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Guide to Navigating Dog Behavior Professional Roles

By Vivian Zottola, MSc


Have you ever needed to hire a professional to help with a challenging behavior your dog is exhibiting? It can be overwhelming for the dog-owning public to find the proper support for their furry pet companions. People often seek advice from friends, family members, and veterinarians or browse the internet. However, the information available is often confusing and contradictory, leading many to make the wrong decisions and often to a break in the delicate bond between pet companion and guardian. 


We love our pet companions, and while we should have the choice to hire the professionals we want to work with, not all pet care professionals are equally educated or experienced. Many behavior and training professionals hired to resolve human/pet dog conflicts lack fundamental knowledge in animal behavior, learning theory, and applied behavior analysis. These are fundamental considerations and important factors when evaluating the root cause of behaviors and further providing resolution strategies. There's a real risk of hiring an uninformed, inexperienced professional and adopting inaccurate and harmful information that could cause more distress. It's essential to be mindful of how we train and interact with our pet dogs to avoid normalizing abusive behavior in the home and public. Our actions could result in the learner (dog) developing further fear, anxiety, and phobic tendencies, leading to the risk of biting. 


The lack of regulations in the dog training profession makes it difficult for the public to know what to look for when hiring dog training services. It leaves room for bad actors to use pseudo-science that supports outdated and harmful methods, including painful equipment, to manage behaviors. Managing pet dogs using equipment including prong collars, electric collars and choke collars is considered outdated and unnecessary for teaching cognitive, sentient pet companion animals. Correction management tools and strategies are often misused, overused, and have been shown in multiple studies to lead to stress and anxiety in dogs. When using these types of punishing equipment on shy and skittish dogs, generally we see them shut down where they display more distress as for example trembling, cowering and freezing. Some display behaviors of learned helplessness. For those dogs who are by nature more confident, we tend to observe the development of reactive behaviors including barking, growling, phobic and general anxiety disorders displayed by hyper-vigilance. Over time we observe aggressive behaviors including growing, barking and biting to move perceived threats away. 


During the mid-2000s there began a shift in the training profession toward ethical and professional accountability out of concern for in-home dog welfare, and to help reduce the risk of dog bites and shelter recidivism. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT.org), the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC.org), and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT.com) came together to establish an agreement document in 2018 entitled the "Joint Standards of Practice." A year later, the document also included Karen Pryor Academy. All members in these respective organizations are required to attest to adhering to the humane hierarchy and standards set forth. Overall, the position paper lays out principles the professional teaching groups believe "should govern competent, ethical animal trainers and behavior consultants. It also provides for a shared Code of Ethics for members of all organizations."(1,2) In 2021 the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB.org) also embraced a change in the veterinary professional community helping to further educate the public domain by updating their position statement on "humane dog training". They recommend teaching and training methods be free of fear, intimidation and pain when used with all companion animals. (3)  


With the veterinary community in support of humane training methods to reduce behavior challenges between humans and their pet companions, we can expect the move toward some level of regulation in the training profession to ensure dogs, their people and the community are protected. That said, it will take time. Meanwhile, as a guardian and legal owner of your pet dog companion, it is your responsibility to remain informed on best practices and why these are used to protect your pet's emotional and physical welfare. Being informed on the various pet professionals and their roles will help you make the right decisions when seeking help. 


Because navigating the pet care and training professionals is confusing and may need clarification for some, I have provided below a description of each pet professional, their role, and how they collaborate to better serve you and your pet companion. I found the best analogy to use is our human medical framework as most of the professionals function similarly. Each professional is unique and there are important differences in each pet's professional role. These include veterinarian, board certified veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist, behavior consultant, and trainer. 


Veterinarians: (Dog Primary Care Physicians)

Imagine your veterinarian is your dog's main healthcare provider, similar to a primary care physician in human medicine. While they possess extensive general knowledge, these professionals are not specialized in one discipline, yet they are extraordinary individuals and are committed to your dog's well-being. It is recommended to work with a veterinarian throughout all stages of your pet's life. Veterinarians can help to evaluate the underlying cause of your dog's behaviors to determine if behaviors manifest a physical underlying problem or psychological condition (fear, anxiety, phobia). They can guide you to the appropriate professional for psychosocial interventions, including a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist, canine behavior consultant, or a combination of these. In a study we performed at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies (www.dogstudies.org) on aggression in dogs, we found that 15% of dogs were found to have an underlying medical cause for their behavior. (4)  More veterinary clinics are earning American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) approved FearFreePetsTM Certifications to help reduce fear and anxiety and enhance the pet companion and their guardians visit.  Because of lacking regulations in pet care, the Fear Free Pets Certification serves to also identify those professionals who use kind methods recognizing the dog as an individual and their unique sensory perception and handling preference.  If your dog experiences a sudden behavior change or a developing problem persists, see your veterinarian first!  


Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist (Dog Psychiatrists)

These individuals generally are certified through The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB.org). They are specially trained in the behavioral health of animals using research, science-based behavior education, and the practice of clinical behavioral medicine. Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists are trained and dedicated to treating behavior problems using medication. They understand brain anatomy and prescribe the right type, dosage, and schedule of behavior medication to aid in priming individuals to learn and improve behaviors. This professional is in demand as only a few have put in extensive and additional training and passed the boards with only approximately 100 diplomats in the United States. Think of this professional as a psychiatrist for animals. Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists do not provide training strategy techniques and often collaborate with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or Certified Behavior Consultant to provide and learn the soft and technical skills required to provide clear communication and management skills. To learn more about and find a board-certified veterinary behaviorist near you, see https://www.dacvb.org.

TIP: Because the demand for these specialized professionals is in high and the supply of them low, Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorists now consult with veterinarians to provide lifesaving solutions. If your pet is experiencing emotional trauma, which in turn is affecting their quality of life (and yours), and you've exhausted training to improve behaviors, ask your veterinarian if it makes sense to collaborate with a veterinary behaviorist (psychiatrist) to evaluate and prescribe a schedule of behavior medication. A veterinary behaviorist will prescribe the proper medications to help ease their psychological challenges and prime or prepare the dog for learning new behaviors.  


Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (Dog Psychologists)

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAAB) are the psychologists for dogs. They have completed extensive graduate work in the science of animal behavior, earning a PhD or MS. To become certified, they must pass rigorous oral and written exams, publish articles in scientific journals, and meet the coursework and hands-on experience requirements of the Animal Behavior Society. Applied animal behaviorists specialize in analyzing why your pet engages in unwanted behaviors to develop custom and, at times, novel behavior intervention programs. They do not prescribe medication and, in this way, do differentiate from board-certified veterinary behaviorists. CAABs differ from behavior consultants with respect to the application of technical training techniques as they may or may not possess knowledge and experience in dog training and management techniques. For a list of these professionals see www.AVSAB.org


Behavior Consultant (Dog Therapist)

Behavior consultants are advanced trainers with extensive experience working with mild, moderate, and severe animal behavior disorders. These specialists have gained knowledge and practical experience working with at least 300 behavior-related cases. These professionals also possess hundreds of practical hours teaching and utilizing operant training mechanics. Certified behavior consultants possess extensive knowledge in ethology (scientific knowledge of species-specific behavior), animal welfare, learning theory, and applied behavior analysis. Some may possess advanced graduate degrees related to animals. A behavior consultant's job is to create, help implement, and track customized behavior modification training plans for each animal/human family member. They monitor and coach people through extensive and often complex rehabilitation periods. Behavior consultants collaborate with veterinarians, CAABs, and board-certified veterinary behaviorists to track and report behavior changes. Because of lacking regulations in pet care, like the veterinary community more certified behavior consultants are earning American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) approved FearFreePetsTM Certifications which serves to identify these professionals as those who rely on least intrusive, minimally aversive, humane methods recognizing the dog as an individual including their unique sensory perception and handling preference.  For a list of behavior consultants, see resources including www.CCPDT.org, www.IAABC.org, FearFreePets.com.  


Dog Trainer

Dog trainers teach skills (or add new behavior skills), including sitting, lying down, coming when called, not jumping, walking on a leash nicely, etc. There are dog trainers who specialize in one or many categories of dog training, including obedience training, rally obedience, guide dog training, disc dog training, trick training, nose work training, and agility training. Because of lacking regulations in pet care, like the veterinary community more certified behavior consultants are earning American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) approved FearFreePetsTM Certifications which serves to identify these professionals as those who rely on least intrusive, minimally aversive, humane methods recognizing the dog as an individual including their unique sensory perception and handling preference.  


Hiring a pet professional is essential to your dog, your relationship with your dog, and your community. As with any professional service you employ to care for your welfare, use the same strategy for your dog. Learn more about the pet care professional's philosophy, gather referral information, review the professional experience, formal education, certifications and speak with them.


I hope you find the information shared valuable in your journey of learning and living with your furry family member. Thank you for taking the time to improve your pet's welfare and for nurturing a peaceful and harmonious relationship with them. Your pets will love you forever for it!


Warmly, Vivian Zottola, MSc



References

  1. AVSAB Humane Dog Training Position Statement https://avsab.org/resources/position-statements/

  2. Dinwoodie, I. R., Zottola, V., & Dodman, N. H. (2021). An investigation into the effectiveness of various professionals and behavior modification programs, with or without medication, for the treatment of canine aggression. Journal of Veterinary Behavior43, 46-53.


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