Have a problematic pooch and need a dog behaviorist to help? It can certainly be tricky to find one.
But don’t worry! We’ll show you exactly how to find a qualified canine behaviorist and point out some of the things you’ll want to avoid in your search!
How to Find a Canine Behaviorist: Key Takeaways
- You’ll want to work with a dog behaviorist rather than a trainer when addressing many pooch problems. Skilled trainers are fantastic for helping teach your dog basic obedience, but they lack the training and expertise to deal with behavioral problems.
- You need to work with a properly credentialed canine behaviorist, rather than someone who just uses that word to entice clients. Unfortunately, there’s no governing body that regulates who can and cannot call themselves a “dog behaviorist,” and many people use that title incorrectly.
- You’ll want to seek a canine behaviorist who’s attained any of several specific canine behavior certifications. By doing so, you can be sure you’ll receive guidance from a true expert, who’s educated in the most current, science-based canine behavior science. Look for a canine behaviorist who has been certified through AVSAB, CCPDT, IAABC, ABS. In these directories, make sure you’re filtering specifically for behaviorists, not just trainers. We’ll dig into the details of all these organizations and specific certifications below.
Having a Canine Behavior Issue? Here’s Your Plan of Attack
Having behavior issues with your dog? There’s plenty of help available, but you have to make sure you take the appropriate steps:
Step 1: Talk to your vet.
Many underlying medical problems can alter your dog’s behavior in ways that may be difficult for you to recognize.
So, your first step whenever you’re confronted with a behavior issue should always be to consult with your veterinarian and insist on getting full labs and bloodwork done. This is especially important for behavioral problems that seemingly arise out of nowhere.
Step 2: Jot Down the Details of Your Dog’s Problem.
While this isn’t mandatory, it’s a good idea to do some brainstorming and collect your observations about your dog’s problem. This will help you better communicate with the behaviorist you find and determine the root cause of your dog’s behavior issues.
It may even help you identify triggers or issues you haven’t yet appreciated.
So, ask yourself questions like:
- Does your dog’s problem seem stress related?
- Do you suspect your dog is responding to a specific environmental change?
- What do you notice happening before and after the problematic behavior?
Even if you’re at a total loss about the reasons for your dog’s problem (or just don’t want to spend the time making a list), a behavior expert can still help.
But, organizing your thoughts in this way can be helpful for determining if your dog is demonstrating reactivity, resource guarding, territorial aggression, fearful behavior, over-arousal issues, or some other common canine problem..
Step 3: Consult a certified canine behavior expert.
Whenever you’re dealing with a canine behavior issue like aggression, fear, or anxiety, you want the help of a certified canine behavior expert – not just a trainer (even one who refers to him or herself as a behaviorist).
Don’t misunderstand: We love credentialed trainers and think they can be incredibly helpful! But they’re not the proper type of experts for addressing behavioral problems.
We’ll explain how to find the right qualified expert below, but just be aware that for behavior issues,standard trainers won’t be especially helpful, as they do not have the appropriate expertise.
The Difference Between Dog Trainers and Canine Behaviorists: Which One Do YOU Need?
Before we continue, let’s make sure you really need the help of a dog behaviorist, rather than a regular, run-of-the mill trainer. That way, you can get exactly the type of guidance and instruction you need to address your pup’s problem.
Here’s how the expertise of the two types of professionals breaks down:
- Certified Dog Trainer. Certified dog trainers are great for teaching your doggo basic obedience skills like sit, lay down, take it, leave it, and drop it. Trainers may also have specialties, such as agility, dock diving, therapy work, or nose work. Dog trainers are NOT qualified to work with aggression cases.
- Certified Dog Behavior Expert. Certified canine behavior experts are professionals who specialize in behavior modification and have experience working with aggressive, fearful, compulsive, reactive, and anxious dogs. These professionals have received additional training for solving these kinds of often-complex problems.
Essentially, the difference between a dog trainer and a canine behaviorist boils down to education: Trainers have some; certified behaviorists have a lot more.
Bottom line: If you need help with basic obedience, find a certified dog trainer; if you need help with any other kind of canine behavioral issue, you’ll want a behaviorist.
Due to the higher level of expertise required, behavior experts tend to be more expensive than dog trainers.
However, this is one of those cases in which paying a little more will yield huge dividends. In fact, you may receive bad behavior advice from a regular trainer, which will do more harm than good. Worse still, it will erode your patience and tolerance for working with a difficult dog.
Terminology: Types of Dog Behavior Experts & Certifications
Before going further, let’s dive into some terminology, because the language applied to canine behavior experts (and canine not-so experts) can actually be a bit confusing.
Type 1: Unspecified “Canine Behaviorists” – Beware The Imposters!
The term “canine behaviorist” is a confusing title that is more or less meaningless without a specific type of certification.
Just as anyone can slap the “dog trainer” title on a website or business card, anyone can call themselves a behaviorist — there’s no formal presiding body that governs the use of this title.
And unfortunately, unscrupulous individuals often take advantage of this regulatory loophole to drum up business. So, you need to be really careful about who you are dealing with when you seek out a “behaviorist.”
Properly certified canine behaviorists often adhere to an “unwritten rule” that the title of “canine behaviorist” should only be used by those who’ve attained specific certifications.
But again, there’s no law or regulation stopping anyone from using the “behaviorist” label.
This makes things quite complicated for owners looking for canine professionals, as plenty of folks will refer to themselves as “canine behaviorists” simply because they have an interest in canine behavior (and because it sounds fancier) without having any kind of real qualifications or certifications associated with the behaviorist title.
This is especially dangerous because many owners who are seeking out a behaviorist are doing so because they have a dog with aggression, fear, or reactivity issues. When dealing with behavior problems like aggression, you absolutely do not want to be taking advice from someone who does not have the appropriate experience and qualifications to be discussing such issues.
If you consult with someone using the “behaviorist” title, make sure you clarify: Is he or she a certified dog behaviorist or just a trainer who dabbles in canine behavior?
Rather than hiring any old rando who just uses the “behaviorist” title, you’ll want to find someone who is a:
- Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist (DAVCB)
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB)
- Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB)
- Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC)
- Certified Behavior Consultant (CBC)
- Associated Certified Behavior Consultant (ACBC)
Yes, those titles are mouthfuls.
Don’t worry, though – we’ll break down all these different types of canine behavior experts below and help you find a knowledgeable, certified individual who can help with your dog’s behavior problems.
Type 2: Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist (DACVB) – The Best There Is
DACVBs are cream-of-the-crop experts, who’re trained to solve behavior problems and armed with the most knowledge and expertise available. They’re able to prescribe medications as well as develop science-backed training plans using up-to-date methodologies.
DACVBs are essentially vets who specialize in behavioral issues. They’re experts who have gone to vet school, earned a veterinary medical degree, completed a one-year internship, finished a three-year residency program, published scientific papers on behavior, have written at least three peer-reviewed papers, and passed the required board exam.
These experts are usually the most expensive professionals in the canine-behavior industry, and they are often used as a last resort for owners who feel as if they have tried everything else.
In fact, many owners of difficult dogs later regret not seeing a DACVB sooner, due to the huge improvements certain dogs can make with the combination of thoughtful medications and an expert-designed training plan.
Veterinary Behaviorists can also help an owner navigate the difficult issue of behavioral euthanaisa and determine if and when it is an appropriate course to pursue.
These individuals have seen a variety of complicated and challenging canine cases, and they are — without question — your best bet to getting to the bottom of your dog’s behavior issues. This is especially true for dogs whose behavior problems have a biological component, such as elevated anxiety or fear.
DACVBs are certified by either the :
- American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior (AVSAB)
- College of Veterinary Medicine
Veterinary behaviorists are roughly comparable to human psychiatrists, as they have the ability to pair medication with cognitive techniques and behavioral changes (such as training, in the case of dogs).
Availability: Due to the extremely rigorous educational requirements and experience needed to become a veterinary behaviorist, they are often in high demand, with relatively few of them available.
Where to Find a DACVB: The AVSAB has a directory that can be searched by location.
Type 3: Certified Animal Behavior Expert – The Next Best Thing
There are a few different kinds of certified animal behavior experts, but they are all qualified for treating behavior issues like fear, aggression, and reactivity.
When people search for a “behaviorist” online, what they’re probably really looking for is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), a Certified Behavior Consultant (CBC), or a subclass of these certified canine behavior experts.
These individuals are certified through a number of high-authority organizations and have expertise in canine behavior, including issues like aggression, reactivity, and fear.
Certified behavior professionals study why animals behave as they do, and they have additional expertise and experience in the realms of canine psychology, physiology, and genetics. They can assess dogs and implement management or behavior modification plans to address any number of problematic or unwanted behaviors in dogs.
Behavior specialists are roughly akin to human psychologists.
They function as canine/human counselors, offering the canine equivalent of treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). They address a variety of canine mental health issues like anxiety, fear, and compulsion.
However, these behavior experts cannot prescribe medications. Instead, they often work closely with their clients’ veterinarians for additional medical management through the use of specific medications.
