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The Reality and Responsibility of Being a Dog Behaviourist

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

The Reality ......

I hear many people say oh you are a dog behaviourist, that must be really great…. I would like to do something like that and seem to think that it is something they can learn in a few short months or a couple of years. I have also come across people who undertake a short course on dog behaviour and then begin extolling their ‘pearls of wisdom’ to all who will listen with considerable authority, which is harmless and sometimes helpful until the wrong person is given, and takes on board the wrong advice…….

In my view holding yourself out as a dog behaviourist implies you have a thorough understanding of and the ability to resolve a variety of canine behavioural issues that are above and beyond the ambit of that of dog training. Being a dog behaviourist carries with it a huge responsibility and is not something the be taken lightly.

I have now spend nearly seven years specifically studying the behaviour of dogs and during which I have obtained qualifications through the CIDBT in their care and welfare, professional dog training and canine psychology and behaviour. I have also gained a huge amount of absolutely indispensable practical experience during this time.

My studies have covered in depth a wide variety of behavioural issues including (amongst others) : the usual socially unacceptable behaviours (jumping, barking etc); separation related issues (which are not always anxiety related); coprophagia (poo eating;) and the more serious aggression problems to both people and dogs.

I have studied behavioural science, including that in relation to breed differences, genetics and how they influence behaviour. Observed and studied the effectiveness of and utilised various training and behaviour modification methods. Most importantly I have not only studied intensely dogs in real life situations but I have had numerous opportunities to put into practice what I have learnt.

I have been lucky enough to have honed my research skills due to 20 years as a practising lawyer, albeit that I soon found out that all those years dealing with legal issues may have indeed honed my research skills but studying the finer points of canine behavioural science alongside the practicalities of actually dealing hands on with allegedly misbehaving canines (it is often the humans that need training) was quite a different ‘ball game’ altogether!! I soon learnt you cannot learn what you need to know to be an effective dog behaviourist simply from a text book! What I did learn though, is in relation to the bombardment of scientific studies on dog/canine behaviour, these need to be assessed objectively and with a critical eye, (that's where being a lawyer has definitely helped). It appears that it is generally possible to find a study to support a variety of conflicting views..... not all science is perfect! One needs to review the science critically, compare studies and also rely on experience, your own careful assessment and sometimes your 'gut feelings.'

At the time of writing, I have a pack of 4 dogs, two basset fauve de Bretagne’s (un-neutered males) and two Tibetan Mastiffs (one female and one male intact and spayed respectively). I have had a pack of dogs for many years but the pack in its current form, is about 2.5 years old with the last member arriving 2.5 years ago.

Living with multiple dogs, with diverse breed traits and spending several hours every day either walking or otherwise interacting with my dogs and training or assessing those of others has enabled me to observe much. I can honestly say that ‘hands on’ time with the dogs (both my own pack and others) has been and continues to be indispensable. Whilst extensive academic study has been absolutely necessary to gain a good grasp of the principles of behavioural science and the workings of the canine mind, insofar as we currently understand it, the practical experience and observations have been no less so.

So what Professional Qualifications does a Dog Behaviourist need?

Unlike many professions in order to practice as a dog behaviourist no formal qualifications are required. The industry currently remains unregulated although, the position is likely to change in the future.

However, for now a person requiring dog behaviour services is reliant entirely on their own judgement and research. In reality to have half a chance of resolving even the most basic dog behaviour issue one needs to have some basic dog training skills, but other than that rather basic requirement there is nothing to stop a person advertising and indeed undertaking dog behavioural services.

There are a number of excellent canine behaviourists practising in the UK and many have utilised completely different routes to obtain their qualifications, each producing well rounded knowledgeable practitioners.

However, like most other professionals in their field, most of these people will have undertaken around 5 years of relatively intense academic study and have spend many hundreds, if not thousands of hours working with/and or living with a variety of dogs, not to mention the thousands of pounds they will also have invested in their education in order to qualify as a dog or animal behaviourist. It is important to note (as already mentioned) that it is one thing have academic knowledge and quite another art altogether to apply it correctly and with confidence…… especially when so much relies on noting and understanding the nuances of canine and indeed human behaviour.

There are a good number of short behavioural study courses available which I am sure are useful in understanding a little more about how the average dogs mind works and to improve one’s training skills, but they do not in my view qualify someone to then be let loose on a complex canine behavioural issue when you consider the impact that some of these issues have on the families concerned……

Impact of Dog Behavioural Issues on Individuals and Families....

In my view it is essential to understand the responsibility on one’s shoulders as a dog behaviourist and to fully appreciate the importance of the trust placed in you.

I believe it is equally essential to understand the impact dog behaviour issues can have on an individual or a family. The general scenario below is common to many of the more serious behaviour cases I deal with:-

An individual or a family have acquired a dog and reasonably anticipate that they are essentially acquiring a new family member and have considered, to varying extents that the acquisition of their new pet will involve some effort and time commitment in terms of training and exercise etc, they generally and quite understandably, have not given consideration to any number of behavioural problems that may potentially occur post acquisition.

