Friday, January 6, 2012

What is a Behaviorist?

I am asked fairly regularly about trainers and behaviorists and about recommending a particular person or group.  

The issue of who is or is not a behaviorist is unclear in our current training environment. "Behaviorist" is a tag that generates lots of marketable attention. Claiming to be a behaviorist specializing in aggression or dangerous dogs is an even bigger selling point, yet determining qualification to treat aggressive dogs is a serious issue due to the danger to both the public and to the dogs.  Today we have people popping up claiming to be "dangerous dog rehabilitators" or "aggressive dog specialists".  Some of these folks have extensive experience and are very talented; some are less so, and some, sadly, are frankly in the mix to be perceived as the baddest in the 'hood.

I do not label myself as a behaviorist.  My certification through the Council for Certification of Professional Dog Trainers is as a Certified Behavior Consultant-Canine-Knowledge Assessed.  That means I have met certain criteria of education and experience, provided professional references, documented such, been peer reviewed, and then passed a certification exam.  This certification requires that I pursue continuing education in the field to maintain my standing.  I also have a B.S. degree with concentration in Psychology.  That does not, in my mind, make me a behaviorist.

I reserve the title "Behaviorist" for two select groups of people; Veterinary Behaviorists-people with degrees as Veterinarians who pursue additional education in the field of behavior and obtain that Board Certified designation, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, those individuals with Doctoral degrees in animal behavior.  These two groups of professionals are the ones that I feel have earned the term "Behaviorist".

That is not to say that others are deficient.  I look at the field of animal behavior work as similar to the medical field.  Board Certified specialists (cardiologists, neurologists, etc.) are at the top of the field.  They have a medical degree and extensive additional training.  They are the level of Veterinary Behaviorists.  

Experienced behavior consultants certified by recognized, professional, peer-reviewed groups (CCPDT, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, and the International Association of Canine Professionals come to mind) are more at the level of a Physicians' Assistant or a Nurse Practitioner-we can do a lot, but we are not the top of the food chain. There are certainly cases that are beyond our experience and training.  We cannot perform medical interventions like prescribing medication.  

Similarly, certified dog trainers (such as CPDT-KA, CDT (from IACP), KPA (by Karen Prior Academy), Victoria Stilwell's Positive trainers, etc.) are talented and well trained resources that may or may not also have extensive behavior training but are recognized as highly competent trainers by a clear review process that includes references, existing and continuing education, and documented experience.

Scattered along the continuum below are experienced but uncertified trainers, comfortable in their skills in teaching non-problematic dogs manners and performance sports but not specifically addressing serious behavior issues.  Then come new trainers and those who have been pressed into dog training duties by their pet shop employers.  The talents and experience of these folks vary but they certainly contribute to the overall picture of helping owners and animals achieve a good, cooperative relationship.

When it comes to working with aggressive and potential dangerous dogs, I am very conservative in recommending "rehabilitators" or trainers.  The best choice is usually to consult a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.  They are trained and able to assess not only the dog's behavior, but also any potential underlying medical issues that may be contributing to the problem-and to medicate or treat those issues. The problem is that there are very few of these individuals in the Unites States. Not all of these folks necessarily specialize in aggression, especially when it involves truly dangerous animals; like all professionals they have their specialties.

The next line of referral is to certified individuals that have built up extensive experience over time and have elected to deal with aggression issues.  There are still relatively few of us; as of January 2012 there are about 60 CBCC-KA certified behavior consultants in the US, and not all accept aggressive dogs.  Other groups such as IAABC have similarly low numbers of certified individuals.  To determine which of these is appropriate for a dangerous animal requires a frank discussion with the individual about their past experience and training.  I can't speak for others, but my work is based on about fourteen years of training experience, and extensive dealings with varying degrees of aggression and ultimately dangerous dogs since about 2003.  I have dealt with animal that have killed humans-yet I don't claim to know it all.  I am still constantly learning. 

As far as general trainers, dog obedience instructors, etc.; there are many talented, responsible and dedicated people out there that do a lot of good.  Whether these folks are qualified to deal with advanced cases is a matter of individual experience and education.  The person at the pet store that teaches simple sit, stay, down may not be the right choice for an involved behavior problem, even if it does not involve aggression.  If one of these instructors is your only option, interview them extensively about their training and experience and get several references before committing to any program, especially if it seems to be a “one size fits all” program. 

Lastly, the group that I am most concerned with are those who think that being an "aggressive dog rehabilitator" is an advertisement of prowess. These folks are in it for the ego trip.  These "trainers" make a big deal of bragging that they deal with the "baddest of the bad".  They tend to display bite scars as badges of honor.  Sorry, but every bite that I have received is a sign that I made a mistake, and at least temporarily failed the dog.  They are not bragging matters. Depending on the venue, a bite by a problem dog may be a death sentence for the dog, even if the trainer made the mistake.  Ego should not enter the equation.

When choosing the person that helps you with problem behavior, or even simple training, please be very aware; regardless of the level of training or expertise an individual has, the trainer, behaviorist, or rehabilitator should not use any technique that they can’t do right in front of you.  You, as the animal’s owner and caretaker, should have the final say regarding tools and techniques.  If ANYTHING the trainer does makes you uncomfortable, ask questions and, if you still feel uncomfortable, ask them to try another strategy.  If they cannot comply-find another trainer.