#50 - Q&A: Species-Typical Behaviors

[00:00:00] Ellen: We get this question in Enrichment for the Real World Facebook group pretty often, so I’m not attributed to any one individual person, but are breed specific behaviors a thing and how do those relate to species-typical behaviors?

[00:00:14] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:32] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:33] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

We get a lot of great questions from the fabulous folks in our Enrichment for the Real World Facebook group, and some of those answers deserve a whole lot more than what we can say in a Facebook message. So, we are ending this season with another Q and A episode. In this Q and A episode, you’re going to hear Emily, Ellen, and I answer your questions, including clarifying the species-typical behaviors enrichment category, how breed relates to species-typical behaviors, and button communication. All right. Here it is. Today’s episode Q and A Species-Typical Behaviors.

[00:01:29] Emily: Are you ready to answer some questions?

[00:01:31] Ellen: Let’s start with question one, which we got from DJ. So, thank you, DJ. Can you clarify the distinction between species-typical behaviors in relation to the 14 categories of enrichment outlined in Canine Enrichment for the Real World and doing things that are species-typical in other categories?

[00:01:48] Emily: Yeah, I, I love this question because it gives us an opportunity to refine what we wrote. I’m gonna, I’m gonna scare all of us and say, seven years ago, this one we wrote that chapter.

[00:02:00] Allie: Why would you attack me like that?

[00:02:01] Emily: Yeah.

[00:02:02] Allie: Choosing violence. Okay.

[00:02:03] Emily: Choosing violence today by, yeah, seven years ago is when we wrote that chapter. So, the refinement of, if I could go back and rewrite the book, we would probably call that chapter something more like behavioral diversity and activity budget. Because yes, you are absolutely right, DJ that other categories also include species-typical behaviors.

But the point that we were trying to make in that category is making sure that the learners in our care have the opportunity to perform a wide variety of species-typical behaviors appropriately. So, they have the opportunity to have that behavioral diversity doing lots of different things that their species do in appropriate contexts. And then we pulled out specifically things like forging, cuz we’re like, “Yo, this is a big deal. Pay attention to this. Like this one we really, really need y’all to like, you know, listen up, make sure it’s happening.” But for me that, that’s now as a 2023, Emily, if I could go back to 2017, Emily, I would say, oh yeah, that’s only six years ago. It’s so, it’s fine. It’s only six years, not seven.

[00:03:16] Allie: Slightly less violent.

[00:03:18] Emily: We know what year we’re operating in. I totally know what year it is. If I could go back to 2017, Emily, I would say this is what you meant when you said instinctual behaviors, which we then change to species-typical behaviors. So that’s, that’s my perspective. Allie, do you have additional layers to add to my perspective.

[00:03:37] Allie: I really, I think the hardest thing is that for humans, we like categorizing things and categorizing things makes teaching easier for I think both the teacher and the learner on both sides of that, that coin. And so, there are a lot of times where we are kind of arbitrarily categorizing things so that we can more effectively relay what we’re trying to say. And then as people learn more, they’re like, “Hold up. I noticed that this is now an arbitrary category.” And it’s like, “Yeah, we know. But like teaching does that sometimes.” And so that’s really the, the only other thing I would say is not just for the species-typical category, we’ve made kind of arbitrary categories and lines in the sand for a lot of places when it comes to enrichment, just because it’s easier to relate information in that way. But know that it’s not really black and white, it’s not this line in the sand, there is a whole lot of wiggle room with a lot of things, and the more you learn about a topic, the more you learn the nuances and live in the gray space in that topic.

[00:04:54] Emily: Yeah, I, yes. That’s beautiful, Allie. That is so true. Yeah. I mean, nothing exists in a vacuum in the real world. We create those vacuums because it’s easier to explain things in those tidy little compartments, right? But nothing is actually compartmentalized in reality.

[00:05:12] Ellen: Piggybacking off of that, we get this question in Enrichment for the Real World Facebook group pretty often, so I’m not attributed to any one individual person but are breed specific behaviors a thing and how do those relate to species-typical behaviors?

[00:05:28] Emily: Yeah, we do get this question a lot. So, one of the things that, breeds all belong to the same species. So, there are subsets of behaviors that are typical within a species, and then for breeds, we’ve selectively bred some behaviors to be stronger, or weaker, or look a little different or sound a little different, but they’re all still species-typical behaviors. Does that mean that selective breeding isn’t important, or it doesn’t have a big impact? Does it mean that we shouldn’t understand what is typical for individuals of a certain breed that have been purpose bred to do a job and so they’re more likely to have those breed typical behaviors? Absolutely not.

