7 April 2011

Dog behaviour (Fixed action patterns)

My female dog mounts other dogs. Why does she do it? I assume she’s dominating others. She’ll be playing well with a dog and then suddenly she’s mounting him or her. I find it obnoxious and so do many other owners. What’s the best way to get her to stop doing it?
Ah, love. I’ll tip the hand early and tell you the greatest likelihood is that mounting is a sexual behaviour. In fact, I think this could stand some screaming from the rooftops: mounting is sex, mounting is sex, mounting is sex! That this is not obvious to any onlooker is pretty amazing.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Fixed action patterns, or FAPs, are important behaviours that are pre-installed in animals, kind of like bundled software that comes with a computer. Fixed action patterns require no learning and are triggered by something in the environment. A classic example is a moving bit of string that triggers a six-week-old kitten to pounce. The pouncing sequence is stereotyped across all cats. Another example is how a cat will turn sideways, arch his back, puff up and hiss. This is a self-defense FAP, again common to all cats and stereotyped.
Ethologists have coined the four big areas of endeavour under which most FAPs fall the “Four F’s”: fight, flight, feeding and reproduction. Animals that lack competency in the Four F’s don’t pass on their incompetent genes; but interestingly, domestication allows the occasional Four F incompetence to creep in. Domesticated animals are no longer making a living in the world the same way as their wild forbearers did, so they can afford to drop certain software programs without penalty. A cow without a well-developed flight response is in much less danger than a deer. In some cases, breeding practices have deliberately softened up or greatly raised the triggering threshold for an FAP, such as in the case of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, which for the most part eschew fighting.
Cats are an interesting case as they retain most, if not all, of their Four F FAPs. Because of this, many consider them a semi-domesticated or even a non-domesticated species. Dogs, however, are all over the map – breed- and individual-wise – with regard to Four-F-FAP retention. A given dog may or may not be very predatory (feeding), skittish and neophobic (flight), or highly competitive over resources (fight).
Sex matters
On to sex. At last. Reproductive behaviour is, evolutionarily speaking, the biggest and most important of the Four F’s. An animal that lacks super-duper strong courtship and reproductive FAPs doesn’t pass on its ascetic genes. Genes are keen to get passed on and never neglect to install the pass-me-on-now urge, action and wow-was-that-ever-rewarding software in the animals they build. For the most part, domestic animals retain repro FAPs, although technology like AI reduces selection pressure here.
Sexual behaviour in animals has been studied a great deal. Female mounting is not at all unusual, especially during courtship. In one rat study, female mounting of what a girl rat considered a sluggish male was referred to as a “super-solicitational” behaviour. Perhaps the rat equivalent of fishnets and a push-up bra.
In dogs, the courtship and reproduction sequence was studied in considerable detail by Frank Beach, Ariel Merari and Ian Dunbar at the University of California at Berkeley. A female that’s ready to mate might flirt with a male by mounting, clasping and thrusting for a bit, then get off, run away and stop, hopefully with a super-solicited male in hot pursuit, not to mention oriented at the operative end of the female.
I don’t mean to suggest that your dog is, uh, loose, primarily because in play all manner of Four F FAPs are expressed in a giant jumble. In fact, the leading interpretation of why animals play in the first place is that they are rehearsing key FAPs. Dog play consists of chasing (feeding FAP by the chaser, flight FAP by the chasee); play biting (fight and feeding); wrestling, body slamming and pinning (fight and feeding); and courtship and copulatory behaviours such as pawing, mounting, clasping and thrusting. These are punctuated by meta-signals such as play-bows, bouncy movements and grinning play faces, which signal the playful intent of the F’s that precede and follow. And note, all sexes might mount other sexes: it’s play.
So, when you say she’s “playing well,” I presume you mean she’s biting, chasing, slamming and wrestling with other dogs. I am wholly fascinated by the sheer number of dog owners out there who find these behaviours non-obnoxious but consider sex play across the line or, amazingly, not about sex at all! At any dog park you’ll see owners continually and automatically defaulting to a non-sexual explanation for mounting, notably our old favourite, dominance. Now, I’m no shrink but unless dogs are way more into S & M than anybody has reckoned, when an animal mounts and thrusts, I think we need to rule out sex before entertaining other interpretations. In other words, when an animal does the granddaddy of all FAPs during play, mightn’t it be play sex, just like play fighting, play predation and play fleeing? Bottom line: She is also playing well when she mounts!
I am not sure whether the abstemious streak in North American culture whirls us, like a centrifuge, away from the S word when we see copulatory behaviours during play, or whether we’re so dominance-obsessed we co-opt nookie-nookie into some sort of power play. In any case, if you would like less of it, provide a non-violent consequence, such as a time out, whenever she does it. It could be two minutes outside the play area, or you could march her back to the car and take her straight home.
If, on the other hand, you think you might consider allowing her to do it during play, perform a consent test. If you suspect at any time that her partner may not be consenting, pull her off for a moment. Does the mountee grab this opportunity to get away? Does he or she hang out nearby? Or does he or she solicit play from your dog? This consent test works for pinning, wrestling, chasing and other behaviours where there is any doubt about whether both dogs are enjoying the action.
The consent of both dog owners is also important. Although I’ve poked fun at some of the Puritanical motives that may be driving us 180° away from interpretations of mounting that involve sex, no owner at a dog park should be bullied by other owners, however well-meaning, into allowing some activity with which they are uncomfortable, including mounting. If everyone passes the consent test, the dogs can proceed.
By Jean Donaldson
Canadian Jean Donaldson is the founder of the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers. Her books include The Culture Clash, Dogs Are From Neptune and MINE! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs

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