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:
- 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?
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.
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.
What Behavior Experts DON'T Do
If your pet has a behavior problem, contacting a trainer or a behaviorist is a great first step on the road to resolution. However, some behavior problems can be caused or exacerbated by physical problems. If your nine-week-old puppy urinates on the kitchen floor when you're not supervising him, he probably simply needs house training. But if your five-year-old dog who hasn't made a mistake in the house for years suddenly starts urinating indoors, you might have a medical condition on your hands.
Trainers and behaviorists specialize in pet behavior problems. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, you don't need a behavior expert—you need a veterinarian. Please contact one immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk. It's especially important for a veterinarian to rule out illness or injury if your pet suddenly develops a behavior problem he's never had before. It's also a good idea to visit the veterinarian if you live with a senior animal. Uncharacteristic house soiling, aggression, lethargy, confusion, anxiety or restlessness can indicate a number of physical problems in older pets. Please see our articles on Behavior Problems in Older Dogs and Behavior Problems in Older Cats for more information.
If you're concerned about the cost of veterinary care, you'll find information about financial help on our website.
What Kind of Training Does My Pet Need?
Once you've determined that you and your pet need some professional help to keep your household harmonious, consider what kind of training or treatment you need. Trainers and behaviorists offer their expertise via group classes, private sessions or consultations, and board-and-train programs.
If your pet needs to learn some basic manners and skills, like sit, down and come when called, you might benefit most from group obedience classes. Group glasses are also ideal for young puppies who need socialization. Of course, if you attend a group class, you won't get the kind of intensive, one-on-one instruction that you will if you hire a trainer or behaviorist for one or more consultations, but you will save some money. Group classes tend to cost less than private training sessions.
If your dog or cat has a specific behavior problem, you'll need to see a professional outside of a classroom context. Problems like resource guarding (also called possessive aggression), touch or handling issues, phobias, separation anxiety, and aggression toward people or other animals require intensive treatment plans and individual attention from a qualified behaviorist. Other, less serious behavior issues that trainers and behaviorists can't usually address in a group class include house training problems, excessive barking and destructive chewing.
Day training and board-and train are great services for busy pet parents who don't have time to devote to training their pets or resolving difficult behavior problems. In day training, the trainer comes to your house while you're at work, or alternatively, some train your dog in their home or facility. The trainer teaches your dog the specific obedience behaviors you want, for example recalls (coming when called), wait, stay, walk on-leash without pulling, and greeting people and pets politely. If the trainer is qualified as a behaviorist, she can also treat issues like resource guarding, handling issues (fearful or aggressive when touched, groomed or restrained), some other types of aggression, some types of excessive barking or meowing, and some fears and phobias.
Some trainers offer board-and-train services, which involve leaving your pet in their kennels for a specified period of time. Although this option and day training can be ideal for those who don't have the time to devote to training their pets, they are more expensive than group classes. Another potential disadvantage is that training sessions are conducted without your supervision. For this reason, you want to be sure that you know and agree with the methods that your board-and-train or day training professional plans to use. Also be sure that your training package includes instruction for you. Board-and-train and day training programs are only effective if the trainer teaches you some skills so that you can maintain (continue to use and reinforce) your pet's new behaviors after her training is done.
How Do I Decide Which Professional to Choose?
After you've decided between group classes, one-on-one private help and board-and-train, how do you figure out which professional is right for you and your pet? Your decision will be based on a number of factors, including the type of problem your pet has, the professional's education and experience, and the availability of behaviorists and trainers in your area.
Ask the Right Questions
Not all trainers and behaviorists are created equal. Don't hire any professional without first thoroughly interviewing her or him and asking for a couple of references from former clients or veterinarians. We advise contacting more than one professional in your area so that you can compare their methods, credentials and experience before making a choice.
Unlike the established ways to prepare for work in other fields, like law or medicine, individuals who choose to pursue careers in animal behavior don't necessarily follow a standard academic and professional path to gain education and experience. Some have no formal education at all but lots of experience working in the field. Others have excellent credentials in terms of education but little practical experience applying their specialized knowledge. The most competent professionals embody the best of both worlds.
When you contact a pet-behavior professional, ask about anything and everything. A good behaviorist or trainer will be happy to speak with you about her or his qualifications, background and treatment or training methods. A few important topics to discuss and questions to ask include the following:
- Ask about the behavior consultant's education in the science of animal behavior, as well as his or her hands-on experience. How did she learn what she knows about animal behavior?
- Ask about the consultant's or trainer's certifications or other credentials. These indicate that the individual has met strict requirements in terms of academic or professional training, experience and professional ethics.
- Look for behavior experts and trainers who emphasize rewarding good behaviors and use the least aversive, and most gentle and effective methods. Does she or he seem knowledgeable about behavior modification techniques like counter conditioning and desensitization, and how to use food and humane training equipment? Discuss which training methods the person will suggest or use to treat your pet's problem. Do you feel comfortable with her or his training philosophy?
- Avoid a consultant or trainer who guarantees specific results. Such a professional either ignores or doesn't understand the complexity of animal behavior.
- Look for a consultant or trainer who treats you with respect, is not abrupt or abrasive, and won't intimidate you into doing something that you don't believe is in your dog's best interest.
- If you're interested in a group class, ask the trainer if you can watch a class or two before enrolling. Are the people and dogs having a good time and experiencing some success in learning? Take note of the trainer's ability to work with people as well as animals.
Consider the Nature of Your Pet's Behavior Problem
If your pet has a serious behavior problem that puts him, people or other animals at risk, or if he's developed a problem that causes him significant stress, seek an expert with both academic training (either a master's or doctoral degree) and practical experience. Formal training and experience resolving animal behavior problems best prepares professionals to help you manage and modify problem behaviors like resource guarding, touching or handling issues, separation anxiety, fear of people, objects or other animals, aggressive behavior toward people or other animals, phobias, and compulsive behaviors. Although some CAABs, ACAABs and Dip ACVBs charge more per session than trainers, they've acquired a great deal of knowledge through years of study and research. You get what you pay for.
If your dog needs to learn some new skills or good pet manners, look for a CPDT in your area. CPDTs often offer group obedience classes, as well as in-home help for problems like house training, jumping up, destructive chewing and mouthy play behavior. Some CPDTs also offer special classes that focus on trick training or dog sports, such as agility, flyball and freestyle.
Although it's best to find a CAAB, an ACAAB or a veterinary behaviorist, if your pet has a more serious behavior problem, those professionals are few and far between. If you can't locate one in your area and you can't travel to see one, a CPDT might be able to provide her services instead. Just be sure that the CPDT has professional training and experience in treating serious behavior issues involving fear, anxiety and aggression, since this expertise is beyond what CPDT certification requires.
After You've Made Your Choice
After you've hired a pet professional, keep in mind that there aren't any quick fixes or magical pills. Helping your pet overcome a problem will require patience, time and effort. Successful behavior modification and training require much more than a single session! Be prepared to commit to the behavior modification or training plan that you and your behavior expert or trainer have together agreed will be most effective and practical for you and your pet. Realize that some behaviors can be managed (avoided or prevented) and improved through training, but not entirely eliminated. However, if you're trying your best to follow the guidelines provided by your behavior or training expert and you feel that you're not making progress, speak up. Ask your behaviorist or trainer to help you troubleshoot. She or he should be able to offer alternative solutions, answer questions and provide encouragement. If she or he doesn't, don't give up—and don't be afraid to seek help elsewhere.
The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.
If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.
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