Fearful Behavior—Genetics and the Environment

Fearful Dog (Fearful Behavior—Genetics and the Environment)

Two essential aspects of fear: (1) Fearful behavior has genetic and learned components, and (2) our pets may show fearful behavior because we have taught them that without being aware.

We usually distinguish between rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate fears. The latter are called phobias, i.e., fears that are disproportional to the dangers in question, although some phobias do have a survival value.

Fear mechanisms serve the survival of organisms by producing appropriate behavioral responses. Hence, evolution has preserved it, subject to adaptive changes throughout time and according to the posed environmental challenges. From an evolutionary perspective, the particular fear behaviors of a species may be an adaptation that was useful at some point in the past. The distinctive responses to fear stimuli may have emerged and developed during different periods. For example, fear of heights, common to most mammals, has probably developed during the Mesozoic period; and fear of snakes, usually in simians, during the Cenozoic period. Claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and aquaphobia may also have their origins in evolutionary adaptations.

Predators and prey have different strategies to deal with threats. Their behavioral strategies evolved throughout millennia under the constant struggle for survival. Predators avoid dangerous stimuli by creating distance, escape being the favored strategy. Prey animals freeze preferentially when the predator is still relatively far away, but when distance decreases to a critical value, the animal flees. Thus, flight appears to be a genuine unconditional response to the unconditional stimulus consisting of a predator at a critical distance.

Fearful responses and their intensity seem to be a consequence of predisposing traits, resulting from many gene-environment interactions during the development of the individual. The latest research has established a genetic basis for fearful behavior. Researchers conducted studies with humans as well as other animals. In humans, researchers have been able to study the effect of genetics (family lines and twins) and environment (adoption cases).


Fleeing is the first strategy when facing a threat. Horses seldom gallop in nature except when fleeing from a predator.

Flight is the primary strategy animals use in the face of a threat. This behavior is associated mainly with the sympathetic nervous system, which mobilizes the organism for the so-called fight-or-flight response originally described by Cannon. While flight is an active coping strategy when facing danger, freezing (immobilization) and hiding are passive coping strategies. Depending on species, such a strategy is the next-best option to flight. Animals freeze and hide when escape is impossible. Freezing implies an inhibitory activity in the autonomic system (hypotension, bradycardia), formerly described by Engel and Schmale as a conservation-withdrawal strategy.

Thanatosis, or tonic immobility, is an extreme form of freezing behavior. For example, white-tailed deer fawns (Odocoileus virginianus) can lower their heart rate to 38 beats per minute (from about 155) for up to two minutes.

Whether an animal has a preference for an active or a passive defense strategy is not solely a question of context. Research shows that some animals do prefer one strategy rather than the other. In exactly the same situation, two animals may respond differently. The interesting point is that these patterns, both behavioral and neuro-endocrinal, seem to be consistent. Some researchers suggest that this may explain why some individuals are more resistant to stress and stress-induced malfunctions than others. Researchers found the tendency to react one way rather than the other to run in families, suggesting a genetic component. The experiments were conducted with rats and mice, but we have no reason to suspect that studies of other species would not yield the same results.

Fear is probably experienced similarly in many species. All mammalian species show three different sites in the brain where electrical stimulation will produce a complete fear response: (1) the lateral and central regions of the amygdala, (2) the anterior and medial hypothalamus, and (3) areas of the PAG, the periaqueductal gray, which is the gray matter in the midbrain involved in the modulation of pain and defensive behavior. Researchers have also studied defensive strategies in various species and concluded that human reactions to threatening stimuli are not qualitatively different from nonhuman mammals.


The early development has a critical influence on how animals will respond to challenges, stress and fear eliciting stimuli.

The amygdala seems particularly relevant. We suspect that it may have a significant function in regulating many facets of social behavior. It also appears that threatening stimuli activate the amygdala, which in turn has a decisive influence on the cognitive mechanisms of the individual, including the perception of the environment, selective attention (relevant for learning), and memory.

Conclusion: Not surprisingly, and in line with many other behavioral traits, fearful behavior depends upon two different factors: (1) a genetic predisposition and (2) the influence of the environment. Environmental factors during the development of the young individual may be critical in its ability to cope with stress and fear-eliciting stimuli. Early experiences appear to affect the neural and biochemical systems involved in fearful behavior and in dealing with stress—as well as learning processes and the capacity to deal with threatening stimuli in adulthood. Maternal prenatal stress may also produce changes in the brain morphology of the fetus and, consequently, in its way of reacting to stress and fear-eliciting stimuli, later in life.

While some fear responses are innate, others are learned. Conditional fear provides a critical survival-related function in the face of a threat by activating a range of protective (or defensive) behaviors. Therefore, we can presume that all animals will be ready to identify and retain the memory of any stimulus or situation they have perceived as potentially dangerous or threatening. Thus, it is natural and easy for animals to develop fearful behavior.

Watson demonstrated how fear could be a conditioned response with his famous (or infamous) experiments on Little Albert in 1920, who learned to fear a white rat. Some of the fear behavior of our pets, particularly dogs and cats, are created by us. An event that in itself might pass nearly unnoticed may be blown up to a disproportionate relevance if associated with a strong reaction of the owner. Dogs (and children) often face situations with unexpected and somehow aversive results, which they would soon forget if it weren’t for the exaggerated reaction of the owners (parents). All living organisms are, in principle, prepared to deal with discomfort, aversive experiences, and failure. The problem is when these assume proportions out of context because they are additionally reinforced. For example, many dogs fear strangers because their owners fear that the dogs fear strangers, and their reactions reinforce the dogs’ disposition to be cautious about strangers. Often, and unaware of it, the owner reinforces the fearful response while attempting and believing that he/she is reassuring the dog. That is conditioned (learned) fear behavior.

We saw it clearly in the 1980s when we performed some experiments at Ethology Institute. A litter of puppies from a suspected line of dogs prone to show fearful behavior exhibited entirely distinct behaviors one year after we had placed them in six different homes. The dogs reflected, indeed in a significant degree, the attitude of their owners toward novelty and challenges. We repeated the experiment with another litter, this time from a confirmed non-fearful line, and the eight puppies showed the same tendency again when we tested them one year later. Even though there was a tendency for the dogs from the fearful line to be on average more cautious and the others to be bolder, they overlapped one another in the middle range of responses. Our tests did not include enough animals to enable us to draw a conclusive answer as to the question of genetics versus the environment in this aspect. However, they pointed out the importance of the environment, at least in what concerns the average domestic setting in which we can expect dogs to grow.


Cannon, W. B. (1915). Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. New York, NY: Appleton.

