Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What Does an Animal Behaviorist Do?

By Linda Cole

Trying to train a dog that has behavior issues can be frustrating. For some owners, a qualified trainer can help dogs work through minor issues they may have. But serious behavioral problems need a professional eye to help a dog or cat owner deal with specific issues. What does an animal behaviorist do, and how do they help your pet? When you need to consult with an expert, what can you expect from them?

Animal behaviorists are people who love animals and study them to learn and understand animal behavior – why they do things and act in certain ways. They look at the animal's environment and try to find what caused the behavior. One mistaken belief some pet owners have is that a good dog trainer is also an animal behaviorist and vice versa. That may be true for some trainers and animal behaviorists, but not usually.

Animal behaviorists typically have a specialized field of study in specific animals like birds, livestock, fish, reptiles, wild animals, or pets. It's common to find a behaviorist whose expertise is in certain kinds of behavior, e.g., how animals mate, how they raise their young, how they defend themselves and their food and how they hunt. When you need to consult with an expert for a dog or cat with behavior issues, you need to make sure the person works with household pets and has experience in the area your pet needs help with.

When pets develop problems we don't know how to address, an Applied Animal Behaviorist is the person who will step in and look at the environment the pet is living in. They look for reasons why a dog or cat is acting out. It could be a fear of thunderstorms or another pet that's making them feel uncomfortable. It could be a medical problem that's gone undetected or a stray pet who developed problems before he got to his new home. Behavior problems could also be associated with a specific dog breed that isn't right for a home. Even hormones can play a role in behavior problems that an untrained eye can't see. Problems can also arise from a dog who’s had inconsistent training or no training, and who may be confused with what his owner expects from him. Hard choices may need to be made for the welfare of the pet, and an animal behaviorist can make recommendations and suggestions a responsible pet owner may not have considered.

An animal behaviorist will visit a pet owner's home to observe how the pet and his family interact with each other. They aren't concerned with dog training, because many times the root cause of a behavior problem has nothing to do with training. After observing the human-pet relationship, they help the pet owner with changes in the pet's environment, which may include the humans, to improve the pet's behavior. They will work with veterinarians as well, if medication is needed for a medical condition.

Animal behaviorists do their job because they love animals. They have at least a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) or B.S. (Bachelor of Science) degree, although most careers in animal behavior require advanced degrees. These are people who are experts in their field of study and capable in helping you and your pet regain a healthy relationship.

When working with any animal behaviorist, it's important to feel completely comfortable with them. If they recommend harsh treatments you don't agree with, it's up to you to speak up and find another solution to address a pet's issues, or find another behaviorist that uses techniques you’re comfortable with. To get the best results, it's also important to make sure the person has experience and knowledge in working with your specific behavioral issues.

Some dog trainers have gone through a certified program as a dog trainer and receive certification as a Certified Pet Dog Trainer. They may be able to help with minor problems, but most will refer a pet owner on to someone more qualified for major behavioral problems.

Animal shelters are full of dogs and cats whose only crime was an owner who didn't take the time to find out how they could help their pet. Today, many shelters work with animal behaviorists to help them with problem pets who have been surrendered to them by frustrated owners. This increases the chance that these dogs and cats can find a new home.

If your pet has a behavioral problem, always start with your vet to rule out any medical concerns first. They can then recommend a qualified animal behaviorist in your area who can help with non medical problems.

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. Interesting. I always thought dog trainers were animal behaviorists and that's why you called them. Now I know.

  2. Nice post, very informative!


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