Those things are valid, but the notion that we should just be building our enrichment plan off of what breed a dog is, instead of just knowing what the breeds are, are were bred to do and what they might tend towards, and so what’s more likely to meet a need for them is the concern, right? We wanna make sure that we’re not putting the cart before the horse.

Yes, breed can have an impact on how species-typical behaviors express themselves. But we should always look at the animal in front of us to figure out what behaviors they’re actually offering and what needs we actually need to meet. So, that’s, that’s the, the nuance or the gray area. And I do wanna say, I’m gonna take this opportunity to correct an error that I made in our last Q and A session, or no, no, no. It was the implementation session that we did after Jessica Heckman’s episode where I said, genetics only plays a small part in behavior. And I misspoke, and none of us caught it until like, well after the episode aired. I didn’t actually mean genetics plays a small part in behavior.

I meant breed plays a small part in behavior. And I just, I just misspoke, but my point in bringing that up isn’t that breeds don’t matter. It’s, it’s that it’s really a small facet. The behaviors that have been selectively strengthened or weakened within each breed, it’s just a small facet of who an individual dog is.

That doesn’t mean that those small facets aren’t important and that they may not influence our enrichment plan. It just means don’t think of the dog as breed first, think of the dog as individual first, and factor in how breed may impact what behaviors they offer and what they need.

[00:08:03] Allie: Yeah, I, I think, like you said, it goes back to that nuance and that gray area. Um, of we like categories and we really want things to fit into these very specific boxes. And just like with the enrichment categories, breed also doesn’t fit into a very nice, neat little box. And there are a whole lot of nuances, and a whole lot of nuances that we don’t know about when it comes to how genetics impact behavior.

You know, we’re still learning a whole lot in, in that topic. So, I like the look at the individual first and then they are whatever species they are, and breed is kind of your, your last layer of nuance there that impacts perhaps how some of those species-typical behaviors may be performed for this particular individual.

[00:09:02] Emily: I actually wanna add something because I think this is a really interesting layer that we can add to help deepen everybody’s understanding. I, I posed a question on social media several months ago, asking people, where are you seeing that people are claiming that genetics doesn’t matter at all and that environment is the only influencer of behavior? Because I have never encountered that, even with my mentors who are behavior analysts, I have never seen anybody claim that genetics doesn’t matter. And I ended up having a lot of really good conversations with different people from different fields. And what I realized in those conversations is that their jobs, and their goals related to dogs are different than ours.

And so, they, they are, their jobs are teaching dogs to do a very specific task. The breed first approach makes sense because if you need dogs who, who are gonna perform a specific task, you should start with the breeds that were bred to do that job. And not just the breeds, but breeders who have a lineage that have been bred to do that job and have demonstrated competency at that job.

And so, that was a huge aha moment for me because I realized that for them, breed first makes sense because your, your whole point of working with those dogs is that they’re, they need to do a job. So yes, hire the breed that has been bred to do the job, and then assess whether or not this individual is actually suitable for the job.

Does this individual, just because they are a certain breed that was bred to do a certain thing, doesn’t mean that that individual wants to do the job or is any good at it, right? So, for them breed first, then individual makes sense. But for us as behavior practitioners who are trying to affect behavior change through an enrichment plan, it should be individual first couched in the context of that like understanding species, the species-typical behaviors and understanding the, what, the breed typical behaviors. But we should always take an individual first approach when we’re creating an enrichment plan because the individual is the one that we are paying attention to. The individual is the one that matters in that situ, I mean, individuals always matter, but the individual is the one that we are trying to help. As opposed to, with the people who are, are hiring dogs to do a job, the job is the goal, and the individuals are helping to facilitate that goal.

[00:11:32] Allie: I think that’s a really great point that we have different goals and even people who are in seemingly similar professions, they still may be parallel professionals and have different needs, different goals, different things that they’re trying to do, and so they may be taking a different approach, and that’s not wrong. That’s what works for what they’re doing and doesn’t work for what we’re doing. So, there are a whole lot of ways to do something. Well, and to do something, quote unquote right. It’s a matter of what is your goal? What is the outcome here?

[00:12:07] Emily: Yeah, it’s a really good example of selection biases, shaping our perceptions.

[00:12:11] Allie: Yeah.

[00:12:13] Ellen: Awesome. And then our last question is from Christina. So, thank you, Christina. And a little bit of background, my dog has a button user, meaning those talking buttons, where they can say like outside, you can see them on social media. I was reading your book and I had many swirling thoughts about how the buttons slot into the enrichment framework.

My main point of internal conflict is that, while they increase agency, connection, mental stimulation, and my learner’s behavior is telling me that he’s finding it enriching they do so through species atypical behavior. What are your thoughts?

