Animal behaviour skills are valuable for anyone dealing with animals from zookeepers and vermin controllers, to farmers and animal breeders.

Psychologists have long used the study of animal behaviour as a way of gaining insights into human behaviour.

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.

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.

Understanding animal behaviour is of fundamental importance to managing animals in the wild or in captivity. It allows us to control and manage them; and to better understand the implications of human interaction or intervention.

A lot can be learnt about animal behaviour through observation and experience; but observations can be misinterpreted if you do not have an appropriate foundation upon which to build those observations. This course provides that foundation.

Of you work with, or intend working with animals (eg. in the wild, conservation, zoos, wildlife parks, veterinary practices, or elsewhere); this course provides a very solid and necessary foundation upon which to build your knowledge and skills.

In thes rapidly changing times, animals remain an important part of our world. When populations of animals come under pressure, the behaviour, distribution and numbers of wildlife can alter; and that can have flow on affects for the environment and for human populations. Wildlife can become pests. When populations disappear, the ecology of an area can become disrupted. We need to manage wildlife for the good of mankind in so many ways, and an understanding of animal behaviour is critical to achieving that goal.


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


  • 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.



  • Wildlife are kept in zoos, wildlife parks and even private collections for a variety of reasons, including conservation and tourism.

    Some zoos are publicly funded; some are private collections by philanthropist/conservationists, many need to be self sustaining businesses, generating income from paying visitors. To be viable though; it needs an adequate number of visitors.

    Zoos and wildlife parks may employ a veterinarian and veterinary assistant, along with one or more zoologists, but more often than not; most of the jobs on offer at a zoo are more routine positions involving a tasks such as feeding animals, moving animals, cleaning cages and other areas, talking to the public, construction work and landscape maintenance. All of these jobs are undertaken alongside animals that may sometimes behave in unexpected ways. A fundamental knowledge of animal behaviour enables any and all staff in a zoo to react appropriately to the animals they inevitably will be interacting with. Even staff who are regularly walking past the animals enclosure will become familiar to the animals.Everyone in a zoo can potentially interact with animals and that interaction can be either positive, or negative.