Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior

— by Roger Abrantes


Behavior is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Behavior does not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to control a stimulus. Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time, a particularly advantageous behavior spreads throughout the population. The disposition (genotype) to display a behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), It requires, though, maturation and/or reinforcement for the organism to be able to apply it successfully. Behavior is, thus, the product of a combination of innate dispositions and environmental factors. Some behaviors require little conditioning from the environment for the animal to display it while other behaviors require more.


Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior.

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are therefore only approximate and as pictures allow.


An organism can forget a behavior if it does not have the opportunity to display it for a period, or the behavior can be extinguished if it is not subject to reinforcement for a period.

Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from a maximization of utility and towards a maximization of fitness.

Social behavior is behavior involving more than one individual with the primary function of establishing, maintaining, or changing a relationship between individuals, or in a group (society).

Most researchers define social behavior as the behavior shown by members of the same species in a given interaction. That excludes behavior such as predation, which involves members of different species. On the other hand, it seems to allow for the inclusion of everything else such as communication behavior, parental behavior, sexual behavior, and even agonistic behavior.

Sociologists insist that behavior is an activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to social behavior, which has both. This definition does not help us much. All above-mentioned behaviors do have a social meaning and a context unless ‘social’ means ‘involving the whole group’ (society) or ‘a particular number of its members.’ In that case, we should ask how many individuals we need in an interaction to classify it as social. Are three enough? If so, then, sexual behavior is not social behavior when practiced by two individuals, but becomes social with three or more being involved, which is not unusual in some species. We can use the same line of arguing for communication behavior, parental behavior, and agonistic behavior. It involves more than one individual, and it affects the group (society), the smallest possible consisting of two individuals.

Agonistic behavior includes all forms of intraspecific behavior related to aggression, fear, threat, fight or flight, or interspecific when competing for resources. It explicitly includes behaviors such as dominant behavior, submissive behavior, flight, pacifying, and conciliation, which are functionally and physiologically interrelated with aggressive behavior, yet fall outside the narrow definition of aggressive behavior. It excludes predatory behavior.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, which caused the least disadvantages.

Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat.

Submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely 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.

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 cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.


Canine ethogram for social and agonistic behavior.

Canine ethogram for social and agonistic behavior. The colors illustrate that the categories are constructed by us. When a behavior turns into another one is a matter of convention and interpretation (illustration by Roger Abrantes).


The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors (please, click on the diagram to enlarge it).



PS—I apologize if by chance I’ve used one of your pictures without giving you due credit. If this is the case, please e-mail me your name and picture info and I’ll rectify that right away.
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Pacifying Behavior—Origin, Function and Evolution

— by Roger Abrantes

Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facerefacio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior. There are two ways of classifying pacifying behavior: (1) to include all behaviors with the function of diffusing social conflict, and (2) to restrict it to a particular range within the broader spectrum of conflict decreasing behavior (see diagram below). This author prefers the latter because the broad use of the term in the first option makes it synonymous with conflict decreasing behavior in general, without reference to any particular sub-class of this behavior.

Roger Abrantes And Rottweiler.

This Rottweiler female shows me friendly behavior licking my face and ear. I show that I accept her friendly behavior by turning my face away from her, closing my eyes and mouth and making champing noises. Mostly, dogs show friendly and pacifying behavior to humans as they do to other dogs (photo by Lisa J. Bain).

Pacifying behavior is closely related to friendly behavior (including greeting behavior), insecure, submissive and fearful behavior. In general, the differences between these behavior displays are quantitatively small, but we can classify them separately and qualitatively according to their respective sub-functions. An animal pacifies another using a complex sequence of different behaviors as we can see in the diagram below. An animal very seldom shows a single behavior. Also, the same behavior may achieve different functions depending on its intensity, and the sum of all behaviors displayed at a given moment.

Pacifying behavior did not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to manipulate an opponent. Initially, it was probably just a reflex. Like all phenotypes, it happened by chance and evolved thereafter.

Pacifying Behavior in Canids

Pacifying behavior in dogs: licking own lips, licking and pawing (images by Alanic05 and Colorado Great Pyrenee Rescue Community).

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time pacifying behavior spread throughout the population. Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from the maximization of utility and towards the maximization of fitness.

pacifying behavior animals

Many species show pacifying displays in their behavior repertoire (photos by J. Frisch, AFP and Aleixa).

The origin of pacifying behavior—Animal A facing aggressive opponent B registers (sensory system) B’s behavior, processes it (neurological system) and responds with a behavior. The aggressive animal B registers this behavior (probably an infantile behavior); some behaviors tend to pacify it (probably eliciting parental behavior) while others do not. The pacified state of B benefits A and reinforces its behavior, i.e. it is likely it will repeat the same behavior in similar circumstances. Most importantly, animals that show appropriate pacifying behavior (such as A) survive conflicts and avoid injury more often than not and subsequently pass their genes onto the next generation.

Pacifying behavior also pacifies the pacifier, which is an important feature of this behavior. By displaying pacifying behavior, an insecure animal attempts to regain some security (homeostasis) by displaying a behavior it knows well and has previously served to reassure it.

Dog and Cat

Cat and dog use the pacifying behavior of their own species to communicate with one another successfully because of the common characteristics of the behavior (photo by Malau).

Some pacifying behavior has its origins in neonatal and infantile behavior and only becomes pacifying behavior through redirection and eventually ritualization. Other forms of pacifying behavior rely on concealing all signs of aggressive behavior. Sexual behavior can also function as pacifying. Young animals of social species learn pacifying behavior at a very early age; it is important for young animals to be able to pacify adults when they begin interacting with them. The disposition (genotype) to display the behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires reinforcement for the young animal to be able to apply it successfully. In canines, adults (initially the mother at the time of weaning) teach the cubs/pups the intricacies of pacifying behavior, a skill they will need to master in order to prevent or resolve hostilities that could cause serious injuries.

Even though pacifying behavior is more relevant and developed in social species, we also find pacifying displays in the behavior repertoire of less social species. Animals successfully use the pacifying behavior characteristic of their species with individuals belonging to other species (if possible) because of the common elements of pacifying behavior across species. It is not unusual to see our domestic animals, dogs, cats and horses interacting peacefully and exchanging pacifying signals. Dogs also show friendly, insecure, pacifying or submissive behavior to their owners and other humans with their species characteristic displays. Licking, nose poking, muzzle nudging, pawing and twisting are common behaviors that dogs offer us.

This diagram shows the placement of pacifying behavior in the spectrum of behavior in canids. The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors. A conflict is any serious disagreement, a dispute over a resource, which may lead to one or both parts showing aggressive behavior. Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Pacifying Spectrum

The spectrum of pacifying behavior in canids (by R. Abrantes). The colored background illustrates and emphasizes that behavior is a continuum with fading thresholds between the various behaviors. The vertical lines are our artificial borders, a product of definition and convention.



  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. Dog Language. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Grasp Behavior—Advanced Dog Language.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Nudge, Muzzle Grasp And Regurgitation Behavior.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Why Do Dogs Like To Lick Our Faces?
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Do Dogs Understand What We Say?

Roger Abrantes And Rottweiler.
Dogs communicate with us in their language and they seem to appreciate when we answer them in something that resembles their language (photo by Lisa Jernigan Bain).


“Do dogs understand what we say?” is one of the most frequent questions people ask me.

My answer is, “Yes and no. They do and they don’t. It all comes up to what you mean by understand.”

Dogs do not understand English or any other human-created language. They do understand words (sounds) in any language. After hearing the word “Sit” many times, the dog associates it with a behavior and some consequences and ends up sitting when it hears the word—if it hasn’t anything better to do, that is. In that respect, it is exactly like us, “I understand perfectly well what you are saying, I just don’t want to do it.”

Dogs do not understand sentences. If we say, “Let’s go for a walk,” most dogs will get excited and run to the door. That does not prove the dog understands the sentence, only that it associates one sound in the sentence, probably, the word walk, with one particular behavior. If we say, “Banana ping-pong walk,” we will very likely get the same response.

