Animal Trainers and Behaviorists: Licensing and Certification

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By Sophie Liu (Behavior Intern for Dr. Sophia Yin and Veterinary Student at Cornell)


“You should find a good trainer.” How many times have we heard this advice but don’t know exactly who to turn to? When one of my dogs began exhibiting aggressive behavior, many people told me that I should “find” a behaviorist, as if it were a simple, ordinary task and that all I had to do was search. In my quest to find the best behaviorist, I realized that the options were much more nuanced, the licensing/certification organizations much more varied, and the process much more complicated than I had initially thought.
Unlike many other professions, there is not one central organization that licenses or certifies all dog trainers or behaviorists.  Rather, I realized that the term behaviorist could be freely used by anybody! The fact is that there is no licensing requirement for anyone who states that they’re a “behaviorist”, unless they hold a veterinary medical degree (DVM, VMD). Moreover, calling one’s self a “behaviorist” does not guarantee any advanced qualification or level of education unless the phrases “veterinary” or “applied animal” precedes the title. That meant that Joe-Schmoe down my block could easily advertise himself as a “behaviorist” but not understand animal behavior at all! So, if the term “behaviorist” is not a strong indicator of an individual’s knowledge of animal behavior or skill level, then what other titles can we rely on?

Veterinary Medical Professionals

It turns out that there are many certifying organizations with different standards for certification. Generally, they fall into two broad categories:
Veterinary medical professionals: DVM/VMD, with possibility of DACVB, and Veterinary Technician Specialist-Behavior.
1. Professionals with a DVM or VMD, or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine or Veterinary Medical Doctor. These professionals graduate from a four-year veterinary college and pass a national, as well as a state board exam. Veterinarians must also participate in continuing education to keep their licenses current based on their state’s requirements. nbsp;  Veterinarians are monitored by a governing body and can have their license revoked if they are not practicing to the standards of care.  Veterinarians are legally the only ones who can diagnosis medical (and, conversely, mental health) problems. As such, veterinarians are legally the only people that can prescribe medication to treat behavioral issues. Although most veterinary schools do not provide animal behavior as a core part of the curriculum, interested veterinarians can gain continuing education in behavior from clinical practice or by entering a behavior residency program. 
2. Veterinarians who are DACVB – Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior. These veterinarians complete a 3 year residency program at an accredited veterinary college or a non-conforming training program that is mentored and approved by the ACVB. Residents are required to see over 200 supervised behavior cases, write three peer reviewed case reports, author and publish a scientific paper based on their own research, prior to taking the national boards in their specialty. Find a DAVCB through their convenient online search engine.

3. Veterinary technicians specializing in behavior can become Veterinary Technician Specialist – Behavior. These veterinary technicians graduate from an AVMA accredited vet tech program and/or are credentialed (certified, registered, or licensed) in their respective state. These technicians then demonstrate their knowledge of veterinary behavior and behavior modification by applying to the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (AVBT) to sit for the Veterinary Technician Specialty exam in Behavior. Technicians that pass this national exam earn the distinction of being a Veterinary Technician Specialist – Behavior (VTS-Behavior). To apply, technicians must have over 3 years experience in veterinary medicine, 4000 documented hours of  behavior experience, 50 behavior cases, submit 3 case studies for review, provide professional references, and pass a written and practical exam given annually by the AVBT. Veterinary technicians, like veterinarians are monitored by a governing body, and must  maintain their license. For the most up to date information, contact AVBT online

Professional Animal Behavior Organizations

Professional animal behavior organizations that grant certifications to qualified individuals who demonstrate strong working knowledge of animal behavior.

