Understanding Dog Behaviour Through Ethological Approach

Mar 25, 2023 | Dog Behaviour

A landscape image dogs in a natural setting to reflect the ethological approach

What is Ethology?

Ethology, centred on the natural observation of animals, provides key insights into the innate and environmental factors influencing dog behaviour. As a scientific discipline that examines animal behaviours in their original environments, it sheds light on the instincts, genetic predispositions, and environmental influences that shape the behaviours of our canine friends. Understanding and applying ethological principles can significantly enhance our knowledge of dogs and their inherent behaviour patterns.

Kim Brophey a prominent figure in the study of animal behaviour, has innovatively integrated an ethological approach into applied behaviour analysis. Her trademarked analysis tool, “LEGS,” which encapsulates learning, environment, genetics, and self, complements the more widely recognised “ABC” model—antecedent, behaviour, consequence.

The synergy of “ABC” and “LEGS” tools furnishes a holistic perspective on evaluating dog behaviour. “ABC” offers a detailed, forensic analysis, while “LEGS” provides a broader, macro-level examination. Together, they enable a thorough understanding of behaviour, from individual actions to overarching patterns.

In our recent webinar, ‘The Nature of Nurture: Ethology’s Role in Meeting Canine Needs,’ we delve into the fascinating intersection of ethology and canine behaviour. This session offers insightful perspectives on how understanding dogs’ natural instincts and behaviours is crucial in developing effective, humane training methods that align with their emotional and psychological needs.

History and Background

Ethology is the scientific study of animal behaviour in their natural settings. It emerged as a distinct field in the mid-20th century, although its roots trace back to the 19th century when scientists shifted the study of animal behaviour from lab observations to natural environments. The term itself was introduced by Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a German zoologist.

Experts like Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, pivotal figures in the scientific discipline of comparative psychology, have contributed significantly to our understanding of animal and human behaviour gained too. Nikolaas Tinbergen, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, has enriched our knowledge of animal behaviours.

Key points in the development of ethology include:

Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, is considered the founding father of ethology. His studies on birds’ instincts, particularly geese and ducks, highlighted innate behaviours like imprinting, where young animals follow the first moving object they see.

Nikolaas Tinbergen

Dutch zoologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, a Nobel Prize laureate, explored how instinct and learning shape behaviour’s and how animals adapt to environments.

Advances in Ethology

Ethology has significantly advanced our knowledge of animal behaviours, including those of dogs. By examining the inherited behaviours from wild ancestors like wolves, ethologists seek to understand domestic dogs’ behaviours by studying wolves in the wild.

Von Frisch’s Discovery

Another Nobel Prize laureate, Von Frisch’s most notable work involved deciphering the “waggle dance” of honeybees, a complex form of communication through which bees convey information about the direction and distance of their colony and food resources to other members of their hive. This discovery was monumental in demonstrating that non-human animals could communicate in sophisticated ways and altered the prevailing views on animal behaviour.

landscape image designed to illustrate the ethology of dog behaviour

The Evolution of Ethological Studies: From Individual Focus to Social Dynamics

Ethology, the systematic study of animal behaviour, has undergone significant evolution over the decades. Early comparative psychologists concentrated their efforts on evolutionary biology of individual animals, analysing animal anatomy, physiology, and neurobiology. This focus laid the groundwork for understanding individual behavioural traits in the twentieth century.

However, a shift has been observed in ethological studies, where the emphasis is transitioning from individuals to social groups. This change marks a distinct difference between comparative ethology and social ethology. Comparative ethologists traditionally distinguished their work by focusing on the physiological and neurological aspects of individual animals. In contrast, social ethologists delve into the dynamics and interactions within various animal species and groups.

This transition recognises the complex interplay of behaviours in social groups and the influence of these interactions on individual behaviours. In the future, ethologists will need to concentrate more on understanding these social dynamics, as they offer a deeper insight into behavioural patterns. This approach is particularly relevant in the study of species known for their social structures, such as wolves and primates.

