Understand Animal Behaviour to Master Animal Training


Introduction - Influences and Motivation


The study of animal behaviour provides a foundation for animal training, or more generally, animal care. It also provides very real insights and a foundation for understanding human behaviour. If you wish, you may focus on a particular animal or group of animals. Let your tutor know your preference.

Animals do share some behavioural characteristics with people but it can be dangerous to assume too much similarity. Animal behaviour is far less affected by choices reached through reasoning.


What is Animal Behaviour?

Behaviour is any response to a stimulus. It can be any externally observable activity of an animal, or an internal change.

In general, behaviour includes:

- Movement of parts of the body

- Stopping expected movement

- Secretions from the body

Changes in body colour


What is the Purpose of Animal Behaviour?

It is assumed that all animal behaviour is an adaptation designed to support survival, either directly or indirectly. However, this is not always the case. Animals can behave self-destructively, out of habit, or out of boredom, just as humans can. To better understand the behaviour, we should also consider what motivates it.


What Motivates Behaviour?

Genetics is of prime importance (i.e. inherited characteristics). Genetic characteristics are also sometimes referred to as “inborn”, “innate” or “instinctive”. Most animals are genetically programmed to act in certain ways in certain situations.


Experience (i.e. learned characteristics). Experience may encompass terms including “acquired”, “experiential” or “environmental”.  Behaviours can be learned through the experience of interacting with the environment (which includes the people or other creatures in it), or it can be learned through personal, subjective experience (perceptions, thoughts and feelings). In the case of animals, these latter factors are usually difficult to identify.


Since genetic and environmental factors both influence behaviour, it is impossible to distinguish particular causes for behaviour. Particularly in regard to animals, no behaviour can ever be characterised as totally instinctive or totally learned. Even though learned and genetic factors both play a role in all behaviours, the relative significance of each is variable.


Some behaviours in animals can be relatively unlearned and therefore, almost impossible to modify. In such cases, we can determine that genetics is the major influence. Other behaviours are relatively easy to modify, thus mostly learned. In such cases, we can determine that genetics has a minor influence.

Kinds of Behaviour


Three general categories of behaviour are reactive behaviours, active behaviours, and cognitive behaviours.


Reactive behaviours

 Reactive behaviours include stereotypic behaviour which is largely automatic. These are the most primitive types of behaviours which have been fully established in the animal well before it is born. Animal tropisms (automatic orientation responses) such as balancing and positioning are reactive behaviours.  Other tropisms include things such as breathing, avoiding heat or opening the eyes.

Active behaviours

 Active behaviours are developed from inherited potentials. The animal is born with a tendency to act a certain way, but a degree of learning must occur for that behaviour to develop. The process is a little like a computer which delivers pre-programmed responses on demand. The way to act might be built into the animal’s genetic make-up, but it requires a certain stimulus before the action happens. These behaviours in part occur through parental training (e.g. flying, walking, grooming). This is a more elaborate type of behaviour than reactive behaviour. It is believed to occur only in more advanced animals (i.e. arthropods and vertebrates), though there is some evidence that lower order animals can also learn behaviour.

 Cognitive behaviours

Cognitive behaviours are the most advanced forms of behaviour. Genetics provides only a very general influence, and the actual behaviour is more influenced by the environment and experience. Cognitive behaviour is more or less “deliberate” activity. The animal doesn’t just respond to stimuli; it can also “invent” its own actions. Simple cognitive behaviours are encountered in many (but not all) arthropods, and all vertebrates.


Exploration is a simple cognitive behaviour which allows an animal to familiarise itself with new conditions in the environment. Objects are approached, inspected and then moved away from. This action is generally repeated, but with reduced frequency. The most complex environmental factors tend to stimulate the greatest exploratory activity. If mammals are prevented from exploration for long periods, their behaviour can become abnormal.


Play is a more advanced type of cognitive behaviour which occurs to some degree in most vertebrates; but more so in mammals. Play may involve more complex and diverse activity than exploration. Play and exploration together help animals adapt to both their physical and social environment. Lack of play in young animals can lead to social problems later in life (i.e. they make poor parents or don’t react well with other animals). Another more complex cognitive behaviour seen in mammals is manipulative behaviour.



Learned Behaviour


Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov was a pioneer in Classical Conditioning. His theory was based on his findings while experimenting with dogs. Pavlov observed the relationship between an unconditioned stimulus (e.g. a dish of food) and an unconditioned response (e.g. salivating at the mouth). He recognised that this was a natural, unlearned response. He proceeded to experiment with the possibilities of associating another stimulus (light) with the unconditioned stimulus (food), so that the dog would be conditioned to respond to the light by salivating.


Pavlov set up the dog in a soundproof laboratory, with a special device to measure the salivating response (attached to the salivary gland). A light was then turned on following delivery of meat powder by remote control. A high degree of salivation was measured. The procedure was repeated so that the dog was conditioned to associate the light with food. The repetition of this procedure is called reinforcement. It reinforces the association between light and food. When the experimenter turned on the light, without presenting food, the dog still salivated copiously. This form of learning is called "classical conditioning".


The light is the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the salivation now a conditioned response (CR). If the conditioned behaviour is not reinforced (i.e. if the conditioned stimulus is presented repeatedly without the unconditioned stimulus) then the conditioned response slowly disappears. This is called extinction. Extinction is the elimination of a learned behaviour.


