More than training—My view

Communication is the transmission of information from one individual to another, which is designed to influence the behaviour of the receiver. In a simple communication system, a source encodes and transmits a signal, which is detected by a receiver, and decoded into meaningful terms. The effectiveness of animal signals is influenced by the physical environment, the nature of the receiver, and the influence of other signallers. Different sensory modalities are best suited to different habitats. Much depends, therefore, upon the physical nature of the habitat (McFarland, 2006) 

Animal signals are “behavioural, physiological, or morphological characteristics fashioned or maintained by natural selection because they convey information to the other organisms” (Otte, 1974, p.385).

In the complexity of human language, the prototypic units are specific sounds, sound categories, and sound combinations. But, certain human languages consist of gestural units rather than phonological units, and it is sufficiently flexible to permit other types of units as well. 

Phonetic syntax exists in animal languages (Cleveland & Snowdon, 1982), but compared with the human phonological system than the human syntactic system. Lexical syntax has also been observed in natural animal languages (Cleveland & Snowdon, 1982; Robinson, 1984), albeit in a much more limited sense than in human languages. 

So, we can conclude the need for communicating clearly and precisely in interspecific communications.

The Basic Teaching Principles

Before continuing, let me state that I’m not evaluating or judging the working methods of any professional. We are free to decide which kind of relationship we want to create with the other species. My approach is not better or worst than any other. My actual work is the result of almost two decades of practical experience with regular updates based on my scientific and empirical knowledge and my technical and ethical limits. My mentors taught me, and now I talk to my students and colleagues, that we are permanent students, that we should always look for more with critical thinking and the humility that we will never know everything.

It all starts with the terms and signals we use. We need to scientifically define them, according with some behavior modification principles:

  • Signal: “A signal is everything that intentionally causes a change in the behavior of the receiver” (Abrantes, 2013). “A signal is defined as a character which has involved in order to transmit information to other individuals” (Zahavi 1987, p.306). To communicate with other species, we use signals.
  • Cue: A cue is everything that unintentionally causes a change in the behavior of the receiver (Abrantes, 2013).
  • Command: A command is a signal that changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variation or only extremely minor variations (Abrantes 2013).
  • All signals have a meaning and a form.
  • We classify the signals in a scale from Good to Bad, depending on its efficiency, clarity, intensity, form and unequivocal understanding of the receiver, regardless of the environment.
  • A signal will cause a behavior, ergo:

A signal => A behavior.

  • All behavior has a consequence, ergo:

A signal => A behavior => A consequence

  • The consequences will define the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Reinforcers and inhibitors are used for.
  • Reinforcer: A reinforcer is anything that increases the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of a particular behavior, when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior takes place.

Note: The correct term is reinforcer, not reward: “The strengthening effect is missed, by the way, when reinforcers are called rewards. People are rewarded, but behavior is reinforced. If, as you walk along the street, you look down and find some money, and if money is reinforcing, you will tend to look down again for some time, but we should not say that you were rewarded for looking down. As the history of the word shows, reward implies compensation, something that offsets a sacrifice or loss, if only the expenditure of effort. We give heroes medals, students degrees, and famous people prizes, but those rewards are not directly contingent on what they have done, and it is generally felt that the rewards would not be deserved if they had been worked for.” (Skinner, 1986, p. 569).

Note 2: I have heard some claims about the neuroscience perspective, that writes about “reward learning”. Although we all have the right to choose how we want to approach the subject, it is important to know that when we are modifying behaviors, we are using “behaviourism” that is not only limited to Skinner, not neuroscience. If so, please have the kindness to send me which neuroscience techniques are used for it.

  • Inhibitor: An inhibitor is anything that decreases the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of a particular behavior, when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior takes place.

Note: Resulting from all his linguistic experience throughout the world, Dr. Roger Abrantes (2013) suggested the use of the word “inhibitor” rather than “punishment” in his book “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Should Know”. When translated directly from the English to the other languages, especially Latin languages, “punishment” also has religious connotations.

Note 2: This can sounds a bit of contradiction with the rewards/reinforcer term. Not exactly. As latin language origin speaker, I understand and agree with the “inhibitor” term, since “punishment” has a punitive/aggressive meaning, and some religious connotation when translated. Inhibitors not. They are described in behaviorism (e.g: Pavlovian Conditioned Inhibition) with a similar meaning as “punishment” in Skinnerian view. The same doesn’t happen with “reinforcer” and “reward” when translated.

