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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  • Molly

    Very neat! I had a conversation once with another graduate student from the psychology department  about if it is important to know about a species to be a good trainer.  I of course as an animal behavior student from the bio side was saying of course! He was saying it did not matter. I think it is a shame to not incorporate MAP's into training. I think we also use an animal's species specific behavior when training more than we think already. 

    • Thanks for the comment, Molly!

      I agree with you. I think it's important to know about each species. There are so many ways to get into trouble if we just jump in and start training, without understanding the species. Two things that come to mind immediately to me– diet/nutrition and physical issues.

      I'm currently teaching one of my rats to walk backwards. Physically, this is quite hard for the rat, because of the way her body is designed. So, I've been setting up sessions a bit differently than normal and taking breaks a bit differently, in order to help her out. If I was just looking at the motion of going backwards and not paying attention to how she moves and how her body is build, this behavior would have been a lot harder to train. Same with the horses, knowing how a horse is build physically, as well as an individual horse's current physical condition should always be a consideration when planning training.



    • Michael Nichols

      I agree that it is important to know about the species, though I hear a lot of trainers say it doesn’t. Usually, it is a matter of a little knowledge being dangerous — desensitization & counter-conditioning, and operant behavior acquisition behavior acquisition and extinction work the same way for most animals. If, however, we don’t know about the species, we might be trying to use the wrong protocol to change the behavior, because we don’t recognize what category of behavior it is, or even if it is aberrant, or typical. Further, how can we know or predict the relative strength of reinforcers, or recognize punishers if we don’t about not just the species, but the sub-species, and in the case of dogs, even potentially, breed.

      • Great points, Michael!

        Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. 🙂

  • It is worth noting and I really liked the presentation as well. I will surely come back for more of interesting posts.

  • Michael Nichols

    Very helpful article. Thank you!

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