When it comes to pet behavior, there’s no shortage of advice out there. From TV shows to training books to know-it-all neighbors, seemingly everyone knows what’s best for your rambunctious Lab and snappy Shih Tzu. But the truth is, when your furry friend is experiencing a problem—whether it’s medical or behavioral—it’s best to leave it to the professionals.
The question is, which professional? There are a number of specialists with different levels of training and education, some of which are more appropriate than others, depending on your pet’s individual needs. Most fall into the following four categories.
Although some dog trainers hold certificates from specialized schools, no formal education or licensing is required to become a trainer. Some may have advanced animal-behavior degrees, while others have years of experience apprenticing under a mentor. A good way to assess whether a trainer fits your needs is to research any programs she completed or other professionals she’s worked with, advises the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are different schools of thought when it comes to dog training—and some of them are outdated. Just as approaches to human medicine and psychology have evolved over the years, so has our understanding of dog behavior. The American Humane Society recommends seeking a trainer who practices positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior. Dominance-based training, once widely practiced, has been debunked and renounced by associations, including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Trainers who still use methods including choke collars, yelling, grabbing neck scruff, or other frightening or painful tactics should be avoided.
Certified Professional Dog Trainers
Whereas anyone can call himself a dog trainer, certified professional dog trainers (CPDTs) have been endorsed by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. To earn the distinction, candidates must accrue 300 hours of training experience, obtain letters of recommendation, and pass a standardized test. To maintain the distinction, CPDTs must earn continuing-education credits and abide by a code of ethics that stresses the importance of positive-reinforcement training.
How do you tell if your trainer is certified? Easy—look for the CPDT initials after his name, or consult the CCPDT’s directory.
Applied animal behaviorists
If your dog has a more serious behavior problem, you might consider consulting an applied animal behaviorist. There are two types: Certified applied animal behaviorists (CAABs) have obtained doctoral degrees in animal behavior, while associate certified applied animal behaviorists (ACAABs) hold master’s degrees.
Both CAABs and ACAABs are experts in behavior modification and work closely with veterinarians to design treatment plans and, when appropriate, to select medications. Have a finicky feline on your hands? Applied animal behaviorists are experts in both dog and cat behavior.
Just as your primary-care veterinarian doesn’t perform complicated hip surgeries, she’s probably not an expert in behavioral problems. In addition to veterinary school, veterinary behaviorists complete a residency in behavior and earn a special certification through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. In addition to providing training guidance and behavior-modification recommendations, veterinary behaviorists can prescribe medications to help with conditions such as anxiety and compulsion.
Concerned about your dog’s behavior? Your first step should be to contact your veterinarian. Some underlying medical problems can produce behavioral symptoms, so it’s important to make sure your pet is healthy before undergoing any training.