Evaluating Behavior Services: For Vets and Boarding facilities

By Gary Wilkes (From a presentation at Central Veterinary Conferences: Washington, DC

The first thing to appreciate about animal behavior services is – there are no specific credentials that assure competence in this field. It will be a very long time before such credentials exist. Currently there are at least three scientifically oriented groups attempting to set standards for the business of animal behavior modification and training. There are at least four groups of professional dog trainers who have their own certification programs and concepts of competence. Outside the framework of formal groups are many thousands of dog trainers who have no credentials other than experience – and no particular interest in acquiring outside approval for their skills. Your resource-pool for behavior services comes from the totality of people who work with dogs and cats.


Science and Animal Behavior Services:

The skills necessary to control a dog’s behavior are relatively simple – dogs are relatively simple animals. The idea that a master’s degree in a behavioral science is automatically a criterion for competence is not supported by objective evidence. Behavioral sciences include behavior analysis, ethology, social work, education and a host of other specialties that are not directly or indirectly connected with training a dog. At least two of the scientific groups attempting to set standards in this field require a graduate degree in a “related field” as the primary criterion for joining their organization. That means that an elementary school teacher with a minimal involvement in dog training has a chance of joining. A person with a PhD in ethology would be considered competent to apply behavior modification – something that is not contained in any curriculum for ethologists. Conversely, a person with 30 years practical experience training dogs will have to go through some high hurdles to gain the same privilege. The crux of the issue is that assumption that unrelated academic studies translate into practical methodology. That is not a logical conclusion based on objective analysis.

In an effort to define the field of animal behavior in broad scientific terms there is a major drawback. Currently, few scientists outside veterinary medicine have any direct experience with animals in either an academic or clinical setting. Even fewer have practical knowledge of animals in a real-world environment. Of the various science based organizations, veterinarian behaviorists have an undeniable edge, regardless of their practical knowledge of dog training – they are competent and qualified to assist in the use of psychotropic drugs. In cases where a clear diagnosis of a neurological disorder makes chemical treatment necessary, a veterinarian behaviorist is a welcome expert. They also have a broad base of knowledge of the clinical treatment of animals. In the long haul, veterinarian behaviorists are the ones most likely to propel this field to excellence.

When evaluating scientific credentials, it is necessary to specify a correlation between the particular course of study and the specifics of working with companion animals or large animal behavior. The Achilles Heel of most academically trained behaviorists is practical experience. i.e. Having a wealth of knowledge of human psychology and years of experience working with at-risk kids is potentially useless when treating a with a history of biting “at-risk” kids.

Professional Training Groups and Modern/Scientific Dog Trainers:

The current vogue in dog training groups is to pretend to use scientific techniques while claiming to use “dog friendly” methods. A definition of this concept is available on the web…

“Dog-friendly training is training that utilizes primarily positive reinforcement; secondarily negative punishment, and only occasionally, rarely, and/or as a last resort includes positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement.”  Author’s note: If you are not familiar with the language of behavior analysis, negative punishment is a time-out or withholding of a treat or ball that is supposed to make behavior decline. Positive punishment is the application of a choke-chain correction or some other tangible aversive stimulus that causes a behavior to decline or stop.

While this appears to be a concise, thoughtfully worded credo, there are two problems with it. First, though it apes the language of behavior analysis, it is not actually based on scientific principals and second, neither positive reinforcement nor negative punishment can inhibit a dog’s normally occurring behavior. To be specific, aggression is a normally occurring behavior, as is digging, chewing, running out a gate and tugging on a leash – the behaviors that must be stopped in order to keep a dog alive. To openly shun the tools necessary to fix the most common dog problems is an unscientific and impractical bias.

Scientistic Principals:
In his book, About Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner coined the phrase “scientistic,” meaning “having the appearance of science without actually being scientific.” The above paragraph fits Skinner’s term perfectly on several levels.


  1. Real scientists do not prefer a particular phenomenon; they study phenomena and describe the properties associated with each. A veterinarian who “prefers” a laxative to surgery when a dog has a clearly diagnosed intestinal blockage isn’t being scientific. Invasive surgery is the first resort when the dog is in shock, vomiting fluids and unresponsive – and the ingested rock shows up on an X-Ray. Describing a breach of the peritoneum and associated pain and suffering from the surgery as “unfriendly” would be irrelevant to the point of being ludicrous. The same is true of behavioral solutions that require immediate and accurate use of positive punishment. Any procedure that ends in the dog’s death is unfriendly, regardless of how “dog friendly” it sounds or how pleasant it is to apply.
  2. Deciding that a particular behavioral effect is a “last resort” requires a context to justify that conclusion. The implication is that positive punishment is highly dangerous and “unfriendly” to the dog. If the previously mentioned rock-eater isn’t taught to never again eat a rock, he’s dead, regardless of the friendly nature of his training.
  3. Negative reinforcement is the fourth effect commonly classified by the language of behavior analysis. (Skinnerian jargon lists two types of reinforcement and two types of punishment. Each is classified by whether the stimulus is added or subtracted and is described as positive or negative, respectively.) Negative reinforcement is the phenomenon responsible for a dog’s adaptation to a halter – an obviously “friendly” means of training. To be scientific requires a full acknowledgement of science, not the picking and choosing of things that we like or don’t like, use or don’t use. In real science and medicine, withholding treatment known to be effective is universally considered unethical.


“Traditional” Trainers:
Dog trainers have been plying their craft for about 10,000 years. Many are self taught. It is not uncommon for traditional trainers to apprentice under a successful master and then start their own business. There are several schools in this country that have practical programs for budding dog trainers. These programs are usually light on science and heavy on traditional forms of dog training. The test of these trainers is ultimately the same as any other – do they get the job done? Of the many references available, certification from a national dog training school should be considered as a mark of work habits and experience, but not an automatic sign of competence.


Other traditional trainers gain information from books and videos and then apply those concepts to their clients’ dogs. A traditional trainer may be a wizard or a fool – and everything in between. Some of them are extremely harsh and some are very dog-friendly. The result of their training can only be discerned by the reports of their/your clients. The weakness of traditional trainers is that unless they are logical, inventive and passionate about their craft, they may not be versatile enough to assist your clients.

Other Trainers:
The large pet food chains are now fully involved in the business of training. Their trainers teach pet owners and also serve as marketers for the chain’s product lines. Chain-store trainers may have certifications that they have attended specific training sponsored by the company. It’s important to examine the actual working experience of these trainers, regardless of the appearance of “certified training.” When a company hires people to create a certification program the company decides what aspects of that program will be implemented.

The recent growth in behavior services is a two-edged sword. It is now much easier to find trainers who wish to offer their services and less likely they are actually qualified to help your clients. The various contradictory perspectives on training can’t all be right and can’t all be effective. As a veterinarian you will have to find the person who does the best work for your clients – or not. If you let your clients embark on the journey without your involvement and guidance they may not reach their goal.

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