Pet Behavior Help: Trainers, Behaviorists, and Vets

If you need pet behavior help, consider enlisting a professional. Options include a pet trainer, a behavior counselor, a certified applied animal behaviorist, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or a traditional or holistic veterinarian.

So how do you decide which professional to use? You should always start by taking your pet to a traditional veterinarian to determine whether the behavior has a medical cause. Once that is ruled out, you could hire a trainer to see whether the behavior can be altered with some simple training techniques. If the problem persists, you could try a behavior counselor, a certified applied animal behaviorist, or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, depending on how severe the problem is and which professionals are available in your area.

Whomever you decide to work with, please be aware that changing the problem behavior will take time and patience on your part. You will need to work on the behavior at home with your pet, following the professional recommendations. The professional needs to train you, as well as your pet, so you know how to reinforce the behavior you want.

The following is an explanation of the function of each of these pet behavior professionals.

How do I find a good pet trainer?

A pet trainer can help you discourage unwanted behavior in your pet and encourage desirable behavior. They teach the basics: house-training, crate training, and correcting behaviors like digging, barking, chewing, and pulling on lead. Trainers generally don’t have medical knowledge or enough expertise to deal with severe behavior problems, but they are the least expensive option among the pet behavior professionals.

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Anyone can claim to be a trainer, so ask questions like the following if you’re thinking about hiring someone:

  • How were you trained? Look for someone who has had life experience — someone who has been around animals, not just taken classes. If the person has trained different types of animals, so much the better. Ask about formal training, but keep in mind that many good trainers are self-taught through experience. Also, the best trainers keep themselves well-informed about new training methods and theories.
  • How much experience do you have? The trainer should have at least six months of experience. Anything less and the person might not know how to work with problem behavior in a calm, confident manner. Animals can sense a lack of confidence, and the training will be less successful as a result.
  • Which types of animals have you trained? Some trainers work with a variety of animals, and some only work with one type. It’s most desirable for the trainer to have had experience working with a wide variety of animals because you learn something different from training each type of animal.
  • Are you certified through a national certification program? This applies mainly to dog trainers because there are no national certification programs for those who train cats, rabbits, and other types of pets.

You might also want to visit during one of the trainer’s sessions to see the style, techniques, and tools being used. If the trainer does anything that you are uncomfortable with, keep looking. You want to find a trainer who uses humane training methods — someone who will give you and your pet a positive experience. If a trainer tells you they're not qualified for your case, ask for a referral to a behavior counselor or animal behaviorist. 

You can find a certified dog trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). The CCPDT also has a certification for behavior consultants.

What does a pet behaviorist do?

There are three types of specialists who deal with animal behavior problems:

  • Behavior counselor: A behavior counselor or consultant is often a certified pet trainer, but they should also have more experience and knowledge, including a background in learning theory, awareness of the latest scientific knowledge, and hands-on training. A behavior counselor should be able to analyze and diagnose the problem, devise and explain a possible solution, and do necessary follow-up. Like trainers, some counselors are species-specific. You can find a certified behavior consultant (for dogs) through the CCPDT, or you can ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.
  • Certified applied animal behaviorist: These are people who have been certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as either an applied or an associate applied animal behaviorist. Certification by the ABS means that an individual meets certain educational, experiential, and ethical standards required by the society. 
  • Board-certified veterinary behaviorist: A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has completed an approved residency training program in veterinary animal behavior and passed a board exam. Veterinary behaviorists can rule out health problems and dispense medications, which are sometimes used to help change behavior in pets. You can think of animal behaviorists as the equivalent of psychologists, while veterinary behaviorists are the equivalent of psychiatrists. For help in finding a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, talk to your veterinarian.

Can veterinarians help with pet behavioral issues?

There are two types of veterinarians who can provide pet behavior help:

  • Traditional veterinarian: There are many vets who are not certified as veterinary behaviorists, but they have a special interest in veterinary behavior and promote behavioral medicine in their practice. Ask your vet how much experience they've had with solving animal behavior problems. If your vet has limited experience, ask for a referral.
  • Holistic veterinarian: A holistic vet uses alternative means for diagnosing and treating health problems and sometimes behavioral problems. As with traditional vets experience will vary, so you will need to talk to them about what they can offer. For help in finding a holistic veterinarian, go to the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.

For more pet behavior help

If you want to learn more about cat behavior, we recommend the following books:

  • The Cat Who Cried for Help by Dr. Nicholas Dodman: Using examples from his own practice, Dodman (a veterinary behaviorist) intelligently and humorously talks about symptoms, treatment options, and helpful tips for prevention.
  • Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett: A feline behaviorist provides excellent insight into cat behavior and gives helpful tips for stopping problem behaviors like destructive chewing, aggression, furniture scratching, and litter-box difficulties.

If you want to learn more about dog behavior, we recommend the following books:

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