A companion animal with a behavior problem is a serious issue for most owners. You need to find help and you want to find qualified help. Our first recommendation is to consult with your veterinarian. Your vet should always be the first person with whom you discuss a behavior issue. All too often, the behavior problem is part of a larger set of health issues. The four areas of possible concern we recommend you discuss with your veterinarian are: pain, irritation/infection, endocrine and sensory. An example that we see often is aggression in dogs caused by arthritis or other source of pain. So take any behavior problem to your veterinarian first.
If your vet recommends that you see a behavior specialist and does not make a recommendation, you should look for professional certifications. In the United States, there are no federal or state regulations about who can call themselves animal behaviorists or dog trainers. There are many people out there that “practice” animal behavior and even a number of organizations that provide online training to become an animal behaviorist, but we recommend only the following professional certifications for the field that we now call applied animal behavior:
- Veterinary Behaviorist: board certification in veterinary behavior
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist: certification through the Animal Behavior Society
- Certified Animal Behavior Consultant: certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
- Certified Professional Dog Trainer: Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers
The first of these, obtained through the American College of Veterinary Behavior, requires a veterinary degree and two additional years of coursework, but especially hands-on training with a board-certified veterinarian. There are about 40-45 ACVB certified vets in the United States right now.
The second form of qualification is certification by the international professional organization of research animal behaviorists, the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). ABS provides for two levels of certification: Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) which requires a Master’s degree in an appropriate field, several years of practical internship experience and evidence of professional activity (research or instruction or a full Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), which is similar but requires a PhD in an appropriate field (generally Biology or Psychology). There are also about 40-45 certified applied animal behaviorists in the US and Canada at this time. You can find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist here.
If you don’t have a veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist near you, look for someone with formal training and experience. There are several programs we highly recommend if you are looking for a trainer or want to become a trainer:
Jean Donaldson has taken her program online.
Janis Bradley runs an in-person program.
Pat Miller runs programs in various locations.
Karen Pryor runs programs throughout the country:
Truly Friendly Dog Training is a dog trainer referral list that only contains the names of people that are well know and fully committed to scientific and humane methods:
What if you want to find a dog trainer who can also help you with behavior issues? While the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers no longer exists, the graduates of this program are the “next best thing” to ACVB or CAAB certified professionals. The SF SPCA maintains lists of alumni for the United States and Internationally.
Finally, there is a certification program for dog trainers to become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). This is a less rigorous program that emphasizes qualifications for basic dog training but does not require extensive knowledge, training or experience in dealing with specific behavior issues. Unfortunately, hiring a CPDT-KA is a buyer beware situation since some of these trainers use force, fear and pain instead of science which can be dangerous for your dog and your family. To help find a CPDT-KA who is devoted to scientific and humane methods, visit the Truly Dog Friendly Trainers web site.
So hopefully this review of acronyms, a veritable alphabet soup, helps you to choose a qualified professional to help you solve a serious behavior issue with your companion animal, whether it is a dog, a cat, a parrot, or something even more exotic. What has your experience been like in trying to find a dog trainer or animal behavior consultant?