Engel, G. L. and Schmale, A. H. (1972). Conservation withdrawal: a primary regulatory process for organic homeostasis. In: Physiology, Emotions and Psychosomatic Illness. New York, NY: Elsevier; 1972:57–95.

Kavaliers, M. and Choleris, E. (2001). Antipredator responses and defensive behavior: ecological and ethological approaches for the neurosciences. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2001;25:577–586.

Koolhaas, J. M. et al. (1999). Coping styles in animals: current status in behavior and stress-physiology. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1999;23:925–935.

McFarland D. (1987). The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp, J. (1998). The sources of fear and anxiety in the brain. In: Panksepp J, ed. Affective Neuroscience.New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1998:206–222.

Parmigiani, S., Palanza, P., Rodgers J. and Ferrari, P. F. (1999). Selection, evolution of behavior and animal models in behavioral neuroscience. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1999;23:957–970.

Perrez, M. and Reichert, M. (1992). Stress, Coping, and Health. Seattle, Wash: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. Sep 2002; 4(3): 231–249.

Watson, J. B. (1970). Behaviorism. 7th ed. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Weinstock, M. (2001). Alterations induced by gestational stress in brain morphology and behaviour of the offspring. Prog Neurobiol. 2001; 65:427–451.

Featured image: Dog showing fearful behavior. Paw lifting indicates a beginning of pacifying behavior (photo by Lifeonwhite).

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Fearful Behavior—the Making of a Definition

Fearful Behavior (The Making of a Definition)

We have discussed aggressive behavior (1 and 2). We shall now examine fearful behavior beginning (as always) with a definition, but first, let us look at existing definitions.

“Fear is an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger (Merriam-Webster).” As a dictionary definition (and that’s what it is), it works, but we need to be more precise.

“Fear is the unpleasant emotional state consisting of psychological and psychophysiological responses to a real external threat or danger.” (Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition). This definition is more precise than the former. However, to evaluate it correctly, we need first to define threat, particularly as to what real external threats are versus what the text leaves us presuming are not real threats. Second, the term unpleasant is vague. How can we observe psychological responses? We cannot. What we observe are behavioral changes, but that is not what the definition says. We can measure some psychophysiological responses, but I wouldn’t rely entirely and solely on them to analyze the consequences of a frightening experience.


When facing a threat, and flight is not possible, the next best option is to hide and freeze (photo from Molly’ s Just You Only Better).

“Fear is a normal emotional response to consciously recognized external sources of danger such as those often associated with loud noises, threatening gestures, strange people and thunderstorms; it is manifested in animals by flight, by attack or by cringing.” (Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary, 3 ed.). This definition contains the explanation of real threats (consciously recognized external sources of danger) that we missed above. It also gives us examples. Whether fear is manifested by flight, by attack or by cringing is controversial for an ethologist because these all have different functions. They appear together is this definition, probably because veterinarian science tends to classify behavior by symptoms (as is the practice in its field) and not function as evolutionary biologists (and ethologists) do. A fearful stimulus may trigger an attack (function=eliminate a threat), but an attack is aggressive behavior, even when defensive (function=eliminate competition), and cringing (a term not commonly used in the behavioral sciences) may signify submissive behavior, which is not the same as fearful behavior (function=eliminate a social threat).

“Fear is an emotion induced by a threat perceived by living entities, which causes a change in brain and organ function and ultimately a change in behavior, such as running away, hiding or freezing from traumatic events.” (Wikipedia). That is a good definition. It relates emotion with behavior, which is always sweet music to the ethologist’s ears, who prefers to deal with observable and measurable phenomena rather than the occult emotions. Running away, hiding or freezing are compatible as to function, so we have no problem with that. Traumatic events, on the other hand, requires an explanation.

Emotions are experienced and expressed at three different levels: (1) the psychological level, (2) the neurophysiological level, and (3) the behavioral level. All three aspects are present in all emotions. While psychologists focus on the first level and psychiatrists on the second, ethologists concentrate on the third.

“The main function of fear and anxiety is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses. For some authors, fear and anxiety are indistinguishable, whereas others believe that they are distinct phenomena.” (Steimer). That is a short, precise, and strong definition. It gives us the function of fear and points out an important distinction to a related term, anxiety, which “[
] is a generalized response to an unknown threat or internal conflict, whereas fear is focused on known external danger.”

Steimer’s and my definition are fully compatible. Here is mine:

“Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat, e.g., fleeing, freezing, or hiding. Submissive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e., losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury, e.g., and highly depending on species, lying down on the back, assuming a low-profile body posture, or turning the neck away.”

My definition is identical to Steimer’s, only focusing on the behavior and compiling all triggering factors under one label, threats. Moreover, I prefer to pinpoint the distinction to the related submissive behavior (instead of anxiety). Mine is a more extreme ethological definition and has the advantage of adding an explanation of submissive behavior. Steiner’s has the advantage of relating to anxiety and is more likely to be adopted by human psychologists and psychiatrists.

Both Steimer’s and my definition require a definition of threat. Steimer does not explicitly give us one. However, I do, and one, which is compatible with both our definitions.

“A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may result in the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury.”


When facing a social-threat, submissive behavior is the best option. This dog shows what ethologists call active-submissive behavior (photo from safekidssafedogs).

I’m compelled (Steimer is not) to distinguish between threat and social-threat because, in my definition, I pinpointed the difference between fearful and submissive behavior.

I have used a term that also needs a definition, namely, mate.

“Mates are two or more animals that live close together and depend on one another for survival. Aliens are two or more animals that do not live close together and do not depend on one another for survival.”

McFarland explains fear as a motivational state triggered by particular stimuli that give rise to defensive behavior or escape. Fear is one of the primary motivators because of its life-saving function. Newborns and infants show innate fear responses to particular stimuli that may harm them. Also, environmental disturbances require habituation. Their fear of novelty loses its strength gradually and only comes back much later when trying new ways amounts to the spending of more energy (heavily penalized in nature) than doing it as they always have done.

Fear sometimes occurs in conjunction with other motivators. Approach-escape conflicts are typical examples and often result in displacement behavior as, for instance, self-grooming. We may argue that displacement behavior indicates the kind of fear that psychologists call anxiety. However, ethologists need not introduce a new term because the definition of fear includes the biological aspects of anxiety.

Even if anxiety and fear are probably distinct emotional states, there may be some common aspects in their brain and behavioral mechanisms. As Barlow says, anxiety may just be a more elaborate form of fear enabling the individual with an increased capacity to adapt and plan for the future. In Steimer’s words, “If this is the case, we can expect that part of the fear-mediating mechanisms elaborated during evolution to protect the individual from an immediate danger have been somehow ‘recycled’ to develop the sophisticated systems required to protect us from more distant or virtual threats.”

When describing animal behavior, it is more useful to refer to fear and fearful behavior than anxiety. Additionally, we must bear in mind that fearful is an adjective of behavior. To label a particular animal as fearful might be to go over the top. An animal may show fearful behavior, and rightly so, in certain situations and not in others.

Fear and fearful behavior evolved with the vital function of protecting the individual and are, therefore, mechanisms, which we may presume to have a strong genetic correlation. Animals of different species show fearful behavior to different stimuli and in different degrees. It is natural and normal for almost all animals (if not all) to get startled by a loud noise or a sudden movement. Horses and Guinea pigs get startled by more and different stimuli than dogs because they are prey animals, but they come over it quickly. They are not more fearful animals per se—they are just different, and comparison at this level is meaningless.

Two essential aspects of fear: (1) Fearful behavior has genetic and learned components, and (2) not seldom, our pets show fearful behavior because we have taught them that without being aware. These are the topics for the following article.




  • Barlow, D. H. (2000). Unraveling the mysteries of anxiety and its disorders from the perspective of emotion theory. Am Psychol. 55:1247–1263.
  • LeDoux, J. (1998). The Emotional Brain. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • McFarland D. (1987). The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. Sep 2002; 4(3): 231–249.
  • Strongman, K. T. (1996). The Psychology of Emotion. Theories of Emotion in Perspective. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & sons.
  • Watson, J. B. (1970). Behaviorism. 7th ed. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Featured picture: Fearful and submissive behavior overlap. Fearful behavior is always submissive but it makes sense to distinguish between the two because some submissive behavior is not particularly fearful (rather respectful, in human terms). This excellent photo by Monty Sloan shows this overlap of motivational factors. The highlighted wolf shows more submissive and less fearful behavior than expected, given the clear aggressive and dominant display of its opponent. That is a sure indicator that they are mates, i.e., belong to the same pack.

Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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Aggressive Behavior—Inheritance and Environment


This dog shows self-confident (dominant) aggressive behavior. This is instrumental aggressive behavior (photo from dog-adoption-and-training-guide).


This dog shows insecurity and aggressive behavior. This may be reactive-impulsive aggressive behavior, but may also be learned behavior (photo by petexpertise.com).


This dog (to the right) shows learned aggressive behavior. It may be impulsive-reactive, but it does not need to be (photo by onegreenplanet.org).

Having dealt with the definition of aggressive behavior in an earlier article, we will now analyze the various types of aggressive behavior and their correlation to genetics. Although a strong definition of aggressive behavior is a promising step to understand it, we have not resolved all matters and still need to clarify a few other terms. Note that in the following, to make it shorter, we will use aggression and aggressive behavior interchangeably. 

When studying human aggression, it is common to subdivide it into two types: (1) instrumental aggression, which is purposeful or goal-oriented; and (2) reactive-impulsive aggression, which is elicited by loss of emotional control and often manifests itself as uncontrollable or inadequate actions.

Let us also note that, “Aggression differs from what is commonly called assertiveness, although the terms are often used interchangeably among lay people (as in phrases such as ‘an aggressive salesperson’” in Quadri and Vidhate’s words. They also state, “Predatory or defensive behavior between members of different species may not be considered aggression in the same sense.” I would go a step further and insist we do not consider these behaviors as aggressive behavior in any sense.

Aggression Types

A distinction in types of aggressive behaviors is between (1) pro-active (also controlled and instrumental) and (2) reactive-impulsive. The former is not an end in itself, only the means to achieve a goal. There are no strong emotions involved. On the contrary, its effects depend on deliberate and well-timed action. The latter has no goal in itself and is marked by intense emotions. In short, researchers of aggressive behavior in children have found it helpful to distinguish between reactive (impulsive) from proactive (instrumental) aggression.

Modern frustration-aggression theory claims that anger is a reaction to an aversive experience, including frustration. It emphasizes the importance of moral violation as justifying the expression of aggressive behavior.

The question is whether we also find these types of aggressive behavior in animals other than Homo sapiens sapiens. Being an evolutionary biologist and a good Darwinist, I am always highly suspicious of any statement claiming that a trait is exclusive to one single species. The odds of that happening are worse than winning the big lottery.


Do animals other than humans have morality, and will they fight for a cause? That is a difficult question because I cannot envisage any way of verifying it. In that sense, some would even call it a meaningless question. 

Let us analyze the evidence we have. We know that some animals show empathy and altruism, widely recognized as conditions for morality. Shermer points out that humans and other social animals share the following characteristics: “[
] attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group.”

However, we can account for all these characteristics in terms of evolutionary costs and benefits and using models based on evolutionarily stable strategies. We need not introduce a new term, morality, to explain that. Therefore: if humans show moral behavior, so do other species, albeit differently. What we might need to concede is that sometimes quantitative differences amount to qualitative differences. Hence, showing these traits to such a high degree, as is the case in humans, justifies us coining a new term, morality.

Suppose that is the case (and I’m only theorizing). Then, it makes sense to label some human behavior as moral and disregard the possibility of morality in other animals (unless remarkable discoveries enlighten us differently).

Thus, if it does not make sense to analyze non-human animals’ behavior in terms of morality, then it follows that we can neglect reactive-impulsive aggression caused by violation of moral rules in those animals.

However, we cannot dismiss the same behavior caused by loss of emotional control because non-human animals can also lose control over their emotions. The tricky part here is, as always, the term emotion, which is vague and, therefore, one that biologists prefer to avoid.



Emotions and Reactive-Impulsive Aggressive Behavior

What is an emotion? According to Schacter, an emotion is “[
] a positive or negative experience that is associated with a particular pattern of physiological activity” caused by hormones, neurotransmitters, dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, and GABA. We find all these in some non-human animals; therefore, if we can accept the above definition of emotion, we must concede that if we can show emotional behavior, so can they.

The only way it makes sense when dog people speak of dogs being reactive (meaning they growl, snarl, attack, or bite someone) is that dogs display reactive-impulsive aggressive behavior. It is still, by all means, aggressive behavior, just one type that may or may not exist to some considerable degree in non-human animals, depending on whether I am right or wrong in my theorizing.

