The Science Behind Animal Behavior

I’m in the process of becoming certified by the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and taking a course called Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice. The setup of the course consists of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment. Each week I’ll share highlights here from my studies.

When I applied to IAABC for a scholarship, I wrote in my winning essay that one of my reasons for wanting to take their Principles and Practice course was to be exposed to the facets of animal behavior consulting that I lacked. The facet I most lacked was science. The third week of my course addressed biology and genetics, and week seven addressed behavioral medicine. These helped provide me with a science foundation.

Why is it important for animal behavior consultants to have knowledge of science? According to IAABC, animal behavior consultants “need to know about how animals learn and what kinds of tools will be effective in changing their behavior. They need to be able to gather data and use it to measure whether their plans are effective.” A science foundation also provides consultants with the ability to take a critical approach to media coverage of animal behavior. While the IAABC doesn’t require consultants to have a science degree, it does recommend that their knowledge should be comprehensive enough to handle complex cases.

Jessica Heckman, our biology instructor for Week 3, overviewed six fields of biology:

  • Endocrinology
  • Neurobiology
  • Cellular biology
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Basic genetics
  • Behavioral genetics

Endocrinology is the study of endocrine glands and hormones. According to Heckman, hormones are what organisms use for internal communication: they’re how the body talks to the brain and the brain talks to the body. Hormones are chemical messengers that travel throughout the blood stream, controlling and coordinating activities throughout the body.

One of the main hormones is cortisol, which is released during times of stress. Understanding how an animal reacts to stress has obvious implications to behavior consultants. Heckman said that one question that scientists are studying is whether cortisol levels regulate stress or whether stress affects cortisol levels. Understanding cortisol is also important because too much or too little of it can cause long-term health problems. For further reading, Heckman recommended Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

Neurobiology is the study of the nervous system and the brain. Heckman focused on the region of the brain known as the hippocampus, which regulates the production of cortisol and is packed with cortisol receptors. Heckman noted that the hippocampus is the part of the brain that makes associations. When a treat is offered to an animal to get a certain response, she said, the hippocampus is being trained. Of importance to consultants is the fact that the higher the level of cortisol (and, therefore, the higher level of stress and the smaller the hippocampus, the more an animal (and its hippocampus) will struggle to make new associations.

Heckman referred to studies that showed that the size of the hippocampus is smaller in people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and perhaps also in traumatized animals; the implication being that a smaller hippocampus increases the risk for mental disorders. The Stop Being Tired website cautions that “while the brain ordinarily interacts with cortisol with no ill effects, the constant flood of hormones involved in repeated stress responses can actually kill the brain cells within the hippocampus.”

The concept of the Dopamine Jackpot also falls under neurobiology. Dopamine is critical in all sorts of brain functions. Originally, it was thought that dopamine was critical to pleasure (and therefore part of the liking system, but research has begun to show that dopamine is critical to action or (and therefore part of the wanting system). Heckman applies this to behavior, explaining that when an animal hears a click it anticipates a reward, and that this anticipation is what gives an animal pleasure. In other words, working for a treat is about dopamine and the pleasure of predicting a reward. For further information, check out the following video where Robert Sapolsky talks about his research on the anticipation/dopamine connection:

Cellular biology is the study of cell structure and function. According to Heckman, cells are at the heart of all aspects of biology; everything starts at the cellular level. She elaborates to say that cells are dynamic and complex. There is a lot going on with cells that leads to differences in behavior. For example, the brain is composed of a network of cells that process information. Cells make hormones, release them into the blood and take them out of the blood, and read their messages. For these reasons, cells are heavily involved in stress responses. Cells also read and act on genetic information.

. Cells also read and act on genetic information. Heckman compared cells to cities with buildings, roads, and traffic. She also called cells ‘little machines’ because they read genetic code, copy bits of this code to give out instructions, and use genetic code to perform jobs within our body. She also called cells ‘little machines’ because they read genetic code, copy bits of this code to give out instructions, and use genetic code to perform jobs within our body.

Evolutionary biology is the study of evolution, which is the process of change in all forms of life since the beginning of time. According to Heckman, studying an animal’s past gives insights into an animal’s present. In her discussion of evolutionary biology, Heckman focused on the Tame Fox Project. It began in Siberia in 1959, when scientists began breeding foxes farmed for fur. The scientists bred the foxes that were the friendliest and most successful in their interactions with humans. The offspring of these foxes have shown an active interest in humans and are tolerant of new situations. Scientists believe that the study might give them insights into how wolves became dogs.

Heckman also brought up the Dominance Theory, which is based on the hierarchal structure of wolves, and has influenced how trainers work with dogs. . The theory assumes that most unwanted dog behavior is due to the dog trying to be the dominant or alpha dog in a pack. Therefore, dominance theory suggests that the way to solve many behavioral problems such as aggression is for a trainer to establish dominance as a dog’s pack leader.

She instead offered the idea of the scavenger dog, which states that in early days wolves scavenged near humans. Some of these wolves were braver and got more food. In doing so, they became healthier and more reproductive. The cycle continued until the wolves became like dogs. Heckman then raised the question: “Did being a scavenger help dogs more than being a pack animal?” The answer to that question will inform our training techniques.

While reading about Dominance Theory, I also learned that trainers are now also more aware of the fluidity of social hierarchies. Whole Dog Journal contends that, “the presumption that our dogs would even consider humans to be members of their canine pack is ludicrous. They know how inept we are, for the most part, at reading and understanding the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties.” The journal instead encourages us to recognize that successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, and to accept that we’re most successful when we view ourselves as co-existing with dogs.

Being an English major and Special Education teacher, I was concerned about my ability to handle the science presented in this course. For that reason, I appreciate what our biology instructor said in her introduction: “I found these science classes that I had dreaded were now interesting to me. It wasn’t that science was suddenly amazing, but I now had a goal and a purpose for studying it. As they became more relevant, they became easier to do.” As a result of the science modules from IAABC, I earmarked some science webinars.

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