canine, companion animal newsletter
Member Services:

Login to
Your Member Area

Lost Password?
Enter Email Address or Username

  Subscribe to ANN
(Log into your member area to unsubscribe)


The ANN thanks you for your support!
By by Rhea Stevens

124_125_2 I was asked to write an article describing the differences between a dog trainer and a behaviorist. When I accepted, I thought this would be a rather straight forward definition, but the more I think the more the two overlap. Overlap or not, though, there is a difference, and the difference is important.

Perhaps the first myth to dispel is that behaviorists are "better" than dog trainers. Since the two are different, despite an overlap, "better" is not even an appropriate comparison. Which is better, your physical therapist or your counselor?

Behaviorists are different than dog trainers perhaps most strikingly in their approach. Behaviorists look backwards to determine the etiology of the behavior in order to determine which method of modification is best, or to decide, in some cases, that the behavior cannot be sufficiently modified to satisfy the owners and be safe. Behaviorists certainly use classical dog training as an essential technique, but they go through extensive diagnostics first. Dog trainers look forward and set their goal on a particular behavior and then implement standard training techniques. The behaviorist wants to understand the behavior itself; the dog trainer wants to get the dog to do something.

Dog trainers usually have a set program that their clients enroll in. There is puppy kindergarten, C.G.C. training, handling classes, obedience and sometimes scent or guard dog work. The average trainer has a pre-set program, and he works at fitting the dog into the classes as they exist. A behaviorist is much more likely to have a single dog (or multiple dogs in a multiple dog family) and a problem or goal from which he or she creates an individual plan of behavior modification.

By now it must have occurred to you that there is considerable overlap. The good dog trainer notices the dog that is not thriving in his class and intervenes. The more he understands dog behavior the better his adaptation will be. I, like many, learned dog behavior in a college setting. This is certainly not the only way to learn it. Many "dog people" are sensitive and effective behaviorists without even realizing what they are doing. The handler that consistently has his client’s dogs "free bait" with animation while leaving all four feet on the ground almost certainly used behavioral modification to train his client’s dogs.

Let me try to explain the difference between a behaviorist and a trainer by giving some examples. I had a fellow breeder (from a livestock guarding breed) call me to say that one of her customers was having trouble training one of her puppies. I interviewed the husband and wife separately. At under 6 months of age the dog was exhibiting classic dominance behavior. "Fido" was sleeping on their bed, growling over his food bowl, and refusing commands by growling. The more we discussed it, it was revealed that the dog had bitten more than once. The dog’s behaviors were not in themselves the problem, it was the owner’s behavior combined with the puppy’s. The owners were backing away at times when the dog growled, and then choosing battles sporadically, further confusing the dog. Since the dog was able to get away with inappropriate behaviors at times, and was successful when he bit, the dog was certainly alpha in that family. There was a fundamental dilemma in the family: they wanted a "tough" dog, but were unable to control a "tough" dog. The puppy was re-placed with a family that was very consistent in its interaction and discipline with the dog, and in no time flat the dog was a happy and well trained member of the family. (For the record the original family got an adult that was already trained, and was very sweet tempered and cooperative and they are as happy as can be).

This family had enrolled in two obedience classes and had received no help. They went through the obedience class, and were able to teach the dog a number of useful commands. The dog would walk on a lead, sit, sit-stay, down and down-stay (a good portion of the time). Since life is not limited to those commands though, there were still problems.

In the above example obedience training was far from irrelevant — it was very important. But to be more helpful, obedience training had to be constructed around the unique situation that had been created by a dominant puppy and an ambivalent family. Ultimately the goal of all dog people is to create working relationships between dogs and their families. Dog trainers usually gear their instructions to dogdom as a whole, whereas a behaviorist constructs individualized programs based on a theoretical framework of dog behavior.

Some make the argument that individualized programs are of course better. Realistically, most dogs do not have problems that are not solvable by ordinary dog training classes. Hiring a behaviorist often means paying extra to teach your dog basic obedience. And no behaviorist or dog trainer can change an un-motivated dog owner. Dog trainer and behaviorist will agree that most "dog" problems are really "owner" problems. Many owners are either inconsistent, allow the dog to be alpha, or inadvertently reinforce the wrong behavior.

I will always remember my mentor telling me of a case he had been called to. The dog was "un-trainable" with respect to house training. The dog did "bizarre" things, and so my mentor went to see the dog first hand. After a period of time the dog went to the living room, defecated, took a bite of the feces and jumped out the window into the back yard. My friend instantly knew what had happened — he said to the family "when the dog was a pup and had an accident, you rubbed his nose in it and tossed him out the window (which was only a few inches above ground level), didn’t you?" The dog had actually been trained very well.

