Dog Behaviourist

What is a dog behaviourist and do you need one?

The pet care industry is largely unregulated. Rules vary state by state, but they are usually poorly enforced. When they are enforced, punishment is hardly ever a deterrent to offenders.

So how to you protect yourself as a consumer? By being in the know and asking lots of questions.

Dog training is unregulated and anyone can call themselves whatever they like. Dog Behaviourist, dog psychologist, dog whisperer, dog magician. It doesn’t really mean anything.
So, you really need to know what you’re looking for – in order to actually get what it is you think you are paying for.

First things first. There are dog training problems, and dog behaviour problems. What you have will determine the kind of expertise that you need.

Dog Training

Dog training usually means getting a dog to do something. This usually concerns voluntary behaviours.
Examples include – Sit, down, stand, stay, leave it, take it, fetch it, go to mat, get off, go outside, shake a paw.
Problems training can fix include: sit instead of jumping up on people, walk nicely on lead instead of pulling, stay on mat instead of being on lounge, toilet outside instead of on carpet, stay instead of run through door, chew on a Kong instead of children’s toys, stay out of the kitchen instead of stealing food off the bench.
If you have a dog training problem, you can hire a dog trainer.

Behaviour Problems

Behaviour problems are more serious problems like those that present as abnormal, pose a risk to the health and safety of the dog and humans, or are causing a serious nuisance. Well trained dogs can have behaviour problems.
The root cause of the behaviour can be as a result of fear, phobias, anxieties and medical conditions. They may have an involuntary emotional response.

  • You may see a fight, flight, freeze or fiddle response from dogs in response to certain triggers:
  • Excessive panting when it’s not hot
  • sweaty paws
  • pacing
  • drooling
  • hiding
  • not eating
  • lipstick out
  • vomiting
  • involuntary urination
  • involuntary defecation
  • tensing
  • grimacing
  • dilated pupils

These are all physiological signs of stress. These are not voluntary behaviours.
Behaviour problems include: repetitive, obsessive compulsive behaviours, ingesting non-food items, separation distress, separation anxiety, resource guarding, reactivity on leash walks, aggression to people or animals.
Indications your dog may need behavioural help include:

  • Constant barking
  • escaping
  • attempts to escape
  • house soiling
  • destroying items when left alone
  • Growling, biting and fighting with other dogs or people.
  • excessive jumping up and mouthing
  • inability to focus

If you have a behaviour problem, you need someone qualified to deal with that behaviour problem. You may need a dog behaviourist.

What is a Dog Behaviourist, really?

As I’ve said dog training and pet care is largely unregulated and anyone doing dog training can call themselves whatever they like, behaviourist or behaviouralist included.

In the professional world it is generally accepted that only people who hold a PhD in canine related studies, or are a Veterinary Behaviour Specialist will refer to themselves as a Behaviourist.

Veterinary Behaviour Specialists have the highest level of experience and knowledge in the field of veterinary behaviour. They provide consultation services to behaviour cases referred from the general public, or from other veterinarians.
A Veterinary Behaviour Specialist will have letters after their name either FANZCVS and DACVB

A person with a PhD may be referred to as a Dr and will list PhD in their academic achievements. They may call themselves a behaviourist.

You should check what they earned their PhD for or what other studies they have completed. For example, if their PhD is about birds, then this doesn’t actually lend themselves to know anything about dogs – even if they call themselves a behaviourist. This is not meant to diminish their academic achievements, but they should stick to their own field of expertise.
If they have undertaken extra studies in canine behaviour, where did they study? What was the course? How long ago was it? If it was more than 10 years ago and they’re not active in canine behaviour studies now, that is problematic.

The definition of Behaviourist is according to the dictionary

1. A person who advocates or practices behaviourism

2. A person who specialises in the study of behaviour

Behaviourism is a school of psychology. it’s science, baby.

Behaviourism is a systematic approach to understanding the behaviour of humans and other animals. It assumes that all behaviours are either reflexes produced by a response to certain stimuli in the environment, or a consequence of that individual’s history, including especially reinforcement and punishment, together with the individual’s current motivational state and controlling stimuli.
Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? Skinner? Watson? A real behaviourist could explain this to you.

Other animal behaviour professionals can help you too

Behaviour Vets

Behaviour Vets are Veterinarians who have completed both written and oral/practical examinations in veterinary behaviour. These veterinarians have a high degree of knowledge and experience in the field of veterinary behaviour. They provide consultation services to behaviour cases referred from the general public or from veterinarians in general practice.

Behaviour Vets are best to deal with behaviour problems that may have an underlying medical cause. They are most skilled in assessing if there are any medical conditions that may be contributing to behaviour, assessing if pets are showing abnormal levels of anxiety, stress, fear, hyperactivity, aggressive reactivity, or impulsivity that may be contributing to behaviour. They identify the cause of behaviour problems and develop treatment plans or prescribe and manage drug therapies for pets with abnormal behaviour.

