On Ethology

Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Michael W. Fox about dogs and how important ethology is in applied animal welfare (e.g. dog training, shelters, rescues, etc.).   Unfortunately, “ethology” is often misunderstood, and as Michael joked with me, to begin with, people sometimes confuse it with Ethnology (a branch of Anthropology).  All joking aside though, his words were so provocative that I have included the recorded sound clip from our conversation so that you can hear Michael’s words for yourself.

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[Listen to Michael W. Fox on the field of Ethology]

Fox:  You break down “Ethology” and it’s [two parts]: -ology is the study of, like “biology” or “cosmology”, and Eth-ology is the study of ethos, or the spirit that moves animals.  You are essentially studying the spirit that is motivating this being to behave, to respond, to interact.  I remember the conference in Rennes several years ago that was opened in the town hall by Konrad Lorenz—I mention it in one of my books at least—where he said to the gathering of these international ethologists, “before you are going to study an animal, you are going to have to first love it.”  I was standing with Daniel Lehrman and some of the other more mechanistic ethologists from the United States and they all started saying, “ohhh, he’s going soft” and “not being scientific”, but what Konrad was saying is that you have to have the connection—which I call empathy—before you can really begin to understand what’s going on.  And that was easy for him because he studied the Greylag geese and they imprinted onto him when he raised them as infants.  As fresh little hatchlings they thought he was their mother so they imprinted onto him and it was very easy.  But he did say that some animals can be very difficult to love, and he had one graduate student who was set studying some little aquatic creature who spent most of the day on the bottom of the aquarium tank and just came up for a gulp of air and then went down to the bottom and he said, “some animals are difficult to love but you have to hang in there.”

But I would say, getting on the practical level with dog trainers, broken down from the need to have an objective Skinnerian pigeon in the conditioning box to simply being with the animal is a big step for that individual to take.  And then you find yourself in the space with the animal and free from your own limiting conceptual space and that’s a real letting go, which is the antithesis of control and obedience training.  That letting go you enter another dimension really, of a deeper rapport and a communion where you are dealing not only with cognitive processes but emotional things going on too: such as fear, shyness, the need for attention, all those motivating factors that John Paul Scott and John Fuller, my mentors in Bar Harbor, looked at, and Daniel Freedman in his studies of different ways of raising different breeds of dogs, and genetics and emotions play a big role in trainability, but ultimately when you can break through the emotional and genetic related differences in temperament, dogs do turn out to be very similar in their basic intelligence (that was the conclusion of Scott and Fuller in their work).

More succinctly, as Michael says in his biography: “Animals, through their behavior, express their various emotions, desires and intentions in an ancient language which the science of ethology helps us interpret.”

My passion for ethology and how readily it translates to applied work could not be described better than his words.