Perhaps that is the best illustration of the differences between a dog trainer and a behaviorist. Those people were dog trainers, but they failed to train the dog as they intended to. Obviously most dog trainers are excellent at accomplishing their stated goal. A behaviorist does not want just to get the goal behavior, but to educate the family to prevent unwanted behaviors in the future. The behaviorist also wants to know exactly how the behavior in question came to be. And perhaps a behaviorist’s forte is to intervene in problem situations. Whether it is an aggression problem, inappropriate chewing, the "ring wise" show dog, or the like, the behaviorist’s job is to answer the difficult question "why" and then to help the family fix the problem.

So the question becomes, knowing the difference between the two, when to use one versus the other. Every dog should have "manners" if not obedience training. A dog is not much of a family pet if it cannot be walked on a leash, jumps on every guest, and runs off if given the opportunity. Most owners should begin training with a good dog trainer. Try to talk with actual clients to find out the qualifications of the trainer (and see how well their dog behaves), or at least have the option to get your money back if you are not satisfied with the first class or two. If the owner is motivated, the average dog will do fine being instructed by an obedience trainer. The owner needs to look for a behaviorist if they are unable to be successful with a dog trainer, or if an unusual problem arises. Most obedience schools also offer training for dogs in house soiling cases and teach handling classes for show dogs. Considering that a basic obedience class runs around $100 for the entire class (depending on class and region of the country), and a behaviorist may charge up to $100 per hour, it is often economical that an owner begin with a basic obedience class.

The average basic dog obedience class lasts between 6 and 12 weeks. The standard course teaches the dog to come when called, heel, sit, down, stand, and stay (obviously there is variation from class to class). Since the class is usually a multiple dog environment, the dog also learns how to behave around other dogs. At the end of the course, many classes have either mock obedience trial or A.K.C. sanctioned C.G.C tests. In a puppy kindergarten class, the instructions are geared towards the shortened attention span of puppies, and focus on socializing the puppy towards other people, strange environments and noises and other puppies. A handling class focuses on the special skills needed to make a dog comfortable and competent in the show ring, and to encourage the dog to exhibit a "winning attitude".

For the dog (or owner) that is unsuccessful with a basic obedience class, a behaviorist may make the difference between a pet staying in the home, and the dog being returned or sent to the pound. It is common knowledge that the number one reason for dogs being turned over to the pound or humane society is behavior problems.

Dog problems like chewing, digging, and of course aggression, may best be corrected by seeing a behaviorist. The behaviorist begins by interviewing the family, asking for a description of the problem (and sometimes what solution is sought), and then an examination of the problem dog. The dog may even be watched during the problem behavior, or tested to see what elicits the behavior and what doesn’t. General temperament evaluations are also made. The behaviorist then applies certain behavioral principles or models to the subject animal, which help to determine how the problem behavior evolved, and what interventions can be made to create the target behavior. Educating the owners is key to an effective behavior modification. Owners learn the basics of positive and negative reinforcement.

One lesson that most owners need to understand is the power of intermittent positive reinforcement. Most people do not appreciate that intermittent positive reinforcement is more powerful than consistent positive or consistent negative reinforcement. The end result of this is the reason why many dogs misbehave: the owners are inadvertently intermittently reinforcing an undesirable behavior.

Once the behaviorist has assessed the family and the dog enough to understand the etiology of the behavior (or the most likely etiology) the family is educated on the best method(s) to alter their dog’s behavior. Usually the dog and behaviorist demonstrate the mechanisms of behavior modification, including the timing. The dog may even spend extensive time with the behaviorist in especially difficult situations. Goals are set and future appointments made to measure the owner’s progress with the behavior modification. As the behavior begins to change it may be necessary to revise the approach. Behavioral modification is dynamic, and changes with the dog’s behavior.

One final comment about both dog trainers and behaviorists. It is too easy to claim to be either or both. Only recently has the Veterinary profession acknowledged "behaviorist" as a specialty and then only for veterinarians. Although in psychology there has been "ethologists" (someone who studies animal behavior) for many years now, again, there is no way to know if they studied cows’ or canids’ behavior, and frankly, if they are any good. Some of the best in both fields (dog trainers and behaviorists, which as I said overlap) are self educated. I have learned from some of the most famous minds internationally, and yet was just taught some excellent skills by someone that to my knowledge has never been "formally" educated as a behaviorist (she could certainly put many "professionals" to shame), nor does she claim to be a behaviorist. Anyone seeking assistance with a dog, whether their own or perhaps a puppy they sold, should decide what kind of help it needs (does it need to learn manners through a basic obedience class, or is there a problem that doesn’t seem suited to a quick fix), and should be very careful whom they employ to assist them. Credentials are useful, but most importantly the person should accomplish the stated goal without harming the animal and while educating the owners. If it doesn’t feel right, it almost certainly isn’t. And good trainers and behaviorists, like their clients, continue to learn, adapt, and improve.

© Rhea Stevens, 1997

August Dane Kennels

3705 Clayhead Road

Richmond, TX 77469-8114

 (281) 342-2747

Last updated May 10, 1997 Sally Silva, © copyright 1997 GDR