Why Animals Do What They Do
An ethological approach to normal and problem animal behavior
This commentary is a based on material I’ll be presenting at a seminar on June 5th that focuses on canine behavior and aggression in particular. In addition to cordially inviting all interested parties to attend (see contact information at the end of the commentary), I’d like to use this opportunity to once again point out the advantages of adding ethology to the behavioral mix.
Given all the different animal training programs available, why bother? The main reason is because sometimes the approaches we normally use to teach stable animals basic obedience, tricks or games may not work well in stressed animals with problem behaviors. This happens because most training methods are based on concepts—positive and negative reinforcement, conditioning, counter-conditioning, etc.—that resulted from controlled laboratory experiments. In these, the animals first learned the teaching method and then how apply it to various problems. For an animal suffering from a behavioral problem, that adds an extra, unnatural step to the learning process.
Additionally in those experiments, what the behavior desired by the researcher meant to the animal was immaterial. All that mattered was what it meant to that person. If the animal behaved in a way that supported that particular human view, the animal was rewarded. If not, the animal was not and sometimes even punished. An example that sticks in my memory involved a rat trained to go up a ladder, swing on a swing, “dance” on a catwalk, ring a bell, then raise a flag and “salute” it for the grand finale. Any relationship between such tricks and what a rat would normally do is limited at best. Quite the contrary, in some circles the measure of a trainer’s skill is that person’s ability to get the animal to display the most unnatural behaviors.
In more complex real world surroundings, animals also may need to deal with more distractions than those found in a laboratory setting. For example, in some dog-training classes with lots of animals, you may see animals who are so stressed that they’ll refuse any treat while other animals will snatch the reward as if their lives depended on it. Over time, some animals who develop problem behaviors may succumb to a condition referred to as learned laziness. Because the behaviors learned were out-of-context for these animals for some reason, they only display them when it suits their purposes. Examples of this phenomenon include dogs who respond perfectly to commands in class, show ring, or owner’s living room, but completely ignore the same command when given outdoors where another animal or person is violating what the dog considers his space.
When domestic animals misbehave, their misbehavior results because they’re playing by their own species rules instead of ours. Because of that, it’s helpful to understand what those rules are for two reasons:
- This enables us to better understand why the behavior occurs.
- It enables us to design treatment approaches that make it as easy as possible for the animal to learn.
That’s where ethology comes in. Ethology is the study of animal behavior in the animal’s natural environment, the why behind all behavioral displays. To determine this, ethologists ask questions like, “How much energy does the animal put into the display?” “What is the context in which the behavior occurs?” “What is the consequence of this behavior?” Without the answers to these and other pertinent questions, assigning a meaning to a behavior becomes little more than a guess.
For example, if I said that dogs who flattened their ears against their heads are frightened, that’s an iffy proposition. While some frightened dogs do do this, some may do it because of pain, others may use the display to signal passive aggression, and still others may use it to communicate a totally unique message that evolved between a particular dog and her owner or another animal in the household.
The concept of priorities also plays an important role in understanding animal behaviors. Sometimes it’s easy to think that we so completely provide for our dogs’ needs that they have nothing to do but play. But companion dogs and cats display many of the same behaviors that their wild cohorts use to establish and protect their territories, find food and water, court, mate, and raise their young. What differs is the context in which these behaviors occur. For example, whether as a function of increased hormone- mimicking pollutants in the environment, the physiological effects of on-going domestication, premature spay and neutering, and/or the increased stress associated with these or something else, spayed and neutered dogs and cats may display the full range of sexual behaviors. And while they themselves may be incapable of reproducing, that in no way guarantees they won’t experience behavioral changes in response to breeding-associated changes in wildlife, too.
Some researchers say that what distinguishes domestic animals from wild ones is domestic animals' willingness to learn what we want to teach them. But even though there are some sterling examples of well-trained domestic animals, I find the behaviors of those unwilling to bend to our wills under certain circumstances equally intriguing. What others see as problems, my knowledge of ethology enables me to see as an extraordinary array of behaviors being used in an attempt to achieve physical and mental stability in a specific environment. Once we understand the why behind such displays, it’s difficult not to marvel at these animals’ adaptability. And once we understand that, it seems only reasonable to seek the most animal-brain-friendly way to eliminate the stress that’s destabilizing them.
To join me for a day of exploration and fun with canine ethology, click here for more information.
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