Fixed Action Patterns

Dog going through a fixed action pattern

Fixed Action Patterns are instinctual behaviours seen in dogs from birth, influenced by a mix of genetics and environment. As dogs grow up, they develop their unique FAPs. Though largely determined by genetics, environmental factors like training and socilisation can modify these behaviours. FAPs are initiated by specific triggers and are maintained through neural circuits and hormonal pathways. They are thought to be adaptive, allowing for quick responses to environmental cues, and play a pivotal role in understanding and shaping animal behaviour. The phrase “genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger” aptly captures their essence.


What are Fixed Action Patterns?

Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs) Definition

Pre-programmed, automatic, and stereotyped behaviours triggered by specific stimuli in animals. These behaviours are innate, meaning they are present at birth and do not need to be learned. They are typically associated with survival and reproduction, such as courtship rituals, territorial displays, and predator evasion.

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How do Fixed Action Patterns develop in dogs?

Fixed Action Pattern dog

As a dog grows from a puppy to an adult, it begins to form its own unique set of Fixed and Model Action Patterns. These patterns dictate the way a dog will instinctively respond to certain stimuli, such as the sound of a doorbell or the sight of a squirrel.

The development of these patterns is a complex process that is influenced by both genetics and environment. For example, genetics may determine that a dog has a strong prey drive, making it more likely to chase after small animals. However, a dog’s environment can also play a role in shaping this behaviour.

For instance, if a dog is consistently exposed to squirrels and is repeatedly allowed to chase them, its prey drive may become stronger.

On the other hand, if a dog is trained and exposed to different stimuli, such as learning to ignore squirrels and instead focus on its owner’s commands, its Fixed and Model Action Patterns can be modified over time.

This is why early socialisation and training are so important for dogs, as they help shape and mould their behaviour in a positive way. On the right you will see a perfect fixed action pattern example.

How are they triggered, maintained and optimised?

FAPs are triggered by specific stimuli called sign stimuli or releasing stimuli. These stimuli can be visual, auditory, or olfactory, and are often associated with specific behaviours.

To better understand how FAPs are triggered, maintained, and optimized, we’ll explore each aspect in more detail.

  • Triggering FAPs: FAPs are initiated by specific stimuli known as sign stimuli or releasing stimuli. These stimuli can be visual, auditory, or olfactory and often have a strong association with particular behaviours. For example, a specific song or call from a mate may trigger a courtship dance in birds, or the sight of a rival’s bright colours may provoke an aggressive display in fish. These sign stimuli have evolved to elicit the most effective response from the animal in a given situation, ensuring that the appropriate behaviour is initiated when required.
  • Maintaining FAPs: Once triggered, FAPs are maintained by a series of neural circuits and hormonal pathways that ensure the behaviour is carried out in a consistent and reliable manner. These neural and hormonal mechanisms are often referred to as the “innate releasing mechanism” (IRM) and have been fine-tuned over generations through natural selection. The IRM ensures that an animal’s response is appropriate to the specific stimulus and is executed effectively.
  • Optimising FAPs: The optimisation of FAPs occurs through a combination of evolutionary processes and individual learning experiences. Over time, natural selection favours those animals with the most effective FAPs, ensuring that these behaviours continue to be passed down through generations. This evolutionary optimization results in FAPs that are well-suited to an animal’s specific environment and ecological niche.

In addition to evolutionary processes, individual learning experiences can also contribute to the optimization of FAPs. While FAPs are innate and hardwired, animals may still fine-tune their responses to specific stimuli based on their own experiences.

For example, a young bird may initially display a rudimentary courtship dance but, through trial and error, learns to refine its movements over time. This combination of innate behaviour and individual learning experiences allows animals to optimize their FAPs, ensuring the most effective response to specific stimuli.


Are they adaptive?

Fixed or Model Action Patterns are thought to be adaptive, as they allow animals to quickly respond to important environmental cues without the need for conscious thought. They also help to conserve energy, as once triggered, FAPs are carried out automatically.

It’s important to note that FAPs are not always triggered by appropriate or relevant stimuli, which can lead to maladaptive and problematic behaviour.

For example, a bird’s FAP of nest-building may be triggered in inappropriate places, such as a city park, which can lead to problems for the bird and for the humans who live in the area. A dog herding traffic may become a danger to themselves and everyone around them.

