Choosing a Pet Behaviourist

Some industries in the UK are unregulated and, unfortunately, the world of pet training and behaviour is one of them. Without proper regulations, we get people like the famous (read notorious) dog whisperer, setting the field back 20- 30 years by using outdated methods that have long been disproved and discarded. Even well-intentioned animal lovers who set themselves up as behaviourists and use terms like positive reinforcement can get the science wrong and unintentionally do more harm than good. That is why you need to be very careful, very thorough and very smart when you choose a behaviourist to help your dog or cat (or any other pet).

We take a look at what makes a behaviourist ‘good’, including qualifications and experience.

Qualifications

Dog and cat behaviourists should ideally have a degree in animal behaviour or have completed a diploma equivalent. Many behaviourists and trainers call themselves qualified after completing a 2-week course, which may or may not include assignments and other tests to determine learning and capability. You should always try to find out what qualifications a behaviourist has before asking them to come for a consultation. If someone is cagey about their qualifications or doesn’t want to share them, there is a good chance that they are not up to scratch.

Letters after their name doesn’t necessarily mean their qualifications are valid or even relevant. For example, someone might have a masters degree and put MSc in their title, but it could be in mechanical engineering, which has very little to do with understanding dog behaviour.

According to Paws in Hand, it’s important to understand that being ‘professionally trained’ just means that the training was professional, and not that the qualification or the person is professional. Instead of looking for the word professional in credentials, rather look for ‘accredited’ or ‘certified’. An accredited qualification has been assessed by an independent educational party, which has determined that the qualification (and the person) meets certain standards. For example, diploma courses from the COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers (CAPBT) are independently accredited by NOCN (National Open College Network).

Those who pass the NOCN accredited Diploma in Practical Animal Behaviour and Training are allowed to join CAPBT, either as Affiliate Members or Practitioner Members. Affiliate members are limited in their scope of practice and aren’t allowed to practice as private animal behaviourists, but may practice as behaviourists at dog training centres or in veterinary practices. Practitioner members are not limited in their scope practice, but they are required to meet additional accredited criteria.

Governing or regulating bodies and associations have Codes of Practice or Codes of Ethics by which all members, affiliates or practitioners, have to abide. These codes serve as an additional guarantee of service quality (note: service guarantee, not results guarantee) and provide avenues for recourse in case clients are not satisfied with the service.

Experience

There is experience and then there is experience. Someone who says they’ve had dogs their whole lives and believes that is enough to set themselves up a dog trainer and behaviourist is fooling themselves and you. It’s like believing that because you’ve had teeth your whole life you could make a good dentist. Being a behaviourist requires scientific understanding of neuroscience, neurophysiology and neuropsychiatry. It’s not something you can pick up by reading articles online or reading books at home

Theory isn’t everything, however, which is why good behaviour courses have a practical requirement, which usually includes several case studies and an ‘apprenticeship’ under a mentor. Mentors are properly qualified and accredited animal behaviourists with several years’ experience in dog and/or cat behaviour.

Behaviourists will need to complete a certain number of supervised practical hours and a number of unsupervised but monitored hours before they are allowed to practice on their own.

Guarantees

We mentioned that certified and accredited animal behaviourists are able to guarantee the quality of their services, but can’t guarantee results. It’s the same as psychologists and psychiatrists who can’t guarantee to cure or solve a problem. The best a behaviourist can do is work with you and your dog or cat (or rabbit, horse or bird, etc.) to try and resolve behaviour problems. This entails determining motivation for the behaviour (what causes the behaviour – the triggers), reinforcing factors (what keeps the behaviour going), determining your pet’s mental and emotional state (overall and during the behaviour) and creating a behaviour modification programme to change the behaviour.

Behaviourists also can’t guarantee that you’ll see changes within a certain period of time. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; what works with one dog with an aggression problem may not work with another aggressive dog. So it’s impossible to say when problem behaviour will be ‘cured’ or ‘solved’.

The only thing that can be guaranteed is that there is no quick-fix. It can take weeks or months for behaviour to change, especially if it is well-learnt. No behaviourist worth their salt will promise to ‘fix’ your dog or cat within 10 days or a month.

Instead, behaviourists will give your case a prognosis, the success of which depends largely on owner-buy-in; which is how much work you are prepared to put in, how patient you are and how many changes you are willing to make to accommodate and support your dog.

What you want is a behaviourist who believes in your case and believes that they can make a difference to your dog’s life. You also want a behaviourist who has plans B, C and D and, if necessary, even a plan F. And then if all of that fails, they should have a network of specialists to whom they can refer your case.

Methods

Modern animal behaviour approaches are based on scientifically proven learning theory (classical and operant conditioning) and rely on positive reinforcement to change both emotional states and learnt problem behaviours. Behaviourists take into account nutrition, mental and physical stimulation, breed-specific motor patterns, health and environmental factors when assessing behaviour and use a variety of techniques that include counter-conditioning, desensitisation and environmental management to rehabilitate problem behaviour in dogs and cats.

Modern behaviourists only use positive reinforcement methods and don’t rely on any aversives (punishment) at all, including (but not limited to) shock collars, prong collars, choke chains, shake cans, spray bottles, smacking the nose or bottom, pinching ears or neck, holding down, alpha rolling, leash snaps or lead corrections and shouting.

Modern behaviourists do not use wolf pack theory, alpha leadership, dominance theory, rank reduction programmes or anything that will harm of injure your dog physically, mentally or emotionally and which will have detrimental long-term consequences.

Modern behaviourists will only use force-free methods that progress at the dog’s pace, which means not putting any undue pressure on dogs or placing them in risky or stressful situations. They also take the guardians’ abilities and resources into account and devise programmes that aren’t overwhelming for dog and cat parents, and that can be broken down into easy-to-understand and easy-to-follow steps, so that no one (person or pet) gets frustrated and discouraged.

Rehabilitating dogs and cats with behavioural problems needs to be holistic, which means that behaviour modification programmes need to balance pets’ and their humans’ needs. This is why animal behaviourists also need to be people-people to a large degree; they need to be able to empathise with owners and not make them feel like they are solely responsible for their pets’ problems.

Behaviour vs. Training

Some simple problem behaviours can be managed by dog trainers, while other more serious problems need to be addressed by a behaviourist.

Problems for trainers include:
Problems for behaviourists include:

In the UK you can find registered, qualified and accredited animal behaviourists on: www.asab.org (ASAB Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB)), www.apbc.org.uk and www.capbt.org.

Two more points:

Some behaviourists work with all types of animals, others prefer to specialise in either problem behaviour in dogs or cats, and still others prefer to work with specific problems, essentially becoming specialists in separation anxiety or aggression, etc.

Cost can be a contentious issue when it comes to using an animal behaviourist, with some people feeling that behaviourists charge exorbitant or prohibitive fees. It’s important to bear in mind what you get for your money: a home consultation which is usually 1 – 2 hours, a comprehensive report which is also sent to your vet, a behaviour modification programme and, usually, a follow up visit, plus access to the behaviourist so you can phone or email with questions and to get additional advice. All in all, the behaviourist will spend a considerable amount of time (in excess of 6 or 7 hours) working on your case. Divide the fee by 6 hours and you’ll see that it’s not that expensive after all.

If the problem requires regular ongoing visits behaviourists charge an hourly fee, which is less than the consultation fee.

Disclaimer

This website is intended for informational purposes only, and does not replace consulting an animal health or training expert.