Trainer or Behaviorist?

In an earlier post, I talked at length about the certifications to look for in a dog trainer or behaviorist.  If you took the time to read it, you might be wondering what’s the difference between them.  After all, they do the same thing, right?  Well, not really.  They represent two different disciplines that you might need in living with your dog.

So, you are sharing your home with a pretty intelligent non-human who has social and emotional needs, and communicates non-verbally.  And he is turning into a terrible roommate.  One of you needs help, but what kind of help?  As in all things, that depends.

First, keep in mind that anyone can put up a website, print some business cards and call himself a dog trainer or behaviorist – or dog whisperer, dog guru, dog spiritual healer, dog communicator, or any other title.  This is an unregulated industry, with its share of quacks and frauds.  In the first article in this series, What Do All Those Letters and Certifications Mean? I discussed the various organizations that certify and vet members of these professions.  In the next article, I’ll address what to look for in picking the right person to help you with your dog, but at this point, we’ll discuss what these professionals do.

What is a dog trainer?

Putting it simply, a trainer is someone who teaches you and your pet the skills needed to function well in your home and in society.  This includes manners, pet etiquette and behaviors that are needed to safety and a happy life.  These can range from basic skills such as sitting and lying down on command, coming when called, walking nicely on a leash, traffic safety, etc., to advanced skill levels such as protection training, sports and other activities.

Types of dog training.

The training can take many forms, ranging from multi-dog classes for teaching basic skills to owners and their pets, moderated play sessions for socialization (generally for puppies), advanced group classes, private sessions at owners’ homes, or board-and-train sessions in which the dog lives at the trainers’ location for a time.  In my next article I’ll go into these approaches in depth and discuss how to pick a trainer, but for the time being, it suffices to say that trainers have a number of tools at their disposal, and a number of different business philosophies and approaches.  One size does not fit all.

What is a canine behaviorist?

A behaviorist is someone who can address a problem behavior that your dog has developed.  A “problem behavior” being defined that something that the dog does too often, or not often enough.1   For example, if your dog has anxieties about certain situations – such as being left alone in the house, or your dog barks excessively at the neighbors, or is overly protective of his food bowl, these are problems that the behaviorist can help with reducing.

Behaviorist Methodology

Where a dog trainer uses repetition and encouragement to educate dogs and owners in how to perform certain actions; a behaviorist will work with the owners to observe what the dog does, determine what events or triggers cause it to happen, and develop an intervention to reduce or modify the problem behavior.  The key elements of this are to closely observe what happens before, during and after the behavior occurs; and develop an intervention based on behavioral science and professional ethics.

I hope this helped to clarify when you should seek a trainer or behaviorist.  We’ll get into the mechanics of training and behavior modification in a later article, along with what you should look for when searching for a reputable and effective professional to help you with your dog.