Teaching a dog to sit and stay or a hamster to jump into an outreached hand are some of the most triumphant moments in pet ownership for some people. Although domestic animals exhibit behaviors that are intrinsic to their breed or species, teaching a pet to modify a certain behavior through positive reinforcement is one of the most popular methods of bonding with a companion animal.
Domesticated animals exhibit several types of behavior that can be classified as either instinctual, learned or abnormal. For example, aggressive behavior, like growling or hissing, is often attributable to the pet's instinctual response to fear or pain. Learned behaviors occur when the pet recognizes the connection between events, and is exemplified by a dog who begins to drool at the sound of the can opener used for his food. Abnormal behaviors may cause harm to the animal, such as when a hamster chews the bars of its cage out of boredom, causing a tooth to break.
Similar to humans, domestic animal behavior is believed to be influenced by a combination of internal and external forces. For example, according to the Ark Animals website, dogs that enter an animal shelter without any behavior problems will often engage in excessive barking behavior within a short period of time as they mimic the behavior of other unruly dogs in their presence.
Understanding what motivates an animal to behave in a certain way can help pet owners relate to and bond with their pets, and give them the proper care that they need. Solving problems such as fear, aggression, separation anxiety and other unwanted behaviors may simply require a better pattern of communication between pet and owner. For example, once a pet owner realizes that a squealing guinea pig that is running around its cage is most likely hungry, it can respond to its behavior accordingly.
There are two main practices used when attempting to either prevent or encourage certain behaviors among all animals, including domestic pets. Classical conditioning, which was exemplified in the studies conducted by Pavlov and his drooling dogs, forms an association between two stimuli, according to the Wag N Train website. Operant conditioning forms an association between a behavior and a consequence, such as when a behavior immediately causes something to be added to or removed from the pet's environment.
Changes in a pet's behavior can indicate that something is medically wrong and owners should consult a veterinarian as soon as they notice something is amiss. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, some health problems that can cause either gradual or sudden shifts in behavior include neurological diseases, endocrine disorders, skin disorders, infections, pain and diseases of internal organs.
By Stephanie Fagnani
Wag N Train: Classical and Operant Conditioning
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: Finding Help for a Pet with a Behavioral Problem
Ark Animals: Increasing the Adoptability of Shelter Animals
Cat Lovers Only: Cat Behavior Understanding Your Domestic Friend's Wild Ways
About the Author
Stephanie Fagnani has been a professional writer and editor for more than 20 years. She served as an editor at Fairchild Publications, where she presided over the Center Store section of the weekly B2B trade magazine "Supermarket News." She has also covered the corporate training and education markets extensively since 1997. Fagnani holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Pace University.