Ethology in Training and Behavior – Why Does it Matter?


Trainers are well-versed in learning theory. This is for good reason because a strong foundation in instrumental conditioning is essential for being able to effectively change behavior in dogs. However, it’s not the only thing that matters. There are many other aspects of behavior that are also important. These include development, stress, species-typical behavior and cognition. Before we dive into details in this regard, let’s start with a little history.

Behavioral research really took off in the early 1900s. Many in the field are familiar with John Watson and B.F. Skinner’s work on behaviorism – the study of the acquisition of behavior through reinforcement and punishment. Most of the behaviorism research was taking place in the United States. This research was largely done in labs and the focus was on finding general principles of learning that applied across species. There was a heavy focus on the role of the environment in producing behavior. Watson, Skinner and others in their field fundamentally changed and advanced our understanding of learning and behavior and research in this field is still very active today.

In Europe, researchers were taking a different approach. Behavior researchers in Europe were more focused on observing the behavior of animals in their natural environment, rather than in the laboratory. These scientists were focused on instinct and adaptation, rather than learning through reinforcement and punishment. This approach to animal behavior is known as ethology. Ethology is defined as the study of animal behavior in the natural environment. There is also a particular focus on the cause and evolutionary function of behavior. Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz were two of the most influential researchers in this school of behavior research. You’ll hear more about Tinbergen in a bit!

Disagreements between which approach was best became extremely heated at times, particularly after World War 2. Ultimately, the disagreement came down to the now-familiar argument of whether nature or nurture is primarily responsible for behavior. We now know that the answer is not nature or nurture, but rather that nature and nurture interact to produce behavior. Most scientists now believe that both the study of 1) learning through reinforcement and punishment and 2) ethology are necessary in order to understand and explain behavior. As a result, many of the tensions experienced in the last century have dissipated.

What does ethology add to our discussion of behavior? Ethology centers it’s approach to animal behavior on the role of evolution in behavior. This is put into practice through the application of Niko Tinbergen’s four questions. They are as follows:

  1. Causation – what causes a particular behavior to occur. In dog training terms, we may think of this as the “trigger”. Put another way, what are the stimuli that elicit the behavior? This question is also concerned with the mechanisms that drive behavior. For example, the physiology behind the stress response.
  2. Development – how does the behavior develop? How does a dog learn to bark, for example?
  3. Evolution – how did the behavior evolve? Did dogs acquire the ability to bark from wolves? Or is it something the evolved independently? What evolutionary factors led to the development of barking?
  4. Function – what is the function of the behavior? What purpose does this behavior serve? More specifically – does this behavior increase an animal’s fitness? (Fitness refers to the animal’s ability to pass on their genes to future generations.) If the behavior improves fitness, how does it improve fitness?

The first two questions (causation and development) have to do with the immediate mechanisms behind the behavior. They examine the environmental and physiological or neurobiological causes of a behavior. These explanations are known as proximate causes.

Questions three and four (evolution and function), on the other hand, relate to evolutionary causes of behavior. They consider the adaptive value of the behavior and how it may have evolved. These explanations are called ultimate causes.

For example, we know that chronic stress during development can have profound and long-lasting impacts on an animal. Among other things, it can increase vigilance and anxiety-related behaviors. In this case, the proximate causes of anxiety and hypervigilance are stress during development (environment) which then causes the stress response system to become dysregulated (physiological). This increase in hypervigilance and anxiety seems like a bad thing, particularly from our perspective as pet owners. However, many scientists believe that early life stress signals to the animal that their living environment will be challenging for years to come. If that’s the case, then increased vigilance and anxiety may actually be beneficial by helping the animal respond appropriately to threats. This makes them more likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes to their offspring. This ultimate explanation can help us understand why the relationship between stress and anxiety may have evolved in the first place.

Tinbergen’s four questions are fundamental to the field of ethology. One of my favorite quotes comes from Theodosius Dobzhansky. He said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Although he’s referring to biology, ethology is a subfield of biology and it applies just as much to ethology as it does to biology. This simple, but profound, statement communicates just how important evolution is to the understanding of animal behavior.

I encourage you to spend some time observing your dogs (or other animals) with Tinbergen’s questions in mind. As trainers, most of us are well-practiced at paying attention to the first question and second questions. However, you may be less accustomed to thinking in terms of the 2nd part of the first question (the mechanisms behind the behavior) or the last two questions. Here is a video of my dog. Take a look and challenge yourself to answer the four questions in relation to Finn’s behavior. Don’t worry about getting it right! The important thing, for now, is just to think about behavior from a different perspective. See what you come up with!

(If you have trouble viewing the video here, you can click here to watch it on Youtube)

Here are my thoughts. These are just some brief ideas – I did not take the time to dig into the actual research on this, so please don’t take these as fact! Just educated guesses.

  1. Causation – what causes a particular behavior to occur. The movement and/or sound of the water. I couldn’t begin to guess at the physiological/neural basis other than knowing the stimuli will be processed through the brain and the brain then sends signals back through the body to generate motor behavior.
  2. Development – how does the behavior develop? Almost all behavior is a combination of environment and genetics. So, there is likely a genetic component – certain breeds appear to be more playful than others. Beyond that, I know I really encouraged play and exploration in Finn during development. So, he probably had some natural inclination to play and explore his environment and also learned that exploration and play are reinforcing.
  3. Evolution – how did the behavior evolve? This is an interesting question. Is this type of behavior unique to dogs or is it seen in their ancestors as well? I am going to guess that wolves show similar behavior, though I don’t know this for sure. But, my hypothesis is that this kind of playful exploration of the environment came from wolves (possibly just the juveniles) and is not unique to domestic dogs
  4. Function – what is the function of the behavior? There are many different thoughts on the function of play. One is that it serves as a platform for practicing important life skills, such as hunting. In this case, this kind of reaction to movement in the water could be very beneficial. If there actually was an animal there and Finn needed to rely on himself to provide his food, responding to sound and movement in the water would make him more likely to locate and capture potential food items. Further, if that kind of engagement is enjoyable, it’s more likely to happen in the future even if he didn’t catch anything this time around. Maybe next time it will be a snack! This doesn’t matter for Finn, of course, but it would for an animal living in the wild!

Thnk about these questsions next time you’re observing an animal. Does it help give you new insights into their behavior?

The study of ethology is quite broad and includes many subdisciplines. This include many fascinating topics including behavioral genetics, domestication, behavior and physiology, cognition, play, social behavior and human-animal relationships. There is so much here! Ethology is one of my favorite things (can you tell?) and I can’t wait to start teaching it. My first course is coming up on Thursday, May 5th, 2022 (though the first live call isn’t until May 12th, so you won’t miss anything if you register a little after the 5th). Click here to get more information!


Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

1 comment

  1. Kristina, thank you so much for this blog post. I really connected with it for a number of reasons. I believe that you are very correct; ethology is an essential component of effective training and behavioral modification programs!
    I had never heard of ethology before 2018, when I took the Animal Emotions course with ethologist Karolina Westlund. Not only did it improve my relationship with my own dogs, but also I immediately connected with the fact that understanding the evolutionary drive to behavior in a species–when combined with examining an individual dog’s environment and learning history–would help me help the difficult dogs that I am drawn to work with. (In addition, gaining some basic understanding of neurobiology has helped me better understand those dogs.)

    I am hoping my schedule will allow me to take your course. Thank you for providing this opportunity for owners and trainers. It will definitely improve the welfare of the animals under our care!

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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