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How do I know which behaviourist to choose?

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 (see http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/setting-standards.html) and individuals who have been assessed as meeting these standards, in terms of knowledge and skill, 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, those responsible for the animal 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 a well-respected and developed branch of science offering 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, it is therefore necessary for owners to consider relevant qualifications of the behaviourist, and their accreditation or affiliation to a professional organisation which assesses knowledge and skills. Please see the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) website or the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) website for further information.

Why is veterinary referral necessary?

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 fully aware of any health conditions which could impact behaviour and, for example, because it is occasionally beneficial for an animal to have anxiety-reducing medication or supplementation - as an extra component to the behaviour modification plan. The client, vet and myself can then work in unison, to ensure the best possible outcome for the pet concerned. 

Will I be judged or blamed for my pets problem behaviour?

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 due to genetic predispositions, health status or previous or current experiences. An animal can also form inadvertent associations with something in their environment, and often this is outside of the owners control. Concern over potential blame or judgement can deter even the most conscientious owner from seeking help. This is a shame, as with appropriate help and support there is always scope for problem behaviour to be improved or even eradicated.

Will my pet be 'labelled' if I seek behavioural help?

When working with clients and their animals, it is my job to identify underlying causes of outward behaviour (emotional and motivational state). Animals are therefore not labelled, as labels offer little in terms of constructive information which allows for positive behaviour change. I am obliged to respect client confidentiality and I fully comply with this. As such, details of any behaviour diagnosis and treatment plan are shared only between the client, myself and the referring vet.  Only the client will be able to share this information with other parties, such as a pet insurance company.

Will the Behaviourist need to directly witness problem behaviour(s)?

Sometimes it is inevitable that problem behaviours will be witnessed during a behaviour consultation. However, I do not need to witness problem behaviour first-hand in order to understand it. Each time an animal performs problem behaviour they are 'practising' this. Problem behaviour may also be an indicator that the animal is not coping with an aspect of their environment at that time. Therefore, depending on the situation, I do not necessarily want to directly witness problem behaviour. I collect comprehensive and targeted information from the client - who is most familiar with their pets behaviour - 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.

What methods will be demonstrated and recommended as part of a behaviour modification plan?

I use only 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 use or advocate the use of aversive or punitive methods, nor do I force 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.

Why should I seek behavioural help as opposed to training?

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.

What will I gain from pursuing a behaviour consultation, rather than seeking help from books or online resources?

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 outlined and implemented. It is not possible for books or online material to assess the individual animal or their circumstances, or to design a bespoke behaviour modification plan which suits the animal, the owner and their environment. Books and online material are also 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. 

Can I be assured that problem behaviour will be eradicated?

It can take time for problem behaviour to develop and to be maintained. It therefore also generally takes time and consistency for behaviour to improve, although sometimes results are seen very 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. However, there is always scope for behaviour change and generally clients report either an eradication of problem behaviour or an improvement in their pets behaviour over time.