Behavioural Help for Your Pet

Many behaviours that are completely natural for dogs and cats—like barking or mowing, scratching, biting, digging, chewing, escaping and running away—can prove to be challenging for some pet parents. Although advice abounds in the form of popular TV shows, books and well-meaning friends and family, often the best and most efficient way to resolve your pet’s behaviour problems is to seek assistance from a qualified professional. Professionals in the pet-behaviour field fall into four main categories:

  • Trainers
  • Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs)
  • Applied Animal Behaviourists, Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists (CAABs) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists (ACAABs)
  • Diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists (Dip ACVBs)

Here are some frequently asked questions from pet parents who are seeking professional behavioral help for their pet:

What are the differences between pet-behavior professionals?

Pet trainers use a number of different titles, such as “behaviour counsellor,” “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, attending seminars on training and behaviour and training their own animals. And some are certified by specialised training schools.

Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs)
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), an independent organisation created by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), offers an international certification program. To earn the designation of Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), an individual must accrue a requisite number of working hours as a dog trainer, provide letters of recommendation and pass a standardised test that evaluates her or his knowledge of canine ethology, basic learning theory, canine husbandry and teaching skill. A CPDT must abide by a code of ethics and earn continuing education credits to maintain certification.

Applied Animal Behaviourists, Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists (CAABs) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists (ACAABs)
An applied animal behaviourist has earned an MS, MA or PhD in animal behaviour. They are experts in dog and cat behaviour and often in the behaviour of other companion animal species as well, like horses and birds. Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists (CAABs, those with a doctoral degree) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists (ACAABs, those with a master’s degree) received supervised graduate or post-graduate training in animal behaviour, biology, zoology and learning theory at accredited universities.

Effective applied animal behaviourists will have expertise in (a) behaviour modification, so they know the techniques that produce changes in behaviour, (b) the normal behaviour of the species they’re treating, so they can recognise how and why your pet’s behaviour is abnormal, and (c) teaching and counselling people, so they can effectively teach you how to understand and work with your pet. Most CAABs work through veterinary referrals, and they work closely with veterinarians to select the best behavioural medications for pets.

Veterinary Behaviourists
Knowledge of animal behaviour isn’t required to earn a veterinary degree, and animal behaviour isn’t comprehensively taught in most veterinary training programs. However, some veterinarians seek specialised education in animal behaviour and earn certification through the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists. To become a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists (Dip ACVB), veterinarians must complete a residency in behaviour and pass a qualifying examination.

In addition to having knowledge of domestic animal behaviour and experience treating pet behaviour problems, veterinary behaviourists can prescribe medications that can help with your pet’s treatment. Issues that often require the use of medication include separation anxiety, phobias, compulsive behaviours and fear of people, objects or other animals.

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.

Group Class
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 socialisation.

Private Sessions
If your dog or cat has a specific behaviour problem, seeing a professional outside of a classroom context would be best. Problems like resource guarding, handling issues, separation anxiety and aggression toward people or other animals require custom treatment plans and individual attention from a qualified behaviourist. Other less serious behaviour issues that trainers and behaviourists can’t usually address in a group class include house training problems, excessive barking and destructive chewing.

Day Training & Board-and-Train
Day training is a great service for busy pet parents. 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 behaviours 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 behaviourism, she can also treat issues like resource guarding, handling issues, some other types of aggression, some types of excessive barking or mowing and some fears.

Board-and-train services involve leaving your pet in the trainer’s kennels for a specified period of time. Be sure that you know and agree with the methods that your board-and-train or day training professional plans to use, since you will not be there to supervise. This method should also provide a training package with 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 your pet’s new behaviours 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 behaviourists and trainers in your area.

Ask the right questions.
We advise contacting more than one professional in your area so that you can compare their methods, credentials and experience before making a choice. Don’t hire any professional without first thoroughly interviewing her or him and asking for a couple of references from former clients or veterinarians. A good behaviourist or trainer will be happy to speak with you about her or his qualifications, background and treatment or training methods.

Consider the nature of your pet’s behavioural problem.
If your pet has a serious behaviour 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. Although some CAABs, ACAABs and Dip ACVBs charge more per session than trainers, it’s because they’ve acquired a great deal of knowledge through years of study and research.

Rule out physical problems.
If your pet has a behaviour problem, contacting a trainer or a behaviourist is a great first step on the road to resolution. However, some behaviour problems can be caused or exacerbated by physical problems. For example, if your nine-week-old puppy urinates indoors 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 behaviourists specialise in pet behaviour problems. 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 your veterinarian immediately.

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