An animal behavioural specialist studies a variety of animals, noting their behaviour in different environments and how their behaviour may change depending on environment, hormonal changes, physical and mental changes, and many other factors. There are many sub-types of animal behavioural specialists, spanning many areas of behaviour sciences, and each sub-type focuses on its own set of criteria for study.
An animal behavioural specialist's duties can include caring for animals in a zoo, shelter, or lab, diagnosing behavioural problems of family pets, rehabilitating rescued dogs, cats, or horses, and aiding in scientific research. Some of the behavioural problems that may be diagnosed are: separation anxiety disorder (a common disorder for abandoned pets), dominance, aggression (found in many dogs that are rehabilitated after being seized from fighting rings), fear (often found in abuse cases), bucking (commonly caused by back pain), head tossing, and spraying (territorial marking commonly found in multi-cat homes).
Some animal behaviour specialists focus on the evolution of animal behaviour over a period of time based on their environment. For example, they may study how a wild horse's behaviour changes after being brought into a domestic setting. There is truly no one specific career path in this field, but animal behavioural specialists usually fall into a few sub-categories as described below:
- the study of an animal in order to verify links between genetic or environmental factors and the behaviours they cause. Controlled experiments may be used to determine these connections, be it in a lab setting or a more natural, but controlled setting. The previously mentioned wild horse example would fall into the category of ethology.
- the study of how an animal adapts to their environment, much like a specialist in ethology would. Through time based observation they note how and why an animal's behaviour changes, and what helps the animal to survive in the environment it is placed in.
- the study of the similarities that govern all creatures, rather than just one particular species. The specialist is watching for common links between species that link disease, migration, intelligence, and even reproduction. These specialists use many methods from other fields of behavioural science.
The necessary requirements to become an animal behavioural specialist vary depending on the chosen field of study.
Obtaining a certificate from a private training program will give you hands-on experience and education working with cats and dogs. These programs are usually not accredited, but they will get you started in a career as a dog or cat trainer who can help owners with their pets.
An associate's degree (usually a two-year program) in animal training or zoo keeping will train students in almost any animal field, including animal behaviour. You will learn basic training and behaviour concepts that could apply to all animals.
A four year bachelor's degree in animal behavioural sciences is being offered at more and more universities. This is an interdisciplinary major that combines psychology and biology.
Some jobs in animal behaviour require only a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science degree; however, most of the career fields in animal behaviour require advanced degrees, such as a master's degree or a PHD or DVM.
Animal behavioural specialists can be found world-wide and the workplace ranges from dog training facilities to marine facilities with stations all over the world. Many animal behavioural specialists become trainers, working in fields such as dog training, horse wrangling, and as zoological trainers.
Other areas include researchers that study through the aforementioned marine stations on the ocean. These behavioural specialists study the effects of many factors on marine life, taking note of disease, feeding patterns, and mating patterns of several species of marine life.
A growing number of animal behaviourists work in government laboratories or in private businesses. These jobs involve health-related research, such as a drug company conducting research on the behavioural effects of new drugs on animals, or examining the links between animal behaviour and disease.