One of the first competitive activities pet dog owners took up with enthusiasm some 70 odd years ago was ‘Competitive Obedience’. It was an opportunity for like-minded enthusiasts to get together and train their dogs in a series of set exercises and be judged at just how well the dogs executed them. The exercises themselves have changed little over the years; but the techniques to train them most certainly have.
The originators of the Kennel Club tests knew what they were about. The jargon and science we use today might not have been there, and our modern day understanding of the concept of ‘obedience’ has changed, but throughout the tests the dog is being trained for all the skills we want today. Impulse control, reliable responses to cues, being able to focus whilst being aroused and excited. Ability to become calm at the drop of a hat. Scentwork. Sharing and giving up articles willingly and happily. Independence and confidence in responding to cues at a distance from the handler. Being attentive to the handler. A willingness to work as a cooperative team and choosing to be with the handler. The first real test for any new competitor is usually finding a way to motivate the dog to want to stay in the ring! There are so many important lifeskills a dog acquires; so many training skills a handler has to learn to succeed.
Nowhere is the change for more positive, motivational techniques reflected than in the Obedience shows run by the British Competitive Obedience Society. The emphasis in the rules and tests is on the dog showing enthusiasm; wanting to join in with the handler in what are, by and large exercises of little immediate practical value. They have borrowed the best of the Kennel Club tests and given them a positive twist.
So it is excellent news that BCOS already has their first post-covid show planned. Look out for it – if the idea of dogs being ‘obedient’ has put you off ‘Obedience’, then think again. Competitive Obedience (capital C; capital O) is for the dogs, as well as the humans.
People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues with their dogs and FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to consult a trained and experienced professional. In the dog behaviour business though, there are no legal requirements; no rules at all about who can set up as a behaviourist or a trainer so you need to check their credentials with care.
But which do you need anyway? A trainer or a behaviourist?
Essentially a trainer works with owners to help healthy, relatively untroubled dogs learn things. To use the old-fashioned term to be “obedient”. We talk about responding reliably to cues these days, and the techniques used are very different, but training is about helping the average, problem-free dog learn what owners want of them, and for owners to learn what is fair and reasonable to ask of their dogs. Trainers might be called in to help with housetraining puppies, or coming when called, or more specialist needs like competitive sports dog training or assistance dog tasks. The good dog trainer will have enough understanding of behaviour to spot if these training needs are symptoms of a more complex health or behaviour issue, especially if the dog is finding it difficult to learn to be responsive to what the owner needs or wants him to do. If they aren’t qualified to deal with those things (which they might, or might not, be), they should have the knowledge to know when to refer clients to other professionals.
A behaviourist works with owners to help resolve behaviour problems. For example fearfulness, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, dog/dog “reactivity”. They aim to bring the dog’s behaviour to as near to problem–free as possible; the aim being to enable dog and owner to live in peace and harmony, the dog to live a ‘good life’ and to be more open to learning (training) if its needed. Not just for the owner’s sake of course, but for the welfare of the dog. That may need some ‘dog training’ skills as well, but that isn’t the behaviourist’s main role and they may refer clients to a trainer once underlying behaviour issues have been sorted out. A good behaviourist works in cooperation not just with trainers, but with vets too. Most work only on vet referral since many behaviour problems result from pain or illness.
Some trainers are qualified behaviourists, and vice versa. There is inevitably a lot of overlapping of skills between the two.
Experienced or qualified?
Any trainer or behaviourist will do their best to ensure that their advice is founded in good science. Unfortunately evidence and good science is not only rather lacking in important areas of behaviour work, sometimes it’s pretty hard to apply to the ‘real world’. But it is widely accepted that a behaviourist would be educated in a directly relevant subject to at least degree level, so will usually have a relevant degree – either undergraduate or post graduate, typically in Applied Animal Behaviour or Clinical Animal Behaviour, and would normally have been mentored or examined in some way in order to demonstrate they can apply their knowledge and skills working with clients.
