What is Behavior?

PUBLISHED ON November 1, 2016 by adria karlsson

Darwin’s Dogs is all about the relationship between genetics and behavior. But what is “behavior”? The definition I use as a behavior analyst is “the activity of living organisms” – and that’s a big category. Every time your dog sniffs, flicks an ear, sits for a treat, digs in the couch, pulls on the leash, licks your hand, or cuddles up next to you they are behaving. And behavior never exists in a vacuum. There are things that come before a behavior and the effects that follow.

There are lots of things that organisms do that fall outside of the realm of observable behavior. These are “private events” or behaviors that occur with no visible effect on the outside world- thoughts, feelings, hormonal changes, fluctuations in mood- all of these exist and can impact our dogs in a very real way, but they’re not behaviors. As science has progressed and the tools available to behavioral sciences have improved, some things that were once hidden are beginning to be measurable and are starting to impact our understanding of what behaviors we can affect.

When discussing behaviors, it’s helpful to phrase them as things an animal can do, not what an animal can’t do. This is sometimes called the “dead man’s test”. For example, “My dog looks at the ball and sits still” as opposed to “My dog doesn’t chase the ball”. A dead man can “not chase a ball”, but they cannot “look at a ball”. One is a behavior while the other is a non-event. This also impacts how we tackle problem behaviors. Rather than asking our pets to “do nothing” or “not bark” (both fail the dead man question), it’s much easier to successfully reinforce “lie on your mat” or “pick up a toy”.

Something being a “behavior” is not a judgment. While we all like our dogs to “behave”, what we really mean is we want them to “behave well”. What that means will depend on you, your dog, and your family. Some dogs are behaving well when they chill out on the couch next to their best human buddy. For another dog, being on the couch would be a bad behavior. What matters to your dog is not so much how you define their behavior, but how you respond and what they get out of it. Whether behaviors persist is dependent on what the consequences of those behaviors are.

Lastly, when discussing your dog’s behavior, try to use descriptors that are clear, observable, and direct. “My dog barks at squirrels out the window” is a far better description of a behavior than “My dog is super annoying whenever there are squirrels”. The first is clear, observable, and direct; the second is a judgment with little useful information. When talking about behavior, clarity is everything.

What is a behavior your dog performs that is interesting? Does it pass the “dead man’s test”? Did we ask about it in the surveys?

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