Recognizing and identifying reactive-impulsive aggression may be advantageous because research shows that it may be easier deterred than instrumental aggressive behavior. Reactive-impulsive aggression appears to result from a distorted perception of competition, the aggressive individual not realizing that there are evading routes, and enhanced by the inability to control the associated emotions. There is also evidence that reactive-impulsive aggression (contrary to instrumental aggression) is related to low serotonin levels in the brain. On the other hand, classifying all canine aggressive behavior as reactive-impulsive, as it seems to be the practice these days, may turn into a fatal mistake with extremely severe consequences.

A dog displaying aggressive behavior can show it self-confidently (what we, ethologists, call dominant behavior) or insecurely (showing submissive behavior—not fearful). The former is not reactive-impulsive—it is instrumental and goal-oriented. The latter might be if the dog does not realize that a clear display of submissive behavior or flight would solve the problem. This kind of aggressive behavior may be: (1) the consequence of inadequate imprinting and socialization (the dog did not learn how to solve social conflicts), (2) the result of inadvertently reinforced behavior. Dog owners reinforce their dog’s reactive-impulsive aggressive behavior attempting to do what they call ‘calming down the dog.’ The dog growls, they say, “quiet ” (or similar), the dog looks at them, and they reinforce that with a treat and a “good job.” It doesn’t take many repetitions for the dog to learn that displaying aggressive behavior provides attention and food.

The term reactive does not belong to ethology, which classifies behavior by function. I don’t know how it came into dog training, but I suspect a psychologist introduced it, and dog people liked it because it sounded better to say, “My dog is reactive” than “My dog shows aggressive behavior.” Ironically, the term places the full responsibility for unwanted behavior on the owners—reactive-impulsive aggression is either the result of poor imprinting/socialization or inadequate training.


Is Aggressiveness Inherited?

Heritability studies attempt to determine whether a trait passes from parent to offspring. Some genetic lines in many birds, dogs, fish, and mice seem to be more prone to aggression than others. Through selective breeding, we can create animals with a tendency to show more aggressive behavior.

Some aggressive behavior is evolutionarily advantageous, and some are not and might be an impediment to social cohesion. Maynard Smith states that it is not surprising for aggressiveness to have a strong genetic correlation, given the high likelihood of both potentially positive and negative selective discrimination throughout evolution.

Research has uncovered many factors that contribute to aggressive behavior. Disruption of the serotonin system is a highly significant feature in predisposing aggression. There is a correlation between testosterone levels and aggression. Extremely low levels of blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may elicit physiological changes and aggressive behavior.

Most researchers agree that we must consider the influence of genes, not in isolation, but as functioning in the whole genotype, as well as the effect of the environment. Thus, future research in the genetics of aggressive behavior may very well focus on epigenetic factors.

Doubtless, most behavior traits, except simple reflexes, contain a genetic plus an environmental component. No behavior will develop without the appropriate genetic blueprint, and no behavior (again except for a few simple patterns) will show in the absence of the correct environmental stimuli.

It is probable each organism filters and selects stimuli from a wide range in its habitat according to its genetics, thereby creating its uniqueness of experiences. As Bock and colleagues say, we make our own environment. I have no reason to suspect that the same does not happen with other animals.





  • Akert, R. M., Aronson, E., & Wilson, T.D. (2010). Social Psychology (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Blair R. J. R. (2004) The roles of orbital frontal cortex in the modulation of antisocial behavior. Brain Cogn55:198–208.
  • Bock, Gregory R. and Goode, Jamie A. (eds.) (1996). Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Craig, I. W., Halton, K. E. (2009). Hum Genet (2009) 126:101–113.
  • Javeed, Q. S. and Vidhate. N. J. (2012). A Study Of Aggression And Ego Strength Of Indoor Game Players And Outdoor Game Players. Indian Streams Research Journal, Volume 2, Issue. 7, Aug 2012.
  • Maynard Smith, J, Harper, D. G. C., Brookfeld, J. F. Y. (1988) The Evolution of Aggression: Can Selection Generate Variability? Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 319:557–570.
  • McCauley, C. (2000) Some Things Psychologists Think They Know about Aggression and Violence. In Teaching About Violence, Vol 4. Spring 2000)
  • Miles DR, Carey G (1997) Genetic and environmental architecture of human aggression. J Pers Soc Psychol72:207–217.
  • Nelson, Randy Joe (ed.) (2006). Biology of Aggression. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Schacter, Daniel L. (2011). Psychology Second Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.
  • Shermer, M. (2004). The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Times Books.
  • Siever LJ (2008) Neurobiology of aggression and violence. Am J Psychiatry 165:429–442
  • Tremblay R. E., Hartup W. W., Archer, J. (2005) Developmental origins of aggression. Guildford Press, New York.
  • Yamamoto H, Nagai K, Nakagawa H. (1984). Additional evidence that the suprachiasmatic nucleus is the center for regulation of insulin secretion and glucose homeostasis. Brain Res 304:237–241.

Featured image: These two dogs are both equally self-confident (showing equal dominant behavior). Any aggressive behavior deriving from this situation will not be reactive-impulsive, but instrumental (photo from dog time.com).

Learn more in our course Agonistic Behavior. Agonistic Behavior is all forms of aggression, threat, fear, pacifying behavior, fight or flight, arising from confrontations between individuals of the same species. This course gives you the scientific definitions and facts.

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Love Your Dog the Whole Year

The big summer vacation is setting in all over most of the western world. Children have finished school for this (school) year. It’s a good, but also a stressful period.

At the Institute, every year, our IT department experiences its ‘low season’ in June-July and again in December. For us, IT does not stand for Information Technology, but Individual Training. Our activity of treating problem behavior individually predates the upsurge of computers and their IT acronym.

June-July is the big summer holiday season. Those who stay home have more time to give to their pets, which is good, but can also create problem behavior if we are not careful. Having more time at their disposition means that most dog owners spend more time with their dogs—more and longer walks, maybe a bit more training, but most of all much more time together.

All organisms are more or less sensitive to routine changes, and our dogs are not exceptions. The increase in activity with the children at home can imply some stress, and many dogs do not respond well to that. Some of them become restless, hyperactive.

Another problem occurs with being home alone, which our statistics shows clearly. If June-July and December are low seasons, then August and January are high seasons for canine problem behavior. Having been together with their owners almost 24-7 for a longer period, many dogs react poorly when the school and work routines set in again. From one day to the other, without any explanation (for them) all the razzmatazz disappears, and they are left home alone. They have been extremely busy for a period, and unexpectedly nothing happens around them.

From having company around the clock to being alone eight hours a day, or from being active most of the day to suddenly having nothing to do, creates problems.


Summer holiday—a great time for the whole family, including the dog. However, we must be attentive to problems we may be creating without being aware of it.

What can we do to prevent our dogs from developing behavior problems during the long holidays?

The time we spend with our dogs should be quality time more than quantity time (I guess this applies to all relationships). More time during the long holidays is good because we can focus on training our dogs in some skills, which maybe we’ve wished to do, but couldn’t because of our busy working schedule.

To prevent home alone problems from showing up after the holidays, we should maintain periods during the day in which the dog is unattended. This will also prevent the worst of the hyperactive behavior that may develop due to the higher level of stimulation. Instruct the children to leave the dog alone at set times and explain to them why this is important.

As to the activities, you can do with your dog, try to avoid the empty, stressing activities like ball throwing and chasing. Focus on the more meanings full searching games instead—nose work or scent detection as you prefer to call them. These are activities that tire the dog without creating hyperactive behavior. You can even teach your children these searching games. They will spend some good times with their dogs developing a healthy relationship. It is my experience that children are great with animals if we, adults, give it the necessary time to instruct them correctly.

If you go abroad on holidays, remember that boarding a dog is stressful for the dog independently of the quality of the boarding venue. The best of them will provide suitable conditions for the dog to satisfy its needs for contact and exercise, but it is still a break in the usual home routine. Be prepared to reintroduce the homely routines when you return from what I hope has been an enjoyable holiday trip to an inspiring foreign country. It does not need to be difficult if you are aware of it and do it systematically.

Other pets than dogs are also affected by our long holidays. Cats may become extremely restless during the holidays and seek refuge. Horses may show stereotypies when returning to the pre long holiday routine, if you have spent much more time with them. Even parrots have shown some problem behavior because of the disruption of the daily schedule.

It’s curious how our minds focus on irrelevant contexts and forget essential ones. For example, no canine has evolved to expect food presented at set times, and yet most dog owners insist in serving their dogs the daily rations by the clock. On the other hand, no canine has evolved to see their family-pack increase/decrease their level of activity dramatically from one day to the other (like with holidays) or to be moved suddenly to a totally unfamiliar location with a new fauna, and yet many dog owners don’t even give it a thought.

Our responsibility toward our dog is a whole year activity (as it is to be a parent). To love those we are responsible for means to provide them with what they need so that they can develop harmoniously, and, hopefully, create their own happy life. To love is a full-time job with no time off allowed.

Please, share this link with your clients, if you’re a dog trainer, and with your dog owner friends. If it only can help a few, preventing their dogs to develop problem behavior, then it’s worth it. It would be wonderful if we’d go out of business in what concerns treating problem behavior in pets, wouldn’t it? Alas, I don’t think that to be a realistic expectation anytime soon, but we can all do our part to help it move in the right direction.

Enjoy your holiday and keep smiling. Yes, life is great!

Featured image: Love is a full-time job (photo by Lauren Grabelle).

Aggressive Behavior—the Making of a Definition


Aggressive and dominant (self-confident) behavior (picture from dogsquad).


Aggressive and submissive behavior (not fearful).
This is the behavior a cornered dog shows when pacifying, submission and flight don’t work (picture from doggies).


Aggressive and submissive behavior (ears down, long mouth, smaller eyes) (picture Cesar’sWay).


Growling and snarling are also aggressive behaviors (picture askmen)

Contrary to what you might suppose, aggressive behavior is difficult to define. “Lack of agreement regarding definitions of aggressive behavior has been a significant impediment to the progress of research in this area,” writes Nelson in 2005 in his big book ‘Biology of Aggression.’

Why is a good definition necessary? Because only then do we know what we are discussing.

I have never been quite satisfied with my own definition, and it nags me, worse than a mosquito bite, when I can’t come up with a good definition. I have often returned to it changing a comma or two to see if it improved. Alas, to no avail, updated versions were marginally better, but not resoundingly so.

My original definition, let me remind you, was: “Aggressiveness (or aggressive behavior) is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition. It can range from displays of intent, like growling, roaring and stamping to injuring behavior like biting, staging, kicking.”

Not bad, but could be better. I checked many other definitions to analyze their strengths and shortcomings, hoping to get the necessary inspiration to come up with a really good definition.

A— “Aggressive behavior is behavior that causes physical or emotional harm to others, or threatens to. It can range from verbal abuse to the destruction of a victim’s personal property” (www.healthline.com/health/).

Not bad, but not precise enough to use in the biological sciences.

B— “Aggression is a forceful behavior, action, or attitude that is expressed physically, verbally, or symbolically. It may arise from innate drives or occur as a defense mechanism, often resulting from a threatened ego. It is manifested by either constructive or destructive acts directed toward oneself or against others (Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition).”

Not bad either, though weakened by the passive voice. It recurs to terms needing strong definitions as well, i.e. drive, defense mechanism. Finally, it is a bit too psychological for the evolutionary biologist—what is a threatened ego?

C— “Aggression is behavior that is angry and destructive and intended to be injurious, physically or emotionally, and aimed at domination of one animal by another. It may be manifested by overt attacking and destructive behavior or by covert attitudes of hostility and obstructionism. The most common behavioral problem seen in dogs.” (http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Aggressive+Behaviour).

This one is not good. It is more a list of synonyms (angry, destructive, hostility, obstructionism) than a definition. It mixes concepts together too easily (aggression and domination?). Finally, the most common problem in dogs in our files (over 10,000 of them) is home alone problems, not aggressive (whatever that is) behavior.

D— “Aggressive people often uses anger, aggressive body language [
] “(http://changingminds.org/techniques/assertiveness/aggressive_behavior.htm).

This one, we won’t waste any more time with. A definition that uses the definiendum is not a definition.

E— “Aggression is a response to something/someone the animal perceives as a threat. Aggression is used to protect the animal through the use of aggressive displays (growling, barking, tooth displays, etc.) or protect the animal through aggressive acts (biting). Aggressive behavior is most frequently caused by fear.” (somewhere on the Internet).

This one is not good either. Again, it uses the definiendum in the definition. We miss the definition of threat to be able to analyze the sentence conclusively. More seriously, it states that aggression is caused by fear, which from an evolutionary point of view doesn’t make sense. Fear does not elicit aggressive behavior. It would have been a lethal strategy that natural selection would have eradicated swiftly and once and for all. A cornered animal does not show aggressive behavior because it is fearful. It does so because its natural responses to a fear-eliciting stimulus (pacifying, submission, flight) don’t work.

F— “Aggression is defined as behavior which produced or was intended to produce physical injury or pain in another person.” (Nelson, R. .J. 2005. Biology of Aggression. Oxford Univ. Press).

This is a much better definition, but it could be more explanatory.

So, after yet another round of deliberation, here follows my suggestion.

“Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from an opponent, by injuring it, inflicting it pain, or giving it a reliable warning of such impending consequences if it takes no evasive action. It is distinguishable from dominant behavior in as much as the latter does not include harmful behaviors though it may require some degree of forceful measures. Aggressive behavior ranges from reliable warnings of impending damaging behavior such as growling, roaring, and stamping, to injurious behaviors such as biting, staging, and kicking. Predatory behavior is not aggressive behavior.”

This is much better than earlier versions, and it complies with all the requirements for a good definition. Thus:

  1. It defines something concrete and observable.
  2. It states a necessary condition to distinguish it from a related technical term, dominant behavior, even explaining a characteristic of the latter.
  3. It does not include other terms needing a definition.
  4. It includes enough conditions to justify the use of the term, not too few to risk being synonymous with another term, and not too many to risk losing its explanatory value by being too encompassing.
  5. It gives examples of what is and is not aggressive behavior.
  6. It does not presuppose any special knowledge of the reader to understand it.

This is a good definition because it defines the term, including and excluding the necessary conditions. Whether it will be the last word on the matter is another story. I’m sure it won’t. There is always room for improvement. A good definition must also be able to accept reviews imposed by newer discoveries. Until then, I’m happier with this one than with any earlier versions. Aren’t you?

Learn more in our course Agonistic Behavior. Agonistic Behavior is all forms of aggression, threat, fear, pacifying behavior, fight or flight, arising from confrontations between individuals of the same species. This course gives you the scientific definitions and facts.

Agonistic Behavior is a brand-new, for 2019 created course by leading ethologist Roger Abrantes. It is one of our most challenging courses, addressed to the dedicated student of behavioral sciences.


Do Dogs See Colors? What Does It Mean for Our Training?

Do Dogs See Colors

Do dogs see colors? Does that affect our dog training in any way?

In the early 1980s, we performed some tests at the Ethology Institute Cambridge to determine whether dogs were colorblind as the popular view says. The conclusion of our experiments was that they could distinguish between some colors and could not discriminate certain other colors. They are not completely color blind (seeing only shades of gray). They were more like some people who see colors though not the full spectrum. However, we could not determine, at the time, whether the color discrimination of the dogs was due to differentiating between real colors or various shades of gray. Meanwhile, more modern research has cast some light on these questions.

Eyes contain light catching cells (cones) that respond to color. Canines have fewer cones than humans, which implies that, in principle, their color vision cannot be as good as ours. To see colors, we need various types of cones, which can detect different wavelengths of light. We have three types of cones, which gives us the possibility to register what we call the whole range of color vision.

Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara tested in the late 1980s the color vision of dogs. Their studies confirm that dogs see color, though not as well differentiated as humans do. For us, the rainbow looks violet, blue, blue-green, green, yellow, orange and red. For a dog, we presume it looks dark blue, light blue, gray, light yellow, darker yellow, and very dark gray. They seem to see violet as blue (like many humans).


Studies performed by Russian scientists demonstrated that dogs tend to discriminate real color rather than brightness cues. Dogs have a dichromatic color vision, which means that they have two types of cones in their eyes. They match any color they register with no more than two pure spectral lights. Placental mammals are in general dichromatic. The ability to see long wavelengths necessary to distinguish red from green seems to have disappeared during evolution, probably after the Triassic period. Dichromatic vision is, though, good to distinguish colors in dim light, favoring the most nocturnal animals.

Trichromats, like most humans, have three color-detecting cones (blue, green and red) and can distinguish between 100 different gradations of color. Honeybees are also trichromatic seeing ultraviolet, blue and green instead of blue, green and red.

Human = A and C. Dog = B and D. It is difficult for the dog to discriminate between red and green.

The term color blind is, therefore, somehow misleading. Some animals developed the ability to see some colors and others to see other colors all depending on what mutations appeared and the subsequent costs and benefits each strategy implied for their struggle for survival.

What does this mean for our communication and training of our dogs? Since dogs find it difficult to distinguish between certain reds and greens (like some humans do), we should choose toys and training aids in other colors. For example, light blue or yellow are much easier colors for a dog to detect. On the other side, when training them in any scent detection discipline, we should use colors for the targets that are difficult for them to see so to compel them to use their noses and not their eyes.



Kasparson, A. et al. 2013. Colour cues proved to be more informative for dogs than brightness. Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Neitz, J. et al. 1989. Color Vision in the Dog. In Visual Neuroscience, 3, 119-125. Cambridge University Press.

Featured image: Since dogs find it difficult to distinguish between certain reds and greens (like some humans do), we should choose toys and training aids in other colors (photo by Oleghz).

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Learn more in our course Canine Scent Detection, which will enable you to pursue further goals, such as becoming a substance detection team or a SAR unit. You complete the course by passing the double-blind test locating a hidden scent. You take the theory online in the first three lessons. In lesson four, you train yourself and your dog, step by step until reaching your goal. We will assign you a qualified tutor to guide you, one-on-one, either on-site or by video conferencing.

Canine Scent Detection

Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?—an Evolutionary Approach

Why do dogs eat their own poop? I’ll come back to this question, but allow me an introduction which I think might be relevant for your further studies of behavior. I believe that a little more knowledge about evolution and the processes that bring traits about, including behavior, would reduce drastically the number of erroneous explanations of the behavior of our pets. It would also spell the end of many old wives’ tales

I find on the Internet one horrendous explanation after the other, which the authors could avoid with a 101 course in Evolution. Even scarier is to read some rebuttals of perfectly scientifically valid accounts because of blatant ignorance.

That is why we offer our course ‘Evolution’ free of charge. Our students are doing very well. They have taken the test 753 times since Darwin’s birthday last year (February 12). Students try to take tests several times. We discovered that they took (and take) tests like they play computer games, which is perfectly all right. While playing, they learn. Therefore, the records show an alarming 55% of failed tests (412 tests) because many do attempt to take the test without reading the book. In the end, 86% have passed evolution. That is good (and this figure will be even better, closer to 100%) because those who failed are still attempting to pass—to win the game). 42 students (6%) have even scored 100% correct answers, which is brilliant (and difficult).

So, knowledge to everyone everywhere is working—and congratulations to our students. You are the brave ones creating a new world with the help of knowledge—not the sword.

The following questions are those that our students find more difficult. Here’s some help for you.

  • Natural selection acts on the _________.  Only 48% answer correctly. Yes, natural selection acts upon the phenotype, not the genotype. Recently, epigenetics have uncovered that the environment can act upon the way genes manifest themselves, but this is the exception, not the rule.
  • A _______ is a taxonomic level, one of the basic units of classifying living organisms. 56% answer species, which is correct. Most of the wrong answers are cell. A cell is a basic unit, but not at taxonomic level. I guess what tricks you here is the word taxonomic. Taxonomy (from Ancient Greek:Â Ï„ÎŹÎŸÎčς taxis, arrangement, andÂ â€“ÎœÎżÎŒÎŻÎ±Â â€“nomia, method) is the description, identification, nomenclature, and classification of organisms.
  • Natural selection is a random process. 57% answer no, which is correct. I think what confuses the others, who answer yes, is that mutations happen at random. However, whether these mutations confer an advantage or not, is not a random process. It’s still under the sharp scrutiny of the survival of the fittest algorithm. Natural selection is not a random process.
  • Artificial speciation (caused by human intervention) is just one particular case of speciation due to ____________ selection, not an exception. 46% answer natural selection, which is correct. In popular language, we call artificial in nature everything that is human made. However, humans are also part of nature and, therefore, their impact on other organisms is part of the same universal process—it is as natural as the influence of any predator on its prey.

I will give you now two examples of how a bit knowledge of evolutionary biology can help you analyze statements and avoid making claims that don’t make sense or are very unlikely to be true.

Why does my dog eat its own poop? That is a common question that I have been asked many times. Here are some popular answers.

Explanation 1: The dog knows that fewer predators will pay it any attention if there is no evidence of his having been around.

Is this probable? First, adult canines in nature are not particularly predated by any other species. They tend to defecate where that can, sometimes even using it to scent mark their territory, which is anything but concealing it. The only occasion where this occurs is when canine mothers eat their puppies’ feces while they are still in the den. The function of this behavior is to keep the den reasonably clean, free of parasites, and probably also odor free. Evolutionarily, those that didn’t do it suffered more cases of their progeny succumbing to disease. It might also have reduced the scent signature of the den helping it remaining concealed, but again that would only have been an advantage where predators with a reasonable sense of smell would share the same environment. It might have been beneficial for the Canis lupus lupussharing their environment with bears (family Ursidae).

Conclusion: it is unlikely that dogs eat their poop to conceal their whereabouts from predators except for mothers consuming their puppies’ feces.

Explanation 2: He (the dog) knows that removing the evidence means no punishment for inappropriate elimination.

Is this probable? To be true, it requires that the dog associates the feces with the punishment. How probable is it that the dog associates its the act of defecation with the punishment from an owner arriving at the scene maybe 1-8 hours later? Natural selection has favored associations broadly spaced in time, but only for vital functions, like eating poisonous substances. There is evidence that the organism retains a kind of memory of anything that made it sick even occurring many hours later. However, we cannot envisage any situation in which it would be unconditionally and evolutionarily advantageous for an animal to associate defecating with a non-lethal punishment inflicted by some other animal. Natural selection would only favor it if the achieved benefits exceeded its costs grossly. It is true that insecure animals tend to keep a low profile, also restricting their urination and defecation to less-prominent locations, but not by eating it.

Conclusion: it is definitely possible to condition an association between feces and punishment, but I doubt we can teach any dog to eat its feces to avoid punishment. There is no evidence that eating own poop has been evolutionarily advantageous.

When analyzing a behavior, the evolutionary biologist asks: (1) what condition in the environment would favor the development of such a trait, (2) what conditions would favor its propagation into the population, (3) do the benefits of such a trait outweigh its costs both short and long term?

Why do dogs eat their own poop, then? I don’t know. You may need to ask a vet, and now you are in a better situation than earlier to evaluate any answer you may get because you know how to analyze an argument from an evolutionary point of view.

Enjoy your studies.

Featured image: Canine mothers (wolf, African wild dogs and domestic dogs) eat their puppies poop when they are still in the den. The function of this behavior is to keep the den fairly clean, free of parasites, and probably also odor free.

Canine Muzzle Nudge, Muzzle Grasp and Regurgitation Behavior

The canine muzzle nudge is a pacifying behavior. Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facere, facio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior.

Newborn cubs and pups nudge their mother’s tits to find a nipple and suckle the maternal milk, their only nutrition by then. The nudging, achieving the desired result, becomes imprinted in their memories. Later, they will frequently nudge to attempt to obtain something they want or to turn an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one.

The muzzle nudge is a typical canine behavior: one individual nudges the sides of the mouth of another. It may elicit regurgitation when accompanied by licking. That is how infantile canines taste their first fast food.

Regurgitation behavior is shown by adult canines when they vomit recently consumed food right in front of youngsters. It may occur voluntarily, though often it is the muzzle nudge of the youngsters that triggers it. Their mother is the first to regurgitate for them, but other members of the pack may also join in.


The little dog sticks its head in the mouth of the Husky. This is a variation of the original regurgitation eliciting behavior. Later, poking to sides of mouth become a fairly common pacifying behavior.

The muzzle nudge later assumes a ritualized function as a pacifying behavior. Insecure or slightly fearful individuals will muzzle nudge their opponents, showing them their friendly intentions. Our dogs will muzzle nudge us in many situations when they feel unsafe, somewhat pressured, or just in need of being reassured. They may direct their muzzle nudge toward any part of our body, most often though toward our face and hands. They may also attempt to lick us.

The muzzle grasp behavior may have its origins in the muzzle nudge and regurgitation. Adults muzzle-grasp youngsters, which often invite them to perform this ritual. Canine mothers use a version of this behavior to prevent their youngsters from suckling at the time of weaning. Higher-ranking canines in a pack (wild and domestic) use another version of this behavior to make a point as to claiming a resource. In all cases, this behavior causes no harm and injury. The muzzle grasp is not an aggressive behavior. It ranges from pacifying to self-confident and dominant behavior depending on the variation, intensity and the individuals concerned.

Muzzle nudge, muzzle grasp, and regurgitation are connected. They share the common element of originating in the satisfying of a primary need (food acquisition). They all involve some nudging, and they focus on the mouth of the adults.

The pictures on these pages how the Husky yawning (pacifying behavior) and the little dog pawing it (yet a pacifying behavior) while attentive to its mouth. On the second picture, the pup, not only nudges and licks the sides of the mouth of the adult, but it also sticks its head in. This is rare and due to the difference is the size of the dogs. It is not uncommon, though, for the nudging and licking to become so intense that the youngster sticks its nose in the adult’s mouth.

Although not as common as in nature, some of our domestic dogs also show the regurgitation behavior when given the opportunity. They will regurgitate not only toward their puppies but also toward unrelated puppies. This behavior has nothing to do with nervousness, agitation, or illness as erroneously assumed by many dog owners. It is a vestige of behavior our dogs inherited from their ancestors when feeding the pups was a highly crucial trait and favored by natural selection.

