What is an ethogram?
When studying or observing animal behaviour, one of the most important things to do is describe the behaviour so that it can be measured. In ethology, or the scientific study of animal behaviour, this is done using an ethogram. An ethogram is a list of behaviours with specific definitions, and can be used in training and behaviour.
An ethogram should allow for an objective description of a behaviour. You want different people record the same thing when observing a behaviour.
Ethograms can cover a wide range of things. They can be quite specific and focus on a certain area of behaviour, such as aggression in dogs, or could have a huge range of behaviours in a species.
An ethogram allows us to quantify, or count, behavior and then can allow for evaluation of behavior. This can be in a scientific experiment, or our own animals in our home.
Reliability and Validity
In order to use an ethogram, especially for scientific purposes, it has to be both reliable and valid.
In order to be reliable, a definition needs to be accurate and repeatable. There are two kinds of reliability that we would like to have. The first is intra-observer, or within-observer reliability, where the same person watching the same behaviour at two different times would record it in the same way. The other is inter-observer, or between-observer reliability, where two different people watching the same behaviour would record it the same way.
Valid measures are ones that actually measure what they’re supposed to measure. Ethograms are validated in different ways. Sometimes, experts are gathered to help come up with the definitions. Other times, the definitions can be tested in different scenarios to see if they work. For example we could look at pain behaviour in animals that are, and are not, in pain.
How do you build an ethogram?
There are a few different ways to build an ethogram. First, you need to decide what species and type of behaviour you’re hoping to measure.
If for your personal use, you can build your own definitions from your experience and information from trusted sources. Some simple body language images and explanations can be found in ‘Doggie Language’ by Lilli Chin and ‘Kitty Language’ which is available for preorder.
For scientific use, sometimes a group of experts in behaviour may be brought together to create definitions based on their experience and expertise. I’ve been a part of expert panels for several different studies, and have been asked to provide descriptions of behavior. I've also observe video and assessed it based on definitions that are being tested for an ethogram.
Other times, definitions may be adapted from other species or similar work. An ethogram may also be created from several different published sources and combined to create a new catalogue.
When looking at behaviour, there are two types, events and states. Events are behaviors that happen over a short period of time and would typically be counted to end up with a frequency measure, or a count of the number of times it happened. States, on the other hand, are behaviors that occur over a longer period of time. Examples of states could be different body positions (eg. lying, sitting), being within a certain distance of an object or another individual (eg within 1 foot of person), or any other longer activity. The length of time they perform that behavior, or duration, is typically recorded.
Using an ethogram in dog and cat training and behaviour
Ethograms allow us to understand animal behavior more clearly. They are also a tool for measuring behavior and getting data in the animals we’re observing.
Ethograms can be used to create a time budget for an animal. This is the percentage of observation time an animal is performing a behavior. For example, you could figure out what activities your dog or cat are doing throughout the day and how much time they spend doing each. We could be concerned about how much rest or sleep they’re getting and record that throughout the day. They can also be used to count the number of times a particular behavior occurs.
When training a new behavior, an ethogram can be very useful to make sure that you’re either getting, or moving towards, a behaviour. You can make sure that you’re tracking and recording the right thing if you’re keeping a training log. If you’re working with a trainer, or other members of your household are helping with training, this can really help with communication to make sure everyone is working towards the same goal.
If you’re working on behaviour problems with your pet, this can also be really helpful. Using definitions of behavior can help a lot with a behavior log, tracking how often problem behaviours are happening and discussing with your trainer/behaviour consultant/behaviorist if appropriate. Tracking behaviour can help you see successes and difficulties. They can also help you decide when you should reach out for some help.
want more science?
If you’re interested in more of the science behind this blog post, visit The Behaviory Blog which is my blog written for pet professionals, and covers the topic in greater depth.
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