Why I Recommend A Veterinary Behaviorist NOT a Dog Trainer

Thanks to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist for the Photo and Logo THIS is what to look for online!

Thanks to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist for the Photo and Logo THIS is what to look for online!

I get a lot of aggression questions.

I suppose that is because there are a lot of dogs that have aggression issues and sometimes we even create aggression in our dogs by over correcting them, beating them, or even just spoiling them (yes spoiling them can create just as big a monster).

But over the internet it is impossible for me to see the behavior and all the dynamics of what is going on in the dog’s environment.  Even video doesn’t do the justice to training that I need.

Aggression requires usually hours of consultation, and history, and seeing the dog in his environment and/or when he is aggressive and usually demands numerous sessions.

Just getting an initial consult can take an hour or more.

And, only then can a behaviorist get an idea if it is even safe to see the behavior in question.

No one wants to put another person or animal at risk just to witness the behavior, if the dog is dangerous.

Whereas I am comfortable giving limited advice on some forms of aggression (dog aggression or possession aggression), it is often dangerous to give specific advice for a dog that I haven’t seen.

The advice I give one client and dog could get another client and dog bitten; because dogs, like humans are individuals and require individual programs and training especially when it pertains to aggression.

Dogs can be dangerous and dogs kill humans each year.  Don’t believe me?  Google it and you will be amazed at the sizes, ages and breeds and they are not always what you would think.

So when I am worried for a client over the internet (or even one in person when doing an in home consult) I recommend a veterinary behaviorist.

Why a Veterinary Behaviorist Over a Trainer?

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a well known Veterinary Behaviorist at Tufts Vet School. Thank you Tufts for the Photo

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a well known Veterinary Behaviorist at Tufts Vet School. Thank you Tufts for the Photo

Let’s tackle one at a time.

Why a Veterinary Behaviorist

Because, I can guarantee the valuable education that the veterinary behaviorist received.

You see a veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian.

Veterinary behaviorists are boar certified to treat BOTH medical and behavioral problems.

These individuals go to vet school alongside your veterinarian who sees your dog for all his regular medical care.  It takes just as long to go to vet school as it does to go to human medical school, and it cost just as much for the individual; however it is not covered by health care so veterinarians make much less money than human doctors make.

To be a vet, it is certainly a labor of love.

After the veterinary behaviorist attends the basic years of veterinary school, they choose to go from there to specializing in animal behavior and learning how animals think and how to train and work with them in the best and most concise way possible.   Because they are attending mainstream universities the education they receive is as up to date with studies and materials as possible.

A veterinary behaviorist is also more likely to understand the physical or medical problems that may be relating to behavioral problems or aggression.

Did you know that some dogs that have seizures manifest with aggressive behavior?  A veterinary behaviorist is more likely to know the signs and the causes and test for this if need be.

A veterinary behaviorist also studies medications that may help some dogs with some behaviors and they learn about the interaction of training AND medication to help with a behavior modification program.

As with any medical science they continue their education and are well versed in new studies and theories that will help with aggressive dogs.  The “What Works and What Doesn’t Work” ideals.

Your average veterinarian may not be well versed in the science of animal learning theories and how best to help a severely aggressive dog, but a veterinary behaviorist goes to school to help clients like this with their dogs.

They also sometimes provide legal consultations and due to their education provide media inquiries.

Why Not Just Use a Dog Trainer or Someone Who Calls Themselves a Behaviorist?

Thanks Petfinder for the Photo

Thanks Petfinder for the Photo

Simply put, because for most trainers you can’t prove their educational knowledge and experience because they didn't attend main stream universities.  Even the biggest names in dog training and certification Karen Pryer, Michael Ellis, Tom Rose don't train out of universities or have prerequisites or anything similar to the test a veterinarian must take to be licensed.

That is not to say that all dog trainers can’t help a dog with aggression issues (I am not a veterinarian but I have had a very successful career helping aggressive dogs) but it is much tougher to find and much riskier.  I recognize I am limiting myself by my lack of education in veterinary school, and yet I feel that it is safer for you and your dog when dealing with aggression.

For instance, I saw not long ago an advertised internet program that would certify you as a dog trainer after an hour.  There is no way to ensure knowledge and training without hands on experience and basic knowledge of how animals learn.

