Somehow, my post on how to find a good dog trainer keeps getting sidetracked, and I’ve begun to realize why. It’s not just that I felt the need debunk the most popular notions of training so as to put the subject into context. It’s also that training is unregulated, and therefore difficult to discuss without pinning down some definitions.

Yes, that’s right: The people to whom you entrust your dog’s education are not required to have a license of any sort in the United States. This problem is exacerbated by the fact the dog training industry has exploded in recent years. That’s not surprising. Occupations such as dog training that have no licensing requirements flourish during economic downturns.

Not only can anyone hang out a shingle as a dog trainer, but those with a little knowledge — about fee structures, rather than about training — may even call themselves behaviorists.

So let me start with the definition of that much abused title in dog training circles: Behaviorist. The human analogy for this term’s use — or I should say, misuse — would be everyone from fortune tellers to teachers and social workers calling themselves psychiatrists.

Who, then, can legitimately claim the title of behaviorist?

For one, veterinarians who are board certified in the specialty of animal behavior (see the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and their public site, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) — fewer than 50 of them in the United States. The best known among their ranks is best-selling author Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and a pioneer in animal behavioral pharmacology.

Others who can call themselves behaviorists have upper level degrees such as a master’s or doctorate in a field related to animal behavior. Applied animal behaviorists specialize in animal relations with humans, and those who pass a stringent certification exam in this specialty earn the title of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist — another elite group of only about 50 professionals, not all focused on canine behavior. In addition to having an advanced degree, CAABs are required to have five years of field experience.

The good news, given the limited numbers of the genuine item: Most people don’t need behaviorists for their dogs. This highest level of expertise is generally required only in extreme cases of aggression or obsession.

Professional trainers, those who have put in a great many hours to learn legitimate, science-based training techniques, are generally those who also know when to refer clients to real behaviorists — or to trainers who have experience dealing with a particular behavior — rather than try to resolve a problem with which they’re unfamiliar. They stand in marked contrast to trainers who know little about dogs but know enough about the marketplace to be aware that the title behaviorist will earn them more money.

My next post will discuss how to distinguish the former from the latter. Really.

Note: Much of the above information was adapted from a story I did for Your Dog, the newsletter of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts, and from my new book, Am I Boring My Dog.

5 thoughts on “Dog trainers, behaviorists & dupes, oh my!”

  1. I like your point that anybody can call themselves a ‘dog trainer’ and there is really no certification. On another matter that seems to be floated, before turning to the pharmacopeia except in really severe cases of aggression – I’d like to suggest first try Bach flower remedies – the homeopathic remedies found in health food stores, they have recommened doses for your pets, with Rescue Remedy being the most popular. My pets are, Naturally, reasonably responsive to them…when they want to be 🙂 Diane

    1. Thanks for your comment. Read on to my next (current) post — although there is no requirement for certification it is available through CCPDT and dog trainers that go through the process are very qualified.

      As for Rescue Remedy and other botanicals — yes, they are often very helpful (though they never did anything for Frankie’s car anxiety). Although many people ask their vets for medication as a quick fix, I wouldn’t suggest it except upon the advice of a veterinary behaviorist.

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