Confessions of an Animal Behavior Trainer

job interview It's always different and always the same, the life of an animal behavior consultant. Life as an animal behavior trainer is rewarding, tiring and more akin to family therapy than pet training.

They call me an animal behavior trainer or simply "the dog shrink," but my real students are people. If I can get the humans trained well, then the animals almost always fall in line easily.

Animal behavior training

Since there are no particular licensing requirements for jobs in animal training, the title of animal behavior trainer can apply to many things: working with sea mammals, training animals for movies, working with service dogs or working with pets. My name is AJ and I recently turned 55. I've worked with pet behavior problems and training for 30 years, primarily with dogs and their owners.

As a behavioral trainer for pets, my job is showing people how to prevent behavior problems, and helping to resolve behavior problems that have already begun. I may use obedience training or even a few tricks, but my primary concern is correcting behavior problems, such as aggression, separation anxiety, jumping on people or inappropriate elimination.

It requires long as well as atypical hours, since people usually have time for pet issues on weekends or evenings. Sometimes the work can be physically demanding, but also emotionally draining. Dealing with family dynamics and human needs, thoughts and feelings can leave you feeling as if you are doing group or family therapy instead of pet behavior training.

This is not the job for everyone. Just loving animals is not enough. You must be willing and able to listen to people carefully, translate the pet's language for them and mediate among the family members, including the pet. It's a rewarding job if you love animals AND people, and have a keen interest in understanding their behavior.

Teaching families

One particular family that I'll always remember had a little Chihuahua mix and needed my help. The little dog was growling, snapping and wreaking havoc on the whole family. He was often aggressive to family members, but very friendly and affectionate at other time -- as long as it was on his terms. "Tommy" just didn't like being told what to do. If he didn't want to be bothered, he'd bite. The family consisted of a young woman, June, her mother Gabby, and her elderly aunt and uncle, Sheila and Vern. They lived in a beautiful country setting, with plenty of space for an active dog. Tommy was well cared for and well loved ... and perhaps that was part of the problem.

The first time I saw this family it was clear that Tommy felt he was king of the home. I designed a program to help the family develop a healthy relationship with Tommy, and save him from his doggie delinquency. June, who had called me, followed the program closely. Her mother tried to follow the program, which required work or compliance from Tommy before he received any treats or cuddling. Quickly, Gabby felt sorry for him and stopped. There was nothing harsh about this program at all. Tommy had to sit or perform some other activity in order to earn his treats and attention. He was not allowed to take over the bed or other furniture and growl when family members got near. And he was given structured play time and massage therapy as well.

There was no yelling and no hitting; no punishment at all. But the mother felt sorry for him anyway. Sheila and Vern were adamant from the start that they would not follow the program because they loved Tommy and were afraid he wouldn't love them. Nothing could change their minds, so I decided to show them the good results of discipline after June worked with Tommy for a few weeks. They loved this dog so much that I was sure they would get with the program once they saw that Tommy still loved June, even after she implemented the behavior program. She got excellent results quickly because Tommy didn't really want to be the boss, his attitude seemed to be, "it's a dirty job but someone has to do it," as I believe John Wayne used to say.

After only a week or two of the behavior program, Tommy followed June around constantly, practically hanging on her every word. He did whatever she told him to do without hesitation, and even learned some new tricks and commands. When she left for work, he watched from the window, longingly. When it was time for her to return from work, he left the others and waited by the window for her. It was clear he adored her.

Armed with this dramatic change in behavior, I attempted again to persuade Sheila, Vern and Gabby to follow the program. Things were getting worse for them, because, being older, their skin was thin and fragile and the dog was bruising and cutting their hands and arms. In addition, they saw the way Tommy was behaving with June, and honestly, they were jealous. They agreed to give it a try. I returned a week later to find that Tommy continued to do well with June. Her mother was trying, and Tommy was improving with her but she often caved in and let Tommy have his way. The elderly couple had decided not to try the program after all. Their reason? They were afraid Tommy would not love them if they enforced any rules on him, despite the clear adoration he showed for June.

