Using Modal Action Patterns to Influence Behavior

These are my notes from the 2012 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference.
Click here for more notes from this conference.

This was the second year that Phung Luu spoke at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. Phung Luu is a very talented bird trainer. Last year, at the 3rd annual conference, Phung spoke about errorless learning. This year, he gave a very interesting talk about Modal Action Patterns. He discussed what are Modal Action Patterns and how trainers can use them.

What is a Modal Action Pattern (MAP)?

A modal action pattern is a genetic-like behavior or chain of behaviors that is triggered by a particular stimulus. Modal action patterns are also called fixed action patterns (FAP). However, Phung explained that some researchers are moving toward using the term modal action pattern instead of fixed action pattern because they want to recognize and emphasize that all behaviors, even highly stereotypic, species-specific patterns of behavior, are still somewhat flexible.

Common examples of MAPs and FAPs include the mating dances of many species, some types of displays of aggression, the pointing and herding instincts of some breeds of dogs, spider web building, and when a baby bird pecks at an adult’s beak so that the adult bird will regurgitate food. One example of a MAP that shows the flexibility of these types of behaviors is a bird’s nest building behavior. Birds “instinctively” know how to build nests. However, most people don’t realize that this behavior is still quite flexible and that a bird’s nest building behavior improves over the years with practice.

Here’s what trainers need to remember about MAPs and FAPs. Most animals have stereotypic or set behavior patterns that are characteristic to that species. Animal trainers need to be aware of these behaviors so that they can manage them, or even use them to their advantage. As well, if trainers aren’t aware of these types of behaviors, they are likely to get in trouble. Although the basic principles of training apply to every species, MAPs are one reason why before you begin working with a new species, it is important to spend time studying that species and becoming familiar with that species’ behaviors.

Using MAPs to Your Advantage When Training Animals

When training animals, you can use MAPs to reduce behavior you don’t want or to encourage behavior that you do want. One example Phung Luu discussed involved a jaw popping behavior that dolphins do. Researchers use to think that the jaw popping sound was caused entirely by the physical movement of the jaw popping. However, they later realized that the dolphins had a special vocalization that accompanied the jaw pop behavior. Phung discussed how Ken Ramirez worked with scientists and other trainers to teach dolphins to do this behavior on cue. This allowed researchers working on dolphin vocalization to closely study a new type of dolphin vocalization that had not been previously studied.

Phung also discussed how he has used MAPs with aggressive Andean condors. Condors are big birds, with up to a 10 foot wing span. Phung showed a few videos of these birds in his lecture. They were gorgeous birds, but I wouldn’t want to get too close to an aggressive one! One behavior that young condors do is a wing pumping behavior. This is a friendly behavior that is often done to older animals. Phung knew that condors never wing pump and aggress at the same time. So, in several aggressive condors, Phung has shaped up the wing pump behavior. He has used this behavior to decrease aggression, while teaching the bird how to interact positively with people. He starts slowly, by first reinforcing any small wing movements and then shaping the bird to lift his wings. The wing pump gives the bird an alternative behavior to do while people are present and teaches the bird a positive way to interact with people, without having to be aggressive.

Phung’s lecture gave me a lot to think about regarding how we can use “natural” behaviors to improve our training. Many times we only think of these types of behaviors as getting in the way of training. Have you used MAPs or natural species behaviors to your advantage when you are training? If not, can you think of some ways that you might be able to incorporate some of these ideas into your training?

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