Autistic dogs: teaching instinctual communication?

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One of the key examples in Ruth Millikan's influential 1984 book Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories was the "canid play bow". This piece of doggie-language, exemplified in the photo on the right, is "a highly ritualized and stereotyped movement that seems to function to stimulate recipients to engage (or to continue to engage) in social play."

I mentioned it in a LL post a few years ago, quoting from Marc Bekoff and Colin Allen, "Intentional Communication and Social Play: How and Why Animals Negotiate and Agree to Play":

From the intentional stance, if a believes that b believes that a desires to play (third-order) it would seem that ideal rationality would also require that a believes that b has a belief (second-order). But from a Millikanian perspective this more general second-order belief, if it requires a to have a general belief detector, may actually be more sophisticated than the third-order belief which supposedly entails it. A general belief detector may be much more difficult to evolve than a specific belief detector, for the detection of specific beliefs may be accomplished by the detection of correspondingly specific cues.

If this is correct, then on Millikan's account Jethro (Marc's dog) may be capable of the third-order belief that (or, at least, a state with the intentional content that) Sukie (Jethro's favorite canid play pal) wants Jethro to believe that her bite was playful not aggressive, even though Jethro is perhaps limited in his ability to represent and hence think about Sukie's second-order desires in general.

And according to Marc Bekoff, "Play signals as punctuation: The structure of social play in canids", Behaviour 132:419-429, 1995, the sequence patterns of bows with other actions, observed in a study of young wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs, suggests that for canids in general,

signals such as the bow can reinforce ongoing social play when it is possible that it could be disrupted due to the aggressive, predatory, or sexual behavior of one of the interacting animals. […] Play in canids (and in other animals) requires a mutual sharing of the play mood by the participants. This sharing can be facilitated by the performance of bows immediately before or immediately after an individual performs actions that can be misinterpreted […]

(I'm adding "sharing of the play mood" to the list of inadequately investigated phenomena headed by "group glee"…  Why, amid all the thousands of flowers in the gardens of academia, are there no departments of Play Mood Studies?)

Bekoff concludes that

In addition to sending the message "I want to play" when they are performed at the beginning of play, bows performed in a different context, namely during social play, might also carry the message "I want to play despite what I am going to do or just did — I still want to play" when there might be a problem in the sharing of this information between the interacting animals.

Bekoff speculates:

How might information between sender and recipient be shared? It is possible that the recipient shares the intentions (beliefs, desires) of the sender based on the recipient's own prior experiences of situations in which she performed bows. In an important paper on human behavior that has yet to find its way into comparative ethological circles, Gopnik (1993, p. 275) has argued that " . . . certain kinds of information that comes, literally, from inside ourselves is coded in the same way as information that comes observing the behavior of others. There is a fundamental cross-modal representational system that connects self and other." Gopnik claims that others' body movements are mapped onto one's own kinesthetic sensations, based on prior experience of the observer, and she supports her claims with discussions of imitation in human newborns.

[The reference is to A Gopnik, "Psychopsychology", Consciousness and Cognition 2(4): 264-280, 1993.]

Against this background, I was interested and slightly puzzled to read this blog post by a dog trainer, Kelley Filson, "The Play-Bow: Not Just A Cute Trick", 7/14/2009:

Many of my clients dogs have a hard time playing with and interacting with other dogs. These dogs often play well with well-known, "buddy-dogs" and demonstrates good play-skills in comfortable situations, but do poorly with new dogs or in new places.

With work the dog can learn to meet and greet the novel dogs without being inappropriate, but there is often no play. In these cases the dog-in-training often starts getting jumped by the other dogs (in a not so friendly way). This happens after the Meet-&-Greet, because the dog-in-training sniffs a hello and then just stands there stiffly. This is awkward and invites aggressiion – a sort of preemptive strike against the dog who is standing stiffly and giving everyone the willies.

In these cases teaching a PLAY-BOW can bridge the gap between meeting and becoming friends. It gives the dog-in-training something to do (besides standing awkwardly). Furthermore, despite its trained-awkwardness it gives the other dogs something to do too – they can respond with more playfulness.

"Teaching a PLAY-BOW"? Why do some dogs need to be trained to produce this instinctual signal?

The most likely explanation, I guess, is that they know how to perform it, but not when to perform it. In particular, initiating or maintaining play with unfamiliar adults is perhaps not a natural reaction, except for animals in whom the behavioral effects of neoteny are especially strong.  Or maybe animals that are mostly "only dogs", raised without much conspecific company, are inadequately drilled in the "fundamental cross-modal representational system that connects self and other"?

In any case, dogs are not the only ones who sometimes need help with this sort of thing.  Unfortunately, not all forms of communicative training are equally effective: see, for example,  M.E. Herron et al., "Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors", Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117:47-54, 2009.


  1. Chris said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    Why do some dogs need to be trained to produce this instinctual signal?

    How do you know it's instinctual? Humans used to be accustomed to take for granted that we are the only cultural species but I think this has been pretty thoroughly exploded, at least in primates. So why not canids? Maybe human-associated canids have developed the play-bow as a *cultural* convention, which dogs not raised with it obviously don't have.

    Of course, this all goes out the window if wolves do it too, but otherwise I don't see why we should jump to the conclusion of instinct.

    [(myl) That was my first reaction when I read Filson's blog post — for example, the canid play-bow might be a bit like the learned types of birdsong, which are species-typical, but require some early exposure to adult models to develop properly. Or it might be like vervet alarm-calls, which are apparently innate in some general sense, but require training to be used properly (e.g. so as not to use the "eagle alarm" for storks).

    The cited paper by Bekoff describes the use of this gesture by young wolves and coyotes as well as dogs, but that doesn't itself settle the question. A rigorous demonstration of innateness would involve (say) finding that dogs raised without the company of other dogs still used and understood play bows when given the chance to demonstrate this knowledge.

    Someone may have tried such an experiment, I don't know. It seems very likely that this signal is indeed innate in some sense, but apparently at least some tuning is required for its appropriate use in the circumstances of modern urban pethood.]

  2. Marjorie said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    Chris: Wolves do it too.

  3. Thomas Westgard said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    Why, amid all the thousands of flowers in the gardens of academia, are there no departments of Play Mood Studies?

    I would guess that the instant an academic researcher shows up with a clipboard, Play Mood comes to a screeching halt.

    [(myl) Not necessarily so.

    Seriously, social scientists have a century of experience in mitigating the Observer's Paradox.]

  4. Robert said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    It needn't necessarily be so that they're "autistic". They might just be shy and in need of prompting.

    [(myl) But couldn't you say the same for many humans on the "autistic spectrum"?]

  5. Chris said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    Hmm – in that light, "This [the behavior of the autistic dog] is awkward and invites aggression" seems a lot like victim-blaming, considering the "autistic" dog is just standing there minding its own business (also a lot like the autistic human). The autistic dog may be wary of strange dogs, but it also looks like it has good reason to be.

    If you don't assume that there is one right dog psychology and that the deviant dog must be to blame, the phenomenon of the autistic dog being attacked by its neurotypical peers looks quite different, and the idea that it's the autistic dog that needs to be retrained to behave differently seems a little dubious to me.

    Furthermore, this leads me to a new interpretation of Gopnik's claim that "certain kinds of information that comes, literally, from inside ourselves is coded in the same way as information that comes observing the behavior of others. There is a fundamental cross-modal representational system that connects self and other." The method Gopnik describes only works if the self and the other are using the same nonverbal language — otherwise it ascribes the *wrong* emotions to the other. Regardless of what species you are, this is likely to lead to trouble.

    It seems unlikely that dogs could be taught to recognize and respect those different from themselves in unexpected ways, but perhaps we ought to have higher expectations for humans.

  6. Rubrick said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    I imagine that in teaching the play-bow it's very important to emphasize doing it while facing towards the other dog, rather than away.

  7. Peter T said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    Maybe it's not just one canid expectation in play (so to speak) here. Dogs have a wide range of personalities, so maybe the dogs-in-training are just socially awkward. But dogs do have a very keen sense of heirarchy, and an accompanying limited tolerance for inappropriate behaviour in other adult dogs. So awkwardness is a greater handicap for dogs than for humans. Both parties are using the same non verbal language – just some don't use it well, and others are quick to correct their grammar.

  8. Chris said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    But dogs do have a very keen sense of heirarchy, and an accompanying limited tolerance for inappropriate behaviour in other adult dogs. So awkwardness is a greater handicap for dogs than for humans.

    Since the first sentence applies equally well to humans, I don't think that conclusion follows. The difference is that dogs haven't invented some of humans' tools for *really serious* hierarchy enforcement, like the noose or the burning cross. (Since they have a play signal, I wonder if they've invented the technique of performing a real attack, then faking a play-signal to deflect responsibility, a gestural version of "Geez, I was just kidding, what's the matter with you"?)

    I'm not sure if dog's inhumanity to dog is a problem we can solve, or even should try, but there are more points of view available than "this awkward-behaving dog must be at fault for the resulting, er, dogpile". Humans certainly can change some canine behaviors and there's no a priori reason to think that the use of violence to enforce hierarchy might not be one of them.

  9. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    The play-bow instinct, like the example of bird-song mentioned, may require exposure at a critical period to integrate into the canid's repertoire naturally. Yet it may also be that the full instinct is based on many components, some of which are falling out of various canid lines because they are not used. Dachshunds, for example, retain the instinct to chase and bring down birds, then just let them up. (I have heard this is true of other breeds – I can't verify that.)

    Such an interruption at one link in the chain would explain why reinserting the behavior is relatively easy.

  10. Peter T said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    When humans have strict heirarchies, they need continuous enforcement (not just nooses, but also rituals, clothes, paint etc) to maintain them. I'd put the view that, comparatively, we are much less heirarchical than dogs – and also most apes (and see Robert Sapolsky's Memoirs of a Primate for how seriously baboons take heirarchy). In my experience, discouraging dogs from being nasty to misfits is much harder than it is with children.

