By Dr. Suzanne Hetts, CAAB & Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA
Just as communication between people and dogs can sometimes be muddled, cause misunderstandings and motivate social conflict, so can communication between professionals. Over the last fifteen years or so, communication between individuals within the field of dog training and individuals within the science of animal behavior has expanded. While this can facilitate a greater understanding of animals, training and behavior, it can also lead to greater conflict as a common language continues to evolve.
You may be familiar with a recent piece that appeared on this site authored by one of us, Melissa McCue-McGrath. She wrote about a complex issue important to dog trainers intended for a dog training audience – the use of the professional title “behaviorist”. That was something one of us, Suzanne Hetts, wanted to weigh in on, being a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist herself. Hetts agreed with McCue-McGrath’s goal of addressing this thorny issue, but she held different views on the subject. She opted to write her own article and contacted McCue-McGrath. Ah—a social conflict is created! What choices did the participants have?
Each could have ignored the other. Either could have become defensive and turned the disagreement personal. Instead, both chose reconciliation and cooperation, which has resulted in this article that we believe will benefit all the stakeholders by advancing ongoing productive discussions.
As it turns out, we have more in common than our differences in opinion would suggest, and we both learned things from each other in these discussions. This outcome should serve as an example for much more than dog training and animal behavior!
First, we agreed that when the public calls us for help with their dogs, they often don’t know WHAT or WHO they need. We all receive calls from people wanting a “behavioralist.” Others folks say they need to have their dog “trained” to not bite children or be afraid of thunder. It’s not a surprise that the public is confused, because the field is internally confusing as well!
We can use whatever non-protected professional titles we want, as long as we steer clear of protected terms—unless they are earned. Some of these include Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), and Associate CAAB, terms protected by the Animal Behavior Society which certifies these individuals. Certified Professional Dog Trainer Knowledge Assessed or Knowledge and Skills Assessed (CPDT-KA or KSA) are terms protected by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). Pet Professional Guild (PPG), International Association of Applied Animal Behaviorists (IAABC), and other groups also have protected titles. It’s common knowledge that Veterinary Behaviorist is also a protected term (American College of Veterinary Behaviorists).
Some dog trainers use the term behavior specialist to avoid protected terminology, without realizing that behavior specialist is a protected term, when used by veterinarians. Veterinarians cannot refer to themselves as specialists unless they are board certified in a specialized field (like oncology or behavior). Although non-veterinarians can use the title behavior specialist without restriction, is that a wise choice if we want to respect our veterinary colleagues? This is an ethical question that we both feel doesn’t receive sufficient attention, and should be addressed as we continue to seek a fuller understanding among professions.
What about behavior consultant as an alternative title? The stand-alone term “consultant”, without “certified” attached to it, is a broad term that is used in many fields. Elements that are part of almost all the myriad definitions of the term are “being a professional” and “providing expert advice.” Attempting to define who qualifies as an expert is probably something that is better left to the legal system, so for our purposes, we’ll just acknowledge that “behavior consultant” or “animal behavior consultant” (without the term “certified”) are not protected terms. They can be used by anyone, at their personal discretion, the same way “dog trainer” is used broadly. CCPDT, IAABC, and other groups, certify behavior consultants with certificants being identified as CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed) and CDBC (Certified Dog Behavior Consultant), respectively.
So that brings us to the use of the title “behaviorist”, a non-protected term. In the context of this article, the professionals we mention are implied to be animal behaviorists, because the general term “behaviorist” can also include those who work with human behavior as well.
Hetts and McCue-McGrath agree that holding an advanced degree in a behavior science is an easy, first criteria to apply when considering whether to use the title “behaviorist” in any professional context. That criteria has many precedents in other fields. Dentists, psychologists, geologists, physical therapists – the “-ist” usually implies post-graduate, formal education. The advanced degree is just the starting criteria for CAAB or ACAAB certification. It’s important to note that CAABs and ACAABs represent a tiny slice of the larger pie of professional behaviorists, most of whom do not work with dogs or other domestic species. Many professional animal behaviorists observe wild animals in natural settings to learn more about them, without any interest in modifying their behavior!
The third thing we agree on is how frustrating it is when television personalities with little or no education in the science of animal behavior—on both ends of the “training spectrum”—claim they are behaviorists. To add to this confusion, we all know of individuals just entering the field who may not have developed their training chops yet, who, overnight, claim to be “behaviorists.” It’s tempting to throw up our hands and think, “Well if they do it, why shouldn’t I?” Particularly if one is looking to set themselves apart in a field that is growing. We both caution strongly against this, again for ethical reasons and for clarity for the public.
This leads us to the fourth thing upon which we both agree. Own your credentials! If you’ve earned a credential from the CCPDT or other entities, proudly use the titles associated with those credentials without feeling as if you need to flaunt the title you’ve earned. Be proud to call yourself a certified dog trainer or certified behavior consultant!
Good trainers often have better hands-on training skills than many behaviorists. It’s not uncommon for a trainer to be the first person contacted by pet owners seeking training or behavior help. Dog trainers may find themselves in the role of an anachronistic telephone operator, sending clients in the right direction. Dog trainers may send clients to Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, certified behavior consultants, Veterinary Behaviorists, or another dog trainer that may suit the needs of a client better. These professionals in turn may send clients who come through their doors to dog trainers. We must not forget that veterinarians have a significant role as well, because we all know that medical problems can masquerade as behavior problems. We are a team and must work as one in order to be successful.
