Career in Animal Behavior: How I Did it and How You Can, Too!
Why Sophia Decided to Go Into Behavior
Like most of my colleagues, from the time I was a little kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I worked in kennels, veterinary hospitals, and got all the animal experience I could. And I majored in one of the most rigorous college science majors: biochemistry. Then, in 1993, after years of studying full time, my dream came true. I graduated from the University of California–Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and went out into private practice as a veterinarian.
Everything was great. That is, until I noticed that more pets came in with behavior problems than with medical problems. I knew what it was like having a problem pet and not knowing where to turn for qualified help, because I had owned a big aggressive Boxer for 11 years. I had trained diligently with 10 different trainers before I found one good enough to start addressing the issues. Because of my experience with my own dog, I made it a priority to alert clients to potential serious behavioral issues and counsel those who did want help. But the problem was too big to address within the confines of a regular office visit and with just the dog training knowledge I had. So I decided to go back to school and learn more about behavior.
A Well-Rounded Approach
There are a number of routes for becoming well-versed in behavior. Veterinarians can go back and do a two- to three-year clinical residency where they see behavior consults and also perform clinical research. Or there’s the Master’s Degree or Ph.D. route, which involves taking the coursework and performing research that fulfills requirements set by the Animal Behavior Society, as well as getting hands-on clinical experience.
My program consisted of a broad range of animal behavior experiences and a Master’s in Animal Science at UC Davis under Dr. Edward Price. During that time, I studied barking in dogs, took tons of classes on behavior, worked on numerous animal behavior projects, guest-lectured on behavior, and was a teaching assistant in biochemistry.
Here are some of the classes I took:
- Comparative Psychology
- Developmental Psychology
- Principles of Domestic Animal Behavior
- Hormones and Behavior
- Physiologic Psychology
- Abnormal Psychology
- Applied Domestic Animal Behavior
- Animal Cognition
- Animal Welfare
- Evolution of Primate Behavior
- Advanced Animal Behavior
- Companion and Captive Animal Nutrition
- Avian Nutrition
- Comparative Psychology
- Acoustic Communication in Animals
- Topics in Psychology
- Statistical Analysis
Here are some of the other educational opportunities I participated in prior to 2003:
- Obedience competition and training (1989-1992)
- Sheepherding lessons (1995) with an Australian cattledog
- Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference in St. Louis (1998, 2003)
- Marin Dog Training Academy (1998)
- Six-Day Wolf Behavior Seminar at Wolf Park in Indiana (1999)
- 30-day Horse Behavior and Horsemanship Clinics through Reis Ranch Universal Horsemanship (1999, 2001)
- Calf Fence-Line Weaning Project (1999, 2000)
- Bailey & Bailey Beginning Two-day Operant Conditioning Workshop (a.k.a. Chicken Training Camp)(1998)
- Bailey & Bailey Intermediate and Advanced Operant Conditioning Workshop (a.k.a. Chicken Training Camp) (2000)
- UC Davis Animal Science Horsebarn Yearling Training: Trained yearling using a combination of natural horsemanship and clicker training (2000)
- Sacramento Zoo Ostrich and Giraffe Training: Trained the ostriches and giraffes to target using positive reinforcement (2000)
- Bud Williams Low-Stress Livestock Herding Two-Day Workshop in Texas (2002)
- California Grazing Academy/Low-Stress Livestock Handling School at the University of California Sierra Research and Extension Center (2003)
- UC Davis Goat Grazing and Nutrition Three-Day Workshop (2003)
- Safari West: Trained and supervised students in how to train animals to cooperate for daily enrichment and husbandry procedures (2003, 2004)
Here are some of the University courses I taught
After I earned my Master’s Degree in 2001, I taught the following upper-division undergraduate courses in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis every year for five years. And I supervised students in a number of behavior internships and projects.
- ANS 104: Domestic Animal Behavior
- ANS 105: Applied Domestic Animal Behavior
- ANS 106: Animal Behavior Lab
Here’s how I continue to learn
I continue to learn every day—by attending behavior conferences, classes and workshops, communicating with colleagues, reading journals, working on animal behavior projects, teaching students and volunteers, and constantly testing hypotheses about behaviors I see. The fact that I have the opportunity to expand my knowledge and improve on what exists on a daily basis is what makes this job my passion.
How Can You Get Into Animal Behavior and Help Solve Behavior Problems in People’s Homes?
Hopefully, by reading what I’ve done, you’ll get an idea of what you can do too. I chose the most rigorous routes, but there are other routes as well. Veterinary technicians can gain certification through the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. This is a very thorough, ambitious path. Dog trainers can become certified through the Karen Pryor Academy. Like the veterinary behavior route, both of these routes require scientific study, well-documented clinical experience, and are policed. Consequently there is a formal licensing or certification process and process by which complaints and challenges to the certification can be made.
There are other certification groups beyond these, but none that are accredited in the manner that involves a license or certification that can be challenged. However, I am listing below links for certification groups I recommend because they focus on positive reinforcement and educational opportunities. But remember, just because you took a course doesn’t mean you’re an expert—any more than graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree or even a Ph.D. means you’ll be an expert. Many students graduate with these degrees but only a few are at the top of their class and become exceptional in their careers. It’s up to you to gain the knowledge and master the critical thinking needed to truly excel, rather than just earning a piece of paper.
My Hope and Encouragement to Others
Regardless of the time commitment you can make and the route you want to take, it’s essential to remember that animal behavior is a science, not a religion. It’s important to learn from others but to also observe and evaluate with a scientific eye. This takes practice and generally requires actual class or book study.
Don’t do what you’ve always done just because you and others have always done it, or blindly follow someone else’s advice without being able to evaluate whether it makes sense or the outcomes are truly beneficial. Learn from everyone you can, even if you disagree with their overall approach. Always look for ways to improve, and always question whether what you are doing is really the best way, or whether there is a better way.
Share the Knowledge You Gain
It’s also important to work with others and to share your knowledge. Those who are secretive about what they know for fear that they will be surpassed or that their “secrets” will somehow be stolen most likely don’t know as much as they think. Imagine a piano virtuoso or an Olympic gold medalist teaching a promising young student: The knowledge, experience, and skills, they have can’t be magically transferred in just a day or a month, or even a year, because it runs deep. The same goes for those who are truly knowledgeable in science and animal behavior.
Work with others, and be grateful and respectful of others who share their knowledge with you even if you do not agree with everything they say.
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS