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.

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A Reading List in Animal Behavior, Part 2

Back in the fall of 2008, I presented a blog which started like this, “I am frequently asked about readings in animal behavior.  One of the nice things about practicing in a region like Seattle is that our audience is so well educated.  So not infrequently I have clients who want to learn more, want to read more about animal behavior.  Most often, they want to read more about what we call Applied Animal Behavior.  Applied animal behavior is the relatively new field which deals with the behavior (and misbehavior) of our companion animals based on a scientific approach that extends from the modern academic field of animal behavior, or ethology.  Ethology was historically based in Europe, and is a field of biology and psychology, that is, it is a sub-discipline of evolutionary biology,” and the blog goes on to define ethology in a little more detail.  You can find that blog [here].

I went on to say, “So here I present a highly personal reading list in ethology.  In this entry, I suggest some reading in basic ethology, and in a later entry, I will focus in readings in applied animal behavior.”

But it never happened.. no follow-up blog on the most relevant material, applied ethology!  So, forthwith, the rest of my list… the disclaimer, as before: this is a personal list.  These are the sort of readings, applied in this case, that I would, and have, “required of students of this field, beginning at the undergraduate level and right on through graduate or board-certification work in ethology.  These are the books that my students, graduate and undergraduate, read.  And these would provide the foundation for an excellent library in animal behavior.”


Applied Animal Behavior for the Lay Audience

These are books for the educated owner: I hope that most trainers, veterinarian technician and veterinarian with an interest in behavior have read these.

The first three are simply classic, must-reads: I strongly encourage all dog owners, and all of my behavior-issue clients to read these.

Donaldson, Jean.  1997.  Culture Clash.  James and Kenneth.

(The differences between primate [human] and dog behavior, social organization, and communication]

McConnell, Patricia.  2002.  The Other End of the Leash.  Ballantine Books.  (Dog-primate communication, or the lack thereof.  Based on Trish’s PhD dissertation work and a lifetime of learning about dogs and humans.)

Pryor, Karen. 1999.  Don’t Shoot the Dog!  The New Art of Teaching and Training.  Bantam.

(The original book that defined the new field of positive-approach dog training)

There are some follow-ups to the themes described in the books above:

Donaldson, Jean.  1998.  Dogs are from Neptune.  Lasar Multimedia Productions.

(Dealing positively, and successfully, with aggreessive dogs)

McConnell, Patricia.  Various.

(Trish has an extensive series of How To booklets, all of which are excellent: available from Dogwise [see below] or her website.  These build, in more practical terms, on the ideas developed in her best-seller books.)

Reid, P.J., 1996.  Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How    Best To Teach Them.  James and Kenneth Publishers, Oakland, CA

Ryan, T. 1998.  The Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog.  Howell Book House, New York.

(These two books are by leading canine learning specialists, and build on the concepts of a positive reinforcement approach, and understanding the broader behavior of your dog, the context in which your dog behaves.)

Wright, J. C. 1994.  Is Your Cat Crazy?  Macmillan Publishing Co., New York.

Wright, J. C. 1999.  The Dog Who Would Be King.  Rodale Press,  Emmaus, PA.

(And then, how does all this conceptual material come together: first, John’s books bring you into the world of a behavior specialist, an academic bringing the science that we have learned about dogs, and cats, to bear on specific behavior problems… and at the same time, educating about dog behavior and learning in an entertaining way.)

Markowitz, H. 1981.  Behavioral Enrichment in the Zoo, Van Nostrand Reinhold. (Finally, as an ethologist, I find this book to be fascinating: applied animal behavior principles, but with application to exotic animals.  This is the behind-the-scenes story of a series of imaginative, and highly successful, attempts to produce natural behaviors in captive animals.)

Puppies and Puppy Selection

Then how about the big issue: what kind of dog should I get?  Here are two good suggestions for reading on this subject, again based on good science.

Hart, B.L. & Hart, L.A. 1988.  The Perfect Puppy. How to Choose a Dog by Its Behavior.  W.H. Freeman, New York.

Rutherford, C. & Neil, D.H.  1992.  How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With, 2nd Ed.  Alpine Pub., Loveland.

More Advanced and Professional Books

There are many references used by behavior specialists, certified applied animal behaviorists and board-certified veterinary behaviorists: these are a few of the more accessible ones.

Askew, H.R., 1996. Treatment of Behavior Problems in Dogs and Cats.  Blackwell Science, Cambridge, MA.

Bradshaw, J.W.S.  1992.  The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat.  C.A.B. International, UK.

Fraser, A.F.  1992.  The Behaviour of the Horse.  C.A.B. International, UK.

Hart, B.L. 1985.  The Behavior of Domestic Animals.  W.H. Freeman and Co., New York.

Hetts, S.  1999.  Pet Behavior Protocols.  What To Say, What To Do and When To Refer. AAHA Press, Lakewood, CO.

Voith, V.L. and P.L.Borchelt, Eds. 1996.  Readings in Companion Animal Behavior. Veterinary Learning Systems, Trenton, NJ.

Serpell, J., Ed. 1995.  The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.

Thorne, C., Ed.  1992.  The Waltham Book of Cat and Dog Behaviour.  Pergamon Press, New York.

Turner, D.C. & Bateson, P., Eds. 1988.  The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour.  Cambridge University Press, New York.

Waring, G.H.  1983.  Horse Behavior. Noyes Publications, Park Ridge, NJ.

So that’s my reading list in applied animal behavior, from both an academic and a popular view.  Combining the books in this list with the previously listed readings in general ethology would generate an impressive library in ethology with a focus on applied animal behavior.

Feel free to leave me a comment if you have a favorite book to recommend, or a question about a book you’ve seen or read, or a specific topic in animal behavior for which you would like a reading recommendation.  Time to read!


I must credit my colleague, Daniel Estep, PhD, for developing the original form of these reading lists, which I have modified and annotated considerably.  Any changes and added editorial opinions are strictly my own, unless Dan likes any of them.

Many of these are available from Dogwise, a book and supply catalog,  P. O. Box 2778,  Wenatchee, WA  98807-2778,  Phone 1-800-776-2665, on the web at

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What a Blockhead! Head Shape and Trainability in Dogs

An interesting paper appeared in a recent issue of Behavioural Processes (2009, vol. 82, pp. 355).  The author, William Helton from New Zealand, examined results from three published studies in which breed and head shape were reported, to answer the question of whether morphology (head shape, in this case) reflected intelligence in dogs.  Now, a little background because there a lot of caveats associated with this work.

First, what do we mean by head shape?  The classic measure of head shape, used here, is the cranial index.  This is the ratio of the width of the skull to the overall length of the skull, and can be easily measured with calipers.  But of course, this is only one possible way to measure a skull shape.  It turns out that dogs are interesting for this kind of question because, through our breeding, we have produced a wide range of head shapes, on a continuum of cranial indices.  So extremes in the cranial index values reveal dolichocephalic dogs (with a long cranium, the running dogs and sight hounds; think greyhound) and brachycephalic dogs (with a very wide cranium, bred for fighting and holding, grasping; think Staffordshire Bull Terriers) and in between, mesocephalic breeds, whose heads are less extreme in length or width.  So we can divide breeds into three parts of this continuum, or ask as the author did, whether dogs of extreme shapes, the breeds that are more specialized in their breeding, might have a lower or higher intelligence.  One hypothesis might be that medium-head-shape dogs, of less specialized duty (historically), might be less intelligent.

Another issue is, “what do we mean by intelligence, and how was it measured?”  A very good, and very difficult, question.  We really have VERY little data on the cognitive capabilities of breeds of dogs (or of course, of most species of animals).  But some work HAS been done on what might be one aspect of intelligence: trainability.  Now, while we have a few studies on this topic, among breeds, we still have very little.  But one way that has been used to “get at this question” has been to survey experienced dog owners, especially those with a broad exposure to breeds, to rank the PERCEIVED trainability of various breeds.  One good source of such information is obedience judges, and Coren has published these very consistent and repeatable results in a number of places.  So now we are no longer talking about intelligence, or even trainability, but perceived trainability… but it’s the best we’ve got, until we do more research!

So now, to the results of this work: what is the relationship between head shape, especially extremes of head shape, and ranking of perceived trainability (our stand-in for intelligence)?  Well, to a degree not accountable by simple chance, medium-head-shape dogs are perceived to be more trainable, and dogs with more extreme head shapes, whether long or wide, are perceived to be less trainable.

There are some other interesting findings to go with this main point.  For instance, what else does head shape tell us?  It turns out that the shape of the head also tells us a lot about the visual abilities of dog.  Breeds with long heads, associated with coursing or hunting by long-distance running, like greyhounds, have a retina designed with a wide area of receptivity: their vision is most acute in the horizontal and at the horizon.  Breeds with wide heads have their greatest receptivity in the center, like primates including us, and thus have their best vision in the center and close up.  So there are differences in the nervous system associated with head shape and there certainly could be differences in other facets of their brains and learning abilities.  Perhaps it is true that highly specialized breeds, so specialized that they LOOK different, might not have needed a broad intelligence to do their job, while your basic, unspecialized, medium-head-shape dog needed more wits to get the job(s) done!

