Modern Animal Behavior: A Lot Has Changed In The Last Few Decades

The modern science of animal behavior, which we call ‘ethology’, has come a long way in the past few decades, from a largely observational, descriptive science to a modern, quantitative science based on solid foundations of evolutionary biology and quantitative methodology.  One of the most common situations in which I realize this is when I see, read, and hear old, out-dated animal behavior concepts and ideas and long-ago-rejected hypotheses used by companion animal behaviorists.  Many trainers and veterinarians received whatever animal behavior education they might have gotten long ago, and often have not stayed up to date.  As a professional and academic ethologist, I of course have the time and professional need to peruse the latest journals, read and review the latest textbooks, and make sure that my university courses are up-to-date.  But when I enter the world of companion animal behavior, I am often taken back to a time long, long ago, to terms presented even to me in my long-ago introductory courses as historical concepts, mistakes, or simplifications used only for pedagogical purposes.

 

Let me give you a few examples: I think that they fall into four categories.  There are concepts that we now know simply are not true: Fixed Action Patterns fall into this category.  Fixed action patterns were a concept from the early days of ethology, mid-20th-century, in which animals were thought to display some behaviors that were absolutely of genetic origin, the classic “hard-wired” behaviors (another term we are trying to dump!).  When gull chicks saw a red dot on the parent’s bill, they “automatically” gaped their mouths open to get food.  The behavior was thought to be fixed or unchanging, burned into the animal’s brain pathways by their genes, and never to be changed or modified in any way.  But then we discovered that they could get better at it, quicker or more discriminating as they grew older: wait, that’s not genetic, that’s called learning!  So the behavior was NOT fixed.  Finally, the field concluded that there really was no such thing as a fixed action pattern.  We went through the usual struggle of dying concepts, modifying the concept to death, trying to keep it alive, before finally burying it and moving on.  But I still hear trainers referring to highly stereotyped, very ‘fixed’ behaviors performed in response to a clear signal as a Fixed Action Pattern, or at the very least, as being ‘hard-wired’, whereas we now know that there is no hard-wiring.  It immediately dates the user of the term to a certain generation and suggests a lack of later education in ethology!

 

There are concepts that are sort-of, basically true but that we now know are far more complicated, and thus the original terms and concepts simply don’t do the job any more: the Nature vs. Nurture dichotomy falls into this category (as do many dichotomies: the world is not a black and white place).  This issue is related to the concept of the fixed action pattern, but this one has taken longer to die.  Why?  It’s the caveat about being kinda, sorta right.  But here the point is that it is not a dichotomy.  No matter where we look, it’s a continuum, from highly genetically controlled (but never entirely: see point above) to virtually entirely environmental, what we in applied animal behavior would call ‘learned’, but again, never without a genetic component to the behavior.  So now we use terms like ‘genetic predispositions’ or ‘strong learning component’ and really talk about these two ends of the continuum as explaining a proportion of the variability in a trait, a concept that is on a continuous, not a dichotomous, scale.

 

Another example of this continuum issue that I hear all the time is the question of whether dogs have a ‘dominance hierarchy’ (beyond the fact that most companion animal behaviorists are working with VERY old ideas about what a dominance hierarchy is: another blog topic altogether!).  So all dogs, individually, and all dog breeds, have to either possess (be influenced, include in their behavioral repertoire) a dominance-based form of social structure, or not.  Wolves have a dominance hierarchy-based social system and dogs do… or do not, depending on your point-of-view.  OK, first, the existence of dominance hierarchies in wolves (as well as numerous other species) varies on the basis of ecology, their lifestyle, prey, metabolic needs, etc.  So it’s not open-and-shut for wolves.  Now for dogs: the facts show clearly that the use of dominance, the importance of dominance hierachies in the life of, even the ABILITY to communicate such information, varies widely from breed to breed, due to our artificial selection of this, and more often, other related traits, like coat color, hair type, and temperament.  So it’s a continuum: for some breeds, social structure is VERY important; for others, it can influence their behavior; and for yet others, they can’t even recognize these signals.  A major disaster that we see regularly in metropolitan dog parks is when the first type meet the third type, without supervision: but again, perhaps a topic for another blog.  And the same goes for the common argument that while dogs may have social structure, they don’t include humans in their hierarchies… again, as an across-the-board claim, it’s clearly wrong.  Some breeds do, some breeds don’t.

 

Back to other old animal behavior concepts and terms: there are also concepts which were originally just that, only a concept, and for which we have never discovered a mechanism.  A nice idea, but without a mechanism, just not useful anymore.  These are often terms and concepts that describe a phenomenon functionally or descriptively but which have no mechanistic, explanatory power behind them: an example is Instinctive Drift.  Unfortunately, this term has led to a term more commonly used in applied animal behavior, Predatory Drift, based loosely on the idea of instinctive drift, descriptive of something that we see occur but without any mechanistic, useful purpose.  The same behavior can be more clearly and with a stronger empirical basis explained in other ways.

 

Another example of this phenomenon that I ran into recently is the “Hydraulic Model of Drives,” created in the mid-20th-century by the father of modern ethology, Konrad Lorenz.  It was actually called the Psycho-Hydraulic Model, and many believe that it was actually a little ethology joke: the description of his model was based on a European toilet system, a water closet (geeks are just SO funny!!).  But for a decade or two, it was tested as a model, but by the end of his career, in the ‘70’s, even Lorenz had abandoned it for more powerful models, models which fit the data that we were collecting.  So this model has taken its historic place, and certainly acted in a heuristic fashion to generate considerable discussion and much experimental work before being rejected in the end.  But it lives on in the literature and discussions of some dog trainers!

 

Finally, there are concepts that are simply made-up, never really true, often derived from wherever those old wives produce their tales: a classic example of this is the ‘alpha roll’ or ‘scruffing’ of  dominant wolves towards their subordinates, and thus assumed by some trainers and veterinarians to be a useful concept in the domestic dog.  Domestic dogs are evolved directly from gray wolves: the evidence is quite clear on that now, but there is no such thing as alpha rolling, in wolves or domestic dogs… so why do some trainers keep using it?  It’s punishment, pure and simple.

 

So let’s kill some of these useless concepts and terms: Fixed Action Patterns, Nature vs Nurture and hard-wired behaviors, Predatory Drift, and the alpha roll.  Let’s get modern: pick up a good textbook in animal behavior… I have a great reading list available.  Don’t date yourself… we ethologists have come a long way in a relatively short time, and companion animal behaviorists have much to contribute to the modern science of ethology, but to do so, we have to stay up front with the science.  Contact me if you are interested in more ways to do this: if there is enough interest, I’ll write a future blog about it.

 

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About hafamilyseattle

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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