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Training & Behaviour Explained

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It is not common knowledge that there are big differences between what constitutes a dog trainer who provides dog training, and what constitutes a behaviourist who offers behavioural services. So, it’s understandable that this can cause confusion.

We will explain the difference below so you can make the right choice for your dog:

Dog Training 

A dog trainer is a skilled individual who can help guide you to teach your dog new or alternative skills or actions. This could include, but is not limited to – sit, down, stay, come, spin, middle, fetch. These will be behaviours that your dog did not know previously but can be trained to perform, using positive reinforcement. 

A good and responsible dog trainer should know their limitations, and without undertaking specific further study in applied behaviour, should not accept any behavioural work. Issues can arise when trainers, even mistakenly, try to help train a dog who needs more specialist behavioural help. 

To find a good dog trainer who uses modern, science-based methods, it is important to look to see what qualifications they have gained in the field and what regulating bodies that they are associated with. Some examples of good training schools would be – PACT (Professional Association of Canine Trainers), VSA (Victoria Stillwell Academy), KSA (Karen Pryor Academy). Some examples of good regulating bodies would be – APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) & ABTC (Animal Behaviour & Training Counsel – as a registered animal training instructor).


Behavioural Work


A dog behaviourist is an educated expert in behavioural issues which are based in emotional problems your dog may be experiencing. This could include, but is not limited to:

  • Separation anxiety

  • Aggression towards other dogs/ people/ animals

  • Aggression over guarding items, food, locations, people, etc

  • Anxiety or fear of certain stimuli (e.g., noises, people, dogs, places, cars, novel experiences, etc)

  • Reactivity (barking/ lunging) to people/ other dog/ other stimuli (traffic/ high viz jackets etc)

  • Predatory chasing of livestock

  • Frustrated behaviours 

  • Destructive behaviours

  • Repetitive behaviours (spinning, fly snapping, licking walls, chewing paws etc)

  • Self-harm

A behaviourist should absolutely have recognisable qualifications to show that they are knowledgeable in their field. Ideally, a behaviourist should have an MA, MSc, or PhD in clinical or applied animal behaviour, but this is not always required and there are other educational providers. If they do not have a master’s degree, then they should be at least associated with certain governing bodies that have tested and provided them with certification as a clinical behaviourist (e.g., CCAB – certified clinical animal behaviourist). Examples of these organisations would include – ASAB (The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour), APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors) and ABTC (Animal Behaviour & Training Counsel – as a registered clinical animal behaviourist). Careful that some governing bodies may only require someone to pay to become a member, but then usually there will be a distinction between who is certified and who is not. E.g., IAABC (International Association of Behaviour Consultants), is an association where you can pay to use their logo and just be ‘supporting’ rather than tested to be ‘certified’. 

A behaviourist will differ from a dog trainer, in that they will consider any underlying medical conditions your dog may have which could cause the presenting behaviour. They would spend a significant time talking through your dog’s history, evaluating their motivations, reinforcement history and emotional state. They would look to discover the root cause of their behaviour problem and provide you with both a preliminary behavioural diagnosis and behaviour plan. A good behaviourist will be able to make a diagnosis, and provide you with a behaviour modification plan going forward using modern, science-based techniques. Ideally, a behaviourist will also be a skilled dog trainer, but this is not always required if the behaviourist can collaboratively work alongside a trainer who they provide your behaviour and training plan to. 

In a nutshell:

A dog trainer is like a schoolteacher (teaching new skills).

A behaviourist is like a psychologist or therapist (helping to modify previously learnt unwanted behaviours while helping the dog to feel happier and more confident)


Where confusion between the two fields can occur

There can be some overlap, of course! For young puppies, separation related issues can be common as young puppies haven’t yet learnt the skills to be confident alone. A dog trainer can help you to slowly introduce your puppy to learning to be happy when left home alone. 

Alternatively, a behaviourist in their behaviour modification plan may give you new or alternative behaviours to train. As an over-simplified example, for a dog that barks and lunges at other dogs, we may want to teach them a new behaviour for them to perform that is incompatible with barking. So this would constitute training.  

Problems will occur though if a trainer solely uses training to deal with a behaviour issue and the underlying motivation or emotion is not addressed. E.g., barking problems, caused by fear. A trainer might be able to teach your dog to perform both a ‘speak’ or ‘quiet’ on cue. However, without knowing that the behaviour is caused by a fear of something and working precisely on helping that dog to gradually feel better through appropriate behaviour modification, the behaviour either won’t change in those contexts, or you are potentially suppressing the behaviour in the moment. This can, in some circumstances, lead to disastrous fall-out. The goal of behaviour work should not be to stop the dog barking, but to help them feel secure in the context it occurs so that they don’t feel the need to bark.

*Please note the industry is currently not regulated!

Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer or even a behaviourist. It is up to you to make sure that you check a professional’s credentials, qualifications, and what methods that they use. Part of the issue with the industry not being regulated is that many of those who are not educated in their field use outdated and potentially very dangerous techniques that can cause more harm than good. Even some ‘celebrity TV’ trainers have little to no qualifications and promote very problematic training advice. If you ever feel uncomfortable about a method, question it, and avoid it.

Why do I need a vet referral for behaviour?

Any good behaviourist will require a referral from your vet before they can take on a case. It is an industry standard. Your behaviourist will need to work in close collaboration with your vet even after your consultation to make sure that your dog is receiving the best overall help. There is a strong relationship between health and behaviour which needs to be assessed in every case. For further information, see here for a recent study on pain and its relation to behavioural problems in both dogs and cats -

What is a vet behaviourist and why should we refer a case?

A veterinary behaviourist is different from a clinical behaviourist as they are a vet who has specialised in behaviour. Usually, this means they have a vet degree and then a further qualification in clinical animal behaviour (MSc, PhD) or certification through a previously mentioned governing body. As a vet, they will have medical knowledge, the ability to prescribe behavioural medications, but also have the advantage that they have a deeper understanding of behaviour modification techniques. 

A clinical behaviourist may refer to a vet behaviourist when they believe that a medical issue is compounding making any progress with a particular case.

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