Understanding Behaviour

Humans and our pets live in two different, but overlapping, sensory worlds. Animals cannot explain the things we are failing to understand about them and their needs using language as we do. Instead, they communicate by a variety of different means, such as through body language, vocalisation and scent communication. 

It is important that you spend time learning what it is your new cub is "telling" you through their behaviour. The more you understand about how your fox develops, perceives the world and about how they learn, the less likely it will be any frustration will develop as a result and the more likely it will be they learn to trust you, aiding to strengthen the bond between you as a result.

The Basics of Animal Learning

Understanding how animals learn is key to interpreting their behaviour. While learning is often considered something that happens when we deliberately train animals, it is actually something that occurs all the time. Everything that your fox experiences throughout it's life will impact on it's behaviour to some extent.  

Instinctive and learnt behaviour, or "Nature" and "Nurture", differ in that instinctive behaviour is behaviour that is "hard-wired" into the animals genetic make-up, there is little variation among individuals and the behaviour does not have to be learnt for the response to occur. Reflex behaviour is one such type of instinctive behaviour, occurring automatically as a result of a particular stimulus.

Learnt behaviour - Learning is the modification of responses as a result of experience and the acquisition of knowledge. It is a behaviour that allows an individual to adapt to specific environmental challenges.

Animal's learn through a variety of different means and learnt behaviours vary greatly between individuals, depending on their personal experiences throughout life. Learning also occurs at different rates, depending on the type of stimulus, the frequency of presentation and the regularity of exposure.

There are two types of learning;

  • Non-Associative Learning - The ability to learn in the absence of any perceived reinforcement or reward. There are two types of non-associative learning;
    • Habituation - Refers to the gradual decrease of a behavioural response to a particular stimulus after repeated encounters - which have proved to be of no consequence to the animal. It is a form of sensory adaptation, in which a change in the responsiveness of a sensory system occurs when consistently confronted with a particular stimulus. 
    • Sensitisation - Refers to an increase increase in a behavioural response following repeated encounters with a specific stimulus the animal perceives as noxious. It is the process of learning to distinguish noxious stimuli and involves the enhancement of the function of neurones involved in nociception (pain perception). 
  • Associative Learning - The ability to learn an association between two stimuli that occur close together. Associative learning is divided into two types;
    • Classical Conditioning - The process of learning to associate an "neutral stimulus" with an "unconditioned stimulus", through the association with an "unconditioned response", in order for a "conditioned stimulus" to provide a "conditioned response". In other words, it is the process by which an animal learns to associate a natural behaviour or response with a given cue or command. 

Example: A fox cub has just finished playing and is let outside and given the command  "toilet" (neutral stimulus), the metabolic boost from play hastens the need to urinate afterwards and being outside in the cool air makes the bladder contract (unconditioned stimulus), toileting occurs as a result (unconditioned response). Now, when the command "toilet" is given (conditioned stimulus) the fox's bladder will contract and they will feel the need to head outside in order to eliminate (conditioned response). 

    • Operant Conditioning - The process of learning to associate an "unconditioned response" with a "neutral stimulus" through the association of "reinforcement" (both positive and negative) or "punishment" (both positive and negative), in order for a "conditioned stimulus" to provide a "conditioned response". In other words, it is the process by which an animal learns to associate an action or response with a reward, when paired with a given cue or command.  

Example: Whenever your fox cub sits down for a rest (unconditioned response) it hears the command "sit" (neutral stimulus) and is then presented with a treat (positive reinforcement). Now when the fox cub hears the command "sit" (conditioned stimulus) it will sit down in anticipation of a reward (conditioned response).

A secondary element to operant conditioning is "Shaping". Shaping is the behaviour term that refers to gradually teaching an animal to perform a specific behaviour in parts, by reinforcing a responses that are similar to the desired response. For example;

A researcher can use shaping to teach a rat to press a lever during an experiment. To begin with, the researcher will reward any movement in the direction of the lever, such as a look. Once the rat understands looking at the lever gets a reward, it's time the rat has to take a step towards the lever to get the reward. Once they are moving towards the lever, they are then only rewarded for contact with the lever. Once they are making contact with the lever, they then have to push the lever in order to get the reward. Through this process, the behaviour can be "shaped" in order to elicit a desired behaviour. 

