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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


24 August 2012

Rockstars, Ethograms and Behavior (Problems)

Hi Mia,

Last weekend, my welfare was enhanced by sun, sand and saltwater. I’m not flaunting, just saying. Summer will come to you soon!
Speaking of welfare, very happy that you defined all those elements that are so important to studying animal welfare. Obviously you spend most of your time assessing welfare, and I want to back up a minute to ask how are you defining welfare? I'm sure you've thought about this a lot. I too have thoughts, and if we lived closer, we could rock, paper, scissor to decide who gives their definition first. In the meantime, can you give your definition first, as you post next? ;)
Behavior has been on my mind because I recently went to a rockstareque event here in NYC, equipped with a black and pink tour bus. You might assume a tour called Keep the L.O.V.E Alive has loads of nudity, but these rockstars kept their clothes on, and they were Veterinary Behaviorists. They were on a 6-city bus tour distributing information to the public and veterinarians to reduce euthanasia by solving behavior problems. The tour hopes to raise awareness that there are solutions to what humans deem problem behaviors in dogs and cats. I posted a short summary of the Keep the L.O.V.E Alive tour on Dog Spies.

I’m sure one day we’ll dive into the wide world of “behavior problems,” but let’s stick with plain ‘ol behavior for now.

As you mentioned, in this field, we often measure behavior. But before we can record what’s happening, we first need to define what we are measuring. And, we also need to define it in a specific-enough way so that other people can measure behavior using our definition.


For example, how can we define the behavior of SLEEPING? "Sleeping: When a dog assumes a prostrate position and the eyes are closed for more than 10 seconds.” Is that a good definition? Maybe "prostrate" isn’t helpful to the definition because sometimes puppies sleep sitting up. Or maybe, “eyes are closed for more than 10 seconds,” isn’t helpful because when petting a dog, its eyes might be closed for more than 10 seconds even though it’s awake. Defining behaviors takes some thought. 
Since I’m a huge fan of thinking about how to define behaviors, I want to tell you how much I love a resource called EthoSearch (if I sound like a 3:00 am infomercial for EthoSearch, that’s because I would love to give a
3:00 am informercial for EthoSearch).
Do you know EthoSearch?? EthoSearch originated with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and is “a searchable database of peer reviewed and educational ethograms”. As you mentioned, ethograms are “a comprehensive list, inventory, or description of the behavior of an organism." Usually, people create ethograms for what they're measuring or looking at.

Here’s an example of an ethogram and data sheet (this is a kids version, kids can record behavior data too! Yay!):

Source: Ethosearch Education Page
There’s actually something for everyone on EthoSearch. On their Research Track, you can browse existing ethograms and contribute to the ethogram database. On their Education Track, you can learn about ethograms and view datasheets. The Education Track is a great resource for students (of any age) when they are learning how to look at animals.

And anyone can register for EthoSearch! It's free!  

From a research perspective, I like ethograms because you can see how others define the behaviors they then measured. If I know that two studies define a behavior identically, then I can think about their results in a comparative light. But, for example, if one study defines SNIFFING as, “Nose makes contact with any part of recipient’s body for a minimum of 5 sec,” and another paper defines SNIFFING as, “All motor movements of the muzzle directed towards the subject, either touching it or within 20 cm,” it could be hard to compare the two studies because they weren’t necessarily coding the same behaviors.*

Sometimes ethograms have not-so-good definitions. If
SNIFFING is defined as, “Nose is moved close to recipient in a happy manner,” this doesn’t provide information about how close, which part of the recipient, for how long and what is meant by “happy”.

Also, I’m also not a fan when a behavior is defined by itself. Aggression is aggressive because it is aggression? Thanks. I’ll be sure to look out for that. 
Patricia McConnell recently gave a great example of how to break down behavior into itty, bitty pieces. Instead of simply plopping a label on top of the two dogs in the photo to the right, she looks at their physical body postures to get a sense of what the behavior comes out to be. And like you said, she puts the behavior in context. 

Click to visit Patricia McConnell blog post
In case anyone in the world does not follow Patricia McConnell’s blog or does not regularly reference her resources on dog and cat behavior, they should stop what they’re doing and follow. Also, she plans to post more of these behavior breakdowns in the future.

In conclusion, apparently I wanted to give an ode to ethograms today. What's on your mind? 

Bye for now, and happy weekend!


*These definitions are in my notes, and I'm looking for the sources.

© Julie Hecht 2012
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  1. I wish my blog was half as cool as yours...

    1. Thank you, thank you!

      We think you are doing a mighty fine job over there on Psychology Today, and we recommend that readers check out Hal Herzog's blog, Animals and Us: The psychology of human-animal interactions.

      Bye for now!



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