If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem then the first port of call should be the vet who can, and should, refer you to a qualified behaviourist. Veterinary surgeons don’t receive much training in dog behaviour at vet school, but they can specialise in behaviour work and some have pursued post graduate qualifications in behaviour, so it’s worth checking out if your vet’s practice has such a person. There are a few vets who are listed as specialists in veterinary behavioural medicine with the RCVS.
Some vet practices have vet nurses that have some extra training in behaviour to handle minor behaviour problems. Some may be qualified to work as behaviourists in their own right.
Coaching and counselling skills also form an important part of the job. An effective behaviourist will have those too.
Dog behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills, so although there are certain evidence based protocols which a good behaviourist would normally follow, it’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive so there will be variations in how each carries out their work. There are two important significant variables that makes each case unique – your dog. And you.
So its a real hotch-potch of things to look out for. It pays to do some research to find out who is the right person to help you and to find out what their qualifications and experience can offer you.
LISTS OF BEHAVIOURISTS
There are other organisations than these listed – but these (below) should identify most currently in practice in the UK and some include the members of those other organisations. Each organisation has their own criteria for membership so you may want to check that out. Typically they will have minimum academic standards, usually an assessment process, a code of practice and/or some kind of ethical statement, how members or their courses are accredited (if they are), if they have a complaints procedure (just in case things go wrong) and how they expect members to behave professionally, and how they maintain their skills. They vary. Note there are also behaviourists who are well qualified, and experienced, who are not members of any organisation. There is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any behaviourist to join any organisation.
ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.
An organisation which brings together members of a number of organisations, including the long established Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/
Register of ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB)
The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) runs a certification scheme and lists those who have fulfilled their criteria. https://www.asab.org/ccab/
FABClinicians – The Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians
An organisation established in 2020 which is a support organisation for those already academically qualified in clinical animal behaviour and working towards becoming certified by the Association of Animal Behaviour (ASAB). https://fabclinicians.org/
The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants is what it says on the tin – it includes a number of respected British behaviourists as members so is worth checking out https://m.iaabc.org/
Expect to be asked to go to your vet for a formal referral. It is usually best to approach the behaviourist first though to check out they are happy to take on your particular case, to discuss how soon they can see you and importantly how much it will cost. Behaviourists aren’t cheap. But you may be able to claim it on your veterinary insurance. The behaviourist (and your insurance company of course) should be able to advise you on that, so don’t be shy about asking – they will want to you to be able to pay them. You may also need immediate ‘first aid’ advice on how to manage a dog safely until you can see someone. That can be especially important where aggression is involved.
If they don’t want to ask for a formal vet referral, or suggest a visit to the vet won’t be necessary, ask why. It is considered ‘good practice’ to make sure health issues are eliminated and they ought to be able to justify such advice. Some behaviourists like to schedule a short assessment visit first.
Do your research
By now, hopefully its become clear It is important to do your research, even if the person you come across is on one of the registers, above. Or indeed, if you find someone who calls themself a behaviourist, who isn’t on any register. They may also be good at the job, but be mindful they aren’t under any obligation to adhere to laid out codes of practice, or be answerable to a professional body. So long as your vet can satisfy themselves that person is fully qualified (and insured) it ought not be a problem for you to express a preference.
Other organisations will have their own criteria for membership and have members who may be excellent at the job, and well qualified in most significant respects.
1 – Internet – Check the various registers, above.
2 – Check the websites of likely candidates.
Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Especially if they aren’t on the registers, above. Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a behaviourist because I love animals and grew up with them” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. experience of specific issues which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems
Are they members of reputable organisation? (See above).
Do they describe HOW they work? Do they state what approach they take? They should. If they say things which suggest they buy into techniques which appear to rely on being a ‘pack leader’ or dismiss using food treats as a tool before they have even met your dog, for example, then you probably want to steer well clear of them. If they are also trainers running classes, go and watch them at work if you want reassurances (but do ask first – it’s the polite thing to do J).
