Why does my dog do that? The four questions of ethology

Science popularisation article about the four questions of ethology
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Dec 2012

Why does my dog DO that?

Rover lunged at Uncle Fred again. WHY-OH-WHY?

You asked the vet, read the books, told your trainer, and… they all tackled it from a different angle. Result? You’re still confused, Rover’s still barking.

So ‘Why is why such a tough question?’…

Because it rolls four questions into one.

We owe the big four to Nico Tinbergen: ethology co-daddy, Nobel prize co-winner and all-round clever guy.

Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Question 1: Function

The idea

Put on your –rather large– Skinner glasses and ask: what reinforces his behaviour each time?

The basic answer here is: Rover is barking to increase the distance between him and Uncle Fred.

 Beware of two logical traps

1/ Teleology: Rover is not consciously pursuing a goal. We’re talking outcome, not purpose.

2/ Speculation: Is speculation fun? You bet. Does it make it fact? Nope. Promise me, no more:

  • “Rover was trying to save the baby”,
  • “Rover wanted to show Fred who’s boss”,
  • “Rover must have been abused in his former home” …

Relevance to Rover’s barking

Now we know what Rover wants, we can teach him to get it in a more appropriate way.

Question 2: Control

The idea

Here, we look at Rover like an input-output box churning out behaviour.

a. Contingency statement

To a behaviouralists (a special type of behaviourist), answering ‘why’ means breaking the events down into is the ‘ABC chain’:

Antecedent (+ motivating operations) -> Behaviour (-> Consequence)


Antecedent: What happened JUST before the behaviour started “Uncle Fred stands in the doorway two meters away from Rover”

(Motivating operations): i.e. context.

  • “It only happens at home”
  • “It only happens when Rover is on-leash”
  • etc.

Behaviour : “Rover barks and lunges”. And precisely:

  • How high-pitched?
  • Is he cowering away?
  • etc.

Consequence: We looked at consequence under the heading ‘Function’

b. Physiology

In Rover’s case, we’ll look for clues of the underlying neurological/hormonal processes of the fight/flight/freeze/f*** response.

Relevance to Rover’s barking

  1. The contingency statement focuses the training plan (e.g. what specific stimuli we’ll desensitize Rover to).
  2. The physiological cues help us determine his underlying emotional state (e.g. fear, anger, etc.), predict how long each episode is likely to be, and quantify progress.

Question 3: Ontogeny

Did something happen before the problems crept in?

  • “We had just moved house”
  • “He was 18 months old” — he could be entering social maturity.
  • “Something happened when he was 9 weeks old” — bang in the middle of the sensitive period
  • “I had just started working again”
  • etc. etc. etc.

Relevance to Rover’s barking

It helps us understand what tilted the dog over the edge, so we can design an appropriate management plan.

Question 4: Phylogeny

The dog’s taxonomical tree

  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Canis
  • Species: familiaris
  • Breed: German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, etc.

The basic idea

We compare Rover’s barking to what his relatives do [e.g. other mammals, other canids, other labradors…]. Do they do it too? What is the adaptive significance of the behaviour for them (how does it increase their chance of survival)?


Looking at breeds

When assessing the ‘typical’ behaviour of a breed, beware:

  • Don’t be over-optimistic: Breed descriptions can be euphemistic: proud = inflexible; will-to-please = stimulation-addict; etc.
  • Don’t be over-pessimistic: The average German Shepherd is more likely to be wary of strangers. But your German Shepherd may be on the weak side of the GSD range.

Relevance to Rover’s barking

Now we understand the ‘normal’ behaviour (i.e. breed-typical, species-typical, etc.), and its evolutionary origin, we can better assess how much Rover is likely to be able to change, and how much we’ll need to adapt his environment.

But my dog trainer said…

Behaviour consultants (consciously or not) build a training plan on the four questions. That’s why we start every project by looking at the dog’s history with a fine-toothed comb. Sure, it’s faster to blame it on dominance, but…



  • Alcock (2009) Animal behavior: An evolutionary approach
  • Davies, Krebs and West (2012)  An introduction to Behavioural Ecology
  • Martin and Bateson P. (2007) Measuring Behaviour – an introductory guide
  • O’Heare (2010) Changing problem behaviour

And for thorough reviews of dog training and behaviour books.


I love to read your comments. In particular…

  • Are you a behaviour analyst/behaviour consultant/behaviourist/clinical behaviourist/specialist trainer?
  • Do you (consciously or not) approach our cases from the four questions?
  • Does your dog have mysterious behaviour problems? Does this approach help a little?

Further reading

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

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