Blog - The difference between a dog trainer and a dog behaviourist

Posted Sunday, 5 April 2015

There are many skilled dog trainers about who can help you to train your dog to perform a variety of tasks. From the basics such as: sit, down, walk nicely on a lead, come when called; to the more advanced such as: emptying the washing machine, backwards walking, leg weaving, spins, twists and marching etc.

In my experience as a dog behaviourist and trainer, many of my clients have already sought the help of a well -meaning dog trainer to help with a behaviour problem. The fact that they then contact me for help shows that there is a difference between a trainer and a behaviourist.
Behaviour problems relate more to emotional disturbances for a dog such as: separation distress, generalised anxiety, aggression, barking, self-harming etc. Or to more instinctive behaviours such as: chasing livestock, predation, destructive behaviours. Or behaviours relate to an underlying medical issue which may present as an abnormal behaviour such as obsession, tail chasing or other stereotypies. There is, of course some overlap. For example, barking could indicate an underlying emotionality or it could be that the dog enjoys barking, the latter would respond to training and the former, a behaviour modification programme.

Let’s take barking as an example. An owner wants help as their dog barks at dogs when out on a walk. So they go to a training class. In a class environment the dog is barking at the other dogs. The trainer tells the client to keep the dog busy to stop her from barking. So, at that time the dog does not bark as the owner does not allow her to take notice of the environment keeping her busy constantly. The owner goes home happy that this is working. After all, the dog did not bark.

But, if we look into why the dog was barking we might want to do something different. If this dog is feeling stressed, barking releases tension and helps her to feel better. Barking may ensure other dogs don’t get too close. Working her to distract her stops her barking, but is it actually addressing her underlying emotions? What might be the consequences of this for the dog? The dog would be kept under pressure as she would still be amongst dogs. Might the food serve to reinforce the emotional state (through classical conditioning) increasing the likelihood the dog feels stressed in the presence of dogs? If the dog is not allowed to take notice of the other dogs in class and is being distracted with training or treats, how is the dog learning anything useful from the environment?  So here is an example of a trainer potentially making a problem worse even though it looks like it is getting better in the short term.

So, what might a qualified behaviourist do differently? Through history taking she would try to understand the emotional state which may be behind this behaviour. Evaluate the motivation for the behaviour and how the dog is being reinforced for it. She would try to create an environment in which the dog does not feel stressed but working from a segregated space or from another room, or in an outdoor environment. She would set a plan to help the dog to learn genuine self-control and to learn how to feel genuinely relaxed in the presence of other dogs, most likely through a technique called classical counter conditioning. The emphasis for a behaviourist would be to address WHY the dog feels like barking and work on that. To create an environment where learning the right behaviour becomes possible. 

The trouble is that many trainers lack the experience or have done internet based behaviour courses only and yet consider themselves qualified to provide behaviour counselling. They may genuinely not realise the damage they may be causing as “we do not know that which we do not yet know. It is only when we know it that we realise we didn't know it before”. Many trainers have not yet reached that stage of experience to realise this.

I have worked as a dog trainer and behaviourist for 12 years and in that time helped to train in the region of over 8,000 dogs in different classes. In that time I have had a vast amount of experience in which I have learned to read very subtle body language and behaviours in dogs and I still feel I have a way to go. Combined with my academic grounding I have pieced together lots of knowledge making me a reasonably accomplished trainer and behaviourist. I will not say I am highly accomplished as I do not yet know that which I do not know, so who knows how much more I will learn. I learn something new most times I work with clients and their dogs.

I have also learned that some trainers who believe they are only using positive reinforcement are actually using punishment, but they are unaware of this and certainly don’t intend it. Let’s go back to the example of the dog barking in class. The very fact that the dog is in the class with other dogs and is barking is a punishing experience for this dog. It is also punishing probably for other dogs in the class. She is barking because she is uncomfortable. An experienced and qualified behaviourist would know this straight away.

A few years ago the government set up a study group CAWC (Companion Animal Welfare Council) to look into regulating dog behaviourists. This resulted in the formation of The ABTC (Animal Behaviourists and Trainers Council). This group recommends that a behaviourist should hold a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree specifically in animal behaviour. The reason for this is that to understand behaviour requires an in depth understanding of learning theory, ethology and neuroscience. This is a very complex subject and simply cannot be covered in sufficient detail during a short internet course. A Bachelor of Science normally takes three years to complete. It takes years of learning and consolidation of this learning with practical experience to become an effective behaviourist.  I am still consolidating this each time I work with dogs.

So, the difference between a trainer and a behaviourist is that a behaviourist is required to hold the minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and a trainer is not. A behaviourist has to have a far deeper understanding of emotions, ethology, neuroscience and learning than a trainer. A behaviourist should also be an expert in reading dog body language. This takes time, knowledge and experience.