Over the years that I have been consulting as a dog behaviourist, I have discussed with people many times whether they need a dog behaviourist or really a dog trainer to help them overcome their concerns with their dog.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I shall set out below for you the typical areas that each of these two professions would expect to address, but do bear in mind that there can often be an overlap of the two professions and that both of these professions are equally valuable in their own right. I do not believe that either profession is better or worse than the other, they both offer valuable services depending on where you are with your dog at any given time.

My own skill set is in the addressing of more in-depth dog behaviour problems, as I have no interest in teaching heelwork to music, or teaching groups of dogs and their owner’s basic obedience. This is one of the joys of the dog industry – you can choose a niche and specialise in that and you will never stop learning along the way, as working with people and their dogs provides so many different experiences and unique situations.

A Dog Trainer Can Help You With:

Basic commands with puppies or older dogs such as:

  • Sit
  • Down
  • Stay/Wait
  • Recall
  • Stand
  • Doorway control
  • Walking to heel
  • Send to bed
  • Grooming/Handling

More elaborate or specialist areas can also be covered under the ‘dog training’ heading such as:

  • Heelwork to music
  • Gundog training
  • Herding skills
  • Sledding skills
  • Fun tricks
  • Protection work
  • Clicker training

A Dog Behaviourist Can Help You With:

Unwanted behaviours in any dog of any age and breed such as:

  • Aggression to dogs
  • Aggression to people
  • Separation anxiety
  • Fear of fireworks
  • General fears and phobias
  • Barking
  • Predatory behaviours
  • Toilet training problems
  • Generalised anxiety

There are other behaviours that I have left out because these main headings largely gather in the more specific subheading enquiries I might receive as a dog behaviourist. Let’s take the subject of ‘Separation anxiety in dogs’ as an example. This behaviour can range from anything as low as a whimper at the door when you leave, to a full-blown barking and howling session that lasts for hours. It could be accompanied with destructive behaviour including damage to the home by scraping and attempting to break out of a room, along with urination and soiling in the dog's space.

The same range can be applied to virtually all of the behaviours I list under what a dog behaviourist can help you with. Taking another heading of ‘Aggression to people’ this time, this behaviour may vary from a low level and barely audible grumble as people approach, to a full on lunge and teeth flashing with saliva flying in the air as the owner struggles to control the dog. As with separation anxiety in the above paragraph, both are aspects of aggression to people, but you can see how all behaviours have a scale of seriousness and then in turn increasingly difficulty in finding a solution to that problem, because the sooner we can address a behaviour, the better. Prevention is always better than cure, but that's another post altogether.

Where Dog Trainers and Dog Behaviourists Overlap

Dog Trainers That Excel

I know many dog trainers that absolutely excel in their role and they see dozens of dogs and people each week looking at very similar dog training exercises such as the ones I have already outlined on the first page. Years ago I offered to help out at a class not too far away from me and I was all over the shop. The amount of organisation and control of both dogs and owners whilst trying to keep everyone engaged was far more difficult than I imagined! It was not for me…it didn’t suit my particular skill set.

Where I might see four or five dogs each week on dog behaviour cases that last about 3 to 4 hours each, a busy dog trainer could see anything between 20 to 100+ dogs (and their owners) each week in a class environment. This is likely to consist of classes of 5-10 dogs that may run for an hour each. Some of these owners may then want to speak in more depth regarding behavioural aspects in their dog or to clarify the training they have undertaken that day. These added aspects take more of the trainer’s time, as they may need to press on with the next class.

Everyone works differently of course, but I just want to give you an insight as to how the two vary. I far prefer to take a long and steady look at a particular dog behaviour problem (or group of behaviour problems) and to work on a one to one basis with the owner or the family to resolve those areas of concern.

Many class-based trainers see behaviours that a dog behaviourist might usually be approached for. If the trainer can safely and effectively set the dog and owner onto a path towards a solution with some advice over a cup of tea, then I’m all for it.

Dog Behaviour Cases Take Time

The most likely limitation, however, is the time that is often required to get to the bottom of a dog behaviour case. Let’s take the example of separation anxiety in dogs again. In my role as a dog behaviourist, I would spend a good 3-4 hours collating all the information I require and putting together a programme that is designed to suit the specific dog and owner given the lifestyle and family set up. This is followed up with full notes to confirm the agreed approach and ongoing telephone or email support, as the customer prefers. This is then followed up with a return visit to address any outstanding aspects of the case and to ensure that the owner knows I’m only a call away as they progress in their efforts. So the time put in on dog behaviour cases can be considerable depending on the severity of the case. This explanation is not intended as a sales pitch, but to help clarify how the two professions work and where the two naturally split.

As a dog behaviourist, you will need to be able to understand and train a dog to many of the basic training elements, as they are very useful add-ons when looking to resolve certain behaviour problems in dogs. For example, when dealing with separation anxiety, teaching the dog to sit and stay as the owner leaves the room to make a cup of tea is a fundamental dog training skill that we can use from a class environment. Another example to offer is when dealing with a dog that is showing aggression to people when people enter the home, the dog will need to learn a variety of commands such as the send to bed, the sit, the down and the stay. We can use supplementary aids in making these simple things happen at the beginning, such as dog leads, fixing points, Kongs that might not normally be seen in an obedience class.

