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Teaching students how to interpret animal emotions part 1: in the classroom and on placement

02 February 2023
8 mins read
Volume 14 · Issue 1


Identifying the patient's emotional state enables veterinary nurses to tailor care, provide better advice on animal training and behaviour problems, and stay safe during human–animal interactions. However, the ability to interpret animal emotions is not instinctive and must be learnt. This article refers to Herrington and Oliver's ‘authentic learning framework’, which may be used in the classroom and during clinical placements to structure teaching and learning. For example, classroom-based teaching could transmit appropriate knowledge (‘scaffolding’), demonstrate the interpretation process (provide ‘access to expert performance’ and ‘modelling’) and task students with identifying animal emotions in images and YouTube videos (‘authentic activities’). Within clinical placement, supervisors could activate their students' knowledge by using questioning, model their own process of identifying animal emotions (‘access to expert performance’), and set authentic learning activities such as an audit of animals' emotions. Within both contexts, reflection and discussion should be encouraged, coaching provided as necessary, and authentic assessment used to gauge student ability. Placement supervisors can build their formal knowledge of animal emotions by reviewing their students' learning materials, attending animal behaviour conferences or webinars, accessing reliable websites and reading academic journal articles. This would also count towards their annual continuing veterinary education requirements. Part 2 of this article will discuss putting into practice what has been learned.

Knowledge and skills relating to animal behaviour are acknowledged as essential prerequisites to the development of professional veterinary nursing competences (ACOVENE, 2012), because these are fundamental to many of the day-to-day responsibilities of the veterinary nurse. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many modern veterinary nursing programmes provide education in this discipline. Animal communication often forms part of this education. Communication encompasses body language and behavioural signals as, in many cases, it is easier for humans to interpret body language and behavioural signals than vocalisations or olfactory signals (Houpt, 2018).

In the past, the focus was on aggression, fear or stress behaviours, as these dominated the academic literature. However, in recent years, a broader scope of animal emotions and their behavioural signals have received attention in animal welfare science (Green and Mellor, 2011), and research into animal emotions is growing. This is a welcome development, as additional research can guide teaching. The ability to interpret animal emotions is a useful skill for veterinary nursing practice. Emotions reflect animals' perception of their environment (Désiré et al, 2002) and can provide a unique insight into their lived experience.

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