What is a “behaviorist”, anyway?

“..I spoke with the behaviorist my vet recommended, and then I spoke with a local behaviorist that my neighbor told me about…”, the woman explained as we spoke on the telephone regarding her aggressive dog who had now bitten two people, requiring stitches in both cases. I nearly literally began to grind my teeth in frustration at the sound of that overly and misused term, “behaviorist”. In this case, I knew the people she was referring to as “behaviorists”.

The first individual is a veterinarian who has shown a strong interest in behavior for a few years. She has given talks on puppy issues at a few places, and attended a training class once that I was teaching. I respect her desire to learn – but she is still very much learning at this point. She is not board certified in behavior. The second person is a dog trainer who has been training for perhaps five years, and I’m sure he is a talented individual but I would hesitate to think of him as an expert in a case that is heartbreaking for a family.

As a trainer and someone who has worked with behavior issues for years, I have nothing against these individuals. But I do wonder what can be done about the use of the word “behaviorist” when clients are looking for expert help with their difficult, severe, and often life-threatening (at least for the dog if not for the humans it might encounter) doggy situations.

My understanding is that the term “behaviorist” implies academic credentials of some sort which should be beyond and above, sort of like the difference between a PhD and a B.A. – or an x-ray technician and an M.D. I really don’t think it’s the sort of title that one should give to oneself – or that one should accept when someone tries to give it to you.

Why, you might wonder, do I feel this way? Why do I even care?

Because, and I have thought about this, I have watched the “new world” of dog training evolve – a world where there is now an emphasis on the individual temperament and personality of both the dog and the owner; where there are many types of tools available that didn’t exist earlier (no-pull harnesses, head halters, the use of psychotropic drugs to aid in the treatment of behavior problems); where there are new sports that didn’t exist (fly-ball, agility, rally); where veterinarians are now board-certified in behavior and where there are now professional dog trainers’ organizations. The American Veterinary Medical Association is now stepping in to decide what aspects of training dogs should be considered “veterinary medicine”. Dog owners now have a plethora of possibilities available to them, and along with these changes come new standards for treatment, and new expectations. It isn’t enough anymore that a dog can do his basic obedience commands (although that will always be important) – now an expert must be able to evaluate in a professional manner how *all* of the above tools/possibilities might work to help to solve behavioral issues.

This doesn’t mean that a regular “dog trainer” might not be the one who can best handle any given situation – someone who has intuition, experience and referrals from other clients and veterinarians. But it’s only fair to delineate ourselves by what we actually are: I am proud of my years of experience and know what I can successfully do. I, (and others like me) may have worked with more behavior cases than many of those just coming out of school: but I am *not* a behaviorist. I am a dog trainer who works with behavior issues, and I have my place in the scheme of things. When we consider all of the “new” legal liability, professional expectations and what clients are now looking for it is correct for all of us to be clearly defined.

As I spoke to the client regarding her aggression issues with her dog, I refrained from giving a lecture regarding the expertise and definitions of titles in the dog-training world. She felt she had discussed her issues with two experts, since they were “behaviorists”. As it stands now, the dog – in line with their recommendations and in spite of the fact that neither person actually saw the dog – will likely be euthanized in the next few days.

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