Helping Your Clients Pick the Right Dog Trainer and Knowing When a Behaviorist is Needed Instead

Terri Bright, Ph. D., BCBA-D, CAAB
Director of Behavior Services
Angell Animal Medical Center


Having the best referral information at your fingertips can make your day go more smoothly and make you into a hero to your clients, and this is never truer than when your patients have behavioral problems. In the case of a sudden behavior change, rule out medical issues in your patient before making a behavioral referral; then, refer to these steps to make your referral decision:

Socialization classes: All puppies should be properly socialized to people and other dogs before they are 12 weeks old. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists has a position statement about this, stating “Incomplete or improper socialization…can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life, including fear, avoidance and/or aggression” ( They go on to say that behavioral issues, not illness, are the number one cause of death in dogs under three years old. Therefore, it behooves you to consider the risk/benefit of exposure of your client’s puppies to other dogs before being completely vaccinated, and to have a serious discussion with clients about proper socialization. A simple requirement that a puppy going to a socialization class must be seen by a vet at least once since the owner got it can help to limit risk. A good puppy class is far less risky health and behavior-wise than a dog park. At a well-run puppy class, puppies can be matched with others of their similar size and play style, e.g., the Jack Russell terrier plays with the big puppies, not the Maltese.  In the right class, fearful puppies should be allowed to take breaks as often as needed, and should never be forced to interact when they are afraid.  The ideal class has an adult dog who can “correct” over-zealous puppies who don’t know how to take turns.  One bark from an adult dog can put a puppy on the right track in a way no human interaction can. No one should ever spray, scruff, or otherwise frighten any puppy in class.

Obedience classes:  If the behavior problems involve typical “obedience”-type behaviors, such as pulling on the leash, jumping on the counter (and on Grandma), destructive behavior (chewing on things), housebreaking, running away instead of coming when called, or barking when the doorbell rings,  these issues can usually be handled by your client taking a group class.  This will be less expensive for the client than private training.  The class will typically feature these basic exercises:  sit, stay, come when called, loose-leash walking, down, even “leave it.” Many problem behaviors can be solved by simply teaching these behaviors as replacements for unwanted behavior. No special equipment should be required other than a flat-buckle or martingale collar, or perhaps a head harness for a strong dog. Instructions to clients should include “Brings lots of treats to class.”  A clicker might be featured in training, but is not required.

Dog trainers: If your client doesn’t have the time to attend a series of group classes, and wants someone to work with them in their home, a qualified dog trainer can do just that. As in group classes, make sure the trainer does not require any special collars, such as a prong or electronic collar. You can find many trainers on the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (, and can even search the website by zip code. To pick a trainer from the list, look for language that discusses teaching replacement behaviors rather than making you “dominant” over your dog.  Dominance is an oft-misused term that indicates the trainer may be relying on outdated methodology. Another sign of this is reference to making you a “pack leader;” some wolf species have good pack leaders; dogs are terrible at forming pack hierarchies, and people aren’t wolves or dogs…so leave the pack behind when looking for a trainer. Some trainers offer “board and train;” they keep your dog for a few weeks and train them on-site.  If a board and train service does not feature rewards-based training only, give it a skip.

Behaviorist: Some behavior problems need specialized training and experience; a behaviorist is someone who has a graduate degree in behavior, animal behavior, or who is a vet who has been mentored by a veterinary behaviorist. Ideally, a behaviorist should be board-certified; board certifications mean the behaviorist has met stringent requirements put forth by the accrediting body; these include the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists certifications, DACVB (see and the Animal Behavior Society’s CAAB/ ACAAB.( The problems that should be handled by a qualified behaviorist include:

  • Separation anxiety: true separation anxiety is characterized by prolonged vocalization; attempts to escape; urination/defecation; and/or destructive behavior when a dog is left home alone.
  • Aggression of any kind: this includes dogs who snap because they are fearful; dogs who guard food, places, toys; dogs who bite people or other dogs; and dogs who aggress at the front door or fence line.
  • Extreme fear: this is endemic now amongst many dogs being imported from southern states. These dogs are afraid to leave the house and walk around their neighborhoods.
  • Reactivity: dogs may not be aggressive, but may lunge and bark at people, other dogs, or things in the environment.

If you are certain there is an underlying medical component affecting the behavior, or that medication will be required which you do not feel comfortable prescribing, refer to a veterinary behaviorist. It is important to recognize there may be no “cure” for a serious problem behavior.  Think of those humans you know who stop drinking or smoking; they are always at risk of exhibiting that behavior in the future; the same is true for animals; a behavior in their repertoire may be elicited in the future, despite all the best training efforts. An ethical trainer or behaviorist will recommend alternative behaviors and careful management of the environment to reduce instances of unwanted behavior. Training methods which rely on frightening an animal can have unwanted side effects of increased aggression, and can physically injure an animal.  Therefore, stick to trainers and behaviorists who do not use prong or shock collars.

Cats: Cats have behavioral problems, too, and are best referred to a behaviorist. Like dogs, they should be socialized as kittens; we just started a kitten socialization class at the MSPCA-Angell, and hopefully others will follow our lead. Behavior problems such as litter box issues, aggression, and inter-cat aggression are some of the common issues seen.

Finally, if at any time you are flummoxed and cannot decide where or how to refer, do not hesitate to email our Behavior Department at or telephone us at 617/989-1520.

  <- global tag ->