Trainer, Behavior Consultant, Veterinary Behaviorist: What Is The Difference?

We are all specialists, and we overlap. But who will be right for your particular needs?

Often, when people call a trainer, they might be referred instead to a Behavior Consultant or a Veterinary Behaviorist. Sometimes, when you see your vet, they might recommend a trainer for an issue at home. The guy at the dog park suggests that you need a Behavioralist

(pssst: there is no such thing as a behavioralist in the dog training/behavior world. It's a political science term).

Here is a quick breakdown as to what exactly a Trainer, Veterinary Behaviorist, and Behavior Consultant do, the overlap, how each can help, and ways to find the appropriate specialist for you!


Some Associated Certifications - CPDT-KA & CPDT-KSA (Certification Council of Pet Dog Trainers);  ABC (Animal Behavior College);  KPCT (Karen Pryor Academy)
K9 S.A.T's:
"Sit: Butt on ground.
Down: Lay on belly.
I think I got it.."

What trainers do: 
 Trainers are the teachers of the animal world, and the way they teach takes several different forms. They can teach group classes that works on the basics (sit, down, stay, recall), individual or private training in your home (home school!), and sports (such as agility, nose-work, K9 disk). They also can focus on formal obedience, rally, dock diving, and other activities in the form of a club, class, or organization.
 Trainers also focus on manners - if you have a door dasher or a counter surfer, you might call a trainer. If you have a dog that is reactive on a leash walk, looking to prepare for a new baby, or puppy manners, a trainer is the right specialist for you. 
Trainers are the Teachers of the dog world.
They focus on giving necessary skills to cope in a human environment.
Where they overlap with other specialists:   
 Trainers tend to work on tricks, manners, and sports - but dog trainers also work to affect emotion and behavior. Sometimes, a dog that is exhibiting bad manners might have an acute emotional response to leash walks, or being left alone. Many trainers can help with mild-moderate cases separation anxiety, leash reactivity, mild fear of strangers, and some cases of aggression.

Where a trainer would not be appropriate: 
-Trainers are not veterinarians. Though trainers can suspect some medical problems, and even guess correctly what the problem is, they do not have the medical expertise to diagnose medical situations in an animal and have no business diagnosing ANY medical issue. A good trainer will say "this looks wrong. See your vet".
-When a behavior is so acute (a dog who shuts down in a classroom setting, a dog who aggresses at any new person in the home, severe separation anxiety), and the only way to help the animal is to work on emotional response, a Behavior Consultant or Veterinary Behaviorist might be more appropriate depending on the degree of the problem behavior.
Where a trainer WOULD be appropriate:
-Classroom work (puppy class; adolescent class; basic manners; specialized classes)
-Door dashing
-Normal "manners" issues
-Reactivity to dogs, other people
-Mild/moderate fear issues.
-Referred by a Behavior Consultant or a Veterinary Behaviorist.

Behavior Consultant:

 Some Associated Certifications - ACAAB (Animal Behavior Society)CABC & CDBC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants); CCAB (International Association for the Study of Animal Behavior); CBCC (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine)

What Behavior Consultants do:
 Behavior Consultants have a scientific interest in why animals do what they do - and more specifically, why a behavior goes awry. They are the psychologists of the animal world.
 If a dog is having an acute emotional response to the mailman, is aggressing at people and has a bite history, has moderate-severe separation anxiety, and seems to be really having a difficult time emotionally with one (or more) parts of daily life, then a Behavior Consultant might be the way for you to go.

Real behavior consultants have certifications and have taken classes / attended seminars on animal behavior.

Applied Animal Behaviorists have a PhD in an animal related field.

If a guy is putting a prong collar on a dog and has never taken a class in animal behavior, he's not a behaviorist.
"Tell me about her"
"I don't know how I can cope. She's such a bitch!"
"Your mother?!?"
"No, my Weimaraner!"
Where they overlap with other specialists:
 Behavior Consultants are the bridge between the vets and the trainers, in that they use their training background to teach troubled dogs behaviors to build confidence, or teach dogs behaviors that are incompatible to the problem behavior they are exhibiting. Consultants also work very closely with Veterinary Behavior Specialists, and as a result, tend to have a working knowledge of  some medical conditions that can produce (or exacerbate) certain behaviors.
  A dog may act aggressively for either behavioral or medical reasons, or a combination of both. A good consultant would work closely with the client and the vet, to order medical tests that might give some insight to behavior problems, use both training and medical tools in order to help the animal cope. Not all behavior is medically related, but a good Behavior Consultant will be able to recognize certain red flags that might be an indicator that there is more going on to the behavior than meets the eye.