Tone matters. We don’t need any experiments to verify that. Observing casual dog owners provides us with all the necessary evidence. “Don’t do that, sweetie, we don’t like that at all,” with a gentle voice, as I hear many dog owners saying, is no way to prevent the dog from doing whatever it is doing. Better shut up if so, because all we say in that tone will reinforce the behavior we don’t want. Curious, isn’t it, how things can work just the opposite of what we intended?

Cocker Spaniel And Owl.

There is a universal language with terms all animals understand, terms like peace, danger, companionship, fear, safety, mutuality. Partnerships exist between animals across species (photo by unknown).

If you want your dog to keep on doing what it is doing, you’d better say something in a sweet tone. It does not matter what you say, but it will be more efficient if you always use the same word. Personally, my favorite is dygtig (Danish for clever). It has a good doggy sound, gives me a friendly, doggy face, and I can modulate it for the occasion, e.g. make it long, short, etc.

If you do not want your dog to do something, you’d better say it in a serious tone (I said serious, didn’t say yelling). Personally, I say, “Stop,” or “Phooey” in an assertive tone, and that does the trick (usually). I never use “No” for this purpose. I use “No” to convey important information: “What you’re doing doesn’t lead anywhere, try something else.” Of course, you don’t need to do as I do. You do what works for you, and I do what works for me.

Body language is important, and even more decisive for the behavior of our dogs than words and tones. If you doubt it, just watch my movie “The 20 Principles All Dog Trainers Must Know.” I barely talk to the dogs, and we understand one another perfectly well. Self-confident body language will induce your dog to follow your instructions more readily. Insecure body language will either make your dog nervous or alert it to take control of the situation since you seem to be in no stand to do anything about it.

Does it help to attempt to speak dog language even if with an awful accent? Yes, definitely. Dogs respond well to our yawning, champing (chomping), licking our lips, squeezing our eyes shut, pouty mouth, the canine muzzle grasp, and many other signals I will tell you about in future blogs. You need to be a good observer and to practice; and be totally uninhibited and unconcerned about others laughing at you. I like to do it, and I have excellent results. Then again, I speak nine languages (doguese, catese and horsish not counted), some with a poor accent—and yet, I get rewarded for my effort. It works for me, but again, you do what works best for you.

Do dogs create relationships with us like they do with other dogs? Not exactly, but does it matter? Dogs are uncomplicated. When they live together with other animals, humans included, they adapt (as do many other animals). They don’t regard us as dogs, and I believe they don’t even speculate about that. They communicate with us in their language, and they seem to appreciate when we answer them in something that resembles their language. There’s nothing special about that. In fact, it works for and with most animals (if not all). You respect their ways and you get some results—you don’t, and you get different results. It’s all a question of communication. When I’m diving with rookie students, their way of moving around, gesticulating far too much, attracts the attention of the local fauna. When I’m there alone with my diving buddy (we always dive in buddy pairs), they don’t even seem to notice us. The body language of the rookies signals “alarm,” “intruder”—and ours, more experienced as we are, signals “all is good.”

It’s so simple. I don’t get it how someone can claim that attempting to meet the other party half way is in vain. The argument is that dogs are dogs, and we are humans. That’s a remarkable justification defying all evidence we have about communication across species—hence, my commitment to “knowledge to everyone everywhere.”

All I can only tell you is that it works well for me. With my inadequacies and until a set limit, when I’m in Rome, I do as Romans do—when I’m under water, I do as fish do, and when I am with a dog, I do as dogs do. Of course, none of this obliges you to anything in particular.


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Your dog understands your yawn


Dog And Man Yawning


A yawn is a simple behavior, a reflex, with specific physiological functions. We are not the only ones yawning. Chimpanzees, bonobos, macaques, and dogs, among others, yawn as well. Although a simple behavior, yawning performs social functions as well. It is contagious, not only within a group of individuals of the same species but also across species as in the case of humans and dogs.

The original function of the yawn is not clear, several explanations being equally probable. One study suggests that yawning brings an influx of oxygen to the blood when it contains increased levels of carbon dioxide. Another explanation focuses on a particular necessity to stretch the muscles in the tongue and neck. A third explanation suggests that yawning helps to keep one alert, a crucial condition for any predator to be successful. Since social predators need one another to succeed, yawning developed into being contagious because of the benefits it confers. Another suggestion is that yawning helps to control the temperature of the brain. Some studies point out the connection between yawning and the neurotransmitters, e.g. serotonin and dopamine, that affect various emotional states. That could explain the pacifying function of yawning.

