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Ethology: The Study of Animal Behavior

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behavior. The word itself is derived from the Greek words ethos (meaning custom or character) and logos (meaning speech, word, controlling principal, fundamental reason). In order to study the "custom or character" of a species it is necessary to observe it in a natural setting. However, to study the principles underlying the observed behaviors it is sometimes necessary to create different environments.

In short, ethology helps explain the complicated interaction between naturally encoded "innate" behaviors and the environment.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, animal behavior was studied mainly by means of laboratory experiments. This empirical approach led to many great discoveries, such as Thorndyke's "Law of Effect" and Skinnerian behaviorism, with its theme of positive and negative reinforcers of operant behaviors. Ethology became a respectable discipline a few decades later when European behaviorists (ethologists) Drs. Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen entered the scene. These two scientists came up with momentous discoveries, such as imprinting, critical periods of development, releasers of behavior, fixed action patterns, behavioral drives, and the concept of displacement behaviors. Lorenz and Tinbergen, along with bee behavior aficionado, Karl von Frisch, shared a Nobel Prize in 1973 for their contributions to the study of animal behavior. While some of the details of the theories have been debated and modified, the fundamental principles they unearthed still apply.

Behaviorism and ethology are two different ways of studying animal behavior; one is confined largely to the laboratory (behaviorism), and the other is based on field studies (ethology). Each tells us something different about an animal's response, but the conclusions from both disciplines, taken together, explain all that we see and understand about animal behavior.

In clinical behavior problem management, knowing a species' ethology often tells us a lot about WHY the animal is exhibiting a behavior, although learning and conditioning also factor in. To devise a program to modify unwanted behavior, more reliance is placed on behaviorism-based learning theory, desensitization, and classical and operant conditioning.

The Great Discoveries of Ethology

  • Fixed action patterns. Intrinsic, physiologically encoded behavioral sequences (e.g. egg rolling in herring gulls).

  • Sign stimuli/releasers as triggers for survival-necessary behaviors (e.g. the red spot on a gull's beak that signals the chick to peck at it and thus the adult gull to regurgitate food).

  • Imprinting/sensitive periods of learning. Early periods of life in which specific learning occurs rapidly and sometimes with permanent effects.

  • Vacuum activities. A repetitive pattern of behavior that occurs in the absence of external stimuli, e.g. a solitary dog chasing his tail (frustrated predatory drive).

  • Displacement behaviors. Seemingly out-of-context behaviors that occur when an activated drive is denied an outlet through its own natural pathway (e.g. when an animal in conflict starts to groom himself).

    Having a basic understanding of ethology is important to pet owners and animal behaviorists alike. To some degree, many pet owners understand what constitutes typical behavior for their pet's species. They buy "prey" toys for their cats and dogs to play with, assume a role as leader/provider, and nurture their pet.

    When a behaviorist is confronted with a behavior to analyze and/or treat, an ethological analysis is often the first step. For example, an aggressive dog may be performing a species-typical social behavior that requires reconfiguration of family dynamics. Feuding cats may have territorial concerns that can be addressed by environmental manipulation and reconditioning. A fearful dog may have experienced adverse early experiences and may require to be desensitized and alternatively conditioned, with or without the help of anti-anxiety medication. A dog that paces in circles mindlessly may have developed this habit as a displacement behavior following a period of stress or conflict. Compulsive behaviors, in general, are expressed as a logical spectrum when viewed from an ethological perspective. In short, ethology, loosely translated, a study of natural species typical behavior, is absolutely critical to a fundamental understanding of animal behavior and the logical treatment of animal behavior problems.

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