Model Action Patterns by Jim Gillies BSc A.Dip CBM

Fixed action patterns, also known as model action patterns, are a series or sequence of behaviours that occur in animals. Once the sequence is initiated, it becomes unchangeable and will be carried out to completion. This is regardless of changes in the sign or environmental releasing stimulus. This initial stimulus triggers the fixed action pattern of a particular organism. Fixed action patterns are produced by a neural network known as the innate releasing mechanism (Nelson, 2005).

There are number of key points relating to FAP’s

1.       A behaviour independent from learning

2.       An instinctive, hard-wired behaviour

3.       A behaviours occurring as a response to an external stimulus known as sign stimulus or releaser.

4.       A behaviours produced by a neural pathway known as innate releasing mechanism

5.       Behaviours that cannot be changed

6.       Behaviours that must continue once initiated

7.       Behaviours difficult to train because it's instinctive and controlled by primitive neural organization. (Lindsey, 2010)

8.       Behaviours are found throughout the species.

9.       The behaviours are adaptive responses, meaning that they have helped the species cope with certain environmental aspects

Where FAP’s get into difficulty is where they are used to account for behaviour that may be as a consequence of learning. FAP’s are innate and are instinctive behaviours that don’t rely on any form of learning. Typical animal behaviour is a product of lifetime history of reinforcement and punishment.

Recent research into fixed action patterns has concluded they are not as “fixed as previously thought. Fixed action patterns differ in relation the variance of context, even among animals of the same species. The terms “modal action patterns” coined by modern ethologists to account for the variability in environmental releasing stimuli, these patterns most commonly found in fight, flight, feeding and reproduction.

Examples of modal action patterns in dogs:

·         The father of modern ethology, Konrad Lorenz, made the claim urine marking in domestic dogs is an example of model action patterns at work. The dog will spontaneously lift his leg to urine mark,  even if the biological requirement for doing so is negligible

·         Another example, according to a book by (Rapoport, 2014), described the typical circling of dogs before laying down as a model action pattern.

These examples show that model action patterns have survived the evolutionary process of domestication, and that they seem to endure.


Nelson, R. (2005). Biology of aggression. New York: Oxford University Press

Rapoport, J. (2014). The boy who couldn't stop washing. New York: Signet.