Guys, We Need to Talk About Behaviorists

melissa daisy photoby Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA
Author of Considerations for the City Dog, and ½ of Car Talk’s FIDO Blog.

I want you to think for a moment about the following question:

What exactly is a behaviorist?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in light of the investigation earlier this year of Nat Geo television star, Cesar Millan on possible animal cruelty charges after a pig was injured on his show.(No charges were filed). While there were inconsistencies in the reporting of what happened that day, in all the talk of this story there was one thing that every media outlet reported in unison:

“Cesar Millan is a self-taught behaviorist.”

Hence my initial question. What exactly is a behaviorist? And why should we care?

Unless we can have a frank discussion about how the public and the media sees this word in the context of what we do as professionals to affect behavior, we’ll never change the discussion, and people on both sides of science will continue to refer to themselves as “self-taught behaviorists.”

While it strikes an emotional chord when monks and television stars proclaim themselves behaviorists, it brings to light a much larger issue. Not having appropriate definitions for our work has caused the general public, dog trainers, veterinarians, and other animal professionals to toss the term around willy-nilly while others are overly meticulous in their own definition of the term, and become defensive about professionals calling themselves behaviorists. The bottom line is this: unless we can define it within our own industry, it’s going to be mighty hard for us to educate the public on what the term really means.

First, let’s talk about what a behaviorist isn’t:

Behaviorists are not:

  • The same as a dog trainer. (Hold those emails! Don’t yell at me just yet!) In order to begin to define the term behaviorist within our own community of science-based dog professionals, we need to have a definition that is accepted right here in our own profession, and a strong delineation between the two terms. While many of us – myself included- who are certified as dog trainers, inevitably do some work in behavior modification, I also know that if an animal is consistently over threshold or too stressed to learn, I will refer them up to a certified behavior professional.To sum up this point, a dog trainer is someone who utilizes, amongst other things an understanding of learning theory, including concepts such as reinforcement and punishment, schedules of reinforcement and more, to teach new behaviors to a dog. Some of the behaviors we will teach as solutions to problems, or prevention for future problems, but still, a behaviorist is a bit different. (You’ll have to keep reading to find out how!)
  • Someone who uses electronic shock, prong collars or choke chains to “rehabilitate” a dog.
    If someone is defaulting to the use of a shock collar, prong collar or choke chain in the service of behavior modification, then we really need to reconsider whether this individual is, in all actuality, a behaviorist. A behaviorist should always have the physical and emotional health and well-being of the animal in mind when making a behavior plan. I think it’s fair to say if people are putting electronic devices on dogs that they are ‘rehabilitating’, then they are not using the best practices of behavior modification.
  • Someone who has never taken a class in animal behavior. As much as I feel that I can wrap a mean ace bandage, I’ve never taken a course or class to advance my medical skills. I learned it from a friend of a friend who gave me some tips that have really helped my terrible ankles. I can’t call myself a doctor, a physical therapist, or a nurse, and I’d be wrong to promote myself that way. I think this more than anything else can be used when we talk with others regarding the term behaviorist. This can set the real behavior folks apart from those who would use the term to promote potentially harmful philosophies or techniques.
  • Someone who uses dominance to explain all behavior. Even the term “dominance” is charged, right? When I hear the phrase, I think immediately of alpha rolls, showing dogs who is the “boss”, and having delicate but informative discussions with clients who are coming from that perspective (a perspective that I admit to having when I was a less seasoned dog trainer). We also know that we can’t take the word dominance out of the equation because our Applied Animal Behaviorist friends DO believe that dominance is a valid concept in the animal world. To the detriment of our animals, the term itself is unfortunately over-used as a catch-all to describe every behavior under the sun. Instead dominance is a small sliver of actual, real-life animal behavior that should be taken into consideration, but not as the sole means of reading animal behavior.

I think we can all agree that a person who alpha rolls dogs in the name of dominance, or an individual who applies the use of chokes, prongs and electronic devices as a go-to method of training animals is not an individual we can consider a behaviorist.

And since we’re all big fans of education around here, let’s chat about how we should define a behaviorist. I find that there is a lot of confusion about what we all do. In part, because there IS such overlap in our professions. Behavior is complicated, often times convoluted, and not at all linear.

  • A behavior consultant. Someone who has received a certification from a science-based group like the CCPDT; usually after logging a set amount of hours in dog behavior, and taking a lengthy exam covering canine body language, ethology, anatomy, physiology, tools, and teaching ability.
  • An applied animal behaviorist. Someone who has an advanced degree in an animal related field and addresses behavioral concerns in animals.
  • A veterinary behaviorist: A doctor of veterinary medicine who is accredited as a veterinary behaviorist through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. There are only around 75 certified behaviorists through the ACVB.

As one humble dog trainer in a whole dog park full of knowledgeable individuals, I’d like to take a stab at the term ‘Behaviorist’. In my eyes, a behaviorist is:

“Someone who affects the emotional state of an animal with a knowledge based in anatomy, physiology, learning theory and chemistry” like Dr. Nicolas Dodman, DVM, and Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.

Which is more quantifiable than saying:

“Dr. Nicolas Dodman, DVM; Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., and also my buddy Shirley down the street. She’s got a great way with dogs. Once, she worked wonders with this aggressive Pekingese. . . ”

While news outlets should ask questions about what behaviorists are and what they do, in most cases, they fail in this regard. The next time someone makes headlines by being a “self-taught behaviorist” (and that day will come, I promise!), positive reinforcement dog trainers and behaviorists need to stand together and find a common ground in order to facilitate conversations with the media directed towards defining behaviorist in a clear cut, direct, and non-inflammatory way. Instead of sensationalizing television personalities who use tired arguments and outdated techniques that at times cause more harm than good to the dogs that they are ‘rehabilitating’; we should be moving the industry forward by defining terms (starting with behaviorist) and using them properly when speaking to the media and online.

As certified professionals, it is our job to lead conversation in this industry about how to handle terms like ‘behaviorist’ and then move forward to educate people in unison and with clarity. It can be a tough discussion and feelings might get hurt along the way, but as teachers we need to find a way to change public perception so that the next time a self-taught “behaviorist” goes viral, we don’t end up engaging in the same-old same-old social media rants. Instead, as leaders in the industry of animal behavior we will provide an educational opportunity that is direly needed.

As the kids today say, “Certificants, we need to own it”. And it’s time to own up to incorrect use of industry terms. If we really are professionals in the industry we have to be much more clear in the wording choices we use.

Now let’s open the discussion. . . what do you think Certificants?

(Next time, I’ll take on the less controversial topic, “How cute is this puppy?”)

This article was written by a CCPDT certificant and does not necessarily represent the views or opinions held by the CCPDT. The information in this article should not be considered official education or advice from the CCPDT. Our organization works to support our certificants and believes in giving a voice to professionals in the community who wish to express their viewpoints.