Animal Behaviour

Duration (approx)

100 hours


Statement of Attainment

Animal Behaviour

Animal Behaviour – the basis of understanding animal needs

Humans have long had a fascination and vested interest in animals. The long history of animal domestication has seen us use them as tools, as food sources and as our companions. Domestication has done very little to change animal behaviour, with domestic animals continuing to display the same natural behaviour and motivational channels as their ancestors.

Studying the natural behaviour of animals, therefore, is vital for us to gain an understanding of the needs of animals.  Although domesticated animals may not display the complete set of behaviours shown in a natural environment, their behaviour in a domestic setting will always equate to a need.

The behaviour of an animal is a fundamental indicator of their health and well-being so it is very important to have a sound understanding of animal behaviour when working with animals.

Learn to evaluate the behavioural characteristics of animals

People who study animal behavior are concerned with understanding the causes, functions, development, and evolution of behaviour.

Many jobs that involve working with animals also involve some knowledge of animal behaviour. These include employment as:

  • veterinary assistants
  • animal caretakers at zoos, universities, and research institutions
  • animal psychologists
  • companion animal trainers
  • pet store workers
  • animal control officers

An understanding of animal behaviour is important in any situation where a person works with animals.

Why choose our course?

This course covers all aspects of animal behaviour including motivation, genetics, animal perception, environmental influences, social behaviour and learning and includes sections on animal handling and common abnormal behaviours.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction: Influences and Motivation
    • What is behaviour
    • Causes of behaviour (eg. genetics, learning, external and internal influences)
    • Reactive, active and cognitive behaviour
    • Conditioning
  2. Genetics and Behaviour
    • Understanding biology
    • Natural selection
    • Genetic variation
    • Development of behaviour
    • Behavioural genetics
  3. Animal Perception and Behaviour
    • How animals perceive things
    • What stimulates them and how do those stimuli function
    • Instinct
    • Neural control
    • Sensory processes, sight, sound, hearing etc
  4. Behaviour and the Environment
    • Coordination
    • Orientation
    • Homeostasis
    • Acclimatisation
    • Circadian rhythms
    • Biological clocks
    • Reproductive cycles etc
  5. Social Behaviour
    • Animal societies
    • Aggression
    • Social constraints
    • Social order
    • Play
    • Biological clocks
    • Communication
  6. Learning
    • Instinct and learning
    • Conditioning and learning
    • Extinction and habituation
    • Instrumental learning
    • Reinforcement
    • Operant behaviour
    • Biological and cognitive aspects of learning
  7. Handling Animals
    • Psychological affects of different handling techniques
    • Training animals (horses, cats, dogs, etc)
    • The student has a choice of which types of animals to focus on, though a variety will still be covered
  8. Behavioural Problems
    • Abnormal behaviour (eg. psychotic, neurotic)
    • Domestication of animals
    • Reducing human contact
    • Reducing human dependence

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school’s tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Identify factors affecting animal behaviour
  • Describe the influence of genes on animal behaviour
  • Explain how animals perceive and how they respond to various stimuli
  • Explain the influence of environment factors, such as circadian rhythms, on biological clocks, reproductive cycles, orientation and other animal behaviour
  • Explain the social influences on animal aggression, play, sexual behaviour, communication and other behaviour
  • Describe different ways that animals learn (such as conditioning and habituation) and some effects of learning on behaviour
  • Discuss psychological implications of different handling techniques
  • Identify abnormal animal behaviour (eg. psychotic, neurotic behaviour) and ways to reduce dependence on humans

Animals Can be Taught How to Behave

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov was a pioneer in Classical Conditioning. His theory was based on his findings while experimenting with dogs. Pavlov observed the relationship between an unconditioned stimulus (eg. a dish of food) and an unconditioned response (eg. salivating at the mouth). He recognised that this was a natural, unlearned response. He proceeded to experiment with the possibilities of associating another stimulus (light) with the unconditioned stimulus (food), so that the dog would be conditioned to respond to the light by salivating.

Pavlov set up the dog in a soundproof laboratory, with a special device to measure the salivating response (attached to the salivary gland). A light was then turned on following delivery of meat powder by remote control. A high degree of salivation was measured. The procedure was repeated so that the dog was conditioned to associate the light with food. The repetition of this procedure is called reinforcement. It reinforces the association between light and food. When the experimenter turned on the light, without presenting food, the dog still salivated copiously. This form of learning is called “classical conditioning”.

The light is the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the salivation now a conditioned response (CR).  If the conditioned behaviour is not reinforced (i.e. if the conditioned stimulus is presented repeatedly without the unconditioned stimulus) then the conditioned response slowly disappears. This is called extinction. Extinction is the elimination of a learned behaviour.

Learned behaviour can be unlearned on condition that the reinforcement that maintains the behaviour is totally removed. (If reinforcement is occasionally removed, the behaviour it reinforces may strengthen in intensity).

Classical conditioning may differ in form according to the time lapse between the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus (eg. food) and the controlled stimulus (eg. light):

  • With simultaneous conditioning, the light and the food are produced simultaneously
  • With delayed conditioning, the light is turned on for a period before the food is presented
  • With trace conditioning, the light is turned on for a while then turned off before the presentation of food
Different schools of psychology interpret Pavlov’s research discoveries in different ways.  It was the traditional behaviourists that took Pavlov’s results into their fold, so to speak.  They used his research to validate their mechanistic view of human behaviour, perceiving the learning process involved as an automatic process.  They adopted Pavlov’s assumption that the learning is based on the temporal closeness of the two stimuli. The conditioned association between the unconditioned stimuli and conditioned stimuli would not, in their view, have occurred unless the two stimuli were presented at more or less the same time.

