More and more we are seeing people in desperate need of help as their dogs are suffering with complex behavioural issues, such as reactivity, separation anxiety and resource guarding. There are probably a number of contributing factors as to why these problems are become more prevalent, with the rise in the number of troubled dogs brought into the country from overseas and the ongoing effects of the pandemic and lockdowns being just a couple of them. Unfortunately, in a completely unregulated industry it can be difficult to know where to turn when you need help.
We wanted to write a blog to help you identify a good behaviourist, so you can avoid wasting time and money working with one of the many cowboys in this industry. At best, these unqualified “professionals” may not help you resolve your problem and at worst they will actually exacerbate the issue by giving inappropriate and potentially dangerous advice. Here at Best Behaviour, we are incredibly passionate about providing quality, ethical dog training and behaviour advice and we are often outraged and disheartened by the number of people out there fleecing well-intentioned dog owners who need real support.
Hopefully the points below will help those of you with dogs who are struggling to get the help you need, when you need it.
We wanted to start with some things you should avoid when you are looking for a behaviourist. As we’ve mentioned, this industry is sadly completely unregulated – absolutely anyone can call themselves a behaviourist without any actual training, qualifications or even experience! This means that, unfortunately, most of the people you will find out there presenting themselves as behaviourists are no more qualified than the average dog owner. These red flags are probably what you will come across the most in your search, so it’s important to be aware of them so you can quickly and easily sort the wheat from the chaff.
It doesn’t matter how many dogs they’ve owned and trained before, canine behaviour is now an extensive field of science and anyone taking on behaviour cases should care enough about ensuring they give up-to-date, appropriate, safe advice which is grounded in science to have taken the time to achieve relevant qualifications.
What qualifications does the behaviourist have? There are a sickening number of online “qualifications” which can be bought very cheaply and require very minimal, if any, study at all. There are also organisations out there offering “accreditation,” but this is simply handed out by those running the organisation and there is no accountability. Take a good look at where and under who the behaviourist has studied and who they are accredited with.
Triggers the Dog
An important rule when it comes to behaviour work is that a behaviourist doesn’t need to see the behaviour in action to resolve the problem. Any behaviourist worth their salt already knows what a reactive, fearful dog looks like. They know what resource guarding looks like and they know what separation anxiety looks like. Triggering your dog and putting them in a stressful and potentially dangerous situation is the exact opposite of what any behaviourist should be doing. So, if you tell the behaviourist they are scared of visitors at home and they insist on a home visit or you say your dog is reactive and they suggest you go for a walk, then they have failed at the very first hurdle.
They Give Advice Before Investigating
Even for common problems such as resource guarding, it is incredibly important that behaviourists fully investigate what is going on with your dog and in your particular circumstances before giving advice. It might feel like a behaviourist should be able to rattle off a list of solutions to issues they see regularly, but every dog and every situation is different and doing so could mean giving advice while missing an important piece of the puzzle and creating a dangerous situation or making things worse. Any behaviourist who is ready to give advice after a brief explanation of what your dog is doing is easily written off as underqualified, because this shows that they don’t understand the potential ramifications of the advice they are giving you (or they don’t care!).
Doesn’t Offer Ongoing Support
Dealing with behavioural problems takes time – many issues come from a place of fear or trauma and this cannot be undone at the drop of a hat. A behaviourist who doesn’t offer a period of ongoing support or the option to book follow up sessions with them, doesn’t have a realistic perspective of how to resolve behavioural issues.
Advises Basic Training
While basic training has huge benefits for both dog and human, it doesn’t resolve behavioural problems. Behavioural modification is focused on changing the dog’s mental and emotional state, and simply training behaviours will not do that. Basic training can certainly be a supplement to the rest of your behavioural work but it alone will not address the complex causes behind behavioural problems.
They’re Really Cheap!
Look, we know that times are tough and getting a bargain is usually a good thing. However, when it comes to hiring a behaviourist, cheap is not the way to go. We’re not saying that you have to go with THE most expensive behaviourist you can find – everyone prices themselves differently – but if you can see a significant price difference it’s well worth asking yourself: why?
