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Animal Behavior Society
Animal Behavior Society

Working towards a better understanding of animal behavior

Applied Animal Behavior

The field of Applied Animal Behavior specializes in the behavior of companion animals, the behavior of farm, zoo and laboratory animals and studies of the behavior of wild animals when these studies are relevant from an applied perspective, as well as methodological studies.

What is Applied Animal Behavior?

Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., CAAB
Executive Vice President,
National Programs and Science Advisor
520 8th Avenue,
7th Floor New York, NY 10018
212-876-7700 (ext. 4401)

The field of applied animal behavior employs the knowledge of animal behavior that we gain through observation and experimentation for a particular purpose. This purpose may be to benefit humans or the animals. In many circumstances applied animal behavior can be used to mediate conflicts or problems that exist between humans and animals in a way that does not require killing or hurting animals.

Applied animal behavior is often the ultimate test of our theories on how the behavior of animals is motivated and maintained. If a theory is robust, and the variables that it identifies are important in the control and management of behavior, we should be able to manipulate those same variables in a real world setting to obtain a desire result. Since the applied animal behaviorist works outside the protective walls, and controlled conditions of the laboratory, their interventions need to have an impact that cuts through the noise of the many extraneous events and stimuli that the real world presents.

While applied animal behaviorists may have been trained in a particular theoretical tradition, more often than not, they are required to combine, and apply the theories and approaches to an understanding of animal behavior developed through several different approaches and models. In the early days of modern animal behavior study two primary schools of thought dominated the field.

Comparative psychology utilized carefully controlled conditions and stimulus presentations to develop standard models of how animals received, processed and responded to stimuli. Within this context Learning Theory built models of how the previous experiences of animals could modify subsequent behavior. Ethology emphasized the manner in which members of a species inherited specific behavioral adaptations to a particular environment, providing them with the advantages needed to succeed through natural selection.

Applied animal behavior shares with experimental and theoretical efforts, the need for careful observation and documentation of behavior, identification of important variables, and the evaluation of behavioral changes following the systematic manipulation of identified variables. Rather than measuring success with a statistically significant test, applied animal behaviorists measure a significant result as the successful resolution of the original problem or concern. Most cases presented begin with the development of a case history that includes information on the animal, including species, age, sex and reproductive status; when did the problem behavior first appear, frequency, and circumstances; the presence of antecedent stimuli, apparent target of the behavior and result.

Once the case history is developed, the applied animal behaviorist can develop a theory of why or how the behavior developed, the manner in which it is maintained and design an intervention that can reduce or eliminate the problem. At this point the two common approaches to animal behavior can come into play. If the case history suggests that the animal's behavior is the expression of a normal part of its behavioral repertoire, or ethogram, but in the wrong place or time, one intervention solution would be to provide the animal with an alternate, appropriate context for the behavior. One example would be kitten or cat that chases and bites at people's ankles. This is an expression of the normal predatory behavior of felines. In this case, an appropriate intervention would be to provide the cat with a variety of toys to redirect the predatory behavior, and scheduled play sessions to dissipate the cat's predatory play drive.

In other circumstances the case history may suggest that the behavior is the result of previous experience. For example, if a young dog is frightened by a loud, surprising noise, it may develop a life long fear or phobia of loud noises such as thunder or firecrackers. One treatment intervention would be to help the dog "unlearn" its fearful association with loud noises. A common approach is to employ counterconditioning. The dog would be exposed to low volume recordings of thunder in the presence of desirable, positive stimuli such as food or treats. Over a period of successive presentations, the volume of the recording would be slowly increased, all the while providing positive stimuli. In this way, the dog would learn to associate the loud sound not with surprise and fright, but rather with a pleasant experience.

At other times, it may be necessary to combine these two approaches. Dogs often jump on people as a part of their greeting. This is not surprising if you have ever watched two dogs that know one another bounce around in excitement when they get together. A frequent intervention used here is to teach the dog an alternative form of greeting. A dog that has already learned a good "sit-stay" in obedience training can learn to transfer the behavior to greetings at the front door. People can come in the door with treats to reward a "sit" when they come in. Another strategy would be to have the person enter and toss a few treats on the floor when the dog approaches, diverting his exuberant greeting just before he is ready to leap up. The dog will typically keep all four feet on the ground, looking for the treats. In this case, the dog will eventually learn that good things come from staying grounded when someone arrives, not by jumping up.

