For many people ‘trainer’ and ‘behaviourist’ are synonymous. As a dog trainer and dog behaviourist, with many years of experience, I am well aware of the differences between the two jobs. When you experience difficulties with your dog, the natural response is to seek a dog trainer. The difficulty is that, depending on the nature of the issue, a trainer may not be the right person to help you and your faithful hound.
A dog trainer is a skilled expert who can help you teach your dog a wide range of tasks and commands. From simple items like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’, to more complicated tricks like doggy moonwalking, leg weaving, and fetching your slippers. If you are struggling to teach your dog to obey your commands, or learn new tricks, the issue you have boils down to one of obedience. While dog training is about far more than simply teaching your dog new tricks , obedience is still at the core of training.
A dog trainer’s forte is teaching your dog to obey.
A dog behaviourist is an expert in behavioural issues that run far deeper than the relatively simple inability to sit, stay, or get down when told. These issues include emotional problems your pup may be experiencing, such as separation anxiety, aggression, and even self-harm. They also include psychological issue such as the instinctual desire to chase livestock, destructive behaviours, and predation (treating other animals like prey; essentially hunting). A dog behaviourist will consider any underlying medical conditions your dog may have, which could be causing unusual behaviours, such as obsessive behaviour and chasing their tail.
Just as humans seek therapy when they are experiencing emotional or psychological trauma, or behavioural unrest, so too does your canine companion need a little extra help on occasion. A dog behaviourist looks at the deeper emotional/psychological issues faced by your dog.
A dog behaviourist’s forte is figuring out what makes your dog tick.
Naturally there is some overlap. Say your dog has a problem with excessive barking while out on walks. The cause could be emotional - the dog is feeling something, which is causing her to bark - or it could be an obedience issue - she likes to bark and ignores you when she’s told to stop. The former would require a dog behaviourist, the latter a trainer.
As an owner, your first port of call to stop a dog barking would likely be to take her to a training class. In the class there are lots of other dogs, and your dog is barking at them as she does while out on walks. The trainer shows you how to distract your dog with treats and toys, keeping her occupied so she stops barking.
You go home pleased; the problem appears to be solved.
But the underlying issue hasn’t actually been addressed. Training and treats might keep her from barking, but if the issue goes beyond obedience they aren’t actually helping her. At best, they are keeping her from learning how to interact with other dogs in a calm and healthy manner. At worst, they are actually reinforcing her belief that being among other dogs is something to be anxious about.
The goal should not be to stop her barking. The goal should be to help her feel secure enough that she no longer needs to bark.
If you took your dog to a behaviourist, he would talk through your dog’s history, evaluate her motives and emotional state, and puzzle out the root cause of the barking. He would also look at what might be reinforcing this behaviour. Once that was determined, he would create an environment that promoted learning and put together a focused plan that ensured your dog was gradually introduced to other dogs, allowing her to slowly learn self-control, and feel safe and happy interacting with other dogs.
Dog trainers tend to have a lot of experience at teaching dogs obedience, but little experience when it comes to understanding dog psychology and behaviour. The real trouble occurs when trainers are unaware of their own limitations, and try to help a dog through training, who actually needs counselling.
A trainer may also believe they are only using positive reinforcement in their methods, but due to a lack of understand of the psychology involved, they are actually punishing some of the dogs they train without ever realising it.
The main difference between a dog trainer and a dog behaviourist is knowledge. A behaviourist must hold, at the minimum, a Bachelor’s degree. A trainer does not require a degree. A behaviourist has a deep understanding of the a dog’s ethology, psychology, emotions, and neuroscience. A trainer may have some knowledge of this, but it’s not necessary for their work, so the majority know little if anything about it. A behaviourist is a body language expert; they can read your dog’s feeling and predict their actions based on nothing more than their stance and the cant of their ears.
In short, a dog trainer knows enough to teach your dog to obey our language. A dog behaviourist speaks your dog’s language and gives her a therapy session.
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