Oh, Behave! Finding Professional Help for Pet Behavior Problems

By Ruthanne Johnson

By the time Victoria Swana returned home from a morning run last June, a minor catastrophe had struck. Wood shards covered the kitchen floor by the door to the garage, and her shar-pei was lying on the doormat, licking her bloody paws.

Swana rushed to Ladybug’s side to assess the damage. The 7-year-old pooch had scratched the door so hard that she had almost dug out her nail beds.

After cleaning Ladybug’s wounds, Swana left for a meeting. “I thought this was just a freak thing, but when I got back, same show,” says the Easthampton, Mass., lawyer. And another episode came later that week. “So we went from leaving her alone with no problem to ‘my dog has freaked out overnight.’ ”

As pet owners know, animal behavior can be confounding. There are dogs who bark incessantly, cats who hide, and unruly hounds who jump on people. There are biters, compulsive self-groomers, house soilers, and pets who panic when left alone. While some behaviors are merely annoying, others can impact the animals’—and their owners’—quality of life.

Sadly, many people simply banish their troubled companion to the backyard or surrender him to a shelter. But most behavior problems are solvable, says Adam Goldfarb, director of The HSUS’s Pets at Risk program, and that’s where the experts come in.

In recent years, the pet behavior modification business has steadily grown, and people with a variety of academic backgrounds and training have found careers in the field. Because credentials vary, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about which type of expert can resolve your pet’s problem. For basic manners, a reputable trainer can likely help. More serious or mysterious behavior issues might warrant a visit to a veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist.

For most problem behaviors, you should first take your pet for a complete veterinary exam. “Pain is a powerful stressor,” says associate certified applied animal behaviorist Heather Mohan-Gibbons of Ojai, Calif. “So if [I see] something like compulsive licking or sudden aggression, right away I’m thinking medical problem.”

After Swana’s veterinarian cleared Ladybug of any health problems, he referred the pooch to the nearby Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, where veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman diagnosed the dog with noise phobia—likely the result of new construction in her neighborhood. Swana left with anxiety medication and instructions for creating a doggie haven where Ladybug could retreat from loud sounds. In time, Ladybug was back to normal.

Of course, not everyone lives near an animal behavior clinic, but qualified experts can be found in most regions. Veterinarians and pet-loving friends are good resources for recommendations. When screening potential experts, ask about experience treating similar issues, check references and resumés, and “be very wary of anyone who is quick to mention shock collars, choke chains, and the outdated training methods that stress alpha roles, domination, and pack mentality,” says Goldfarb.

Keep in mind that “trainer,” “pet counselor,” “behavior consultant,” and similar generic titles aren’t regulated and don’t guarantee a certain level of competence. Understanding the differences among animal behavior professionals can help you make an informed choice.

Who’s got cred? A guide to behaviorists, consultants, and trainers »

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