Finding Professional Help

When your pet’s behavior problem calls for professional help in your home, you should seek advice from a veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist. Knowing where to turn can be confusing. People who work with animal behavior problems are not regulated by any government agency and may have very different types of qualifications. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Veterinarian: When your pet has a problem, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Urinary tract infections, hormone imbalances, neurological conditions, genetic abnormalities, orthopedic problems and dental disease are just a few examples of medical problems that can influence your pet’s behavior. Once medical problems are ruled out, ask your veterinarian if he/she has received any specific training in animal behavior, and if not, ask for a referral to an animal behavior specialist.
  • Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist: Animal behavior is a specialized field of scientific study. In order to become a certified applied animal behaviorist, an individual must have specialized training in behavior problems in companion animals. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) grants certification to behaviorists who are academically trained, have experience in the field and meet the ethical standards of the ABS. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) certifies veterinarians who pursue specialized coursework in animal behavior. People who’ve worked with or trained animals for many years aren’t animal behaviorists unless they’ve received specialized academic training.
  • Animal Trainer/Consultant: Some animal trainers are self-taught, and some may have apprenticed under another trainer and/or attended various training seminars. Animal trainers don’t usually have specialized academic training in the study of animal behavior. Good animal trainers are knowledgeable about different types of training methods that focus primarily on reinforcing good behavior. Inappropriate use of correction collars, including using choke collars to lift dogs off the ground and “string them up,” aren’t appropriate or humane training methods and may cause injury to your dog.
    • Training classes are an excellent way to develop a good relationship with your pet by teaching him to respond reliably to specific cues. However, resolving behavior problems, such as house soiling, barking, aggression or separation anxiety requires more than teaching your pet to respond to cues. Specific behavior modification techniques must also be used. Some animal trainers also offer behavior consulting services.
    • Ask the trainer what methods he uses and how he was trained. Go to a class, and if you observe techniques you’re not comfortable with, find another trainer. Dog obedience instructors can be certified by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) or the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). Certification indicates that instructors have passed a test, had experience in dog training and been approved by their peers. If the trainer is endorsed by another organization, ask about the criteria for endorsement. Certification does not guarantee that a trainer uses humane methods of training – it is still up to you to determine if the trainer’s methods are humane and appropriate for your dog.

Things to Watch for and Avoid

  • People who guarantee their work: Qualified behaviorists and trainers will always do their best for you, but cannot guarantee outcomes, because animals have minds of their own and can never be completely controlled by humans.
  • People whose primary methods focus on punishment: If their recommendations involve choking, hitting or slapping your pet, excessive confinement or isolation, this indicates little or no understanding of animal behavior.
  • People who misrepresent their qualifications: People who call themselves animal behaviorists, even though they’re not academically trained in animal behavior.
  • People who want to train your pet for you: Most behavior problems are a result of interactions between the animal, the owner and the environment. Giving your pet to someone else to “fix” the problem is rarely successful because these three elements aren’t addressed. Owners need to work with the animal in the home environment.

If you’re willing to commit time, energy and resources to working with your pet and find qualified people to help you, the chances are good that you’ll successfully resolve your pet’s problem behaviors.