Anyone can claim to be a behavior expert. Here’s how to find someone qualified.
So, your dog has a behavior problem and you need help. Get your White Pages and a scarf. Blindfold yourself. Open the White Pages and put your finger down at random. Congratulations -- you’ve just found a legally qualified dog behaviorist. This week I’ll explain why that’s so, and how you can sort out the real experts from the self-proclaimed.
How to Find a Dog Behavior Consultant
No US jurisdiction sets any educational or licensing requirements for people who hire themselves out as experts on aggression, separation anxiety, and other behavior problems. Anyone can call himself a behaviorist or behavior consultant, never mind whether he so much as took Psych 101. That is bad news. An ignorant and inept approach to your dog’s problems will waste your time and money. What’s worse, it may further damage your dog. Commonly, for example, hack behavior specialists tell clients that their dog’s growling or biting reflects a dominance challenge, and they advise a punitive, confrontational approach. In fact, aggression can arise for many reasons. Genuine dominance aggression is believed to be rare; a much more common culprit is fear. Additionally, it’s important to rule out illness and pain whenever behavior deteriorates suddenly, especially in an older dog. And furthermore, behavior experts agree that alpha rolls, scruff shakes, collar jerks, and other forms of force present a high risk of backfiring. Translation: if you scare the dog enough, he may fight back.
What to Look for in a Good Dog Behavior Consultant
To find the right combination of experience, book learning, and insight and creativity, you’ll need to ask your prospective behavior consultant some questions. I say “behavior consultant,” not “trainer,” because these are different skill sets, though with a lot of overlap.
Let’s get experience out of the way first. Obviously, the more the better, but all experience isn’t equal. Dog people specialize; you can spend a lifetime perfecting your skills at training dogs in the sport of agility, for instance. I, on the other hand, am obsessed with behavior modification; no one should ever hire me to teach their dog to run an obstacle course with speed and grace.
Finally, beware of the “expert” who learned everything he knows twenty years ago and has been doing the same things over and over ever since. Science marches on. We’ve learned a great deal in the past couple of decades about how dogs’ minds and bodies work and how best to apply that knowledge.
The Importance of Education
Speaking of knowledge: a good behavior consultant will be familiar with what’s called “learning theory.” That is a well-established explanation, derived from observation and laboratory experiment, of how animals learn and how best to teach them. Anyone who teaches anything to any person or animal is applying learning theory, just as when you play catch you’re applying the laws of physics. But you’d probably like the designer of the airplane you’re in to have explicit technical knowledge. The same should go for the person who’s messing with your dog.
Your behavior consultant should be up to speed on studies of dogs’ cognitive abilities – how they perceive the world and solve problems in it. A close knowledge of dogs’ body language and social behavior is essential. Any spiel about wolf packs, for instance, is usually a red flag. Free-living dogs may band together temporarily to, say, run down an animal. But they don’t live in structured, long-lasting groups. The “wild pack” isn’t a good template for their life with us. Donna Hill is a training consultant with Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs whose academic background is in zoology. Donna points out that “interspecies group living” is a “different dynamic altogether.”
Watch Out for Medical Conditions
Medical conditions and medications can affect behavior. Take a sweet-tempered dog who suddenly snaps when her ears are rubbed. I wouldn’t even think about doing behavior work until we knew for sure that dog’s ears were free of infection. Ethically, a non-veterinarian can’t offer diagnoses or prescribe medications, but she should recognize when medical rule-outs are in order, and she should be generally familiar with common psychoactive medications. Or at least know where to look them up!
That Little Extra Something
Some crucial qualities are hard to judge. Call them creativity and sympathy. There is one generally well-established scientific basis for working with dogs, but there are millions of dogs. It’s true that similar problems often call for similar approaches. For instance, when I meet a mouthy but friendly adolescent Pit Bull, odds are good I’ll be advising plenty of exercise, plenty of chew toys, and attention contingent on polite behavior. But I will always want to be sure I understand why this particular animal is behaving in this particular way. And people have limited time and energy. What interventions will be easiest and most effective? Expect a good behavior consultant to ask a lot of questions, think hard, and offer advice tailored to your situation.
One last point: the world is full of people happy to blame you for your dog’s problems. In fact, some dogs are born vulnerable, others astonishingly resilient. Perhaps you contributed to your dog’s problems, but I’ll bet you were doing the best you knew how at the time. Punishment is a dangerous behavioral tool, to be used sparingly and in emergencies. Hire a consultant who’s gentle with both you and your dog.