There are no regulations imposing limitations on who can take on different types of behavior problems. Individuals need to honestly and ethically establish their own professional limits, and know how to refer when appropriate. Problems arise when individuals either can’t or won’t recognize when they are in over their heads, regardless of the field they are in. Hetts for example refers people who are looking for “manners” training—what people still commonly call obedience training. McCue-McGrath refers most compound anxiety problems. We both involve veterinarians or veterinary behaviorists if the problem seems to involve “not normal” behavior that could be a sign of a medical problem, if people inquire about medication, diet changes, or supplements, or if the dog hasn’t been seen by a veterinarian recently.
As a behaviorist, Hetts works with trainers when repeated follow up visits are necessary to help owners implement her recommended behavior modification procedures. She’s also been called in on cases by trainers who want help with uncovering the “why,” or the motivation for a behavior to help the trainer formulate the most appropriate behavior modification plan.
McCue-McGrath works specifically to address the effects of urban settings on dogs and the people who live in these environments. As a result, she often involves certified behavior consultants, applied animal behaviorists or veterinary behaviorists in more complex cases. Additionally, she teaches disc dogs classes where many high-drive dogs learn impulse control and get exercise. Occasionally, this is part of a bigger behavior plan, implemented by a veterinary behaviorist, behavior consultant, or dog trainer.
Hetts wouldn’t teach dogs to fly, and McCue-McGrath wouldn’t take on a complex bite history. Hetts would likely struggle in with the Car Talk blogosphere, and McCue-McGrath would crash and burn if she had to pen a peer reviewed paper. Trainers and behaviorists need each other in a world of complex behaviors, training issues, and reading preferences.
We both agree that we’re all in this to help dogs stay with their families when possible. Above all, we want these pets to have a good quality of life, have people enjoy their dogs, and prevent dogs from injuring people, other animals, or themselves. We strive to guide people to make the best—though sometimes difficult—decisions regarding the pets they love. We need each other to do this work to the best of our abilities. In other words, it takes a village.
Finally, we are also in agreement that the more we all respect each other’s strengths, perspectives and different areas of expertise, the more we foster professional cooperation and relationships. It took us five months to write this piece – checking and rechecking our information, and contacting certifying organizations and entities about protected terms. We tried to be thorough. We learned a lot by talking with each other instead of at each other. This outcome is something that we both genuinely hope extends well beyond this article. The irony is that with each share on social media, the risk increases for people talking at each other instead of with each other. We sincerely hope to contribute to breaking that cycle, so that we can better help our clients and their dogs.
As professionals in related fields interact more with one another, it becomes increasingly important to be cognisant of the titles and labels we use. We must listen when a professional says our terminology rubs the wrong way. Language is evolving, our fields are evolving, and we must listen to each other and respect each other fully in order to really help our clients. Trainers using titles such as behavior specialist, behaviorist, or other permutations in an effort to enhance their credibility, tend to, in the long run, accomplish just the opposite—even if their intentions are good.
We don’t presume that this one article is going to solve the problem of confusing professional titles and nomenclature. However, we overcame our initial misunderstandings, got past raised hackles and stepping on toes, and instead managed to find common ground. We hope this is just the beginning of a more in depth conversation on this and other thorny issues in the dog training and behavior field.
If you’d like to know more about the certificate requirements for ACAABs and CAABs, visit www.AnimalBehaviorSociety.org and click on Applied Animal Behavior. More information about veterinary behaviorists can be found at www.dacvb.org/. Another, less well known certification in animal behavior for animal scientists is offered by the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists at www.arpas.org/.
Dr. Suzanne Hetts, CAAB, has her Ph.D. in Zoology from Colorado State University and is certified as an Applied Animal Behaviorist by the Animal Behavior Society. For 30 years, she and her husband, Dr. Dan Estep, CAAB have co-owned Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. and helped thousands of pet owners resolve their pets’ behavior problems. In addition, they provide scientific and practical online education to behavior and training professionals from PetProWebinars.com, AppliedAnimalBehaviorAcademy.com, and their signature membership site BehaviorEducationNetwork.com. Suzanne is the author of one of American Animal Hospital Association’s bestselling books, “Pet Behavior Protocols: What to say, what to do, when to refer” and her latest book, “12 Terrible Dog Training Mistakes”, is an Amazon Best Seller. Contact her at Info@AnimalBehaviorAssociates.com
Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA, grew up in what she jokingly refers to as “an accidental dog sledding family” in rural Maine. She had a change of environment and has been teaching classes, including disc dogs, outside of Boston Massachusetts for 13 years. She has a special interest in how urban environments affect pet dogs and our relationships with them. As a result of this, she wrote “Considerations for the City Dog” in 2015, which is available on Amazon. Melissa is the co-Training Director of the New England Dog Training Club, the oldest AKC Obedience club in the country. Additionally, she is one-half of Car Talk’s F.I.D.O. blog (yes THAT Car Talk!) on humor, travel and pets, and writes the “Captain’s Log” column for Maine Dog Magazine. Currently, Melissa is presenting on unethical trends in click-and-ship culture as it relates to acquiring dogs, and the effects on the people who work with these dogs after they homed. Email her at ConsiderationsBook@gmail.com.