Move over Cesar Milan. There may be plenty of opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere for people who are skilled and educated in the field of animal psychology and behavior. Although Cesar Milan gained much of his knowledge by watching free-roaming pack dogs as he grew up in Mexico and from working with animals there on out, students can advance in their knowledge and gain needed skills to be able to work in the field through animal behavior programs available at the college level.
Of course, animal psychologists, more accurately termed animal behaviorists, can be involved in work with typical domesticated animals such as cats and dogs, but can also work with animals found in the zoo or even those that are out in the wild such as African elephants or Capuchin monkeys. Animal psychologists often complete programs available through a psychology department or through a joint program offered through the psychology and biology departments or similar. Some animal psychologists or behaviorists, may actually be DVMs (Doctors of Veterinary Medicine). However, the field of animal behavior can more tightly focus on the behavioral patterns, motivations and interactions of animals than that of the DVM unless a veterinarian specializes.
In fact, a degree in animal behavior can give students the opportunity to explore many things of interest about animals: how they avoid predators, choose their mates, find their food, reproduce and care of their young, according to the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), which offers certifications in the field. It also can provide insight into how they get along with similar animals as well as those that are of a different species. Graduates of animal psychology and behavior programs can seek various career opportunities, depending on how advanced they are in their education. This can include jobs with aquariums, conservation organizations, museums, natural resource organizations and zoos. They can work as educators, museum curators and researchers, but often an advanced degree at the graduate or even doctoral level is needed to provide the scientific and research skills for these positions. Another opportunity for animal behavior graduates may be in the field of applied animal behavior, which uses animal behavioral knowledge as applied to the conservation, management and care of domestic or wild animals.
Steps to Becoming an Animal Psychologist
Many programs in animal behavior are offered through the psychology department at a school, such as the Master’s of Arts program in Animal Behavior and Conservation (ABC) through Hunter College in New York. However, students can start their focus in animal behavior even earlier, pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in the field through an interdisciplinary approach that might feature biology, neuroscience, psychology and other disciplines. Required courses in an undergraduate education program in animal behavior education could include:
- Biology I and II
- General Chemistry
- Psychology Statistics
- Research Methods
As students advance through the four years of their undergraduate degree, they may need to take required upper-level psychology classes in areas like:
- Animal Cognition
- Biological Basis of Behavior
- Animal Learning and Behavior
Students may also take electives that vary from environmental science to marine biology and to more advanced psychology courses. Most programs also focus on including hands-on skills that can be acquired through research and investigation or internships. At the University of New England, in Maine, for example, students learn more about animal behavior by studying along the the Saco River, where it connects with the Atlantic Ocean. (“Saco” means “the land where the river comes out.”) This program enables them to collaborate with other undergraduates, graduates and professional students who might be involved in the biological, health, marine and environmental science research or studies. Carroll University in Wisconsin is another school offering an undergraduate degree in animal behavior that preps students through use of an outdoors classroom and a 60-acre scientific field station. It also partners with the Milwaukee County Zoo to provide students with even more opportunities for research and training. Its graduates have gone on to work at animal welfare societies, aquariums, wildlife science centers and zoos.
As the Animal Behavior Society points out, most careers in animal behavior require a master’s of science or master’s of arts degree, although lesser education may be acceptable for some. More often, a graduate degree or even Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or DVM may be required. Students interested in advanced animal behavior education can find various opportunities at the graduate level. To be accepted into a program, a student may need to have:
- A substantial undergraduate education in psychology
- A minimum specified GPA and
- Professional recommendations.
Hunter College, as an example, requires applicants to its master’s program to have 12 undergraduate credits in psychology, including a statistics and experimental psychology lab course. A master’s program can provide students with increased knowledge about research methods and study and allow them to pursue interest in niche fields. They might take classes that include:
- Comparative Psychology
- Statistical Methods in Psychology
- Special Topics
As they pursue even more advanced education, their learning becomes more in-depth. At the University of California, Davis, where students can complete a PhD in animal behavior through the Animal Behavioral Graduate Group, an interdepartmental program, they investigate the adaptive and evolutionary aspects of animal behavior in specialized areas that vary from animal science to psychology and zoology. As any career in animal psychology and behavior can show, students should get out of a program what they put into it and this includes through their own interests and fields of study that can drive their education and career.
Certifications and Requirements to Work in Animal Behavior
Students who have completed an animal behavior program and have advanced education may want to seek certification through the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). Two levels of certification are available, including:
- Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB): Don’t be deceived by its name. A master’s degree in the biological or behavioral sciences with an emphasis in animal behavior is required as is a research-based thesis to be eligible.
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB): A doctoral degree in the biological or behavioral sciences with an emphasis in animal behavior is required for eligibility as is at least five years of professional experience or a DVM degree along with a two-year fellowship and three years of additional experience in applied animal behavior.
Either of these certifications lasts for five years, but must be renewed annually through good standing in the ABS and proof of liability insurance. Anyone who wants to apply their animal behavioral knowledge to treat specific behavioral problems in animals might find certification beneficial, according to the ABS website. Again, animal behavior is not necessarily confined to treatment and study of domestic animals, but could include helping animals at a zoo, aquarium or even in their natural habitat. Those who are certified can the post their credentials after their name and also have their name placed on the online directory on the ABS website.
Certification can also be obtained through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). Veterinarians must complete a residency, have an academic article published and meet other requirements. One of the college’s webpages lists residency programs in animal behavior that are available in the U.S., including programs at the University of California, Davis and Tufts University.