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Understanding Fixed Action Patterns in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

You might not know what a fixed action pattern is, but I'm sure you've seen it countless times in your pup. For example, turning around in circles before laying down is a fixed action pattern.

You might not know what a fixed action pattern is, but I'm sure you've seen it countless times in your pup. For example, turning around in circles before laying down is a fixed action pattern.

What's a Fixed Action Pattern?

A fixed action pattern, often abbreviated as FAP, is basically a sequence of behavior patterns that cannot be changed and that once initiated, must be carried to completion. The onset of these behaviors is triggered by a specific sign stimulus or releaser.

In behavioral science, a common example used is the Graylag Goose. If you happen to displace an egg from the nest of this bird, the bird will automatically, by reflex, roll the egg back to the nest using her beak.

Zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist, Konrad Lorenz, however, soon noticed that the goose would still complete this action, even when the egg was removed and no longer there! In this example, the sight of the displaced egg is the sign stimulus (see video below).

Another interesting animal often used to explain fixed action patterns is the stickleback fish. Dutch ethologist Niko Tinbergen noticed how this species of fish would attack any competing males that entered its territory.

The male fish in this species has a distinct red stripe so anything resembling this red stripe appeared to alert this fish. Interestingly, Tinbergen noticed how these fish would try to attack red British mail trucks as they passed by and were visible through the glass of these fish tanks.

In this example, the sight of red is the sign stimulus.

Avian mating dances are another example of FAP. Here the sign stimulus is the presence of the female. The dancing entails an elaborate sequence of movements to impress the female birds. The male bird often has flashy colors. The female will choose her mate based on these elaborate dances.

In deer, the sign stimulus of a predator triggers a fixed action pattern where they will move in a fast zig-zag movement so that they confuse the predator.

Yet, this same fixed action pattern is useless or even harmful in deer when they are crossing the road as they are more likely to be hit by a car this way.

To Recap, a Fixed Action Pattern Is:

  1. A behavior independent from learning
  2. An instinctive, hard-wired behavior
  3. A behavior occurring as a response to an external stimulus known as sign stimulus or releaser.
  4. A behavior produced by a neural pathway known as innate releasing mechanism
  5. A behavior that cannot be changed
  6. A behavior that must continue once initiated
  7. A behavior difficult to train because it's instinctive and controlled by a primitive neural organization. (Steven Lindsey)
  8. The behavior is found throughout the species. Lea (1984)
  9. The behaviors are adaptive responses, meaning that they have helped the species cope with certain environmental aspects.

Examples of Fixed Action Patterns in Dogs

So let's now take a look at certain behaviors that have been claimed to be fixed action patterns taking place in dogs.

  • Konrad Lorenz claims that urine marking by male dogs is one of them. Upon smelling the urine of a rival male dog (the sign stimulus), he will spontaneously lift his leg to urine mark, even when his reservoir of urine is negligible.
  • According to the book "The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing," other examples of fixed action patterns include the typical circling around ritual dogs do before laying down. This ancestral behavior thought to have developed to push down grass and scare off possible snakes and instincts, is still retained in dogs regardless of where they are sleeping.

*An Important Update on Fixed Action Patterns

Interestingly, modern research has found that fixed action patterns are not as "fixed" as thought. Even among animals of the same species, some patterns differ and the patterns may vary by context.

For instance, the phenomenon of gull chicks gaping their mouths wide open in hopes of receiving food in response to seeing a red dot on their parent's bill was thought to be a fixed action pattern, when in reality, the chicks demonstrate the ability to perform the action quicker and became more discriminating through age and experience.

This suggests that this is not a fixed behavior as previously thought, but actually a matter of learning, points out certified applied animal behaviorist James Ha.

Therefore, the term fixed action pattern has fallen out of use. The term "modal action patterns" has been used as a replacement. The term was coined in1986 by George Barlow, for the purpose of implying a less "fixed" and therefore adherence to less rigid criteria.

The term was therefore used to depict a series of interrelated acts that have a strong genetic basis (Chance 2008).

Even this term though may fail to accurately describe behaviors in dogs. A better definition may be "a motor pattern with a high heritability," further points out James Ha.


Handbook of Applied Animal Behavior and Training, Steven Lindsey, Blackwell Publishing

Companion Animal Solutions, Modern Animal Behavior: A Lot Has Changed in the Last Few Decades

This content was accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge at the time of publication but may be out of date. The information contained in this article may not reflect current policies, laws, technology, or data.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Carlo on July 11, 2020:

So I understand these stimuli can be very subtle and not so obvious. Thank you Adrienne.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2020:

Hi Carlo,

Many dogs before going to sleep will walk in circles before laying down. It's likely a behavior that is reminiscent of the olden days when dogs used to step on grass to flatten it and make a 'bed" or to ensure there are no critters. In this case, the sign stimulus is being in an area where the dog feels like sleeping on.

Carlo on July 11, 2020:

I don't understand what the sign stimulus is in the circling around ritual

Lori Colbo from United States on December 27, 2012:

Fascinating! Voted up, interesting, beautiful, and useful.

grumpiornot on December 27, 2012:

Enjoyed your hub, but just as I was getting into the subject matter, it was finished. Write more on the subject... most interesting.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on December 27, 2012:

Very informative and interesting hub!

I was aware of the DNA related behavior, but FAP is new to me.

An FAP that I have noticed in my dog is that if he is unleashed, he would play with other dogs. But if he is leashed then other than few dogs that he really know very well, he would initiate the play, but then get upset and attacking very soon if the other dog is unleashed. It takes quite a bit of my calming him down.

GiblinGirl from New Jersey on December 27, 2012:

Wow - really interesting. I'll have to watch my dog's behavior more closely to see if I can identify any pattern-like behavior. It may help me get less frustrated with her if I can identify behaviors that she really can't control.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on December 27, 2012:

This is an enjoyable read. A reason for everything, even if sometimes it doesn't make sense to us.

Melissa A Smith from New York on December 26, 2012:

What an interesting hub. I've been aware of the existence of things like this but I didn't know there was a word for it. I'm sure food aggression is one of them too, with dogs. Both my dog and my genet have it, and it easy to determine that this is a 'mindless' behavior. In fact my genet is chock full of behaviors like this. I wonder if stereotypical behavior results from it. My question is, if humans have things like this, as I'm writing about the differences between us and them, cognition-wise. I certainly will refer to this term now when I discuss animal behavior. Thanks.