While DACVBs are certified by one of two different governing bodies, non-veterinary certified behaviorists and consultants are governed by three different organizations. Let’s break down the different organizations that certify behavior professionals, and their corresponding certifications:
Animal Behavior Society (ABS)
The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) is the leading organization in North America for the study of animal behavior. Behavior experts certified through the ABS have some of the preeminent experts working in the field of canine behavior.
The ABS offers two levels of certification:
- CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist). These experts have a doctorate with a focus in biological or behavioral science from a regionally accredited university with an emphasis in animal behavior and a research-based thesis. They must also have five years of professional behavior experience and pass a comprehensive oral and written exam.
- Alternatively, individuals can become CAABs with a doctorate from an accredited college or university in veterinary medicine plus two years in a university-approved residency in animal behavior and three additional years of professional experience in applied animal behavior
- ACAAB (Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist). These individuals have a master’s degree in biological or behavioral science from an accredited university with an emphasis in animal behavior. They must also have 2 years of professional behavior experience and pass the comprehensive oral and written exam.
The training for both of these certifications requires supervised, hands-on work with animals, as well as experience publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals. Some of these experts specialize in companion animals, such as dogs and cats, while others work with farm animals or in zoos.
Availability: On the ABS’s CAAB directory page, you can find various certified individuals for most major geographic regions. However, there are less than 60 individuals listed, so the pickings are quite slim. I could only locate one CAAB-certified expert in the entire state of Texas.
How to Find One: Browse through the ABS’s CAAB Online Directory to find a certified expert in your area.
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT)
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) is one of the leading independent governing bodies for professionals involved with dog training and dog behavior. In addition to their behavioral consultation certification, they also offer a well-respected certification for dog trainers.
The CCPDT certification for behavior consultants is:
- Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA). Requires a minimum of 300 hours experience in canine behavior consulting (covering issues like fear, phobias, anxiety, and aggression) within the past three years, in addition to a letter of recommendation from a professional already certified with the CCPDT or a veterinarian along with passing a comprehensive exam on behavior modification.
Availability: There are thousands of CCPDT certified trainers and behaviorists, so chances are you should be able to find a few in your area. However, if you live in a rural area, they are still uncommon enough that you may need to travel to a major metropolitan area to access one of these professionals.
How to Find One: On the CCPDT website you can access their digital Certified Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant directory, where you can search by postal code, name (if you’re looking for a specific individual), city, or state.
However, keep in mind that for behavior issues you’ll specifically want to look for individuals that have “Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed” under their name – not just the “Certified Professional Dog Trainer” title, which doesn’t deal with behavior issues specifically.
In Austin, Texas I was able to find 38 CCPDT certified trainers, but only three CCPDT certified behavior consultants.
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)
The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) is another prestigious and trusted institution for evaluating and certifying animal behavior experts. IAABC offers two types of certification, both of which require letters of recommendation from a client, colleague, or veterinarian as well as the completion of a thorough exam and submission of case studies.
- Certified Behavior Consultant (CBC). Requires 500 hours of animal behavior consulting experience, along with 400 hours of coursework, seminars, and mentorships. It also requires a letter of recommendation from a client, colleague, or veterinarian as well as the completion of a thorough exam and the submission of case studies.
- Associated Certified Behavior Consultant (ACBC). Requires 300 hours of animal behavior consulting experience, 150 hours of coursework, seminars, and mentorships. Also requires a letter of recommendation from a client, colleague, or veterinarian as well as the completion of a thorough exam and submission of case studies.
Availability: The availability of IAABC certified behavior experts is similar to that of CCPDT-certified individuals – they’re definitely out there, but there aren’t a ton of them.
How to Find One: Use the IAABC’s Online Directory that lets you search for behavior consultants by location. I was able to find four CCPDT-certified behavior experts in the Austin, TX area.
If you prefer a visual illustration, we’ve put together this handy hierarchy of dog behavior experts below!
Verifying Credentials & Making Sure Your Expert Is Up-to-Date
Regardless of what kind of canine expert you are seeking, it’s important to verify his or her credentials. It isn’t completely unheard of for people to fudge their credentials or outright lie about the qualifications he or she has earned.
Fortunately, that’s pretty easy to do via the website of most organizations that credential canine behavior professionals. If you’re in doubt, just drop the body in question an email — most will be happy to help ensure the people claiming to be credentialed are being honest.
But it’s also important to ensure that your chosen canine behavior expert is also providing current guidance and instruction. This is important, as standards and philosophies can change over time.
