There is a vast difference between the self-taught dog expert and a behaviourist with a good formal qualification, in the same way that there is a huge difference between a registered child psychologist and the woman down the road who happens to have a couple of kids or used to run a play group! While most people wouldn’t dream of entrusting their child’s welfare to someone who simply claimed to know a lot about kids, but had no formal training, dog owners often seem quite prepared to do exactly this when it comes to their dogs.

 

I am sure that everyone reading this article would agree that dogs are precious, sentient beings and that they should have access to professionals who are in a position to give humane and science-based advice that above all, will first do no harm. In light of this, there are certain “must haves” for a dog behaviour practitioner and certain “red flags” that will tell you whether someone should be avoided.

 

Must haves:

 

  1. A dog behaviourist MUST have some formal qualification in the field. No amount of experience will make up for this. A proper scientific understanding of learning theory, the workings of the brain and how emotions affect behaviour is vital.

  2. A dog behaviourist MUST be familiar with what modern research tells us about the social behaviour of dogs. There is now overwhelming evidence that dogs have no interest in trying to dominate their owners. Trying to achieve some sort of mythical status over your dog is not only a waste of time, it is detrimental to your dog.

  3. A dog behaviourist MUST have a thorough understanding of the science behind positive reinforcement training and will be an expert at using positive reinforcement to change behaviour.

  4. A dog behaviourist MUST understand that all behaviour is driven by emotion (fear, pleasure, relief, frustration) and that only by taking into account the underlying emotion behind a behaviour will there be any chance of changing behavioural responses.

  5. A dog behaviourist MUST make use of the scientific principles of desensitization (very gradually exposing a dog to something potentially scary in a non-threatening manner) and counter-conditioning (pairing something previously perceived as scary with good stuff like food, play and affection) in order to change the dog’s underlying emotional response to that thing, because if the dog feels better, he can make better choices. 

 

Red Flags:

  1. A good behaviourist will NOT make promises to fix your dog in a specific amount of time. A real behaviourist knows that each dog is an individual and that numerous factors will influence how well a problem can be overcome.

  2. A good behaviourist will NEVER sacrifice your dog’s emotional wellbeing by using punishment as a quick fix to resolve behaviour problems. Punishment (physical or psychological) will induce fear, frustration, depression and stress in your dog and will not solve the underlying cause of the problem, but simply cover up the symptom for a while.

  3. A good behaviourist will NOT use aversive equipment such as shake cans, spray bottles, choke chains, prong collars or shock collars. A good behaviourist knows that these are psychologically and emotionally damaging to dogs.

  4. A good behaviourist will NEVER tell you to dominate your dog and they will NEVER advise you to deny your dog attention or affection in order to show them who is boss. In fact, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior “recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it.”[1]

  5. A good behaviourist will NOT use flooding in order to “overcome” a problem (overexposing dogs to something they are scared of e.g. putting a dog-reactive dog into an enclosure with other dogs or forcing a dog with a water phobia into the pool). Flooding causes dogs to shut down emotionally (they stop reacting completely and so may appear “fixed”) and is blatant abuse.

 

When looking for a behaviourist, don’t trust that because someone has been around for years this means they are an expert. Ask about their qualifications. Ask what methods they use to change behaviour and what they are willing to do to your dog in the name of “fixing” a problem. If they mention any aversive techniques look elsewhere! By making informed choices when it comes to trainers and behaviourists, dog owners can contribute to the general welfare of dogs and ensure that those in the field adhere to the highest standards of professionalism and humane, science-based methods that all dogs deserve.

 

To find a qualified and professional behaviourist in your area, please visit http://www.capbtsa.org.za/

 

 

[1] The American Veterinary Society of Behaviourists Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behaviour Modification in Animals http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/dominance_statement.pdf

What does it really mean to be a dog behaviourist?

 

Unfortunately, when it comes to services offered to the public, the field of dog behaviour and training is completely unregulated. This means that anyone can market themselves as a dog “behaviourist”.  

 

However, the field of animal behaviour (understanding how and why animals behave the way they do and how we can change behaviour) is a scientific one, based on decades of research. Ethologists, behavioural ecologists, evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists have made enormous strides in helping us to understand how the brain works, how learning works and what drives behaviour in various species.

 

It seems quite obvious that for a person to be able to give advice on how to resolve a canine behaviour problem, they must have a knowledge of three basic principles:

  1. What is considered normal behaviour for dogs (individually and socially)

  2. What factors influence or drive behaviour (genetics, environment and emotions)

  3. How dogs learn (learning theory)

 

Amazingly though, there are numerous so-called “behaviourists” who have virtually no understanding of these concepts, because they have never bothered to obtain a formal qualification in the field and rely instead on information passed down to them from previous generations of unqualified traditional trainers or “dog experts”.

Kommetjie Canine College

Kommetjie

Cape Town

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