There are a number of definitions and qualifications for canine behavior consultants. The reality is this, there is no official qualification in the US or in NZ/AUS. Anyone who thinks they know something can call themselves whatever they want. So as a professional (vs hobbyist/self taught trainer) we try to find certifications that show that we have proved to a group of our peers that we have a extensive understanding of of canine behavior, learning theory, and problem solving skills. There are numerous ways and different associations that support these certifications. And each trainer/behaviourist/or consultant you meet will have a different set of qualifications.
These associations not only provide educational support to their members, they usually provide a certification process. These certification programs vary but can involve an exam or series of essays and case studies you must submit for peer approval. Many of these various associations will accept certifications from other well know associations so you don’t have to recertify if you want to be a certified member of more than one.
There are also a huge number of books on the various canine subjects that are well worth reading. I do book reviews of many of the books I am reading on my blog and so if you are interested in finding out more about these, that is a good place to start.
Then you will find the differences in what people call themselves based on how they train.
-Behaviourists are usually based on a Skinner philosophy that hold very strictly to the idea that behaviors must be observable and “discounts any independent activities of the mind”. In reality many trainers who use the term “behaviourist/behaviourism” do not realise that is has no association with canine psychology, so they usually have a little of that thrown into their training paradigm.
-Most obedience instructors use learning theory and I have found that although they can train a dog to do almost anything, they will have a hard time explaining “how” they got the dog to do it! They usually site a training method like “dominance theory”, or “positive reinforcement” to explain what they are doing. But if you ask them to explain the principals of their training you will get a huge variety of responses, some quite reasonable and some so far out in imagination land that they are laughable, (I once heard a obedience instructor tell his class in all seriousness that you shouldn’t bow to your dog or he will think he is “King”). In what universe do dogs, live in and understand monarchies?
An Ethologist is someone who observes behavior and tries to understand why the behavior is happening, usually based on how an animal behaves in its natural environment. As a consultant who considers herself a canine ethologist, I would observe the dog and listen to my clients observations of their dog’s behavior, then formulate their training plan based on these observations. A training plan would include reasons for these behaviors based on their instincts, environment, previous experiences, and on the dog’s observable temperament. Observable temperament is what a dog is likely to do in any given situation. Then I would find some possible alternate behaviors, using the laws of learning, and change the dog’s motivation in that situation. This involves teaching new behavior patterns and alternate acceptable behaviors in the form of basic or advanced obedience cues put on automatic.
The cues themselves are unimportant, except for the fact that they build confidence in the subject (the dog), that their trainer (the owner) is reliable, calm and confident. They teach the dog how to learn to learn, enjoy learning, and teach the dog’s caregiver how to change the dogs motivation in a situation where teaching an alternate behavior is simply not enough.
Although these training styles differ, I am sure you have noticed that they are also all linked. You hardly ever meet a behaviourist with no understanding of dog psychology or how to teach an obedience cue. You will be hard pressed to find a obedience instructor who doesn’t teach a little behaviourism, and an ethologist must have a good working understanding of the psychology of their chosen species, as well as a clear understanding of the laws of learning in order to explain/solve any behavior problem.
You will still find the occasional “trainer” with little or no experience in any of these fields, so buyer beware. Do a little research yourself, ask a lot of questions and if you are unhappy with, or don’t understand the answers then look somewhere else!