Forums » Veterinary Social Work Corner

When Your Pet Has Behavior Problems, Where Do You Find Help?

    • 13 posts
    July 3, 2017 6:11 PM EDT

    In an ideal world, the shelter, rescue organization, or breeder your pet came from will have a system of support available to assist you in getting the behavioral help your pet needs and your search will be done before you’ve even had to start! I’ve heard of wonderful collaborations between the animal rescue community and behavior professionals, so do ask if that is an option in your area.

    I think it can be helpful to have a reference of the various types of professionals that are out there and the roles they play in providing support for people and their pets. Here are some of the professionals I hear most about from pet owners who have sought help (the ASPCA also has a nice description of the different professionals which you can find here):

     Veterinary Behaviorists:

    These brilliant folks are veterinarians who have completed additional intensive training and certification in animal behavior. Typically when you consult with a veterinary behaviorist you will receive a diagnosis for your pet and a treatment plan. Veterinarians are the only individuals who can prescribe meds for behavior problems (if needed), and veterinary behaviorists have advanced and specialized training in the use of medications for behavior. This is a professionally regulated field. A veterinary behaviorist may very likely recommend that you also work with a trainer. The role of the trainer is to help you implement the behavior modification recommendations in the treatment plan for your pet. The veterinary behaviorist also collaborates with the pet’s regular veterinarian to ensure that all aspects of the pet’s medical care are tended to. Dr. E’Lise Christensen is VetVine’s veterinary behaviorist, and on her website she has detailed answered to frequently asked questions about veterinary behaviorists. You can find a Veterinary Behaviorist near you on the Veterinary College of Behavior (ACVB) website.


    Trainers are amazing. They have dedicated themselves to helping people learn how to communicate with their pets, and their help can be invaluable! Dog training is not a professionally regulated field, so it is wise to do your due diligence in researching a trainer you are going to work with. Learn as much as possible about their professional background and education, any certifications they have earned, and their approach in working with people and their pets.

    I often hear from pet owners that they are working with both a veterinary behaviorist and a trainer - as a collaborative team. The Certification of Professional Dog Trainers (CPTD) is good place to start looking for someone who has completed the formal process of becoming certified. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers also provides some guidance on how to choose a trainer, as well as this guide from the American College of Veterinary Behavior.

    The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has this position statement recommending training methods to use (and not to use) to address behavior problems.


    This is a trickier title. People who call themselves an Applied Animal Behaviorist should have an advanced degree in animal behavior.   Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) and Certified Assosiate Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAAB) have an advanced degree in animal behavior and have completed other course work and experience for certification set by the Animal Behavior Society. CAABs often partner closely with veterinarians and trainers as well as the shelter community to help pet owners have access the best behavioral help available to them. A well-known and well-respected Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) is the wonderful Patricia McConnell, who writes great books and articles about behavior problems and pets. To find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in your area, you can go the directory on the Animal Behavior Society website.  

    But pet owners have told me that they’ve encountered people calling themselves a “dog behaviorist” (or the like) and who do not have an advanced degree in animal behavior. “Dog behaviorist” is non-protected term. So be mindful that anyone one could call themselves a “behaviorist.” I would encourage you to ask lots of questions about training and education in behavior.  

    Many trainers are diligent about getting advanced training in behavior, and they might highlight that for you. Again, ask about the training and education related to behavior. For example, if they say they are a “Behavior Consultant” you can ask if that means that they’ve completed the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) training process which you can then verify with IAABC.

    For me, the “dream team” of support includes professional support for the pet and for the people all working in collaboration! The next post will talk about where you can find support for yourself.

    Where have you found support for your pet?

    Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

    • 2 posts
    August 17, 2017 6:01 PM EDT

    Dear Ms. Buller - 

    It's certainly true that pet owners face a real dilemma when they are trying to find help for their pets' behavior problems. Veterinary behaviorists certainly make a huge contribution, but there their suppy can' come close to meeting the demand for help with behavior problems.

    I think you've done pet owners, and my profession, a great dis-service by failing to include Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists as people pet owners can rely on for help.  You did specifically mention one of our well known CAABs Dr. Patricia McConnell, but you failed to say that she is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.  

    While it's true "animal behaviorist" and similar titles are NOT  protected terms, neither is "dog trainer" or "trainer" yet you mentioned a number of their certifications.  You would have helped pet owners immensely to differentiate between people calling themselves 'behaviorists' even though they have no formal education in the science of animal behavior, if you would have included the term Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.

    Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist IS a protected term, just as Veterinary Behaviorist is. 

    And our ranks as well are filled with brilliant and dedicated, amazing people of which Dr. McConnell is only one.  How about Dr. Pamela Reid, Dr. Kat Miller and their team at the ASPCA who have developed successful behavior modification protocols to rehabilitate dogs who have been victims of cruelty and abuse? Or what about Dr. Sue McDonnell at the University of Pennyslvania who has done pioneering work helping to solve behavior problems in horses? She is just one example of many CAABs who work closely with veterinarians to help people get the best behavioral care for their pets.  

    I agree with you that because neither the field of animal behavior in general or dog training require licensing, it is up to pet owners to do their homework.  But you should also do yours.

    Here is an article you may find useful.


    • 2 posts
    August 17, 2017 6:04 PM EDT

    A directory of CAABs and their requirements for certification can be found at the Animal Behavior Society's website


    • 13 posts
    August 18, 2017 12:43 PM EDT

    Suzanne, I've updated the post to reflect your helpful comments!