Where a Behavior Consultant would not be appropriate:
-Though Behavior Consultants work closely with Vets and Veterinary Behaviorists, they can not diagnose medical conditions, nor can they prescribe medicine to your pet (unless, they also have a medical degree).

Where a Behavior Consultant WOULD be appropriate: 
-Separation Anxiety
-Moderate to Severe cases of leash aggression/reactivity
-Mild-Moderate cases of suspected compulsive disorders
-If you suspect there might be a link between health and behavior
-Any dog with an existing bite history/you suspect your dog will bite
-Emotional / anxiety disorders or behaviors driving by intense fear/anxiety in your dog
-Referred by a Veterinary Behaviorist or a Trainer.

Veterinary Behaviorist:

The ONLY Associated Certification-  DACVB (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists)
What Veterinary Behaviorists do:
 I can't say it any better than the Tufts Cummings School puts it, so I'll just quote from them:
Veterinary behaviorists are veterinarians with a special interest in animal behavior. Some veterinary behaviorists have completed residency programs after graduating from veterinary school and some have passed an exam given by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) have attained specialist status in veterinary behavior. They are doctors of veterinary medicine who received additional training in clinical veterinary behavior and satisfied the certification requirements of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. These veterinary behaviorists are “board-certified” diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Veterinary behaviorists are trained and licensed to diagnose and treat problems in animals, whether they are medical or behavioral. Being veterinarians, these behaviorists can diagnose medical problems that may be contributing to the animals’ behavioral problems. A veterinary behaviorist is also licensed to prescribe drugs and is familiar with psychotropic medications (tranquilizers and anti-depressants), their uses and side effects.

Where they overlap with other specialists:
 Veterinary Behaviorists have an interest in behavior problems (like the consultant) and they use some training techniques to modify behavior (like the trainer). They have the added benefit of a medical degree so they can most directly treat AND diagnose behavior problems (one stop shopping). The Veterinary Behaviorist does not always use medication to treat behavior problems, but they are the most qualified to see the links between behavior, nutrition and health, and can prescribe medication if necessary.They are often the person that is requested when a behavior is really out of the ordinary, medical issues are suspected/documented, or a last ditch effort before sadder, more drastic measures are taken.

  Veterinary Behavior Specialists are also commonly known as "the guys who deal with OCD". If you have a dog that has a behavior that is just extreme in some way (licks his leg to the point of bleeding or compulsion; chases light or shadows; chases his tail compulsively and can't be distracted; behaviors that look cute at first, but are REALLY problematic in real life), there is help. We in Massachusetts are perhaps the luckiest people when it comes to dog behavior problems - we have the foremost researcher and Veterinary Behaviorist, Nicholas Dodman BVMS, DACVB, DACVA (Tufts Cummings Behavior Clinic in Grafton, and you probably have seen him on Animal Planet) AND  Sheila Segurson D’Arpino  DVM, DACV (Animal Rescue League in Boston)

The dog in the above video is spinning compulsively, and can't seem to stop. Even while the other dogs bark and lunge while spinning, this dog is undeterred from this problem behavior. If you see compulsive type behaviors, see a vet behavior specialist.

There are only about 60 Veterinary Behavior Specialists available. That being said, if you are not lucky enough to live near a specialist, some (like Dr. Dodman) partake in a Vet Fax program, where your vet will work with a behavior specialist in your region to get you the help you require. As a result of being a rare bird, and a very specialized niche, Vet Behavior Specialists are not cheap - but if you have a real problem behavior, or this is your last ditch effort to make things work, their experience is invaluable.

Where a Veterinary Behaviorist would not be appropriate:
-If you have a dog who is exuberantly jumping up on you at home, or you have a dog that needs a puppy class, see a trainer.
-If you need help with recalling your dog in distracting situations, call a trainer.
-If you need help with a leash aggressive dog that isn't globally fearful, talk with a Trainer or a Behavior Consultant.

Where a Veterinary Behaviorist WOULD be appropriate:
-Compulsive Disorders/Suspected Compulsive disorders that can cause harm to the animal or others & can not be redirected.
-Behaviors that are extreme or excessive (severe separation anxiety, where a dog is causing himself physical harm due to anxiety; )
-Behaviors that are likely related to health or a medical situation.
- "The behavior was sudden, and went away as if nothing happened. It was like a light switch."
-Referred by a Trainer, your regular Vet, or a Behavior Consultant.

I hope this helps you figure out what each specialist does, how we overlap (there is quite a bit of overlap!) and what specialist might help you with your specific needs. To get you started, here are some sites to help you find a qualified professional in your area:

If you need help finding a trainer, check out the CCPDT Trainer Search.
If you need help finding a behavior consultant, check out the IAABC Behavior Consultant Search
If you need help finding a board certified veterinary behaviorist, check out the DACVB list.

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