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What They Do

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Who do you call if you have a misbehaving rhino, lovesick cheetah, belligerent pig or a dog that just won't stop barking? An animal behaviorist, that's who! Animal behaviorists study the behavior of animals in nature and in captivity.

The official name for this field is "ethology." Applied ethology takes that knowledge of animals and applies it to practical settings: "Zoo, lab animals, companion animals, wherever people are keeping animals," says Ruth Newbury. She is an animal behaviorist at the University of Washington near Seattle. Her job is to apply her knowledge of animals to better their conditions and productivity.

In a zoo, an animal behaviorist records animal behavior over an extended time period. Then the data is used to compare the animals' behavior to what they expect the species to be like in the wild. If the species is well-adjusted to captivity, it should perform a wide range of behaviors. If not, an animal behaviorist can then help modify the exhibit to see if that helps.

In other cases, usually with domestic animals, behaviorists try to determine the cause of undesirable behavior. Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin in Fort Collins, Colorado, studies cattle and other livestock to determine what makes them resist moving through cattle chutes.

"They're afraid of noise, metal strips on the floor and seeing a person moving fast and jerky up ahead of them," says Grandin. If the things that frighten cattle are removed or put out of sight behind high barriers, then cattle will walk quite calmly into any chute.

A behaviorist working with your pet -- technically called a companion animal -- may use several conditioning techniques to modify behavior. In these cases, they'll often obtain a written history of the case from a pet owner, diagnose the problem and design a structured plan for the owner in order to help the owner and pet.

For instance, to quiet a barking dog, animal behaviorist Bob DeFranco recommends using negative reinforcement.

"I use my voice, a soda can filled with pennies, a squirt of water, a leash check, to name a few." If the dog doesn't respond to "Quiet," a squirt of water or the loud sound of the can at the dogs' feet should be enough to silence the animal. When the dog is quiet, praise it: think Pavlov's dog in reverse!

Behaviorists may also work with veterinarians in prescribing medication when necessary. Some animal behaviorists work for universities and research centers. Some work with zoos, and others work as independent consultants.

Animal behaviorists who work through universities and research centers typically work Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. Independent consultants are often called in when there's an animal behavior emergency.

Animals behaviorists need to be patient and have fluid, quiet movements. Animals don't like loud, quick movements, especially animals that are already showing sign of stress!

Grandin says her success working with animals has come from being able to think like them. At the very least, you should have good observation skills.

At a Glance

Figure out why animals do the things they do

  • Behaviorists can work with vets, in zoos or in research centers
  • You need to be patient
  • Get a strong background in biology


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