On the other hand, cognitive psychologists interpret Pavlov’s results in a different fashion. They give more thought to what happens inside the organisms mind. No response would occur in their view, unless the organism was capable of actively processing received information.

According to these theorists, the organism observes that conditioned stimuli and the unconditioned stimuli occur together, and stores this information in memory. When the conditioned stimulus is presented, the organism remembers it’s previous simultaneous occurrence with the unconditioned stimulus, and thus responds in expectation of the uncontrolled stimulus. The difference between these two interpretations might seem small, but their psychological implications are profoundly different.

Understanding the Dog’s Mind

Evolution and Domestication

As we have already mentioned, it is widely accepted that the domestic dog descended in the most part from the wolf. As the relationship developed, dogs would have been valued as scavengers, partners in hunting, a source of warmth at night and as guards. One of the key features that link the wolf and the domestic dog is that they are both highly social animals that like to live within a pack, be it a pack of other wolves or dogs or a human pack. This feature has a great influence on their psychology and behaviour.

It has been suggested that fear, aggressiveness, submission and dominance have determined the behaviour of social dogs. These behaviours have proven to be the best strategies for dogs to use at particular times. In addition to this, through their association with humans, dogs have developed social awareness in that they are aware of other dogs or people around them.

Behavioural Development

Newborn puppies are completely dependent on their mother but as they develop physically they become more independent and aware of their surroundings.

The stages of development can be divided into distinct phases:

The Neonatal Period

  • spans the first two weeks of life
  • are completely dependent on their mother
  • sensitive to touch, taste and smell but movement is limited
  • eyes and ears are still closed
  • main activities are sleeping and feeding

The Transitional Period

  • occcurs during third week
  • period of rapid development from total dependence on dam to a degree of independence
  • eyes and ears open and respond to stimuli
  • start crawling backwards and forwards
  • able to stand and lap milk from a saucer
  • will defecate and urinate away from its bedding and its mother
  • start play fighting with litter mates
  • start to display social signs such as tail-wagging and growling

 The Socialisation Period

  • occurs from end of third week up to week 10
  • critical period for formation of social relationships
  • begin to learn about their environment
  • will interact with each other and with humans
  • may initiate play with raised paw or tail wagging
  • will learn to control biting through play experience
  • dominant and subordinate puppies will become apparent
  • may show prey killing and sexual behaviour e.g. mounting other puppies

The Juvenile Period

  • extends from 10 weeks to sexual maturity
  • gradual improvement in motor skills
  • learn relevance of behaviours and which are appropriate to specific situations
  • basic learning capacities are fully developed at the beginning of this period –  by about 4 months old previous learned tasks may interfere with new learning
  • may still not be trained to do difficult tasks due to their short attention span

Common Behaviour and Body Language

Humans use words to communicate with one another. We sometimes believe that dogs understand what we are saying, however, dogs and other animals rely heavily on body language to communicate. They use their ears, tails, mouth, stance and eye contact to communicate with humans.

Body Language

Body language misinterpretation can lead to dog bites in some cases. If a child is looking intently at a dog, smiles and leans towards to pat the dog, the dog may interpret this as a challenging stare, bare its teeth and take a threatening physical stance.

A combination of signals will generally provide you with an idea of how a dog is feeling. Some of these may be very obvious such as hackles up, whereas others can be more subtle or easily misinterpreted.

Where can this course lead?

This course in Animal Behaviour may provide you with the necessary background for one of the opportunities listed below. Alternatively, it may lead you on to further study to pursue a career that requires additional study and specialisation

The following are just some of the areas where opportunities in Animal Behaviour may be found:

Potential Occupations:

  • Animal Behaviourist
  • Animal Trainer
  • Animal Welfare Officer
  • Veterinary Assistant
  • Animal Caretaker
  • Pet Store Worker
  • Biodiversity Officer
  • Biodiversity Restoration Assistant
  • Biosciences Researcher
  • Biosecurity Officer
  • Community Engagement Facilitator
  • Conservation and Science Support Officer
  • Fauna Spotter/Catcher/Wildlife Consultant
  • Field Guide/Ranger
  • Field Officer
  • Flora & Fauna Officer
  • Forestry/National Parks Ranger
  • Administrative Assistant
  • Field Assistant
  • Information Officer
  • Laboratory Technician
  • Quarantine Officer
  • Ranger
  • Research Assistant – Avian/Wildlife Ecology
  • Research Scientist
  • Safari Supervisor
  • Threatened Fauna Recovery Officer
  • Tour Guide
  • Wildlife Educator
  • Advertising

Potential Employers:

  • Animal Welfare Organisations
  • Conservation Councils
  • Research Institutions
  • Government Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, Agriculture, Primary Industries and Regions, Environment
  • Ecotourism Companies
  • National Parks and Wildlife Service
  • Nature Foundations
  • Fauna Consultancies
  • Museum
  • Not for Profit Organisations
  • Zoos and Wildlife Sanctuaries
  • Universities
  • Pet Stores

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