Understanding the shift from individual-focused studies to the analysis of social groups is crucial in ethology. It not only enhances our comprehension of a particular animal group behaviour but also enriches our knowledge of their social interactions and evolutionary adaptations.

Ethological Approach to Dog Behaviour

The ethological approach to understanding dog behaviour is based on the premise that dogs, through evolution, have inherited specific behaviours from their wild ancestors. This approach studies animal behaviour, focusing on different types of behaviour exhibited by dogs in various contexts.

Key points in applying the ethological approach include:

Evolutionary FunctionsDogs have roles like hunting, guarding, and herding, shaping their behavior over millennia.
Inherited TraitsInsights into domestic dogs’ behaviors are gained by studying wolves’ social structures, hunting techniques, and communication methods. The epigenetic effects of cohabitation with humans significantly influence dogs’ genotypes and behavioral phenotypes.
Environmental ImpactThe differing environments between domestic dogs and their wild counterparts are recognized, acknowledging how these differences influence modern dog behavior.


Importance of Ethological Approach to Dog Behaviour

Understanding dog behaviour through an ethological lens is crucial for several reasons. It aids in preventing behavioural issues, enhances dog training methods, and strengthens the human-dog bond.

Key points highlighting the importance of this approach include:

  • Behavioural Prevention: By understanding a dog’s natural instincts, owners can provide environments that cater to these instincts, preventing behavioural problems.
  • Training Efficiency: Knowledge of a dog’s natural behaviour patterns enables trainers to develop more effective training programs.
  • Stronger Bonds: Owners who understand their dogs’ behaviours can build deeper and more meaningful relationships with their pets.

Applying Ethological Approach in Dog Training

Applying ethological principles involves the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour emphasising the natural tendencies of dogs This method allows for training that is in harmony with a dog’s innate tendencies.

Key points in applying this approach to training include:

  • Understanding Instincts: Recognising and working with a dog’s natural instincts, rather than against them, leads to more effective training.
  • Environmentally Sensitive Training: Adapting training methods to suit the individual dog’s environment and lifestyle.
  • Holistic View: Considering all aspects of a dog’s life, including genetics, environment, and individual personality, for a comprehensive training approach.

Expert View on Ethology

If you would like to hear more on this subject, checkout our podcast with Kim Brophey. Kim is a renowned ethologist and dog behaviour expert who has dedicated her life to understanding and improving the lives of dogs. With over two decades of experience, she is considered a leading authority on canine and human behaviour, and has been featured in various media outlets, including The New York Times, National Geographic, and CNN.

Kim is also the author of “Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior,” a book that provides dog owners with a comprehensive understanding of their dog’s behaviour and offers practical solutions to common problems. In this podcast, Kim shares her insights on the ethological approach to dog behaviour and how it can be applied to improve the relationship between dogs and their owners.

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.

Contact Information

Should you have any questions about this article, feel free to contact me on:

Email: jim@cbtdogbehaviour.com

Mobile: 07864029933


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FAQ on Ethology

What is the ethological approach to dog behaviour?

The ethological approach to dog behaviour examines dogs’ natural instincts, genetic makeup, and environmental factors, considering the evolutionary functions they were bred to perform.

Why is the ethological approach important in dog training?

This approach is critical in dog training, providing insights into dogs’ behavior patterns and instincts, which allows trainers to tailor effective training strategies, yielding better outcomes efficiently.

How can the ethological approach prevent behavioural problems in dogs?

By catering to a dog’s instinctual needs, such as adequate exercise and mental challenges, owners can see animal behaviours and pre-emptively curb the development of behavioural issues.

Can the ethological approach be applied to animal behaviour in all dog breeds?

The ethological approach is universally applicable across dog breeds, but it should be tailored to account for specific behavioural traits, especially in breeds with strong working or herding instincts.

How can owners build a stronger bond with their dogs using the ethological approach?

Owners can strengthen their bond with their dogs by providing an enriching environment that fulfills their instinctual needs, a natural environment, paired with leadership and positive reinforcement training methods.

Learn more on this topic

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