Trainer or Behaviorist – Which One Is Right For You?

A trainer should be utilized when your pet needs to learn how to behave appropriately.  A trainer is also very helpful for teaching manners and commands.  All dogs should have a basic understanding of obedience and depending on your goals for your dog he may require advanced training.

A behaviorist should be utilized when you are experiencing behavior problems or issues with your pet.  These behaviors may or may not be abnormal but most importantly they are not compatible with your lifestyle.  Abnormal behaviors can include anxieties, fears, phobias, compulsive behaviors and certain types of aggression.  These behaviors are maladaptive and can be detrimental to your pet’s quality of life.

The best analogy I can use is that of a child, his teacher, psychologist and pediatrician.  You send your child to school so he can learn to read and write.  If he starts to develop behavior issues, for example a phobia of leaving the house, you would first consult with your pediatrician to rule out any contributing medical cause(s) and then you would consult with a psychologist to help you understand 1) the underlying motivation behind the behavior and 2) an effective treatment program for modifying his behavior.  There may come a time when you need to have your pediatrician prescribe behavioral medication or at this point you would consult a psychiatrist.

A companion animal has essentially the same set of experts.  You take your dog to a dog trainer to learn how to sit, stay, come, shake .etc.  If your dog develops separation anxiety you would first consult your veterinarian to rule out any possible medical causes and then you would consult with a behaviorist to help you understand 1) the underlying motivation behind the behavior and 2) an effective treatment program for modifying your dog’s behavior.  As with your child, there may come a time when you need to have your veterinarian prescribe behavioral medication.

If your pet needs to learn manners, obedience or a specific sport (agility, flyball etc.) find a trainer that works best for you.  If your pet is not acting normal, consult your veterinarian.  If you have consulted your veterinarian and your dog is displaying behavior that is reducing his quality of life (and yours), consult a qualified behaviorist.

Some advice:  Anyone can call themselves a trainer – be sure you ask for references and ask questions about their training philosophy.  Some trainers are certified by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers ( www.apdt.org); you can find a list of APDT certified trainers in your area.

The term “behaviorist” is misused in many situations. Some professionals refer to themselves as behaviorists but they are using the term inappropriately.  Professionals without an upper level degree that specialize in behavior should rightly be classified as counselors.  Behaviorists have upper level degrees (MS or PhD) in an animal behavior related field.  Some behaviorists are certified by the Animal Behavior Society ( http://animalbehaviorsociety.org/); you can find a list of certified behaviorists in your area. Be sure to do your homework and find out the qualifications for any professional you trust with your pet.

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