Becoming a Behaviorist


Veterinarians and nonveterinarians can pursue this growing field.

What does it require to pursue a career as an animal behavioral consultant? I've heard the question a number of times. Sometimes the individual asking the question is a student just embarking on his or her path toward an occupation, or it might be an individual who has taken another career route, but finds animal behavior compelling due to their strengths and interests. Either way, there are clear steps to take if you want to enter these fields.

There are two ways to become certified as a practicing animal behaviorist. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) College offers board certification for veterinarians who wish to practice as behavior specialists. The second way to become certified in animal behavior does not require a veterinary degree, although many veterinarians also practice under this certification alone or in combination with AVMA certification.

Animal Behavior Society (ABS) certification requires considerable course work and training in animal learning, behavior modification, and other animal psychology courses. The difference between AVMA and ABS is somewhat similar, but not exactly, to the psychiatrist- psychologist model in human behavioral medicine. I will detail preparation and credentials for the ABS pathway, which are what you will need if you're not a veterinarian.

The ABS offers two levels of credentialed applied animal behaviorists. The first is an Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist, which is at the master's degree level of training. The second is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, which is at the PhD level. As explained on the Web site www.AnimalBehavior.org:

"The general approach in education would be to earn a BA/BS in either biology or psychology and a PhD in animal behavior. There are graduate programs in animal behavior in nearly every part of the country. These might be in biology, psychology, ethology (animal behavior), or another department.

"While few of them will offer specific courses or opportunities in companion animal behavior, they will provide the broad basic background needed in animal behavior principles, including Learning Theory, Comparative Psychology, Ethology, Experimental Psychology, and Physiology. The graduate program should also include a strong background in research methods and analysis.

"The most important element in choosing a graduate program will be to find a faculty member willing to support an applied approach and flexibility in taking interdisciplinary courses.

"For the master's degree level of Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist, the successful applicant must meet requirements of education, experience, and endorsement to become certified. Educational requirements include a master's degree from an accredited college or university in a biological or behavioral science with an emphasis in animal behavior.

"The degree should include a research-based thesis. Undergraduate and/or graduate course work must include 21 semester credits in behavioral science courses, including six semester credits in ethology, animal behavior, and/or comparative psychology, and six semester credits in animal learning, conditioning, and or animal psychology (e.g., experimental psychology).

"Experiential requirements include a minimum of two years of professional experience in applied animal behavior. The applicant must demonstrate the ability to perform independently and professionally in applied animal behavior.

"Examples include performing indepen­dent studies, data analysis, formulation and testing of hypotheses, and professional writing. Also required is evidence of significant experience working interactively with a particular species (such as a researcher, research assistant, or intern working with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist) prior to working independently with the species in a clinical animal behavior setting.

"Endorsement requirements include the provision of a minimum of three letters of recommendation from regular ABS members affirming the applicant's professional experience in the areas listed above. Only two of these letters can come from the same institution.

"For the PhD level of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, educational and experiential requirements include a doctoral degree from an accredited college or university in a biological or behavioral science with an emphasis on animal behavior, including five years of professional experience, or a doctorate from an accredited college or university in veterinary medicine plus two years in a university- approved residency in animal behavior and three additional years of professional experience in applied animal behavior. Any of these degrees must include the same course work requirements as the Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist.

"The successful applicant must also demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the literature, scientific principles, and principles of animal behavior, demonstrate original contributions or original interpretations of animal behavior information, and show evidence of significant experience working interactively with a particular species as a researcher, research assistant, or intern with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist prior to working independently with the species in a clinical animal behavior setting.

"Endorsement requirements are identical to those of the Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist.

"Exceptions to any of the above requirements will be considered by the Board of Professional Certification upon receipt of a written statement explaining why and how the intent of the educational and experiential requirements are satisfied.

"Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists are required to maintain liability insurance and will be asked to provide the name of their carrier and policy number at the time of application."

The Animal Behavior Society Web site has a listing of animal behavior graduate programs. The site also has information on applying for certification as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.

It's tough to say the average salary of practicing consultants because there are so few. Considering supply and demand, and from what I know about the few people I know in the field, there is great potential for a good income. Once you are efficient at working up cases, and especially if you can hire technical assistants to help train the people on how to work with their animals, I think you could do very well.

If you really like people and animals, there would be great personal benefit as well. The education to get there is very rewarding for life in general with animals and humans.

I can add two important points for you to consider before entering a career in animal behavior.

One thing to bear in mind in helping animals with behavior problems is that most animal behavior problems are the result of people's behavior or circumstances that people provide for their animals. So, overcoming the animal problems involves primarily helping people change their behavior and management of their animals.

A second point is that some animal behavior problems are the result of physical problems. So if you are a nonveterinarian, it is important for you to understand the types of problems that can contribute to behavior changes, and to establish trusted relationships with veterinarians who can rule out or diagnose and treat any suspected physical problems.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners