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Dog Behavior - Results vs Theories

by Guy Kantak on February 21, 2014 at 12:13 hrs

A recent post on a Facebook trainer group discussed what it takes for a person to call themselves a "behaviorist". Several professional organizations have (in the past) argued the title should be reserved for Veterinarians that are Board Certified in the specialty - others suggested a Master's or Doctorate in animal behavior / psychology be required. The American College of Veterinarian Behaviorist lists only one member meeting their requirements in the entire State of Ohio.

The reality is that many trainers and other canine professionals throw the term "behaviorist" around rather loosely. I always promote myself as a Certified Pro Trainer, but over 70% of my service is for behavioral issues in dogs. From discussions with other trainers, I would say this is fairly consistent across the country. I find it interesting that there are about 10 times as many monthly internet searches for dog trainers as there are for behaviorists. If most people are seeking a professional for behavioral issues (as experience shows), why are they looking to trainers for help?

To answer that questions, let me offer an interesting client I worked with last year with a rather difficult young puppy, The pup was around 6 months of age as I recall, and had little interest in doing anything the owner wished. The dog clearly wanted to do as it pleased, and was very willing to challenge the owner's wishes with mean spirited lunging, snapping and biting - troubling behavior in such a young dog. Not mincing words, I told the owner the dog was basically being a "brat", and that he would need to establish some clear leadership in the home while getting the dog trained ASAP. Nobody would be comfortable living with this dog once larger, if these problems weren't corrected.

After checking back following a 2nd visit, the owner advised me he was taking the dog to a local Veterinarian Behaviorist and forwarded a long list of behavioral maladies they had "diagnosed" over a lengthy and expensive visit. As I read through the list, I was thinking to myself - "yes, brat, brat, brat....". The owner did not provide any detail on what plan was being put in place to help the dog, and never responded to my request several months later to provide a progress report. I have no idea if the owner still has the dog, whether it improved, or whether he just didn't care for my advice. In any event, perhaps this owner was more satisfied having a detailed diagnosis of problems vs the working solution I offered.

As I talk with clients and other trainers, it seems to me this trend is increasing. I believe over the past decades, science has made a strong push toward suggesting if we understand why a dog does something, solutions will be guaranteed. This thinking sidesteps the reality that when working with dogs, we are always dealing with theories and opinions. Reality and Nature are very different. While no human can ever know for certain what drives the behavior of a dog, you can see and asses results of varied methods used when working with dogs. This has been ongoing between man and dog for thousands of years - so science is a very new player in the "behavior" field. In my other career, good firefighters focus on methods proven to obtain best results, and worry about why they work later. Perhaps those wishing to offer behavioral assistance can take a page out of that playbook.

The reality of working with dogs is that regardless of the "why" something is occurring, you still need to implement a strategy to make improvements AND assess progress as you try it. Good trainers understand this, they understand that some dogs will surprise you and not respond as expected, and they have a multitude of strategies available to gain results. Good trainers have a strong working model of canine behavior that is continually updated based on real life experience. Perhaps that's why people needing help with behavioral issues seek a trainer first and foremost.