The term “behaviorist” is thrown around a lot in the service dog community. Now, when I say “thrown around” I don’t necessarily mean to imply that the word is being used inappropriately. A true animal behaviorist should be the first line of defense in many service dog training issues. However, I do think that people are sometimes unclear as to what a behaviorist actually is.
Unfortunately, the dog training industry is mostly unregulated. Any average Joe or Jane can throw together a website and start taking clients. Even with no experience or education, they can use the title of Dog Trainer.
Well, it’s the same for a “behaviorist”. Any dog trainer (which as discussed above could be anyone), can also refer to themselves as a behaviorist even if they don’t have the educational background to back that word up.
Trainer vs Behaviorist
Let’s back up a little bit first. How is a behaviorist different from a “regular” dog trainer and when should you consult one?
A dog trainer is a great person to enlist when you have an emotionally sound dog in need of an “education”. You’ll see a dog trainer for anything from the basics: sit, down, stay, come, etc to more advanced and specialized activities: agility, herding, scent work and so on.
A Service Dog Trainer would be considered a dog trainer, just a more specialized kind of dog trainer. Service Dog Trainers have usually worked their way through the ranks, starting out training the basics, then more advanced skills, and only after gaining enough experience and knowledge of service dogs, public access work and tasks (usually under the guidance of a mentor), calling themselves a Service Dog Trainer.
A reputable dog trainer will recognize when their student has struggles that are beyond their ability as a trainer and will refer out to a behaviorist.
A true behaviorist has gone through extensive education and training in animal behavior, body language, and behavioral issues such as aggression, fear, destructiveness, or phobias. Some behaviorists are veterinarians or have graduate degrees in this area. Behaviorists are the cream of the crop in the dog training world and are equipped to take on the really serious and/or complex cases.
The IAABC has a great article on the differences between trainers and behaviorists.
When is a Behaviorist Really a Behaviorist?
There are four main types of behaviorists, with quite the range of difficulty between them:
Certified Behavior Consultant – Overseen by the CCPDT (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers), A Certified Behavior Consultant – Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) must have:
- at least 300 hours of experience in canine behavior consulting (on fear, phobias, compulsive behaviors, anxiety, and aggression) within the previous 3 years.
- a signed attestation statement from a CCPDT certificant or a veterinarian.
- sign and submit the CCPDT Code of Ethics.
- complete a 180 multiple-choice question exam.
Learn more about the certification here.
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultant – The IAABC has a strict application process but recognizes that the skills that make a good animal behaviorist can be learned through many different methods. From their website: “The IAABC awards certification to professional cat, horse, dog, or parrot behavior consultants who can demonstrate that they have the right level of knowledge and skills to be successful in their work.”
IAABC members must pass an exam appropriate to their membership level as well as complete essays and case studies. Letters of recommendation are required. The education and experience of applicants are evaluated and can come from “college courses, online courses, professional seminars and presentations, on-the-ground experience or a mix of sources”.
You can learn more about certification requirements here.
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist – Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists “have advanced graduate degrees in the science of animal behavior. Some CAABs are veterinarians who have completed a behavioral residency.” While there is no single way to become a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, here are the requirements they must meet:
- Obtained an undergraduate degree, usually requiring 4 years, at an accreditated college or university.
- Gained admission to an accredited graduate school or veterinary school through a highly competitive admission process.
- Completed post-graduate education receiving a Master’s (2-year full time) or Ph.D.(4-year full time) degree in a behavioral science, or DVM or VMD degree with a behavioral residency.
- Passed rigorous oral and written examinations given by their faculty committees.
- Published articles in scientific journals.
- Supervised hands-on experience with animals.
- Met the coursework and experience requirements for certification as set forth by the Animal Behavior Society.
You can learn more about the CAAB requirements here.
Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist – Because they are both veterinarians and behaviorists, veterinary behaviorists have the ability to diagnose and treat problems in animals, both medical or behavioral. These professionals have the unique understanding of the complex relationship between medical issues and an animal’s behavior and which one is the root of the problem. A veterinary behaviorist is also licensed to prescribe drugs and is familiar with psychotropic medications, their uses, interactions with other medications, and side effects.
According to their website: “Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) are veterinarians who have attained specialist status in veterinary behavior, which is recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association. They have received additional training, generally at least 3 years, in Veterinary Behavior through a recognized training program, either through a residency program at a College of Veterinary Medicine or through an individually mentored training program. Additionally, they have been an author of a published research project in veterinary behavior, written case reports, and passed a 2-day examination.”
Here are the requirements:
- Complete the equivalency of an internship
- Complete a conforming residency (currently approved programs included below) or a non-conforming training program which was mentored and approved by ACVB. The non-conforming program requires that the veterinarian find an ACVB Diplomate who is willing to serve as their mentor. Each resident is required to accomplish a supervised behavioral caseload during their training. The first 25 clinical cases are seen with the mentor present 25 of the next 50 cases are seen under the direct supervision of the mentor Close supervision is required for the first 200 cases
- Author a scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal based on your own research
- Write three peer-reviewed case reports
- Make application for the examination. A successful application allows the candidate to sit a comprehensive two-day test. When that examination has been successfully completed, the individual may become an ACVB Diplomate.
Learn more about the requirements here.
Behaviorists and Service Dogs
So what does a behaviorist have to do with Service Dogs? After all, Service Dogs don’t have behavioral issues and certainly aren’t aggressive. They should be good with people, dogs, and other animals, right? Yes, that’s correct, but Service Dogs are still dogs. They aren’t perfect. Sometimes they need a tune-up and occasionally the unexpected happens. It takes a lot of work to get to the level of well-adjusted working dog.
Here are some situations where your Service Dog might need the help of a behaviorist:
- If they suddenly show fear in a situation that they didn’t before.
- When attacked by another dog.
- Showing signs of being unhappy working.
- Going through any sort of traumatic situation.
- Assessing whether they should be retired for any number of reasons.
- Any sudden change in behavior.
- Developing protectiveness around their handler.
- And similar situations.
It’s not all negative though. A behaviorist is a wonderful resource right from the start of a potential Service Dog’s journey, to help prevent any issues and guarantee a higher chance of success. When choosing your potential Service Dog, whether it be a puppy from a breeder or a young adult from a shelter, you should have a behaviorist assess the candidates and guide you in your final choice.
Finding a Behaviorist
So by now, you know that anyone can call themselves a behaviorist. Well, that’s not very helpful to you when your dog is truly in need of a real behaviorist. So how and where do you find a professional qualified to get the job done?
Luckily each of the above types of behaviorists has a directory of their members:
- Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist Directory
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Directory
- IAABC Animal Behavior Consultant Directory
- CCPDT Certified Dog Trainer Directory
These directories are the best place to start. You can also look for the letters of each type of behaviorist after a trainer’s name:
- CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed)
- CDBC (IAABC Certified Dog Behavior Consultant)
- CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist)
- DACVB (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists)