You know you need some help with your dog but you’re not sure exactly who to ask. There seems to be a lot of choice and it’s just not clear what the difference is between a trainer or a behaviourist–and you’ve just found out there are veterinary behaviourists, too! Here’s the lowdown on the differences in these professions and how to decide who is best to help you and your dog.

Dog Trainer

A trainer will help you teach your dog everyday behaviours or skills like sit or down or recall. You can also find specialist trainers who teach sport skills like agility or scentwork. A trainer may work with you within a group class setting or privately. In human terms, a trainer is a bit like a teacher or coach. 

Dog Behaviourist

A behaviourist will help you solve inappropriate, problematic or dangerous behaviours. These include fear, aggression, destructive chewing, out of control barking and separation issues. An emotional component is often involved in these problem behaviours. 

A behaviourist will consider underlying medical issues that may be affecting your dog’s behaviour. They will take a history on when behaviour has occurred to get a full understanding of underlying causes. Then they will devise a personalised plan based on their analysis of your dog and situation. 

A behaviourist will give advice not just on teaching particular behaviours but also in making changes at home to benefit your dog. For instance, the behaviourist may suggest different ways to interact with your dog, or make practical changes in room layout to help your dog feel comfortable. They will work together with your veterinary surgeon and will require a veterinary referral before working with you.

Generally, a behaviourist will be educated to degree or even postgraduate level. I have a BSc (Hons) in Canine Behaviour and Training. 

A behaviourist’s similar professional counterpart in human services would be a psychologist or therapist. 

Veterinary Behaviourist

A veterinary behaviourist is a registered veterinary surgeon who also has extensive behaviour knowledge.

There are only a few in the UK at this time and many run behaviour clinics in addition to their veterinary clinic duties, so they may have to limit how many behaviour clients they can help.

A veterinary behaviourist can legally prescribe psychoactive medication for your dog. If your first response vet is not comfortable working with a behaviourist and prescribe medication to support a behaviour programme with your dog a veterinary behaviourist will be able to prescribe them directly.

A veterinary behaviourist is something like the psychiatrist of the dog world.

How to Find the Right Person for You

There’s quite a bit of overlap between these three professionals. Behaviourists need to have a grasp on good training practices to be effective, and experienced trainers often have at least some experience with typical behaviour problems. 

Any person can claim they are a behaviourist or trainer in the UK regardless of their education or experience. If an owner encounters a person who is poorly trained, they can receive guidance that doesn’t benefit their dog, and can even lead to an increased risk to owners when they attempt to follow the inexpert advice.

Because professional registration is not required by law, the industry has to rely on self-regulation. There are professional associations and societies in the UK practitioners can join that set professional standards and assessments for their members. 

The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) is the registration body that acts to promote humane practice in animal training and behaviour therapy. 

  • The ABTC carries registration lists for different levels of assessed competence for different membership associations in the UK. 
  • It sets standards for knowledge and skills for practitioners to become an accredited professional and acts as a voluntary regulator for the industry. 
  • Individuals listed on the different ABTC registers have shown their commitment to upholding professional standards in the industry. They are tested to confirm they meet the knowledge requirements for the level they’re applying to.
  • All individuals at any level are required to undertake continued professional development every year to make sure their knowledge remains current.
  • It is possible for someone to be listed on multiple registers. They will have been assessed separately for each one. 

I strongly recommend that you look for a trainer or behaviourist who is registered with the ABTC.

Once you’ve found some possibilities, take steps to learn more about them:

  •  Read through their website, articles or blog posts to see what services they offer and to see if their style and personality suit you.
  •  For trainers you can ask to sit in on one of their classes without your dog to see whether you like their style of teaching. 
  • Many behaviourists can book you in for a short telephone consultation before you commit to any behaviour package, so you can get a feel for how they work. This is usually quite affordable

Don’t forget that your trainer or behaviourist has to work with you as well as your dog. Take the time to make sure you find the right fit for both of you

I am both a registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist and an Animal Training Instructor with the ABTC, so unless you need to see a Veterinary Behaviourist I can help you.  If you are experiencing some challenges with your dog that you’d like to get some help with, you can book a free discovery call with me to discuss how I can help.