Response to My Blog on “Modern Ethology”

Well, what a wonderful response to this blog!! It’s so nice to know someone is reading these!!


Let me respond to several of these comments in one response here:

FAP’s or MAP’s: the terms are being misused in either case, in the example provided by LC.  In either case, as pointed out O’Heare, these terms refer to a sequence of behaviors, performed in stereotypical fashion, triggered by a specific and characteristic stimulus called a sign stimulus, and having a strong genetic basis.  The term Modal Action Pattern was suggested to replace FAP in 1986 by George Barlow, to imply a less rigid requirement for stereotyped patterns of behaviors, given that we could not identify any behavior sequences that fit the definition of a FAP.  Here is the definition from Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior Sixth Ed.: “A Modal Action Pattern is a series of interrelated acts found in all or nearly all members of a species. Resemble reflexes, and have a strong genetic basis.”


The more recent term which has replaced a FAP or a MAP is simply a stereotyped motor pattern or an even more up-to-date term, a motor pattern with a high heritability.  But in the case of humping, this behavior does not fit the definition for several reasons: it does not constitute a sequence of behaviors, there is no triggering sign stimulus, and it is unlikely that there is any genetic basis to the behavior.  Just because the behavior is stereotyped does not make it a sequence of stereotyped behaviors or genetic in basis.  In fact, it is not likely to be genetic, or most animals of that species would perform the behavior… which they don’t… thank God!


Humping is a pathological behavior, resulting generally from anxiety due to lack of proper early socialization and is used to self-soothe in stressful situations. It’s NOT a FAP or a MAP, but a stereotyped behavior (as most behaviors related to reproduction are) triggered by internal anxiety levels… quite different.


The term “instinctive drift” was coined many decades ago by comparative psychologists, and refers to what we call today phenotypic plasticity.  That is, animals are constrained by their genotype and early experience, their biology, in what they can learn and the degree to which they can learn it.  Thus, an animal may not be able to learn certain associations, or may not be able to retain some associations as long as others: there are biological predispositions, as we say today, for certain behaviors, including learning.  So again, a once-useful term has been updated.


But the real discussion is about “predatory drift.”  There is no such concept in ethology, and the term doesn’t even fit with the idea of instinctive drift in my mind.  Are the users of this term suggesting that the default behavior for domestic dogs is predation, that when play or social behavior is performed for a while that the tendency for dogs is to revert to predation (as animals are supposed to revert to innate behaviors in instinctive drift)?  This whole concept fails for me.


Regardless, there are numerous reasons why a dog might “appear” to be playing or behaving socially and suddenly attack a smaller dog, reasons that may or may not include predation.  A major reason is that many (most?) small dogs do not communicate in the same was as more primitive breeds of dogs, a point driven home in Erik Zimen’s excellent work with wolf and poodle comparative behavior (and more recent studies) and reinforced by our modern knowledge of genetic relationships among breeds.  When you are interacting with another dog, you throw a lot of body language at them, to check them out, to determine their emotional state, to anticipate their intentions, and when you receive nothing coherent back, or perhaps even (inadvertent) signals of anxiety, aggression, or weakness, a dog of certain temperament might react with defensive aggression… this is just one common example that I have seen in my cases.


I really don’t see how the Bolles work on instinctive drift, or the Breland article popularizing that work, or for that matter, the more modern understanding of phenotypic plasticity (or constraints, if you are a “glass is half empty” type) can support or weaken the compulsion (or confrontational, as we call them in applied animal behavior research) trainers.  The concepts would apply equally to any kind of learning…


Now for “calming signals”: another term not part of the animal behavior literature, or certainly not in any form similar to how they are used by trainers and poorly trained behaviorists.  I have heard of all sorts of behaviors in this category: displacement behavior, redirected behaviors, reconciliation (the new form of appeasement) behaviors, vacuum behaviors, behaviors intended to reduce anxiety in the performer, behaviors intended to reduce anxiety in the recipient, just an incredible mish-mash of stuff.  There is no established use of such a term, and in the uses of the term “calming signals” that I have heard, I have not even detected a clear or consistent understanding of what calming signals are, how they are defined or exhibited.  So the term is useless: why not use the terms in standard usage?  In some cases, calming signals are displacement behaviors, in some cases they are redirected behaviors, in some cases they are self-soothing behaviors, etc.  These are established and well-studied concepts in behavior.  “Calming signals” is another good addition to my collection of bad ethology!


So I hope that this reveals a bit more of modern ethology… there is a real science out there, as accessible, or inaccessible, as any other science like genetics, organic chemistry, and ecology.  Some evolution of terminology is inevitable but usually reflects new knowledge and new discoveries, and good-quality education, and then keeping up-to-date with ongoing new discoveries, is the key to tapping into that new knowledge to benefit yourself, benefit your clients, and especially to benefit the companion animals on which we are focused.

About drjimha

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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