[00:12:47] Emily: Well, I don’t think that pawing at things is a species atypical behavior. I think pawing at things is, is pretty species-typical for dogs. So, if, you know, let that, let’s just start off by saying, we’re not asking our dogs to do anything super unnatural, like dance on their hind legs to use those buttons, right?

Um, so I, I wanna allay that concern first of all. Secondly, just because an animal, remember that species-typical behaviors are evolution’s way of setting up an animal for success, so that they’re able to adapt to their environment and ensure the continuation of the species. That doesn’t mean that we are confined to our evolutionary purposes.

If that were the case, we humans would be screwed, right? Because we wouldn’t get to do a lot of things that we enjoy doing and find fulfilling. So, species-typical behaviors aren’t the only behaviors that we can include in an enrichment plan. And in fact, because dogs live in this urban human world that we live in, we often have to find quote, unquote, unnatural solutions to helping meet their needs.

So, I think the, but the buttons, my spiel, which is, um, Allie will add her own layer and perspective and nuance that is, has some overlap to mine, but my spiel about those buttons is that essentially there’s nothing magical about those buttons. The buttons are just teaching dogs a different way of asking for things that they want.

And there’s a lot of different ways to teach a dog to ask for what they want, and those buttons are just one way to do that. We’re essentially giving the dogs a way to, to cue us to do a behavior that they would like us to do, right? So, we’re helping to facilitate that social interaction and communication through those buttons when they are being used in their best light.

The downside to the buttons and things that we need to be very careful about when we’re using them is that we’re sticking to overt behaviors that we can see, measure, and assess. So, we can very clearly tell if the dog is actually asking for the thing that we think they’re asking for. And the reason that’s important is because when we start to try to use those buttons, to, get dogs to ask for more esoteric things, we’re not actually sure that that’s what’s going on in their head. We’re not sure that they’re having the same covert behaviors, internal thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions that we think they are. And so, we can veer into pretty dangerous territory of thinking that dogs are giving us permission to do something that the dogs aren’t actually giving us permission for, or thinking that the dogs care about something that they don’t actually care about, and that can be a huge violation of welfare.

I would strongly encourage anybody who has interest in those buttons to look into facilitated communication, and learn about what that is and how, damaging that has been to humans in the past, and understand that if we try to use those buttons for high concepts, like, uh, love or really delayed consequences, like, uh, I, I won’t even get into a lot of examples because that’s not the point today, but, We need to be careful that we’re not using those buttons for facilitated communication. But just because that’s a possible misuse of them doesn’t mean that they are intrinsically dangerous or bad, we just have to use them as an opt-in or opt out cue for really easily observable behaviors like, let me outside, play with a ball, give me a snack. Those types of things. And when they’re used in that way, it’s, it can be a great tool for helping dogs communicate their needs to us.

[00:16:41] Allie: You said I was going to have things to add and I don’t really have things to add. That’s, that’s my typical spiel too, is, is make sure that the button is paired with something that is a very quick and immediate consequence, whether that is food, water, outside, grabbing the leash so you can go for a walk, whatever it is, versus something that is, like you said, more esoteric love, pain, things like that.

[00:17:08] Emily: All right. I’m sorry I stole your thunder then.

[00:17:10] Allie: I, you didn’t steal my thunder. It’s uh, it’s a collective, communal thunder.

[00:17:15] Emily: Good deal.

[00:17:15] Ellen: And I think something else that we can take into account is that a lot of us experienced the world very differently from one another. So, well, everything y’all said is true. We want to be careful not to assume intentions, thoughts, feelings, motivations, all of those things. We want to keep it really clear and concise and consistent.

The buttons can be incredibly helpful in terms of accessibility for some individuals, for example, I’ve had puppies that were in a home with a person who had vision impairment. So, looking for those signals that would typically say, I need to go outside, or I need something from you was maybe not within the realm of possibility for that human at that time.

We recently moved into a house that we can’t see the back door, so if my dogs, as they were taught, go to the back door to ask to go outside, we wouldn’t necessarily know. So, we needed something else to help us with those things. So, things like buttons or the going outside bells or any of those can add a layer of accessibility to individuals that are trying to navigate this world with their dog. But it does go back to what Allie and Emily said it’s about pairing really clear, concise, consistent consequences with that thing so that you and your dog are both like, “Yeah this is probably what you are going to want this is what you’ve wanted every other time let’s go with that until I see that you tell me otherwise.”

[00:18:28] Allie: That’s a really great point, Ellen. Thank you.

[00:18:30] Emily: Yeah. Thank you for adding that layer of, of equity and accessibility to the conversation.

[00:18:35] Allie: We had a lot of fun answering your questions, so keep them coming. We love questions. And let us know if you liked this episode and we’ll do more Q and A episodes in the future. This episode marks the end of season four. Thank you as always for hanging out with us and we’ll see you for season five in a few months.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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