The simplest explanation for yawning being contagious is that the mirror neurons in the frontal cortex of various vertebrates, including humans and dogs, activate the corresponding area in the brain of others. Studies have shown that this mirroring effect occurs not only within the same species but also across species. Mirror neurons may be the ultimate explanation for imitation and allelomimetic behavior.


Wolf Yawning

Wolf yawning, a behavior shared by wolves and dogs and also common in other species (photo by Monty Sloan, Wolf Park, Indiana, USA).


Dogs yawn and studies have found that they are more prone to yawn when their owners yawn than when strangers do. These are serious studies conducted at the universities of Tokyo, Porto and London’s Birkbeck College. They discarded the possibility of the dogs’ yawning being a stress response by closely monitoring their heart rates during the experiments.

The dog’s yawn is similar to ours. It is often followed by the same characteristic sound. Yawning is popularly associated with tiredness or boredom. In reality, it can be an expression of embarrassment, insecurity, excitement and relief. Some humans yawn when they are in love, which can be embarrassing if it is mistaken for boredom!

Dogs certainly yawn when they are tired, but usually their yawning functions as a pacifying behavior (of themselves as well as an opponent). As we see in many other cases, a behavior originates with a particular function and acquires other beneficial functions later on. Yawning became a signal of friendship, of peaceful intentions. For example, a male dog may yawn if the female snarls at him during the mating ceremony. A self-confident dog yawns showing friendliness to an insecure opponent, and vice versa. Dogs yawn to us with the same intentions and results (if we care to register it and know what it means). They may also yawn as a displacement activity. An owner scolding his dog is a typical situation where we can observe a dog yawn. In some critical training situations prone to error, for example, in the so-called ‘stay,’ the behavior of the owner causes the dog to feel insecure. A yawn is likely to follow, together with licking and muzzle-nudging. When the owner changes behavior, say, by using a friendlier tone or more relaxed body posture, the dog ceases to display pacifying displays.

So, yes, your dog yawns at you showing that it is friendly and peaceful—and you can safely yawn back confirming that you are as well. Once again, don’t worry if some find it silly. Yawning, champing (chomping), licking your lips, squeezing your eyes shut, pouty mouth, the canine muzzle grasp, all work—and all communication means are valid as long as they promote understanding, wouldn’t you say?



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Canine Muzzle Grasp Behavior—Advanced Dog Language


Muzzle grab in adult wolves (photo by Monty Sloan).

Muzzle grasp in adult wolves (photo by Monty Sloan).


The muzzle grasp is an interesting behavior that I’ve seen in many canids including our domestic dogs. It’s a behavior that scares many dog owners who believe it signals unconditional and uninhibited aggression. It doesn’t. The muzzle grasp is yet one of those fascinating behaviors, which developed and evolved because it conferred a higher fitness to those who practiced it.

The function of this behavior is to confirm a relationship rather than to settle a dispute. The more self-confident dog will muzzle grasp a more insecure one and thus assert its social position. The more insecure individual does not resist the muzzle grasp. On the contrary, it is often the more insecure that invites its opponent to muzzle-grasp it. Even though we sometimes see this behavior at the end of a dispute, wolves and dogs only use it toward individuals they know well (teammates) almost as a way of saying, “You’re still a cub (pup).” The dispute itself does not tend to be serious, just a low-key challenge, usually over access to a particular resource. Youngsters, cubs, and pups sometimes solicit adults to muzzle-grasp them. This behavior appears to be reassuring for them, a means of saying, “I’m still your cub (pup).”

Dogs also show the muzzle grab behavior (photo by Marco de Kloet).

Dogs also show the muzzle grasp behavior (photo by Marco de Kloet).

When used as a means of settling a dispute, a muzzle grasp looks more violent and usually ends with the muzzle-grasped individual showing what we ethologists call passive submissive behavior, i.e. laying on its back.