Being a dog trainer isn’t as easy as it sounds, there is a lot of information to know and take in and it requires years of hands on work to get experience and it is imperative to continue your education.

Not everyone has the knowledge or patience to work with dogs AND their people.

To find a trainer who can help you after your visit to the veterinary behaviorist I recommend visiting The Association of Professional Dog Trainers their certified trainers must prove they have been training, pass an extensive test and sign an ethics clause.

Beware of Those that Call Themselves "Behaviorists"

Beware of those that call themselves "behaviorists", behavioral specialists, behavioral consultants, or even a veterinary behavior technician (this is like letting a vet tech do surgery on your dog) they are NOT the same without a veterinary degree!

How Can They Do That?

Because there is no law that says you have to do anything specific or pass any test to be a dog trainer or even call yourself a dog behaviorist.

So you could be talking to someone on the phone who has handled as few as 0-3 dogs but can still call themselves a dog trainer or even a behaviorist.  There is no law that says that they can’t.

Even Those of Us Who Are Experienced

Even those of us who are experienced, you have no idea how we learned or the last time we updated our techniques.  Just like any science the science of dogs and behavior and knowledge is always changing.

You want to know that the trainer that comes to your home (even with 40 years experience) isn’t stuck in the 70’s with their dog training knowledge and techniques.

And let me tell you, people know how to “fluff you” or lie to you on the phone.  People will tell you what you want to hear and then you give them access to your dog and your family.


This is why I stick with board certified veterinary behaviorist.  I can almost guarantee that their knowledge is ever changing and they are much less likely to put you and your family at risk by using outdated and dangerous techniques.

Isn’t It Expensive?

Thanks NY Daily News for the Photo

Thanks NY Daily News for the Photo

YES!  Yes, it probably is expensive.  But usually it is for a few initial visits and then you can go on to find a dog trainer you trust to help you with your behavior modification program.

Even the dogs that I have referred personally in my career; they see the specialist (get on medication if warranted) and then come back to seeing me to help them institute their program.

Dogs are an investment!

Your family is an investment!

If your dog bites someone you could lose everything you own, which is WAY more expensive than a visit with a board certified veterinary behaviorist.

If you are dealing with aggression do yourself a favor, call your vet or search online, or call your nearest vet school for a referral to a behaviorist or click here to find a Board Certified Vet associated with the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.  I bet you won’t be disappointed.


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  1. Ashe says:

    Hey I just found out that dogs can get hypothyroidism, just like us humans, and it may be one of the reasons for the poor behaviour our dogs sometimes have. So the dog may not need retraining but medication. If your dog has skin problems, weight gain for no reason, lethargy and behavioural changes, talk to your vet about getting the blood tests done.


    Minette Reply:

    This is why you go to a Veterinary Behaviorist, they can do both


    Sandy Reply:

    I should have read all of the comments first. I just wrote a comment about my experience with one of my dogs having this problem.


  2. Jenna says:

    While I definitely agree with many of your points regarding the risky nature of seeking assistance from uneducated and inexperienced trainers/behaviourists, I have a lot of questions regarding the education that a Veterinary Behaviourist receives and the techniques they use – and why.

    We can all pretty much agree that no one technique will work for every dog, and I fear that if veterinary behaviourists are all educated in roughly the same manner, there would be a severe lack of variety to their methods and ideas when dealing with dogs.

    Lets not even get into the discussion of holistic nutrition, but suffice to say that the vast majority of vets are not well versed in the alternatives to feeding low-cost grain-filled kibbles. Why? Because vet school programs are endorsed by companies like Royal Canin and Science Diet. Vet programs are biased and one-sided and I’d trust vets a lot more if they were better educated on ALL aspects of nutrition.

    It’s clear to me that the financial support provided to the majority of vet programs has a direct impact on the nutrition-related knowledge available to vet students; therefore I wonder if it would be the same with vet behaviourists? Who endorses their dog behaviour programs? What are the companies motives and ethics?

    When it comes to nutrition, the motives behind kibble companies like Science Diet/Royal Canin are obvious when you do the research: low cost ingredients (such as corn, that has little benefit to carnivores), sold in vet offices at a high price; they’re motivated by money, not the pet’s best interests (or the owners wallet for that matter). I believe it’s like handing out candy at the dentists office; give your patients what they need to keep coming back and keep you in business.

    I am skeptical of anyone who is focused on making money and frankly, if vets were PRIMARILY focused on the pet’s well being I believe we’d see lower prices at the vet office. Why would a veterinary behaviourist be any different? The research I’ve done in my area has revealed that even to have an initial hour-long consult with a certified (through any of the minor organizations teaching dog behaviour) trainer will run you $60-$100+. I can only imagine that someone who has attended vet school would be significantly higher. The one in my area that is listed on the APDT website is $150 for an initial consult. Frankly, I feel that’s just unreasonable. What if I don’t agree with the trainer’s approach or methods? What if, after our consult, he meets my dog and decides not to work with us? What if, through no fault of my own, my dog’s behaviour does not improve, or worsens with his training?

    Unfortunately my lack of faith in “professionals” has prevented me from seeking the help I need with my reactive dog. I wish there was one clear option that made sense, and that I felt was a wise investment of my money. Perhaps I’m just jaded, but I have am very skeptical of people’s motives (and frugal with my money). I’m sorry for the long post here, I just have a lot of questions behind the concept of professionally trained behaviourists and I don’t believe the dog community should blindly trust them, simply because they have a degree.


    Minette Reply:

    Have you been to vet or medical school? Do you know the financial implications involved? Do you know it is harder to get into vet school than medical school?

    Your argument about dog food companies may have been the case 30-40 years ago but is not the case now. Nutrition is taught and yes, dog food companies come to give their studies and discuss new diets but vets fund themselves through school. Most diets sold in vet hospitals are scientifically formulated to help with veterinary problems like allergies etc.

    I am happy to pay a vet for his or her training and experience and would rather that than pay a trainer $20 to do something that could screw my dog up for life.

    Behaviorists enlist in extra schooling and certification to call themselves that and are on the edge of knowing the latest information to hell your dog.

    No one can guarantee your dog’s behavior will improve, but they are more able to help you use all the tools to give it the best shot possible. You are concerned with too many “what ifs” that can’t be answered by anyone… especially those guaranteeing their training. Because if it doesn’t work they will blame you and still keep your money.

    Your dog is an investment. Would you take your child to someone off the street that had a few hours experience or would you take your sick child to a doctor who has gotten his degree. Sure there are better doctors than others but doctors have proven their commitment through years of education and training just as a behaviorist has.

    I once heard of a local trainer who called himself a behaviorist and specialized in aggressive dogs. He was a fairly small and older man who had been working with dogs for 40 years.

    If he couldn’t hold the dog up and choke him out after the dog showed aggression he had a hook up where he would strap a garage door opener to the dogs collar and use the opener to raise the dog off the ground and choke him to the point he passed out every time he showed aggression. Some people told me it worked. Others said it made the problem worse… and then a dog died in his “care” of this training because it broke his neck as he fought it.

    I can GUARANTEE a vet behaviorist is not going to do this…

    Even in my young career with a dog that was fearful and aggressive with people I went and spent the money needed to have him evaluated and put on medication so he could calm himself just long enough that I could work with him behaviorally and help him feel better about life. It only took a few months on meds to make a difference and although he never changed his personality to a human loving Lab… he did relax, stop showing blatant aggression and he never ever bit a human. I was able to learn how to control him.

    I think that many years of medical school does deserve our respect long before an average dog trainer with little to no training does (remember people can say they have been doing this forever) but without a dated degree do you believe them?


  3. Ian Polnick says:

    Dear Sir,
    My dog is a yellow Labrador retriever that is not aggressive? Anxious? High needs? Extremely fearful? Or needy? I don’t know what you exactly mean by Needy!. If you mean I have to run around pleasing him, I don’t any more then any dog! ( He is consistently taking thing that he knows I have to take away from his chewing.)

    He is however Anxious? Extremely fearful?. He has taken the first two courses for dog training, and passed, but is still acts the same. What should I do?

    I would appreciate any advice that you can give. Thank-you for your time.

    Ian Polnick


    Minette Reply:

    Sometimes it take A LOT of time. As humans we want a quick fix but anxiety can take years to get a handle on and you may never be able to conquer it.

    Could medication help? Perhaps it could.

    I ask myself all the time when I see a dog in behavioral distress… aggression, anxiety, fear if I would want to feel that way all the time or if a pill could help me feel better would I give it a try.

    The answer most often is YES and many people have lots of success with that and sometimes after a period of time (determined by your vet) it can be weaned off once the behavior is gone.


  4. Becky Poisson says:

    I believe there are techniques that trainers can use to help dogs with anxiety and fear issues. I am not a veterinarian and I do not call myself a behaviorist. But, I have vets who recommend me to their clients. I use no pharmaceuticals, only body work, wraps and groundwork (Tellington TTouch) which help reduce fear and anxiety and allow learning to take place. I would love to discuss this with you at some time, if you like. Just another ‘tool’ that a well informed and open minded trainer can utilize and teach their clients.

    I enjoy your online classes and find them informative and on point which makes them the best online classes available. I wish you every success.


    Minette Reply:

    I too am not a vet… so I know that makes it hard to understand why I would write such things 😉 but as a trainer you know the ones I am talking about. Trainers who have experience with one or two of their own dogs and now they are experts and trainers who have been doing this for 40 years who use pain, beatings, shock collars and choking dogs out.

    The nice thing about a vet behaviorist is most of the time I can put money on the fact that they aren’t going to strap a big dog to a garage door opener and hang it until it passes out (yes this is a technique I have heard of). A well educated person that knows the damage that can do isn’t going to do it PERIOD.

    So for aggression I recommend them. I am sure there are Great ones and mediocre ones but I am more confident in their skills and ability to deal with a problem without horrifying tactics.

    I too use massage etc and have worked in conjunction with vet behaviorist many times when I feel my clients need an extra edge.

    For example. I am at a sport trial (dock diving) this week and there is a dog that gets so worked up he tries to bite and rip his own skin off… he could use some meds to help him and his mom feel better about life.


  5. I have enjoyed reading listening and learning from your website .I have tried to leave messages so many times see if this works.


    Minette Reply:

    There are a lot of spam “bugs” out there that spam blogs… so I have to read and accept many of the comments 😀


  6. Kate Frey says:

    Hi Minette,
    I have a German Shepherd dog that has other dog aggression. If he sees a dog coming toward him at a distance he gets all upset, whining and barking. He is otherwise a very sweet boy, but his anxiety about other dogs is a problem as he is a big and powerful boy. Any suggestions?


    Minette Reply:

    Yes, we have an aggression course that just started last week. Contact customer service to see if you can get in still or when the next will start.

    Already (from just a week) I have people raving about seeing a huge difference in their dogs

    Send Dana an email at info@thedogtrainingsecret.com

    There are videos and calls once a week that can help


  7. Stacy Cane says:

    What about those of us who don’t live in any of these states with a certified Veterinary Behaviorist? My dog has aggression issues (with other dogs) and I saw a dog trainer, then an animal behaviorist who had my dog’s vet run a battery of tests before she would see my dog. So that may be an option for those of us who don’t have access to a certified VB.


    Minette Reply:

    I believe your dog is an investment.

    If I had a sick child and had to travel to visit a specialist in another state… I would do that. I would do the same for my dog.

    A lot of these programs and behaviorist need to see you once and then you can skype and do videos to help with your behavior modification.

    It is safer than the alternative.

    I travel hundreds of miles to vacation or do dog sports… I would travel to see a specialist too.


  8. Christine says:

    Thank you, thank you for this article. I have a dog who has fear-based aggression towards people. I talked with several trainers and trainers who called themselves behaviorists about how to deal with my dog. While some of the suggestions made sense (lots of training and rules), others just felt wrong (doing an alpha roll on a terrified dog makes no sense to me). My dog successfully passed two obedience classes, a “just tricks” class, and a reactive dog class, but he showed little improvement when around people he didn’t know. Luckily, being in academics myself, I decided to search my university’s vet center website and that is when I learned about the existence of veterinarian behaviorists. I made an appointment with the vet behaviorist and she has changed me and my dog’s life significantly. His quality of life has significantly improved with a combination of medication and proper training routines. I learned at that visit that the things some of the trainers suggested could have not only been dangerous, but also made my dog more aggressive. It took me months of searching for answers before I found a vet behaviorist and I am so thankful for all that she has done for my dog and I. The behaviorist was also able to suggest trainers in the area that work with reactive dogs using positive methods. I am glad that there are trainers that recognize when a dog needs more than just some training – mine certainly did. Thanks for acknowledging the value of veterinarian behaviorists.


    Minette Reply:

    Since I am not a vet… I have no reason to plug them above trainers… except I know and trust their education.

    There are some great trainers (like me 😉 but there are some scary trainers… your odds of finding a great veterinary behaviorist is much higher 🙂 I am glad you had success and thank you for sharing your experience.


    Sandy Reply:

    I don’t know about not being the alpha. I have a dog that was the alpha in our house. He is one of 3 dogs. He was the alpha over my husband and myself also.

    It was very frustrating. He seemed to bully the other dogs, not listen to us, over protect our house and yard (what seemed like over protecting to me anyway). He always seemed tense, also.

    I know that I did not really learn how to become the alpha from any specialist. I only read a couple of book, articles and, well…watched the Dog Whisperer, lol.

    I did a few of the non-agressive and simple ideas I gleaned from these and they worked wonderfully. Simple things like stearing him down, interfering when he seemed to be bullying, step forward and “protect” the yard and house, ect. In no time he realazed and allowed me to be the alpha.

    He became much more relaxed, playful and happier. He trusts that I am going to take care of/protect the “pack”. If he is unsure of anything, he always comes to me to let me know something is going on and waits for me to deal with it.

    Just a thought on how happy a dog is when not having that responsability, as well as how simply and gently it can be done.


  9. Pat says:

    I have two young Welsh Corgis. One is quite timid and has anxiety. For example when a stranger comes into the house he shakes, drools and tried to hide behind me, Even if I’m sitting in a chair or when I’m lying down he tries to get underneath me.

    The other Corgi is quite aggressive. I think she picks on the timid dog.

    Would a behaviorist be helpful? Should they be treated together? Thanks.


    Minette Reply:



  10. Jan says:

    Hi Minette,

    I have a sweet, adorable, 6 lb. Mi-ki. She is 3 years old. I have tried taking her on trips with me. She wouldn’t eat or drink and waited so long to urinate that she was crated at the time she couldn’t hold it any longer. I was out and about and she was in a hotel room. She won’t even eat her favorite snack in the car. She is a true home body.

    I have left her twice since September for short trips with a dog sitter. Other than defecating on the carpet, she was fine and excited to see me come home.

    Last month I went on a bit longer trip, late Sunday afternoon through late Friday night. My bi-monthly housekeeper whom my dog loves agreed to stay with her. I returned home expecting a happy, excited dog. Instead, she was making an ungodly guttural sound and bared her teeth at me when I attempted to pick her up, several times. I was in shock! I didn’t know my “little girl” had that in her! I ignored her and after 5-10 minutes she got on my bed to play in the pillows. I was then able to pick her up, but the look in her eyes didn’t return to normal until the next day.

    I am guessing that she felt 2 people who she loved and trusted let her down. She is usually only alone for 3-4 hours/day at the most. The sitter was only in the house for 3 hours per day.

    That said, I have no idea what to do with her the next time I travel. It is quite difficult to find someone to stay in the home with her and let her sleep with them, and that I know I can trust.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated. I am retired and like to take short trips every once in awhile.


  11. Minette says:

    I would make the 8 hour drive.

    I had a dog with seizures and had to make a similar drive to get him an MRI and it gave me a few more years of life with him.

    A trip to a veterinary behaviorist could save your dog’s life… so an 8 hour drive doesn’t seem like much in that instance.


  12. Kevin Krupka says:

    Reading, listening, and watching your website inform us a lot. It makes many interesting points. Thanks! It can be useful even for a dog trainer.


  13. Sandy says:

    This is a very good article and one that every dog owner should read. We have a 12 year old chihuahua that was abused for his first year before we took him in. At first we did not think we could ever reverse the emotional damage, but he turned into a wonderfully sweet dog. He still had a few quirks that never went away, like being picked up. He totally freaks out, moving around so fast you can’t even see the movements and ends up throwing himself on the floor. He loves to jump up onto our lap, though, and be pat and kissed on the head as he “hugs”.

    The past few months hew had gotten quite agressive. I thought he may be getting doggie alzhymers or something. It got pretty bad with him attacking my hand when giving him his supper bowl or opening/closing his crate. I brought him to the vet and they figured it was arthiritis and gave me some pain meds. Within 2 weeks, it became so bad that he attacked me from accross the room (thankfully he only has 1/3 of his teeth) I took him to the vet that very day. They took all kinds of blood tests and suggested a dog behaviorist, but that would take a long time. We have 2 other dogs, one of which is a dauschund. If he went after the dauschund, the dauschund would most certainly win.

    His blood tests showed that his thyroid level was in the healthy range, but on the lower side (should be between 1-3 and his was 1.6) We decided to try him on thyroid medication anyway, hoping that would help as it seemed to be the last alternative.

    It helped so much within a couple of days. He is back to his sweet self and more playful than he has been in a long time. His appitite has returned to normal (he had gotten very picky and would go a full day without eating).

    I am saying all this to say that if agression is a new behavior for an older dog, sometimes it is as simple as that. I am thankful that, though his numbers were still in the OK range, the vet was willing to try the thyroid medication anyway.

    I know you would know this already, but there may be someone who is reading the comments that may find this of interest.


  14. Trudy Haines says:

    Maine has no vetenarian behaviorists listed. What do you suggest?


    Minette Reply:

    Ask your veterinarian, there may be someone practicing that they know of that is not listed


  15. Gerry says:

    If a dog has a diagnosable issue that is contributing to unwanted or dangerous behavior that health issue needs to address to aid in the process of rehabilitating them. In these cases it is health related. These types of health issues are rarely a factor in a dogs behavior even in extreme aggression cases. It is always best to work with someone who has a proven track record and actively works with dogs and owners to rehabilitate them. The real work should happen in real life environments and situations. Drugs are not a necessary solution the vast majority of the time and should only be considered if there is a diagnosed health related issue. This mean emphatical evidence not just blanket treatment.


    Minette Reply:

    That is why I recommend a veterinarian, they can run tests and help with health problems that are aiding in behavior problems.

    However, I do disagree with your opinion that drugs are not necessary. That again is up to a vet.

    I know that many people with behavior problems, like depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and many other problems are helped by drug therapy…. why would our dogs not be helped?


  16. Nicole says:

    NEED HELP. My boyfriend and I have been dating for 6months I am over at his house alot. His Italian mastiff has tried to attack me about 7 times with the last attack sending me to the hospital he keeps attacking my hands. He is very protective and does listen to me when I have treats he is very aggressive with people he doesn’t know especially in the home


    Minette Reply:

    You need a veterinary behaviorist


  17. Jennifer says:

    I have a senior golden/collie mix who just turned 15. Aside from minor anxiety issues, he’s been a very healthy dog with great eating habits. Just this past August he started showing his age physically and our exercise regimen had to be changed up to 2 short walks a day instead of one long one. He’s been on and off of Remadyl for the last several months, but currently off of it for over a week. About 1 month ago he got a UTI and possibly a virus as well, the vet couldn’t confirm the virus. During the whole sick and healing process his appetite diminished drastically and he dropped weight. Now he won’t touch his dog food any more. He’s feeling much better and shows interest in food but has become unbelievably picky. I really think it’s a mental game now and he’s winning. Because of his weight loss and age I’m too nervous to let him go without and I stress out to almost tears trying to find out what he will eat. Yesterday he ate 2 cups full of grilled chicken and some liver. Today he turns his nose to the chicken and almost everything else. He did eat a little bit of liver, but not much. This goes on day after day. He stands in the kitchen with me waiting to be fed but as soon as I put something out he walks away. I’ve switched his bowls up, I’ve tried every type of meat cooked in every different way, even raw. I’ve tried every type of can food, even tripe. I’ve tried food toppers…you name it and I have tried it. Please, whatever help!


  18. Minette says:

    Potty pods make things sooooo much worse!!! Don’t use them! Read this http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/potty-train-truth-potty-training/


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