Skip to main content

Unit information: Companion Animal Behaviour in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Companion Animal Behaviour
Unit code VETS20018
Credit points 40
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Dr. Horseman
Open unit status Not open

All first year units


All other second year units

School/department Bristol Veterinary School
Faculty Faculty of Health Sciences


This unit introduces students to the principles of animal ethology, behavioural development, common behaviour problems and legal aspects of clinical animal behaviour focusing on the commonly owned companion animal species. Knowledge about ‘normal’ behaviour is used to enable students to understand the different elements which impact on the ultimate behavioural signs shown by individual animals. The importance of the developmental period will be examined ensuring that students have a good understanding of the degree of behavioural plasticity arising from sensitive periods for learning. The interactions between health and behaviour will be explored, along with the effect of neutering on behaviour. Dietary changes are frequently recommended for treatment of behaviour problems in dogs and the scientific evidence for the influence of nutrition on behaviour will also be examined in this unit. Concepts of personality and temperament, and means of assessing these, will be considered, and the interaction between nature and nurture in relation to behaviour is discussed.

This unit also introduces the concepts and principles underlying learning theory, and the neurological processes by which learning occurs. The importance of learning in the development of behaviour in individual animals is emphasised, including examples of how animals may learn undesired or ‘problem’ behaviours. Principles of behavioural first aid are taught before students are introduced to the techniques by which animal behaviour can be modified in training and rehabilitation.

The development of problem behaviour is also covered in this units which starts to introduce behavioural problems and methods of behavioural modification, developed further in later units. Finally, legislation relating to animal use in general, and behaviour consultancy more specifically, is covered within this unit, again preparing students for further study and practice.

Unit Aims:

Develop an understanding of the ethology of vertebrate domestic animals, and how this has been affected by domestication, natural and artificial selection and proximately by nature and nurture and by relationships with humans.

Gain an ability to recognise and report on signals indicative of a range of behavioural states.

Articulate an understanding of the theory of animal learning relating to a range of associative and non-associative processes.

Develop an understanding of the theory underlying learned problem behaviour and training techniques

Acquire an awareness of the most common behaviour problems affecting companion animals and appropriate first aid strategies

Gain awareness of the key legislation and legal processes relevant to the work of clinical animal behaviourists

Intended learning outcomes

On completion of this Unit, students should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate a current understanding of the ethology of vertebrate domestic animals, including perceptual abilities, maintenance and social behaviour, communication and theories of motivation
  2. Describe key principles underlying behavioural ontogeny; including sensitive periods, socialisation and attachment theory
  3. Articulate an understanding of the processes of domestication, natural and artificial selection, and their effects on the behaviour of animals
  4. Critically evaluate the influences and interaction between ‘nature’ and nurture’ in the development of behavioural disorders for a range of the most commonly kept domestic animals
  5. Critically evaluate the interaction between health and behaviour in vertebrate animals
  6. Evaluate the role of nutrition in health and behaviour
  7. Appreciate the range of interactions existing between animals and man, including the different roles of animals in human society and human attitudes towards them; and how these can contribute to the development of problematic owner/animal relationship (formatively assessed)
  8. Demonstrate an understanding of the key existing pieces of legislation relevant to the keeping and care of animals, and explain their operation, role and remit
  9. Explain the role of case law in shaping the development of legislation in the UK (formatively assessed)
  10. Appreciate the national legal and judicial processes, and the role of individuals associated with it e.g. barrister, solicitor, animal welfare officer, expert witness etc.,.
  11. Describe the responsibilities and limitations of the role of the clinical animal behaviourist, veterinary surgeon, paraprofessionals, owners and others in national legislation; to include the legal implications and duties associated with the provision of advice, professional liability, and client confidentiality (formatively assessed)
  12. Articulate an understanding of the theory of animal learning relating to associative and non-associative processes to include habituation; sensitization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, insight, social learning and higher learning processes
  13. Demonstrate a reliable understanding of the theory underlying learned problem behaviour and training techniques

Teaching details

Teaching will include lectures, small group workshops, seminars and practicals. A virtual learning environment (Blackboard) will be used to provide resources to students (including further reading) and to submit assignments

Assessment Details

Formative assessment: Students will be formatively assessed in class-based discussions and practicals. Students will also have opportunities to undertake formative MCQ and essay questions to prepare them for the summative assessments below.

Summative assessment: 2.5hr written/computer based exam comprising MCQs (20% of total mark) and long answer questions (80% of total mark), mapped to all of the learning outcomes.

The passmark for the combined exam is 40%. Students failing to achieve this mark will be required to undertake a resit examination, weighted in a similar manner to the summer exam.

Reading and References

Students can access the reading list through Blackboard