As anyone with a strong professional drive and the constant need for validation, I follow a lot of social media, forums, newsletters, and other resources on a regular basis. Something I’ve noticed in most of these groups is that people are always looking for free advice. “My dog is aggressive” or “my dog destroys things when home alone” or “my dog is so hyper I don’t know what to do with him.” My advice, every single time is “talk to a veterinary behaviorist.” Today, it came to my attention that a lot of people don’t know the difference between one type of animal professional and another. I thought it would be useful to define these different individuals, their niche in the world of animal behavior (realizing that this is a bit of a personal opinion), and why you might seek out one over another.
Since animal behavior is still relatively new, I like to compare it to human medicine. It makes it a little easier to wrap your head around. Realize, they are not exact parallels, but it’s a good jumping off point. Let’s start at the top and work our way down.
Veterinary Behaviorist – Veterinarians are required to complete a 4-year undergraduate degree and a 4-year veterinary program. Once they complete their schooling they need to pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) in order to practice medicine. Veterinarians are akin to medical doctors. Just like medical doctors, veterinarians can then pursue further training to become boarded. A veterinary behaviorist needs to complete a residency. This can be either a traditional residency, completed at a veterinary college, or a non-traditional residency where they have a mentor but work in a private practice. These individuals are required to take certain college courses, publish a research project, and meet specific case load guidelines. Once their application and coursework is complete, they then sit for a 2 day, rigorous board examination. If they pass, and not many do, they are then considered Diplomates of the American Veterinary College of Behavior or a “DACVB.” They are at the top of the professional totem pole. They are the only ones who can legally and effectively diagnose, prescribe medication, and write a full treatment plan. If these people cannot help you, no one can. There are less than 80 in all of North America. They can be compared to a boarded psychiatrist.
Professional Focus: True behavior disorders: compulsive/repetitive, aggression, panic disorders, behavior problems that have not responded to training alone, etc.
Behavior Technician – This is a licensed veterinary technician that has become boarded through the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (AVBT). As a technician, they must complete an associates or bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology, pass the Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE). Once they pass their examination and granted a license to practice veterinary technology, these individuals can then pursue specialty just like veterinarians. In order to sit for their board examination, they must complete 4,000 hours of behavior related work, submit case reports, complete a skills list, and publish an article in a peer reviewed journal. If the application passes, they then submit video proof of certain skills and sit for the examination in October. Once they pass, they are granted their Veterinary Technician Specialty in Behavior (VTS) and called Behavior Technicians. They are the equivalent of a psychiatric nurse. They have a strong medical background, work closely with veterinarians, but are highly educated in the realm of behavior and behavior modification.
Professional Focus: Supporting the treatment of true behavior disorders, assisting in the implementation of behavior programs in other hospitals, animal welfare, preventative behavioral medicine, etc.
Applied Animal Behaviorist – These individuals are the equivalent of a psychologist in human mental health. They do not have a medical background, but have a strong education in ethology, learning theory, and communication. To become an applied animal behaviorist, they must complete a masters or doctorates in animal sciences. After completing the requirements for certification, those with a master’s degree will obtain the title of Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) and those with a doctorate will be Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB). These individuals are well versed in more complicated behavior disorders, but cannot prescribe medication to help with the underlying medical component. They will have access to the most up-to-date research and information to help companion animals.
Professional Focus: Beginning of behavior disorders, prevention of escalation, intensive behavior modification programs, etc.
Trainers – Unfortunately, this is a bit of a “catch-all” category. Not all trainers are created equal. There are a variety of specialized academies, schools, and courses they can take to prove their merit, but as a whole, this is a very loose organization of people who train dogs. I think of trainers as “school teachers” who teach normal dogs basic manners and cues, “counselors” who can work with some minor abnormalities like mild fears or difficulty concentrating, and “intervention counselors” who work with the behavior modification aspect of behavior disorders. While not impossible, trainers will have a challenge working with true aggression or panic disorders. These are medical problems that need to be addressed by a veterinarian. A good trainer will recognize when they’re unable to help a family and will refer them to a veterinarian behaviorist. The veterinary behaviorist will help put together a treatment plan that the trainer can effectively help implement. They work synergistically. People to look for will have a variety of certifications:
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP)
Jean Donaldson Academy graduates
Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge [+/- Skills] Assessed (CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA)
Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA)
Fear Free Certification
Professional Focus: Preventative training, socialization, mild intervention techniques, and support to a DACVB or A/CAAB.
Beware: Since we’re having this discussion, it’s important to point out some red flags all pet owners should be aware of. Any pet professional who “guarantees” their work, talks about “dominance,” or refer to themselves as a “balanced trainer” are dangerous. While they may have the best of intentions, they use out dated methodologies that, more often than not, cause more problems than they “fix.” This is a topic all in itself; one intent to write, but is too much to be included in this article.
I hope this information has been helpful. It’s tough to know who you’re really working with sometimes, but this will at least point you in the right direction. If you need any recommendations or questions, you’re welcome to contact us here at the Animal Behavior Wellness Center. Even if you’re not in our region, we can review a trainer’s background and give you some insight.