Pain Related Learned Behavior

By Jill Firth – PGDip AM(Dist)

Animals perform 2 types of behavior – instinctive behavior and learned behavior.

Instinctive Behavior

For higher mammals instinctive behavior is limited and can be confined to 4 broad areas:

  • To eat
  • To drink
  • To reproduce
  • To survive

These 4 areas are “hot wired” into the animals brain and under the control of the nervous system.

Learned Behavior

All other behaviors are “learned” and are almost always for the enhancement and preservation of the above 4 areas and in particular the last one – to survive.

Instinctive behavior is further advanced by what the animal has learned.

Survival Instinct

  • The release of a neural transmitter (instinct) tells an animal that it is thirsty and needs to drink. The animal has learned where to find water… and drinks. The animal survives.
  • The release of a neural transmitter (instinct) tells an animal that it is hungry and needs to eat. The animal has learned how to get food… and eats. The animal survives.

An animal’s capacity to learn is a crucial factor to its survival and some animals’ willingness to learn has led to their almost guaranteed survival as our “trainable domestic pets”.

Mostly we train our animals to learn behaviors that are acceptable (house training), desirable (general obedience) and sought after (fetch a ball). We do this by using a range of behavioral techniques such as learning by association, conditioning, habituation etc. But our animals also have the ability to learn behaviors we find unacceptable. The reasons for this are many and varied but the learned behavioral response I come across most frequently is as a result of pain or discomfort.

When an animal experiences pain or discomfort it will alter its behavior in some way:


Dogs may be reluctant to play or engage in activities, won’t socialise with other dogs, become aggressive etc.


Horses may try to avoid being saddled up, won’t stand still for mounting, they may buck or rear etc.

These behaviors are designed, more or less, in an attempt to not engage in the things that hurt and therefore preserve the chances of survival. A learned behavior happens in response to a stimulus, in this case pain or discomfort.

Associative Learning

Animals also learn by association – which is a "short cut" and happens when the animal has gone through a learning process. The animal learns to display certain behaviors in particular situations. It then learns which behaviors are "effective" and displays only these most effective behaviors which are further refined to become a conditioned response.

Most animals I see have developed strategies and learned behaviors in order to be able to cope with their lives whilst experiencing some pain or discomfort. Usually this has developed over time into a conditioned response and can be quite ingrained into the animal’s behavior patterns.

But, once the stimulus (pain) is removed the learned (usually unacceptable) behavior naturally goes away and everything is hunky dory again, or so you would think……

Unfortunately this does not happen until the animal learns this for itself.

Horse Behavior

For example, a horse who has been ridden in a tight saddle and developed back pain will find being ridden very uncomfortable. It will therefore develop behavioral responses to try to avoid this situation, and, over time learns which one works best. For explanatory purposes we could say this is not letting you put the saddle on.

Sooner or later, if things don’t change, the horse will associate the saddle (or any saddle for that matter) with pain and the horse is conditioned to display that behavior, i.e. horse sees saddle and you can’t get anywhere near it!!

So, you change the saddle for one that fits and have the horse’s back done and the behavior still persists. Why? Because the horse doesn’t speak our language so you can’t tell him you’ve changed the saddle and had his back done and he’s already developed a conditioned response to the sight of a saddle. The horse has to learn for himself that he is no longer in pain, the saddle is comfortable and being ridden is now OK.

Dog Behavior

Exactly the same principles can be applied to dogs who are reluctant to go up or down stairs, jump in or out of cars or socialise with other dogs. The situation causes a stimulus (pain) which elicits a behavioral response ie. refusing to cooperate or being agressive. Eventually just the situation itself – perhaps seeing the car or another dog – causes a conditioned response.

Sometimes learned behaviors and conditioned responses persist longer than we would like and we have to help the animal “unlearn” a particular behavior or re-condition them. This is where the owner or trainer enters the fascinating world of animal behavior and its application to training… either because you need to know more in order to help your animal or you need to find and enlist the help of a specialist.