Study Animal Psychology 

The study of animal behaviour provides a foundation for animal training, or more generally, animal care. It also provides very real insights and a foundation for understanding human behaviour. If you wish, you may focus on a particular animal or group of animals. Let your tutor know your preference.

Animals do share some behavioural characteristics with people but it can be dangerous to assume too much similarity. Animal behaviour is far less affected by choices reached through reasoning.

Behaviour is any externally observable activity of an animal. In general, it includes:

  • Movement of parts of the body
  • Stopping expected movement
  • Secretions from the body
  • Changes in body colour.

It is assumed that all animal behaviour is an adaptation designed to support survival, either directly or indirectly. However, this is not always the case. Animals can behave self-destructively, out of habit, or out of boredom, just as humans can. To better understand the behaviour, we should also consider what motivates it.

This course is relevant to pet owners, veterinary assistants, or people who work with animals (eg. on farms, zoos, pet shops, trainers, etc). In understanding animal behaviour, we extend our basis for understanding human behaviour, and as such, the course may also be valuable for anyone studying general psychology. 

Learn How Animals Think 

  • Learn to understand and better manage your own animals
  • Work with animals
  • Get inside the mind of dogs, cats, horses and other animals

Course Structure

There are eight 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 etc.

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,
  • Sexual behaviour,
  • Communication.

6. 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/dependence.


  • 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 behaviours.
  • Explain the social influences on animal aggression, play, sexual behaviour, communication and other behaviours.
  • 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.



Animal behaviour is controlled by a nervous system, which is comprised of special nerve cells called neurons. The nervous system operates according to the same general principles in all types of animals.

The nervous system is stimulated from the environment, through sensory receptors. Animals normally only respond to stimuli which they select; they filter out certain stimuli that surround them, and react to others they choose to accept.

The reaction to a stimulus frequently depends upon the context: the various components that make up the environment and the overall situation in which the animal finds itself. It is well recognized that the same stimuli can cause different responses in the same animal. Learning and experience together affect the animal's ability to assess the setting in which stimuli are received and vary responses through cognitive processes.

There are many situations though where the context or setting is relatively unimportant. These types of stimuli are called "symbols", "releasers" or "behavioural signs". Such stimuli will "release" or trigger more or less predictable, pre-programmed behaviours.

Example: Young herring gulls peck at a red spot on their parents' bill when they seek food. Experiments have shown the same birds will peck at a red spot on a cardboard model when the cardboard is roughly shaped like a bill. Auditory symbols are common in many types of mammals and birds and act as specific "releasers" for a range of social behaviours including courtship and mating. The setting or context is obviously very different, but the behaviour remains unchanged.