Animal Behaviour (Psychology of Animals)

Study an Animal Psychology course and learn about how animals think, why they behave as they do and how to train them. A course for animal owners or those working with animals.

Course Code: BAG203
Fee Code: S3
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Learn about the psychology of animals
Animal behaviour is a fascinating subject. It is of interest to animal psychologists, veterinary assistants, those working in zoos, wildlife parks or nature reserves, pet owners, animal trainers, farmers, naturalists, or anyone else who works with or has an interest in animals. It is also a subject of interest for those studying psychology generally since much of what we learn from animals can be ascribed to human behaviour and lead to a greater awareness of ourselves. 
This course allows you to explore different theories and models of animal behaviour and particular characteristics of different groups of animals. You will learn about dominance, hierarchies, mating, co-operation, animal intelligence, aggression, and so forth. Each student is also ultimately able to conduct their own research topic on an animal of interest to them.  
This is a course for:
  • Students of psychology (animal study has long been a foundation for understanding human behaviour)
  • People who work with animals (farms, wildlife, pets)
  • Animal owners and animal lovers
  • Laying a foundation to understand animal training

This course will develop your understanding and ability to modify the behaviour of domestic animals.


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; 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 can choose which animals to focus on, though a variety are covered.
  8. Behavioural Problems
    • Abnormal behaviour (eg. Psychotic; neurotic); domestication of animals; reducing human contact/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.

What You Will Do

  • Observe an animal in the zoo, in the wild, or a domestic animal to identify examples of operant conditioning
  • Give examples of reactive, active and cognitive behaviour in a type of animal with which you are familiar. Discuss how cooperation might be relevant to the behaviour of animals
  • Distinguish between animal psychology and animal behaviour
  • Talk with an animal breeder (amateur or professional) regarding observed similarities and differences in appearance and behaviour of offspring, compared with parents
  • Research the breeding of one type of animal in order to control one or more behavioural characteristics. Examples of this might be: breeding dogs to perform better as a guard dog; breeding dogs to perform specific tasks; breeding cats to be a better human companion; breeding pigeons for homing; breeding horses for racing with a jockey; breeding cattle or goats to be more easily handled for milking
  • Give two examples of behavioural characteristics in either a dog or a horse which have low heritability
  • Give two examples of behavioural characteristics in either a dog or a horse which have high heritability
  • Observe animals that are exposed to different stimuli and note their behaviour. Different stimuli can include: Exposure to new people, being in a cage versus being at liberty, entering new territory, light or darkness
  • Explain what is meant by imprinting in animals or birds, when it is likely to occur, and the long-term effects
  • Describe the role of chemoreceptors in an animal’s perception.
  • Explain the role of sex pheromones in mating behaviour, and how are they sensed
  • Classify selected animals according to whether they are endo-therms or ectotherms
  • Explain how heat is lost from endo-therms to the environment and how this heat loss can be reduced
  • Explain how the 3 types of orientation are used in navigation by more complex organisms
  • Compare the behaviour of an animal on its own with its behaviour in a group situation
  • Discuss how territorial and dominance systems become established
  • Explain the role of aggression in social groups of mammals
  • Research how different types of sexual strategy ensure that dominant genes are passed on
  • Observe the behaviour of a single animal at a zoo, wildlife park or farm and identify any problems that you would anticipate with handling
  • Interview two different people who work with the same kind of animal (e.g. 2 dog trainers, 2 horse riders, 2 cat breeders, 2 sheep farmers, 2 wildlife park animal handlers) to find out how they handle their animals, and differences they experience between individual animals
  • Contact an animal welfare organisation (e.g. Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or equivalent) to discuss what kinds of animal behaviour problems they see resulting from mistreatment of animals
  • Research particular kinds of abnormal animal behaviours eg. anxiety, phobic, obsessive, compulsive, hysterical, depressive

Animal Behaviour Tips - Insights into the Animal Mind

A lot of animal behaviour is cyclical, and often the cycles of behaviour are synchronized with some characteristic in the physical environment, such as night and day or seasonal weather changes. The most common cycle is one synchronised with the daily rising and setting of the sun. Coastal animals often display cycles synchronised with tidal cycles. Many animals (both aquatic and terrestrial) display cycles synchronised with lunar rhythms. Most animals tend to display cycles which relate to seasons. Seasonal cycles in sexual behaviour are particularly common.

When animals are relocated to a different environment, where day/night lengths or some other relevant factor is dramatically changed, their behaviour can be disturbed; however eventually, in most cases, their biological clock will reset to the new conditions. Daily and seasonal rhythms are most commonly affected by the stimuli of light duration and intensity. The onset of breeding season, for instance, in many animals, is stimulated by a sequential change in day lengths over the preceding months.


This term was first used by American psychologist, Walter Cannon (1932) who wrote:

“The coordinated psychological processes which maintain most of the steady states in an organism are so complex and so peculiar to living beings – involving, as they may, the brain and nerves, the heart, lungs, kidneys and spleen, all working cooperatively –that I have suggested a special designation for these states, homeostasis”. Homeostasis occurs not (as once thought) through negative feedback mechanisms, but rather through a combination of feedback, feed forward and adaptive control.

Stress is often characterised as a threat to homeostasis; but this is only partly true. Some aspects of stress have little relevance to the internal environment of the body.

Both external and internal stimuli can cause stress (these stimuli are called “stressors”). Many different things can cause stress in an animal, ranging from physical (eg. injuries or illness) to the psychological (eg. presence of danger). Coping is a term used to describe when an animal makes an effective response to a stressor, and alleviates an undesirable situation.


Most animals have an optimum body temperature around which they function most efficiently. This is known as thermoregulation. Most animals are also able to influence their own body temperature to some extent, by means of adaptive behaviour or by utilising specialised physiological responses. Animals are able to detect changes in their body temperature, the environment or both through thermo-reception.

Ecto-therms are animals which derive heat primarily from outside their bodies, i.e. they are cold-blooded. That is, their body temperature conforms to that of the environment. Reptiles are ectothermic. Endo-therms derive their heat primarily from metabolic activity within their bodies, i.e. they are warm-blooded. Endo-therms can raise their heat production through muscular activity, i.e. shivering, increased metabolic rate, and by increasing food consumption since heat is a by-product of digestion. Mammals are endothermic. 


Dog Psychology and Training
Cat Psychology and Training
Equine Behaviour

Introduction to Psychology

For more information on the range of careers available in psychology, have a look at -


Why You Should Study This Course

An understanding of animal behaviour is relevant to wide range of careers. Many people also own or interact with animals outside of the workplace. This course will help students to develop a greater awareness of animal behaviour and its meaning, from aggression to social groups, and mating to migration. It also examines how animals learn and the implications for training in domesticated animals.  Whether you prefer to observe animals in their natural habitats or you are a pet owner, an understanding of animal psychology is of great benefit. 

Study this course if you work in or are planning to work in:

  • Animal Training
  • Veterinary nursing
  • Veterinary science
  • Ethology
  • Animal science
  • Psychology
  • Pet grooming
  • Horse riding
  • Agriculture

This course will also appeal to pet owners and people with a general interest in animals and what makes them tick.  


ACS is an Organisational Member of the Association for Coaching (UK).
ACS is an Organisational Member of the Association for Coaching (UK).
Member of Study Gold Coast Education Network.
Member of Study Gold Coast Education Network.
ACS Global Partner - Affiliated with colleges in seven countries around the world.
ACS Global Partner - Affiliated with colleges in seven countries around the world.
Since 1999 ACS has been a recognised member of IARC (International Approval and Registration Centre). A non-profit quality management organisation servicing education.
Since 1999 ACS has been a recognised member of IARC (International Approval and Registration Centre). A non-profit quality management organisation servicing education.

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Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

Dr. Gareth Pearce

Veterinary scientist and surgeon with expertise in agriculture and environmental science, with over 25 years of experience in teaching and research in agriculture, veterinary medicine, wildlife ecology and conservation in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Post-graduate qualifications in Education, Wildlife Conservation Medicine, Aquatic Veterinary Studies and Wildlife Biology & Conservation.
Gareth has a B.Sc.(Hons), B.V.Sc., M.A., M.Vet.S,. PhD, Grad. Cert. Ed.(HE), Post-Grad.Cert. Aq.Vet.Sc., Post-Grad. Cert. WLBio&Cons., Dipl. ECPHM, MRCVS.

Tracey Jones

Widely published author, Psychologist, Manager and Lecturer. Over 10 years working with ACS and 25 years of industry experience.
Qualifications include: B.Sc. (Hons) (Psychology), M.Soc.Sc (social work), Dip. SW (social work), PGCE (Education), PGD (Learning Disability Studies).

Dr Robert Browne

Zoologist, Environmental Scientist and Sustainability, science based consultancy with biotechnology corporations. Work focused on conservation and sustainability.
Robert has published work in the fields of nutrition, pathology, larval growth and development, husbandry, thermo-biology, reproduction technologies, and facility design.Robert has B.Sc., Ph, D.

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