3 – Ask other people locally. Get personal recommendations
Chat to local dog walkers, the local pet shop. Other dog owners. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions as well as sing praises of the people they respect though. Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a behaviourist is, and their effectiveness, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.
Now you have a behaviourist on board?
Once you have connected with a behaviourist, work with them as a team. A good behaviourist will want your feedback, and ready to adapt their advice (assuming its in everyone’s best interests to do so of course) to suit the circumstances, so don’t be scared to talk with them if their advice doesn’t appear to be working, or you believe it might be too difficult for you to follow. Check out you really are doing what they intended.
But let’s assume all goes well and you are happy with the help you are getting. Behaviourists also love to know when things are working out and the problems sorted – so if they don’t ask, don’t let that stop you dropping them a line or giving them a call to say’ thanks! We are all well and happy now’. It will be appreciated.
When I was a child I was encouraged to take the obligatory (in my dad’s world, anyway ) piano lessons. I was duly coached and learned on the upright piano that sat in the spare room. It was quite old, and the ivories were a bit stained. I can remember what some looked like. The D above middle C was yellow. The E was white with some dark speckles. I practiced. Not a lot, but enough presumably for it to be declared that I was competent enough to take my Grade One piano exam. The lowest level of exam. The basic, easy-peasy entry level exam.
I failed it. I still remember the experience. Instead of being in the spare room at home, with comfortably familiar keys on that old upright piano, with my piano teacher sitting beside me offering kind support and feedback, I was sat in glorious isolation at a shiny grand piano, sitting on a strange piano stool that felt weird, all the keys beautifully white and (very confusingly!) identical. I was high up on a stage. On the floor of the hall (Balham Town Hall) were some strangers sitting at a table watching me. The JUDGES.
To this day I have no idea how good or bad I was, and no recollection of what my father or my music teacher thought of my performance, but since I failed it I’m guessing I wasn’t being marked down as a future Chopin or Rachmaninov. I never took another piano exam in my life and mostly stopped playing although I did love to tinker on it from time to time when no one was around.
So here’s the dog training lesson I (many years later with the wisdom of hindsight and adulthood) took from that experience. It doesn’t matter how well you (or the dog) ‘know’ something – if you don’t generalise that learning, habituate to an environment and don’t practice it under varying conditions the learning WILL almost certainly fail at some point. If you know that skill inside out, have it so familiar to you so you can almost do it on your sleep, it may stand up to more challenging conditions, but all too often, for various reasons, we put that learning under too much pressure too soon and so it becomes vulnerable to failure. As a little girl I was put on a stage, with an unfamiliar piano, being watched by complete strangers, under test conditions, being expected to reproduce ‘Study in D minor’ by Thomas Dunhill, without any of those factors having been taken into account first. Had I but known it, I was doomed before I even set foot in that hall.
I hadn’t forgotten the piece of music I had practiced for the exam. I could still play it when I got home (and could for years afterwards). But at Balham Town Hall, on that day, I couldn’t. I wasn’t being stubborn, or ‘difficult’. I wasn’t playing it badly to spite anyone. I wasn’t “choosing” not to do as I was asked. I wasn’t being disobedient. I simply hadn’t been prepared for the conditions I was being expected to perform under. I was totally undertrained. My brain couldn’t handle all the different stimuli being thrown at me,
When people take their ‘trained’ dog to a dog show, to compete in perhaps obedience, or the breed ring, or agility, consider what are often common excuses they give for their dog messing up. He’s “stubborn”, or he “knows it really, he’s just being difficult”. He doesn’t like shows. He’s a bit ‘off’ today. He…anything and everything other than he was simply not prepared or trained well enough to ‘perform’ those behaviours, under the conditions he was confronted with.
So when your dog loses concentration, doesn’t do as he is told, messes up – consider – have you prepared him well enough? Before blaming him, check you have completed your part of the job of training by preparing him for those conditions. I often wonder what path my musical career might have taken me on, had I smashed Study in D minor at Balham Town Hall on that day instead of the ignominious failure it became.