Polite and Pushy Deer

Nara deer beg for handouts outside a shop on S...

Nara deer beg for handouts outside a shop on Sanjo Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday my friend Mark sent me a page about polite and, hmm, less polite deer in Japan. And of course (as he suspected would happen) my little behavior brain took over, and we have here not only a great example of deer learning to work a system of tourists, but how we unintentionally create behaviors both cute and dangerous in our pets.

Visitors to Nara can buy treats to give to the freely roaming native Sika deer, which are protected there. At first, the phenomenon of bowing deer seems ridiculously cute.

Okay, it is.

But it’s easy enough to see how this was trained, if unintentionally. Watch the video:

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Kawaii is “cute” in Japanese, and yes, this is kawaii.

Undoubtedly this deer once happened to bob its head, to move a fly or in frustration at a visitor withholding food (head tossing can be a warning sign in deer, goats, etc.), or for any other reason, and the nearest human interpreted the gesture as a bow, exclaimed in excitement, and fed the deer. The deer, having at least two brain cells to rub together, repeated the behavior, and voila! a bowing deer.

And this bowing behavior, if ever initially connected with aggression, is removed from that now; watch the deer’s body language above, and it’s pretty obvious that it’s just running through a routine, pushing the button to make the human dispense deer cookies.

No? Haven’t you ever seen a frustrated puppy try something — standing on hind legs, tilting head to one side — and suddenly people squeal about how adorable that is and give it attention or treats? We do this all the time. And the animals are learning all the time.

Of course, not everyone reinforces the behavior:

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Trainers emphasize the importance of consistency in behavior parameters and reinforcement. These bows are not as clean and precise as could be trained intentionally, but considering that this behavior is maintained intermittently by thousands of tourists who don’t even know each other, it’s pretty solid!

But there’s a problem with unthinking or unintentional reinforcement of behaviors; we might be paying for behaviors we don’t want.

What if a deer tried something less kawaii to get what it wanted?

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Oh, yes, that’s just hilarious as an animal uses threats and actual physical aggression to demand its cookie. And behavior nerds noted that not only did the deer get paid for headbutting the tourist, he got paid for the more intense headbutts.

Sometimes humans think they’re going to resist an unwanted behavior (threatening head toss, minor headbutt), but cave in when a more extreme version happens (more powerful butting). Rather than extinguishing the behavior, this teaches the animal that only more powerful behaviors work, so skip the wishy-washy stuff. It actually makes the problem worse.

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Argh! This makes my trainer-brain crazy! How many times did that deer bite that woman? And how many treats did it receive? Notice how there’s a 1:1 ratio?

Even as the woman is saying aloud, That deer is crazy, this is scary, she is paying it handsomely for its rude and dangerous behavior.

I mentioned this to Mark, and he responded:

Well, duh. If its mouth is full of food it can’t be biting you at the same time. QED.

And while he meant it facetiously, it’s sadly similar to how a lot of people think. “I don’t like this behavior, but I just need to take care of it right now so he’ll be quiet/people won’t stare/it won’t escalate.” But animals are always learning, not just when it’s convenient for us. How many dogs — and children — have you heard of who get loud or ask for things when Mom is on the phone? They’ve learned through experience that Mom will accede more quickly to keep the environment quiet and the phone conversation running smoothly. It’s pretty simple, and yet we complain about the behavior we richly reward.

“I got bitten by one in May when I refused to give it one of the packets of biscuits that are on sale everywhere to feed them. They can be quite aggressive.”

Nara deer

Nara deer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This tourist (quoted here) is making the typical mistake of assuming the aggressive behavior is inherent to the species. But that’s clearly not the case. Every interaction with a tourist is setting up for the next interaction with the next tourist. It’s not, The deer are aggressive, but, The deer have been trained to behave aggressively.

And in fact, as we saw in the bowing deer, other behaviors can be trained just as easily. And who wouldn’t prefer a polite bow to a headbutt or nip?

What behaviors, wanted or unwanted, might you be training without thinking?

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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