Self-Initiating Behaviors in Cats and Dogs

Self-initiating behaviors occur in both cats and dogs. Think of them as those behaviors these animals display on their own in a particular context without any apparent training from us or any other person. Consider Watson, the hound, in the photo blow. I have no idea what combination of past experiences caused him to self-initiate that bizarre response to a camera flash on that particular day. I didn’t even realize he’d done it until I saw the picture later. Perhaps this was his way of commenting on what I recall was a brutally hot, humid day when none of us were at our  photographic best.

In general, human responses to these behaviors  may differ dramatically depending on whether a cat or a dog displays them and the context in which they occur. They also teach us more about the power of inductive learning in animals and their ability to take what they learned and adapt it to other uses. And above all, they remind us of the role the human-animal bond plays in companion animal behaviors and our perceptions of them.

Although I didn’t apply today’s terminology to these animal behaviors at the time,  I wrote about two experiments in The Body Language and Emotion of Cats that demonstrated this ability years ago . In the first experiment done in the 1940, behaviorists E.R. Guthrie and G.P. Horton wanted to test cats’ puzzle-solving ability. In order to get out of a puzzle box, the cat needed to activate the mechanism that opened the door.  (See photo below.) Much to their surprise however, the test cats didn’t immediately focus on opening the box to reach the food reward outside of it. They always preceded this with a specific sequence of body language signals. These included rubbing their faces and bodies on the door of the box and circling. Only when the cats completed this sequence would they open the door.

At the time, the research community considered these experiments the epitome of animal behavior laboratory studies because they adhered to the most objective and stringent scientific criteria at the time. The researchers taught the animal what they wanted the animal to know; then they tested the animal’s ability to display the taught behavior. Within that realm, only one conclusion could explain this unexpected feline display Guthrie and Horton observed. The study cats must need the complex body language sequence in order to open the door. The ritual played an integral role in their ability to learn. No ritual—no ability to open the door. What else could it possibly be?

Fast forward to 1979 when two other scientists, B.R. Moore and S. Stuttard, repeated the Guthrie-Horton experiment. They also observed the same feline behaviors their predecessors did. But they also lived in the age of video monitoring that enabled them to discover something they considered even more fascinating: The cats only displayed their ritualistic behavior when people were watching. Like most cat-lovers reading this, Moore and Stuttard didn’t link this behavior to feline learning at all. They recognized it as  typical feline human-greeting behavior. No humans, no need to waste energy displaying it. Just open the door of the puzzle box, come out, have a snack, and take a nap. Done.

In this situation and like many cats, the laboratory cats either learned the human-pleasing behavior from their moms or by observing the interactions between the human caregivers and other cats in the testing facility. When moved into an experimental setting with human observers, they repeated the sequence to elicit a similar friendly human response. However, because Guthrie and Horton only saw their experimental cats’ behavior as it related to their experiment, they wrongly assumed it must be part of the learning process (they thought) their experiment was designed to reveal. They didn’t recognize it for what it was: a behavior the cats learned and used in another context that they adapted for use in the experimental setting.

Now let’s consider a canine example of this same phenomenon. Suppose hypothetical Heather puts a lot of time and effort into teaching her (also hypothetical) pit bull, Pringle, to come on command for a treat. But not just come on the come command. In order to get his reward, Pringle also must sit exactly 2 feet in front of his owner after he comes. One day the two of them are hanging out with a group of human and dog friends in a dog-friendly meadow. While the dogs amuse themselves, Heather chats with fellow dog-lovers. Suddenly Pringle breaks away from the dog pack and races toward Heather from across the meadow like the proverbial bat out of hell, slides to a screeching halt in front of her, and sits. His unsolicited behavior so surprises Heather’s friends that  they grab their kids and back away.

As one friend later explains to her partner, “Much as I love Pringle, he is a pit bull after all and he was out of control. Of course, I’d never say that to Heather,” she adds. “She’d be so hurt!”

Meanwhile, Heather has her own problem. Once she gets over her shock, she realizes exactly what her dog did. He self-initiated the recall because he wanted a treat. Perhaps he got hungry running with his pack of dog friends. Or maybe some inter-pack politics made him feel queasy and he wanted a treat to quiet his tummy. Or something else. But regardless of the dog’s specific reason, Heather finds herself in the midst of an existential training crisis. If she gives Pringle a treat, then she rewards his command for her to do this. But if she doesn’t reward him for coming, why should he come to her on command in the future?

In this situation, the dog takes the basic training concept his owner taught him and applies it to her. He doesn’t do this to complicate her life. He does it because he’s a dog whose energy-efficient brain evolved learn and use what he learned in other contexts.

This example involves a  companion dog self-initiating behavior learned in a previous context to a new one. But it also demonstrates the role the human-animal bond will have on companion animal learning and how it manifests in any setting, whether we admit it or not. I suspect that most engaged dog-owners know this on some level. Nontheless, when our dogs take what we taught them to a new level  that results in human-canine role-reversal like Pringle did, we’re more likely to feel confused, uneasy, or even fearful rather than proud of their intelligence and creativity. I mention this because this human response to feline self-initiated behaviors doesn’t occur nearly as often.

Why is this?

I suspect that the primary reason is the relative duration and nature of the human-feline vs. human-canine bond. Compared to the human-canine bond, the human-feline one represents a much more recent phenomenon, as in thousands of years more recent. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the canine relationship began with other primates long before H. sapiens came on the scene. Consider this famous video clip:


Perhaps early primates and dogs sharing the same environment developed  a more mutualistic relationship  that benefited them both, a fairly common inter-specific form of behavior. As long as the members of the two species got along, no problems arose. But if food became scarce or other environment changes threatened each species’ own survival, they turned on each other. Over time, the benefits of these inter-species relationships outweighed the costs and the behaviors associated with them persisted as those in both groups became more domesticated. Today we can see evidence of this whole spectrum in human-canine interactions worldwide. It seems to me that two consequences of this more competitive relationship could be the greater human need to control dogs, and our intolerance of canine displays that suggest they may be smarter than we think they are or want them to be… Except on our terms.

Because of their small size and solitary and nocturnal orientations, cats kept a low profile much longer than dogs did. Whereas familiarity possibly bred the combination of contempt for and fear of dogs that led to a human desire to physically control and manipulate them, cats didn’t fit this mold. Many cats could and still can make it on their own. Because humans and cats didn’t share the same ecological niche—i.e., one was nocturnal and the other diurnal—the human-feline relationship took longer to evolve and tended to be more symbolic. On the upside, this enabled a large segment of the domestic feline population to maintain its independence worldwide. On the downside, normal feline behaviors that got cats elevated to deity status in one segment of human society could get them crucified in another. A trend that persists in multiple forms today.

Viewed in this light, it makes sense that self-initiated canine behaviors could elicit a more conflicted human response than comparable feline ones. Or not. Just another fascinating facet of the human-companion animal bond yet to be explored in detail.




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