Behavioural work takes TIME – if you’re booking a couple of one-hour-long consultations, that behaviourist should be sending your pre-consult forms to fill in for them to look through prior to the sessions. They should be spending time between sessions going over the information and notes and creating a bespoke plan for you. As well as business overheads, there’s a lot of time that should be going into behavioural consultations to ensure you are getting appropriate, safe and effective advice.
If the behaviourist you’ve found is cheap as chips, can you really expect them to be doing that all important background work? Spending less and ending up with inappropriate advice that doesn’t help and may make the problem worse, will be much more costly in the long run!
Now that you’re well aware of some of the biggest Red Flags out there, hopefully you’ll be able to easily avoid the cowboys out there. So how do you select from those you’ve not ruled out? What are things to look for when choosing the behaviourist for you?
Most behaviourists will have something visible on their website regarding the study and qualifications they’ve done. If not, they should be more than happy to answer your questions if you ask them about it. Relevant qualifications could be university degrees or study via industry bodies. One thing to keep an eye out for is whether the industry body is externally
accredited – as we’ve mentioned before, many of the organisations out there offering flashy titles and badges are handing these out with no accountability. An example of accreditation done right is the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers & Behaviourists (IMDTB), who run externally accredited courses with a high standard of study and assessment carried out before someone can become a behaviourist with their organisation. Our behaviourist Zoe not only has two animal science / behaviour degrees but is also independently accredited for her practical ability as a behaviourist. This took many years of study and investment to achieve and that’s the way it should be especially when behaviour cases can often be the difference between life or death for the dog in question.
Force & Fear Free Methods
This can sometimes be difficult for the average dog owner to feel confident about, because many unethical trainers and behaviourists have become master marketeers and know how to dress up unkind methods as necessary for the dog’s sake. We highly recommend that people go with their gut here to some extent – if the trainer ever asks you to do something you feel uncomfortable with, particularly if they then explain it by stating that the dog needs “boundaries” or “leadership,” then trust your gut. Boundaries and guidance are certainly something we want to provide for our dogs, but this does not require punitive training methods and can be done with kindness and compassion.
Fortunately, you can look to industry bodies for help when trying to determine whether the professional you’re thinking of hiring is dedicated to kind, ethical methods. Bodies like the aforementioned IMDTB have a code of ethics that all members must adhere to and organisations like Fear Free Pets offer a Fear Free Certification programme for professionals who want to lead the way when it comes to working with animals with compassion and welfare at the forefront of what they do.
Carries Out In-Depth Assessment
The other side of the coin to what we discussed above; a good behaviourist should be taking the time to ask plenty of questions about every aspect of your dog’s life. These questions may even seem completely irrelevant – this is because a qualified behaviourist knows that things like your dog’s medical history, diet and day-to-day routine can all have huge impacts on their behaviour.
Works With Other Professionals
A good behaviourist should be more than happy to liaise with your vet or any other professionals who have worked with or treated your dog, where needed. Behavioural issues can often be caused or impacted by our dog’s health and diet, so a behaviourist may refer you to your vet if they suspect there are physical causes behind the problems you are dealing with.
Doesn’t Need to See the Behaviour
We mentioned above that a behaviourist shouldn’t be triggering your dog – a good behaviourist knows what a stressed dog looks like and also knows that you know your dog best. It doesn’t matter that you’re not a professional describing what you’ve seen; a good behaviourist will know what questions to ask to uncover the cause of your dog’s problems.
This is why many quality behaviourists carry out a lot of their work via telephone and video consultation – this is one of the best ways to be able to book appointments with clients more quickly and without causing any stress to the dog. While home visits can sometimes be appropriate, they are very rarely – if ever – necessary. Having a stranger visit your home will probably alter your dog’s behaviour, too, which can actually make it harder for a behaviourist to assess the situation.
For info on behaviour, consultations take a look here dog-behaviour