How to Choose a Dog Behaviorist

Renee Rhoades, MSc

I’m just going to cut to the chase. The field of dog behavior is a nightmare. The absence of standardized licensing or certification requirements means virtually anyone can claim expertise in dog behavior. This situation presents a serious paradox for you (the unsuspecting, frustrated, and concerned dog guardian). 

While you have more options than ever for seeking assistance with your dogs' behavioral concerns, determining the expertise and qualifications of any self-proclaimed professional becomes increasingly challenging. If someone says they are a dog behaviorist/specialist/expert and the things they are saying appear to make sense to you, how do you know that the dog fur isn’t being pulled over your eyes? 

The stakes are high. Choosing the “wrong” person could result in many negative consequences - mostly for your dog. As I like to say: Effective is subjective. 

Our dogs deserve the best mental health care.

Its important to note that all animals (including you) do things for two fundamental reasons: to seek pleasure or to avoid pain (discomfort). A quick scan of dogstagram produces endless reels of dogs doing things and people telling you that you must, no you need to correct your dog’s behavior. You absolutely can not “let them get away” with “rude” behavior because 


Let’s break it down like this… is that dog no longer lunging, barking and fighting because of the grot around their neck or because they have had a sudden epiphany that dogs are not, in fact, scary? While you are in awe of how quickly that embarrassing / annoying / frightening behavior has resolved there is a lot brewing under the surface that you either won’t see or can’t see - but someone like me can. 

Dog behaviorists are professionals with a deep understanding of canine behavior, specializing in modifying behavior through individualized, evidence-based techniques. These professionals, often holding advanced degrees in animal behavior or welfare fields, apply their knowledge to address complex behavioral issues by identifying underlying causes and developing tailored behavior modification plans.

Good behaviorists, however, understand and approach behavior modification in a way that is more about you than your dog. After all, at the root of behavior is understanding the motivation (the why). 

For instance, many clients find that their dogs pull on leash. There are many reasons why pulling happens. But let’s breakdown a simple example: A dog pulling hard to sniff. Dogs walked on a short leash are likely to feel restrained and frustrated at not being able to access things that they ONLY have access to when outside. They get to go out once, maybe twice a day for a walk, but you try to keep them moving. 

Restricted access to this resource and the lack of behavioural fulfillment causes your dog to pull you like a steam train toward anything they can get their nose on. Their day isn’t that exciting and they are frantic to sniff anything and everything. If I explain the motivation behind this behavior you can start to empathize with your dog.

The distinction between animal behaviorists lies in their focus, education, and the techniques they employ. Behaviorists delve into the root causes of behavioral issues, leveraging a comprehensive approach that encompasses the dog’s history, environment, and underlying emotions. Their methods, grounded in positive reinforcement, desensitization, and counter-conditioning, are designed to address not just the symptoms but the core of the behavior problems. 

This is not a tool for educating dogs - or any living animal.

The unregulated nature of this field poses a challenge, as anyone can claim to be a behaviorist without the necessary qualifications. To safeguard your dog's mental health and ensure effective behavioral modification, it's crucial to seek professionals with reputable degree-level education from notable universities. 

And what about certifications? For me, its too risky. I have met great behavior consultants who only have certifications, but (without getting too deep in the topic) its important for dog guardians to be aware that certifications are still given in an totally unregulated industry. Anyone can create a course and offer certification. Certification is not a guarantee that the individual you have hired is going to: Avoid aversive techniques / tools or that they are educated beyond the requirements of the certification. Many organizations adhere to a LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) protocol which does NOT exclude the use of averisve tools. In addition, regulation within these organizations is often poor. I, myself, know of many instances where someone has been reported to an organization with no negative outcomes for that individual.

Given the importance of selecting a qualified behaviorist, here’s a checklist to help you navigate this decision:

Verify Educational Background

Look for behaviorists with advanced degrees in animal behavior, welfare and related fields - no exceptions.

Assess Experience

Experience is important, but it does not outweigh education. Education is the foundation experience is built on because you need to understand the why and how of addressing mental health.

Review Methods

Ensure their techniques are ethical and align with modern, humane practices (aka absolutely no punishment is being used).

Full Transparency

When you ask them for information about their education they are ready and forthcoming with all details, including where they received their education from.

They Align with Your Gut Instinct

You should never have a unsettling feeling about what your dog professional is telling you to do with your dog. You should be able to have your voice heard and collaborate on your dog’s care.

Choosing a qualified dog behaviorist is not just about addressing current issues; it's an investment in your dog’s welfare. By prioritizing education, certification, and evidence-based practices, guardians can ensure their dogs receive the highest standard of care in navigating behavioral challenges.

Because your dog mental health matters too.

If you would like to work with me, you can join R+Guardians here.