Ethological and learning principles in understanding companion-animal behavior (Proceedings)


Signs of disease and pain are usually behavioral: a new behavior, a change in frequency or intensity of a behavior, a change in pattern

Importance of knowing animal behavior

  • To meet the needs of the animal -Husbandry, Welfare, Prevent Pathologies

  • So you can recognize the abnormal

  • Signs of disease and pain are usually behavioral: a new behavior,  a change in frequency or intensity of a behavior, a change in pattern


Need to know: the social system of the species you are working with

  • Species-typical behaviors of the species you work with, and how they are organized in behavioral systems.  If you don't know normal behavior patterns, how are you going to recognize abnormalities?

  • Species-typical communication signals

  • How animals learn

  • Signs of pain, distress, and discomfort

  • Species-typical communication signals

  • Have evolved to communicate within a species but similar signals can occur in  a variety of species , e.g., low guttural sounds, direct eye contact

  • Particularly important related to threat, flight, and fear, for safety of self, employees, clients and the animals.  Almost 90% PLIT claims are related to bites. Scratches count for 4.4%.

  • What are aggressive signals, submissive signals, intention signals, signs of fear, anxiety, conflict?


Need to understand:  behavior systems of the species you work with

  • Behavior systems are composed of sequences of behavior patterns that serve a common function.

  • Behavior systems are composed of many types of behaviors:  they can be reflexive, stereotypic, flexible and incorporate learning

  • Examples:Ingestion, Elimination, Reproduction, Aggression, Play, Sleep, Care of Body Surface, Predator Defense, Parental Behavior, Attachment Behaviors (Greeting, Attention Seeking Behaviors, Separation Distress)  Thermoregulatory Behaviors, etc.

  • Ingestive Behavior System of Canids (members of the mammalian family Canidae)

  • Searching and looking for prey

  • Hunting

  • Catching

  • Killing

  • Eating – What affects eating?

  • Pain, CNS drugs, Ambient temperature, Anxiety, Presence of other animals

  • Storing food

  • Cleaning coat

  • Sleeping

  • Care of Body Surface (sometimes included in Comfort Behavior System)

  • Grooming

  • How? Licking, biting, removing insects, scratching against rough surfaces

  • Under what circumstances?

  • Routinely?

  • After eating?

  • After copulation ?  Hair rings in cats



Self, mutual, offspring

  • Dust-bathing

  • Problems with Grooming

  • Ingest toxins?

  • What if animal stops grooming? What does that mean?

  • What if the animal grooms too much – removes all hair? Causes lesions?



  • A German expression (loosely translated “the world around me) used to indicate the total sensory input of an animal.

  • Each species, including man , has its own distinctive Umwelt.

  • Need to know the sensory systems and abilities of animals you work with




  • Influences animals at all stages of development.

  • Not the same thing as early experience

  • Learning is integrated with “innate” genetically programed behavior sequences

  • It is a biological process that is crucial for the survival of many forms of animal life

  • “Learning is an enduring change in the mechanisms of behavior* involving specific stimuli and/or responses that results from prior experience with those stimuli and responses” * “the underlying machinery that makes behavior happen”  (nervous system) ¤ M Domjan, The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 5th ed. 2006

  • There are many kinds of learning:

  • Imprinting- precocial birds, ungulate mothers recognize offspring

  • Habituation- lose of “innate” fear response after numerous exposures of no consequence, e.g., chick and falling leaves

  • Latent learning

  • Classical and Operant Conditioning

  • Taste Aversion Conditioning


Definitions: RW Malott, Principles of Behavior, 6th ED,2008. Pearson/Prentice Hall. New Jersey

  • Reinforcement – refers to INCREASE in a behavior

  • Reinforcement (process) : the delivery of the reinforcer and the resulting change in behavior

  • Positive Reinforcer: A stimulus that increases the frequency of a response it follows

  • Negative Reinforcer: A stimulus that increases the future frequency of a response when the stimulus is removed. Escape- do something to escape the stimulus; Avoid-do something to avoid presentation of the aversive stimulus

  • Punishment: a process that results in a response occuring less frequently. Reduces the probability of a behavior

  • Extinction: Stop giving the reinforcer that maintains the behavior. Eventually the behavior decreases or stops

  • Variables that influence learning – acquisition as well as extinction

  • Immediate vs delayed rewards

  • Continuous vs intermittent rewards

  • Value of the reward

  • Variables that influence the effectiveness of Punishment

  • Contingency

  • The punishing stimulus must be delivered when the problem behavior occurs

  • Think of punishing the behavior – not the animal

  • Immediacy

  • Intensity

  • Schedule

  • Motivation

  • Available alternative response

  • Possible Unwanted side-effects of punishment

  • Anxiety

  • Fear

  • Aggression


Behavior Modification: the application of learning principles to modify behavior.

Systematic desensitization:

A technique used to reduce anxiety and fear responses in a stepwise fashion by exposing the individual to weak fear-eliciting stimuli or, initially, to non-fearful stimuli. Gradually, the animal is exposed to increasing intensity of the fearful stimuli without evoking a fearful response.


A technique by which an animal is conditioned to acquire responses that are physiologically and behaviorally incompatible with undesirable responses.  Counterconditioning is usually implemented simultaneously with desensitization.


A technique in which the animal is continuously exposed to an anxiety-evoking or fear-evoking stimulus until the individual stops exhibiting the fearful behavior.  The stimulus is not withdrawn until sometime after the animal has significantly relaxed. Hence, at the end of the session, the animal is experiencing the stimulus in a non-anxious state.Habituation: the decrease or loss of a response to a stimulus as the result of repeated exposure to the stimulus without any pleasant or aversive associations.



RW Malott, Principles of Behavior, 6th ED,2008. Pearson/Prentice Hall. New Jersey

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

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