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Finding Professional Help for Pet Behavior Problems

Is your pet driving you crazy? Many behaviors that are completely natural for dogs and cats—like barking or meowing, scratching, biting, digging, chewing, escaping and running away—just don't go over well with their human companions. Changing or managing those undesirable behaviors isn't always easy. Although advice abounds in the form of popular TV shows, books and well-meaning friends and family, the best and most efficient way to resolve your pet's behavior problems is to seek assistance from a qualified professional. Professionals in the pet-behavior field fall into four main categories:

  • Trainers
  • Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs)
  • Applied animal behaviorists, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAABs)
  • Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (Dip ACVBs)

What's in a Name?

Trainers

Pet trainers use a number of different titles, such as “behavior counselor,” “pet psychologist” and “pet therapist.” The level of education and experience among this group of professionals varies greatly. Most learn how to work with animals through apprenticeships with established trainers, volunteering at animal shelters, reading books and articles, attending seminars on training and behavior and training their own animals. A few are certified by specialized training schools. Some of these schools have excellent curricula, instructors and reputations. However, it's important to know that certification is meaningful only if the certifying organization is completely independent of the training school or organization. Legitimate certification means that an unbiased body has assessed an individual and determined that he or she meets specific standards and possesses a certain degree of knowledge.

Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs)

The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), an independent organization created by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), offers an international certification program for dog trainers. To earn the designation of Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), an individual must demonstrate that she has accrued a requisite number of working hours as a dog trainer, provide letters of recommendation and pass a standardized test that evaluates her or his knowledge of canine ethology, basic learning theory, canine husbandry and teaching skills. After meeting the necessary requirements and passing the exam, a CPDT must abide by a code of ethics and earn continuing education credits to maintain certification. You can find a list of CCPDT certified trainers at www.ccpdt.org.

Although CCPDT certification means that a trainer has met the minimum educational, experiential and ethical standards required of the pet-behavior profession, it does not guarantee that she or he meets a specified level of professional competence. Even if a trainer has earned a CPDT title, it's important to ask for recommendations and conduct a careful interview before employing her or him. We'll discuss how to evaluate a trainer or behavior expert to the best of your ability below.

Applied Animal Behaviorists, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAABs)

An applied animal behaviorist has earned an MS, MA or PhD in animal behavior. They are experts in dog and cat behavior and often in the behavior of other companion animal species as well, such as horses and birds. Some CAABs are veterinarians who have completed a residency in animal behavior. Some behaviorists have also met the requirements for certification by the Board of Professional Certification of the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs, those with a doctoral degree) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAABs, those with a master's degree) received supervised graduate or post-graduate training in animal behavior, biology, zoology and learning theory at accredited universities. They possess the relevant education, research and practical experience according to specified academic and ethical standards. They are an exclusive group, numbering only about 50 in all of North America.

Effective applied animal behaviorists will have expertise in (a) behavior modification, so they know the techniques that produce changes in behavior, (b) the normal behavior of the species they're treating, so they can recognize how and why your pet's behavior is abnormal, and (c) teaching and counseling people, so they can effectively teach you how to understand and work with your pet. Many applied animal behaviorists know basic common medical conditions that can impact an animal's behavior. Most are also familiar with psychotropic medications, such as tranquilizers and antidepressants, which can enhance the effectiveness of a treatment program. Most CAABs work through veterinary referrals, and they work closely with veterinarians to select the best behavioral medications for pets. You can find a list of CAABs and ACAABs at www.certifiedanimalbehaviorist.com.

Veterinary Behaviorists

Knowledge of animal behavior isn't required to earn a veterinary degree, and animal behavior isn't comprehensively taught in most veterinary training programs. However, some veterinarians seek specialized education in animal behavior and earn certification through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. To become a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (Dip ACVB), veterinarians must complete a residency in behavior and pass a qualifying examination.

In addition to having knowledge of domestic animal behavior and experience treating pet behavior problems, veterinary behaviorists can prescribe medications that can help speed along your pet's treatment. Issues that often require the use of medication include separation anxiety, phobias, compulsive behaviors and fear of people, objects or other animals. You can find a list of veterinarians with ACVB certification at www.dacvb.org.