Definition of the Terms used when Discussing Associative Learning;

  • Unconditioned Response -An innate behaviour or physiological response.
  • Neutral Stimulus - A change in environment that would usually produce no response.
  • Unconditioned Stimulus - A change in environment that naturally produces a response.
  • Conditioned Stimulus - A change in environment that once produced no response that now produces a response.
  • Conditioned Response - A learnt response to a conditioned stimulus.  
  • Reinforcement - Used to help increase the probability a specific behaviour will occur again in future, by delivering a stimulus immediately after a desirable response or behaviour is exhibited. There are two types of reinforcement;
    • Positive Reinforcement - Works by presenting a rewarding stimulus after a desired behaviour or response is exhibited, making the behaviour more likely to occur in future, (such as giving your fox cub praise when they use the litter tray, or providing a treat when they sit on command).
    • Negative Reinforcement - Works by removing an aversive stimulus after a desired behaviour or response is exhibited, increasing the likelihood the behaviour will occur again in future, (such as toilet training your fox with the use of a crate, letting your fox out of a crate once they have eliminated).
  • Punishment - Used to help decrease the probability a specific behaviour will occur again in future, by delivering a stimulus immediately after an undesirable behaviour is exhibited. There are two types of punishment;
    • Positive Punishment - Works by presenting an aversive stimulus after an undesired behaviour or response is exhibited, making the behaviour less likely to occur in future. (such as when your fox misbehaves and you put them in their crate for a "time-out" until they are calm).
    • Negative Punishment - Works by removing a rewarding stimulus after an undesired behaviour or response, decreasing the likelihood the behaviour will occur again in future, (such as when your fox gets possessive over a toy and the toy is temporarily removed as a result).
  • Shaping - a technique used in behavioural therapy to modify a behavioural outcome. It is the process by which a new behaviour is produced by providing reinforcement for progressively closer approximations of the final desired behaviour.

Note: At no point should aggression or physical violence be used as a form of punishment (or reinforcement). It should also be noted, that research demonstrates how positive consequences are more powerful than negative consequences for improving behaviour.  So, it is suggested these interventions be tried prior to using negative consequences.

Distraction and Substituation

Distraction is the process of diverting the attention of an individual from their desired area of focus to another area of focus, by blocking or diminishing the reception from the original area of focus. It is the process of competing with the environment to keep your fox's focus maintained on more desirable behaviours.  

Distraction is generally considered;

  • The lack of ability to pay attention to a stimulus
  • A reduced lack of interest in a stimulus
  • The attractiveness of a new stimulus over the original stimulus

When training an animal, environmental distractions can be a hindrance to the learning process, however, it is important animals learn to follow cues and commands around lots of different types of distractions. 

Distractions can come from both external and internal sources, both of which can contribute to the interference of focus. External distractions include factors such as visual triggers, social interactions and novel sounds or scents. Internal distractions can include factors such as hunger, fatigue, illness and seasonal hormone fluxes. 

"Differential reinforcement" (exceptional rewards for exceptional efforts, lesser rewards for lesser efforts) is often used when teaching an animal to ignore distractions. This means that in the midst of higher levels of distractions, higher levels of reward are required to keep the animal focused.

Examples of how you can use distraction to help your fox learn;

  • A fox cub is chewing an item they should not chew.  Instead of punishing them, you call your cub and invite them over to play with something fun and acceptable to chew instead. 
  • Your fox cub has learnt to sit while indoors, but outdoors they are more focused on other animals than on you, so you use high value food rewards to keep the focus on you and the task at hand.
  • Your fox cub needs to burn energy and is bothering the dog, who doesn't appreciate the attention, so you use a squeaky ball to engage your cubs focus, getting them to utilise their energy in a more positive manner. 
  • Your fox is at the vet, while they are being examined, treats, fuss and novel objects are offered to remove the focus from the vet. 


Substitution is the process of replacing an undesirable behaviour with a more desirable one, by training the animal to perform an incompatible behaviour (a behaviour that cannot be performed at the same time as the undesired behaviour), on cue or command. 

Examples include;

  • Your fox is mouthing people. First, you train your fox the command for "station" (where the animal has to go to a particular spot and wait calmly before receiving a treat). The next time your fox begins to mouth a person, you can give them the command "station" and they will go to their selected spot. While performing this behaviour, it is not possible for your fox to continue mouthing people. 
  • Your fox has stolen an item and is guarding it. Rather than engage in a potentially aggressive encounter. You call your fox in a recall exercise, offer them a tasty treat. Your fox is unable to guard the item and come to you to get the treat at the same time. While your fox is distracted, someone can remove the item safely. 

Young foxes have short attention spans, so distraction and substitution techniques can be great tools for getting them to quickly divert their focus from a less desirable behaviour to a more desirable behaviour without any fuss. The application of distraction and substitution techniques are often used to diffuse potentially difficult situations - without conflict - prior to any undesirable behaviour occurring. 

By successfully teaching your fox using distraction and substitution techniques, your fox benefits in multiple ways;

  • They learn how to deal with different objects and obstacles within the environment
  • They learn how to control fear and avoidance responses in various different situations
  • They learn how to react and behave in various different scenarios and situations
  • It forms a foundation on which engagement and trust can be based, when new environments and distractions are introduced

Proofing, Embedding and Flooding


Proofing is described as the process of certifying you have taught an animal to successfully perform a behaviour in the presence of distractions. It teaches an animal to "generalise" information and respond to discriminative stimuli, such as a cues or commands, regardless of the situation. A proofed behaviour will be performed in any location or environment. 