They have anticipated an impact on the family finances in respect of the costs of food, bedding, equipment, insurance and veterinary care etc. They are initially however, of the general assumption that the acquisition will be, a positive addition to the family and certainly not that it will be likely to cause family disharmony.

When Things Start to Go Wrong……

When the relationship with the dog is not developing as anticipated and/or behaviours are being displayed that are unacceptable or are detrimentally affecting one or more family members, this often puts a considerable strain on an individual or on the family.

The relationships between certain family members and the relationship with one or more of the family members and the dog itself may become strained to varying degrees of seriousness, dependant on the severity of the behavioural problem(s). Sometimes feelings of guilt ensue, with owners wondering ‘where did I go wrong.’ It is not difficult to see how what starts as one or two behavioural issues can culminate in severe damage to family relationships and indeed the owners mental health in the case of severe and or/chronic problems.

Behavioural issues that have not been appropriately addressed can be the fundamental cause of severe resentment towards the dog. The problem may have caused financial loss re damage where the behaviour is destructive for example, or vet bills as a result of scavenging inappropriate items to name but two examples… Such resentment is generally sensed by the dog, often resulting in further anxiety related behavioural behaviours being displayed.

An ever decreasing spiralling circle may well take an owner/family to a position where they want to rehome the dog because the relationship has deteriorated too far for them to have the motivation to address the problems and In extreme cases when severe behaviour problem occurs (usually aggression related) sometimes euthanasia is considered……

The Responsibility of The Dog Behaviourist....

The impact on an owner or family (and indeed the dog) caused by a severe behavioural issue(s) should in my view never be taken lightly and in my mind it is quite one thing taking on the responsibility of offering a dog training service and quite another offering behavioural modification services. The role in my humble opinion, of the dog behaviourist is to be able to take the time and have the knowledge not just to understand the problem(s) and the relevant treatment protocols but understand the impact of the problem on an individual/family and to work with the dog and the individual/family in a way that provides workable solutions also takes into account what is realistic for the individuals concerned.

All of the skills and knowledge needed to provide the service that any client seeking help with a dog behavioural issue deserves to be able to expect, having had the courage to accept that they need assistance, cannot be learnt overnight, or again simply out of a text book.

In many cases the extreme trauma that can occur from having to rehome or euthanise a dog can be avoided by early intervention of and guidance from a suitably qualified and experienced dog behaviour practitioner. it is therefore every dog behaviourists responsibility to ensure they have the necessary skills to take on the challenge and responsibilities of each individual case and if they do not to ensure that they refer to matter to someone more able to assist the client in their specific circumstances.

The Role of the Dog Behaviourist

The role of the behaviourist will be to carry out an assessment and analysis of the problem and the various factors that might be driving the behaviour and then to create a bespoke plan for the individual client (taking into account their individual circumstances and lifestyle) to not only extinguish the problem but in most cases to advise and offer guidance on other changes that need to be made in the interests of the dogs wellbeing. For example if you have a Collie that is continually chasing bicycles, children and cars it is not sufficient to provide a plan to curtail this habit, it is also necessary to guide the client as to alternative outlets for such genetically acquired tendencies and to look at the dogs lifestyle in general.

I often find I attend in relation to one problem but find that the main issue is completely different from the issue that I was called to deal with. It is then often necessary the address the underlying causes in order the extinguish the problem. It is rarely as easy as a simple technique to address a specific behaviour!!

What Kind of Problems Might a Dog Behaviourist Expect to Deal With On a Day to Day Basis?

How long is a piece of string………

On a serious note there are a wide range of problems that whilst training the dog will be a necessary part of their resolution, will require the initial input of a dog behaviourist to get to the bottom of why they are occurring in order to address the cause. A sample of common problems is set out below:

  • Jumping up people

  • lack of recall/general disobedience

  • destructive behaviour

  • separation related problems

  • lack of toilet training

  • dog on person aggression

  • dog on people aggression

  • excessive barking

  • compulsive behaviours

  • mouthing and biting

  • excessive attention seeking

  • coprophagia

  • compulsive/repetitive behaviour

If I Had My Time Again......

I would not change a thing other than I may have chosen being a Dog Behaviourist as a first rather than a second career!

The learning process has been absolutely fascinating and I have learnt much about human psychology as well as dog psychology. Understanding how the dog’s mind works somewhat better than I did has enabled me to really deepen my relationship with my own dogs, enabled me to have greater empathy and consideration and I like to think improved me as a person.

Sometimes I feel that the wonderful unconditional love that we receive from our canine companions is hard to compare. They give so much and require so little. I therefore feel that it is veterinary upon us as dog owners to at least take a little time to understand at least the basics of canine body language and a little of how their minds work if we are to share our homes and our lives with them. In relation to all that we receive from them it feels as if it is not much for them to ask, a little understanding….. it can go a long way and can only serve to deepen your relationship.

If I had my time again I would love to have been able to apply what I know now to my relationships with my canine companions in the past. I feel there were so many times they so tried to tell me something and I did not quite understand and so many times when they reacted in a certain way and I completely misunderstood their motives…..if I had my time again……

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