29th Oct, 2019

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Canine Behaviourist and Certified TTouch® Practitioner.

When looking for the best professional carers for your pets, it’s important to do plenty of research. And as you do this, you’ll find that, apart from veterinarians, the profession is unregulated. Anyone can, and do, claim to be “experts” as trainers, behaviourists, groomers, pet sitters, etc.

So how do you sort the wheat from the chaff? You ask questions. Lots of them!

Learning the ropes

My field of work is that of a behaviourist, or ethologist – the study of animals’ behaviour in their natural environment. Basically, we focus on why dogs behave the way they do and ways in which we can help owners and dogs to be happy and well-behaved (in human perception.)

The professional behaviourist should have formal training, which takes at least two years of theory and practical work. The field of understanding animal behaviour is growing apace, with emphasis on the workings of the brain, the emotions that drive behaviour, and how dogs learn.

Some courses offer additional training in human psychology, which is a plus. Understanding the use of medications and detecting symptoms that require a vet intervention is also useful. Additional protocols such as Tellington Touch, Reiki, physiotherapy, etc. are add-ons, and some veterinarians are also behaviourists.

There is also the important side of understanding the context, or environment, in which unwanted behaviours may occur.

Experiential learning usually takes the form of case studies wherein students present actual working situations and the solutions that have been suggested. In the early days, working with a shelter gives a very broad spectrum – and ensuring that no harm is done, some of the formal learning can be used.

At all times, students should have a mentor who’s able to guide them on the various protocols, answer questions, and make suggestions for improvement. Obviously, until one has qualified, one cannot charge for such services.

Understanding behaviour

The first thing that needs to be understood is what is considered “normal” behaviour for the animal in question. Abnormal means a deviation from this, while unwanted behaviour may be normal for the dog but undesirable in the owner’s perception. For example, dogs bark. That’s natural (although it may be excessive) but can be irritating for the owner.

Behaviour is modified through understanding the context in which the behaviour occurs. For example, a dog may indulge in counter-surfing to obtain food. Simply by keeping food off the counter, the dog’s behaviour is likely to decrease as there’s no reward (food) for the behaviour. The environment has been modified to achieve this result.

Scientific behavioural research into learning dates back to Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936) and his salivating dogs. We still use this theory, known as classical conditioning, in certain cases. Later, Skinner (1974) developed the theory of operant conditioning, which forms the basis of most of our work, using positive reinforcement to teach a dog the desired behaviours. Based on the principle that a behaviour that is rewarded is likely to increase, this is used extensively in training and behavioural modification. He did, however, dismiss emotions as pure fantasy, which the exponential expansion of neuroscience has shown to be inaccurate.

The behaviourist should be familiar with the ways in which positive reinforcement is used and be able to demonstrate its power to owners, encouraging them to become familiar with it. The point about positive reinforcement is that it eliminates the use of any punishment or aversives in both training and behavioural modification.

Punishment can have harmful effects on any sentient being – dogs may become aggressive or shut down.

Need to know

So back to the questions you should ask…

  1. What formal qualifications does a prospective behaviourist who will work with you and your dog have? Ask.
  2. What will happen when my dog gets it right? And when he gets it wrong?
  3. What form will your work take – will you use a shock collar? Or any form of aversives?
  4. How important is the context in which modification takes place?
  5. Do you encourage prospects to see you at work (this is especially important for training – you need to be sure the dog will be comfortable).
  6. Do you have recommendations from your clients and vets?

A professional behavourist will welcome your questions. And as for dominance theory, that has long been discounted, so if they mention that your dog is trying to dominate you and you must learn to be the boss, walk away fast. Very fast!

In my experience over many years, only one client has asked me about my formal training and experience. I wish that each and every one of them would ask – although if they don’t, I usually “answer” them before we begin!