Let’s Talk About “Behaviorists”

As we all know, the field of dog training and pet behavior consulting is completely unregulated.  A plethora of certifications are available, with no single certification being generally accepted and no widely accepted single educational path to professional status.

Most professional titles can be used by anyone regardless of certification, experience or educational status.  With two exceptions.  Veterinary Behaviorist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist are protected terms that can only be used by Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and animal behaviorists who meet the criteria for certification set by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), respectively.

Given this background, I’d like to comment on the article by Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA who attempts to answer the question “What is a behaviorist”?  on the CCPDT’s The Scoop.

First, the more precise term is “animal behaviorist” instead of behaviorist.  The more general term “behaviorist” also includes individuals who work with people, and who are typically trained as behavior analysts.   Our discussion centers on behaviorists who work with animals.

WHO NOT WHAT.  But the question is NOT WHAT is an animal behaviorist, but WHO.  A logical starting place to answer the question might be to consult individuals who are academically trained as animal behaviorists.  The Animal Behavior Society, formed in the 1960s, is the oldest organization in North America dedicated to promoting the scientific study of animal behavior and also certifies Applied Animal Behaviorists.  More about all that later.

LET’S NOT MUDDY THE WATERS MORE.   I don’t think creating personal definitions of who an animal behaviorist is helps to clear the muddy waters of professional titles.  The author’s personal definition of a “behaviorist” (her term) being “someone who affects the emotional state of an animal with a knowledge based in anatomy, physiology, learning theory and chemistry” misses the mark.  Not all animal behaviorists strive to “affect the emotional state of an animal”.  Many animal behaviorists observe animals in the field, in their natural habitat, often being as unobtrusive as possible, in order to avoid influencing the animals they are studying.   And the most important basis for their study is the biology of animal behavior.   The ABS promotes “the biological study of animal behavior in the broadest sense, including studies at all levels of organization using both descriptive and experimental methods under natural and controlled conditions.”  Animal behaviorists don’t work with just dogs.  They study the behavior of animals from a variety of academic perspectives.

ON THE SAME PAGE – BUT—- I’m in total agreement with the problem the author also has of people proclaiming to be “self-taught behaviorists”.  But it’s not just people who do nasty things to dogs claiming to be animal behaviorists.  People at the other end of the “positive training” spectrum do as well.   One very well known “positive” trainer who has no academic education in animal behavior and only works with dogs claims to be “widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.”  This is a professional ethics problem.

No professional behaviorist (animal or otherwise) is self-taught.  Animal behaviorists with graduate degrees have conducted original scientific research.  Professional titles ending in “ist” such as geologist, ecologist, microbiologist, chemist, pharmacist, psychologist, animal scientist, and animal behaviorist are all associated with academic study and a body of scientific literature.

A self-taught hobbyist rock-hound doesn’t have the sort of knowledge a geologist does, and probably wouldn’t even consider applying that title to herself.  While it’s possible to learn more about animal behavior through continuing education, that isn’t equivalent to the academic education animal behaviorists receive while completing graduate degrees.

WE NEED TO BE PRECISE.  It’s unclear who the author is referring to with her statement about people who “are overly meticulous in their own definition of the term, and become defensive about professionals calling themselves behaviorists.”  Those of us who have invested years of our lives and considerable financial resources in scientific study and education, resulting in graduate degrees have every right to be upset and angry about untrained people co-opting our profession by inappropriate use of the professional title animal behaviorist.  But the real danger is that people who are not academically trained are using the title and leading others to believe they ARE scientifically trained when they are not.  It’s misleading and borders on being unethical.  I could cite numerous examples of “positive trainers” as well as those who are not, referring to themselves as “behaviorists”.

CERTIFIED APPLIED ANIMAL BEHAVIORISTS.  The bullet list included in McCue-McGrath article defining behavior consultants, veterinary behaviorists, and applied animal behaviorists certainly does a dis-service to and short changes the latter.  Certifying bodies are mentioned for the first two, but not the latter.  Applied Animal Behaviorists also have a certifying body – namely the previously mentioned Animal Behavior Society that requires not only an advanced degree (Master’s for ACAAB and Ph.D. for CAAB) in a behavioral science (NOT an animal related field as McCue-McGrath says) but also adherence to specific criteria for course work, experience, original scientific research, case studies and letters of recommendation from peers.

In addition, to be inclusive, The American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS) also has a Certification in Animal Behavior that requires advanced academic degrees and formal training.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists apply scientific knowledge to real-world issues and problems having to do with the behavior of animals.   The reason animal behaviorists who work with dogs don’t recommend “alpha rolls” and “being dominant over your dog” is because these recommendations are not congruent with what the body of scientific literature on social dominance in dogs, wolves and other species has to tell us about social relationships.  It’s not a question of “believing” that “dominance is a valid concept in the animal world” as McCue-McGrath says.  It’s being familiar with the scientific literature and what it has to say.  In fact, the literature indicates that social relationships which are best described as dominant-subordinate do exist in a variety of social species.  The research about dog-human relationships is incomplete.

LEADERS IN ANIMAL BEHAVIOR?? Finally, I disagree with the author’s premise that CPDTs are “leaders in the industry of animal behavior”. This is completely at odds with the accurate and reasonable statement she made early in the article that dog trainers are not the same as animal behaviorists.  Some animal behaviorists have also developed considerable animal training skills, but not all have.  Many certified dog trainers have training skills that far surpass those of some animal behaviorists.  Animal behaviorists have, and can apply scientific knowledge and methods about animal behavior, including dogs, that trainers do not have.  Recognizing misconceptions about dominance and being familiar with the four quadrants and learning theory does not an animal behaviorist make.

CPDTs may be leaders in the dog training industry (other certifying bodies might have something to say about that, but that’s not my argument to make) but as the author herself points out trainers are not animal behaviorists.   So it’s difficult to understand the basis for her claim that CPDTs are leaders in “the industry of animal behavior”.

AS WITH DOGS – COOPERATION INSTEAD OF “LEADERS”.  While I appreciate and support the interest the author has, and is apparently encouraging CPDTs to have, in helping educate the public about the use of “behaviorist” (more precisely animal behaviorist) as a professional label, the author has sent mixed messages in this article.  On the one hand she advocates “…trainers and behaviorists… stand[ing] together and find a common ground” but later states it’s the CPDTs “job to lead conversation in this industry” about use of the term “behaviorist”.   I would hope she did NOT mean to imply that it is CPDTs alone who should be defining and setting the standard for how professional titles – especially that of animal behaviorist – are used.  That would be inappropriate.

A better, more logical, and more inclusive approach is to consult Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists about the definition of their professional title “animal behaviorist”, and work with non-degreed animal behavior consultants, and various dog training certifying organizations to develop a more generally agreed upon glossary of other professional titles instead of attempting to do so unilaterally.   Veterinary behaviorists already have a clear definition because of their DVM degree.

It’s the responsibility of all the different professions involved to cooperate and work together to begin to use professional titles in a manner that respects our different skill sets and varying levels of academic education.   As the former Chair of APDTs Education Committee, which was the basis for what is now the CCPDT, and the owner of a business that offers a large number of CEU approved courses for CCPDT, that’s my answer to the author’s question “what do you think”.


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