By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
It's natural for pet parents to be concerned about the various aspects of our four-legged family members' well-being. We want to know if they're too heavy or too skinny; if their poop is supposed to look like that; if they need more exercise; how much water they should drink... the list goes on.
One grey area for dog owners is the distinction between solving training problems and solving behavior problems. They may sound similar, but there are different approaches and resources for each of these concerns. Choosing the best professional for your dog's needs can save you a lot of time and money.
In this article, we'll explore the difference between dog trainers and dog behaviorists so you can make an informed decision to get the results you are looking for.
All About Dog Trainers
Dog trainers are dog teachers. They teach dogs new skills, like following cues (or "commands"), including sit, down, stay, and heel; they can even help with potty training. Standard training techniques include luring, shaping, reinforcement, and/or clicker training (a popular form of reward-based training).
What Does a Dog Trainer Do?
Dog trainers offer various services, such as group obedience classes, puppy training, Canine Good Citizen training, socialization skills, agility, advanced obedience skills, protection work, therapy work, and service dog work. Certified dog trainers are well-equipped to teach dogs a plethora of valuable skills.
Dog trainers can work directly with the dog, such as through board and train programs, or directly with the pet parent through private one-on-one lessons or group classes. Reputable dog trainers teach pet parents how to continue building on the skills the trainer has introduced, which also helps prevent undesirable behaviors like hyperactivity and inappropriate chewing.
What Do Dog Trainers NOT Do?
Dog trainers cannot diagnose or treat persistent behaviors presenting safety risks, such as severe aggression or anxiety. They also do not make medical recommendations, such as specific medications or supplements, to address behavior problems.
How Much Does a Dog Trainer Cost?
Experience, reputation, type of lessons (private or group), number of sessions, equipment needed, and difficulty of skills desired are all factors that go into what a trainer will charge.
A group puppy obedience class may run anywhere from $150 to $700 per puppy for a six-week training program with once-weekly meetings. Large companies such as Petco charge less for training than private trainers since pet parents purchase more than just lessons when visiting their stores. Private trainers have to cover their business insurance and expenses, do not offer retail or medical services, and often have more experience, leading to higher fees.
Private one-on-one sessions run anywhere from $50 to $300 per lesson, depending on the same factors previously listed.
Many private dog trainers offer Board and Train programs to help jump-start obedience skills or work through an obedience challenge. The cost, on average, runs between $2,000 and $5,000 for a typical three-week training program where your dog stays with the trainer or at a facility.
How to Locate a Reputable Dog Trainer
Choose a certified dog trainer to ensure you are in the hands of someone with knowledge and experience. The term "dog trainer" is not currently regulated, meaning anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, regardless of their experience. However, the term "certified dog trainer" is regulated.
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) has a directory full of professional dog trainers that have taken exams to ensure they're qualified and experienced.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) has a directory of LIMA Compliant certified dog trainers.
All About Dog Behaviorists
Behaviorists are dog healers. They coach families to help heal mental canine wounds that need tending to. The term behaviorist, depending on location and education level, includes a variety of specific behavior professionals, including Certified Dog Behavior Consultants, Veterinary Behaviorists, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, to name a few.
Behavior modification is the process of modifying an existing behavior into an alternative one. Behavior modification helps alter a dog's emotional response to a (usually negative) stimulus. For example, dogs with negative resource-guarding behaviors may snarl or try to bite anyone who gets near their food. With effective behavior modification, rather than using body language (or their teeth) to say, "Stay back or else!" your dog will learn to get excited each time you approach them while they eat.
What Do Dog Behaviorists Do?
Behavior professionals tackle unhealthy or undesirable behaviors. These can include aggressive behaviors like resource guarding or food aggression, separation anxiety, stranger-danger aggression, thunderstorm and firework phobias, obsessive behaviors, and unexpected acute behaviors like urinating or defecating in the home when having been house-trained for years.
Behavior professionals typically use a lot of enrichment and focus on coaching canine communication with dog owners. Many behavior problems stem from an inter-species communication breakdown, leading to an unmet need.
What Do Dog Behaviorists NOT Do?
Dog behaviorists do not usually work on overly basic or advanced obedience training or specific skill training beyond the scope of a particular behavior modification case. Behavior professionals who are not Veterinary Behaviorists do not prescribe or recommend specific medications or supplements to treat behavior problems.
Veterinary behaviorists do not typically perform other veterinary services like vaccinations, spay and neuter surgeries, and other healthy-pet-related services.
How Much Does a Dog Behaviorist Cost?
An initial consultation may run anywhere from $75 to $350 for a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. Depending on the number of sessions required, behavior modification programs may cost anywhere from $1,600 to $6,000. While many behavior professionals offer virtual services, travel is often factored into the cost. This allows the behaviorist to work from the environment where the problem occurs.
Veterinary Behaviorist Consultations can run anywhere from $185 for vet-to-vet consults (meaning they communicate with your vet about a plan and prescriptions rather than you directly) up to $700 for an initial in-person consultation. In-person follow-up sessions generally cost between $150 and $350.
How to Find a Reputable Dog Behaviorist
The Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) directory connects you with board-certified veterinary behaviorists with expertise in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment related to pet behavior problems.
The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) has a complete directory of Certified Behavior Consultants.
So, Do You Need a Dog Trainer or a Dog Behaviorist?
If you are still trying to decide whether a dog trainer or a behaviorist is the right fit, start with the problem. Is the problem that your dog can't (or doesn't) reliably follow cues? If so, a positive reinforcement-based trainer can help you with this. If you have a new puppy and want to attend group training classes for social exposure or wish to have your dog trained as a therapy dog, a certified dog trainer is also a great fit.
If the problem is related to aggression, anxiety, obsessive compulsion, or unexplained behaviors like air-snapping or excessive grooming, a behavior professional, such as a veterinary behaviorist or a certified dog behavior consultant, is generally better equipped to help.
Some dog trainers are well-versed in niche behaviors, such as helping dogs with leash reactivity or social integration of a fearful dog with other dogs, just as some behavior consultants will lead foundational group training puppy classes from time to time. While not the norm, the overlap in skills and interests between behavior and training is worth mentioning.
When Your Dog Needs a Team
Training, behavior, and veterinary care intertwine and are relevant to one another, especially when it comes to dog behavior. Hence, when concern about a dog's behavior is severe, a pet parent may want or choose to work with all three professionals. If this sounds like your dog, don't fret - lots of dogs have a team and have very successful outcomes as a result. Sometimes, it takes a village (and a variety of training methods) to raise a pup, and there’s no shame in using all the available resources to help your dog live their best life.
Reputable dog trainers, behaviorists, and veterinarians are used to collaborating; they can be a highly productive behavior problem-solving machine for your furry family member.
The Bottom Line on Behavior (and Training)
Dogs who are disobedient, act out aggressively, or exhibit other behavior issues that people don't like, are not doing so out of spite. Be patient, and remember that your pup may not understand that what they are doing is "wrong."
Having the help of a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist can be instrumental in learning how to understand the source of these behaviors and why your dog is exhibiting them. Dog professionals can be invaluable in bridging the communication gap between human and canine family members for a more fulfilled and happy life together.