Ask the Trainer




Q: “What’s the difference between a trainer and a behaviorist? I’m confused about all these titles.”

A: This can be a tough topic for pet owners! The first thing you need to know is that there are many options out there for you and your dog. It’s worthwhile to do a bit of research to find the best match before you invest in training.

“There are no licensing or certification requirements in dog training. As a result, anyone can call themselves a trainer,” says Lindsay Kinney, CPDT-KA of Paws Abilities.

“This is great news for aspiring young trainers who’ve read all the books, done their research, and want to get hands-on experience training dogs. There are no barriers standing between them and their dream career. They can open a business immediately and start taking clients without a mentor. Unfortunately, this can lead to naïve trainers taking on cases beyond their skill set.”

Kinney cautions pet owners to ask potential trainers about their education and the training methods they use.

“This unregulated industry welcomes trainers who have little to no understanding of how canine behavior and training really works. Even if they are getting the desired results, the training methods used could have detrimental side effects for the dog and family.”

Patti Anderson, CPDT-KA of Paws Abilities and North Star Therapy Animals, agrees.

“Look for a trainer that will actually listen to your concerns, value the human-animal bond, and respect your dog’s unique personality,” she advises. “We have all had [good and bad] experiences with medical doctors, and will return to those that not only have the skills but will listen to our concerns.”

So, what’s the difference between a trainer and a behaviorist? Susan Smith, dog training apprentice at Paws Abilities, says that “a trainer is to a behaviorist as a programmer is to a software engineer. Both can probably get a dog to perform a certain act, just as both can write code, but only one of them has a much deeper understanding of all the nuances and mechanics involved.”

Here’s a quick run-down of your options:

Dog Trainer: This is a person who is qualified to teach you and your dog basic manners. Some can also help you teach your dog to stop doing unwanted behaviors. Ask about education and certification.

Behavior Consultant: This person has more education and more advanced certification than a trainer. They are qualified to help you with more complex behavior issues such as serious aggression or fear. [Note: the author is a Certified Behavior Consultant for Canines, one of four in the state.]

Behaviorist: This person has an advanced degree (MA or PhD) in animal behavior. They are qualified to help you deal with more complex behavioral issues such as serious aggression or fear. They will have a strong research and science background in addition to their practical experience.

Veterinary Behaviorist: This is the absolute best option for very serious behavioral issues, or those where there is a medical component to the dog’s problem behavior. There are around 75 veterinary behaviorists in the country, and one (Dr. Margaret Duxbury of Veterinary Behavior Specialties) in the state of Minnesota. Vet behaviorists are the only professionals on this list who can legally diagnose medical conditions like Canine Compulsive Disorder or Separation Anxiety, and who can prescribe medication to treat these.

Behavioralist: There is no such thing as a “behavioralist.” Run away from any person who uses this title!

Ken Ramirez, director of Karen Pryor Academy, says it best. “My message would be simple: training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care. Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact. Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets. It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick. Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely.”

Sara Reusche CBCC-KA CPDT-KSA CVT, is owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training.