What is an ethogram?

When studying or analyzing animal behavior, one of the most important things that needs to be done is to accurately describe the behavior so that it can be measured. In the scientific study of animal behavior, or ethology, this is done with the use of an ethogram – a catalogue of detailed descriptions of the behavioral features of a particular species. Martin & Bateson (2007) (considered THE textbook for studying and measuring behavior) define an ethogram as “a catalogue of descriptions of the discrete, species-typical behaviour patterns that form the basic behavioural repertoire of the species”. Simply put, it’s a list of behaviors with definitions.

An ethogram should allow for an objective description of behavior, and also allow multiple people to be able to record the same thing when observing a behavior.

An ethogram can cover either a specific class of behaviors, for example those associated with aggression, or a wider range of behavior, depending on the area of interest. The definitions should not overlap, so it’s clear what an observed behavior should be classified as.

An ethogram allows us to quantify, or count, behavior and then can allow for evaluation of behavior, whether that be in a scientific experiment, or our own animals in our home.


Reliability is an important consideration when measuring behavior. There are two types of reliability that are of concern, the first is inter-observer, or between-observer, reliability – the ability of two different people to measure the same behavior based on the definition provided. High inter-observer reliability ensures that the definitions in the ethogram could be used by another person replicating the research, if multiple people are participating and watching video for an experiment, or if using this in a dog training school, for example, the ability of all members to measure the same behavior the same way. Inter-observer reliability is typically given as a percentage of agreement or a statistic called a Kappa value, which is a -1 to 1 score and those close to +1 show more agreement between observers.

The other type is intra-observer, or within-observer, reliability – the ability to measure the same behavior by a single person at different time points. In order to measure this, a person would measure behavior in a portion of a video at two different time points and see if it is measured in the same way. It’s often surprising that someone’s observations can change over time, but they can. The same statistical measure is used as with inter-observer reliability.


When something actually measures what it is supposed to measure, then it is considered valid.

There are several ways to validate an ethogram. Oftentimes, experts are gathered to give their opinion on the definitions.

A more accurate way is possible in some circumstances, where other measures can be taken and compared to behavioral changes. For example, if looking at behaviors that are associated with pain, animals both in pain and not in pain could be observed to determine behavioral changes. This then allows for validation that the behaviours observed when an animal is in pain are pain-related behaviours, while those observed at other times are non-pain related behaviours.

How do you build an ethogram?

If you search through the literature, there are many different ethograms that have been published, so oftentimes definitions can be directly used from previous research.

Many times, a group of experts in behavior may be brought together to create an ethogram based on their experience and expertise. These definitions can then be tested for inter-observer and intra-observer reliability. I’ve been a part of expert panels for several different studies, and have been asked to provide descriptions of behavior and also observe video and assess it based on definitions that are being tested for an ethogram.

Other times, definitions may be adapted from other species or other similar work and assessed. An ethogram may also be created from several different published sources and combined to create a new catalogue that is appropriate.

There are two types of categories of behavior, events and states.

Events are behaviors that occur over a short period of time and would typically be counted to end up with a frequency measure, for example X number of a certain behaviour over a one hour period.

States are behaviors that occur over a longer period of time and can involve different postures (eg. standing, lying down), proximity to an object or another individual, or a longer activity. The length of time they perform that behavior, or duration, is typically recorded. With states, you can get an estimate of a time budget for an animal, for example they were lying down for 10.2 hours of the day.

If this is just for your personal use, or your clients are hoping to build one themselves, you can build your own definitions from your experience as well as information from trusted sources. Some good simple body language images and explanations can be found in ‘Doggie Language’ by Lilli Chin.

Ethogram use and application to training and behavior modification

Ethograms allow us to understand animal behavior more clearly. They are also a tool for measuring behavior and getting data in the animals we’re observing.

They can also be used in relation to other animals and their interactions with one another, to look at the typical order of behavior, or to examine which behaviors are likely to lead to another.

Ethograms can be used to create a time budget for an animal. This is the percentage of observation time an animal is performing a behavior. They can also be used to count the number of times a particular behavior occurs.

When training a new behavior, an ethogram can be very useful to make sure that you’re either getting, or moving towards, the behavior you’re trying to get. It can also help to get clients tracking the right thing, if you can clearly define the behavior, or the steps to the behavior, that you’re looking for, it can help with communication and success. When developing a training plan and recording training progress, it’s clear what to count and record.

For those working on behavior modification, this can also be really helpful. Using definitions of behavior can help a lot with a behavior log, tracking the frequency of problematic behaviors, and communicating with clients for progress landmarks, success, and where they should reach out for some help.


I’ve put together a pdf with several ethogram examples from the published scientific literature. If you’d like to get it, please click here to get in sent to you!

If you’d like a less technical version of this to share with clients, one can be found here on the Landmark Behaviour Blog that is written for pet owners.


Barnard, S., C. Siracusa, I. Reisner, P. Valsecchi, & J.A. Serpell. 2012. Validity of model devices used to assess canine temperament in behavioral tests. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 138:79-87.

Kiddie, J.L., & L.M. Collins. 2014. Development and validation of a quality of life assessment tool for use in kenneled dogs (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 158:57-68.

Martin, P. & P. Bateson. 2007. Measuring Behaviour, an Introductory Guide, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press.


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