Thanks to those to of you who have commented on this issue. It is such an important one, and I value the conversation we are having. For what it’s worth, here’s what I think:
First off, I think that the most important factors related to who is qualified to treat a behavioral problem is their KNOWLEDGE and ABILITY, not their degrees or credentials. I am not dismissing the value of credentials, believe me, I busted my tail for my Ph.D. and I am very proud of it. I have tremendous respect for others with advanced credentials, and describe some of the vets that I work with as walking on water. I also add CAAB after my name with pride, just as I have tremendous respect for DVMs who are Board Certified in Behavior. But that said, who do you want helping you rehab a rescue dog who growls at visitors? Any dog trainer? Any vet? Any CAAB? No.. you want someone who understands canine ethology, as well as operant and classical conditioning, who can read communicative signals from dogs extremely well. You want someone with experience working with dogs with behavioral problems, who can refer to a vet when necessary, and someone you can relate to (and who can relate to you), who does a good job being your coach, teacher and cheerleader all at the same time. What qualifies someone to do that? Knowledge and ability, yes? But knowledge of what, and ability to do what? Here’s some thoughts–not inclusive probably, but good enough to continue our conversation. I’ve restricted it to dogs here primarily for the sake of simplicity, but also because they are more commonly presented for behavioral problems:
MINIMAL KNOWLEDGE TO WORK WITH CANINE BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS:
1. Canine ethology, including the influence of genetics on behavior, developmental influences (in utero, neonatal, early social development), normal social structures of dogs in different contexts, communicative signals (these need to be known in depth, such that a 10 millisecond and 2 millimeter change of a dog’s lips is clearly noticeable and meaningful to the observer), play behavior, predatory behavior, agonistic behavior. I’m sure I’ll add more to this list as I continue to think about this. You?
2. In-depth knowledge of operant conditioning (including + and – reinforcement and punishment, when they are best used or avoided); in depth knowledge of classical conditioning, counter classical conditioning and desensitizing (and the difference between and when to use each one over the other).
3. Experience applying #’s 1 and 2 to behavior problems in dogs, ideally by first learning basic training and handling, and over time assisting with a knowledgeable, skilled and experienced mentor on simple behavioral problems, working up to more serious ones.
4. An in-depth understanding of what behavioral problems are often caused by or correlated with medical problems, including a good working knowledge of structure and function, basic physiology and what behavioral problems always require an appointment with a veterinarian.
5. An in-depth understanding of the most common diagnosis of behavioral problems, what behaviors are ‘symptomatic’ of these problems, and best practices to solve them. This includes knowing what these labels mean, how useful the labels actually are (not always) and how to help the client understand what we can and can’t know about what is motivating their dog.
MINIMAL ABILITY TO WORK WITH BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS
1. Anyone who wants to work with dogs with behavioral problems, in my opinion, should be a good trainer, with the ability to read a dog and know what he or she is ready for (or not), knows how to use their actions, including movement and voice, to influence a dog’s behavior, can read visual signals extremely well and is able to interpret them correctly (ie, dog tongue flicks when asked to lie down). No one should ever give a client instructions about what to teach their dog, without being able to demonstrate how to do it successfully to the same dog, in the same context as the clients.
2. Consultants absolutely must have fantastic social skills with people, and be able to create a welcome and supportive environment for the client. Specialists who are great with dogs but not with people are not suited to do behavior consulting, period. There is no equivalent of surgery in behavioral treatment and rehab, in which the specialist never has to interact with the ‘patient.’ You’re either really, really good with people, or you’re in the wrong field. (Could I make it more clear how strongly I feel about this?!) The most common complaint, after 22 years, that I hear from clients is that the trainer/behaviorist/veterinarian was rude/busy/disconnected/shaming etc etc etc. I do not know this for a fact, but I believe that part of the bit of good I’ve been able to do in the world is because I like people as much as I like dogs, and I want to help them both.
3. The ability to take all the knowledge listed above and customize it for each case. Cook book solutions don’t work very often, and I’ve seen client after client who came to me after being given some handouts and some generic advice about this or that, which didn’t end up being very helpful. Being a behavioral consultant means knowing how to successfully influence the behavior of two species, and that means knowing how to present information in away that clients can use and adopt.
4. The ability to say, without hesitation, “I don’t know” and “I was wrong.” I have no respect for any professional who doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know, and always love it when a doctor or vet says “I don’t know.” Music to my ears, and critical to being a true professional.
5. The ability to stay connected with a network of knowledgeable people, including trainers, behaviorist and veterinarians. It takes a village, that’s all I can say. I am incredibly lucky to be a community with some kick ass western vets, highly qualified Chinese Medicine vets, some great trainers, canine massage therapists, etc etc etc. I am grateful every day for being in contact with other CAABs, for connections with some fantastic Veterinary Behaviorists and for the opportunity to keep learning more every day of every week.
As I said earlier, I’m sure I’ll think of several more things to add later, but I need to get back to working on my new Play Play Play Seminar that I’m doing in California next week (write a comment if you’re coming!). I want to end by supporting what many said in their comments about the value of a team of people helping dogs and the people who love them. I agree whole-heartedly that all three fields, vet medicine, behaviorists and trainers need to do more work together to advance the field. I do not think every animal with a behavior problem needs to see a veterinarian, any more than every one who needs marriage counseling needs to get a full physical from their general practitioner. Neither do I believe–and I suspect there will be many who disagree-that GP vets should expand their knowledge base to become skilled in treating behavioral problems. Good grief, it is hard enough for them to stay up with advances in medicine. What I do think is that they should learn enough to understand the complexity of behavior, to know what they know and don’t know, and how, when and who to refer to. Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists and CAABs are a fantastic resource for GP vets, and they would do well to work with them more often. Veterinary Behaviorists especially have so much to teach standard practice vets about psychopharmacology and behavioral medicine. Trainers and behaviorists need to reciprocate by understanding that some behavioral problems are directly or indirectly caused by medical problems, and work as closely as possible with those in veterinary medicine.
My last point is that, ever the optimist, I think it’s great that our field is progressing to the point where we are having conversations like this! I would LOVE to hear your comments about what I’ve written.. additions, deletions, objections, agreements, etc…. Don’t hesitate to join in, I think this is an important conversation.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, here’s from a walk Will, Lassie and I took Monday evening, at a friend’s beautiful farm just down the road from mine:
And here’s another one from the same walk, which might just be one of my favorite photos of Willie of all time (so far!):