Animal Behaviour

Animal Behaviour – a general overview

article by Jill Firth - PGDip AM(Dist)

Animals perform 2 types of behaviour – instinctive behaviour and learned behaviour.

Instinctive Behaviour

For higher mammals instinctive behaviour is limited and can be confined to 4 broad areas:

• To eat
• To drink
• To reproduce
• To survive

These 4 areas are “hot wired” into the animals brain and under the control of the nervous system.

Learned Behaviour

All other behaviours are “learned” and are almost always for the enhancement and preservation of the above 4 areas and in particular the last one – to survive.

Instinctive behaviour is further advanced by what the animal has learned.

Survival Instinct

The release of a neural transmitter (instinct) tells an animal that it is thirsty and needs to drink. The animal has learned where to find water… and drinks. The animal survives.

The release of a neural transmitter (instinct) tells an animal that it is hungry and needs to eat. The animal has learned how to get food… and eats. The animal survives.

An animal’s capacity to learn is a crucial factor to its survival and some animals’ willingness to learn has led to their almost guaranteed survival as our “trainable domestic pets”.

Mostly we train our animals to learn behaviours that are acceptable (house training), desirable (general obedience) and sought after (fetch a ball). We do this by using a range of behavioural techniques such as learning by association, conditioning, habituation etc. But our animals also have the ability to learn behaviours we find unacceptable. The reasons for this are many and varied but the learned behavioural response I come across most frequently is as a result of pain or discomfort.

When an animal experiences pain or discomfort it will alter its behaviour in some way:


Dogs may be reluctant to play or engage in activities, won’t socialise with other dogs, become aggressive etc.


Horses may try to avoid being saddled up, won’t stand still for mounting, they may buck or rear etc.

These behaviours are designed, more or less, in an attempt to not engage in the things that hurt and therefore preserve the chances of survival. A learned behaviour happens in response to a stimulus, in this case pain or discomfort.

Associative Learning

Animals also learn by association - which is a "short cut" and happens when the animal has gone through a learning process. The animal learns to display certain behaviours in particular situations. It then learns which behaviours are "effective" and displays only these most effective behaviours which are further refined to become a conditioned response.

Most animals I see have developed strategies and learned behaviours in order to be able to cope with their lives whilst experiencing some pain or discomfort. Usually this has developed over time into a conditioned response and can be quite ingrained into the animal’s behaviour patterns.

But, once the stimulus (pain) is removed the learned (usually unacceptable) behaviour naturally goes away and everything is hunky dory again, or so you would think……

Unfortunately this does not happen until the animal learns this for itself.

Horse Behaviour

For example, a horse who has been ridden in a tight saddle and developed back pain will find being ridden very uncomfortable. It will therefore develop behavioural responses to try to avoid this situation, and, over time learns which one works best. For explanatory purposes we could say this is not letting you put the saddle on.

Sooner or later, if things don’t change, the horse will associate the saddle (or any saddle for that matter) with pain and the horse is conditioned to display that behaviour, i.e. horse sees saddle and you can’t get anywhere near it!!

So, you change the saddle for one that fits and have the horse’s back done and the behaviour still persists. Why? Because the horse doesn’t speak our language so you can’t tell him you’ve changed the saddle and had his back done and he’s already developed a conditioned response to the sight of a saddle. The horse has to learn for himself that he is no longer in pain, the saddle is comfortable and being ridden is now OK.

Dog Behaviour

Exactly the same principles can be applied to dogs who are reluctant to go up or down stairs, jump in or out of cars or socialise with other dogs. The situation causes a stimulus (pain) which elicits a behavioural response ie. refusing to cooperate or being agressive. Eventually just the situation itself - perhaps seeing the car or another dog - causes a conditioned response.

Sometimes learned behaviours and conditioned responses persist longer than we would like and we have to help the animal “unlearn” a particular behaviour or re-condition them. This is where the owner or trainer enters the fascinating world of animal behaviour and its application to training... either because you need to know more in order to help your animal or you need to find and enlist the help of a specialist.

© Jill Firth PGDip AM(Dist) 2000 - this article may not be partly or wholly copied, reproduced or quoted without prior written consent of the author

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