Dog Trainers Versus Animal Behaviorists

Which is Right for Your Dog?

dog trainer or behaviorist with dog
Dennis Kleiman

Are you looking for someone to help you train your dog or work with a behavior problem that your dog has? It can be hard to find the right person for the job. You've probably heard of dog trainers and animal behaviorists, but do you know the difference between the two? How can you determine which one is right for your dog?

There are many dog-related careers that are often misunderstood by the public. One common example is the confusion between dog trainers and animal behaviorists.

What's In a Name?

The truth is that there are several different titles used for those who work with dog training and behavior. Many of them deal with both dog training and behavior because the two go hand-in-hand. However, not all are equipped to handle major behavior issues.

It's important to understand that anyone can call himself a dog trainer or even a behaviorist. There are no laws dictating what defines a dog trainer or a behaviorist. As the consumer, it is up to you to learn the difference and to research the professional before you hire them to work with you and your dog.

Fortunately, there are also various certifications and degrees to help you understand the education and training a person has. 

Dog Trainers

Dog trainers train dogs to perform specific tasks or actions. They also teach dogs not to do certain things. Some trainers will work with problem behaviors, even delving into the behaviorist side of things. However, a good trainer knows his or her own limits and, if necessary, will refer you to someone better equipped to deal with the issue. Some dog trainers work in the field as a hobby, while others are professional dog trainers with some kind of certification, often through the CCPDT or IACP.

When looking for a dog trainer, research his or her certifications, education and experience. Ask for references as well. Letters after the name, while important, are not going to assure you that the trainer is good. Conversely, there are plenty of excellent trainers without letters after their names. In addition, some dog trainers also have certification in behavior as well.

Animal Behaviorists

Again, anyone can claim to be a behaviorist. However, technically speaking, professional behaviorists are called Applied Animal Behaviorists. They earn this title through formal education and earning an MS, MA, or Ph.D. in animal behavior. Some go on to earn additional certifications such as CAAB or ACAAB. It would be reasonable to think of an applied animal behaviorist as a kind of pet psychologist. 

Applied animal behaviorists focus on shaping behaviors in animals and tend to work with pets displaying behavior problems. They can recognize how and why your pet’s behavior is abnormal, and can effectively teach you how to understand and work with your pet. Good behaviorists are experts in behavior modification and also deeply understand the normal behavior of the particular species being treated. In addition, they spend a lot of time counseling humans about the way they interact with their pets. They are not trainers but are often able to give advice about training.

Veterinary Behaviorists

If animal behaviorists are like animal psychologists, then veterinary behaviorists are a bit like animal psychiatrists. They also work in behavior modification and deeply understand the behavior of each species they treat. However, a veterinary behaviorist is an actual veterinarian who has gone on to specialize in behavior. This generally means earning a bachelor's degree, then attending four years of vet school. After becoming a DVM, the candidate must complete an internship, a residency in behavior, author a scientific paper, write peer-reviewed case studies, and pass a rigorous examination. Upon completion, the vet can become a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. A veterinary behaviorist can prescribe medication, but will not always do so depending upon the case. 

To better understand what the above professionals will be doing, it may be helpful for you to learn the difference between training and behavior management. Also, remember that behavior issues may stem from physical problems. If your dog develops a behavioral problem, talk to your vet. It might actually be related to a treatable medical condition. Seek the help of a trainer or behaviorist once health issues have been ruled out by a veterinarian.