Some pet issues can be solved with simple obedience training. Others need the tailored instruction of a behaviorist or a trainer who has experience with behavior modification. First, it’s important to see a vet to make sure that none of the behavior comes from a physiological cause, like illness or pain. Once you’ve ruled that out, seek a behaviorist or trainer who does behavior consultations if your pet has any of the following problems:
l Aggression towards people and/or other animals. “The first time a dog growls, [you] should see a behaviorist right away, no matter what the context is,” says Mary Huntsberry of Gaithersburg’s Helping Pets Behave. “There’s a lot of behaviors that lead up to the growl that are being missed.”
l Fear, says Old Town Dog Behavior’s Hilary Bolea: “Any time a dog is becoming afraid of something, and increasingly afraid over time.”
l Resource-guarding over food or toys.
l Separation anxiety.
l House training issues beyond puppyhood.
When you decide to address your dog’s problems, you can choose an animal behaviorist or a trainer who specializes in behavior consultations.
The former might be better for more complex, severe problems associated with former abuse or neglect, or aggression, but the latter can help with problems like barking, resource guarding and separation anxiety. Trainers who have studied behaviorist techniques might have experience with tough cases of aggression, as well.
Many behaviorists and trainers have backgrounds in human as well as animal psychology. To become a certified applied animal behaviorist, a master’s or PhD in behavioral science or a veterinary degree with a behavioral residency is a requirement. They are also required to publish in professional journals and pass qualifying exams.
A certified professional dog trainer (either knowledge assessed, or knowledge and skills assessed) has at least a high school diploma, has passed exams and has professional experience.
“I think that experience is very important, I think education is very important, I think certification is the icing on the cake,” said Yody Blass of Companion Animal Behavior, who is working toward certification from the National Association of Animal Behaviorists. .
Most trainers’ and behaviorists’ rates depend on the severity and type of problem: $100 for a one-time behavior consult, up to $500 for multiple sessions to solve extensive problems.
Hiring a trainer or behaviorist might make you think of Cesar Millan, TV’s “Dog Whisperer,” but behaviorists and “positive trainers” take a different approach. Many experts now consider dominance training — which is inspired by wolf pack behavior — to be ineffective and often frightening to dogs, and based on outmoded research.
Before you hire a trainer or behaviorist, ask about his or her training methods. Many identify as “positive trainers” but have a loose definition of the term, so ask whether they use prong collars or leash corrections (when the owner pulls sharply on the dog’s leash), which are discouraged under reward-based positive training.
You should also ask about their prior experience dealing with your pet’s problem. The behaviorist’s or trainer’s résumé and referrals should speak for themselves, so don’t be afraid to ask for references.
Animal behaviorists can diagnose problems in dogs by watching their body language for subtle signs of stress that owners often miss. Here are a few pointers:
l Study your dog’s behavior when a stranger comes to the house or when it encounters a new dog on the sidewalk. “Dogfights happen when one dog is more excited to meet a dog than the other dog is,” Old Town Dog Behavior owner Hilary Bolea says. “If I see another dog that’s hunched down, holding their breath, that’s a bad situation.”
l Watch your dog’s mouth, and the muscles along its back, for signs of tension. If they’re loose, your dog is in a good mood, but if they’re tense, your dog is stressed.
l Study your dog to learn what motivates it. “Not all dogs like treats,” Yody Blass of Companion Animal Behavior says. “Look for what gets them going, interested, doing things and enjoying life.”
l Blass recommends Dognition, a 90-minute series of observational excercises that can help you understand how your dog learns. She plans to incorporate it in her practice.