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All about Animal Behaviourists: Who they are and what they do

Animal behaviourist with dogs advice

Do you know what an animal behaviourists does?

Animal behaviourists, also known as ethologists, are people who study the way animals act and try to understand why they act in this way.

By Justine Seraphin

As a pet owner, you may have been referred to an animal behaviourist if your pet was showing any unusual or inappropriate behaviours which required an expert’s advice.

What does an animal behaviourist do?

There are different kinds of animal behaviourists. Applied or clinical animal behaviourists are required when animals are demonstrating problem behaviours. Behaviourists are in charge of diagnosing the animal as well as setting up a treatment plan which will help solve the issue at hand. This could involve the use of counter-conditioning, habituation, behaviour modification, or even just a lifestyle change. Clinical animal behaviourists may also be required for the prevention of behaviour problems; to come up with socialisation plans for puppies or to help rescue dogs settle into their new homes, for example.

However, some animal behaviourists work primarily in research. These behaviourists are usually lecturers in universities and carry out in-field or in-lab research on various species of animals. Their main role is to find out more about why animals behave the way that they do.

Where do animal behaviourists work?

Much like vets, animal behaviour experts are needed everywhere! Though the majority of animal behaviourists work with domestic animals, many are also employed in farms, zoos, and aquariums. Alternatively, animal behaviourists can find job opportunities in laboratories, museums, or, as mentioned above, in research. If an animal behaviourist focuses their work on training, they can also choose career paths involving the media - training animals for films or ads, for example.

However, as a pet owner, you are more likely to encounter clinical animal behaviourists specialised in domestic animals. While these experts may work at a veterinary clinic or animal shelter, the majority of them are self-employed. This means they work their own hours and will usually come to your home rather than have you visit them at a specific location. In-home visits tend to be more effective in diagnosing and treating an animal because it enables the behaviourist to see a pet’s day to day life - perhaps perceiving issues that you may not have noticed yourself.

Brown labador holding hand to an animal behaviourist
What a good student ©Shutterstock

How does one become an animal behaviourist?

Unfortunately, anyone with some experience can call themselves an animal behaviourist. The trick is to find one that actually has the qualifications to treat your pet. This is very important as certified graduates have up-to-date information on research and training techniques. Outdated methods may have an adverse effect on your pet.

A bachelor's degree or other level 6 higher education qualifications are required to become a certified animal behaviourist. Animal Behaviour or Animal Behaviour and Welfare courses are offered in many UK universities. They are science-based degrees which will require average grades in maths, chemistry, and biology.

An undergraduate degree in animal behaviour is usually obtained through a 3-year course, though some behaviourists will choose to specialise with a masters or Ph.D. afterwards. Students in Veterinary Medicine (5-6 year degree course) may also choose to specialise in animal behaviour during their studies.

How do I find a professional behaviourist?

No matter whether your animal behaviourist is a vet or not, he/she should be a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB) accredited by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB). The committee of the ASAB board consists of representatives of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Psychological Society, and the International Society for Applied Ethology. Together, they accredit individuals who have a degree in a relevant subject, as well as attendance to specialist courses and who have clinical experience.

Alternatively, you could find an animal behaviourist recognised by the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) or by the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC). Similarly to the ASAB, they only accredit individuals with a degree and hands-on experience, ensuring that you are working with a true professional.

When should I see an animal behaviourist?

Animal behaviourists are great if you are experiencing inconvenient behaviours with your pet such as aggression, destructiveness, or inappropriate toileting to name a few.

However, before you contact a behaviourist, you should always see a vet. Sometimes, animals act strangely because they are in pain, and you must rule out this possibly before you start any behaviour treatment plan.

Golden retriever getting a lesson with animal behaviourist
First class for this cutie ©Shutterstock

Also, you must be aware that animal behaviourists cannot magically fix your pet’s problems with a simple visit. They have the knowledge to help you set up a plan and will give you the tools you require to treat your pet. However, the majority of the work has to be done by the owner regularly and consistently. Only then will you attain the desired results. What’s more, the cause of a problem behaviour often resides in the pet’s environment, so you must be prepared to make a few changes in your routine in order to set your pet up for success.

Animal behaviourists are a bit like the Dr. Dolittle’s of the real world - without them, it would be a lot harder to understand our pets! And thanks to them, we can make sure we’re always providing our pets with the best possible welfare.