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Sarah Kalnajs, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant & Certified Pet Dog Trainer APDT/ABMA/IAABC
(608) 213-5304

What is the difference between a dog trainer and a dog behaviorist?

Dog trainers use a variety of methods to teach a dog and its owner a consistent set of signals that produce specific predictable outcomes in the dog. For example, after a dog trainer teaches the signal “Sit”, the dog and owner will both understand that it means one thing only … put your rump on the ground!

Dog trainers can teach simple behaviors or complicated behaviors, and good trainers can even teach your dog behavior chains. Remember the TV commercial in which a dog goes to the refrigerator, opens it, removes a can of beer and brings it back to his couch-potato owner? That dog was taught a behavior chain … a series of behaviors that must be completed in a specific order.

Good dog trainers are generally affiliated with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) or the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI).

Some trainers know enough about basic learning theory to be able to help modify simple problem behaviors such as digging and chewing.

One difficulty is that what often seems like a simple behavior problem is actually the symptom of a larger and much more complicated underlying problem. A dog trainer may be able to “put a Band-Aid” on the symptoms (i.e. barking or jumping up), but without having the knowledge, background or experience to identify and treat the underlying reason for the dog’s poor behavior, things can get worse for you and your dog in the long run.

As a dog owner, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether you have a simple problem that can be solved by a trainer, or have a more complex situation that requires an Animal Behavior Therapist (Behaviorist). If there is any doubt, it is best to at least have a phone conversation with a qualified behavior therapist so that they can help you determine whether your best avenue is to consult a dog trainer or a behaviorist.

Animal Behavior Therapists use techniques based on fundamental scientific principles to modify an animal’s behavior for the benefit of both the animal and the owner. They are specially trained and skilled in recognizing problems and their precursors such as aggression, separation anxiety, status-related conflicts with people or other dogs, and many other behavioral issues.

The Behaviorist will begin your consultation by asking a lot of questions that help them piece together your dog’s complete history and determine the cause of your dog’s problem. A good behaviorist will ask you to visit your veterinarian prior to an appointment so that medical conditions can be ruled out, since medical conditions are sometimes the cause of aggressive or erratic behavior in dogs.

Most behaviorists have been (or are currently) dog trainers and have often worked extensively in animal shelters where they gain a large amount of knowledge and experience working with abnormal and aggressive dogs (and, of course, there are many wonderful dogs in animal shelters and rescues that deserve loving homes!)

There is no standard credential or certificate to say that someone is a qualified behavior therapist, so many trainers have unfortunately taken on the role without sufficient experience or training.

It’s a good idea to ask about educational experience, specifically in the field of applied animal behavior with dogs, cats, horses or whatever species you need help with. It is also a good idea to find out who a behaviorist’s mentor is. They should be able to provide you with a reference of at least one other practicing behaviorist.

Behaviorists are almost always members of one or more of the following organizations … the IADBC (International Association of Dog Behavior Counselors), the ABMA (Animal Behavior Management Alliance), the ABS (Animal Behavior Society) or the ACABC (Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors). All of these organizations have entrance requirements and screening procedures for members, unlike other organizations that merely require that a person pay dues to belong.

Some of the educational programs that specifically train individuals to work with problem companion animals as behaviorists are:

  • Cynology College1
  • San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Training & Behavior1
  • University of California - Davis2
  • Etologisk Institut2
  • The Penn Institute For Dog Behavior Consulting1
  • American Institute For Animal Science2
1 Accredited by the International Association of Dog Behavior Consultants.
2 Approved Education Providers for the Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors.

When in doubt, ask for references. Read testimonials. Ask questions!

The ACABC on Behavior Counselors:

The United States and most other countries do not have government licensing requirements for applied animal behavior professionals. The absence of such licensing and review has allowed many individuals to call themselves animal behaviorists, animal behavior professionals, animal behavior experts, and alike. Moreover, many of these individuals have little or no knowledge regarding the use of the scientific method of inquiry and the further use of humane applied behavioral treatment methodology when working with companion animals and their human family members. Certification by a respected peer-reviewed professional membership organization comprised of academics, clinicians and behavior practitioners is therefore beneficial to any applied animal behavior professional. Such a credential for a specific companion animal species (dog, cat, bird, or horse) provides the public, the veterinary profession, and other animal professionals with a credential attesting to the education, supervised observation, and testing of a practicing individual.

The IADBC on Behavior Counselors:

Dog behavior consulting is the profession of educated dog behavior specialists advising dog owners, the public, and related professionals on matters of dog behavior modification and training. Dog behavior consultants are individuals with extensive education and experience in modifying and/or managing a wide range of problem behaviors including:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Attachment, separation and related problems
  • Fears and phobias
  • Excessive behavior, including compulsions and hyperactivity
  • Appetite and elimination problems

Dog behavior consulting is a distinct professional discipline. Dog behavior consultants come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds including psychology, psychiatry, social work, animal behavior, family therapy, nursing, veterinary medicine, and education.

Dog behavior consultants are governed by high standards of professional ethics. They select reward-based methodologies over punishment to modify dog behavior, and offer education and strategies to enhance the bond between individuals and families and their canine companions.