In order for animals to understand that a certain stimulus or cue means the same thing all the time, in every situation, we must teach the cue in many different locations (such as at home, when visiting others homes or when out on a country walk) and in many different situations (such as giving commands out of sight, from a different position or by getting others to provide the commands). 

Another aspect involved in proofing is stimulus control;

A behaviour is said to be under "stimulus control" when a "conditioned stimulus" initiates a "conditioned response", regardless of the situation and the distractions present. A behaviour under full stimulus control can be accurately predicted, however, four conditions must be met in order for that to occur;

  1. The animal offers the behaviour immediately in response to the cue
  2. The animal does not offer some other behaviour in response to the cue
  3. The animal does not offer the behaviour in the absence of the cue
  4. The animal does not offer the behaviour in response to another cue

For a behaviour to be considered learnt and "proofed", it has to meet a number of criteria, which includes;

  • Distance - The cue or command is followed at any distance from you. Your fox may "sit" in front of you when prompted, but they may not "sit" when asked if there is distance between you.  If you want fluent responses at a distance, you need to teach your fox that following the command immediately is what is expected, regardless of distance. 
  • Distractions -  The behaviour is performed promptly, despite any distractions that are present in the environment. If you want your fox to respond to your commands in the midst of lots of different distractions, you must build on teaching the commands and maintaining your fox's focus, around such distractions.  
  • Duration - The behaviour is performed until a release signal is provided, meaning you can control it's duration. Your fox may "sit" when prompted, but it may then immediately get up. In such cases the duration of the behaviour can be built upon by teaching a "release signal".    
  • Precision - The behaviour is performed exactly as desired each time. Your fox that has learnt to "station" and places all 4 feet on the spot most of the time, but only 2-3 feet at others. Such a fox is  said to be lacking precision and must be taught that they must be precise in order to obtain their reward. 
  • Latency -  The time difference between giving a cue or command and it being performed. The idea is that the behaviour is performed immediately after the given cue or command. If you want your fox to respond to your commands without any lag, you must teach them that is what is expected. 
  • Speed - The amount of time it takes the animal to complete the behaviour. Behaviours can be performed more quickly or more slowly, depending on what you are proofing for. If you want your fox to perform a behaviour faster or slower, they will need to be taught how. 


In behavioural terms, "embedding" can be described as the "fixing" of a behaviour, it is the process of securing formal training so it results in a sustained behavioural change.

Different training strategies can be used to embed behaviour, however, "proofing" illustrates how knowledge gained through the learning process can become fixed and embedded within routines. 


Flooding is said to occur when an animal is exposed to a stimulus that provokes a fearful response, at close proximity and for extended periods of time,until the animals senses are overwhelmed and they "submit" to the situation. At which point it is hoped the animal realises the perceived threat isn't actually threatening. During flooding the animal learns through a state of fear. 

Flooding is an old and out-dated technique that can be as damaging as it can be successful. It is not a technique that is not advised, but is mentioned as it is a process that can often be adopted by new owners when training their cubs to be handled or when introducing them to other pets. 

Counter-Conditioning & Desensitisation


Pairing one stimulus that evokes one response with another that evokes an opposite response, so that the first stimulus comes to evoke the second response. For example, a fox is afraid of men. When a man approaches, the fox is repeatedly fed his favourite food. The goal is to replace the animal’s apprehension with the pleasure elicited by the food. Counter-conditioning must be done gradually, however; if the process is rushed, the favourite food may take on the fear association instead.


The process of increasing an animal’s tolerance to a particular stimulus by gradually increasing the presence of the stimulus.


The weakening of behaviour through non-reinforcement or “ignoring” the behaviour. In extinction, nothing is added or removed from the environment. For example, a treat lies on the other side of a fence. Your fox reaches his paw under, but cannot reach the treat. Because reaching for the treat doesn't work—because it isn't reinforced through success—your fox will eventually quit reaching for the treat.

Self-Reinforcing Behaviour

Some behaviours are self-reinforcing, which means the behaviour reinforces itself by providing the animal with some sort of satisfaction.  For example, counter surfing is self reinforcing – meaning the animal gets what they want with or without you.

Cessation and Release Signals 

Cessation signals

(other signals include; Calming Signals, Distance Increasing Signals, and Freezes)

Cessation signals are behaviours similar to displacement and distance increasing behaviours, but are usually seen in combinations of multiple simultaneous signals. Canids use cessation signals to interrupt behaviour coming at them from another animal. Cessation displays unequivocally signal that further interaction is not desired. Cessation signals are triggered by conflict. If cessation signals are not respected, conflict will escalate.