The muzzle grasp behavior emerges early on. Canine mothers muzzle grasp their puppies (sometimes accompanied by a growl) to deter them from suckling during weaning. At first, her behavior frightens them and they may whimper excessively, even if the mother has not harmed them in any way. Later on, when grasped by the muzzle, the puppy immediately lies down with its belly up. Previously, it was assumed that the mother needed to pin the puppy to the ground, but this is not the case as most puppies lie down voluntarily. Cubs and pups also muzzle grasp one another during play, typically between six and nine weeks of age. A muzzle grasp does not involve biting, just grasping. This behavior helps develop a relationship of trust between both parties: “We don’t hurt one another.”

Cubs and pups muzzle grab one another during play (photo by Monty Sloan).

Cubs and pups muzzle grasp one another during play (photo by Monty Sloan).

Domestic dogs sometimes approach their owners puffing to them gently with their noses. By grasping them gently around the muzzle, we reaffirm our acceptance of them. We show self-control and that they can trust us. After being muzzle grasped for a while, the dog will usually show a nose lick, maybe yawn and then walk calmly away. It’s like the dog saying, “I’m still your puppy” and the owner saying, “I know and I’ll take good care of you.” Yawn back and all is good.

Speaking dog language helps promote an understanding between our dogs and us. It may make us look silly at times, but who cares? I don’t, do you?


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Do You Want to Become a Better Dog Trainer?


When we had traditional, on-campus programs at the Ethology Institute, every year the new students would invariably fall into two groups: those who wanted to become dog trainers and those who wanted to become horse trainers. Every year, I would tell them the same, “If you want to become good trainers of your favorite species, you’ll have to train other species, you’ll have to gain some perspective.”

In principle, it doesn’t matter what other animals or animal species you train. Cats, rats, parrots, they are all good and they all have a lesson for you to learn. However, there is one little and cute animal that stands to me as our (almost) ideal teacher. It is charming, social, curious, shy, and relatively easy to train. You have probably guessed it. I’m talking about the guinea pig. Today, I’m going to tell you how these little, cute animals can make you a better dog trainer, a better horse trainer, a better animal trainer, and—most importantly—a more ‘complete’ individual. Please, keep reading.

The basic skills you need to train a dog are the same you need to train any other animal. One difference—and this is good news for you—is that (mainly due to our common history) there is no other animal as easy to train as a dog. On the other hand, there is a limit to how much you learn if you only train dogs.

Dogs forgive our mistakes and are nearly always motivated to cooperate. Other species scrutinize us far more thoroughly. We must earn their trust—if they don’t trust us, they won’t cooperate with us. A horse will not follow you if it doesn’t trust you and it takes a lot to earn the trust of a horse (and only a moment to lose it). You can offer it as many carrots as you like, but if it decides you are not someone to be trusted, the best carrots in the world will be to no avail. A cat will blink, at least twice, at you and the treat you offer it before even considering moving into your direction. Then, if it deems your request reasonable, it may just indulge you—otherwise, no deal.


Dog and guinea pig

Dog and guinea pig together. Training a guinea pig can make you a better dog trainer (photo


The guinea pig, a favorite prey of many predators including humans, is social and fearful by nature. We don’t share a common evolutionary history with it as with the dog. You won’t get anything for free. You’ll have to work to gain your guinea pig’s trust and show it that co-operating with you is profitable in both the short and the long term.

Training guinea pigs will teach you the theory of animal learning. You’ll have to be precise and use the right procedures to produce the right behavior. You’ll explore the whole spectrum of operant conditioning, but you’ll be left gasping for more. You’ll find yourself desperately attempting to think like a guinea pig, thus entering the realm of ethology.

You can teach dogs many things without a proper plan. They are so active and eager to please that, sooner or later, they will do something you like, which you can reinforce. With dogs, you can play by ear and sing along, but with other animals, you’ll need to plan. Timing is important when you train your dog, but surprisingly enough, you’ll still achieve acceptable results even if your timing is off. With dogs, it’s like singing a melody out of tune and your friends still recognizing it. With guinea pigs, you’d better sing in tune or they will tacitly suggest you get your act together before going back to them. It’s tough, but it’s also a good lesson about life.

Much like horses, guinea pigs tend to react fearfully when in doubt (the key to their survival throughout their evolutionary history). Displaying composed, self-confident behavior works well, but anything more assertive than that will backfire on you. Dogs, these ever amazing animals, give you a second chance (and understand our bad “accents” in dog language); a horse or a guinea pig hardly ever do so. If you as much as think of trying to bully a guinea pig into doing what you want, it will probably freeze for up to 30 minutes, which is a real stopper for any aspiring trainer.

You’ll learn soon enough that coercion is not the way to go at all. Thus, you’ll learn the secrets of motivation and the beauty of working within and with your environment, rather than attempting to control it, and that in itself will lead you to unexpected and welcomed results.

If they could, I’m sure your dog and your horse would thank the guinea pigs for what they teach you when you train them, for you become, undoubtedly, a much more subtle and balanced trainer. You’ll be in control of yourself rather than the animal, motivating rather than forcing, showing the way rather than fumbling about, achieving results with the least (sometimes even imperceptible) amount of intrusion into your favorite animal’s normal behavior.

If you have a chance, give it a try. We can never learn too much, can we?


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Why Do Dogs Like to Lick Our Faces?

Friendly Wolf Behavior

Roger Abrantes and wolf at the Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. Licking is one of the many behaviors dogs and wolves have in common. It signals friendship (picture by Monty Sloan).

Dogs like to lick our faces, a behavior that is disturbing for many dog owners and particularly non-dog owners. Yet, this behavior is a demonstration of friendliness, an attempt at pacifying us and themselves, a hand (though not literally) reaching for peace. It’s a compliment a dog gives you, “I like you, you can be my friend.”

The behavior originates probably in the neonatal and juvenile periods. Pups lick everything as a way of gathering information about their world. Licking our faces may give our dogs much more information about who we are and how we feel than we probably can imagine.

Pups also like to lick one another, a behavior which seems to make both donor and recipient relax because it is a pleasant and undemanding activity. Grooming and self-grooming also include licking and are again undemanding and bonding practices.

Canine mothers lick their pups, a way not only to keep them clean but also to stimulate the physiological processes of urinating, defecating and maybe even digestion.

When the pups become a bit older and begin eating solid food, it is common for them to lick the lips of the adults, a behavior which should elicit their regurgitation of recently intaken food, a good source of nutrition for the youngsters. Even though not as common as when our dogs were closer to their wild ancestors, this regurgitation behavior is still widespread among our canis lupus familiaris if we give them the opportunity to live a relatively normal dog life.

Pacifying behavior is, in general, behavior that originally performs essential functions related to survival and well-being, and that in latter stages assumes these same functions, though in different areas and with different outcomes: licking produced food regurgitation, licking produces friendly behavior.

Next time a dog licks your face, you do not need to be too terrified or disgusted. Just close your eyes, yawn, and turn your head away. This shows in dog language that you accept its offer of friendship.

By the way, don’t be too afraid either of the bacteria you may be given when your dog licks you—they are not much worse than those we get from kissing one another—and we’re not going to stop kissing, are we?


"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.


The Importance of Confidence in Animal Training

Confidence comes with success and success comes when you are confident—believe in yourself.

More often than you might realize, your animal training, independently of species, does not succeed because you don’t believe it will. Doubting yourself, your abilities, or the outcome of your behavior has an impact on those with whom you communicate.

Dogs, horses, cats, guinea pigs, just to mention a few, are experts in reading your body language. They will detect the slightest hint of doubt. If you don’t know or aren’t sure of what you want or what you’re doing, how do you want the animal to feel safe by following your instructions?

Here’s your plan of action: work it all out first and then do it believing fully that you will succeed. Don’t worry about the animal. Control yourself and your emotions. If you’re good, it will end up good.

“What if I don’t succeed, anyway?” you may now ask.

Tough luck, sometimes it does not work! In that case, return to square one, re-think your plan and go for it once more—and, as always, believing in yourself and that you’ll succeed.

Enjoy your training—but, first and foremost, enjoy spending time with another living creature.

"Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself" from the movie "Confidence" by Roger Abrantes.

“Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself” from the movie “Confidence” by Roger Abrantes.


Register now for free and take a course at your own pace. With knowledge comes confidence.


Can Animals of Different Species Bond like They Were Conspecifics?

