What is the Difference Between a Dog Trainer and a Behaviorist?

When trying to find the right dog professional to meet your needs, all of the titles thrown around can be confusing. Here is a run down of the most common terms in behavior and training to help you understand the different, and sometimes overlapping services that these professionals provide.

Let’s start with two terms that don’t require professional schooling or experience; behaviorist and trainer.

Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist. When it comes to the term behaviorist, there is an unwritten rule — a respect in the field among professionals — to reserve that title only for those who have gone through the required education, experience, and testing to earn a specific certification. It is frowned upon for those that have not gone through that schooling and certification to use the term behaviorist, even if their primary focus in their profession is behavior-focused. I’ll explain further momentarily. The point being, there is not a legal regulation on this term, so buyers beware when enlisting the help of someone who calls themself a “behaviorist,” as there is no measure (unless they are certified) of their experience and abilities. Are they a certified behaviorist or someone simply using that term to separate themselves from trainers?

Dog trainers are those who focus primarily on obedience, such as sit, down, stay, heel, and so on. Many individuals who are dog trainers without certification are working toward a certification, train dogs as a hobby, train their own dogs for competition, or are not interested in continuing education and testing. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good dog handlers (trainers), it simply means, as with the term behaviorist, that there is not a required standard measure of their experience and/or skill level.

Before addressing the rest of the terms, there are two fundamental differences between a training focus and a behavior focus, what I call the “how” and the “why”. You can think of a training focus as the “how” to a dog’s actions, and behavior as the “why” to a dog’s actions. For example, a training professional may teach a skill to a dog like pushing a button to open a door. A behavior professional will explain to you the mechanics behind the reward system used to communicate expectations to shape that specific desired behavior. Though there is some overlap based on experience and level of comfort from the professional, most trainers teach obedience, basic behavior modifications, and specific skills whereas behavior professionals tackle advanced behavior issues such as fear aggression, severe anxiety, compulsive disorders, and other challenges related to the mental state of the animal.

In loose, generic terms, you can also think of it like working the brain, or healing the brain.

Again — there is some overlap between the two but this should give you a better idea as to understanding the primary focus between each of the two professional categories.

Training Professional
Dog trainers come in many forms with a very wide array of methodologies used to get desired skills. There are (self-described) force-free trainers, alpha trainers, service dog trainers, police dog trainers, e-collar trainers, clicker trainers, balanced trainers, diabetic alert dog trainers, obedience trainers, and the list goes on. Trainers offer so many amazing and different skills. Many trainers have a niche — such as service dog training or protection training, however, they all primarily operate by using the ABCs of training to get the desired result. ABC stands for antecedent, behavior, consequence.

Behavior Professional
Behavior professionals study the way that animals behave to better understand (not just as a species, but as individuals) why animals behave the way that they do. They study a combination of topics, such as psychology, physiology, and genetics. They use that knowledge to assess, manage, modify, and prevent the development of problematic and dysfunctional behaviors in dogs. Behavior professionals work with more complex behaviors and/ or comorbidities, by combining behavior assessment, management, modification, training, and sometimes medical management through a licensed veterinarian.

On to terms that do require professional schooling and experience; Certified Veterinary Behaviorist, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Behavior Consultant, Certified Dog Trainer.

There are so many specialized certifications out there like Canine Good Citizen Certified and Temperament Test Certified, Public Access Certified, and so on. So as not to confuse, those are specialty certifications within a training focus and though they may matter depending on what exactly you are looking for, they do not represent the differences between behavior and training professional certifications.

To clarify, the following are certifications on a broad view that hold the most weight, (highest level of schooling and training) from the top, down:

Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist — look for the letters DACVB — certified through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. DACVBs went to college, applied to vet school, then spent four years in vet school, earned a medical degree, did a one year internship, did a three year residency, researched and published a scientific paper on behavior, wrote at least three peer-reviewed papers, and took and passed the board exam.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

  1. CAAB — (Certified Applied) requires a doctorate with a focus in animal behavior and 5 years of professional behavior service, pass the exam
  2. ACAAB (Associate Certified Applied) — minimum of a Masters Degree with a focus in animal behavior 2 years of professional behavior service, pass the exam

Certified Behavior Consultant

There are multiple options, however, I’m simply referencing the top two respected certifiers in the field: The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, (IAABC) and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT).

CCPDT — for trainers who want to specialize in behavior modification — Certified Behavior Consultant Canine — Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA)

  • A minimum of 300 hours’ experience in canine behavior consulting (on fear, phobias, compulsive behaviors, anxiety, and aggression) within the previous 3 years.
  • Letter of recommendation from a veterinarian or CCPDT certificant

IAABC — Two types of certification — Certified Behavior Consultant and Associate Certified Behavior Consultant. Both of these require letters of recommendation from a colleague, a veterinarian, and a client, both require a rigorous exam, and submitting case studies for review. The review of these case studies determines eligibility for Associate Certified or Certified.

