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Do I Need a Trainer or a Behaviorist?

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Pet Services

Waving a magic wand won’t produce a terrific dog. A well-behaved dog is a product of genetics, training, and a loving home. For the training part, pet owners often seek outside help. There are many people who work in this field so here is a simplified list of canine behavior professionals.

What is a Dog Trainer?

Dog trainers, also known as behavior counselors or pet therapists, have varying levels of knowledge and experience. Their training may include both formal and informal education. Many dog trainers are self-taught through reading, while others attend professional classes. Still others learn by apprenticing with experienced trainers. Some trainers don’t hold a professional certification, but can still train dogs effectively. They teach specific skill sets, including obedience, agility, tracking, and search and rescue. They may work with individual dogs or group classes.

Dog trainers who attend specialized schools become certified by an independent organization after they meet specific requirements. Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs) are people who have earned their title by passing a standardized test administered by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. They demonstrate knowledge of canine husbandry, behavior, and teaching skills. CPDTs also work a required number of hours as a dog trainer and submit letters of recommendation before earning their certification.

In general, dog trainers generally address behavior issues by trying to resolve the symptom (what is happening) rather than the underlying cause (why it is happening).

What are Applied Animal Behaviorists?

An applied animal behaviorist is a person with advanced college education (MS, MA, or PhD degree) and expertise in dog, cat, and other domestic animal behavior. Some Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) are veterinarians who complete a residency in animal behavior after graduating from veterinary school. These individuals have a title that includes DVM. CAABs study animal behavior, biology, zoology, psychology, and learning theory, so they have lots of scientific, research, and medical knowledge. These highly educated individuals are an exclusive group that has a firm grasp on the normal behavior of animals, which helps them recognize the abnormal.

CAABs are kind of like pet psychologists. They teach the pet owner why the behavior is happening and make specific recommendations on how to change it. They are experts in behavior modification and know what techniques to employ to change undesirable behaviors. CAABs are also teachers; they can effectively counsel pet owners and educate pet owners on how to understand their pet’s behavior prior to changing it.

Moreover, they can possibly identify potential medical causes of abnormal behavior and know the medications that will enhance behavior modification. Depending on laws where you live, CAABs may be able to recommend or prescribe drugs that address emotional issues such as separation anxiety, phobias, and compulsive behaviors. However, CAABs do not treat physical problems like veterinarians do, so they work closely with veterinarians who refer cases to them.

What are Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (Dip ACVBs)?

Many veterinary school curriculums include courses in animal behavior, but some graduate veterinarians pursue more extensive education in this field by completing a residency program focused on behavior. These veterinarians then pass a veterinary board exam to attain their diplomate status. Not all CAABs are veterinarians, but all Dip ACVBs are.

Veterinarians who are board certified in animal behavior are quite knowledgeable about the medical and physical causes of abnormal behaviors. They care for the total pet. If a pet’s sudden change in behavior is related to a medical problem, such as a bladder infection that may cause house soiling or a thyroid imbalance that may prompt personality changes, the veterinarian can address these issues on both fronts. The Dip ACVB can prescribe therapy for the medical problem (antibiotic, thyroid supplement, etc.) and the emotional problem (anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication) as well as suggest behavior modification techniques.

How do I choose the right animal behavior consultant?

There are many qualified people waiting to help you and your dog, so take time to choose the person who bests suits your needs. If your dog has no behavioral issues and needs basic training in obedience or agility, call on a trainer. If your dog has behavior problems that need to be addressed, consider a CAAB or Dip ACVB. You may need to travel a bit to find the right help. Remember that your veterinarian is there to provide advice and can refer you to another animal behavior consultant if needed.

Before hiring a trainer or consultant, look at their resume and speak to past clients. You should look for someone who will focus on positive training methods instead of negative reinforcement techniques (which are outdated). If you are going to enroll your dog in a group class, make a visit to observe the trainer in action before signing up.

“Young puppies and first time pet owners may do well in group classes.”

Group classes are good for dogs that need to learn basic manners and skills. These classes teach dogs to sit, stay, come, lay down and walk on a leash. Young puppies and first time pet owners may do well in this setting. Group classes may not provide a lot of one-on-one attention, but cost less and have the added benefit of socializing your dog with other canines.

Private sessions with a trainer, CAAB, or Dip ACVB are better for addressing specific behavior problems like phobias, separation anxiety, excessive barking, destructive chewing and aggression. They cost more, but are better at tackling complicated issues.

Setting a Reasonable Level of Expectation

First, pet owners need to recognize that certain behaviors are simply natural for dogs even though they may be annoying. Some degree of barking, digging and chewing is normal. Even with training, you may not eliminate these behaviors and shouldn’t completely change your dog’s nature anyway.

Additionally, dog owners need to realize that the best pet professional in the world cannot work magic. There are no quick fixes to modifying behavior. Patience and persistence are required from both dog and owner, but people who love their dogs consider the cost of time and money is a small price to pay for a loving companion.

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