  • Reinforcers and inhibitors are conditionals, which means, they are always subjected to three distinct conditions: (1) the individual, (2) the behaviour, (3) the moment.
  • There are four ways to increase an aspect of a behavior: (1) reinforce the behavior, (2) do not inhibit the behavior, (3) create opportunities to show the behavior, (4) do not reinforce a behavior that is incompatible with behavior you want.
  • There are four ways to decrease an aspect of a behavior: (1) inhibit the behavior, (2) do not reinforce the behavior (extinction), (3) prevent opportunities to show the behavior (forgetting), (4) reinforce a behavior that is incompatible with the behavior you want.
  • An aversive causes avoidance of something, a situation or behavior through the use of an unpleasant stimulus. Therefore, any kind of material or technique can be aversive as long as it causes discomfort or avoidance to the individual.
  • Note: I defend that all training based on fear or intimidation, should be considered, by definition, “coercive training” or “coercive behavior (from the trainer)” rather than “aversive.”

    By definition, all animal trainers use reinforcers and inhibitors and aversives, since we cannot control 100% the environment and it is the receptor (dog, horse, etc.) that will say if the consequence is a reinforcer or inhibitor in the present conditions. A training based on 100% reinforcements or 100% inhibitors is something technically impossible, biologically unnatural (relation of the costs x benefits of the organisms and ESS) and a mistake to all who believe it and can make with it slogans, marketing campaigns or using argumentum ad verecundiam. That’s a fact that all behavioural science students know, even if they don’t admit it or using other words to describe it. But that’s not the question here. The subject here it’s about choices and how we want to have a relationship with (our own and) other species. The way I communicate with other species, I will show below. This way, it is my choice.

    Note: You can read this my article about materials and training techniques. Click here.

    More than training—The bird song

    Teaching other species with the necessary sound signals (when/if applicable), is an enjoyable and peaceful way to communicate.

    Example of how everyone respect the silence in our external activities with dog owners. Video from the author.

    More than training—Lead respect

    • I use the lead as a communication link, where I try to transmit all information with minimal pressure possible.
    • Body language has an important key role for the other species naturally follow us.
    • Whenever we move, the lead moves rhythmically without pressure (with a smile). When we stop, the lead touches the ground.
    • Teaching this natural way requires patience and self-control.
    • The lead is not natural for dogs.
    • We must respect both sides of the lead, and that is why we should use a lead that allows a free movement without pressure (at least 1,70m length).
    • We move forward, back and forth with no quick movements, we should give the opportunity to the other species decide and follow us naturally, which is why our body language is so important.
    • Inevitably, some pressure can happen. We should deal with it in a kind way, and solve the problem efficiently according with the situation, without creating a harmful situation.
    In this video, I show one example of “problem solving” with the lead. We don’t help, but we don’t make it hard to the dog. On the sequence, this is my way to walk on lead and giving some (possible) freedom to the dog in a street, without pulling or making pressure. I also use the signals Yes-No (please, see in the topics below the meaning of these signals (not consequences)) to cross the street. Video from the author.

    More than training—Communication

    •  It is my opinion that we should practice a mutuality communication, that is, a communication where the sender and receiver benefit from the interaction.
    • I also believe that communication must be something natural and individual, without any tool between.
    • Interspecific communication, whatever it may be, will always require self-control and sometimes reflection because the language translate emotional states.
    • Sometimes there are humans and nonhumans incompatible for a relationship and for communication, we need to keep in mind that we are not always able to communicate and we should not impose the communication and relationship as we want and whenever we want.
    • Interspecific communication creates a bond.
    • Bonding in animal behavior is a biological process in which individuals of the same or different species develop a connection. The function of bonding is to promote cooperation (Abrantes, 2015).
    • Looking into one another’s eyes is only bonding for a while, but surviving together may be bonding for life—and this applies to all social animals, dogs and humans included.

    Why are facial expressions important?

    Dogs Detect Human Emotions In Our Faces

    Dogs detect emotions in our facial expressions, I wrote in my first book in 1984. 23 years later, Dr. Kin Guo and his team vindicated my words in a proper scientific way. Watch this movie. Now, you know it: you can't lie to your dog!