Behavior problems are the most common reason given for the surrender of companion dogs and cats to animal shelters in the United States. Many animal shelters now provide programs that include behavioral evaluations of animals in the shelter, behavioral enrichment and rehabilitation for the animals during their stay in the shelter, and behavior help-line support for new adopters.

In addition to companion animals, applied animal behaviorists work with farm animals, laboratory animals and wild animals, both in the wild and in captivity. Applied animal behaviorists can have a significant impact on the welfare of animals by providing opportunities to reduce stress that results from the frustration of natural behaviors, or training alternate behaviors that provide mental stimulation and enrichment. Temple Grandin has dramatically reduced the stress experienced by cattle brought to slaughter by modifying the chutes and ramps employed to move the animals from place to place. In zoo settings animals may show stereotyped, repeated behaviors as a result of boredom and limited opportunities to engage in species typical behaviors. Behaviorists that work at zoos and aquaria have developed a wide variety of protocols to provide animals with opportunities to express species typical behaviors. Food for primates can be hidden in puzzle boxes or scattered and covered with straw or hay. This allows the primates to engage in their normal food searching and gathering behaviors. A well-known example used for bears is to place a device into a tree in the enclosure that "leaks" honey at random intervals for the bears to find and lick. A dramatic example of enrichment has been used with cheetahs where a food item is hung by a cable from an overhead pulley, and rapidly dragged across their enclosure stimulating a high-speed predatory chase.

Given the broad range of activities that applied animal behaviorists pursue, there is a complementary wide range of educational options. A common strategy would be to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology, psychology or animal science, and then an advanced degree in animal behavior. While few universities have an animal behavior graduate program, most offer graduate degrees in either biology or psychology, and a concentration in animal behavior is possible. As noted above, approaches in applied animal behavior may require the integration of both the biological-ethological and the psychological-learning/conditioning approaches. For this reason, training for applied animal behavior should include coursework and experience in each of these two disciplines.

The Animal Behavior Society has a program for the certification of applied animal behaviorists (CAAB). Individuals are required to have either a Ph.D. or Masters degree (for certification as an associate applied animal behaviorist), five years of experience in the field, and a record of professional accomplishment and contribution to the practice of applied animal behavior. Additional details on the certification process are available from the Society (see this site for more information).

A behavior specialty has also developed within the practice of veterinary medicine. Following completion of a veterinary degree, it is necessary to complete a two-year residency under the supervision of a veterinary behaviorist. The American College of Veterinary Behavior requires successful passage of an exam as part of the requirements to become a diplomat of the college (i.e. Board certified veterinary behaviorist). In addition to the use of behavior modification and environmental management employed by CAABs, veterinary behaviorists may prescribe drugs to treat some behavior problems in animals. It is not uncommon for CAABs to work in partnership with veterinarians to help animals with behavior problems.

Dog trainers practice a third branch of applied animal behavior. While they may not have advanced degrees in animal behavior, they will generally have a strong knowledge base in dog behavior and learning theory. The educational path for dog trainer is not as formal as that for CAABs or veterinarians. It is not uncommon for dog trainers to serve an apprenticeship with an experienced trainer before working on their own. Continued professional development is available through a wide variety of conferences and training seminars offered through groups such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). The Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers offers certification for dog trainers following successful passing of an exam.

Dog trainers may work with groups of people who are training their own companion dogs, with individuals and their dogs, or directly with someone's dog. Very experienced trainers may also work with dogs that have specific behavior problems. There are a number of specialty areas such as training for assistance dogs, search and rescue, law enforcement and various competition fields such as agility and obedience.

The applied animal behavior field is growing as people seek a more harmonious relationship with animals. It requires a broad knowledge of animal behavior and the ability to translate that knowledge into practical methods that reduce the conflicts that people may have with animals, or to enhance the enjoyment people can have living near or with animals.


Carlstead, K. and Shepherdson, D. 2000. Alleviating stress in zoo animals with environmental enrichment. In: The Biology of Animal Stress (Ed. By G. P. Moberg & J. A. Mench), pp. 337-354. New York: CABI publishing.

Grandin, T. 1995. Thinking in Pictures. New York: Doubleday.

Hetts, S. 1999. Pet Behavior Protocols. Lakewood, CO: AAHA Press

Wright, J. 1999. The Dog Who Would Be King. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press.