Or perhaps this study tells us more about human perception.  Perhaps there is something in us that tells us that things that look different are (have to be?) different in other ways.  The answer lies in learning more about the actual intelligence, or at least the actual trainability, of dog breeds, a project that we at Companion Animal Solutions have begun, and that other ethologists around the world are undertaking.  The questions never end, and I hope that if you have questions, you will contact us here at Companion Animal Solutions.

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What Do I Do Now: Conflict Behavior in Dogs and Cats

Some time ago, I wrote a [blog about redirected behavior], and started it like this: “Most pet owners are familiar with the situation: your dog or cat is upset about something, perhaps has been challenged or even attacked.  But rather than an understandable response in which the animal lashes out at the challenger, or turns and runs, it will turn and attack someone, or something, else.  That is, it will exhibit an appropriate behavior but toward an inappropriate target.”  I went on to mention: “Redirection of a behavior is one of three forms of conflict behavior seen in animals, and humans.  The other two forms of conflict behavior are “approach-withdraw” and “displacement behavior,” which I’ll discuss in future blog entries.”  But I never did… so let’s talk about the other two now.

The example that I gave in that earlier blog was: “(conflict) behaviors are methods for resolving internal conflicts: a hungry dog, faced with a bowl of food and an aggressive canine owner of the food might express any of these three ways of resolving a conflict between approaching for food and fleeing the aggressive owner of the food.”  Another example might be a dog which has been severely frightened.  One of the ways of resolving this internal conflict in drives and motivation, in fact physiological and neurological demands, is familiar to most of us: approach-withdraw, or “flight or fight” as it is commonly, but incorrectly, called.  The other, like redirected behavior, is less well known, the least well known and often the most confusing option: displacement behavior.

Flight or fight: I guess “flight” is ok as a term: dogs and cats don’t actually take flight, but the use of the term “flight” to mean a hurried departure is quite correct.  Animals, including humans, placed into a conflict situation, will often attempt to resolve that conflict through a sudden, almost desperate, withdrawal, a “flight” from the conflict, or by a sudden, again almost desperate and totally out of character, attack or “fight”.  Thus, one example of an “aggressive” dog.  Is this an aggressive dog?  Sure, by the strict definition of aggression, a dog approaching a person or other dog, clearly behaving in such a way as to drive away or remove that person or dog.  But what is also important, in establishing risk or in treating the aggressive behavior, is the motivation: if this is a conflict-resolution behavior, that tells me something much different than if I can establish that it is a habit, a learned behavior, a genetic trait, a function of early deprivation, or any of the other myriads of possible causes and triggers for aggression.

One characteristic of this approach-withdraw behavior that I often see in this behavior is perseveration: the animal (and I know a few people like this) will run away, a little ways, stop, gain their nerve, begin to return and “fight”, lose their nerve, back away into a “flight”, and often hit a balance point, almost rocking back and forth in this conflict situation.

Another behavior that I have seen in these situations, and not one I recommend intentionally testing for, is when a dog in this conflict situation does attack, you can frequently turn the behavior off very quickly by simply shifting the behavior back over the balance point into a flight.  A loud “Hey!” in the face of such an attack has generated a sudden stop, turn, and run on more than one occasion.  The dog, and I have had cats like this too, was in a conflict situation, decided to attack (“fight”) but could easily be switched back to the flight decision by an increase in the scariness of the stimulus.  Again, not an effect that you want to count on, just in case it’s NOT conflict behavior, but it can save the day once in a while, and help you to explain what happened to your client.

How about the third form of conflict resolution, displacement behavior?  It’s an odd one, and more controversial as to its value and cause.  Perhaps you have been in a situation in which there is a conflict, some stress, a dog that is unsure of what it should do.  That dog’s body language signals will be in conflict, flicking from fearful and anxious to aggressive.  Suddenly, the dog will… urinate… or stop and eat a flower… or sit up and beg, or do some seemingly totally unrelated behavior.  This is displacement behavior, an outlet to the conflict.  We see it in humans all the time: some conflict, a disagreement at home among spouses, and suddenly one of them will jump up and light candles, or start to fold laundry.

The animal (or husband?) is in conflict and needs to resolve that conflict, and there are three ways of doing so: approach or withdraw from the stimulus perceived to be causing the conflict (“flight or fight”), redirecting behavior towards another target (often aggressively, in dogs and cats), or take your mind off it, by exhibiting a displacement behavior.  Watch for all three of these in the animals (husbands, wives, and kids count) in your life: your dog, your cat, animals at the dog park, or at the zoo.  Examples are common!  And maybe understanding these sometimes-puzzling behaviors can make our lives a little bit better, or at least a little less confusing.

