All about animal behaviorists

You’ve heard of animal behaviorists, but what exactly are they and what do they do? Most importantly, how can they help your animal companion?

There are several reasons why the general public is a bit in the dark about who animal behaviorists are and what they do. The first is that the field is quite interdisciplinary and therefore its practitioners don’t all use the same professional title. While it may seem obvious that animal behaviorists are academically educated in the science of animal behavior and spend their professional lives engaged in the scientific study of their species of choice, the perspective from which they do so varies.

Traditionally, ethology was defined as the study of animals in their natural environments, so ethologists were often “in the field” observing animals. Comparative psychologists more often observed animals under controlled conditions in laboratories to better understand the mechanisms that influenced animal behavior. Today, members of both disciplines are likely to be called animal behaviorists. Members of other disciplines such as entomology (the study of insects) and primatology (the study of non-human primates) may also view themselves as animal behaviorists if their study of these animals is focused on behavior rather than, say, reproductive physiology.

What’s in a name?

The second reason people don’t know what animal behaviorists are stems from the fact that the title is not a protected term. Anyone can use it. It’s only been about 40 years since scientific knowledge about animal behavior first began to be applied to companion animals. In 1974, veterinarian and animal board certified veterinary and applied animal behaviorist Dr. Victoria Lea Voith and her colleagues, comparative psychologists Dr. David Tuber and Dr. David Hothersall, published a paper that marked the start of applying principles of animal behavior to problems in companion animals.

At that time, the vast majority of animal behaviorists were scientists at universities engaged in primary research regarding the behavior of mostly non-domestic animals. During the ensuing 40 years, as more academically trained scientists focused their work on companion and other domesticated animals, dog trainers also began to take on the animal behaviorist title, along with related ones such as animal behavior specialist, dog behavior consultant, cat behavior specialist, and so on.

In fact, any non-veterinarian can use the behaviorist title (veterinarians cannot unless they are board certified in behavior). But it stands to reason that only those with scientific training in the behavioral sciences should really use it. Because this isn’t the case, it’s up to the individual animal lover pet owner to be aware of this issue and know what questions to ask.

Academic approach

What distinguishes academically trained animal behaviorists from others using the term is just that – academic training at the graduate level that results in a scientific approach to training and behavior modification. Some trainers may say they take a scientific approach because they are at least somewhat familiar with operant conditioning learning theory , and , or the use of reinforcement, correction and punishment and other techniques to modify behavior, but that’s not all there is to it.

Science involves formulating hypotheses about reasons for behavior, and gathering data about the behavior(s) of interest, in order to support or refute the hypotheses. A non-scientific approach often results in people jumping to conclusions about why animals behave in certain ways, without considering alternative explanations or having little or no observational data to support their conclusions.

For example, a client who had just acquired a dog from a rescue recently emailed us that the dog had nipped at a visitor. The bite occurred when the woman, who had been kneeling down petting the dog, stood up. The rescue volunteer concluded the reason for the dog’s behavior was because he was frightened by the woman’s boots. There is no basis for this conclusion, given the myriad of other possible reasons for the dog’s reaction, including that standing up surely made the woman appear much more intimidating to the dog. A scientifically trained animal behaviorist would consider all possible alternatives, and would not suggest a “why” for the behavior without more information and observations.

People must always be on the lookout for behavior explanations that sound scientific but really aren’t. Examples include invoking “wolf pack theories” to explain dog behavior and referring to behaviors as “instinctual” or “genetic”.

Of course, people without a scientific background can still be helpful when an animal’s behavior becomes a problem. Skilled trainers are adept at knowing how to manage rewards and motivate dogs to do what people want, without having to use harmful physical punishment and intimidation. But when it comes to critically analyzing complex behaviors such as fears, phobias and aggression, devising intricate behavior modification plans, and evaluating the results, an applied or veterinary behaviorist is the best betplace to start. But trainers, behaviorists, and veterinarians should all work together to provide animalspets with the best behavior care.

Where to look

When seeking out someone to help you with an animal’s serious behavior issues such as fears and aggression, keep in mind that only Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) are required to have graduate degrees in a behavior science to be certified. In addition to their veterinary degree, Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) must complete a residency in animal behavior, and both groups have additional requirements for certification. CAABS are certified by the Animal Behavior Society, the largest organization in North America dedicated to the scientific study of animal behavior, and diplomates are governed by the American College of Veterinary Behavior.

An animal’s regular veterinarian should always be involved in his behavior care, not only because changes in behavior can be the result of medical conditions, but because some behavior interventions such as medications and surgery (e.g. spaying and neutering) can only be done by veterinarians.