Skip to main content

Unit information: Companion Animal Behaviour in 2021/22

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

Description including Unit Aims

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 role of environmental and genetic factors in the development of the nervous system
  6. Critically evaluate the interaction between health and behaviour in vertebrate animals
  7. Evaluate the role of nutrition in health and behaviour
  8. 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)
  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 (formatively assessed)
  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 Information

Online synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning

Small group working

Use of Virtual learning environment (Blackboard)

Assessment Information

Opportunities for formative feedback will be provided throughout the year, for example through seminar discussions, coursework support discussions and on-line quizzes

Summative assessment:

Three pieces of written coursework

1) Group task – Cross-species comparative matrix to include comparison of dogs, cats, rabbits and horses in relation to, for example, ethology, domestication and social communication (35%)

2) Individual essay: Exploring the role of nature and nurture in behavioural development (35%)

3) Individual task: Peer assessed training plan (30%)

The passmark for each coursework element is 40%. Students failing to achieve a pass for any element of the unit will be required to undertake a comparative piece(s) of coursework during the resit period as follows:

1) Comparative coursework task designed to be completed individually

2) Individual essay as above (same topic, different title)

3) Individual task as above but lecturer assessed and based on a different training task


If this unit has a Resource List, you will normally find a link to it in the Blackboard area for the unit. Sometimes there will be a separate link for each weekly topic.

If you are unable to access a list through Blackboard, you can also find it via the Resource Lists homepage. Search for the list by the unit name or code (e.g. VETS20018).

How much time the unit requires
Each credit equates to 10 hours of total student input. For example a 20 credit unit will take you 200 hours of study to complete. Your total learning time is made up of contact time, directed learning tasks, independent learning and assessment activity.

See the Faculty workload statement relating to this unit for more information.

The Board of Examiners will consider all cases where students have failed or not completed the assessments required for credit. The Board considers each student's outcomes across all the units which contribute to each year's programme of study. If you have self-certificated your absence from an assessment, you will normally be required to complete it the next time it runs (this is usually in the next assessment period).
The Board of Examiners will take into account any extenuating circumstances and operates within the Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes.