Monday, 15 November 2010

The nature of behaviour and behaviour problems

The nature of behaviour and behaviour problems

Understanding the nature of behaviour problems is essential to developing a rational basis for their treatment.
Behaviour problems arise as a result of an interaction between factors relating to the current environment and developmental factors within a patient of a given state. Not all behaviour problems represent dysfunctional, abnormal or maladaptive behaviour since "the problem is the not the animal’s behaviour per se but rather the problem that this behaviour poses for its owner" (Askew 1996).
Broadly speaking behaviour problems may be divided into behaviours which are adaptive but inconvenient for the owner, those which are derived from attempts to behave in an adaptive way in a suboptimal environment and those which are truly maladaptive e.g. seizure activity.



The causes of behaviour may be investigated at a proximate or ultimate level (Mayr 1961). Proximate explanations relate to the environmental stimuli and mechanisms within the individual which bring about the physical expression of the behaviour; they describe the pathological and aetiological processes with which veterinary surgeons are familiar in normal clinical practice.
The ultimate explanations describe why such proximate processes should come about; they explain the function or adaptiveness of the processes. Tinbergen (1963) suggested that a full explanation of behaviour was to be found at four distinguishable but complementary levels:
-phylogeny (evolutionary history),
-ontogeny (development within an individual),
-mechanism
-adaptive value.
This paradigm has now become a central tenet to ethology.
Unfortunately, within the field of animal behaviour therapy, there has tended at times to be a fragmentation of this unifying model with emphasis being given to particular levels according to the philosophical standpoint of the therapist, which may be medical, psychological or more purely ethological.
Clinical ethologists tend not to adhere rigidly to a single model as it is generally accepted that internal and external causes interact in the development of a disorder. However, one type of cause does tend to be emphasised at the expense of other possible explanations. (Sheppard & Mills 1998).

Ethological explanations which focus on the ultimate factors governing behaviour are widely used for the category of problems which consist of adaptive, species typical behaviours which are inconvenient for the owner, like hierarchical aggression in dogs (Borchelt and Voith 1982).

However the potential for an ultimate analysis of behaviour problems which have traditionally been thought of as psychopathologies, is a much more recent phenomenon. These problems tend to be analysed from a behavioural or medical perspective which concentrates on proximate explanations of behaviour (Mills 1997).


Since psychological disorders in animals appear to share a similar inherent structure and mechanism to human psychiatric disorders, it is likely that investigations of the former will be equally unsuccessful unless a more appropriate approach is rationalised.


Behaviour problems consist of clusters of behaviours and emotional states, most of which are not specific to one disorder. If proximate causes are identified they could be associated with one or more signs and may also be associated with other disorders. The neurological processes underlying such general states as depression, anxiety or phobic responses could be normal adaptive mechanisms rather than a pathological process in the normal sense of the word.
For example, fearful behaviour in a dog is regarded as a disorder if it is too prolonged, too frequent or occurs in the absence of an appropriate trigger. The difference between "normal" and "abnormal" is subjective with such an approach and unsatisfactory as a foundation for a clinical science (Mills 1997).

Mechanistic investigation is in danger of identifying the normal mechanism that instigates a fear response as opposed to the primary cause of what makes it inappropriate, which may relate to endogenous or exogenous individual factors.

The evolutionary approach

Biomedical and pharmacological models of psychological problems emphasise the internal causes of disorders; by contrast, the behavioural and sociocultural models emphasise external causes. In any case, each model implicates a specific type of proximate cause in the development of behaviour problems and provides explanations on that basis alone. Proximate explanations that give equal consideration to the influences of internal and external factors have greater value but cannot provide a full understanding of the causes of a disorder, as they do not evaluate the potential role of ultimate factors involved. The importance of ultimate factors such as function in the classification and treatment of ethological behaviour problems is well recognised, and the evolutionary approach to psychiatry extends this to psychological phenomena.
The different levels of explanation proposed by Tinbergen (1963) are interdependent in the construction of a paradigm for assessing behaviour problems and so should have equal consideration. An evolutionary framework enables us to integrate these different factors in a coherent manner and on a sound basis, since the theory of evolution is the central tenet of biology.

The evolutionary approach to psychological change focuses attention on the interactions of an animal with its environment and investigates their potential functional value as well as the nature, source and degree of any perceived suboptimality. Two stages of psychological evaluation can be recognised:

-evaluation of the functional value at an evolutionary level of the psychological process being evoked
-evaluation of the functional capacity in situ of the process involved

The adaptive value of the processes of fear and anxiety in helping an animal avoid or prepare for a noxious event are obvious, but other psychological processes which may also feature as "psychological problems" may also have adaptive value. Price et al (1997) hypothesise that depressive states are adaptive mechanisms that enable individuals to cope with defeat in social competition and to adjust to a low social rank.
In these circumstances, a depressive response assists an individual in deferring attacks from higher ranking individuals and helps in the recruitment of social support from other members of the group, thus minimising the impact of defeat and maximising the coping potential of the individual.
However, depression when alone might suggest a different function, such as withdrawal from uncontrollably oppressive features of the environment (McGuire and Troisi 1998).

Behavioural and emotional responses are often considered to be disorders when responses are too intense, too prolonged, too frequent or when they appear to occur in the absence of an appropriate triggering stimulus. These responses could however be adaptive in other contexts such as alternative genetic combinations, different stages of the animal’s development, the opposite sex, or alternative environments (Nesse and Williams, 1997). In which case the behaviour and psychological processes behind it cannot be considered pathological. Normal population variation means that individuals in a given population differ in the degree of baseline optimality of specific traits. This is the raw material for natural selection and evolution proceeds as a result. The sensitivity of different systems may need to vary for optimal adaptation in different environments; consider the cosseted pet with its feral neighbour for an extreme contrast. If suboptimality is due to a mismatch between the animal’s adaptive range and the environment in which it is placed the prognosis for psychological recovery is better than when there is a genuine dysfunction of the trait. In the latter case, there is a real neurological disturbance and the prognosis is considered much poorer (McGuire and Troisi 1998)

When a large proportion of functional capacities are highly flexible an individual can adjust to and live successfully in a wider range of environments than when functional capacities are more limited. However, the latter does not necessarily exhibit any behavioural disturbance. For example, a dog with limited functional capacities may be able to live in a quiet, rural environment without displaying any signs of a behaviour problem, but in a noisy inner city area it may be unable to adjust so well. This does not inevitably lead to any form of pathology but it may lead to behaviour problems associated with a specific psychological state. We can identify the two categories of response described above.
Firstly the dog may use unacceptable or concerning strategies to control its environment and help it to cope. This might include increased aggression to repel strangers or a depressive withdrawal.
If this is identified, functional treatment should not seek to control the behaviour per se but rather address the problem of compromised adaptability which has led to it. Alternatively the mismatch between the animal and its environment may be addressed in order to help the dog to cope in a more acceptable way. Even if the pathways involved in the control of the behaviour become sensitised and the response generalised to a wider range of stimuli, it still maintains a functional form and so is not considered pathological.

If the situation is so prolonged or intense that it exhausts or defeats the coping mechanisms, then we may start to see a truly dysfunctional behaviour. In this case we have a genuine psychopathology, with the behaviour no longer structured in a functional way. Prognosis in these cases is poor.

Thus disorders may represent attempts to behave adaptively in the face of limitations and in other contexts be signs of an overtaxing of these and a true dysfunction.

The evolutionary approach is not a radical departure from that used currently by other clinicians but provides further information for the management of cases where psychological factors are significant. It is to be hoped that with this approach a functional ethogram can be constructed against which an objective assessment of behavioural pathology can be made. The approach has also helped in owner counselling and a more rational application of psychopharmacolgy.

(For example, Mrs X. contacted the Animal Behaviour Clinic for advice concerning her two neutered male Terriers who had started fighting each other since they were nine months old, some six months previous. The smaller dog (A) apparently initiated the attacks despite being consistently defeated by its larger sibling (B). These would tend to occur only when the dogs were on the lead. After a fight A would withdraw from B, but stay within sight of the owner and appear "depressed". The owner admitted to feeling sorry for A and was wondering whether or not he should be rehomed, as she felt he no longer enjoyed life.)

Traditional treatment strategies emphasise the need to reinforce the dominant and subordinate dogs’ positions but this is difficult for owners to implement when they already feel guilty about the subordinate’s quality of life.
However, in this case, when it was explained that the depressed behaviour was most probably functioning as a care-soliciting behaviour designed to recruit owner support which maintained instability in the unit, which was leading to these fights, the owner quickly complied with the treatment strategy proposed. Thus treatment of the depression would probably extend the range of situations when fights were instigated. Whilst the evolutionary approach may not alter the treatment offered in this particular type of case it provides a much more satisfactory explanation of the situation than any behavioural or medical model. It helped improve owner compliance and avoided the potential misapplication of pharmacotherapy. The pattern of response seen in R, has since been noted in several other cases of sibling competition seen by the author, and these cases have been managed equally effectively.

It is accepted that further research is necessary in order to investigate the hypotheses that such an approach generates about the nature of the psychological state of patients with supposed psychological disturbance. However, it is suggested that this approach has the potential to explain the success and limitations of the systems adopted and proposed by different experts within the field.

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