Why should we try to understand animal behaviour?

We love to observe and make guesses about what our pets are thinking or how they’re feeling, but there is a scientific way to examine their actions! Why is it important to look at animal behaviour through a scientific lens and how do we do it? Our guest blogger, and recent MSc graduate in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Lindsay Nakonechny tackles these questions.

Understanding Animal Behaviour…scientifically!

When we look at our pets, we seem instinctively able to tell if our pet is happy, sad, tired…and the list goes on! However, when it comes to studying animal behaviour through scientific research–known as Ethology–these words can detract from the objective nature of an experiment. In other words, we must be careful not to immediately infer how animals are feeling. Ascribing human-based traits (such as happiness or sadness) to animals is known as anthropomorphism. Although it is impossible to directly ask animals if they are happy or sad, we can study animal behaviour in order to gain insight about the subjective states (or feelings) of animals. When researchers study animal behaviour, they describe behaviour instead of inferring behaviour, in order to avoid anthropomorphism. Let’s put this into context.

AE looking happy

Suppose we are watching a dog receiving a treat. We can see the dog wagging its tail, perking its ears and perhaps even drooling! Obviously the dog must be happy! However, when documenting this behaviour during an observational study–an experiment involving no human contact or interference with the animal(s) being observed–writing down ‘happy’ would be avoidable. We cannot assume that the dog is happy, as the dog cannot directly communicate this. Rather, the observer would record the physical actions of the dog: tail wagged back and forth; ears faced towards the treat; drooling. During the analysis stage of the experiment, these behaviours would be associated with the dog receiving the treat. Since these specific behaviours (e.g. tail wagging, ears perked) have been observed with rewards (e.g. receiving a treat) in previous studies, we can conclude that these behaviours may be indicative of a positive state.

We know it is important to be objective when studying animal behaviour, but why do we study it?

We need to understand how animals experience the world in order to enact animal protection legislation to minimize suffering and develop best practices to maximize contentment. We can understand animal behaviour by observing animals in their natural environment–such as watching birds in our backyard! Again, an observational study involves no human interfere with the animals being watched. The behaviour is observed, recorded, and analyzed in order to help us understand the natural behaviour of a species, or a species’ behavioural repertoire. Alternatively, if we want to ‘ask animals questions,’ we must manipulate their behaviour to some extent. In other words, we must design a study that allows animals to make a choice or decision, allowing us to understand what is important to animals. These are called experimental studies, which often involve preference or motivation tests!

Preference and motivation tests

Ethologists, or animal behaviour researchers, can use preference and motivation tests to understand the behavioural needs of animals. These experiments allow us to assess animal feelings by giving animals some control over their environment and observing the choices or decisions they make (Kirkden and Pajor, 2006). Preference and motivation tests are very useful, but do differ from one another! Dr. Tina Widowski, Director of the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) at the University of Guelph explains these differences (2010):

  • Preference tests usually involve a Y-maze or T-maze with different options [such as food or toys] offered at the end of the maze, with the goal being to determine an animal’s preference. Animals are first trained to use the maze, where they learn what options are available to them. Then, their choices at the end of the maze are observed and counted over several or many maze trials. Animals may also be given free access to different options a period of time. Again, their choices are recorded either by either someone observing the animal, or by using a video camera.
  • Motivation tests are designed to understand how much an animal desires to perform or gain access to something (such as food or access to a mate). Motivation tests ask animals to ‘pay’ for a resource by performing certain behaviours. Often, animals are asked to perform an operant technique, such as pressing a lever or pecking at a key, in order to obtain some reward. For example, the number of times an animal is willing to press a lever may indicate the level of motivation to receive a reward or access to something desirable.

Preference and motivation tests are becoming integral methods of understanding behaviour and improving the environments of animals. Applying our knowledge of animal behaviour to improve housing environments for animals is known as Applied Ethology. We can use the results of preference and motivation tests to benefit animals. For example, a motivation test performed by Dr. Ian Duncan, Emeritus Chair in Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, was designed to measure the strength by which egg-laying hens would push against a weighted door to gain access to a nest box–a box provided for hens to build a nest to lay eggs in. The experiment demonstrated that hens work very hard to receive access to a nest box! From these results, we can infer that it may be very beneficial to provide nest boxes as they are important for egg-laying hens.

Getting involved

Animal behaviour is an interesting and growing field, and is imperative to improving animal welfare. We can witness animal behaviour almost every day–watching squirrels or birds in our backyards, observing our cat or dog, or even online through animal web cams! There are many academic and career opportunities available to get involved with animals including animal behaviour and welfare. Visit our careers page to learn more.


Lindsay Nakonechny is a former Education Intern at the Alberta SPCA and holds a BSc in Animal Health and MSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare. Lindsay has a particular interest in studying horses, but enjoys learning about the behaviours and needs of all species!


Kirkden, DR, Pajor, EA, (2006). Using preference, motivation and aversion tests to ask scientific questions about animals’ feelings. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100: 29-47.

Widowski, T (2010). Chapter 15: Why are behavioural needs important? In: Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach. Link:

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