In many articles, I’ve suggested that for serious pet behavior problems, you may need to consult a behaviorist. For example, some cases of interdog or human aggression can be downright dangerous, so you need to talk to someone who knows how to deal with the problem safely and humanely.
But what exactly is a behaviorist and how can you find one? When you are tearing out your hair because your dog or cat is doing something awful, it’s tempting to put your trust in the first person you find. Because there is really no official “accreditation” for behaviorists or trainers, some people just say they are to sound legitimate.
If you are looking into behaviorists, you may run into a few types of credentials. For example, someone can go to school to become a “Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.” Generally, these folks have received a PhD in Animal Behavior from one of the many graduate programs across the U.S. The Animal Behavior Society website (www.animalbehavior.org) has lists of animal behavior programs along with lists of those who have been certified.
Another term you may encounter is “veterinary behaviorist,” which is a veterinarian who specializes in behavior. Although many vets are well versed in animal behavior, the term veterinary behaviorist is reserved for those veterinarians who completed their residency in veterinary animal behavior and then passed a certification exam.
Before you consult with any behaviorist, you should take your pet to your veterinarian for a complete physical. Many behavior problems are related to health problems, so taking the problem critter to the vet should always be your first course of action.
Once health problems have been ruled out, ask your vet for advice. If he or she suggests that you need to talk to a behaviorist, ask for a referral. If they don’t know of anyone, try calling the closest veterinary college. For example, in our part of the country, the closest veterinary college is the University of Washington at Pullman.
Once you have found someone, expect to provide a lot of information about your home life and your other pets. If the person doesn’t ask, find another behaviorist. No one can understand a behavior problem without understanding the pet’s environment and history, so run from someone who doesn’t even ask about these things.
Another red flag is a behaviorist who offers some type of weird “quick fix” for your pet. Any behavior problem that requires a consultation is undoubtedly going to require some effort to remedy. Expect to invest some time and be sure to have the behaviorist define any terms you don’t know. For example, if he or she says your dog has separation anxiety and you don’t know what that means, it’s a problem. Although you may not need a behaviorist with lots of letters after his or her name, you do need one you can communicate with.