is able to rapidly switch from one mode to another and back again as is required to best priorities the situation, relative to its emotional state to obtain the highest degree of success for the activity the dog is engaged in.

An example of this would be that handler control is achieved through the social mode. A handler is using its higher position in the hierarchy to control the subordinate dog. As the required action will impact on the dogs security with in the pack (its acceptance, position, etc) the dog will switch from either prey or defense to the social mode to comply as the priority in this mode will give issues relative to the dogs security within its social system greater importance than the other two modes would. It should be noted very clearly that in this area, force could have a very negative effect. If the dog reacts through fear, he is not in social mode; he is in defense. Whilst the dog may comply out of fear of retribution, it has not necessarily accepted the higher position of the handler. This is why force is not a valid way to ensure domination of a dog.

A practical example of a switch to social mode triggered by issues of security is the call off from attack. A dog chasing a fleeing decoy is in prey mode as it nears the decoy it switches to defense mode to attack, when the handler calls it off it must switch back to social mode to comply with the wishes of its superior for the same reasons stated above. Fear of the handler has nothing to do with it and could not be used to obtain the result at best what you would get would be a dog which will bite and then let go only if the handler was close enough to intervene. This again is not the dog acknowledging a higher authority rather the dog giving way to superior force (avoidance).

Prey mode is responsible for play in the domesticated dog for reasons explained above. All play regardless of which mode the participants were in initially is carried out in prey mode. In play within a social setting, the play bow and other actions elicit a prey response from the recipient. There is also some research currently underway which suggests that the production of hormones also have a part to play through the sense of smell. These actions trigger the emotive response so that the recipient is able to undertake the correct behavioral response. Failure to respond to such a trigger could engage the defense trigger and a fight would result. This mode is the primary mode within which we will reward our dogs for correct completion of exercises, as the dog cannot feel anxiety whilst in this mode. Prey mode is still also triggered by food. This is the last remnant of true prey mode left from the domestication process. For some individuals this part of prey is a lot stronger than the desire to chase. I'd still speculate however, given that our dogs are well fed, that the enjoyment from food used in training is still based on the excitement of the dog pleasing the pack leader and as such still constitutes a modified play behavior. By switching our dogs to prey mode at the completion of an exercise we are clearly displaying to the dogs that we are happy with them. This lack of confusion is why dogs trained in this manner are a lot happier in their work and have improved handler bonds over the more institutionalized systems.

It is also important to note is that whilst a dog can only operate in a single mode at a time, the influences on a dog in one mode can effect the threshold of another mode. This does not imply that one mode or another is consistently more important to the dog, rather that a dog controls the thresholds of each mode to suit the individual circumstances it is currently in. In obedience heeling exercises, we use the social mode to increase the threshold of triggering the prey response. This allows us to hold the dogs focus on the task at hand until we release it at the completion of the desired exercise. If a prey object such as a retrieval toy is used as the motivator for the dog to respond we use the social mode, that is our position with relation to the dog in the hierarchy to stop the dog from switching to prey mode until we release the dog by throwing the article for it. In such circumstances, the dog must raise the threshold to achieve the results desired by a superior before being able to switch over to prey mode and play with the prey object the way it desires. This is copying the method used by pack superiors in wolf packs to hold younger, lower ranked dogs from spoiling a planned stalk.

This is as close to setting the thresholds as we can come, but it is still a judgment call from the dog, which actually sets the threshold. We show our disappointment if they get it wrong by withholding the reward and making the dog go through the exercise again. This way the dog soon learns to wait until it is allowed to switch, this is true control. We have all seen dogs that have low thresholds unable to complete the scenario given. The handler is unable to switch the dog to social mode where by he can control the dog. In such cases, the handler must look to ways in which he can maintain the dog in social mode when the prey object is in sight. This is achieved very gradually by withholding the reward from the dog until he has remained in social mode for gradually increasing periods of time. The dog learns to heighten its threshold or the reward will not be made available. This principal is identical to that of a wild dog attempting to elicit play with a superior of the pack, it must observe all the correct social forms so as not to infer a challenge to the superior and evoke a corrective response from him.

This also highlights why punishment of a forceful nature is ineffective in dealing with many canine behavioral problems. The dog in social mode is under our effective control, or at least is in the correct mode for us to obtain effective control. If we generate fear in the dog, subject to the dog's threshold at that point, we risk a defense reaction. If the dog is in prey or social modes and it has a low threshold for defense any incidence of fear being felt by the dog can result in a defense, read aggressive, response. We as handlers have caused this situation; it is not necessarily the fault of the dog. We have been unable to effectively communicate our desires to the dog in a non-threatening manner. If trainers persistently facing this problem were to use the prey mode as a reward for concentration of the dog in the social mode, the withholding of such a reward is more than enough punishment and more importantly is effectively communicated to the dog.

In extreme circumstance, the ultimate punishment is to banish the dog from the packs security. No dog is truly comfortable when it is in complete isolation from its peers, be they human or dog. This measure conveys unambiguously to the dog that its behavior will not be tolerated and if it continues its presence is not wanted. The dog's innate need for security is how we should control our dog, using the social mode reinforced by the medium of prey play as a reward for correct behavior. This is easily understood by the dog and limits the chances of defense modal reactions. This approach directly mimics the approach used by our dog's wild ancestors and a result it is readily understood.

It should also thus be apparent that any move towards correction can only be achieved successfully after the dog has switched to social mode. This is vitally important when the dog is in defense mode, as punishment applied to a dog, which remains in this mode, will most likely lead to greater aggression being shown. If the dog submits it has not necessarily moved back to social mode, it may simply choose to avoid the confrontation by acting submissive and yet remain firmly in defense mode. The dogs action immediately after will largely demonstrate which mode it is in and if the punishment has been understood and accepted. An example is that a wolf may submit to a bear to avoid a confrontation, this does not imply to the wolf that the bear is its superior, rather it is simply bigger and stronger. Handlers using force to obtain results from their dogs are simple creating the same scenario; the dog avoids a confrontation by acting submissive it has not acknowledged the handler's superiority. Dogs in prey/defense modes when corrected need to understand that it is an issue effecting their security within the pack, if they fail to understand this and feel fear they can also move to/remain in defense mode and aggression can result. If a dog is consistently failing to obey the commands of the handler, it is directly attributable to how the dog views the handler in relation to its social position. Force will not necessarily improve the handlers position but a demonstration of the power the handler has to control the dog, such as banishment, will. Remember that in a wild pack if the pack leader only had physical force or aggression as its means of controlling subordinates the whole pack would as a result of the fighting be unfit to hunt, end result death to the pack. Posturing and withholding of clearly understood rewards is how control is achieved. We as trainers need to mimic this not compete against it.

Summary

Modal theory allows dog trainers to use the emotional reactivity of the dog to effectively educate the dog in a manner that is clearly understood. The succinct way in which information is presented to the dog and the handlers ability to manipulate the dogs emotional reactivity to insure that the dog is in the best state of mind emotionally to receive and process this information increases the likelihood of the dog being effectively taught. This theory also insures that the rewards system required for operant conditioning to be effective is also clear and uncomplicated. This too in an operant conditioning framework increases the likelihood of desired behaviors becoming permanent.


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