Finding professional help
When an individual case is too complex to analyze and resolve over the telephone, you should seek help from a veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist; however, knowing where to turn can be confusing. People who work with animal behavior problems are not regulated by any government agency and may have very different types of qualifications.
When your pet has a problem, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Urinary tract infections, hormone imbalances, neurological conditions, genetic abnormalities, orthopedic problems and dental disease are just a few examples of medical problems that can influence your pet's behavior. Ask your veterinarian if he has received any specific training in animal behavior, and if not, ask him if he can refer you to an animal behavior specialist. If you live in Washington State and would like to locate a veterinarian in your area, contact the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association.
Certified applied animal behaviorist
Animal behavior is a specialized field of scientific study. In order to become a certified applied animal behaviorist, an individual must have specialized training in behavior problems in companion animals. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) grants certification to behaviorists who are academically trained, have experience in the field and meet the ethical standards of the ABS. People who've worked with or trained animals for many years, aren't animal behaviorists unless they've received specialized academic training. Learn more about certified applied animal behaviorists.
Some animal trainers are self-taught, and some may have apprenticed under another trainer and/or attended various training seminars. Animal trainers don't usually have specialized academic training in the study of animal behavior. Good animal trainers are knowledgeable about different types of training methods that focus primarily on reinforcing good behavior and use punishment sparingly, appropriately, humanely or not at all. Inappropriate use of correction collars, including using chokers to lift dogs off the ground and "string them up," aren't appropriate or humane training methods and may cause injury to your dog.
Dog training classes are an excellent way to develop a good relationship with your dog and gain more control over him by teaching him to respond reliably to specific commands. However, resolving behavior problems, such as house-soiling, barking, aggression or separation anxiety requires more than teaching your dog commands. Specific behavior modification techniques must also be used. Some animal trainers also offer behavior consulting services.
Ask the trainer what methods she uses and how she was trained. Go to a class, and if you observe techniques you're not comfortable with, find another trainer. Dog obedience instructors can be endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). Endorsement indicates that instructors have been approved by their peers and use humane methods of training. If the trainer is endorsed by another organization, ask about the criteria for endorsement.
Things to watch for and avoid
People who guarantee their work
Qualified behaviorists and trainers will always do their best for you, but cannot guarantee outcomes, because animals have minds of their own and can never be completely controlled by humans.
People whose primary methods focus on punishment
If their recommendations involve choking, hitting or slapping your pet, confinement or isolation, this indicates little or no understanding of animal behavior.
People who misrepresent their qualifications
People who call themselves animal behaviorists, even though they're not academically trained in animal behavior.
People who want to train your pet for you
Most behavior problems are a result of interactions between the animal, the guardian and the environment. Giving your pet to someone else to fix the problem is rarely successful because these three elements aren't addressed. Owners need to work with the animal in the home environment.
If you're committed to working with your pet, and find qualified people to help you, the chances are good that you'll successfully resolve your pet's problem behaviors.
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