Pets: Oh Behave

What You Need


  •  Pet Photos – it might be useful to have students bring in pictures of their pets to discuss their behavior
Pets: Oh Behave


To develop an understanding of how innate and learned behaviors and the environment determine behavior.


This benchmark talks about the wide range of behaviors among species. This lesson will focus on pets, specifically cats, dogs, birds, and small mammals. These animals are generally attractive to humans because they can learn behaviors.

The concept of learned behavior is familiar to students who have successfully trained a pet. Interestingly, when pets behave well people are likely to credit this to their training methods. However, when their pets "misbehave," people often blame the animal. In these cases, people fail to recognize that misbehavior is more often caused by bad human training than by innately bad traits in pets.

At this level, students are aware that human and non-human animals share many traits and characteristics. Students should be aware that the basic drives of all animals, including reproduction and self-preservation, are at the root of both innate and learned behaviors.

Although DNA and the role of chromosomes is not covered until grades 9-12, by the end of the 5th grade, students know that behavior in insects and many other species is determined almost entirely by biological inheritance. For many species, pre-programmed activities in the service of basic instincts dominates their existence. Two obvious examples of these pre-wired tendencies in animals are migration and hibernation.

In addition to innate traits and behaviors, pets are also capable of learned behaviors. It is widely assumed that the more complex an animal's brain, the more capable the species is of learning.

The question is, in what sense do animals "think"? What mental representations in their minds resemble those of humans? Although non-human species demonstrate intelligence in many forms, including spatial (bees), verbal (chimps), and even self-awareness (dolphins), these examples don't translate into "intelligence" as easily as an SAT score. While humans can use memories of their past experiences to make judgments, non-human animals may not have this capacity.

Students should understand that intelligence and instincts are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. What animals learn very often complements a natural tendency. For example, the natural herding instincts of sheepdogs allow them to be excellent minders of the flock. The specific manner by which a sheepdog performs this task is a learned behavior, facilitated by "on-the-job" training by his master.

An effective approach to comparing innate and learned behaviors is available through the activity Orangutan U. In this activity, students learn how primates can "understand" spoken and written language. Cat's Meow is another activity that can help students understand animal communication, specifically how cats "meow" to mean one thing and "purr" to mean something else.

A key goal of this lesson is to show students how a variety of factors affects our pet's behavior—including species-specific traits, the environment, training, and experience. The capacity to learn varies from species to species, and also within a species. For some students, it will be difficult to understand that the innate traits in pets are similar to those in humans. Layers of socialization and language are such that "people sometimes become aware of their own characteristics only when they see them in animals." (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 127.)


Begin by having students discuss their personal experiences with pets and any training methods they have tried.

Ask students:

  • Why do people like pets?
  • What are some different kinds of pets?
  • Which ones can you give more freedom to?
  • What are some reasons that you can leave a pet at large? (Could be for own protection or to protect property. Or it could be it needs to stay in a controlled habitat.)
  • Why do some animals make better pets than others?
  • What training methods have you tried with your pets?

Using the What Are Innate and Learned Behaviors? student esheet, have students read the article called Pet Behaviors. This reading defines innate and learned behaviors, and how ethnologists and animal behaviorists work with animals. Explain to students that behavior is determined by a combination of inherited traits, experience, and the environment.

After they have reviewed the resource, ask students questions such as these:

  • What is an example of an inherited trait in a pet?
  • What is an example of a learned behavior in a pet?
  • What are examples of inherited and learned traits in humans?
  • What are some species-specific traits in your pets?
  • What is something that your pet has learned?
  • How does an animal's brain affect its intelligence?
  • Which animals have reputations for being intelligent? Are these reputations true?
  • What is an innate behavior demonstrated by both human and non-human animals?


To begin the lesson, refer students back to the What Are Innate and Learned Behaviors? student esheet, which will guide them to these websites:

After they have reviewed these websites, ask students questions such as these:

  • What are some keys to successfully training a pet?
  • What is the best environment in which to help a pet learn?
  • What are some of the behaviors that pet owners seek to modify through pet training?
  • What is meant by the statement, "Many of the problems we experience with our pets are normal species-typical behaviors that are inconvenient for us or occur in an inappropriate setting"?
  • How does the example of the cat traveling 800 miles to get back home demonstrate an innate trait?
  • What are some innate behaviors of dogs?

Continue the lesson by dividing the class into four groups, corresponding to cats, dogs, birds, and small mammals. Explain to students that each group will explore one type of pet at Ask the Behaviorist and then complete a student sheet. Distribute the "A Visit to the Vet" (Dogs, Cats, Birds, Small Mammals) student sheets to students according to their groups. Students should browse all of the sections as directed by the student esheet, and then focus in on one pet type to complete the student sheets.

Note: It will be useful for students to read about traits from each of the four pet types. The behaviorists' advice concerning appropriate training for the four pet types is useful to all pet owners.

After visiting the website and completing the student sheets, give each student group the opportunity to present their findings to the class. To reinforce the ideas in the lesson, ask students these questions:

  • How do you distinguish an innate behavior from a learned behavior?
  • What are some behaviors you can teach a cat? A bird? A dog?
  • Why are some behaviors easier for some species to learn than others?
  • How do pets develop behavior problems?
  • What are some different ways that people train their pets?
  • How does what we do as pet owners affect our pets' behavior?
  • What are some common mistakes owners make in training their pets?


Ask students to compare one aspect of human behavior to that of a pet. Student answers should indicate that they can distinguish between inherited and learned behaviors and that they understand that animals with more complex brains (i.e., humans) have a wider range of behaviors.

Students should be able to identify several examples of "good" training and "bad training" by pet owners. They should understand that innate drives such as reproduction and self-preservation are at the root of both learned and innate behaviors.


The following Science Updates can be used to further explore the topics related to the science of innate and learned behavior:

  • In the Cat's Meow lesson, students will learn about the history of cats and how they use meowing and purring to communicate.
  • In the Orangutan U lesson, the focus is on how primates communicate with humans.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards