Tuesday 10 December 2013

What is an Animal Behaviourist?

In Australia, anyone can call themselves a dog behaviourist or animal behaviourist, or a dog trainer, animal communicator, dog behaviour consultant, or any variation of those terms, for that matter. It is unsurprising that there is a large variety in skill and knowledge among those calling themselves dog behaviourists or animal behaviourists. This makes it very difficult to know who to contact for help when your dog or other pet has a behavioural problem or needs training. This article explains differences in qualifications in Australia and what they mean.

Dog behaviourist, dog trainer, animal behaviourist, behaviour consultant, behaviour specialist... So many names.


There are a couple of places where someone can get a Certificate III or IV in dog training and behaviour. These are recognised as advanced post-secondary qualifications in Australia. There are other similar qualifications that can be obtained overseas. They are not recognised in Australia. Practically, this means they may be better or worse than a Certificate III or IV. To find out you will have to research what the courses leading to the qualifications involve and compare it to Australian recognised courses. The National Dog Trainers Federation (NDTF) and Delta are the two main schools in Australia that train dog trainers. The main difference between them is Delta deliberately avoids using punishment and NDTF does not necessarily.

Tertiary Qualifications

Generally someone in Australia calling themselves a dog trainer or behaviourist and possessing a relevant tertiary qualification has a Bachelor degree. Bachelor degrees give graduates a broad knowledge base they can apply to specific situations and are internationally recognised. A Bachelor degree with honours signifies advanced knowledge and skills beyond that of a straight Bachelor degree. In science or psychology this usually involves a research project. A Masters or PhD comes after honours, and again in science and psychology which are the most relevant fields to animal behaviour and training, usually involve a longer and more involved research project. A PhD is the highest qualification that can be obtained in Australia.

Veterinary Behaviourist

A Veterinary Behaviourist holds a degree in veterinary medicine and usually a post-graduate degree in animal behaviour. Veterinary Behaviourists in Australia have undertaken rigorous assessment by exam. This guarantees a high level of minimum knowledge AND experience. Veterinary Behaviourists are skilled in identifying the causes of behaviour problems and can prescribe medication that will help more than training alone. In some cases this medical support is the difference between success and failure.

So... which do I need?

Training animals to do basic behaviours is not necessarily difficult. Anyone can learn how to do it and many people without qualifications of any kind are good at it. Those with background knowledge of how animals learn are likely to be successful. Anyone with a dog training qualification will certainly possess the bare minimum of this background knowledge.
Behavioural problems can get a lot more complicated, particularly when the behaviour is motivated by something other than obvious rewards or punishments, or is influenced by several factors. For this reason, it is often asserted that a behaviourist should have a relevant advanced tertiary degree like a Masters or PhD. But what does that give you that a certificate doesn't?

a) Detailed, extensive knowledge of animal behaviour. There is no way you can learn in 1-2 years of a certificate-level course what you can learn in 6-7 years of university-level study.

b) A scientific background, which will aid immeasurably in identifying the source of the problem, being able to test assumptions, and staying free from bias, thus giving pets their best chance at better behaviour without compromising welfare. See Creature Teacher's philosophy for more information, and the article on biases.

An animal behaviourist can assess any species.
So in conclusion, it depends on what your problem is. Ultimately qualifications just tell us the minimum knowledge someone has. If you need help with training particular behaviours, or discouraging common problem behaviours like pulling on leash and jumping up, a trainer with a Certificate III or IV will possess the knowledge required to do that at least. If your dog is displaying behaviour that may be driven by emotion or excitability, or your animal is not a dog, someone with tertiary qualifications preferably advanced ones such as a PhD should have the knowledge required for that. If your dog's behaviour is driven by anxiety or fear or some other emotional imbalance, you should see a Veterinary Behaviourist. The difficulty is in identifying what the problem is before seeing a professional. It may appear to be a simple problem but be much more complex in reality. A trainer with a Certificate may or may not be able to identify this. A behaviourist with an advanced degree will be able to identify that, but will not be able to help with medication. A Veterinary Behaviourist will be able to identify that and be able to prescribe medication that will help.

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