Trainer, Behaviorist or Vet: Whom to call with pet behavior troubles

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Posted by Amy Shojai on 8/21/2007 in Dog Behavior

Adopting a puppy or kitten often conjures anticipation of his eventual Lassie-like devotion and intelligence, or fond memories of dressing Grandma’s oh-so-tolerant cat in doll clothes. But soon, reality sinks in.

Few new pets measure up to the sometimes-inflated memories of cherished childhood pets. For first-time pet owners, even normal cat and dog behavior can prove perplexing.

Perhaps you have experienced one of these behavioral scenarios:

Your new puppy outgrows his cute phase and still has not perfected housetraining.
Your kitten doesn’t seem so adorable when her frisky antics end up breaking family heirlooms like china plates.
Your resident pets appear to hate the new one (or vice versa), or they scream in fear at the sight of another animal.
Your resident pet starts displaying unwanted behaviors, like growling or snapping at you or houseguests.
You need to find workable answers, but where should you go for help?

The first line of defense is your veterinarian, who will examine your pet to determine if a medical issue is the reason behind your cat or dog’s behavior problems. Your veterinarian can also recognize if your pet’s behaviors are within the realm of normalcy.

For behaviors deemed to be normal – such as a cat walking on counters or a dog barking frantically when the doorbell rings, veterinarians often can provide some basic behavior tips. They may also recommend a dog trainer to help you teach that active puppy some manners. Some veterinary clinics may suggest products geared to keeping cats off counters – or refer you to places offering training classes and support.

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But not every veterinarian has the time to provide training or behavior advice. And, even experienced dog trainers who excel at teaching obedience and performance skills, may not have the knowledge or inclination to deal with pets with emotionally-based, extremely challenging issues.

For example, a standard obedience class won’t help a severely frightened dog or cat. The fear emotion can block an animal’s ability to think and learn. Pets displaying aggression toward other animals or people require professional help – the sooner, the better.

In searching for an animal behavior expert to treat challenging issues, be leery of behavior professionals who promise quick fixes or instant cures. Longstanding behavior problems tend to require intense dedication on the part of the owner and rarely can be guaranteed to have a 100% turn-around.

Though some behavior professionals also may teach dog training, most primarily concern themselves with helping owners and pets work through issues, such as:

Hit or miss bathroom behavior
Aggressive, shy or fearful behavior toward people/animals
Household issues such as countertop cruising or jumping up
Excessive vocalization like dog barking or cats screaming
Destructive behaviors including dog chewing or digging and cat clawing
Introductions of new pets or human infants to a resident pet
Environmental challenges—transitioning outside cats inside
Attachment or separation anxiety and related problems
Self-directed behaviors like licking, chewing, or obsessive tail chasing
Be aware that anyone can claim to be a behavior expert. Following poor advice can make your pet’s problems worse, so be sure to check out claims and verify credentials.

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There are several reputable behavior and training associations with professionals available who specialize in pet training and/or behavior problems. Behaviors such as aggression can be difficult to unlearn and require professional help to teach cats and dogs how to react in new, more positive ways. Many times, your local veterinarian will know of any expert help in the area. You can also find behavior help through the following resources:

American College of Veterinary Behaviorists – This group consists of veterinarians with a special interest and additional study in the field of animal behavior. As veterinarians, they are also able to diagnose concurrent health conditions and prescribe drug therapies that may be helpful. There are currently 42 board-certified veterinary behaviorists (designated by the initials DACVB) in the United States and Canada. Find a listing of members by visiting their website:

Animal Behavior Society – This group certifies qualified individuals as Applied or Associate Applied Animal Behaviorists. These professionals hold doctorate-level education in the field of animal behavior and hold the title CAAB: certified applied animal behaviorist. There are currently about 50 members. Find more information by visiting their

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants – This professional organization accredits and qualifies members as certified animal behavior consultants (CABC) or certified dog behavior consultants (CDBC). They address behavior issues of cats, dogs, and other companion animals. These experts may or may not hold graduate-level degrees and often work in partnership with local veterinarians to offer the best for your animals. Learn more about the organization by visiting their website:

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Association of Pet Dog Trainers – This group consists of more than 5,000 members worldwide and certifies dog trainers as Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT). Members may be qualified to help pet owners with canine aggression or other dog behavior problems, as well as training. For more information and a list of member trainers, visit their website:

In the best of all worlds, our companion animals understand us, we understand them, and all live peaceably together. But when frustration and confusion about why your pets do what they do emerge, take comfort in knowing professional help is available.

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