  1. Associate Certified:
    • Suggested three years and 300 hours experience in animal behavior consulting
    • 150 hours minimum of coursework, seminars and mentorships
  2. Certified:
    • Suggested four years and 500 hours experience in animal behavior consulting
    • 400 hours minimum of coursework, seminars and mentorships

Certified Dog Trainer
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) — there are other agencies, (Karen Pryor, IAABC) however the CCPDT has a long standing history of having current methodologies and respected testing, so serves as a logical example.

Both of the following certificants must have logged at least 300 hours of hands-on dog training within three years before testing, (not including with a personally owned dog), letter of recommendation from a veterinarian or CCPDT certificant, and passing of the exam.

  1. CPDT — KA (knowledge assessed)
  2. CPDT — KSA (both knowledge and skills assessed)

Now that there’s some understanding about the differences between the focuses of behavior professionals and training professionals, here are some examples as to how people can choose which professional they may enlist for services:

Example One: A dog presents with no behavioral issues or some minor behavioral issues and the owner is looking for basic obedience. The most likely person to enlist is a dog training professional, (trainer).

Example Two: A dog presents with some behavioral issues that range minor to severe. The dog is fearful and will run and hide at the sight of anyone new. A behavior consultant would most likely be a good fit.

Example Three: A dog presents with severe behavioral issues and may need medical management as well. This dog has bitten two people in the home including a child. If available, a veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) would be a top choice for this dog.

Example Four: An owner presents with mobility issues and needs her dog to help her get up and down and prevent falling down the stairs. This person would enlist the help of a dog trainer whose specialty is service dog training to teach mobility-specific tasks.

There are varying costs associated with each of the professionals in both training and behavior which can be the determining factor for many when choosing which professional to start with. For example, a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist is a one-stop shop for all advanced behavior needs including medical intervention but will also cost the most, (as they should, given their level of expertise from many years of schooling and case work). Depending on the circumstances of a dog’s behavioral issue, an experienced trainer or behavior consultant may get the desired result, or, the training professional or behavior professional may end up referring you to a veterinary behaviorist if further input and expertise is needed.

Behavior modification of an animal though, is often not a one-stop shop. Appropriate management often involves a team of professionals to help you through behavioral challenges, or, to reach a specific goal in your training journey with your dog. Here is an example of how these separate professionals integrate to meet your needs as a team.

A real world example:
A professional dog trainer may have taught a puppy basic skills — sit, down, stay, heel, come. At one year of age the puppy becomes fearful of all men wearing hats and begins trying to bite them while out on walks with the owner. A behavior consultant or certified applied animal behaviorist works with the owner and puppy to identify the reason/trigger that causes this response in the puppy. Once identified, a behavior treatment plan is laid out. If the puppy’s stressors diminish, great! If little progress is made, a veterinarian may be called onto the team or the client may be referred to a board certified veterinary behaviorist.

Why this information is important:
As previously mentioned, there is some obvious overlap in these roles between trainers, behaviorists and consultants, each of them are unique in their approaches, their abilities, and their designated areas of expertise. Yes, there are some professionals who encompass multiple roles but most professionals are more focused in their practice to serve a specific population as best they can.

When it comes to a client with a specific need, it’s the responsibility of the professionals to guide that person to the right, qualified individual for their needs, despite who the client may have reached out to first. There’s a financial component to professional services and we (behavior and training professionals) owe it to our clients to keep that in mind and not waste the client’s time or money.

I’ll give you a recent example of a real client’s experience which led to both confusion and frustration on the part of the client that had an already stressful situation with her dog. This is one of many examples as to why it helps for not just dog owners, but professionals to understand the differences in skill and expertise that each of these professionals possess.

  • A client calls their veterinary hospital and says she’s been working with a behavior consultant on her dog’s fear aggression and the behavior consultant believes that her dog needs support from a veterinarian. The consultant asks her to schedule an appointment with her vet. That translates to: this consultant thinks this animal could benefit from medical intervention, and/or has some physical components to his behavior, however, is not a doctor, so a doctor is needed to help with this behavioral treatment plan. The receptionist sends the call back to a well-meaning technician who then gives the owner the phone number to a dog trainer in the area. Now the client is confused. Does her dog need a trainer, a veterinarian, a new consultant?

This is a system failure at this one particular hospital and is just one example of how easy it is, even for people in the veterinary profession, to confuse what part of behavior and training each of these roles play. If the client is already working with a behavior consultant, unless the behavior consultant refers out to a trainer for something specific, a referral to a training professional is not needed. However, some trainers do not work with certain behaviors like aggression, (puppy training or service dog training may be their wheelhouse), so a trainer may refer the client to a behavior consultant.

All in all — experience matters, whether it’s a trainer or a behavior professional. Most often, the simpler the task, the less the experience required so be sure to still support your trainers out there that are just starting and need the hands-on experience. The more complicated the task or behavior problem, the more experience may be required to safely and appropriately address that task or behavior. New professionals should be relying on seasoned professionals for anything complicated that comes their way. Book smarts are important, understanding learning theory and ethology are important, but nothing replaces putting that knowledge into actual field practice which is why experience matters when choosing the right professional for the task at hand.

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This article was reviewed and edited by several dog training professionals (certified and non-certified) and behavior professionals (certified and non-certified) internationally whom are members of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants for accuracy and professional input.
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