You are here:  Home > Animal Ethics > Animals at work
University of Bristol
Wellcome Trust
Recommended by:
Society of Biology
PEEP for Physics & Ethics at GCSE

Animals at Work

Animals can be trained to perform a great variety of tasks. This is done by conditioning them – rewarding them for correct behaviour. Conditioning techniques were made famous by the American psychologist, B.F. Skinner who went so far as to train pigeons to help guide missiles to their targets during the Second World War. Skinner's training worked well at getting pigeons to recognize battleships on radar screens as well as, if not better than humans, but the U.S. military had little confidence in the project.

Questions: Is it ethical to force animals into various forms of behaviour? Is it more ethical to use reward than punishment? Why?

“Man’s best friend”, the dog has been trained to live and work alongside people probably since before recorded history. You only have to look at the great variety of dog breeds to see the range of jobs they have been selectively bred to do. Particular abilities of dogs, such as following a scent and speed have been increased over many generations. Other natural instincts such as herding and retrieving have also been developed and harnessed for human purposes.

Questions: Do you think that a sheepdog is exploited? Do you think that a show dog, for example a champion Old English Sheepdog is exploited? What about a a Guide Dog for the Blind? A drug sniffer dog? A police dog? A racing greyhound? Is there any evidence that these dogs enjoy their “work”?

Asian elephants are used throughout the Indian sub-continent and Malaysia to work in the haulage and logging industries. Special keepers, called mahouts look after and train the elephants. It takes many years to train an elephant to work reliably, but they can have a working life of thirty five years. Like us, they reach physical maturity at about 20 and are often retired at 60.

Question: Unlike dogs and horses, elephants are not selectively bred, and are essentially wild animals, although they may be born in captivity. Do you think it is more or less ethical to use animals that have not been specially bred for working?

For further information  Working Elephants

Oxen are bulls that have been castrated to make them more manageable. They have great stamina and are immensely strong. They are used, usually in pairs, to work on the land, pulling carts, ploughs and other farm machinery. Oxen were used in Britain up until the 1850s, and are still used in parts of Europe and America today. However, it is across Africa and Asia that they are of huge importance to subsistence farmers.

Question: Although subsistence farmers may struggle to feed and care for their animals as they might want to, do you think it is ethical that they should use them for work?

Read more about working oxen at:


 Science unpicked

What's your opinion?

Average rating

Not yet rated

Read comments

NOT RATED Yasaman 05-09-12 04:51
It is nOt ethical to train or capture animal anyway,.we should respect animals & also enviroment & we should know that animals are the way they are because of the habits they live in,taking them out of enviroment or force them to do sth is nothing but selfish human pigheadedness.