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  • Writer's pictureMeg Richardson

Does my dog have a behaviour problem or a training problem?

Dog behaviour and training issues can cause a real challenge for owners. Trying to deal with the issues alone isn't always easy, which is why it's beneficial to hire an expert for help.


Dog behaviour problems and dog training problems are different categories when considering behavioural challenges we face with our dogs, but what’s the difference? It’s important to identify whether the issue you’re facing with your dog is a training or behaviour problem. This is because the type of professional you seek advice from, and the way you manage and treat the issue will be different.



What is a training problem?


Training problems occur when a dog displays certain normal behaviours that owners may find challenging. These behaviours often occur due to a lack of appropriate training, mis-communication between owner and dog, or appropriate boundaries not being put in place.


Examples of training problems include:


  • Pulling on the lead 

  • Poor recall

  • Jumping up

  • Not performing behaviours when asked

  • House-training issues

  • Stealing items / reluctance to drop items when asked

  • No or little understanding of cues (such as ‘sit’, ‘lie down’, ‘off’, ‘leave it’, ‘drop’, ‘stay’, ‘on your bed’)




Training issues (or a lack of training) usually occurs when the dog has not received enough appropriate training — for example, they may not understand what we are asking them to do.


Training issues relate to behaviours that we can teach our dogs to perform. Training issues are normal behaviours that are natural for a dog to perform (such as jumping up in excitement or running off in the park to explore).


Dogs with training issues require support from a dog trainer (or dog training instructor) rather than a behaviourist (although many behaviourists also provide training services). Dog trainers can also help owners with some management issues (such as digging, destructive behaviour due to boredom, teaching dogs to be more patient), and they can help provide owners with socialisation advice for puppies — to prevent behaviour problems from developing in future.


 Dog trainers can either provide support on a 1-2-1 basis, or in a group setting; they are usually popular with puppy owners to demonstrate how to train puppies behaviours (such as ‘sit’, ‘down’, recall and loose lead walking) and to provide socialisation advice.




Signs of a good and bad dog trainer:


Good:

  • Uses evidence and reward-based methods (such as positive reinforcement)

  • Does not make promises to fix or cure your dog’s issues

  • Does not provide advice for behaviour concerns (if they are only qualified to be a dog trainer)

  • Refers clients to Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CABs / CCABs) for a dog's behaviour problems


Bad:

  • Provides advice for behaviour concerns, without working on veterinary referral or having the appropriate training, qualifications or accreditations

  • Uses outdated and cruel training methods, such as prong collars, shock collars, water sprays, hitting, shouting or tugging

  • Tells you that you need to dominate your dog (this is an outdated myth!)

  • Makes you feel judged and unsupported

  • Make promises that they will be able to fix or cure your dog’s training issues





What is a behaviour problem?


Behaviour problems can appear to be similar to training problems, but usually suggest the dog’s welfare is compromised (due to underlying negative emotions and heightened stress levels), or they are demonstrating normal or abnormal behaviour that concerns the owner.


Examples of behaviour problems include:


  • Repetitive or abnormal behaviour, like spinning or chewing themselves more than expected

  • Aggression (such as growling or biting)

  • Barking/lunging/growling at triggers (such as people, dogs or cars)

  • Fears, anxieties and phobias (e.g. fearful of noises)

  • Problems between household dogs (e.g. fighting)

  • Resource guarding

  • Reluctance to be handled or groomed


Behaviour problems need to be identified and treated in a different way to training problems. This is because pain or medical factors can often cause dogs to display behaviour concerns (such as aggression), and so veterinary referral is extremely important in order to rule out potential medical factors first. 


Once pain and medical factors have been dealt with and ruled out, the behaviourist can then make a behaviour assessment. In order to do this, the behaviourist needs to ask the dog’s owner lots of questions about the dog, their background, their environment, when the behaviours occur etc. The behaviourist also needs to assess the dog’s daily routine and their owner’s circumstances in order to assess which treatment measures will be most appropriate. The behaviourist then discusses different options to manage and treat the dog’s behaviour concerns with the owner. 


Unlike dog training sessions, behaviourists usually work by providing behaviour consultations (usually between 1-3 hours in length), followed by a written behaviour modification plan. This is usually held at the client’s home or at a clinic. Many behaviourists also provide follow-up sessions, continued remote support, and other informative resources like handouts and videos. Behaviourists also keep the referring vet informed, and may liaise with them about any medical factors involved in the case.




Signs of a good and bad dog behaviourist:


Good:

  • Uses evidence and reward-based methods

  • Does not make promises to fix or cure your dog’s behaviour issues

  • Does not diagnose medical conditions in your dog (this is the role of the vet)

  • Only works within their professional competencies (e.g. refers to vet behaviourists where cases involve complex medical factors)

  • Is accredited as a Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB), Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB) or is working towards accreditation


Bad:

  • Provides advice for behaviour concerns, without working on veterinary referral or having the appropriate training, qualifications or accreditations

  • Uses outdated and cruel training methods, such as prong collars, shock collars, water sprays, hitting, shouting or tugging

  • Tells you that you need to dominate your dog (this is an outdated myth!)

  • Makes you feel judged and unsupported

  • Make promises that they will be able to fix or cure your dog’s behaviour issues.





How to find a suitable behaviourist or trainer?


Unfortunately, the dog behaviour and training industry is unregulated. This means that anyone can call themselves a trainer or behaviourist, no matter what their experience or qualifications are, and no matter what training methods they use. This is concerning! This means it can be difficult to know who to trust and where to turn to for advice.


The Animal Behaviour and Training Council sets and maintains standards of knowledge and practical skills needed to be an animal trainer, training instructor or animal behaviour therapist and maintains the national Register of appropriately assessed practitioners. You can find practitioners who are Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CABs) and Animal Training Instructors (ATIs) on the ABTC practitioner directory.


CCAB Certification Ltd. is another organisation that assesses behaviourists. Independent assessment by CCAB Certification provides assurance to veterinary professionals, pet owners, and animal caregivers, that a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB) has the knowledge and experience to perform their role safely, professionally, and to a very high standard.


In short, if you are looking for a behaviourist, then choose someone who is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB) or Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB). If you are looking for a dog trainer, then look for someone who is a registered Animal Training Instructor (ATI).


About the author




Megan Richardson is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB) and Animal Training Instructor with the Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC). Megan is also a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).


Megan runs Pro-Positive Pet Behaviour, providing behaviour and training services for owners of dogs in Staffordshire and surrounding areas. Find out more here.



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