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Dec 10, 2012


Today I want to begin explaining some basics concepts about the study of animal behavior that later will be of great help when it comes to coach and train our animals.

Ethology is defined as "the branch of biology that studies the behavior of animals", so it is a discipline submitted to the principles that define scientific methodology.

Ethologists seek to understand the reasons that lead animals to behave in certain ways, combining laboratory and field work, combining disciplines such as ecology, neurology, anatomy and psychology. Although the study of animal behavior has been practiced since the beginning of time (it was useful to know, for example, what incited a lion to attack), its boom took place from the second half of the twentieth century when its findings started moving to the behavior of the human being as an animal species.

Exist within this specialty a series of names who, one way or another, have marked its evolution over time so it is interesting to know something about them:
Charles Darwin, could be considered the first ethologist when he published, in 1872, his book "The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals", of great influence among his colleagues of the time, which deals with various aspects of behavior that he considers programmed "genetically" that helped him build his theory of evolution of species.

Konrad Lorenz, the father of modern ethology, delved into concepts like "instinctive behavior" and "imprinting" (identity with their own species) through what he called "fixed action patterns" (behavior patterns, invariable and inevitable, that animals develop in the presence of a specific neuronal stimulus, such as the famous gull chick (Laurus dominicanus) that pecks its mother´s orange beak to encourage her regurgitating reflex to be fed more often (frequent behavior seen in many other birds as WM Bernstein endorses in "A Basic Theory of Neuropsychoanalysis").

                          Gull chick (Laurus dominicanus) pecking her mother´s beak to encourage
                                        her to  regurgitate. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.                  

Karl von Frisch, K. Lorenz´s colleague (with who in 1973 shared, together with fellow ethologist Niko Tinbergen, the Nobel Prize in Medicine), who studied the complex learning and communication system of bees, through sophisticated dances, even able to remember and discriminate colors (something we can teach our parrots as I will explain), which represented a revolution in the understanding of animal communication.

Ivan Pavlov, famous Russian psychologist who delved into the concept of learning by association, leading to so-called "classical conditioning". It was considered that behavior could be of two types: innate and learned, being understood since then that learned behaviors were mainly due to "habituation" or "observation". However, with his better-known "theory of Pavlovian dog", he showed that animals are perfectly capable of learning by association of concepts, so that it is possible to condition (cause) a predictable behavior in the presence of a particular stimulus that strengthens such conduct. Obviously, this finding was a genuine revolution among ethologists, decisively influencing the forms and techniques of animal training.
B.F. Skinner, American scientist named the "most influential psychologists of the twentieth century",
father of "operant conditioning", and as such, the cornerstone of this blog. This theory describes the close link between behavior and consequence (cause and effect) assuming that animals are able to learn the consequences of their own actions (voluntary and not just reflections as in classical conditioning), which allows them to deploy a particular behavior in search of a predictable consequence.

Based on this, we know that if X behavior has a consequence that the animal perceives as positive, it tends to occur more frequently or more intensely (if I stay silent and you give me a peanut as a reward, I will tend to remain silent more often), whereas if Y behavior has a consequence perceived as negative, it will tend to occur less frequently or with less intensity (if I scream and you punish me, I will tend, at the beginning, to shout less). Finally, if Z behavior has no consequences (positive nor negative), such conduct will tend to die out (if I scream and absolutely nothing happens, I will cry, if absolutely nothing happens again, I will scream, but after several cries without anything happening, probably I will give up yelling) and become extincted.

This theory is based on the reinforcement of behaviors, was subsequently tested in many of the most diverse animal species (from fish to elephants) by the disciples of Skinner, Marian Bailey and Keller Breland (her first husband), developing and deepening in all those concepts that are characteristic of this type of conditioning such as "positive reinforcement", "behavioral momentum", "differential reinforcement of alternative behavior" etc., all of them, because of its importance, I will look carefully in future editions.


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