Learn online, Animal Behaviour, learn about animal psychology, a foundation for working with animals.

Course Code: BAG203
Fee Code: S3
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Learn to Understand the Minds of Wildlife and Pets

  • in your garden
  • in the wild
  • anywhere


Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction: Influences and motivation.
  2. Genetics and Behaviour.
  3. Animal Perception and Behaviour.
  4. Behaviour and the Environment.
  5. Social Behaviour.
  6. Instinct and Learning.
  7. Handling Animals.
  8. Behavioural Problems.


  • Identify factors affecting animal behaviour.
  • Describe the influence of genes on animal behaviour.
  • Explain how animals perceive and how they respond to various stimuli.
  • Explain the influence of environment factors, such as circadian rhythms, on biological clocks, reproductive cycles, orientation and other animal behaviours.
  • Explain the social influences on animal aggression, play, sexual behaviour, communication and other behaviours.
  • Describe different ways that animals learn (such as conditioning and habituation) and some effects of learning on behaviour.
  • Discuss psychological implications of different handling techniques.
  • Identify abnormal animal behaviour (eg. psychotic, neurotic behaviour) and ways to reduce dependence on humans.

Are Animals Sentient?

Sentience is a form of awareness that's tied to emotion and suffering. If we accept that an animal can suffer, we automatically accept that it is sentient – able to feel and perceive what is happening in the world around it.
Some researchers, ethicists, and animal advocates extend the idea of sentience to include subjectivity, or awareness of self. This is the ability to understand the existence of an "I" and a "you". For example, dogs can distinguish the idea of an abusive owner – the person who causes pain from themselves and humans in general. Sign language studies with chimpanzees and parrots also support this.

In the 21st century, animal sentience is a widely accepted idea. In 1998, the European Union (EU) addressed the concept of animal sentience in its Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TEFU), adding a Council Directive for the protection of farm animals, and providing general rules protecting animals kept for human use and production (such as food, wool, leather). These rules reflect the internationally-recognised Five Freedoms for animals: 

  • Freedom from hunger or thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  • Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

Are Animals More than Sentient?

Some experts believe that at least some animals possess sapience. Sapience derives from a Latin word, sapere, meaning "wisdom" or "knowing". It is related to the sapiens in Homo sapiens, the scientific name for humans. 

While related to sentience, sapience is a separate concept, related to cognition, intellect, assessment, and judgement. Some academics equate sapience with consciousness, while others consider them separate concepts. The idea of animal sapience has been influenced by ideas of human consciousness and cognition over several centuries, particularly the dualist idea that the mind and the body are separate things, and that there is a distinct relationship between the structure of the brain, and consciousness itself. Animal welfare advocates have argued this is a form of speciesism because it is based on the assumption that only humans can be conscious. This is added to by the fact that consciousness itself is a very difficult thing to define, and remains hotly debated. 

Yet the problem remains – how can animal sapience and/or consciousness be demonstrated? Even in its most basic form, sapience involves:

  • the ability to think and learn (cognition)
  • assess situations (intellect, judgement)
  • solve problems (intellect, judgement, cognition)
    adapt or develop new behaviours based on information and new information (cognition, intellect, judgement)

Some scientists and researchers also consider notions of communication and culture when discussing sapience.

One of the primary arguments against animal sapience has been that language is a defining factor in wisdom and knowing – humans are unique in their ability to communicate complex concepts, and this has led to higher order abilities in self-awareness, assessment, problem  solving, and other areas. The development of tools, and particularly specialised tools to solve a given problem, has also been cited as part of recognising sapience. Current research, however, demonstrates that many animals are capable of such acts, particularly great apes (e.g bonobos and chimpanzees), elephants, cetaceans (such as dolphins and whales), and some birds. Some advocates also include certain invertebrates like the cephalopoda, which includes the octopus. 

Evidence supporting animal sapience and/or consciousness includes:

  • the capacity for learning, and new learning
  • capacity for problem solving
  • demonstration of communicative acts
  • demonstration of social learning
  • recognition of self (often via the mirror-test)
  • capacity to develop relationships

Many studies, and ongoing studies, have demonstrated particular species' capacity for learning and new learning. Bonobos have been observed using a particular method of nut-cracking, which is dependent on using two rocks; magpies have been observed fashioning tools out of sticks or leaves to capture insect prey; octopi and other cephalopods demonstrate not only tool use, but cooperative hunting strategies. These animals, and many more, all demonstrate the capacity for problem solving.

Animal communication is more difficult to assess, but behavioural changes as a result of distinct calls among birds suggests the possibility of complex communication. Blue jays, a type of corvid (related to crows), will call other birds when threatened, and cooperatively scare off a predator. Similiarly, Eurasian magpies will "grieve" at a funeral, making distinctive calls when a dead magpie is discovered. These, however, are only intra-species communicative acts drawn from observation. Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, many efforts have been made at inter-species communication in an effort to study animal consciousness and intellect. The most famous of these include sign language studies with great apes (especially chimpanzees) and some birds (most notably African Grey Parrots). Some animals, including chimpanzees, also use gestural communication in wild environments. This has been seen by some as a precursor to more complex forms of language; the gestural theory of language suggests that human language began with such a non-verbal type of communication.

Research into cultural evolution and social learning – the ability to transmit new information during social engagement – is ongoing, but there is some evidence of this ability among primate species. However, the existence of relationships – and especially meaningful relationships – between animals has been well-documented.

Why Are You Wanting to Understand Animal Behaviour?

There are many reasons why you may want to study this course, and many different benefits that may come from it. 
You may want to better understand your own pets; or have an insight into behaviours you observe among birds or other wild animals around your garden or elsewhere. Understanding animal behaviour can also provide insights into how you might manage pests on your property. 

This course may be no more than pursuit of an area that you have a passionate interest in; but it can also be a foundation in animal psychology that can enhance business or career prospects for anyone working with animals -pets, wildlife or farm animals.


Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.


Meet some of the tutors that guide the students through this course.

Alexander O'Brien

Alex was born and raised in Cork, in the Republic of Ireland. Having been trained in Architecture, Permaculture, Mechanical Engineering, Ceramics, Furniture Design/Construction, Sustainable building and Art,Craft and Design, his knowledge base is broad. Much of his professional work has been designing and making nature inspired spaces, creative reuse of materials, permaculture and natural ecology regeneration.

That being said, in his own words, " real passion is teaching. I adore sharing my knowledge and experience. Seeing students progress, and learning, that is my soul food."'

Gaynor Hartley

Dip.Hort.Sc., Cert.Tiss.Cult., MAIH

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