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Confrontational Behavior Modification Techniques and the Risk to Owners

I have expressed my concern about confrontational behavior modification techniques in earlier blogs: the use of “positive punishment” or dominance and pack theory-based techniques, especially in the hands of untrained users, has been shown to be ineffective and to produce negative side effects.  Hiby and colleagues demonstrated that positive reinforcement techniques produced a significantly better response to obedience tasks than did positive punishment techniques.  Blackwell and colleagues showed that dogs trained using positive reinforcement methods were less likely to exhibit later behavior problems while dogs trained using punishment were more likely to exhibit later fear-related behaviors.  These are just some examples: there is an expanding literature on the significantly greater effectiveness of positive reinforcement techniques as well as the lack of effectiveness of aversive or confrontational methods, methods which are related to incorrect ideas about the role of dominance and pack theory in dogs.


But in addition to the lack of effectiveness of confrontational techniques, I have expressed concerns about increased risks to owners.  This can be seen regularly on a popular dog training program on television, where aggressive responses by dogs being exposed to confrontational techniques are seen.  And these responses are exhibited towards both the trainer and towards bystanders like owners and family members.  These aggressive responses are a result of either inappropriate use of dominance challenges, like “alpha rolling” and “dominance downs” or the result of purely fear-based responses to punishment.  I see these responses in my own cases frequently, in dogs which have experienced confrontational methods of behavior modification.


But it’s not just my observations: in the January (online) issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science (vol. 117 (2009) pg 47–54), Meghan Herron, Frances Shofer, and Ilana Reisner publish the results of a study which examined the risk towards owners of owner-executed behavior modification techniques in the form of dog aggression responses.  The retrospective survey technique determined the type of behavior modification attempted by owners of dogs brought to the University of Pennsylvania Behavior Service, as well as where the owner had learned the method, the effectiveness of the method in the owner’s eyes, and the rate of aggressive responses in the dog.


The study included 140 dogs, 90 purebred and 40 mixed breeds, and 41 breeds were represented with no breed representing more than 6% of the sample.  Presenting complaints, which could be multiple, included aggression to familiar people (43%), aggression to unfamiliar people (48%),  aggression to other dogs (40%), separation anxiety (20%), specific fears and anxieties (32%), and a small number of other issues.


The most commonly used confrontational techniques were leash correction (75%), prong or pinch collars (38%), and the use of muzzles (38%).  Aggressive responses on the part of the dog was noted at rates ranging from 43% (for hit or kicking the dog) to 3% for kneeing the dog for jumping, and include rates like 11% for choke or prong collars, 38% for forced release of objects, 31% for alpha rolling, 29% for dominance downs, and 26% for grabbing jowls or scruff.  Even indirect confrontational techniques elicited aggressive responses from dogs in 30% (stare down), 20% (spray bottle), and 41% (growl at dog) of cases.  In contrast, postive reinforcement techniques elicited aggressive responses towards the owners in 0% (clicker training, Look at Me training, pheromones, and increased exercise) to a mere 6%  (trade food for object training) of cases.


There is considerable scientific literature which argues against the idea that most behavior issues are a result of dominance issues or a lack of “alpha” status of owners, instead suggesting that most aggression issues result from fear (self-defense) and anxiety-related issues.  It is equally clear from the scientific literature that confrontational methods like alpha-rolling, forced or dominance downs, and pinch collars increase the levels of a dog’s stress, anxiety, and fear; thus it is not surprising that the use of these techniques were reported to be associated with high levels of aggressive response.  Interestingly, the most commonly reported source of these techniques was television, and while the research did not ask for specifics, it can be assumed that many of these techniques were learned from a popular television hosted by Cesar Millan.


This study reinforces my own observations that dogs frequently respond aggressively to these confrontational techniques, from fear and anxiety, and that these techniques tend to make these conditions worse, continuing a spiral of deteriorating behavior, often resulting in either attacks on owners, redirected attacks on other humans, dogs, cats and other animals in their environment, or surrender of the unmanageable animal to an adoption facility.  Add to these issues the well-illustrated fact that confrontational methods are not effective, and any reasonable, science-based dog owner should conclude that these techniques have no place in the world of our dogs.  The science of ethology, modern animal behavior, is continuing to drive home this point in hard data.


Here are the references to which I refer in my blog:


Blackwell, E.J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., Casey, R.A., 2007. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems in a population of domestic dogs. In: Proceedings of the 6th International Veterinary Behaviour Meeting. Fondazione Iniziative Zooprofilattiche e Zootecniche, Brescia, Italy, pp. 51–52.


Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S., 2004. Dog training methods—their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Anim. Welfare 13, 63–69.


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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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Response to Comments about My Cesar Millan Blog

I want to thank everyone who wrote in to provide support, and so many wonderful examples, in response my KOMO-TV spot and my follow-up blog entry.  The response has been most impressive.  I, of course, knew that there were many science-based trainers out there, trainers who have never bought into Cesar’s Way or who have switched to more effective methods when they learned of them.  But so many of them read my blog and were willing to share their support!!  I have passed along your comments to Joel Moreno, the KOMO-TV reporter that pushed along this piece and helped to get it on the air.  He also was somewhat taken aback by the outpouring of information and emotion that the piece triggered, at first by upset CM fans, and later from a wave of appreciative trainers and owners.


We have, of course, heard from the CM followers, and as long as their contributions were thoughtful and respectful, we have posted their comments as well.  And the vast number of them (all but one, I think) were just so, and have been posted.  Unfortunately, there is common among these responses the usual defenses.


There have been the outright errors (“CM never kicks a dog”: this has been televised… how can you say that?? or “what he does is no different than what wild dogs or wolves do to each other”: wild dogs and wolves never alpha-roll each other, or choke each other hanging in the air, or shock each other, or force each other into fearful or exhausting situations!).


There have been the caveats (“he only works with dogs that destined for euthanasia”: blatantly not true in his television show, his books, nor his LA-based practice).


There have been the over-generalizations (“only his methods can rescue an aggressive dog destined for euthanasia”: obviously not true, as evidenced by the numerous practices of certified animal behaviorists and board-certified veterinary behaviorists, where we rescue such dogs regularly, and never using CM tactics).


And of course, the big one: dogs misbehave because they lack leadership.  The trouble with this one is that there are too many subtleties: wolves do fine without leadership in many ecological situations, many breeds of dogs don’t recognize social signals of other dogs and no longer possess social structures, and many breeds of dogs that do possess social structures don’t incorporate primates (us!) into that social structure.  So along with the fact that wolves and wild dogs don’t alpha-roll, choke, or shock each other in social situations, many breeds of dogs don’t consider us part of their “leadership”, and can’t be forced to do so.


Some breeds do incorporate us into their social structure, and social structure can be a problem issue in these breeds, when they are not properly socialized or reach certain ages when they challenge for leadership, but even then, they don’t EVER try to alpha-roll, choke, or shock us!  These are not how dogs express social position, period.  So the whole leadership thing, as an across-the-board, general training process, is simply wrong.  Again, look at the science!


But more important than all of this in my mind is the fact that these fans ignore the consequences of his approach.  I have never said that his approach doesn’t work: fear-based methods do indeed cause a decrease in many behaviors.  My concern is for the additional consequences of his approach: the development of learned helplessness leading to severe anxiety disorders, the establishment (substitution?) of fear aggression, and the danger of redirected aggression in these dogs.  The symptoms of these potentially severe consequences (severe enough to require euthanasia) are even visible on his televised episodes, and are frequently reported by owners following these types of training experiences (I know; I have them as clients).


In addition, we have the science of animal behavior research to support these observations.  CM followers (not necessarily CM, who takes an “I’m not responsible for what my followers do with my methods” approach) routinely use these techniques with dogs for which these techniques are clearly inappropriate.  I would happily suggest that dogs differ widely in their response to punishment: some will not be fazed at all, and others will develop serious disorders.  Some will redirect their aggression, some will not.  Punishment is a powerful tool to place into the hands of unsophisticated users, and the consequences of mistakes can be dangerous.


On the other hand, positive learning techniques, which are the more modern, and science-supported, approaches to behavior modification in dogs (and many other species, including humans) are known to be more effective AND are less likely to have dangerous consequences in the hands of inexperienced handlers.  It’s not that the punishment techniques of CM don’t work (at least in some dogs); it’s that the collateral damage is severe.  Positive techniques work (ok, let’s say) as well or better, and are MUCH less likely to produce negative consequences.  Why take the chance of potentially dangerous consequences when you can use alternative approaches and negate those consequences.  THAT’s my issue with Cesar Millan’s techniques.


