Dabbling in Ethology

Ethology is the scientific study of dog behaviour. To teach a dog not to chew on your furniture, first you must understand why he is chewing on your furniture. It is not enough to teach a dog a command, we need to understand how a dogs mind works. Human ethology and canine ethology go hand in hand because humans and dogs have shared such close quarters for thousands of years. We need to understand why we behave the way we do around dogs and why they behave as they do around us. Observing canine behaviour and interpreting said behaviour are two different skills. A person can be quite adept at reading body language, but if they misinterpret it, it could lead to serious mistakes. Let’s say that you walk your shy dog in a busy park. The park is crowded and noisy and your dog is panting. You cue your dog to sit but she doesn’t. You repeat the command, louder and with a shrill edge. Your dog lays down and scratches her ear. Why did she do that? She could have fleas. She could have an itch that needed to be scratched. Maybe she couldn’t hear you? Any one of these could be right, but if you take the environment into context you may see a whole other story. The park is crowded, your dog is shy. Anxious dogs sometimes pant. You gave your dog an order, but she was too distracted to obey. You raised your voice and changed the pitch. This conveyed to your already nervous dog that you were anxious, and not in control of the situation. Your dog scratched her ear. Scratching can sometimes be an act of displacement. Displacement happens when a dog is motivated to perform two competing but equally desirable actions. The stressed dog will perform a neutral action in hopes of appeasing you. Grooming, vocalizing, yawning and circling can all be common acts of displacement. In the case of the dog at the park, she wanted to obey the command but was too afraid to. Unfortunately for the dogs, very few people understand this. Many will see this as an act of disobedience and respond in anger. Sometimes yelling, striking or strangling the dog. The poor dog was punished and all he wanted to do was please you. This all too common problem occurs because not enough people understand ethology. Innate behaviours can be directed, but not changed.
Ethologists ask:
1. What is the cause of the behaviour?
2. How did it develop?

  1. Is it genetic behavior? (Digging or pulling on lead, for example)
  2. Is it the result of some past experience?
  3. Is it habitual?
  4. Is the behaviour rewarded in some way? (Extra attention from you, perhaps?)
  5. 3.  What purpose does this behaviour serve?
    Does it relieve boredom?
    c. Does it produce rewards (i.e. raiding the garbage bin)
    Ethologist strive to gather scientific understanding about animal behaviour. They make sure that they can objectively observe any information that they acquire. Once observations are made, they are verified by repeating the conditions and making further observations. If it can be repeated often and in a predictable pattern, then it can be considered as fact. Real trainers will base their training on falsifiable facts. They understand that one dog does not make a study. One method may work for your neighbours dog, but for a myriad of reasons, may not work for yours. Real trainers should be aware of studies on everything from training clickers, to strangle collars to thundershirts. Do not be afraid to question your trainers methods and make him back up any claim he makes. Don’t accept anything at face value.
    Socialization and habituation
    There is a crucial socialization period of 3 weeks to 3 1/2 months where dogs learn to habituate (learn the sights and sounds of their environment) and learn to socialize (learn how to deal with its own species and humans, cats and other animals it may constantly be in contact with). In the 1960s, studies(1) found that dogs raised alone in kennels, deprived of human contact during the early socialization period, were more timid around humans and other animals than those raised in the control group in homes.
    An apparently well kept secret among dog trainers, vets and scientists is that dogs don’t speak English. Wolves are very silent, dogs are a bit more vocal. This may be due to the fact that dogs developed and evolved with humans over the course of several thousand years and picked up our talkativeness. Dogs communicate through smells, sounds, sight and touch. Dogs use postures and gestures to express their status, mood and motivation. Dogs use their ears, tails, mouth, and posture to signal intent. Each body part by itself is meaningless and must be taken in conjunction with the rest of the body.
    A wagging tail means a dog is excited, this excitement can mean he’s happy, nervous, or angry. A tail straight out and stiff can indicate an angry dog. Generally speaking the higher the tail the more confidant the dog. Dogs that are nervous will tuck their tails under their body, blocking their scent glands. Be aware of differences in breeds when reading the tail. Beagles and Shih-tzus, for example, usually keep their tails  up. On the other hand, German Shepherd Dogs and Italian Greyhounds usually keep their tails down. Many breed standards require docking the tails and some dogs are bred without them. Some dogs lose their tails from accident or illness.
    Ears back can mean a dog is scared, nervous or relaxed. Ears forward indicate a curious dog. This may be harder to read in dogs whose ears have been cropped.
    A dog showing his teeth is serious business. He’s showing you his weapons, don’t ever give a dog a reason or opportunity to use his teeth against you.
    Piloerection is when the fur on the back stands on end. The dog is making himself look bigger. Piloerection may occur during play, when the dog is angry, or when he is excited.

1) Scott and Fuller, 1965