Understanding FAPs in animals can help in the study of animal behaviour and can be applied in fields such as animal husbandry, wildlife management, and conservation biology. Fixed action patterns are produced by a neural network known as the innate releasing mechanism.

There are number of key points relating to FAP’s or MAP’s:

1.       A behaviour independent from learning

2.       An instinctive, hard-wired behaviour

3.       A behaviours occurring as a response to an external stimulus known as sign stimulus or releaser.

4.       A behaviours produced by a neural pathway known as innate releasing mechanism

5.       Behaviours that cannot be changed

6.       Behaviours that must continue once initiated

7.       Behaviours difficult to train because it’s instinctive and controlled by primitive neural organization.

8.       Behaviours are found throughout the species.

9.       The behaviours are adaptive responses, meaning that they have helped the species cope with certain environmental aspects


Examples of Fixed Action Patterns (FAP) in dogs:

  • Play behaviour: Dogs play, which is triggered by the presence of other dogs or human companions, toys, or certain body language. This behaviour can include wagging their tail, barking, jumping, and fetching.
  • Chasing behaviour: Dogs chasing, which is triggered by the sight or scent of small animals like squirrels, rabbits, or birds. This behaviour can include running, barking, and barking.
  • Digging behaviour: Some dogs have a FAP for digging, which can be triggered by the sight of a patch of bare ground or certain scents, such as the smell of underground rodents.
  • Eating behaviour: Others have a FAP for eating, which is triggered by the sight or smell of food. This behaviour can include sniffing, licking, and eating.

The Role of Fixed Action Patterns in Shaping Animal Behaviour

Fixed and Model Action Patterns (FAPs) play a crucial role in shaping animal behaviour. Unlike learned behaviours, FAPs are innate and instinctive and are the result of an animal’s genetics and environment.

Initially, FAPs were thought to be rigid and unchangeable, but recent studies have shown that they can vary based on the context and are influenced by an animal’s experiences.

This has led modern ethologists to introduce the term “modal action patterns” to describe the variability in environmental triggers that can shape behaviour in animals. These modal action patterns can be seen in behaviours related to fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction.

The environment and experiences that an animal is exposed to play a crucial role in shaping its FAPs and modal action patterns.

“genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.”

Dr. Robert Sapolski

Furthermore, it’s important to note that FAPs can be optimized and shaped through practice and repetition, allowing animals to carry out certain actions more efficiently and effectively over time.

This highlights the importance of providing animals with positive and enriching experiences that can help shape their behaviours and improve their overall well-being.


About Me

Jim Gillies, a Certified Dog Behaviourist and Trainer in Glasgow with over 10 years of experience, prioritises canine well-being through modern, science-backed methods. Handling 4000+ cases of 1-to-1 behaviour training, Jim is fully accredited, insured, and recognised for addressing various behavioural issues including aggression, separation anxiety, and more. Jim holds qualifications in level 5 (merit) Advance Diploma Canine Behaviour Management and level 6 Applied Animal Behaviour. Explore his insightful blog and podcast, sharing expert knowledge on dog training and behaviour. Certified by the IAABC, Jim’s expertise makes him a reliable choice for addressing your dog’s needs.

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Fixed Action Patterns

FAQ: Understanding Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs) in Dogs

What are Fixed Action Patterns?

Fixed/Model Action Patterns (FAPs) are instinctive behaviours present in dogs from birth, dictated by a mix of genetics and environment, reacting to certain stimuli for survival and reproduction purposes.

How do Fixed Action Patterns develop in dogs?

As dogs mature, unique Fixed and Model Action Patterns form, influenced by genetics and environment. For instance, genetics could instil a strong prey drive, but environment – like exposure to squirrels and allowed chasing – could amplify this trait.

What triggers Fixed Action Patterns?

FAPs are ignited by specific stimuli called sign stimuli or releasing stimuli, which could be visual, auditory, or olfactory. Example, a doorbell ring might trigger a barking response.

How are Fixed Action Patterns maintained and optimised?

Once triggered, neural circuits and hormonal pathways ensure consistent FAP execution. Over generations, natural selection and individual learning fine-tune these responses, balancing innate behaviours with learned experiences.

Are Fixed Action Patterns adaptive?

Yes, they enable swift responses to environmental cues, conserving energy since they kick in automatically. However, inappropriate triggers can lead to maladaptive behaviours, like a dog herding traffic, posing danger.

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