Ethology and veterinary practice: Key features of animal communication
Thursday, July 06, 2017
“You know, it's a miracle that puppies ever learn to sit," wrote a friend with a strong background in ethological training.
"First, we stand like statues in front of them and stare at them. Then we hiss 'Ssssssssit' at them, a sound that will distress many young animals. Then, if they can't get past all that and guess what the word means, we push down their rear ends, another behavior that will stress many pups. And finally, if they remain in the sit position for a second or two, we give them a treat and babble at them how smart they are.
"Their ability to sort all this out and give us what we want truly is amazing."
Although the behavioral repertoires members of each animal species use to communicate with their conspecifics may differ greatly, all forms of animal communication share some key features. And sometimes not realizing this can get practitioners, their staffs and clients as well as their animals into trouble.
Each communication must possess a sender and at least one recipient.
Although a sender may send messages to more than one recipient at the same time, multiple senders sending different messages to the same recipient at the same time creates confusion rather than communication. When more than one person is giving commands to the same animal at the same time, it's not surprising that this compromises those animals' ability to learn.
Simultaneously, communications between the sender and recipient(s) may gain the attention of unintended recipients. In wild animals, these eavesdroppers may include competitors, predators or parasites. On the upside, both wild and free-roaming domestic animals do recognize the distress calls of multiple species and will use these as early warning systems.
In companion animal households, eavesdroppers may include other animals or people who want to know what the sender is communicating or how the recipient is receiving that information.
Depending on his owner's tone of voice and body language when speaking to the dog, the cat may decide to stay in the room or beat a hasty retreat. When Mr. Brown overhears his sister talking to his dog in that high-pitched baby talk he knows spooks the timid animal, he interrupts her before his dog pees submissively on his new rug.
Parrots also may be skilled eavesdroppers, often to their owners' frustration and embarrassment. The Menageries' African gray took great delight in imitating their voices and giving the family dogs commands. He also imitated several of those human expressions — such as "Shut up, you dogs. You're driving me crazy!" — that dog owners may utter in moments of weakness and do not wish to share with other people.
Other times, unintended recipients may attempt to replace the sender's message with their own. Before Charmer has a chance to solicit eye contact and pets from her owner, Brody literally blocks her message with his body and sends his owner one she can't resist.
The chosen communications process normally meets the sender's needs; it may or may not be advantageous to the receiver.
Consider the common example of behaviors dogs use to communicate their claim on a person or other resource to other animals. Some animals (and humans) who understand this message and don't want to relinquish their own claim on that resource may challenge it.
However, other individuals may accept the message because the benefits of doing so exceed the costs at that time. While Brody does interfere with the amount of time Charmer spends with their owner, Brody also keeps the yard free of wild animals and patrols the house during thunderstorms, something timid Charmer has no desire to do.
The senders and recipients must possess the necessary anatomical and physiological wherewithal to send and receive the message.
Like the majority of human or animal communications, the bulk of human-animal communication consists of more than vocalizations. Frightened dogs who seek only to escape a stressful situation may bark and growl in a manner others may interpret as a signal of the dog's determination to launch a full-blown attack.
Some owners who cuddle their frightened dogs and whimper how they would die before they'd let anything bad happen to their poor little babies may have no idea that their body language and tone of voice is telling their pets that those people can't cope, either.
There's a difference between a communication signal and its meaning.
As with words, what a communication signal means depends on the context in which it's sent and received. Ideally, sender and recipient are on the same wavelength. However, in companion animal households where knowledge of ethology may be in short supply, that may not always be the case.
The Smiths won't let their young dogs play even though the high-energy animals always signal their benign intent via mutual play bows and proper bite inhibition. While Mr. Green believes the family dog's destructive chewing signals the animal's mean and spiteful nature, Mrs. Green feels certain that those same behaviors communicate how much the dog loves and misses them when they're gone.
Communications signals possess the potential to change the receiver’s behavior.
If you want to determine the effect of an animal's communication on another animal or person, or a person's communication with an animal, look to the recipient. Does the sender's message alter the recipient's behavior? If so, how?
For example, when Dr. Animal-Lover squats down and coos in what he considers a reassuring way in frightened Skippy's face and Skippy lunges at him, obviously the dog received a powerful message. Unfortunately, though, it wasn't the one the veterinarian intended. On the other hand, when the practitioner communicates that same message to Dulcinea, she leans against him and relaxes.
Animal communication, like human communication, only makes sense if you know and understand the context in which it occurs.
Yes, I know I already said this and probably many times in the past, too. However, communicating with animals or reading their signals safely and effectively doesn't lend itself to a one-size-fits-all approach, no matter how efficient this may seem to busy practitioners and their staffs.
Although a prevalent view among those with a more anthropocentric orientation maintains that only humans are capable of language, next month we'll consider several more complex characteristics of animal communication that challenge this view.
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