Cat And Duck

If you would ask me whether animals of different species can create relationships and bonds similar to those they have with their own conspecifics, I wouldn’t hesitate in answering yes.

One winter morning, when I still lived up north, I looked out of the window and saw a white duck right in the middle of the yard. I almost missed it, so well his white plumage faded into the snowy environment.

Daniel, a teenager at the time, got very excited. “He’s freezing, Daddy, we have to help him,” he exclaimed.

We got warmly dressed, and even before considering eating breakfast, out we went to tend to this stranger in distress. Our presence didn’t frighten the duck, not even when we came closer. He didn’t show either any particular appreciation for the arrival of our rescue party. He must have been tired and terribly cold after having spent the whole night roaming around the frozen fields, and we didn’t hold his lack of courtesy against him.

We found a wooden crate, duck sized, grabbed some straw from the horse’s stall and made him a comfortable refuge near the old water pump. He seemed to like it right away, went inside, tidied it up a bit and lay down like all ducks do with his beak on his back. We offered him food and water, which he didn’t touch and so we left him to recover.

“Fine, so now we can grab some breakfast, don’t you think?” I asked Daniel.

The long and the short of it is that the duck stayed day after day without showing any intention of wanting to leave. We gave him a name, Anders. I don’t know if he also gave us names. The other animals on the farm, horse, cat, dog, took it as it was. No one bothered him and didn’t show much interest either.

I thought he might die when I first saw him, so miserable he looked, but he was a tough duck. Not only did he survive, but he looked healthier and stronger for every day that passed. He also became increasingly assertive.

If we had any apprehensions about whether the other animals would give him a hard time, our doubts quickly dissipated. In fact, it was the other way around. Anders became the king of the farm. He ate everything—horse, cat and dog food equally—and he took what he wanted when he fancied it. He would approach Katarina, the cat, from behind, would peck at her tail and, when she moved away, he would feast on cat food as he pleased.

Indy, the horse, didn’t escape his majesty’s moods either. King Anders would peck at Indy’s hooves until he moved away giving up his horsey pellets for yet a ducky feast.

He would walk around tending to his businesses, whatever businesses ducks have, unconcernedly and much matter-of-factly. The only concern he seemed to have were birds of prey. He would stand very quiet, looking up, holding his head sideways, one eye facing the sky until he rested assured that the bird wouldn’t dive down on him.

It didn’t take long, though, before we all got accustomed to Anders and him to us. I can’t say that he ever bonded particularly with anyone. He was his own. He wasn’t needy either. At the farm, we were supportive of one another if necessary, but we didn’t intrude on the others’ lives, and we weren’t over-protective either. Milou, the dog, would charge out of the door, furiously growling, if she heard that Katarina was in trouble, which she was regularly because the neighborhood tomcats apparently found her too hot and worth risking a sortie into unknown territory. Sometimes, at night, the fox would venture too close and Katarina would be the first to detect her, creating some commotion. Anders would quack and shed feathers all the way up to his safe spot, and Milou would charge forth furiously as the defender of the kingdom, barking and growling, not exactly knowing why, just in case. Indy, the horse, on the other hand, always kept his cool thru out all ordeals. Daniel and I would come last from our rooms on each end of the house, armed with our hockey sticks, more than once meeting one another in the yard only wearing our boxers. I’m happy we lived out in the sticks where nobody could witness our antics!

We had a good life. We didn’t bother one another, shared the space and the resources we had, and we put up with one anothers’ peculiarities. That was what served us all best, I think we all agreed, but I can’t know what the others thought. We were a family, a herd, a clowder, a pack and a brace.

We belonged to different species, but for all intents, except reproduction, we functioned as any well-functioning group of animals of the same species. Thus, if you would ask me whether animals of different species can create relationships and bonds similar to those they have with their own conspecifics, I wouldn’t hesitate in answering yes (all going down to definitions). Did we have any hierarchy? Oh yes, just ask Anders, and it wasn’t in any way unsettling for any of us. It even felt natural and reassuring, I dare say. As long as we all knew what we were supposed to do and not to do, all was good.