1. ABS- The Animal Behavior Society is a professional organization that grants certification to individuals that meet their high standards of education, with professional experience in the field of applied animal behavior. They have two levels of certification Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.  Certification is granted by the Board of Professional Certification (BPC) of the ABS.
a. AABS- Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist. People who hold this title have earned a research-based Master’s degree from an accredited college in biological or behavioral science.  In order to earn certification, they must also have 2 years of professional experience in applied animal behavior, provide evidence of supervised hands on experience with a particular species, provide professional letters of recommendation, and show they can work independently in applied animal behavior. The society also requires them to recertify every 5 years.
b. CAAB- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. The Animal Behavior Society grants this certification to a professional that has earned a research-based Ph.D. from an accredited college in a behavioral or biological science. They must also have five years of professional experience, provide professional recommendations, have a thorough knowledge of the literature on scientific principles of animal behavior, provide original research, and show evidence of significant experience working interactively with a particular species as a researcher or with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. The society also requires them to resubmit for certification every 5 years. Go to ABS.com for the requirements. 
2. IAABC –International Association of Behavior Consultants is an organization founded to support the practice of companion animal behavior consulting.  The members of this group have diverse practices and methods.  They believe in minimizing the use of aversive techniques and maximizing the efficacy of using reinforcers to modify behavior.  They offer 3 tiers of membership with five different divisions: dog, cat, parrot, horse and working animal. They have a committee that reviews applicants who want to become members at the various levels. Supportive members must simply pay a membership fee and support their mission.  Meanwhile, an Associate member must provide references, two case studies that cover 3 core areas of competency, 300 hours of consulting, and 150 hours of course work.  Certified members must provide references, 3 case studies that cover 6 core areas of competency, a minimum of 3 years and 1000 hours of consulting, and 400 hours of course work.  Contact IAABC to find out more about this organization.

Dog Trainers

But suppose we return to the original piece of advice that prompted me to research all these titles. Suppose I was looking mostly for a “good trainer”. As it turns out, there are many certifying organizations for trainers, as well, and that the term “professional dog trainer” holds just as little substance as the term “behaviorist” by itself. In the broadest sense, a trainer, is simply an individual who works with animals. There are no educational or legal certifications required to use this term. In fact, trainers do not earn state or national licenses and are not monitored by a central governing body. Trainers may have certification from the training school from which they graduated or they may even belong to professional groups that have various requirements for membership.  However, trainers have no professional licensing requirements the way a veterinarian or registered veterinary technician does. So, what organizations exist to certify trainers and uphold a certain standard of quality? There are two main organizations:

1) CCPDT- Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers

is a private, not-for-profit organization that was founded in in 2001. Its mission is to establish and maintain humane standards for competence of animal training and behavioral professionals.    All candidates must pass a comprehensive examination, have hours of experience in the field, provide personal recommendations and adhere to a code of ethics in order to be certified.  CCPDT has several types of credentials.
a. To become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer- KA, trainers must have at least 300 hours of training experience as a head/lead trainer and pass a science-based, psychometrically sound exam. Trainers that have passed an additional test that examines their physical skills in dog training are CPDT-KSA (knowledge & skills assessed).
b. CCPDT also has Certified Behavior Canine Consultants. These individuals must have at least 500 hours of work with canine behavior cases.   They must also pass a science-based, psychometrically sound exam. Visit their website, www.ccpdt.org

2) Karen Pryor Academy

is a professional educational academy for animal training that advances innovative force-free methods and the use of operant conditioning to modify behavior.  Karen Pryror Academy (KPA) graduates have completed an intense 5 month educational program that utilizes both online, didactic and hands-on instruction methods to teach students about animal training, behavior and the education of pet owners (clients).  To graduate and become a Karen Pryor Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) students must pass both written and practical assessments, and achieve a 90% or greater on their final written and practical exams. Classes are limited in size and students are required to train multiple species, in addition to humans.
For more information, www.karenpryoracademy.com.

So, as it turns out, finding a “good trainer” or “good behaviorist” is much more diffucult than it seems! Being aware of each certifying organization’s standards and understanding the qualifications of certified individuals will help us to make more educated choices about who we want to help modify our animals’ behaviors. So, the next time someone asks you where to find a good trainer or behaviorist, you can reference any of these organizations and know exactly the expected knowledge/skill level of a certified individual.

For more information on becoming a trainer or behaviorist yourself;

https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/karen-pryor-academy-the-most-efficient-path-to-becoming-an-animal-trainer

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18 responses to “Animal Trainers and Behaviorists: Licensing and Certification

  1. I have looked at the various programs to “certify” for dog trainers. Since Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has gained momentum, I have been watching the trainers pop up with their certification who I know do not have their 300 hours as a head trainer. I will just continue my education & continue to provided a detail list of those educational hours & resources for my clients to view. I’d much rather spend money on my education rather than just a title.

  2. Dr. Yin, I fully support your article & like the idea of the concept of certification. I just don’t feel at this time any of these certification programs in themselves are truly identifying “educated trainers” which I thought was some of their goals. Now with a Master’s at Harvard, the difference to me is that they are teaching you at Harvard. With say CCPDT-they are just saying they feel that you have the skills or what have you. Karen’s academy & Jeans etc are again teaching skills. I believe. Still, “feathers in your cap”. At least that’s how I personally feel. I’d be much more inclined (and think it would be a great learning experience) to go to one of these types. Again, I’d be paying for a learning experience & furthering my education. The problem is that the general public doesn’t understand all this. I’m sure anyone posting here is a professional & has a thirst for knowledge, why we love following you! smile And thank you for your time & resources. You are helping us educate that public.

  3. These are good points. Student can graduate from prestigious universities such as Harvard and Stanford and with little skills, knowledge, or work ethic. The same is even more true of dog training certification programs. I recommend that trainers get as broad and deep a scientific + applied education as possible. That may mean going through several types of programs. It definitely means getting a strong scientific foundation from which to anchor the knowledge that they are hopefully seeking and acquiring on a daily basis. Good trainers are those who have a thirst for knowledge and display their thirst through their actions.

  4. I’m sure these courses are very good. I had wanted to take the Animal Behavior College course, but it was around $2000 at the time and I just couldn’t swing it. Nothing against the course, though.

    If I had taken the course would my certificate mean anything? These training certificates aren’t recognized nor held in any regard as a degree from Harvard would be. You can have the entire alphabet after your name, but it doesn’t mean anything to clients like a MA, M.D, or Ph. D might mean.

    The certification from these courses simply means you completed their course.

    I like to learn as much as I can and I wish I had the finances to learn more about behavior, but I’ll just have to stick to reading blogs like yours and other knowledgeable folks out there.

    I pick and choose what makes sense to me and go from there. I’ve changed my views over the years, too, as I gain more information on certain tops or gain real world experience (which sometimes goes against something I may have learned earlier).

    Anyway…the idea is to just keep learning and tweak what you do as you go along for the good of the animals and the people who live with them!

    Bob

  5. Thank-you Sophie and Sophia, this is an excellent article. I do not know of a way to identify all the reputable Animal Training the Trainer Programs in North America. Those of us who have such programs must be willing to to stick our noses out into the fray and publish our CVs. I for one post my 45 plus years of education for all to see. My learning continues every day. The students taking my Cloverfield Specialist Training Course at Cloverfield Animal Behaviour Services are receiving a course that stays current. By keeping myself on the cutting edge of research based knowledge I am able to deliver a course that educates the next generation of dog trainers, animal behaviour consultants and service dog trainers. This course is 40 sessions, intensive, theory based, hands on training and depending on interest, multi-specie. It is taught in private or semi-private sessions. No student progresses to the next session without successfully completing each session. I believe any student wanting to become a professional “anything” must be willing to work and study to that professional level.

  6. if what Bob and Tonya say are good points, and I totally agree with them, then why the article that attempts to exclude good knowledgeable trainers because that don’t buy into the theory of being separated from their money to add a few meaningless acronyms after their name?

  7. Valerie:
    I’m not sure what you mean by attempts to exclude good knowledgable trainers. This is ONE article and it can’t be unlimited. If you think others should know about additional trainers and programs and feel so strongly about this, then as I stated in an earlier, comment, by all means, please write about them in the comments here. It sounds to me like some people are upset that there are training groups that charge $$ for certifications and that because they are not within the budget of everyone, that these programs must not be good. That’s like saying ” e.g. Master’s at Harvard, M.D degree at Yale.–it’s way to expensive to earn these degrees at these universities…. so those schools aren’t any good. People could be just as good studying and learning the information on their own without getting a degree.”

  8. Your dog trainer section of the list is woefully incomplete without Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers.

  9. Dear Carmen:
    If you would like to provide information feel free to write a detailed description here in the comments section. We have limited time to write blogs and provide all of the other services that we provide. The veterinary student, Sophie Liu, who wrote this article especially has limited time with her busy schedule yet she was able to put together this fairly detailed account. Again we invite you to provide the information that you wish others could read. —–Dr. Sophia Yin

  10. I would love to be a “certified” dog trainer, but I don’t believe there is such a thing. These organizations make it financially impossible to get their certification and in the end, it really doesn’t mean much. Kind of like my BA from college!

    I’ve trained dogs, taken courses, rad books and gone to seminars, but I”m not certified. Does that me me less of a trainer than one who has taken one of these expensive courses?