For example, many reputable credentialing organizations have updated their ethical statements to reflect the latest scientific evidence regarding dog behavior.
However, if a behavior expert or trainer has been part of an organization for a long time, he or she may not personally adhere to the new standards that are in keeping with current research (heck, they might not even be aware that their organization’s ethics statements have been updated).
For this reason, you’ll want to make sure to ask questions and get a sense of the individual trainer’s philosophy and approach. This will ensure you get a qualified expert who is incorporating up-to-date research.
It’s also worth noting that you may want to consider reporting behaviorists or trainers who do not meet their organization’s ethics statement.
If the certifying body has an ethics statement that promotes positive training techniques and eschews aversive training methods, yet one of their behaviorists is talking about outdated approaches like alpha theory and dominance, you probably should notify the organization.
Questions to Ask Your Dog Behaviorist
We know there’s a lot to think about when seeking a canine behaviorist, but don’t worry — you’re almost done!
There’s just one more major step to take when seeking a qualified professional to help solve your doggo dilemas: You must ask the prospective behaviorist a few questions to ensure a good fit.
Some of the things you should ask include:
- What organization are you credentialed though? Make sure to verify their membership yourself. And check the organization’s mission statement to determine if it’s humane, ethical, and based on minimally aversive strategies.
- How long have you been a dog behavior expert? All experts have to start somewhere, but generally speaking, you’ll want to work with a behaviorist who’s already accumulated several years of practical, on-the-job experience.
- Are you experienced in this type of behavior issue? Most legitimate canine behaviorists have experience working with an array of problems, but it’s worth discussing his or her specific experience with the issue your dog is exhibiting.
- What kind of follow-up programs do you offer? What if I need more help after this? Dog behaviorists often offer one-time consultation services, as well as on-going training help. Make sure you understand what information will be provided during your consultation and what kind of follow-up options are available to you.
- Do you guarantee results? This one isn’t really what you might expect – you actually want to avoid behaviorists or trainers who guarantee results. This is because much of your dog’s success depends on you and your follow through — two things no behaviorist can ensure.
- How would they respond to a dog who doesn’t understand what is being taught? If you are uncomfortable with any of the equipment or techniques recommended, how would the expert proceed? For example, some dogs don’t like harnesses. Will the expert in question advocate for something lighter weight? Switch to a collar-only approach? These kinds of questions opens the window to the consultant’s thought process
- Are you licensed as a business and insured? This speaks to the expert’s overall professionalism rather than specific canine behavior knowledge, but it’s still important. If nothing else, you’ll want to have some recourse in case something goes wrong.
What to Avoid When Seeking a Dog Behaviorist: Red Flags
Now that you know what you want in a dog behaviorist, it’s time to talk about some of the things you don’t want.
In other words, we’re talking about red flags — things that should send you running the other direction.
If you’re working with a legitimate certified canine behavior consultant, who employs current standards and practices, you shouldn’t need to worry about looking for red flags. These individuals should be using only scientifically-backed methods that their organizations support.
However, since the terminology and titling of canine behaviorists can be so confusing, it’s still worth examining your chosen expert’s philosophies (whether on their website or via a phone consultation).
When evaluating a dog behavior expert, any of these terms should raise serious red flags. Why? Because all of the certified dog behavior experts from the established and well-respected organization listed above have ethics statements that do not condone the use of aversive training techniques, relying instead on scientifically-supported methods that are more focused on positive reinforcement.
If you see this kind of terminology being used by a “behaviorist” you should look elsewhere for help with your pooch:
Terminology to avoid when seeking a behaviorist:
- “Being the alpha”
- Pack leadership
Tools and methods to avoid when seeking a behaviorist:
- Squirt bottles
- Choke or prong collar
- Alpha rolls
- Shock, vibration, or citronella collars
- Hitting or Yelling
- Collar Pops
- Emphasis on punishment
Terms you should look for when seeking a behaviorist:
- LIMA (stands for: Least intrusive, minimally aversive)
- Force-free or fear-free
- Positive reinforcement
- Humane and ethical
There’s no denying that it can be difficult to navigate the world of canine behaviorists. You’re just dealing with a difficult doggo and looking for help — you don’t want to sort through an alphabet soup of credentials!
But unfortunately, this is just part of the pet-parent gig.
This is one of those areas in which you need to dig in, crank up your laptop, and do some homework (we’d recommend doing so with your adult beverage of choice for your sanity’s sake).
Soliciting the help of the wrong kind of canine behavior expert will not only prove unhelpful, but it may even cause your dog’s problems to get worse.
We hope we’ve made this process a little easier and given you a bit of a road map for success!