A Behaviour Vet will have MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour) in their title.
Behaviour Vets do not advertise themselves as “Behaviourists” because they are professionals and that title is reserved for Veterinary Behaviour Specialists. The change in terminology is a recent one.
However, they are more than capable of treating what is referred to earlier as “behaviour problems” They are less expensive than Veterinary Behaviour Specialists. Professional qualified dog trainers often refer to Behaviour Vets when they suspect an animal has an underlying medical condition that may be driving the problem behaviour.

Qualified Dog Trainers

A qualified dog trainer will be able to assist you with your dog training problems. Highly knowledgeable and skilled trainers with an extra expertise in behaviour may also be able to assist with behaviour modification of behavioural problems. An excellent first port of call when you’re not sure what kind of problem behaviour you’re dealing with. They can provide the behavioural training you need and assess your dog and refer onto a Behaviour Vet if they suspect their is underlying medical condition affecting behaviour.

In Australia the highest dog training qualification you can get is Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services. This is a broad qualification, so they should have studied units in behaviour and training specific to dogs.

Professional dog trainers will also be members of professional organisations for example, The Pet Professional Guild Australia, Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia, International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants, Association of Animal Behaviour Professionals.

Worldwide recognised programs include Karen Pryor Academy, The Academy for Dog Trainers – Jean Donaldson, The Companion Animal Sciences Institute, Victoria Stillwell Academy, Behaviour Works, IAABC.

Professional dog trainers undertake continuing education to stay up to date with canine cognitive science and best practices. Your trainer should be able to provide evidence of having completed extra courses, workshops, attending seminars and conferences.

They will use applied behaviour analysis and use dog training techniques recommended by the RSPCA and the Australian Veterinary Association.
Some of the professional organisations have a code of ethics that must be adhered to but also a minimum requirement for continued professional development and continuing education.

Professional dog trainers usually assist Behaviour Vets with behaviour modification programs. Professional dog trainers are able to identify when they need to refer a dog on for further help from a Behaviour Vet or Veterinary Behaviour Specialist.

How to avoid random cowboys

Don’t just let anyone take your money because they “love dogs” or “having been doing this for years”
They could do anything to your dog, or nothing, and have absolutely no accountability to anyone.
Dogs are considered property. And Animal welfare laws are weak, and poorly enforced. Someone could seriously put a choke collar on your dog and hang them until they pass out and die and nothing will happen to that person at all. It sounds horrendous, but seriously, good luck prosecuting them. Even if you have the time and money to hire a lawyer yourself it rarely makes it to court. There is no justice.

Here are some reasons I’ve heard people say they’re a good dog trainer:

  • I’ve been around dogs all my life
  • My grandfather was a dog trainer
  • I lived with a pack of dogs
  • I’m from a country where there are street dogs and I followed them around
  • I was in the army
  • I used to be in the police force
  • I did a one week course with a tv personality trainer
  • I have bred dogs for 30 years
  • The franchise gave me their franchise manual
  • I have a gift and made up my own methods

None of these people are behaviourists, but they could call themselves a dog behaviourist.

If they are not really a behaviourist, then what are they?
Liars, scam artists, narcissists, unscrupulous business people, lacking conscious and professionalism. Taking advantage of you, taking your money, by using this sexy term ‘behaviourist’ that makes them sound better than what they are. It’s misleading. It’s false advertising. It’s wrong.

Real professional qualified dog trainers have extensive study and experience. They understand the science of behaviour. They use applied behaviour analysis. But they will not call themselves a behaviourist.

If you want a dog behaviourist you need to ASK

Are you a veterinary behaviour specialist?
Do you have a PhD related to canine behaviour?

If you need someone specialising in behaviour you need to ASK

Are you a Behaviour Vet?
What qualification do you have?
Professional organisations do you belong to?
What is the latest study you have undertaken?

A list of Veterinary Behaviour Specialists and Behaviour Vets can be found here

If want to hire a professional dog trainer you need to ask WHAT:

Qualifications do you have?
Professional organisations do you belong to?
Recent study have you undertaken?
Exactly will happen to my dog when he gets it right?
Exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong?
Are there any other less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
If you don’t get clear, concrete answers, or don’t feel comfortable – keep shopping.
The science is in. Positive Rewards Based training is best

You can search for dog trainers near you here

So, remember, there are dog training problems, and there are dog behaviour problems. Depending on the seriousness of the issue, will determine who you need help from.
A professional qualified dog trainer (Certificate IV Companion animals)
A Behaviour Vet MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour)
A Behaviourist (PhD)
A Veterinary Behaviour Specialist FANZCVS and DACVB

It’s important for quality assurance, and to protect ourselves as consumers that we use the correct labels and definitions. That we are able to identify when someone has mis-labelled themselves.

Please use the term “dog behaviourist” responsibly.