Why Excellent Trainers Don’t Pretend To Be Behaviorists

The world of dog training in the United States is the wild, wild, west. As many know, there is no required oversight of this industry. All one must do is hang a shingle and, voila, you’re a dog trainer.

Our industry has many wonderful “opt in” organizations that do require ethical and educational oversight. The best of us choose to join these organizations. The two most prominent are the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. These organizations require study, board exams, case studies, and required continuing education units for membership and maintenance of membership.

You can think of the world of animal behavior much like you would think about any other educated field. You have the highest level of education seeing the most challenging and rigorous cases with lower levels seeing less rigorous cases and regularly referring to the higher education levels. As with human behavior, a practitioner who does not refer is a practitioner who should be avoided. Additionally, a practitioner who uses labels denoting education they do not have is a practitioner who should be vehamently avoided.

Here is a breakdown of some of the most common levels of education and certification in the animal behavior and training world, beginning with the most prestigious and educated:

Veterinary Behaviorist (and Resident)

A Veterinary Behaviorist is the most educated of those dealing with Animal Behavior. They are also often the most experienced. A Veterinary Behaviorist has completed 4 years of vet school to become a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and has then completed an additional residency in Animal Behavior. You can think of this as the Psychiatrists of the animal behavior world. Not only are they general practice doctors, but they then took an additional rigorous education in animal behavior. A Resident of Veterinary Behavior is a Veterinarian, who has completed the challenging application and acceptance process by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. This individual is currently in the process of obtaining the necessary education, publications, research, and experience to become a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. These Residents see animal behavior cases under the watchful eye of their Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist mentor. They speak with their mentor regularly and review cases with them. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is an elite group. There are less than 70 in the United States, some of which are not actively seeing cases. Therefore, there are a larger number of Residents of the College seeing cases than Diplomates. A Resident of Veterinary Behavior can be a wonderful tool for your and your pet since they have the benefit of oversight by a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist and also their own expertise and experience. Veterinary Behaviorists and Residents are the only behavior specialists that have the legal ability and liability to diagnose and prescribe for animal behavior cases. Both Veterinary Behaviorists and Residents of Veterinary Behavior are called “Behaviorists.” All excellent trainers (see below) should have an active referral relationship with a Veterinary Behaviorist or Resident.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB)

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists are overseen by the Animal Behavior Society. A CAAB has a Doctorate in a field related to animal behavior and has studied for, met experience requirements for, and passed boards to become a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). An individual with a Masters degree in a animal behavior related field that has studied for and passed boards is an Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB). These individuals differ from Veterinary Behaviorists in that they are PhD’s, not Doctors of Veterinary Medicine. Therefore, they can legally diagnose, but cannot prescribe. There are currently 37 CAAB’s listed on the registry worldwide. There are currently 16 ACAAB’s listed on the registry worldwide. Because CAAB’s can diagnose behavior issues but not prescribe they often work in tandem with Veterinarians and Veterinary Behaviorists. This can be a wonderful referral source for a trainer (see below) if they are fortunate to have one in their area. This education level also affords the title of “Behaviorist.”

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC)

CDBC’s are overseen by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and is often considered the highest level of certification that a trainer can obtain. They offer certifications in canine, feline, equine, and avian special interests. Each must be obtained in separate application and review process. The application processes for a CDBC through IAABC is rigorous. It does not require a college education but does require 2 years of experience working as a trainer of your species, a rigorous exam, submission of case studies, and a high level of certified continuing education units. The application is reviewed by a board and accepted or declined based on merit. These individuals are well versed in animal behavior, not just training, and are an excellent resource of an individual experiencing complex behavior issues with their pet. All excellent CDBC and other IAABC certificates will have a well maintained referral relationship with a Veterinary Behaviorist and/or a CAAB. These individuals are afforded the title of “Trainer”, “Certified Trainer” or “Certified Behavior Consultant.”

Certified Canine Behavior Consultant (CCBC)

CCBC’s are overseen by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). This certification requires a minimum of 300 hours in Canine Behavior Consulting within 3 years, with 225 hours of experience specifically in behavior-consulting hours that include behavior modification training with an individual dog or a client and their dog in the areas of fear, phobias, compulsive behaviors, anxiety, or aggressive behavior. The individual must have only a high school diploma or equivalent. The individual must then sit for a standardized test of 180 questions. If the standardized test is passed, the certification is obtained, the individual is then required to meet rigorous certified continuing education units annually. All excellent CCBC’s will have a well-maintained referral relationship with a Veterinary Behaviorist and/or CAAB. These individuals are afforded the title of “Trainer”, “Certified Trainer” or “Certified Behavior Consultant.”

Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT)

CPDT’s are overseen by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). This certification requires a minimum of 300 hours of dog training experience within 3 years, 225 hours of experience must be training hours that include: instructing group dog training classes, conducting private training lessons, consulting with clients, and training hands-on with one or more dogs. These hours can be logged as a training assistant with the understanding that the applicant has done the primary training with oversight from their mentor. The individual must then sit for a 180 question standardized test and, upon completing with a passing score, they are required to complete certified continuing education units annually. An excellent CPDT will have a close and working relationship with both a Certified Behavior Consultant and a Veterinary Behaviorist and/or CAAB. These individuals are afforded the title “Trainer” or “Certified Trainer.”


Individuals with no adherence to a governing organization or certification requirements can still train animals professionally. These individuals are often promoted as developing their professional career based on practice and experience training their own animals or animals for others. There is a wide variety of experience and education levels within this group. They have no governing body for ethics, education, or knowledge. While they may be talented, they have chosen to not submit that talent to professional oversight or the rigors of exam or required certified continuing education units. These individuals are afforded the title “Trainer.” It must be noted that, while not exclusively, this is the grouping that is most likely to utilize non-earned titles such as “Behaviorist”, “Behavioralist”, “Master Trainer”, etc.

Why excellent trainers do not use the title “Behaviorist”

The best Trainers, Certified Trainers, Behavior Consultants, and Certified Behavior consultants do not use the title “Behaviorist” because we have professional understanding and courtesy of our colleagues. We would no sooner call ourselves “Behaviorists” than “Doctor.” We have a valued and necessary working and referral relationships with actual Behaviorists and we would never claim that title for ourselves. To do so, would be a slap in the face to the immense education, experience, and work our colleagues have labored for to earn that title.

I am an excellent certified dog trainer and behavior consultant. I know, without a doubt, my working relationship with Veterinary Behaviorists is a large part of what makes me successful. It is a gift to have a colleagues much more educated and experienced than myself. I would be remiss to be as offensive to call myself a “Behaviorist.” I am not. I have skills, education, and talents that make me a valuable resource to my true Behaviorist colleagues. I do not need to pretend to be something I am not. It is disingenuous and offensive for me to claim a title I have not earned both to my clients and my colleagues.

We must, as a profession, refer out early and often. There are cases that, even after 15+ years of excelling in my profession, I simply have no business seeing without the oversight of a Veterinary Behaviorist. Each and every one of us owes the general public and our own profession that honesty and courtesy. We own the public honesty about who we are and who we are not. I am not a Behaviorist. I have dedicated my life to excellence in my profession and I am very proud of who I am, which is a Certified Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. I want my clients to trust, implicitly, that if I cannot help them I am both humble and educated enough to refer them to a Behaviorist who can.

Published by abigailwitthauer

Lover of animal behavior, impassioned for social justice, demander of service dog reform. Please bring wine and cheese.

One thought on “Why Excellent Trainers Don’t Pretend To Be Behaviorists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: