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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  1. Russell Varley
    Posted 4 September 2012 at 14:13 | Permalink

    Wow Laure-anne, this is a really helpful website, I know a lot more about what you do and your profession. I have to say though, you might want to just call yourself a dog trainer! See how that works for a while and then you can go back to all the “science stuff”. 🙂 luv ya work!

    • Posted 4 September 2012 at 14:17 | Permalink

      Aw bless! It IS tricky to get people to understand the difference. Ah well, Rome wasn’t built in a day!

  2. Posted 4 September 2012 at 20:24 | Permalink

    It was remarked to me that this post looked like a dig on dog trainers. It really isn’t. It is saying that behaviour change/behaviour modification programmes go beyond obedience. These are two different fields.

    I know many trainers who use desensitisation/counterconditioning, and who understand the Primack’s principle. Then these guys are, in my book, engaged in behaviourist projects, and that’s fair enough. They are tackling a behaviour problem with suitable behaviour modification tools. They’re not forcing the dog to sit through some God awful situation it clearly can’t handle in the name of obedience training.

    What I mind, is the standards of the profession (of behaviour modification) being dragged through the mud by people who rely only on their guts and not at all on knowledge (be it from books or standard qualifications).

    Self-taught is perfectly fine, and honourable. Not taught is not. Behaviour modification takes skill AND knowledge.

  3. Posted 5 September 2012 at 20:18 | Permalink

    It astounds me how difficult it seems to be for people to grasp the most basic of concepts in altering a dog’s behavior. I simply don’t understand why people are so resistant to science-based, proven techniques to live harmoniously and happily with your pet, yet are so quick to accept that simply “shush-ing” a dog at the right time is a cure-all. I thoroughly understand your frustrations, have dealt with them myself. I use to joke with the other trainers that when we began a new 6 week training course, 5 of those weeks was just spent convincing the people we actually knew what we were doing!

    • Posted 5 September 2012 at 21:20 | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment, Samantha.

      What really astounds me, is that I tell people one thing, and then do the exact opposite at home if I’ve had a bad day and my dog is regressing. The only silver lining is that it helps me relate to how hard it is to shake off bad habits.

      I have started listening to podcasts about economics (Freakonomics rocks) and they’re really opened my eyes to this: humans don’t tend to do what’s in their best interest, even in light of solid facts and sound logic and compelling arguments. They just don’t. We’re the irrationals of irrationals.

      About people questionning our advice. Tell me about it. The number of times I’ve been dismissed as a veggie hippie for holding the pseudo-sciencey pack theory with facts and sound reasoning…

      I guess the only thing we can do is treat people the way we treat dogs: be happy with any progress away from superstitious training methods, and tackle concepts they’re not ready for sideways, getting back to them later when they have had the “a ha haaa moment”.

      Really appreciate the comment and hope you keep reading new stuff.

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