    Posted by Roger Abrantes on Thursday, 16 December 2010

    More than training—Mutual respect and feedback

    Dr. Roger Abrantes (2015) in is book “Animal Training, My Way” consider that a relationship must be based on mutual respect independently of who is in it. Interacting with social species, allow us to create a bonding. Bonding in animal behavior is a biological process in which individuals of the same or different species develop a connection. The function of bonding is to facilitate co-operation (Abrantes, 2015). 

    Abrantes (2015) also refer we need to understand the other species and feeling a certain empathy with him. He describes emotional empathy as “the capacity to respond with an appropriate sentiment to someone’s psychological states” and cognitive empathy as “the capacity to understand someone’s perspective or feelings”. 

    Feedback exists between two variables whenever each affects the other. Positive feedback exists when the value of y tends to increase the value of x, which in turn increases the value of y. 

    Positive feedback systems are inherently unstable, but they can have certain advantages in complex systems containing built-in constraints. 

    Negative feedback systems are characterized by the situation where the value of x is diminished as the value of y increases. The consequence is that the value of y therefore decreases. 

    The value of y is then said to be under negative feedback control. Such negative feedback systems are common in the control of animal behaviour. 

    Movement & Motivation System (Barata, 2008)

    I have an empirical approach about movement and motivation in animal training to be published in 2020. Bellow, I’ll give you a general idea of what I’ve been working (and still working) in the last 11 years about it.

    • Movement is the act of changing place or position of the whole body or by one or more of its parts. Movement is one of the characteristics of living organisms. Every kind of movement catches our attention, especially unexpected movements of another individual or object. 
    • Motivation are all factors that cause an organism to behave or act in an objective or satisfactory way.
    • Motivation can be influenced by physiological drives (hunger, thirst, need for oxygen, sleep and rest, avoidance of pain, control of elimination, sexual desire and heat and cold) or by external stimuli. 

    My observations and practical analysis suggest that this system, if correctly applied to the individual, creates a natural balance in communication during the training in order to receive the desired behaviors, and to prevent the undesirable behaviors provided by the factors that can be influenced at the moment; It increases the attention of the human to all present stimuli, increasing the probability of avoiding/preventing them; and it can be implemented together with other learning techniques (e.g social/asocial observational learning).

    Some factors that influencing M&M system

    • Environmental cues: All stimuli that can affect the concentration of the participants at the moment.
    • Animal economic: All the physiological and emotional factors at the moment that can affect the performance of the participants, including attention, decision-making, demand functions, motor-coordination, behavioral resilience (behavioral resilience: dealing with stress, adaptation, and the situation itself), game theory (situations where players choose different actions in an attempt to maximize their returns) and previous learning.
    • Human incompatibility: Inadequate training techniques or non-adaptation due to individual and/or environmental conditions at the time due to their emotional state and/or training procedures.

    Animal trainers questions

    I have a view that we should not “training” just because yes. So, I always use these three questions before spending the time and energy of myself and the other species.

    • What do I need to teach? (Which are the individual needs?)
    • Why do I need to teach it? (Does the individual really need it and it worth spending the time and energy of both?)
    • How do I teach it? (Do I have all tools and knowledge to do it?)

    Skills teaching programming 

    Dr. Roger Abrantes (1993) has created a training language called SMAF, an acronym to Signal, Meaning And Form. SMAF is a language to describe learning with all its components, its objective to enable us to plan our session with the highest possible degree of precision and to analyze the expected and observed results, regardless the species. SMAF defines and transcribes terms and processes (e.g reinforcers and inhibitors, reinforcement schedules, etc…). 

    Below, I will illustrate the most common signals we use to teach a dog with their meaning and form.

    To simplify, I will write a single line with:

    The skill to teach => The meaning of the signal => The form of the signal.

    • Sit(Skill) => Put your bottom on the ground AND keep it there until you receive another signal(Meaning) => Sit,sound + Sit,hand(Form)
    • Down(Skill) => Put your belly on the ground AND keep it there until you receive another signal(Meaning) => Down,sound + Down,hand(Form)
    • Stand(Skill) => Put the four paws on the floor with the legs in vertical position AND remain them there until you receive another signal(Meaning) => Stand,sound + Stand,body(Form)
    • Yes(Skill) => Continue(Meaning) => Yes,sound(Form)
    • No(Skill) => Stop(Meaning) => No,sound(Form)
    • Free => No more behavior will be reinforced(Meaning) => Free,sound + Free,body

    Note: I do not use the “stay” (or “wait”) signal. My ethological background and practical experience made me question how a “do nothing” concept can be understood by other species (or even by our)? In my opinion, reinforcing the increase of the duration of a given signal, like “sit,” seems to be a clear and the easiest way to teach the “stay,” which is already included in the signal. The “wait” signal can easily be taught with the “yes-no” skill.