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KOMO News Interviews Me About Cesar Millan

It’s been an interesting week.  Last Friday, a local trainer and colleague, Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training ( contacted me to ask if I would discuss Cesar Millan’s techniques with a reporter from KOMO-TV here in Seattle.  Millan was in town for a meet-and-greet and fundraiser for a local pet shelter.  I leaped at the chance, as the science that I do as an ethologist very much clashes with his approaches, and I have been working hard to get the word out to the public about the serious side effects of his techniques.


In our practice, we see MANY cases of dogs with severe aggression, and in performing our detailed background interviews and assessments, we find that the dog has gotten worse following treatment with behavior modification techniques similar to those of Millan’s, whether administered by the owner, based on what they think that they know of the methods, or administered by local trainers who use similar techniques.  These cases elegantly support what we already know from the science of animal behavior, called ethology.


What are Millan’s techniques?  They involve a combination of exhaustion, flooding, and a very traditional use of aversive learning, more commonly called punishment.  What is lacking from his approaches is any sort of positive social interaction, rewarding of proper behavior, “positive affect” as it is called by the psychologists.


Exhaustion as a behavior modification technique is now being debated for its role in anti-terrorist torture techniques, and we know from decades of learning research that exhaustion actually decreases learning.  Flooding as a useful technique in humans has lost its adherents due to its potentially negative side-effects and its ineffectiveness: a vaguely similar but much more useful technique is called desensitization.  Flooding is basically the process of “breaking” an animal (or human), a technique now also rapidly losing favor in the horse training world.  Finally, Millan makes heavy use of punishment, but which he, completely incorrectly, describes as being part of dog pack dominance behavior.


We know that the use of any one of these techniques will produce fear, anxiety, and a well-documented phenomenon known as “learned helplessness.”  Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helpless in a particular situation, even when it has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance. Learned helplessness theory is the view thatclinical depression and related mental illnesses result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation (Seligman, 1975).  This condition has been heavily researched, originally by Seligman’s group at Cornell University.  It is one of the conditions we see in post-traumatic stress disorder (a similar condition from which many of the “badly behaved” dogs that are brought to Millan, and to our practice, are suffering), and it is what we see in many of the animals that have been handled using Millan’s techniques.


It’s also interesting to note that we biologists, ethologists, studying the behavior of animals in the world around us would NEVER be allowed to apply the techniques that Millan uses to the crows, primates, killer whales, and other animals that we find so fascinatiing… and we wouldn’t want to: these techniques tell us nothing and do not help us learn any more about our fellow wildlife.


Given that we know that any of these techniques can produce horrible side-effects, one of the worst things about Millan’s approach is that he combines the use of all three.  For these reasons, because we know so much more about dog behavior than Cesar Millan fans realize, because the use of these techniques, especially when we know better, is unethical, I was happy to speak to the KOMO reporter.


As always in the our world, everything is not black-and-white: will Millan’s techniques produce a change in the behavior of a dog, a decrease in aggression in the specific context in which he does the training and in the trainer’s presence?  Yup… and we see that on the National Geographic Channel.  But at the cost of what severe long-term and side-effect consequences, which we do not see on the NGC?


Do I suggest in my own work that many a dog’s problems arise from boredom and lack of exercise, especially younger dogs and those bred for high energy, and do I therefore recommend a greatly expanded exercise program, even training your dog to (voluntarily) run on a treadmill?  Yup… but note the voluntary part!


Do some breeds require a clear social structure and “get into trouble” without it, and do I therefore sometimes recommend affirming and clarifying a social structure, using proper social communication signals that dogs recognize?  Yup, but notice the part about “some breeds” and proper social signals, which do not include shock collars, “helicoptering” a dog on a choke collar, alpha-rolling a dog (wolves don’t DO this!!!), or any other aversive techniques.


The approaches that we, and most of our colleagues, use are based on science, on a knowledge of animal behavior and psychology that has grown by leaps and bounds (little pun intended) in the past few decades.  We no longer use concepts like fixed action patterns, instinctive drift, and nature vs nurture; we know that punishment doesn’t work in dogs… our view of the animals with which we share this planet, and with which we associate every day, has become far more complicated, and far more fascinating.  I love my job!



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Kitten Socialization

Cats, like all mammals, are social creatures.  While cats are far less social than dogs, to think of cats as asocial is wrong.  The degree of social behavior and the ability of an individual to adapt to a changing social environment varies with species (certainly cats are less social than dogs), breed (Bengal cats are less social than domestic short-hairs), and individual personality.  Even individual personality is dependent on factors like genetics (or what we often call temperament) and learning or socialization.  So genetics play a big role, at the species, breed, and then individual level.

