How to find that right helper for your dog’s behavior issue(s)

With the wide variety of people advertising their ability to help you with your dog’s behavior concerns, it can be difficult to know where to find the appropriate help. Here are some tips on when to seek out a trainer verses seeking out a behaviorist.

When to seek out a trainer

Training and socialization at an early age is the best way to prevent behavior problems.

One of the very important roles that trainers play is providing puppy socialization classes. During a puppy’s socialization period (3 weeks to about 12 weeks), it is essential that they be introduced to many people, places, dogs, and things as possible in a very positive manner. Puppy classes provide a safe way to allow your puppy to fulfill these needs, and trainers are also wonderful at giving advice on the puppy problems that most owners encounter (house training, play biting, chewing, etc.).

Trainers can also help address nuisance behaviors in dogs. Nuisance behaviors are behaviors that are annoying to owners but are not necessarily abnormal behaviors for a dog- for example, counter surfing, pulling on leash, barking, and jumping. These issues can often be addressed when trainers help the owner understand how to best communicate with their pet and work to resolve these issues through clear communication and effective, humane training tools.

Training can also be a very enriching experience for a dog, especially one that is highly intelligent and motivated. Classes that teach advanced obedience, scent work, agility, flyball or herding can help prevent behavior issues brought on by boredom or a lack of mental stimulation. They are also a fun way to improve the human animal bond.

Positive reinforcement rewards good behavior and creates an environment of trust. Avoid trainers that use punishment or negative reinforcement (i.e. prong or shock collars).

If you find a trainer comfortable addressing behavior concerns, they can play an important role. For instance, with dogs that are leash reactive (meaning bark and lunge at dogs, people or cars on leash), trainers can help work with owners to practice safe ways to manage and improve their dog’s behavior. This and similar issues should be addressed in conjunction with behaviorists for the best outcome.

Once you realize you want or need a trainer, the next step is finding the right one. Trainers should only use positive reinforcement techniques,  i.e. rewarding (usually with food) the behavior that you want. Punishment or dominance based training techniques have proven to increase the likelihood of aggression and can make owners appear unpredictable and threatening to their dog. Trainers should not promote the use of prong, pinch or shock collars. They should also be comfortable with you shadowing one of the classes. The American Society of Veterinary Behavior has an in-depth article on how to choose a trainer.


When to seek out a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Veterinarian or Veterinary Behaviorist

During a behavior consult, a veterinarian will obtain a full history, perform a physical examination, and make recommendations for testing, behavior modifications and medications if indicated.

You should seek out assistance for certain behavior problems from somebody who studies canine behavior. Although trainers do obviously have vast knowledge of behavior, a behaviorist in the canine realm implies someone that will sit down and take a long period of time to discuss your dog’s history, your concerns, and your goals.  There is a gray area, and some trainers may take on this role in addition to classes or training sessions.

A behaviorist can help address concerns about anxiety. This can include car ride anxiety, anxiety with new people or places, separation anxiety or anxiety over stressful events such as grooming, boarding, or veterinary visits.

It is also important to consult a behaviorist for any case about aggression. Aggression is a safety concern for people and animals. Aggression most commonly stems from an underlying fear, and speaking with a behaviorist about how to effectively lessen that fear and decrease risk of harm to others is extremely important.

Veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists play an important role in identifying possible underlying medical causes for behavior issues. For example, compulsively licking the floor can indicate gastrointestinal disease or house-soiling can indicate an endocrine disorder. Aggression can indicate irritability and pain. Barking or walking at night can indicate sensory decline. A full physical exam and potentially additional diagnostics are important to evaluate your pet’s full state of health.

There are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists that have gone through extensive training to help you understand and improve your pet’s behavior. You can peruse their website to learn more- Your veterinarian can help assess your pet’s health. Some veterinarians are comfortable addressing behavior concerns, and if they aren’t, they should be able to help you find the appropriate expertise. Veterinary behaviorists are veterinarians who have completed at least three additional years of training in animal behavior, and they can provide the highest level of expertise in that field. You can peruse the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists here:

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