    Practical examples

    Sit, Down, Stand. I’m teaching this dog for the first time (first session). First, I reinforce the duration of the behavior. After, I progressively reinforce the distance without any other auxiliary signal (see above the meaning of “sit”). In this video, I’m using a continuous reinforcement schedule (as planned in my P.O.A (Plan Of Action)).

    Practical SMAF Skills

    Praktiske færdigheder forklaret i SMAF__________Practical Skills Explained in SMAF#etologi #etologia #robertobarata #SMAF #ethologyinstitute #dogcommunication #hundetræning

    Posted by on Thursday, 9 March 2017
    Basic skills in real environment and daily practical applications.
    A quick example how I teach the owners and show to them how to communicate. In this case, we are increasing the duration of “Sit.”

    Posted by on Friday, 9 February 2018
    Basic teaching skills with cats

    Posted by on Friday, 9 February 2018
    General interaction and skills with horses

    When nothing works

    As I wrote above, we are permanent students. Sometimes, everything we are doing simply doesn’t work. It happens sometimes. I always tell to my students, colleagues and dog owners that, when it happens, we should stop. The silence, observation, and thinking are the best teachers in that moment (image below).

    This is what I say to all students, trainers and dog owners over these years when things are not working. Stop for a while. Observe and think how we can improve the communication. Photo by Tilde Detz-Jensen,

    I suggest the article below from Dr. Abrantes, with an interesting perspective about the subject.

    In conclusion, it much more than training, just enjoy every moment with your dog, cat, horse, guinea pig, etc.

    Horses: More than training

    Instruction moment from the International Animal Training Camp.

    Posted by on Thursday, 26 July 2018
    It is more than training: Kindness, Trust and Understanding. .


    Abrantes. R. 2013. The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

    Abrantes. R. 2015. Animal Training My Way—Merging Ethology and Behaviorism. Wakan Tanka Publishers.BARATA, R. (2016). ABCD System.

    Barata, R. (2008). Movement and Motivation System in Dog Training—An Empirical Approach. Personal Portfolio (Expected to be published in 2020).

    Barata, R. (2009). Reward or Reinforce? vs Punish or Inhibit?. Personal portfolio (unpublished).

    Barata, R. (2009). Training tools and Fashionism. Personal portfolio (unpublished).

    Barata, R. (2010). Lead Respect. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).

    Barata, R. (2014). To stay, or not to stay?- that is the question. Personal portfolio (unpublished).

    Barata, R. (2014). Animal Training and Pseudoscience—critical reasoning. Personal portfolio (unpublished).

    Barata, R. (2016). Signals precision in animal Training. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).

    Batenson, P. (2017). Behaviour, Development and Evolution. Openbook Publishers.

    Cleveland, J., & Snowdon, C. (1982). The complex vocal repertoire of the adult cotton-top tamarin (Sanguinus oedipus oedipus). Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 58, 231-270.

    McFarland, D. (2006). A Dictionary of Animal Behaviour. Oxford University Press. 

    Otte, D. (1974). Otte, D. (1974). Effects and function in the evolution of signaling systems. Annual Review of Ecological Systematics, 5, 385-417.

    Robinson, J. (1984). Syntactic structures in the vocalizations of wedge-capped capuchin monkeys (Cebus olivaceus). Behaviour, 90, 46-79.

    Skinner, B. F. 1986. What is wrong with daily life in the Western world? American Psychologist, 41(5), 568-574. Retrieved Jun. 29, 2019.

    Watson, J.C., Arp, Robert. (2015). Critical Thinking—an introduction to reasoning well. Bloomsbury Academic

    Zahavi, A. (1987). The theory of signal selection and some of its implications. In U. P. Delfino, ed., International Symposium on Biology and Evolution. Bari: Adriatica Editrice, pp. 294-327.