The results in this case were particularly dramatic because Tommy was a smart, loving dog, and because the family was divided along clear lines regarding whether they would follow the guidelines or not. The family continued along these same divisive lines for several weeks, until Tommy and June no longer needed my help. We were never able to persuade Sheila and Vern to follow suit, even though they felt very hurt that Tommy seemed to love June more even though they were nicer to him. It's always true that training the people is most of the work, but in this case that fact was unmistakable.

Rewarding work

Another family I worked with was a married couple with two children in primary school as well as a toddler at home. They had a basset hound that was so out of control they finally had to keep him chained to his dog house in the back yard. The family was upset because they wanted the dog to live in the house, play with the children, take walks with them and be a part of the family. But Bennie was wild, about 8 months old, and dragged even Mike, the father, down the street. In the house or yard, Bennie hurt the children with his jumping and nipping. He was trying to play, but was far too rough. Mealtimes were a nightmare as Bennie begged, pleaded and even jumped onto the table to get at the family's food. He chewed things all over the house.

This story had a happy ending because these parents were dedicated. They really wanted to learn, and they really wanted to have a dog. They were a bit scared when I instructed them to bring Bennie back into the house, but we worked out ways to protect the home and kids. We set limits for Bennie, and I showed the parents how to teach him. I told them to expect a rough road for the next few months, because Bennie had already had eight months of learning his inappropriate behaviors, so he wouldn't unlearn them overnight.

But little did I know the joys of working with a committed family who followed through on everything! I came back in just one week, and the family was thrilled! Bennie was already like a new dog. They still had a ways to go, especially with walking on leash, but Bennie was already learning to stay in his spot for family meals, to receive attention without jumping and biting and to play with his own toys instead of household items. The family was learning how to play appropriately with Bennie, and Bennie was following their lead. The dog house was forever a thing of the past. It's not common to see that kind of change practically overnight, even with very motivated families, but it shows what can happen with a dedicated family that applies the proper knowledge to the handling of their pet.

How to become an animal behavior trainer

If you think you'd like to be an animal behavior trainer, there are different routes to take. Traditionally, dog trainers learn by doing. They watch experienced trainers, apprentice with trainers, kennels, groomers and veterinarians, and study on their own. That was my route -- my best teacher was a border collie named Flossy. She trained me in a matter of days, and got me interested in studying dog behavior. But nowadays, more people get started by going to a dog training school or even by taking college courses. These only teach dog training (so far).

There is no licensing requirement, and so anyone can call themselves a trainer, a behaviorist or give themselves any number of similar titles. There are lots of training schools that offer certification, but those certificates are simply given by the school, to graduates of the school, and so have value only in the fact that many people won't realize it's not a real certification from a national organization or a government agency. Many people who are more interested in behavior than in obedience training take psychology and animal science in college.

The real authority in matters of animal behavior is the veterinary behaviorist. This is someone with a degree in veterinary medicine and credentials in animal behavior science, certified by the Animal Behavior Society. If I were starting today, instead of over 30 years ago, veterinary behaviorist would be my choice.

Tips for finding a trainer

Need a behavior trainer for your pet? Do some research before hiring someone. As I said, anyone can call themselves a trainer. There are many different methods and many combinations of methods. Check references, talk to the person in detail about his methods, and ask to watch a class or session. If they practice a negative system, with punishment, yelling or physical aggression, find someone else. For while that kind of trainer can show you all kinds of proof that his methods are correct, and will often get results (because that kind of method has been used for decades), these are outdated methods that often backfire. Don't allow them access to your pet.

A person who does obedience training classes may or may not be qualified to help with a behavior problem, so you'd have to interview the person in detail to be sure. Any behavior problem, including aggression, can be resolved with appropriate positive, non-confrontational methods. A very small percent of behavior problems cannot be resolved, or require medical intervention. These are not common, and only a certified veterinary behaviorist is qualified to diagnose them.

Tips for preventing behavior problems
  • Don't treat your pet as if it is human. Learn about the behavior (psychology) of your pet and treat it accordingly.
  • Timing is critical. Learn all you can about the timing of rewards and interventions.
  • Give appropriate exercise and mental stimulation for your pet.
  • Be consistent in the manner in which you give out both punishments and rewards.

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