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What is a Behaviourist and how do you become one?

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A few of you may know that in September I start a new adventure, studying a two year Higher Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour & Training with COAPE - the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology.  This is the first of many (many) steps towards becoming a qualified behaviourist for both dogs and cats and I can’t wait to get started! 

So it seems like now is the perfect time to write a blog all about what a behaviourist is (and is not!) and the many routes to becoming one.

Firstly, it’s important to realise that the term ‘behaviourist’ is not a protected term, like vet, doctor, or solicitor for example.  This means that anyone can call themselves a behaviourist, despite having absolutely no education or experience in animal behaviour.  To me this is a very scary concept.  Think about it, if your child had a serious mental health problem, would you take them to go to see your hairdresser who thinks they know a lot about mental health because they talk to people every day, or would you seek help from a professional, qualified psychiatrist?  If someone files a civil lawsuit against you, would you seek the help of a qualified solicitor who has passed their LPC and completed their training contract, or would you happily use your next door neighbour as your defence, just because he’s been to court a few times and ‘knows what he’s talking about’?  No, in both cases you would (hopefully!) do the smart thing and get help from the qualified person who is best able to help you.  Going to someone who isn’t qualified to deal with a serious problem can be dangerous to you and others and this is no different with your dog.

So what sort of problems do people have with their dogs that motivate them to look for help?  It can vary but here are a few common issues:

  • Aggression - towards other people, dogs, animals and situations.
  • Phobias
  • Predatory instincts to other animals

Seeing as several of these issues could lead to actual injury to other people or animals, owners experiencing these issues would do well to ensure that they consult with the person best qualified to help them with these problems - a behaviourist.  

As the term isn’t protected, how can owners tell if they are choosing a qualified behaviourist who will help (not hinder) and who is worth their fee?  My advice is that they check what qualifications and memberships the behaviourist has.  Normally a qualified behaviourist will have a membership to a reputable organisation that specialises in registering behaviourists, such as the APBC, CAPBT or UKRCB.  These organisations are very exacting and usually demand at least a foundation degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject as well as mentored/supervised work on real behavioural cases.  

There is a train of thought in the dog training world that many dog trainers are just as good (or sometimes better) than some qualified behaviourists.  This can certainly be true, a degree is not the “be all and end all” and I know many trainers who don’t have a degree or membership of the above organisations, but who are experts in behaviour modification.  However, they do not call themselves behaviourists.  Responsible and professional trainers appreciate that the term implies a certain level of academic achievement in the field of behaviour and it is not appropriate to use it describing themselves.  I also feel that there is a certain level of “you don’t know what you don’t know”.  Canine Behaviour isn’t magical or mystical, it is a science and like any science, the more you delve into it, the more you realise you have to learn.  We often like to simplify behaviour into terms or principals we understand and this often means that we don’t know that there is far more to it than what we have seen so far or could ever begin to realise without further study.  This is why it is vital to not chose someone who uses the label of behaviourist without having the qualifications or memberships to validate it.  Even if they are well intentioned, all too often they will not realise the gaps in their own knowledge and the advice they give out is not suitable or safe.  This can leave the customer in a very dangerous situation with their dog.  Even if the advice isn’t dangerous, but just isn’t that effective, it can put clients off of using positive reinforcement techniques (“we tried that, it didn’t work”) and reaching for techniques that use force or intimidation. 

So how do you become a qualified behaviourist?  There are a number of different routes available currently - the route I have chosen is with COAPE.  COAPE offer a diploma which gives you a qualification equivalent to a Foundation Degree on successful completion.  From the successful completion of year one you become a member of the CAPBT (COAPE Associate of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers) and at this point you are able to work on behavioural cases.  My aim is to study all three years of the diploma - the final year is option and is a Diploma in Applied Clinical Pharmacology, Neurophysiology and therapeutics in Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy.  This now means that I will have studied at degree level and that I would be eligible to apply for Postgraduate study - at which point I hope to apply to study the MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour at Lincoln to work towards becoming accredited as a CCAB (Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist) with ASAB.  

There are a number of routes available that can be seen via reading the membership requirements on the websites of ASAB, APBC, UKRCB etc, but I found that the route via COAPE was the best route for me, not only are the lecturers renowned experts in the field of behaviour, but the course is part time which allows me to start my studies alongside my full time business.  I can’t wait to start in September on the first of 4 residential weekends - I have no idea how I will cope with the coursework though!  Thankfully I am currently training up the lovely Sarah Sorgi who does my cat feeds currently to take over my Friday walks from September to give me an extra day off each week.  

I’ll let you know how I get on and make sure I post up plenty of the fab and interesting things I’ll be learning about canine and feline behaviour on the way!

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