Leading Off: Not all animal behaviorists are created equal

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Aug 01, 2008


Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS
In most aspects of veterinary medicine, referrals involve an appointment with a board-certified veterinarian. However, for cases involving a problem behavior, practitioners often refer to people outside the profession such as trainers or nonveterinarian animal behaviorists.

Unfortunately, anyone can call himself or herself an animal behaviorist. No uniform standards exist for evaluating the competency of animal behaviorists or trainers, and there is no state or federal legislation governing these professions. But there are places you can turn to for help.

ANIMAL BEHAVIORISTS

Two animal behavior organizations have recognizable governing bodies and requirements for formal education: the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) and the Animal Behavior Society. Diplomates of the ACVB are veterinarians board-certified in behavior, a recognized specialty of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Only 46 veterinarians have completed a residency, published research, and passed boards to become diplomates. And veterinarians are the only ones licensed under governmental agencies and, thus, are bound by ethical and legal responsibilities. More information can be found at http://www.dacvb.org/.

Certified applied animal behaviorists must meet similar educational and experiential requirements, including a master's or doctoral degree from an accredited college or university in a biologic or behavioral science with an emphasis on animal behavior and supervised experience in applied animal behavior. More information can be found at http://www.animalbehavior.org/.

TRAINERS

For general training and problem prevention, you likely will refer clients to a trainer. Never refer clients to someone you or your staff members have not objectively observed, even if you've talked to the trainer on the telephone or clients have recommended the trainer. While there are many excellent trainers working with animals, others use questionable techniques or have an inappropriate scientific basis for their training. Some trainers even diagnose behavior problems and prescribe treatment plans. I know of veterinarians who have referred clients and their pets to trainers who used extremely harsh techniques, causing more harm than good and, in some instances, physical injury and death. In most of these cases, the referring veterinarian was simply unaware of how the trainer trained.

Before referring clients to trainers, you should know what methods and tools the trainers use, their credentials and expertise, whether they carry liability insurance, their communication skills and style, where their classes are held, and the types of classes they offer. Excellent articles are available that explain how to choose an appropriate trainer.1,2

DO SOME HOMEWORK

With a little bit of investigation, you will find great people you will feel comfortable referring your patients with behavior-related issues to.

REFERENCES

1. Brammeier S, Brannen J, Brown S, et al. Good trainers: how to identify one and why this is important to your practice of veterinary medicine. J Vet Behav 2006;1(1)47-52.

2. Hetts S, Estep DQ. Educational information: selecting an obedience trainer or behavior consultant. Available at http://www.vet.utk.edu/hero/education/guide.htm. Accessed July 8, 2008.

Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS
Department of Medicine and Epidemiology
School of Veterinary Medicine
University of California
Davis, CA 95616