The pet training industry is seriously lacking in any type of governing body that provides certification to trainers or behaviorists. At present, anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a dog trainer and, in most cases, an animal behaviorist as well. This is a cause of concern because there is also a lack of education to the general pet-owning public about the differences between a dog trainer and an animal behaviorist as well as what to look for when choosing to hire either a trainer or behaviorist. It is very much a “buyer beware” situation.

To help shed some light and provide some much needed education, let’s fist discuss the functional job of both the dog trainer and the animal behaviorist:

  • A dog trainer handles basic obedience training. Come, sit, down, stay, etc.
  • An animal behaviorist assesses and treats behavioral problems, but typically can also provide obedience training as well.

That sounds pretty straightforward, right? Right, except for the fact that many dog trainers call themselves behaviorists simply because they can (remember…no governing body). So the next area for clarification is the difference in the qualifications:

  • A dog trainer may or may not have any formal education. A “trainer” may have taken an on-line training course then set off on his or her own or maybe just loves dogs, trained his or her own dog, and now sells dog training services. Others have studied with seasoned well-respected trainers and have worked with many dogs and attended many dog-training conferences to achieve a high level of skill. The level of expertise of dog trainers varies greatly.
  • An animal behaviorist typically has received a graduate degree (Master’s or Ph.D.) and has completed a research-based thesis or dissertation in their field of specialization. This academic training provides some assurance that the individual: Is familiar with scientific literature documenting research on animal behavior of dogs (which can then be used to assess and treat behavior problems); and understands learning theory and when to implement various reinforcement schedules, desensitization, counter-conditioning, and other behavioral modification techniques.

What does all this mean to the pet owner looking for help with their dog? It means do your homework. First, understand what your needs are. Do you simply want to teach your dog some basic manners (obedience commands)? If so, a dog trainer is a great choice. But when choosing a trainer, know what questions to ask to weed out those who are truly qualified from those who “want-to-be”. Do not base your decision on who is offering the lowest price. Often inexperienced trainers will low-ball their prices to increase their volume and gain experience. You do not want them gaining that experience through trial and error on your dog. While dog training is not brain surgery, a bad trainer can cost you money in the long run if you subsequently must find someone else to fix the problems that either did not get solved or that surfaced as a result of bad training. Not to mention the possibly irreversible toll it might take on your poor dog. Here are some questions to ask:

  1. What tools do you use? Avoid trainers who insist on one type of equipment or technique.
  2. How do you get behavior from a dog? Answer is lure it, shape it or capture it. Avoid those who use leash pops, choke chains, or other physical prompts.
  3. If a trainer uses the lure and reward method, ask them when the proper time is for adding the verbal command. Is it before your lure, as you lure, or after you lure? Correct answer is before you lure. This is basic training 101. If they don’t get it right, steer clear.
  4. Do you offer a guarantee? Again, steer clear of anyone who does because they do not understand animal behavior. It’s just not possible to guarantee the behavior of another living being.
  5. What motivators do you use? Avoid trainers who refuse to use food as a reward. Food is a powerful motivator. The best trainers will use food, toys, play, pets, and praise.
  6. Observe the trainer in action. Are the people smiling and dogs having a good time? If the dogs’ tails are between their legs and people aren’t having fun, find someone else. If the trainer won’t let you observe, find someone else.
  7. Ask what methodology is used. Look for a trainer that emphasizes rewarding good behavior rather than punishing unacceptable behaviors.
  8. Ask for references from clients and other professionals such as veterinarians.

If you need help with behavioral problems, you will want to look for a behaviorist. As noted above, most will have some type of advanced degree or training in animal behavior. However, that is not to say that many experienced and qualified trainers who do not have an actual degree are not capable of behavior work. Because of the lack of certification and the relative newness of advanced degrees in animal behavior, many trainers took it upon themselves to study under other qualified animal behaviorists and although these trainers lack a formal degree, they nevertheless are very qualified to handle behavior problems. As in any career, it is unfair to state that a degree automatically makes one person more qualified than another, as experience counts for a whole heck of a lot. So again, if you seek help with a behavior problem, be sure that the person you select either has a formal Applied (or Associate Applied) Animal Behaviorist designation, or an advanced degree in animal behavior, and has proven experience (including success stories from clients and other professionals). You can use the questions above as well as a few additional ones to weed out your choice:

1. Ask if they use Operant or Classical Conditioning. Answer should be both. Then ask them to define each. (Classical is about associations between two things i.e. pairing; Operant is about the relationship between a behavior and its consequences).

2. Ask them when treating fears, what is their preferred method and why. Without going into a lesson on fears, most often the best method is through desensitization and counter-conditioning.

3. After explaining your behavior problem to them, do they ask you about your last veterinary exam? Often medical problems pose as behavioral ones and ruling out such a problem is critical to success.

4. If the individual suggests obedience training as your solution, move on. While obedience is typically a necessary component, it will not solve a behavior problem.

5. Ask how they would deal with a food-guarding problem – do they set the dog up and punish it hard for aggressing or do they gradually teach the dog to accept someone meddling around its food bowl by reinforcing good behavior? (This would be the right approach).

Someday perhaps, trainers and behaviorists alike will be governed by a formal body that prohibits the use of such titles without certain educational and applied requirements being met. Until that time, ask questions and do your homework. Buyer Beware.