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.
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;