Dog behaviourists: what they don’t do

Article (attempting) to describe the dog behaviourist profession
By Laure-Anne Visele, written August 2012

What is a dog behaviourist

Whenever I am asked what I am trying to do with dogs, I take a deep breath. No matter what I call the profession or how I explain it, it gets misinterpreted. It’s odd, as it’s not like it’s that revolutionary of an idea (been round for twenty years or so). But yeah, we’re human, so the stereotypes stick more than boring old reality.

Those helpful labels

It doesn’t help that the job titles are subject to much controversy at the moment. What between behaviour technician, behaviourist, behaviour analyst, dog behaviour consultant, and specialist trainer… Let me take a stab at describing it instead.

“Behaviourists coach people through science-based projects to improve their dog’s behaviour. They get called for more severe cases, when all else has failed“.

Now that you (hopefully) know what the job is, here’s a little run down of what the job is not.

1. Luxury for the rich

Many people think it’s an extravagant luxury, as the subject is a pet.

But people call when they have a real problem that is potentially going to get them sued, going to get them , or going to get them kicked outof their home. Not all cases are that serious, but it can be a choicebetween abandoning the pet and doing something serious about its behaviour.

This is no second home in Hawaii.

2. Airy-fairy for the gullible

Many people also think it is a little airy-fairy because it focuses on behaviour (so it can’t possibly be based on hard science, right?).

To this, I can only say that most behaviourists are extremely dedicated to the scientific method, and devote a great proportion of their time sieving through technical books and peer-reviewed research papers.

As a testimony to the seriousness of the field, these are my credentials. And I feel I am nowhere near the level of knowledge that I want to reach in this challenging, ever-widening, fascinating field(will I ever be?). Also, each behaviour change project is documented and measured, and thebaseline, progress and objectives are tracked. It is as quantitative and evidence-based as it gets.

With all respect to alternative therapy fields, this is not one of them.

3. Psychotherapy for the so-inclined

People have asked me if it’s a case of the dog sitting on the couch and telling me about his mother

10 points for wit and cuteness and all that but, no, not so much. ;  P

4. The Nanny for dogs

Another, more serious misconception, is that all problems boil down to this: “The dog just needs a little more discipline“.

The dogs that require a behaviourist can be past that point. Their behaviour is often profoundly dysfunctional.

We’re talking severely-affecting-your-quality-of-life-kind-of problem, here. Imaging having to live like this:

  • Feeling guilty each time you go out because of the dog’s separation anxiety; or
  • Only walking the dog at midnight, for fear you bump into another dog; or
  • Having your head about to explode from the dog’s nuisance barking; etc. etc. etc.

The solution for these is A LOT more complex than “Stop treating your dog like a child” or “Don’t let the dog ‘dominate‘ you”.

Remember, behaviour is not only mediated by everyday experience (i.e. how you treat your dog), but also by early experience, agehealth and genetic propensities. Basically, asking yourself the four questions of ethology on every single case.

The main tool is the owners as you can’t re-write the past, change the dog’s age, or redesign its genetic code. But it’s a stretch from that to blaming all owners for all problems

I don’t know what I’m going to do next time someone compares the field to: “So it’s like the Dog Whisperer?” It’s just not the same ballgame. One is a charismatic TV personality and the other is… a behaviour specialist.

It’s TV, remember? Think of what happens behind the scenes. There is no way that a complex behaviour problem can be changed in a 15 minute episode with quick ‘tssssst’and a poke in the ribs. It takes consistent work from the owner, coaching by a specialist, and evidence-based techniques.

5. Just another name for dog training

Obedience training IS a part of it, granted, but it’s not the be all and end all. The process focuses on intrinsic, rather than superficialbehaviour modification. Behaviour modification involves finding the underlying motivations and triggerstesting the hypothesis, giving immediate tips and long-term advice, then following up on the plan and tracking progress.

On top of (some) obedience training, behaviourist trainers use tried-and-tested techniques like systematic desensitisation, counter-conditioning, etc. To do this, you would have to really understand the works of the greats (Skinner, Primack, Pavlov, Watson, Lorenz, etc.). This goes well beyond teaching the dog to sit on command.


I love to read your comments. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you are also a (wannabe) specialist dog trainer (or whatever you call  yourself) and you are grappling with the same public perception issues. If so, what DO you call yourselves, actually? And how do you explain what you do?

Also, I’d love to hear from you if you were unfamiliar with the profession and would like to understand more about it, how it works, what is involved, etc.

Further reading

This is Jolanta Benal’s wonderful article on the subject in case you want to hear it from someone else’s mouth.

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