Humans have been interacting, and even living with animals for thousands of years. You may have heard the phrase, “A dog is man’s best friend,” but did you know that wolves were actually the first domesticated animals? Thousands of years ago, people noticed that these wild creatures could be tamed and serve a practical purpose, giving rise to the world’s first pets.
If you’ve grown up with animals, you probably already know how they act, and how we should act around them. For example, it’s common knowledge that dogs will sniff each other’s rear ends in greeting, and cats like to scratch things to sharpen their claws. But why do they behave like this? Are these learned or instinctive behaviors? Let’s take a closer look.
While dogs understand and view humans as a completely different animal, cats think of us as giant, hairless kittens. Because they learn so much of their behavior from their mothers during the first few weeks of life, they often emulate that pattern of communication with their owners! If a cat is allowed outdoors, it may bring back some sort of “gift” to their human, such as a dead mouse or bird. Cats do this because it’s how their mothers taught them to hunt and catch their own food! The mother will go out hunting and bring back her dead prey, then show her kittens how to properly eat it. She will continue to do this until the kittens are able to catch their own food.
One example of instinctive behavior in domestic cats is the use of scratching posts, or just scratching in general. Most cats are attracted to anything with a coarse or textured surface; something they can really sink their claws into. Sometimes, this comes at the expense of our nice furniture. But why do they do this? There are many reasons as to why cats scratch things: removing the dead outer layer of their claws, marking their territory (they have scent glands on their paws), and stretching their bodies while flexing their paws! This behavior is completely normal and instinctive, so we don’t want to stop them from scratching. The best course of action to get cats to stop ruining furniture is to introduce objects they can scratch on, and discourage the use of things they can’t. Scratching behavior depends mostly on texture, so try covering off-limits spots with things your cat will find unappealing on their paws, like double-sided tape, foil, or even lint roller sheets.
If you’ve ever lived with a dog, you might have noticed that they tend to howl along to similar sounds, like the siren of a fire truck or a tornado warning signal. This is an example of instinctive behavior in canines. In the wild, wolves howl to let other wolves know that this is their territory and to stay away. They also howl to locate their pack members when they're apart, which helps them maintain relationships within the pack. When dogs hear something that sounds like a howl, their instinct kicks in and tells them to howl back!
Unlike cats, who don’t meow to communicate with other cats, dogs in the wild bark to communicate with each other from a distance. Compared to humans, dogs are very visual creatures - body language is the most important form of communication. However, if a fellow canine is far enough away, a dog will bark at it to get its attention, like saying, “Hello! I’m over here!”
For dogs, most learned behavior comes from interacting with, or watching other dogs interact with humans. From a young age, dogs that are kept as pets learn to follow commands and generally have “good” behavior (something that wild dogs and wolves do not have). Dogs learn by association, which means that if a behavior has a positive outcome, they’ll be more inclined to repeat that behavior. If they’re ignored or receive a negative outcome, they are less likely to repeat the behavior in the future.
Observe Animal Behavior
Now that we know a little bit about why animals exhibit certain behaviors, we can observe how animals interact with their environment. All you’ll need is an animal to observe and something to take notes with!
If you have pets, it’s pretty easy to study their behavior if you know what to look for. Try watching how they eat, sleep, and interact with you. What are they trying to communicate?
Depending on the time of the year, it might be a little more difficult to find wild animals to observe. In the winter there are lots of birds and jackrabbits hanging around, and maybe the occasional squirrel. Many animals are most active in the spring and fall. If you live in a city with a large population, you might have noticed that pigeons and squirrels tend to be more bold and less afraid of humans. Why is that? If you have questions about a specific behavior you observed, looking it up online is a great way to find an explanation!
Langova, Anna. “Cat and Dog”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 3/2/18 from publicdomainpictures.net
Boardman, Emma. “Black Cat”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 2/27/18 from publicdomainpictures.net
Verbeek, Richard. “Big Cat”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 3/3/18 from pexels.com
Frerichs, Lilla. “Coyote Howl”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 3/3/18 from publicdomainpictures.net
Hodan, George. “Puppy Dog”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 3/3/18 from publicdomainpictures.net