I got the habit every morning, right after I got up, to look out of the window and be greeted by Anders. He would invariably be there in the middle of the yard looking at my window, always at the right time. It became a ritual, a reassuring one, I guess, for both of us.

One morning, Anders was nowhere. I knew immediately what had happened. The fox had finally got the better of Anders, the king.


CAAE Certificate in Advanced Applied Ethology   ALSO AS PREMIUM PROGRAM

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Animal Training—When Doing Nothing is Doing Right

To earn the trust of a horse is the first step toward a good relationship. It takes time to earn it and only one moment to lose it.

To earn the trust of a horse is the first step toward a good relationship. It takes time to earn it and only one moment to lose it.

Years ago, my friends in the US asked me to go with them and see a horse they were considering buying for their daughter.

A couple of hours drive thru Illinois countryside, roads surrounded by never-ending cornfields, took us to a nice, clean and modern kind of an equestrian center where we found the horse and met the owner.

I liked the horse right away, a young, paint, quarter mare. The American quarter horse got its name from being particularly fast on distances up to a quarter mile. Paint horses are white with spots of black, brown or reddish. The American Paint is now a breed of its own. Most paints are levelheaded, versatile and friendly horses. This mare was no exception. She had the looks of being approachable and curious, eager to learn. I don’t remember exactly how old she was, but she couldn’t have been more than three years old. She looked young to me to carry a ridder on her back, and I remember asking the owner if they had trained her to it.

“Oh, yes, she is broken to ride, all right,” she answered.

That was not what I asked, but I reckoned I couldn’t get a better answer. What I wanted to know was whether the horse had gone thru any particular groundwork to develop the right muscles and movements necessary to carry the extra weight of a rider. By the way, I don”t know about you, but I dislike immensely the term “horse breaking.” If you really break the horse, you shouldn’t even come close to a horse, and that’s my opinion. If you don’t, but instead train it stepwise, wisely and patiently, you should consider using another term all together—and that’s again my opinion about that.

The young mare was beautiful, but then again I might have been terribly biased, for my heart always beats a tad faster when I see a gentle, paint quarter (or a friendly English cocker spaniel). These are things of the heart that I can’t explain, and don’t feel I need to either.

The owner proceeded to give us a demonstration of the horse’s abilities under saddle. It was a sad showing. The mare trotted and cantered all right, and turned right and left, and stopped and continued, but she looked miserable.

After having finished, the owner invited my friends’ daughter to go for a ride, but she declined, showing the typical shyness of a teenager of her age.

“You go, Roger, take a ride and tell us what you think,” her mum said to me.

“Yes, uncle Roger, please do it,” my niece begged me with that “horsey” expression only teenagers who have been long around horses can give you. I couldn’t refuse her.

And so, I went for a ride, even though, in my opinion, she was a bit too young and untrained. We trotted and cantered right away and, then, we did figure eights and turns. The young mare was entirely different from earlier. She had regained her spirit, and if not completely, then closer to the spirit of her ancestors, the proud horses roaming the plains of the new world.

“Wow,” my friends said almost in a choir, “that was impressing.”

“What did you do?” they asked me, “She behaved totally different with you! It was like a different horse altogether.” The owner pretended not to hear that.

“I did nothing,” I answered, and I was entirely honest. After mounting, I started by having a long talk with the horse, a silent one, that is, for horses don’t understand English and what I had to say was as much to her, the mare, as to myself.

“Ok, horsey, here we are the two of us. I’m sorry, we haven’t even been introduced properly,” I said, “Just do what you feel like doing. I’ll try to be as imperceptible as I possibly can.” And she ran, she trotted and cantered, and I did nothing besides trying not to be a burden, just syncing my movements with hers.

“Go for it, honey,” I thought, “run as much as you fancy, turn whenever you like. You lead, I’ll follow.” And she ran and turned, ears forward one moment, back the next, her mane flying in the wind. “Go, baby, go,” I thought, and she went faster and freer.

After a while, I began “leading the dance,” never used the reins, only changed, slightly, my position on the saddle. I looked left, and she turned left, I looked right, and she turned right, her ears for a moment turning back to me like asking, “Am I doing well?”

Sometimes, doing more does less, doing less does more, and doing nothing does right—and I suspect this is true more often than we reckon.

"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.