Cessation signals generally include two or more of the following behaviours:

  • dramatic head turns
  • turning the body away
  • turning the back to other animals
  • moving away
  • freezes
  • agonistic displays  (chasing, vocalisation, showing teeth, hackles raised, etc)

By adopting cessations signals (turning away, etc) and teaching cessation commands ( "enough"), your fox learns when "enough is enough". 

Release Signals;

When training your fox you may also need to teach them a release signals to signify when you want a behaviour to cease ("good job"). These signals are used when asking for trained behaviours to indicate when you expect the presented behaviour to cease. 

Stress Responses and the Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is regulated by the hypothalamus and is part of the peripheral nervous system (which consists of the nerves and ganglia on the outside of the brain and spinal cord). The ANS functions involuntarily and reflexively, regulating and maintaining the functions of muscles and internal organs.  The ANS is primarily considered important in two main situations;  

  • In emergencies that cause stress and require "fight or flight" 
  • In non-emergencies that allow the body to "rest and digest"

The ANS regulates;

  • Muscles in the skin (such as hair follicles)
  • Muscles around blood vessels
  • Muscles in the eye (such as the iris sphincter)
  • Muscles in the stomach, intestines and bladder
  • The heart (such as muscle contraction/relaxation)
  • Glandular activity (such as salivary, sweat and endocrine glands)

The ANS is divided into three parts:

  • The sympathetic nervous system 

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), considered the "fight or flight" system, is faster-acting than the parasympathetic system, utilising very short, fast neurons. The SNS activates the adrenal medulla (a part of the adrenal gland), which then releases hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones activate the target muscles and glands, causing the body to speed up and become tense, as well as more alert.

Functions that are not immediately essential (like the immune system) are shut down to some degree. The body goes through a number of changes when the SNS is activated;

    • Heart rate increases
    • The bronchial tubes in the lungs dilate
    • Pupils dilate
    • Muscles contract
    • Saliva production is reduced
    • The stomach stops many functions of digestion
    • More glycogen is converted to glucose

All of these changes are designed to prime the body ready for "fight" or "flight". Non-essential system like digestion and immunity become a lower priority, while more energy is made available to the muscles, as the fox's heart rate increases. This fight or flight response occurs when the fox is faced with a stressor that presents an imminent physical danger, however, such physical changes can also occur in response to lower levels of stressors also. 

  • The parasympathetic nervous system

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), considered the "rest and digest" system, is a much slower system that moves along longer pathways than the sympathetic nervous system. The PSNS is responsible for controlling homoeostasis (the balance and maintenance of the body’s systems). It restores the body to a state of calm and counterbalance, and allows it to relax and repair.

The body undergoes several specific responses when the PSNS is activated.

Functions that are not immediately essential (like the immune system) are shut down to some degree. The body goes through a number of changes when the sympathetic nervous system is activated;

    • Saliva production is increased
    • Digestive enzymes are released
    • Heart rate drops
    • The bronchial tubes in the lungs constrict
    • Muscles relax
    • Pupils constrict
    • Urinary output increases

All of these changes are designed to maintain long-term health, improve digestion, conserve energy, and maintain a healthy balance within the body’s systems. By learning how to activate your fox's "rest and digest mode", and by learning how to reduce the effect of the "fight or flight response", you can reduce the stress placed on your fox's heart, digestive system, immune system and more. This will not only make your fox happier, it will also help to avoid many of the diseases and conditions that are associated with the stress of captivity. 

  • The enteric nervous system 

The enteric nervous system (ENS), described as "the second brain", it is a separate neural system containing over 1oo million neurons, located in the tissue lining the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon, complete with neurochemicals, neurotransmitters and proteins (similar to that found in the brain). The ENS directly controls the gastrointestinal system and is also capable of autonomic function. 

The ENS sends and receives impulses, records experiences, responds to emotions, co-operating and communicating with the brain. However, the brain can upset the gut, just as the gut can upset the brain, highlighting the importance of adequate diet and nutrition, particularly during times of stress. 

Functions of the ENS include;

    • Controlled movement of food from the beginning to the end of the bowel
    • Control of intestinal blood flow
    • Regulation of the cells lining the intestine
    • Influencing intestinal inflammation. 

To perform these functions, the ENS requires the ability to "sense" what is happening inside the bowel and within the bowel wall. Studies showing how the ENS mirrors the central nervous system have been emerging in recent years, and a new field of medicine, called "neurogastroenterology", has recently emerged as a result.

The Basics of Vulpine Communication

  • Body Language (Play, Appeasement & Aggression Signals)
  • Vocalisationn
  • Scent Communication

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