    The linguistic relevance is that a lot of language is not about communication per se, but about building/sharing enough commonality of world-view to be able to cooperate – which we do (comparatively) much more closely than any other mammal. Dogs seem to do this more directly, mostly with growls and nips.

  11. arc said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    I agree with your sentiments and I also agree that it may be possible to retrain dogs to be more tolerant. However, while this means we don't need to see particular dogs as being 'deviant' (=bad) or 'wrong', if you happen to own a dog that is a bit socially awkward, the fact that all other dogs could potentially be retrained to accept it anyway doesn't offer a useful strategy for you and your dog, as you're not in a position to have every other dog retrained, and other dog owners are unlikely to be that interested in expending much effort retraining their dogs to accomodate yours. After all, while perhaps everyone could agree that no dog is wrong or bad, the fact remains it's not going to adversely affect other dog owners that much if you and your dog can't come out to play, whereas it will adversely affect you and your dog.

    Whereas if it's possible with a bit of effort to retrain just your dog, then you and your dog can potentially have a lot more fun when out in the dog park, avoid socially awkward situations, and so forth – in other words, this does provide a path you can actually persue.

    That's the kind of position I take Filson to have – I don't read that blog excerpt as blaming anyone or any dog, or pursuing making them 'normal' as though it were a desirable goal in and of itself. Rather it's Just offering a practical path to making life for some dogs and dog-owners a bit better.

    Now, I certainly believe that humans could become a lot more tolerant of differences, and that would be wonderful. I also think we have, as a society, become a lot more tolerant in the last 50 years. Homosexuality is an excellent case in point, but I can see attitudes shifting with regard to mental illness and conditions like deafness, too. But that aside, a similar point remains: being different in some way from your fellows doesn't burden them much, they can just shun you, and as an individual you have little control over their personal development. Whereas usually it is possible with a bit of effort and help to learn some coping strategies that will make your social interfacing much easier. Again, there needn't be any notion of normal=good, deviant=bad here, just who's going to be prepared to make the effort to do what.

  12. parlance said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 8:47 am

    I wonder if all breeds of dogs "meet and greet' in a similar way. When my dog meets breeds that typically stand stiff-legged and tall, tails held high, she is frightened, though she is well-socialized and usually confident. I'm thinking of the Alaskan Malamute in particular.

    The other communication breakdown I've noticed is when dogs have had their tails docked and can't use them for the subtle signals they need to give.

  13. Floppy-eared-and-proud-of-it said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    parlance–it's not that dogs of different breeds meet and greet differently. Rather, dogs vary in the range of *visible* body language expressions depending on their body shapes, but only because it is harder to see the signs in some dogs than others. Dogs with extremely heavy, floppy ears, such as Basset Hounds, might be harder for us humans to read (and also for some dogs) because their ears do not move as expressively as those of Malamutes and other pointy-eared dogs. If you look for the signs, however, you'll see them. The base of the ear rotates forward when the dog is alert or tense the same way, whether it is a hound or a northern breed. Huskies and other similar-looking dogs sometimes run into problems with other dogs precisely because they look so dominant in their default relaxed postures–ears up, tail up.

    As for "teaching" dogs the play bow, I suspect it only works for dogs that were never properly socialized around other dogs when they were younger–as opposed to dogs that become more cautious of novel situations as they mature socially. My own dog used to be friendly and playful toward any new dog, but now only bows to select novel individuals. When the dog stands stiffly after an initial greeting, it is not a sign of "social awkwardness." Other dogs often retreat from a stiff-postured animal because the body language signals that the dog is not in any mood to play. It may even indicate that an attack is imminent. Dogs play when they are in the mood and get other dogs to buzz off when they are not in the mood.

    To draw a parallel with human communication, should we assume that a person is autistic just because she refuses to respond to a homeless man heckling her on the street? Or is it that an intentional choice to not communicate has been made?

  14. John Swindle said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    It's fine for humans to teach doggie gestures to dogs. I'm surprised to find no discussion here about teaching them to humans. What are the critical elements of the canid play bow as performed by humans? After I get down on four legs, do I even have to do the bow, or is the intent to play already clear? Maybe with aloof city dogs it'd be a good idea actually to do the bow?

  15. mand said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    I'd like to know how on earth you teach the play-bow to a dog.

    [(myl) Follow the link in the post — it gives step-by-step instructions.]

    Seriously, it would help me to know. I have a dog who can be shy with new friends. she isn't very 'forthcoming' – especially with little dogs, who i think tickle her tummy sometimes, during the sniffing meet-n-greet. (She is ticklish – i hadn't known dogs could be but this one is!) This even when she is excited and keen to make friends; she is really happy to play with any dog (or any human) that will. :0)

    I was a dog-ownership virgin until last April when we got our beloved (aagh, that sounds naff), who was then 5½.

  16. mand said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    I missed that link! At least – i didn't follow it, imagining it would only explain what you were summarising anyway. Thank you!

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    November 20, 2009 @ 3:00 am

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