In Part 1 of this series of posts, we looked at dog trainers, credentials and certifications. In this part, we are going to explore the term behaviorist, what it means, who can actually call themselves a behaviorist (anyone, unfortunately) and why you should beware of anyone who calls themselves one without knowing what their educational background is. When it comes to behaviorists- education is key.

There are 2 types of behaviorists: Veterinary Behaviorists and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.

Veterinary Behaviorists are board-certified and the letters DACVB (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) appear after their names. These behaviorists can assess for, diagnose and treat both medical and behavioral issues. They can prescribe medications. There are less than 60 of this type of behaviorist in the US. In other words, veterinary behaviorists are not easy to find and for those who need them, they are worth their weight in gold. Dr. Ilana Reisner is one of them and she was kind enough to give us some information and allow us to link to her website for this piece.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists are individuals who have advanced degrees in animal behavior or a related field. CAAB’s earn their credentials through the Animal Behavior Society and they may or may not be a veterinarian. Our friend, Kathy Sdao is a CAAB (Associate, Masters level), whose background includes having worked with marine mammals before transitioning to dogs. Kathy proudly refers to herself as both a trainer and a behaviorist, as she has worked hard to earn the credentials. There are about 50 CAABs in the US.  You can learn more about Kathy’s work, including her amazing book Plenty in Life is Free on Kathy’s website.

So, what does this mean for the average dog owner?
It means that behaviorists are specialists. They are well-versed in the treatment of behavior problems and are usually not the go-to for basic obedience, and minor issues like crate-training, house-training, chewing, digging or leash walking problems. You would see a behaviorist for issues like dog-dog aggression, dog-human aggression, severe anxiety issues, or compulsive behaviors. Trainers will sometimes refer to a behaviorist, or your vet might. If a referral is being made to a behaviorist, chances are pretty good that the issues are severe and deserve immediate attention.

It is rather unfortunate for dogs that we throw these terms around so cavalierly. It is also unfortunate that there is little we can do to change it at this point, other than to try to clarify things for people. As far as behaviorists go, unless someone has an advanced degree in animal behavior or a related field, such as veterinary medicine, ethology or experimental psychology, a person (who is usually actually just a trainer) should not be calling themselves one. When I say *just* a trainer, I mean no disrespect (especially since I am one), but the difference in education levels in related fields is usually pretty vast. Even more disturbing is hearing the term “Behavioralist”, which is a dead giveaway that the person using the term has no idea what they are talking about, since that isn’t even an actual word. If someone calls themselves a behavioralist- run, don’t walk in the other direction.

When it comes to the average dog, most people see trainers for help. And, this is where they should start. A good trainer will know when a dog has issues beyond their scope of expertise. Though some trainers may specialize in the treatment of the issues mentioned above, many will refer to a behaviorist for back-up support and medication if warranted. Veterinarians will often refer to behaviorists if a dog continues to exhibit problem behaviors or these behaviors escalate. An example is a dog I had worked with, who had also seen a number of other trainers. This young mixed breed dog was improving in some areas, but getting worse in others. A visit to the vet was made and a referral to the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Behavior Clinic was made. This client sent me the report from Penn and posted this on my business Facebook page: “The best! I have taken my dog to Penn for behavioral issues, and they were 100% in line with Lori’s methods.” I share this not to toot my own horn, but because this client had worked with other trainers who had given not so great advice and she recognized that had she stuck with me, things might have turned out a little different. It is important to note that behaviorists are going to recommend using positive reinforcement methods and will advise strongly against the use of harsh punishments and aversive equipment.

If you are a dog owner or a rescue and you hire someone to work with your dogs, chances are good that unless they hand you a business card with the letters DACVB or CAAB after their name, you have hired a trainer and not a behaviorist despite what they might call themselves. Chances are that this person is hoping you are naive enough to believe that they have earned a title they have not. And, just like being certified as a trainer, certification as a behaviorist is something a practitioner earns, not something they should just call themselves.

Dogs deserve to be understood. They deserve to be trained or rehabilitated using the most humane methods available. And, that’s the good news- there is no shortage of humane methods available to us. In the next 2 installments (yes, we have gone from 3 to 4!) we’ll look at language and techniques to beware of and what to ask so that you find the right professional for you and your dog.