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March 3, 2011

Who's Got Cred? A Guide to Behaviorists, Consultants, and Trainers

Learn how to choose a pet behavior professional

All Animals magazine, March/April 2011

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by Ruthanne Johnson

When evaluating behavior professionals, you’ll likely encounter experts with a variety of certifications and degrees. Here’s some help navigating the alphabet soup—and finding the right person for your pet’s issues.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, DVM (or Veterinary Medical Doctor, VMD) 
• Has completed a four-year doctoral program and passed a national board examination
• May also be board-certified in one or more specialties
• Can diagnose behavior-related health problems and prescribe medications

While animal behavior studies aren’t required to earn a veterinary degree, some veterinarians, such as members of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, have a special interest in behavior issues and can develop treatment plans. If not, they typically refer troubled pets to a qualified professional.

Although his main job is managing pets’ medical issues, veterinarian Kevin Fitzgerald of Denver, Colo., reads professional journals and attends conferences related to animal behavior. “People with pets exhibiting problem behavior often need a quick answer,” he says. Otherwise, a pet’s position in the home may be compromised. Fitzgerald has been able to help resolve issues related to aggression, nuisance barking, separation anxiety, and even coprophagy—feces consumption. When a problem is beyond his expertise, he refers clients to a veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist.

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, DACVB
• Has received DVM education and completed a residency in animal behavior, conducted behavior-related research, and passed the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists exam
• Can diagnose behavior-related health problems and prescribe medications

Board-certified veterinary behaviorists are licensed veterinarians who specialize in issues such as aggression, separation anxiety, phobias, and compulsions and can treat underlying medical conditions.

To resolve a behavior issue, veterinary behaviorist Marsha Reich of Silver Spring, Md., examines the animal’s medical records, gives the owner a detailed questionnaire, and spends hours assessing the pet in his home environment. “It’s the whole approach,” she says, “… going through and looking at everything that could possibly be contributing to what is going on and then what can I do to achieve the behavior I want.”

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB)
• Typically has an undergraduate degree in biology or psychology and a doctoral degree (CAAB) or master’s degree (ACAAB) in animal behavior science
• Is certified through the Animal Behavior Society

CAABs and ACAABs are analogous to human psychologists but with expertise in animal behavior problems. They often work in tandem with clients’ veterinarians when medications are needed.

ACAAB Heather Mohan-Gibbons has treated dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, rats, and even a biting potbellied pig. Her most common clients are dogs with aggression or separation anxiety issues and cats who are fearful or not using a litter box. Her education and training enable her to “look at a behavior and break it apart into the smallest possible components to identify … why the behavior may be happening,” she says. She recommends choosing a behavior professional who understands learning theory and is committed to continuing education. “It is important to stay current as the field continues to progress.”

Trainers and Behavior Consultants 
• Have varying levels of expertise; while this category includes many highly skilled professionals, no official regulations or licensure requirements govern use of generic titles such as “trainer” and “pet behaviorist”
• Backgrounds often include a mix of formal education, hands-on workshops, apprenticeships, and self-study
• Certifying organizations and schools include the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Animal Behavior College, Karen Pryor Academy, and others

While most trainers focus on obedience skills—such as coming when called and not jumping on people—some can handle more complicated cases. “A good trainer will be honest about whether or not your pet has an issue that they feel comfortable handling,” says The HSUS’s Adam Goldfarb.

Trainers and behavior consultants typically work with pets in the home or group classes. Before enrolling your pooch in a class, certified professional dog trainer Colleen Pelar of Woodbridge, Va., recommends observing the trainer in action: “Are the people having fun? Are the dogs having fun?” Good trainers, she says, need to be skilled communicators, since much of their work is teaching owners how to implement a training and behavior modification program in the home. One resource for locating dog trainers in your area is the online directory of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (apdt.com).

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