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How to Become a Dog Behaviorist

By Michelle A. Rivera
 

Overview

A dog behaviorist, not to be confused with a dog trainer, is usually a veterinarian who assesses why a dog is behaving in a specific way and makes recommendations to the dog's owner that may include seeking the services of a dog trainer or prescribing medication for the dog. A dog trainer, on the other hand, teaches dogs to perform certain tasks, such as sit, stay, come and lie down. Behaviorists typically make an assessment of a dog after the veterinarian has ruled out any pathological problems. For example, if a dog is urinating on the floor, the veterinarian may have to rule out a urinary tract infection before a behaviorist can make an assessment and then recommend ways to get him to stop the inappropriate behavior. The behaviorist’s job is to be subjective, drawing conclusions from the dog’s behavior, response to stimuli and environment, whereas the veterinarian’s job is to look at the dog more objectively. While a veterinarian may take blood samples and make a clinical observation based on objective data, a behaviorist will look at the dog’s home, interactions with the owner, house mates and lifestyle to determine if there is something in his environment that is causing him to act the way he does. Because behavior can sometimes be corrected with prescription medical intervention, most behaviorists are veterinarians. However, there are ways to become an animal behavior consultant without going to veterinary school.

Step 1

Ensure you meet the basic requirements for becoming a dog behaviorist. You should be in good physical condition, as you will be handling fractious dogs. People with well-behaved dogs do not seek the services of a dog behaviorist. Build and maintain a solid foundation of understanding and knowledge of canine body language. You will also need a genuine affection for canines and not be fearful of them. Additionally, you must be able and willing to communicate effectively with your clients and be committed to spending the time it takes to build a successful practice.

Step 2

Check the requirements in your state. Some states may require veterinary licensure for those calling themselves a dog behaviorist. If your state requires you be “certified,” understand that getting a certification from a specific school will not “certify” you as a dog behaviorist; it is simply a certificate saying you have completed a course. Certification, on the other hand, involves taking a test administered by the state or a recognized authoritative body. According to Animal Behavior Associates, a trade organization, there is technically no standard terminology for those who want to work as a dog behaviorist. That is, anyone who wishes to do so can call themselves a behaviorist. However, within the industry, it is understood that those who have undergone graduate work in animal behavior may call themselves a dog behaviorist.

Step 3

Find a veterinarian who may be willing to sponsor you or partner up with you. A veterinarian who will refer clients to you after she has ruled out physical or organic reasons for the behavior will be invaluable to you as you build your practice. You may need to intern under a veterinarian as you proceed through the application and academic programs necessary to become a dog behaviorist. You will also need to have the resources to market yourself and pay for usual business expenses such as a cell phone, car, place of business where you will see your clients, occupational and related licenses and certifications and continuing education.

Step 1

Become a dog trainer by either attending a dog trainer school or working as an apprentice under a professional dog trainer. As a dog trainer, you will have an opportunity to fully understand how dogs think and why they do the things they do. Through interaction with dogs and their owners, you will develop a keen sense of dogs' motivation. It is only by working in the field that you will be afforded the chance to see dogs doing things you don't understand, help your clients comprehend and change unwanted behaviors, and work out issues and problems that may arise. You will need this valuable experience when it comes time to apply to become a member in a professional organization such as the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Step 2

Attend a college or enroll in an online course through one of the colleges that provides coursework in animal behavior. Organizations such as the American College of Applied Science offer graduate, undergraduate and certification programs that will teach you about animal behavior and get you started on a career as an animal behaviorist. Check with your local university to see about earning a graduate degree in zoology, biology, anthropology or psychology. When selecting a college, find one that offers classes in the history of dog training and behavior, with contrast and comparison of 19th century through modern-day attitudes. Additionally, look for courses in animal learning, such as operant conditioning, habituation, sensitization and desensitization, dog cognizance, canine communication, how dogs see the world, dog behavior and training modalities, and general dog anatomy and physiology. Courses in veterinary prescription medicine for specific maladies that respond to drug therapy, such as anxiety and depression, are also valuable.

Step 3

Apply for membership into the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Membership in a professional organization will give you credibility and raise you from the level of dog trainer to dog behaviorist. As a recognized authoritative body, the IAABC can certify you as a behaviorist after you have completed their admission. Admission procedures involve creating an account on the IAABC website and filling out an application. You will also have to submit three real-life case studies, provide references from a client, veterinarian and colleague, and write a thesis including three case scenarios. You will be expected to pass a test with 80 percent proficiency that includes vocabulary, six areas of core competency, techniques and consulting. You must have a high school diploma, at least three years of experience in consulting with a minimum of 1,000 hours in behavior consulting, 400 hours of related coursework and continuing education in core competencies.
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