Have you ever seen a dog that can shake hands? Do you think you could teach a hamster to do this? Or a rabbit? Or even a cat? It helps that a dog has front legs and paws that can easily be lifted and placed in your hand, but is it just a matter of having the right “equipment?”
When you get right down to it, a dog doesn’t need to shake hands, although it can be taught to do so. There is nothing innate—or pre-programmed—in a dog’s nature that requires this behavior, but many dogs are willing to learn to shake if it makes an owner feel good. As social animals who obey the pecking order of “the pack,” dogs intuitively understand that a pet owner likes it when the dog obeys commands.
What is the range of behaviors that our pets can learn? All animals—including humans—have inherited traits and characteristics in their genes that define what can and can’t be done. These innate traits evolve and get passed along in the offspring of each species. This is why right from birth a dog barks like a dog and doesn’t quack like a duck, and why an orb spider can spin a perfect web the first time it tries.
The range of innate behaviors across different species is amazing. Think about the cat who can find its way home after being deposited over 800 miles away. This homing instinct in cats is not fully understood, but it is similar to the behavior of salmon and birds in terms of amazing navigational abilities.
Did you ever teach a cat to use a litter box? A dog not to chew something? What were the difficulties you encountered in these tasks? Why are some behaviors easy for one species to learn and not another—i.e., the dog will shake hands, the snake has no chance, and the cat could care less!
Ethnologists study animals in their natural environment. They investigate how the DNA in chromosomes form “templates” that determine the range of innate behaviors in each species. Animal behaviorists study animals outside of their natural environment, such as the pets in your house. They help us to understand how innate and learned behaviors can be modified through training and changes in a pet’s diet or environment.
Modifying a pet’s behavior can be a challenging task for pet owners. Although pet owners have the responsibility for teaching their pets, they often do not have any formal training themselves in how to do this. Unfortunately, many animals end up in shelters or are abused when owners misunderstand the cause of their pet’s behavior.
Understanding why pets sometimes “misbehave” requires careful understanding of their innate traits and their ability to learn. The disposition of a particular pet and the circumstances surrounding the behavior are also factors. For example, if a cat is not using a designated kitty litter box, is it because the cat is not a sanitary animal? Is it because he or she is a “bad kitty?” Anyone who has witnessed the grooming habits of cats knows they are tidy by nature. Very often something in the cat’s home environment or improper training has caused this behavior to occur.