Trainer or Behaviorist?
First, some definitions, from Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA, Author of Considerations for the City Dog, and ½ of Car Talk’s FIDO Blog, and a Twitter-friend of mine:
A behavior consultant. Someone who has received a certification from a science-based group like the CCPDT; usually after logging a set amount of hours in dog behavior, and taking a lengthy exam covering canine body language, ethology, anatomy, physiology, tools, and teaching ability.
An applied animal behaviorist. Someone who has an advanced degree in an animal related field and addresses behavioral concerns in animals.
A veterinary behaviorist: A doctor of veterinary medicine who is accredited as a veterinary behaviorist through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. There are only around 75 certified behaviorists through the ACVB.
Melissa is quick to point out that she is a dog trainer, not any of the above, and she readily refers clients to behavior professionals where appropriate. Thank you, Melissa, for doing the right thing to help your clients!
I'd like to add a little more detail to these definitions. It's important to note that nobody except veterinarians can prescribe medication, although vets are usually happy to work with skilled, respectful behavior specialists in order to get each pet the help they need.
How do I know what kind of behaviorist I need? Or do I just need a trainer?
If you have a new pet, or a puppy, or a pet showing totally normal behaviors, you probably just need a trainer if you want to imbue your animal with some better manners.
If you have specific behavior concerns involving fear, aggression, inappropriate potty habits, hyperactivity, destruction, excessive barking, or other concerns about your pet's temperament or mental health, your first stop should be your regular vet to rule out any physical cause. Your second stop should be a behavior consultant or animal behaviorist. Frankly, the worst cases should probably skip the behavior consultant entirely and head right to the animal behaviorist. Make sure whichever behavior professional you choose provides you with a written treatment plan and is willing to communicate directly with your veterinarian.
The animal behaviorist's job is to get a complete behavior history of your pet, determine whether your pet's behavior is within normal limits, provide you with a behavior modification and management plan, and share her findings with your pet's veterinarian. However, in any case, the animal behaviorist provides a detailed, quantitative summary of her findings and a full history on the behavior problem, which vets just can't complete in a 15-20 minute visit.
How do I know whether or not I should refer pets to a behavior specialist?
It's absolutely in your interest, if you're an animal professional, to refer difficult cases. For my dog trainer pals, I recommend referring cases showing qualities that are consistent predictors of poor outcomes (Overall 2013), including:
1. Client is angry at/blames the pet
2. Client is afraid of the pet
3. Client has an inflexible timeline for changing a behavior
4. Client has a history of noncompliance
5. Client is considering re-homing or euthanizing the pet
6. Client does not recognize a behavior as problematic
7. The pet can't be redirected once engaged in the behavior
8. The behavior has been going on a long time and/or is getting worse
It's a mistake for dog trainers and animal behaviorists to believe we are somehow competing. We do very different things. On the contrary, we all need to work together to provide the very best care for pets and their people.