    Bob

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. And I wish I felt this way before spending over $7500 on the KPA class. These certifications mean nothing. Its unfortunate since dog owners deserve a way to find reputable dog trainers but there isnt a way in reality. One of the best trainers I know learned everything from books and a mentor. Another amazing trainer comes from a “corrective” training background and changed her ways through her own education. Dog training schools are cash cows. They offer little value and education, certainly very little more than learning online and through books — for free. Dont get duped by these “reputable” names and their associated prestige and value. Its a waste of money and these organizations should be outed and held accountable for their egregious prices and false claims and advertising.

      – Karen Pryor Academy Student

  11. I am a CPDT-KSA and CBCC-KA and CDBC. I have also titled many dogs in sport and have trained many service dogs; Not sure how many but more than ten in each. I run the largest training school in Guelph and our students are both families dog owners and serious sports participants. We also have a large behaviour program and I have helped over 3000 families with dogs with behaviour problems. Let me share my thoughts on certification.

    First party certification is only as good as the organization that is selling the course. So KPA grads are only as good as the Karen Pryor Academy and ABC grads are only as good as the Animal Behaviour College say they are. They are not regulated so if the certifying organization has a political agenda, then the certificants are bound by that agenda. They are constrained by what the organization says they are and limited to what the organization teaches. There is no one looking over the shoulder of the certifying body to ensure minimum standards are met.

    Third party standards are a little different. In order to certify with the ABS, the IAABC or the CCPDT, you can get your education where ever and how ever you want. These organizations are more formalized and have external processes to ensure that they are meeting and exceeding minimum standards (CCPDT is following the ICE protocols for instance when developing their examination). This means that they have a review process where an external governing body looks at how they develop their exams and questions, how they evaluate their certificants and how they count their continuing education protocols.

    First party certification is better than none, but not as good as third party certification, in that the governing body has no reason to pass certificants who have paid them money but who don’t have the full body of knowledge. I am not implying here that first party organizations necessarily do, but there is an open conflict of interest there. To get a third party certification is usually a longer process but may in fact cost the certificant less, so if cost is your issue, and you want certification, then that is a good route to explore, and in my opinion it gives you more credibility in the end.

    The Gold standard is what the veterinary community has. They use a combination of first party and third party accreditation; you MUST attend an accredited veterinary college and then you MUST write the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination and then you MUST pass state or provincial licensing examinations. When training gets to that point, then the consumer will have a much better chance of finding a “good trainer”.

    To the point that there are gaps in the current system of certification,let me just say that those of us within the profession know of the gaps and we are deeply concerned aobut them. Yes, there are incompetent people who can write and pass the examination. Yes, there are incompetent people out there with certifications behind their names. The same is true of lawyers, doctors, veterinarians and other professionals. and yes there are highly competent trainers who can train and teach and work with families and make a difference. I am in support of licensing because I believe that is the route to minimizing these short comings in my field. In the meantime, I am busy every day, training dogs, helping families and doing continuing education in order to try and make the field I work in as professional as I can. Only when we are all working towards becoming more professional will the profession as a whole improve to the point where we are taken seriously by the veterinary profession and the public at large.

  12. Maybe the dogs should decide who is qualified! They are the only ones who really know anything for sure about dogs. lol

    Bob

  13. The dogs choose by default; if a trainer is certified on paper but cannot reach the dog, then it doesn’t matter how well they did on the test. Ultimately, that is why I also title in sport. I would love to see veterinary behaviourists and CAABs titling in sports more often; for a field full of people who love animals they spend precious little time showing off their skills!

  14. One point we have not mentioned yet is professionalism. I would avoid “training/behavior” schools that fail to foster professionalism.

    sophia yin

  15. my dog sophia is year old papillon and she was born with problem with humans
    i have insurance with trupanion and was told by this company that i would need a licensed behaverlist to help sophia
    there is no one around my area,peabody ma
    please help
    cheryl and sophia

    1. We recommend searching through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, https://iaabc.org/consultants or the AVSAB, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior http://avsabonline.org/resources/find-consult. You may want to also check with Karen Price certified trainers https://www.karenpryoracademy.com/find-a-trainer?source=kpctnavbar as well as Victoria Stilwell Positively certified trainers https://positively.com/dog-training/find-a-trainer/find-a-vspdt-trainer/

  16. Hey! I want to become an animal trainer (animals in general, nothing specific) but I have no clue in which program should I enroll. I’m graduating high school in June and need to go to some college… could you please give me some advice on this?

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