The muzzle nudge behavior shows friendliness. A dog displaying an unsolicited muzzle nudge too often may be a dog feeling insecure and in need of comfort.

The muzzle grasp is social behavior. It is one of those behaviors favored by natural selection for its essential functions and effectiveness. It is common in pacifying rituals, often at the invitation of the more vulnerable individual. It is also in the repertoire of an individual to claim a resource (showing its dominant behavior in that situation). Our dogs may welcome us to muzzle-grasp them as a bonding activity. The canine muzzle grasp and our gentle grasping the muzzle of our dog has nothing to do with the brutal grabbing of the dog by the muzzle as some dog owners do when venting their frustration.

Muzzle nudge, muzzle grasp, and regurgitation behavior may assume many variations depending on the individuals involved, context, environment, etc. Behavior if a continuum and except for tropisms and simple reflexes, it is highly individualized. Natural selection favors behaviors that tend to be advantageous in the struggle for survival and reproduction.

Featured image: The husky shows yawning, a common canine pacifying behavior. The little dog shows pawing, also a common pacifying behavior, and the beginning of poking to the sides of the mouth, which has the function of eliciting regurgitation (photos by unknown; if you’re the photographer, please let us know as we would like to give you due credit).

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Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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Animal Training — I Didn’t Fail, I Discovered 34 Ways That Don’t Work!


“I didn’t fail. I discovered 34 ways that don’t work to trailer the horse!” I told them. But allow me to start from the begnning.

Success and failure are relative measures. Success boosts one’s self-confidence and improves subsequent performances. However, failure toughens one up and increases persistence in the face of future mishaps.

To go from one success story to the next feels good, but may give one a false sense of comfort. On the other hand, moving from one failure to the next isn’t any good to one’s morale. So what’s the best? I will tell you a short story.

Once, when I was young and never said no to a new challenge, I accepted a job of trailering a horse. Horse trailering was at one time the number one problem reported by horse owners, much like the home alone problem is for dog owners and inappropriate urination and defecation for cat owners.

Trailering a horse, or not being able to do so, can be a considerable problem. If it happens when you’re at home, it’s annoying you can’t move the horse, but that’s what it is. When you’re out with your horse, 300 miles away, and you can’t take your horse home, then you got a real problem.

These horse owners had the horse 200 miles from home. They went out for some kind of equestrian event, and when it was time to drive back home, the horse refused to get into the trailer. Try as they might, they couldn’t get the horse into the trailer. Finally, they gave up, left the horse in a stall, and drove home. That’s when I came in. They called me offering me all I wanted if I just could get their horse home. After hearing how many horsemen and how they had tried to solve the problem, I should have refused. As I said, I was young and thrived on challenges.

I drove up to the farm where the horse was. We let if free in a small arena, drove a trailer in, and I sat on the fence just watching the animal. It was a beautiful quarter horse mix, a mare, about four years old. The owner told me the story of the horse: no problems except trailering. They succeeded in one of maybe 20 tries, but only after much hassle, and it was getting worse.

I will spare you for all the different methods (if you can call them such) they have used while trying to solve the problem—a long list of force and abuse that have nothing to do with horse training, just reflecting human frustration and thoughtlessness. Don’t get me wrong: the owners were not bad people. They were friendly and educated. They had just been poorly advised.

Some dog people, these days, get their blood pressure up from hearing a faint whine from a dog, and they fight bitterly over which collarsare right and which ones are so totally wrong. Well, visit the horse world from time to time, and I promise you you’d begin focussing on what is essential and would not even give a thought to minor deviations. Except for a few (and marginalized) brave horseman and women attempting to show that there are other equally (or more) efficient ways to handle a horse than sheer force, I’m sorry to have to say it, but horse training is still a long narrative of abuse masked under the names of fancy techniques.

I stepped into the arena bare-handed, not even carrying the horseman’s tool number one, his rope. I liked the mare straight away. It’s with animals like with humans, some you have that feeling of liking instantly—and others, unfortunately not. I think she liked me too, if not right away, then maybe 10 minutes after we both just walked slowly around, each tending own business, pretending not to be bothered at all by the other. The owners left at some point having to run errands downtown, which I think suited us both (horse and me) perfectly well.

After a while, the horse came to me, and we stood for a moment just deeply inhaling and exhaling. This is a horse thing when they meet others. When in Roman, be a Roman. So, when I’m with a horse, I become as horsey as I can. It may look silly for some, but it works for me.

We walked around in the quiet arena for about two hours. We had a great time. The owners came back and asked me if I had had the horse in the trailer.

“No,” I answered shortly.

“Oh, we’re sorry you’ve failed and wasted your time,” they replied as offering their condolences.

“I didn’t waste my time. I didn’t fail. I discovered 34 ways that don’t work to trailer the horse.” I replied.

A few hours later, both the horse and I were in the trailer eating carrots and happily inhaling/exhaling one another. Not at one time did I use a rope or the halter, not once did I touch the horse. The first time we had body contact was when we had been in the trailer for a while and had eaten three-four carrots.

That day, I learned how to trailer a horse, not because I succeeded after four hours, but because I had found 34 ways that didn’t work. I thought I knew it before, but I didn’t. My early success had just lulled me into a false sense of security.

Success and failure are in our minds. It’s all a question of criterion and attitude.

Featured image: Roger Abrantes working with horse—Body language and movements are very important when communicating with any animal. Horses are particularly sensitive to motion and stance (photo from the EI files).

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Learn more in our course Ethology and Behaviorism. Based on Roger Abrantes’ book “Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism,” this online course explains and teaches you how to create a stable and balanced relationship with any animal. It analyses the way we interact with our animals, combines the best of ethology and behaviorism and comes up with an innovative, yet simple and efficient approach to animal training. A state-of-the-art online course in four lessons including videos, a beautiful flip-pages book, and quizzes.


The Perfect Relationship

Relationship Child Dog (ChildDogPuddle-600x326.png)

I’ve posted this clip before, and I’ll do it again. I can watch it repeatedly and never get tired of it. It’s just beautiful.

This is what we want: the perfect relationship. This is something to aim at, to uncover the secret of these two—child and dog—replicate it and promote it.

It’s so simple that it is shocking.

Please, watch this short clip with an open mind, preferably several times. We see what we think and feel, seldom what we are looking at. Forget all about politics, labels and all the artificial constructs with which our biased, adult human mind enslaves us, ruling us with an iron hand.

Just watch, enjoy, and allow it to inspire you.

Ethology Institute