What is a Dog Behaviorist?
The concept of a dog behaviorist isn’t surprising, since the term dog trainer seems to conjure an image of a drooling, toothless troglodyte these days, while the term behaviorist renders the image of a sensitive intellectual steeped in academia that can solve your dogs issues with a prescription pad and a pen.
A colleague was thoughtful enough to share an article written by a journalist employed by that font of virtue, NPR. It starts out as your typical fluff piece, designed to draw in the casual pet owner that suffers from some annoying habit the dog engages in, without any real commitment to a solution for the problem.
Lots of vague innuendoes on topics the writer has no real interest in, and the reader cannot be bothered to understand…
Dog training is a trade. It used to be the sacred canon of the hunter, the police dog handler, the stockman. Now, any frilly nonce without a job or a marketable skill can call themselves a dog trainer if they have internet access and a social media account.
The proliferation of people calling themselves dog trainers has exploded since the early 2000’s with the advent of the celebrity ‘trainer’ on NatGeo and the subsequent dominatrix answer to that individual’s popularity on a competing network, called Animal Planet.
TV has seen its share of dog training personalities, from Barbara Woodhouse’s “No Bad Dogs” to Uncle Matty on PBS. They were certainly able to corral the misbehaviors of the everyday pet, required no certifications in which to do so, and served as grist for the solution to problem behaviors as simple as housebreaking, to livestock worrying and even serious human aggression.
What was absent was the pandering, insidious language that slithered into our periphery intimating corrections or punishment were somehow inherently bad. Not just the condemnation of cruel applications of training tools, but the mere suggestion that using certain words are harmful to our dogs.
Equipment started being created to counter the use of tools considered “inhumane” or inherently “cruel” because of the way they looked, or the often-misunderstood premises under which they were applied.
Those denizens of modern dog training insinuated themselves into an ancient and honorable trade as domestic dogs found themselves filling emotional niches they were never adequately prepared for, and forced to live in a world they were not genetically designed for.
I mean, what does Suburban Sally need with a Boerboel?
The study of animal behavior isn’t new, nor, really, is the study of dog behavior. It has been with us forever but has only gained popularity as the popularity of dog training has increased. Although the trend has been infiltrating my trade for probably a quarter century or more, the line of demarcation occurred on or about the same timeframe that popular show on National Geographic emerged in September of 2004.
Because dogs- right? Everyone knows how to train a dog, yeah? I mean, everybody had a dog as a kid, or has had dogs all their life, so why should they take training seriously?
The media has done such a great job of muddying the waters by supporting popular celebrity ‘talent’ and Insty-experts that turn out to be nothing more than bubbleheaded fame-seekers with lots of opinions, little skill and the socially profitable ability to create bitter controversy.
Because popularity no longer equates to actual skill, but how many people you can get to ‘follow’ you on social media.
Now, I’m not a science denier, nor am I a die-hard advocate of any one belief, but I have watched every new development in dog training since the early 70’s. Every fad and every new gewgaw has crossed my hands, eyes or desk over the years.
What has changed the most, is the lack of cognitive mapping skills that has taken every bitter divorcee and Social Justice Warrior to new heights of virtue signaling by employing emotional manipulation just as powerful and destructive as the narcissistic partner or parent that broke them in the first place.
What is also changed is the ridiculous notion that dog behavior cannot be resolved with training.
The psychology of behavior may tell someone why an organism is engaged in a particular act, but it is absolutely no assurance whatsoever that that act can be modified or extinguished.
For thousands of years, we as a species have managed to tame the wolf that competed for the same resources we coveted and made him our helpmate. We molded him into our guardian, hunting companion, stock fetcher and tender, and occasionally, food when we were starving.
We did it knowing that frequently our dogs had another agenda. We modified them by selecting specifically for traits that were compatible with our goals. Selection pressure removed the incompatible swiftly, so their genes never made it past a generation. We lived harmoniously for millennia, with our dogs as our guides, and nary a psychotropic in sight.
Today, our dogs are as neurotic as our children, and what we cannot control, we drug.
And we alllllll know how the pharmaceutical companies work…
Harsh? You betcha.
I have traveled this world for over 60 years, and I can count on one hand the number of dogs that “behavior therapy” has helped.
Now, pre-sedation for veterinary exams, and groomers on staff at vet hospitals so all of these things can be done while the dog is in a twilight sleep has become normal procedure. It’s as if defensive handling is no longer even taught in animal medicine any more.
Behavior is being explained as some sort of internal fault of the dog and should be medicated instead of addressed directly. This fiction that behavior is somehow segregated from training is dangerous and intellectually dishonest.
The recent increase in the use of dog behaviorists is an interesting phenomenon, considering much of our survival as a species was dependent on our study of animal behavior from the time we crawled out of the primordial ooze until the advent of the first moving picture.
The study of behavior is not new, by any means. How it has affected our relationship with animals is yet to be seen. So far, I’m underwhelmed.
Back to this damn article. Or damning article…
The author has a dog that does a thing which ultimately interferes with her quality of life. She seeks help from an individual. Of course, we never discover if she was successful with the problem she was having, because there’s no real good use of that part of the story when there’s so much… controversy… to discuss!
The author starts the conversation by suggesting that a quick google search for dog trainers yields an overload of information that makes it impossible to winnow the wheat from the chaff.
We all know how google works, right? The most advertising dollars yields the top ad results and a thing called Search Engine Optimization gets any internet real estate well-placed in organic search. Most folks are conditioned to look for ‘first-as-best’, instead of the depth of quality one might discover by making a few phone calls and asking a few pointed questions. Or, I dunno, maybe polling folks you actually know with dogs that may have had them trained. Kennel Clubs are still a thing. I guarantee ya they still see more bad behavior than a dog behaviorist. Accredited or otherwise.
Trog the Neanderthal wasn’t accredited, but I betcha he knew what that wolf was thinking…
The act of training should yield a measurable result. If it does not, then the dog is not trained.
Anyway, this individual struggles with the concept of honesty, when she couches her ‘findings’ as the ever polarizing “positive reinforcement” vs “balanced” argument, which is designed to provokes contempt for anything that can be misunderstood as “compulsion-based”.
Words have power. The auto-destruct sequence is already in motion by the time the author identifies her first contact with an individual that identifies as a “certified dog behavior consultant”. The artful use of intangibles like “helping a dog feel comfortable in it’s skin… is a really good basic goal  for every dog out there.”
Well, of course it is. Any intel on how exactly one would go about that however, is conspicuously absent.
The casual observer of the first page of any google search will be overwhelmed by the vocabulary used by any trade. The dog trades don’t hold a patent on confusing lingo. People tend to make crap up as they go along, and since there are so precious few actually competent experts out there, there’s no checks and balances to keep everyone honest.
Certifications? Insert laugh emoji here. There are no unified governing bodies that determine who can call themselves a dog trainer, nor what a dog trainer even looks like. The discussion sailed down the rabbit hole about 25 years ago when what became more important was adherence to a fallacious and disingenuous belief that all of nature’s creatures can be manipulated using only one quadrant of BF Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory.
I’m an equal opportunity hater, though. I’m not a big fan of celebutante TeeVee “trainers”, regardless of how they promote themselves, or any of the mental midgets that rushed out of the sewers to imitate everything they do. The train wreck on NatGeo had one thing that everybody wanted, powerful backing by entertainment heavies that absolutely did influence his early success, and the endorsement of a fledgling dog training organization that struggled with credibility in the face of an emerging positive-only war machine.
The battle lines were drawn.
The celebrity dog training juggernaut gave birth to a legion of people who may or may not have ever owned a dog and thought they could become dog trainers. And there was nobody there to stop them. Lots of emerging organizations willing to capitalize on the incredibly profitable demand for dog trainers by offering certifications that meant nothing beyond membership into what was tantamount to either a cult or an old boys club in mentality and scope.
And actual dog behaviorists? Bich please…
Applied Animal Behavior has been around forever. As psychology applies to understanding human behavior (why DOES little Bobby pick his nose?) assuming your target audience has the gift of cognitive mapping and a common language, it’s not outside the scope of possibility to *affect* behavior by suggesting alternative coping strategies.
I can accept certain components to give meaning perhaps, to why something is occurring, but it really isn’t practical to sit your dog down on a couch and ask him what troubles him so. Knowing why doesn’t address the issue of habituated behavior. Only training does. What is behavior modification after all?
T R A I N I N G.
The emergence in Applied Animal Behavior degrees has experienced almost as explosive popularity as the legions of people calling themselves dog trainers. The only difference is the scholastic requirement for a degree. People require discipline and patience to achieve a degree, and not a little money. Why would they when they can go right out and make a living selling snake oil and bullshit to naïve pet owners as a trainer?
Accredited* dog behaviorists can charge 5 times as much, see far fewer troubling cases, and maintain job security when they are incapable of producing measurable results. Dispense drugs, in some cases, prescribe euthanasia, and just like the weatherman, be able to remain employed. Enjoy a profitable private practice and a career in academia. Money for nothing, chicks for free…
But a dog is not a whale, nor is it a bat or drosophila melanogaster.
So, when our intrepid author makes the statement that “A dog behavior consultant will [also] be well-versed in teaching your dog how to sit, but a dog trainer will be much less equipped to help your dog deal with separation anxiety.” Forgive me if I see a little red.
And then the e-zine proceeds to show me an animated image of a whippet in a jacket crouching into a down for food offered from a disembodied human hand, as the title reads “Zero demonstrating the command sit”.
Ok. So that’s what sit looks like. Duly noted.
She emphasizes there are two levels of training; one level is training skills (for whatever that’s worth) like sit and down, for what she refers to as basic manners as being in the realm of a dog trainer, while behavior issues like aggression, anxiety and *fearfulness* is when you need to hire the big guns- the dog behaviorist.
What is that, exactly?
It’s someone with less credibility than a dog trainer, and unless you are accredited by a university, you are nothing more than a person capitalizing on the ignorance of others.
So, there’s that…
Who is feeding the public this bullshit? Everyone that can get away with it, because the public doesn’t really know, and it’s a safe bet that they don’t really care, until someone wrecks their dog, or is incapable of performing what is promised.
The person this author is referring to is her second point of contact, but that doesn’t prevent her from throwing her under the proverbial bus later in the article. Less poetic justice than the act of a ‘journalist’ backing herself out of a hole before stopping the presses. It’s lazy and it’s unethical. But again, I digress.
This individual, we’ll call her Trainer B, belongs to an organization that ‘certifies’ trainers, but whose certification is rendered useless once the individual leaves the organization. Anyone can be come a member, but at least their ‘certification’ process does require more than a multiple-choice type of test.
I see no “certifications” on Trainer B’s website; valid or otherwise, most of the language is ripped right out of the lexicon of the World’s Most Notorious Dog Trainer; the clebutante Nag Geo has made a fortune from, and all of the same basic plot devices to grab the reader without having much to substantiate her claims. The language she uses is deliberately chosen to demonstrate some kinship with the source, since it is so easily recognizable, for anyone that has watched that show.
“Dog Behavioral Psychology” isn’t a thing, really. It was made popular by a television show and has grown legs. What did the folks who trained all of the Hollywood dogs call themselves? What did they call all of the club trainers that came long before the current iteration of dog behaviorist? I think it was dog trainer.
Hate to break it to ya, but looking at the physical behaviors of dogs includes health and husbandry too. It’s a foregone conclusion that the relationship has been damaged, otherwise a potential client would never have contacted a dog trainer, dog behaviorist or whatever. Emotions? Of whom? The dog or the owner? I can already guarantee that one is frustrated and the other one is anxious. What time of day will determine which species will be experiencing what emotional state.
Also, a little seekrit about separation anxiety. It doesn’t occur organically in the animal kingdom. It is 100% owner facilitated.
Oops! Wasn’t expecting that sacred cow to go down. Were ya?
And then there’s the mediator, who addresses her website copy to the dogs, as if they are the ones selecting their caregiver. I have provided the link to the article, so you can go down that rabbit hole yourself. Because let’s face it- that stuff was written for the soft-serv brains that have access to a credit card. They are usually the ones with the issues, as well. Dogs are pretty literal. They are quick to tell you what is and isn’t working. Only the humans ask in their best Kardashian voices, “but… but… whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?”
To give this person credit, there is considerable thought to the way the script was written. A++ for originality and actively studying their audience. Competent trainers have been doing theses things since the dawn of time, but to which only recently has science acknowledged; the careful observation of ‘why’ things occur and how to implement meaningful change.
It’s still couched in language designed to make the act of training sound like it’s more detrimental than helpful. The mediator trained as a provider of a service. She went through some hardships to get there. It’s still training, whether she arranges the words to be less aggressive and more emotionally provocative to her New Age audience, that four year degree didn’t come in an Amazon package. Behaviorally, she mustered the discipline to undergo four years of training to achieve it.
The website copy is well-written and evocative. People want that. It is artfully done, but again, it is training couched as something other, surreal, superior. It panders quite well. Nice touch appealing to the dogs.
But it’s still training.
Our writer of werdz then attempts to deliver some of the training choices available to people looking for help. How you choose where your dog is trained; in the home, in a group, privately at a facility, or in what is commonly called a board and train, is determined by a particular set of circumstances that are governed by availability, cost, nature of the problem, and your selected provider’s skill set, licensing (yes, it’s a valid concern) and insurance. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The subject of methodology is finally addressed, as one would expect, with a caveat that trainers often disagree about methods, but usually fall under two broad categories, positive only or ‘balanced’, neither of which is accurate. But controversy sells, amirite?
And then, it happens. The author lobs a nuclear device and craters Trainer B as The Purveyor of Pain. “Willing to incorporate corrections, like ecollars, into their training.”
If that wasn’t gaslighting, I dunno what is. Either way, the ship was sunk from that point out, and Trainer B spent the rest of her part of the interview gasping for air in defense of her position. Which, based on her response, shows her limited grasp of how ecollars are actually used, and the understanding of corrections and punishers overall. To be honest, the author would have been far better off excluding this individual from the article entirely, instead of… whatever this was…
I preferred the mediator. Clear message, even if it is just rebranding of things trainers have been doing since the dawn of time. She’s smart, articulate, and writes damn fine copy. If I didn’t know better, I’d buy that for a dollar.
The two remaining points our author references are how to find a good trainer, which she avoids by listing a cluster of organizations, missing the oldest of them all, the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, founded in 1965, but manages to evade any real controversy by suggesting that the searcher do what they should have been doing all along; interviewing prospective trainers, looking at their body of work, and making a decision based on whether that individual resonates with them.
I not only want my provider to be able to explain their training methods, I want a demonstration. Not beautifully choreographed photos of lovely couples with beautifully groomed dogs in front of spectacular backdrops, but the actual… you know… work. Show me. YouTube, Facebook, in person… Pick one.
Psychotropics are a relatively new phenomenon. I have been doing this schtick since 1979 professionally, and drugs didn’t really start getting popular until maybe the last 15 years or so. I would have been surprised to hear that chlorpromazine was prescribed for behavior then, but now, it’s fairly routine. Vets are dispensing psychotropics like candy, instead of addressing behavior through judicious training.
It’s a paradigm shift all right, and if you read between the lines of this article, you can see the shift from robust intellectual curiosity into pandering to the Least Common Denominator.
It is no longer about delivering a service that can be measured, duplicated, and practiced. It is about weaponizing the self-serving ideologue, with their lack of emotional intelligence and pointing them at a tiny fragment of well-meaning service providers that have clung to this trade before it’s meteoric rise in popularity.
The second- career, “gig” economy, otherwise unemployable, ham-fisted Neanderthals that pollute the hallowed halls of my chosen profession have a lot to answer for. Dog training is one of the only remaining trades with the lowest barrier of entry, absolutely no oversight and probably the one with the most impact on legislation that dictates the animals we own, where we can take them, where we can keep them and how we care for them.
It’s all training. Whether you want to call yourself a dog behaviorist or a trainer, you should be asking yourself some serious questions about the services you wish to provide.
Like, what does a trained dog look like?
What matters more? Ego, or the impact the work you do has on the safety and welfare of others?
Where will you be in 5 years? Ten?
This trade has a built-in longevity meter. Most trainers that jump in are drilled out by That One Dog we have all met, that changes our perspective dramatically. More than any other trade where self-employment still reigns, the self-employed dog trainer usually is ahead of the failure rate for small businesses, and that’s the biggest reason why.
This article annoyed me for many reasons, the lack of journalistic curiosity by its author. Her willingness to sacrifice one of her sources like a character in a Game of Thrones novel, and the disingenuous way she listlessly pursues the subject matter.
There is so much more at stake, and *my* profession deserved her undivided attention.
This one poorly written article allows a glimpse into the lion’s den of many other, related topics.
Are we prepared to face them? Who gets to write the rules of engagement?
* Accreditation is a review process to determine if educational programs meet defined standards of quality. … The process of academic accreditation typically culminates in an external quality review by a team of professional experts from academe or industry.