Learned behaviour can be unlearned on condition that the reinforcement that maintains the behaviour is totally removed. (If reinforcement is occasionally removed, the behaviour it reinforces may strengthen in intensity).


Classical conditioning may differ in form according to the time lapse between the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus (e.g. food) and the controlled stimulus (e.g. light).

- With simultaneous conditioning, the light and the food are produced simultaneously.

- With delayed conditioning, the light is turned on for a period before the food is presented.

- With trace conditioning, the light is turned on for a while then turned off before the presentation of food.


Different schools of psychology interpret Pavlov's research discoveries in different ways. It was the traditional behaviourists that took Pavlov’s results into their fold, so to speak. They used his research to validate their mechanistic view of human behaviour, perceiving the learning process involved as an automatic process. They adopted Pavlov’s assumption that the learning is based on the temporal closeness of the two stimuli. The conditioned association between the unconditioned stimuli and conditioned stimuli would not, in their view, have occurred unless the two stimuli were presented at more or less the same time.


On the other hand, cognitive psychologists interpret Pavlov’s results in a different fashion. They give more thought to what happens inside the organisms mind. No response would occur in their view, unless the organism was capable of actively processing received information. According to these theorists, the organism observes that conditioned stimuli and the unconditioned stimuli occur together, and stores this information in memory. When the conditioned stimulus is presented, the organism remembers its previous simultaneous occurrence with the unconditioned stimulus, and thus responds in expectation of the uncontrolled stimulus. The difference between these two interpretations might seem small, but their psychological implications are profoundly different.


Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning describes a form of learning involved in more complex learning. The concept of operant conditioning was formulated by B.F. Skinner. Skinner distinguished between operant and respondent behaviour. Respondent behaviour occurs as a direct unconditioned response to a stimulus (e.g. the reflex of the knee or salivating at the smell of good food). Operant behaviour, on the other hand, involves the organism actively performing (operating) in the environment without responding to a particular stimulus. Such behaviour is influenced not so much by causes, as by results that are produced.


Example: We wake up in the morning in a good mood for no obvious reason. Because the mood is good, we smile at people in the street. The result of this friendliness might lead people to be warm and friendly in return, or maybe even initiate conversations with you. These consequences will then lead you to smile more often in order to encourage such positive responses.
Note that it is the outcome of the behaviour that reinforces that particular behaviour. The reinforcement may be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement promotes a particular behaviour pattern because it provides a positive outcome. For example a dog might learn that if it wags its tail and whimpers that its owner will give it a chocolate drop.  The dog enjoys this experience, and so the next time it feels like some chocolate it is likely to repeat this behaviour.


Negative reinforcement is where the behaviour is reinforced because it removes or avoids a negative stimulus or condition.  For example a dog is too hot in the garden so it goes and rests in its kennel.  By doing so it removes the unpleasant stimulus (heat).  The behaviour is reinforced so that the next time the dog is too hot it is likely that it will go and rest in its kennel.


Negative reinforcement should not be confused with ‘punishment’ which weakens behaviour because a negative condition is introduced or experienced as a consequence of behaviour. For example, a dog gets beaten for chewing the furniture. This is punishment.


Skinner's Experiments

A rat is placed in a box containing nothing other than a bar. The rat will explore its surroundings. It will eventually discover the bar, and play with it. In effect, the rat is voluntarily operating on its environment. After a while, the experimenter introduces a food pellet through a food chute to coincide with the times when the rat presses the bar. The rat will eat the pellet, and after that, the rate of pressing the bar increases dramatically. The pellets of food have reinforced the rat’s operant behaviour. This differs from classical conditioning because the rat is not simply passively waiting for a stimulus (e.g. light) to happen before doing something.


Other Influences on Behaviour


Behaviour is also affected by an animal’s biological/physiological condition. When an animal is sick, it may act differently. When its physiological systems or internal chemistry is abnormal, its behaviour may also become abnormal. There are associations that occur between the physiology and the psychology of an animal. For example:

- Chemical processes, such as the response to different types of foods, can affect the psychological state. (Example: Animals may respond differently when they are starved.)

- When animals become stressed, blood vessels may contract and the heart rate may increase.


 In studying animal behaviour, we focus on two broad areas of concern:

- The way the body’s physiology responds to external stimuli.

- The way the body’s internal environment can affect the animal’s behaviour.


External stimuli that can affect behaviour include:

- Stimuli to sensory organs

- Dysfunction of sensory organs


Internal influences on behaviour can include:

- Different foods (including nutritional deficiencies or disorders)

- Secretions of Glands

- Metabolic Products

- Blood and Lymph constituents

- Chemicals manufactured in the body and brain

- Dysfunction of body systems (pain may or may not be a symptom)

- Neuro-Emotional Blockages


Physiological Responses to Psychological Stimuli

Physiological characteristics can be seen to change when an animal’s state of mind is stimulated in some way. Here are some examples:

- An animal is feeling tired, lays down and observes surrounding activity, then becomes more alert/awake.

If the animal lies down in a dark, quiet place, they may be more likely to sleep.

- An animal sees something that is disturbing (e.g. a predator) and their heart rate increases.



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