A recent study looked at how young cats reacted to familiar and unfamiliar people and to a novel object, and showed that the social personality of the father (genetics) as well as the degree of early socialization (learning) influenced the later degree of social stress in human interactions, but only the genetics influenced the (nonsocial) response to a novel object.  This is a nice example of the interaction between genetics and learning.  And of course, this is true of all mammals.

So cats are less social than dogs… and some cats are genetically at the nonsocial end of the cat continuum.  This means that not all cats can be housed socially.  This is true of dogs as well, just much less common.  But there is that one important variable, learning and the environment, that gives us something that we can manipulate, or a tool to maximize the odds that a cat that we own will be sociable.

The next factor to understand is the concept of critical periods, again common in all mammals.  This is another process by which genetics and experience interact: critical periods are genetically-controlled time windows in the brain in which certain experiences are dramatically more likely to be remembered and to influence later behavior.  In kittens, the critical period for positive effects of social experience is approximately three to eight weeks of age (with some variability, 2-12 weeks to be sure).  Evolutionarily, in the wild, this is the period in which kittens learn who their parents and siblings are: these are “friendlies” with whom you can safely socialize.  These are also “not-mates” thus preventing inbreeding issues.

So cats will generally only socialize well with siblings (who they experienced at 3-8 weeks old), and even this is true only in females… males become entirely nonsocial, except for brief periods for mating.  In captivity, it is VERY difficult to have more than one male in a household, even if they are castrated, unless they were socialized with a lot of other cats in the 3-8 week window.  And remember, this behavior and response is all on a continuum: there are plenty of examples of social male cats but of course, there are many examples of big problems as well.

So given that there is a critical period for socialization at 3-8 weeks, what does this mean for our companion cats?  A common issue is a kitten adopted from its litter prior to 12 weeks and who is wonderful with humans (who handled it in the socialization window), but attacks any other cat.  Or a young cat that was part of a feral litter, who is socialized only with its littermates and has a very hard time socializing with humans, whom it only encountered well after the socialization critical window, or other cats, with whom it was not socialized and perhaps has even had some negative, competitive interactions.

We have been talking about positive social experiences: how about negative or traumatic experiences?  The same effect works in this case: traumatic or unstable social experiences in the 3-8 week window have a much stronger, more lasting effect than the same experiences at other times.  A recent study, for instance, showed that poorly socialized cats exhibited higher levels of stress when housed in a social setting, whereas cats with a positive early history of socialization showed no differences in social stress in solitary or social housing situations.

So what does this tell us about introducing a new kitten into a household?  First, take into account the history.  In many cases, for instance in shelter adoptions, there is very little history, but if there is any information about the personalities of the parents, this may be important.  Then, what is known about the kitten’s early socialization?  Finally, how was the cat housed, and at what age, in the shelter, or even elsewhere?  All of this information will tell you something about how the cat will react to a social situation.

Then, when introducing a new kitten into a feline social setting, the two big rules are: Go Slow and Keep It Positive.  Introductions should proceed slowly, only as fast as the participants want.  Keep cats separated by doors, windows, furniture, or baby gates, and introduce them to each other slowly.  Keep it positive, make everybody want to play the “meet the new cat” game.  Provide food rewards or attention to reward good social behavior: make it a party!  But don’t push strange cats together: each bad interaction, hiss, or fight provides a negative connotation to the interaction, and enough of these just teach the cats to avoid each other as much as possible.  Finally, encourage socialization as early as possible: the more a kitten is handled (gently and without trauma, of course) by as many humans as possible, and the more different cats it encounters (again, in a positive way), the greater the chances of later problem-free social behavior.


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A Reading List in Animal Behavior, Part 1

I am frequently asked about readings in animal behavior.  One of the nice things about practicing in a region like Seattle is that our audience is so well educated.  So not infrequently I have clients who want to learn more, want to read more about animal behavior.  Most often, they want to read more about what we call Applied Animal Behavior.  Applied animal behavior is the relatively new field which deals with the behavior (and misbehavior) of our companion animals based on a scientific approach that extends from the modern academic field of animal behavior, or ethology.  Ethology was historically based in Europe, and is a field of biology and psychology, that is, it is a sub-discipline of evolutionary biology.  The basic precepts of ethology are that behavior has a genetic, and thus evolutionary, basis, overlaid with environmental influences (learning and experience), that we can best learn about the behavior of animals by learning about the behavior of close and distant relatives in natural environments which allow the expression of species- (or in the case of dogs, breed)-typical behaviors.  It is an approach that traces its roots, like all the rest of modern biology, back to Darwin in the mid-1800’s, and one that has been revolutionized, again like many topics in biology, by the DNA/genetics revolution.  The mapping of the entire dog genome at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in recent years has begun to confirm the long-standing assumptions of ethology.


So here I present a highly personal reading list in ethology.  In this entry, I suggest some reading in basic ethology, and in a later entry, I will focus in readings in applied animal behavior.  These are sort of readings, both basic and applied, required of students of this field, beginning at the undergraduate level and right on through graduate or board-certification work in ethology.  These are the books that my students, graduate and undergraduate, read.  And these would provide the foundation for an excellent library in animal behavior.


General Readings in Animal Behavior and Ethology: Textbooks


I have not listed years because there are many editions: the more recent, the better, but any will do.  These are the basic textbooks in animal behavior, with Alcock and Drickamer being the most advanced “serious” texts.  Klopfer’s book is a little different, taking a historical and personality approach to the basics of behavior.


Alcock, J.  Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach

Drickamer, L. et al.  Animal Behavior: Mechanisms, Ecology and Evolution

Goodenough, et al.  Perspectives on Animal Behavior

Maier, R.   Comparative Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary and Ecological Approach

Klopfer, P.:  An Introduction to Animal Behavior: Ethology’s First Century

(a very readable introduction to the history of modern animal behavior)




To understand modern animal behavior, you need to understand evolution, and these books will give you a great start to a huge scientific discipline.


Brackman, A.: A Delicate Arrangement

(a description of the relationship, or lack thereof, between  Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace)

Darwin, C.: The Origin of the Species

(the classic that started it all, not an easy read and not the best introduction to evolution as we now understand it: read it for the historical perspective)

Dawkins, R.: The Selfish Gene

(a wonderful and thought-provoking book about the implications of modern Darwinism)

Dennett, D.: Darwin‘s Dangerous Idea

(a very recent book by a philosopher of science about the deeper implications of Darwin’s view of evolution)

Gould, S.J.: (numerous collections of essays)

(sometimes controversial, always entertaining: take some of it with a grain of salt)

Stone, I.: The Origin

(an historical novel about Darwin’s life: a great introduction to his life and times)


Personal Accounts


I put these here to provide a very accessible introduction to how ethologists think and work.  Many of these have been best-sellers in the population literature, but all provide a glimpse into the world of the modern animal behaviorist.


Fossey, D.: Gorillas in the Mist

(one of “Leakey’s Women,” along with Goodall and Galdikas, this and the next two books illustrate the payoffs to patient, time-consuming field work and the risks of attempting to do science without training)

Galdika, B.: Reflections of Eden

(Leakey student’s study of orangs in Indonesia)

Goodall, J.: In the Shadow of Man

(Leakey student’s study of chimpanzees)

Heinrich, B.: Ravens in Winter

(fascinating and eccentric study of a difficult-to-study species)

Lorenz, K.: King Solomon’s Ring

(very readable insight into the early days of ethology, one of my most recommended readings in behavior)

Mowat, F.: Woman in the Mist

(a different, and more objective, view of Fossey’s work and life with gorillas)

Schaller, G.: Year of the Gorilla

(story of the early work with wild gorillas which laid the groundwork for Fossey)

Tinbergen, N.: Curious Naturalist

(the life and studies of one of the founders of ethology)

Wilson, E.O.: The Naturalist

(autobiography of the brilliant Harvard scientist who established the direction of much of behavior research for years to come: winner of several book awards)




These are books that delve into the details.  These are more advanced, a little “thicker” than most of the books listed above (except maybe the textbooks), but these show you the details, and the future, of research and learning in animal behavior in general.


Axelrod, R.: Evolution of Cooperation

(very readable intro to game theory and the evolution of social behavior)

Lehner, P.: Handbook of Ethological Methods

(the bible for methodology in animal behavior research)

Mech, L.D.: The Wolf

(detailed report of a long-term wolf research program)

Poundstone, W.: Prisoner’s Dilemma

(a biography of an interesting character, John Von Neumann, who invented game theory, and the application of games to human behavior)

Wilson, E.O & B. Holldobler: The Ants

(the main resource on ant behavior: readable too!)

Wilson, E.O.: Insect Societies

(everything you wanted to know about ants, bees, and wasps, and probably more)

Wilson, E.O.: Sociobiology: A New Synthesis

(the book that started an entirely new field)


So that’s my reading list for general animal behavior… later, I will present a similar sort of list but more specifically directed at applied animal behavior, from both an academic and a popular view.  Feel free to leave me a comment if you have a favorite book to recommend, or a question about a book you’ve seen or read, or a specific topic in animal behavior for which you would like a reading recommendation.  Time to read!

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