Dog Training for a Good Start

A dog trainer also needs to have an understanding of dog behaviour in terms of what any particular dog may be feeling or experiencing in a class environment, along with how the benefits of applying good basic training act as building blocks to head off various unwanted behaviours further down the line. Allow me to explain in more detail. It can be said that a dog and owner that is shown how to start with the basic recall training and to then develop that by making the recalls away from increasingly difficult distractions at greater distances can be an immense life-skill. Being able to quickly and consistently call your dog back to you for any reason you choose, can rule out many of the common and unwanted behaviours that can arise with a dog that is effectively out of your control a distance away from you. Like what I hear you ask?! Well, like the dog that runs headlong up to another dog and that dog is not friendly, does not like overly exuberant or rude dogs and snaps at your dog or worse. This can easily lead to a dog that becomes nervous towards other dogs as a result, because the owner was not able to call them back and then have what we could call a ‘controlled’ walk up and introduction with the owner present to supervise and oversee the interactions and make decisions based on what transpires during the approach and interaction.

Similar examples can be offered for the sit, the down and the stay. All are essential to create a dog that will carry out these commands the first time and then wait until you give the okay to be released from that command. Can you see how a well-trained dog can avert dog behaviour problems in the first place, which brings me back to the concept of how prevention (dog training) can go a very long way to the avoidance of dog behaviour problems, whereby we’re looking for a cure?

Maybe that’s it? Dog Trainers PREVENT problems, whilst Dog Behaviourists CURE them. This whole article could have been two lines, instead of four pages! Still, it’s interesting to break it up and examine this in detail.

How Training Classes May (or may not!) Help With Dog Behaviour Problems

Well Trained Dogs Can Still Have Behaviour Problems

Interestingly, over the years I have seen many dogs that have been attending dog obedience classes for quite some time and are in fact able to demonstrate good levels of obedience in or out of the home, but these dogs are not immune to suffering from debilitating behaviours such as aggression to dogs or aggression to people under certain circumstances. Dogs are what I call ‘contextual learners’, meaning that they can learn to be placid and well behaved in one environment, but can also behave quite differently (and not in a good way) in another environment. I recall a dog I saw earlier in the year was absolutely golden in classes surrounded by dogs and people in a relatively confined hall, but was a terror with other dogs when in public spaces and would attack dogs with little warning. This was an unusual situation, as one would normally expect this to be the opposite of the case.

Dog Behaviourists and Dog Trainers Working Together

If you have a dog trainer nearby that could assist you and your dog with basic or even higher levels of training that would be a useful adjunct to certain behaviours that you are trying to resolve in or out of the home, then I think it’s a good idea to approach them, to discuss the concerns that you have and any behaviour plans you already have in place, so that you can develop your dog's ability to concentrate and work alongside you. Personally, I have always taken the approach of working together with obedience trainers as basic training and behavioural training can sit alongside each other and both have their place when approaching the complete needs of a dog and its owner. A telephone call between a dog behaviour specialist and a dog trainer can be very valuable indeed and I always welcome it if the circumstances call for it. Having said this, do be aware that dog training classes can be carried out in buildings that are not always the most spacious and so you will need to consider if dog training of this nature is right at this particular time for your dog. If in doubt, discuss this with your behaviourist and the trainer to decide the best way forward.

Dog Behaviourists and Dog Trainers; an Unregulated Industry

Party Politics

A great deal has already been written online regarding the various bodies, organisations, and associations that one should belong to so that you are actually ‘the best’ or among the best behaviour practitioners in the country claiming to work to the highest standards. Imagine a pie and these various organisations want the biggest slice for themselves as control equals money and as a result, people become greedy and things get ugly. The industry is still in a ‘forming’ stage and I am sure that it will become more regulated as time goes on and hopefully for the better. That’s as much as I’ll say on this subject for now. I don’t like politics at all and do my best to offer a professional and sincere service focusing on you and your dog and nothing else as that’s all that counts ultimately.

Elvis Has Left the Building

Whilst the above article attempts to clarify the respective roles that dog trainers and dog behaviourists play, there are no formal rules or legislation that dictates what areas a dog trainer can deal with and the same applies for a dog behaviourist. Either can practice without a single qualification behind them. Anyone can decide to set up shop in either role tomorrow and you could theoretically be his or her first client. I had my very first client of course. It was a Basset Hound by the name of Elvis that was jumping all over the granddaughter when she came to visit. As a new practitioner, you must start with cases that are within your scope and abilities and grow from there; taking suitable advice from mentors as you develop.

Now, 16 years later down the line and thousands of dog behaviour cases under my belt (none with a name quite like Elvis I should add), thousands of hours in close consultations with owners - not to mention the endless reports I've written for dog behaviour cases and dog behaviour assessments for the courts. Then there's the time, cost and application of will to achieve my Master's degree in dog behaviour with Middlesex University in 2012 to complement the practical experience.

When engaging the services of any dog trainer or dog behaviourist, it really boils down to three things; the experience that person has and how well they are able to put their points over to motivate the owner to carry them out, combined with genuine support. So when you’re looking for somebody to fill the role of a trainer or a behaviourist, you need to get past the shiny websites, the claims of being the UK's best dog trainer, a dog whisperer (never have understood that one) and look for more honest, transparent markers of success, such as the ability to demonstrate prior experience and the willingness to provide testimonials from previous clients that they’re willing to allow you to speak with, should you ask. At this point in time, qualifications can provide an indicator of a person’s abilities, but it is in no way a guarantee of an amazing outcome.

In Conclusion

I trust that this article has set out the main differences between a dog trainer and a dog behaviourist for you and that the additional detail will help you make good decisions based on where you feel you are at present and how the two professions could help you. Be sure to speak with any professional and seek references and speak with a few customers before you commit to anything. I believe that on the whole, both professions have many, many good practitioners within them, but you'll ultimately need to trust and hopefully enjoy working with your chosen individual and that counts for a lot also. Good luck in your efforts.