Animal behaviourism is a largely unregulated profession, although regulation of the industry began in 2010 with the formation of the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. As such there are now industry standards for 'Clinical Animal Behaviourists' (see http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/setting-standards.html). Individuals who have been assessed as meeting these standards, in terms of knowledge and skills, have been registered accordingly.
However, it remains the case that unqualified and unregulated individuals can oversee behaviour cases, despite the welfare risk to the animal, caregiver and other individuals. Owners seeking help can also become overwhelmed by the various organisations - many of which do not assess knowledge or skills - and acronyms associated with animal behaviourism. Animal behaviour science is well-respected and developed. It offers a wealth of valuable information, yet many behaviourists are not familiar with developments in this field or are unable to interpret or apply the principles.
When seeking help, owners should consider relevant qualifications of the behaviourist and their accreditation with an appropriate organisation which assesses knowledge and skills and ensures that the behaviourist adheres to a code of ethics and remains up-to-date with developments in the field of animal behaviour science. Please see the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) website in relation to 'Clinical Animal Behaviourists' for more information.
In accordance with the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) members code of practice, I only see clients for behaviour counselling with veterinary referral. This is because I need to be aware of any health conditions which could impact behaviour and, for example, because it is occasionally beneficial for an animal to have medication or supplementation which modifies their underlying emotional state - as an extra component to the behaviour modification plan. The client, vet and myself can then work together to ensure the best outcome for the pet concerned.
There is a common saying that problem behaviour in pets is not the pets fault, but it is instead the owners fault. This saying is often unhelpful and unfounded. Problem behaviour can develop for many reasons. Concern over potential blame or judgement can deter owners from seeking help. This is a shame, as with appropriate help and support there is always scope for problem behaviour to be improved or eradicated. Clients are therefore not judged or blamed for their pets behaviour.
When working with clients and their pets, it is my job to identify underlying causes of problem behaviour (emotional and motivational state) and recommend a treatment plan. This information is always explained and then reiterated in a behaviour report. Animals are not labelled as such, as labels are rarely helpful. I am obliged to respect client confidentiality and GDPR legislation, and fully comply with this. As such, details of any behaviour diagnosis and treatment plan are shared only between myself, the client and the referring vet. Only the client will be able to share this information with other parties, such as a pet insurance company. If owners submit a claim to their pet insurance company for my services and information is requested of me from the pet insurance company, I only provide this information with explicit consent from the pets owner.
Sometimes it is inevitable that problem behaviour will be witnessed during a behaviour consultation. However, I do not need to witness this to understand it. Each time an animal performs problem behaviour they are 'rehearsing' doing so and the behaviour becomes more established. Therefore, depending on the situation, I may take measures to avoid the problem behaviour being performed during my visit. I collect specific information from the client and I consider this in relation to the problem context. I also make a general behaviour assessment of the animal in terms of how he/she responds to everything in their environment. This combined information allows me to make a behaviour diagnosis and to devise an appropriate treatment plan.
I recommend force-free, reward-based methods for behaviour modification - in accordance with the code of practice specified by the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) and the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). I do not advocate the use of aversive or punitive methods, nor forcing animals into situations using intimidation or physical force. My behaviour modification methods involve an understanding of why the animal is performing problem behaviour, before manipulating underlying emotional state and motivation using reward-based, kind and effective methods.
Animal behaviour can be influenced by experience, genetics, health and physiology. Consistently changing behaviour requires an understanding and manipulation of emotional state and motivation. This is where behaviourism differs to training - which instead involves teaching a task(s). Once emotional state and motivations have been identified and manipulated, therapy value is measured through behaviour change.
When an animal is displaying problem behaviour, it is necessary to understand why that individual is behaving as they are. This considers underlying emotional and motivational state. Once this has been identified, an effective treatment plan can be implemented. It is not possible for books or online material to assess the individual animal, or to design a bespoke behaviour modification plan which suits the animal, the owner and their routine and environment. Books and online material can also be unregulated in terms of the accuracy of information they contain. Equally, as animal behaviour science continues to develop, books and online materials can become outdated.
It can take time for problem behaviour to develop and be maintained. It therefore also generally takes time and consistency for this to improve, although sometimes results are seen quickly. If problem behaviour is based on an animals experiences, these experiences can never be eradicated. Equally, if problem behaviour is due to lack of exposure to stimuli or social experiences during important development periods, it can be difficult to fully compensate for this. There are no guarantees that problem behaviour will cease as this is dependant on many factors including the pets owner implementing behaviour modification recommendations. However, there is always scope for behaviour change and generally clients report either an improvement or eradication of problem behaviour over time. Behaviour-change is generally a gradual process which occurs over many weeks or months.