This question is an open-ended one and depending on who you ask, it could have many different answers. Traditionally in dog training, trainers became trainers by apprenticing with experienced trainers. In today’s world, there are many different schools, online programs, certification programs and pathways, which is great, but also a bit confounding, especially if you’re new to the field or the average consumer.
Since training and animal behavior are unregulated fields, there are no laws about who can call themselves by these terms, or set up shop. I’ve personally had many mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I am glad I don’t have to worry about a bureaucracy to do what I do, but on the other hand, I definitely am concerned about charlatans who are taking money for outdated techniques, if they have techniques at all. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, so I thought I’d write a bit about the labels those in our industry use, and how to get past the marketing puff to understand professionals you may want to hire—or run away from!
First things first, let’s clarify differences between trainers and behaviorists.
Dog trainers are focused on training skills with a dog. Their proficiency can vary—some trainers may concentrate on teaching obedience and manners alone, others may delve into behavior modification, particularly for commonplace behavior problems, while others may concentrate on sporting or other activities (agility, herding, gun dog/hunting, nose work or scent detection, etc.). Their level of education and experience can also widely vary. See this information from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
Behaviorists are those who deal with more complex behavior issues, and use fundamental scientific principles to address these problems. Applied animal behaviorists that are certified have usually undergone many years of formal education (usually PhD level), done internships and have undergone many hours of hands-on experience. See this information from the Animal Behavior Society.
I have to admit I have been frustrated numerous times at how overused the term “behaviorist” has become. One of my more recent experiences was especially disheartening; on a networking group, a person had posted about her rescue and as I went to research her site, I saw she claimed herself to be CPDT-KA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed, a certification given by the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, or CCPDT) as well as CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, a certification given by the Animal Behavior Society). There are very few CAABs and I thought I knew of all those within my own state, so I delved more and found her claims to be fraudulent. She didn’t hold–nor had she ever held–certifications to these end. It is very easy to look up these sites and find who is certified. After a phone call from one of the organization’s people in charge, she quickly removed these qualifications from her site, and simply “grew up with dogs and has worked with them all her life…”
It’s maddening to me that people will fraudulently misrepresent themselves on this level, but even if someone doesn’t claim actual certifications, they will still throw around words and labels to market themselves. My purpose in writing this is to help more of the general public understand how easy it is to be misled, especially since there are no regulations. While it is not illegal for anyone to call themselves a behaviorist, I find it highly unethical that people are using this term so loosely.
As a consumer, it’s important to ask questions. Anyone can write marketing material that claims they are “positive reinforcement only” or teach dogs in their own “natural way.” It’s important that consumers ask them what their actual techniques and methods are. How do they address problem behaviors? What equipment will they use or recommend? Does it teach the dog what to do, or does it only punish behavior? What are their qualifications? Do they hold certifications? Have they apprenticed with other trainers?
The more questions are asked, the more you will learn about the trainer and if s/he is the best fit for you and your dog. We always recommend trainers who take a gentle approach to teaching a dog confidence and skills to be happy and make the right decisions, rather than use harsh, punitive-based techniques. This article from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) is great at giving pointers on choosing an adequate trainer.
We are always happy to help you with your training, or provide quality referrals!
Owner, Delightful Doggies