What is a veterinary behavior specialist?

 Dr. Lore Haug DVM is an ACVB diplomate.

A veterinary behavior specialist is a veterinarian that has been “certified” by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB).  The veterinarian then is referred to as a “diplomate” of ACVB.  There currently are only 52 ACVB diplomates in North America.

The training and qualifications of a veterinary behaviorist are similar to those of a human psychiatrist.  To obtain diplomate status, a veterinarian must complete a 2-3 year demanding residency training program under the supervision of other qualified specialists.  This program involves classroom education in subjects such as ethology (the study of normal animal behavior), pharmacology, neurology, internal medicine, neuroscience, and psychology.  During this training program, the veterinarian is also responsible for evaluating and treating behavior problems in all domestic species and various exotic species as well.   Upon completion of the residency program, the veterinarian must pass a rigorous 16-hour examination.

Why should I take my pet to a veterinary behaviorist?

Veterinarians are in a unique position to evaluate your animal’s behavior.  An animal’s health and behavior are intricately linked to each other.  Psychological stress can harm your pet’s health just as it can harm yours.  Similarly, health problems can trigger behavior problems such as depression and anxiety.  Veterinarians are trained to understand the physiology behind various disease processes and how medications affect them.  Likewise, veterinary behaviorists are specifically trained to understand how your animal’s health and behavior impact each other and how various treatment interventions will affect each. 

Veterinarians are also trained to observe when lifestyles and training practices may pose a danger to your pet’s well-being.  The end does not always justify the means.  Some self-proclaimed “behaviorists” employ techniques that are not only psychologically abusive but may also jeopardize your pet’s immediate and/or long term health.

What types of problems does a veterinary behaviorist treat?

Vet behaviorists are trained to deal with all types of problems including:  aggression, fearfulness, phobias, unruliness, tail chasing, self-mutilation, house training problems, litter box problems, etc.

Why not take my animal to a trainer instead?  

There are no uniform standards for evaluating even minimal competency in animal trainers.  Experience alone does not ensure proficiency.  Similarly, there are no state or federal restrictions on the use of the term “behaviorist.”  This means that persons with even little or no qualification can label themselves as behaviorists and attempt to treat your pet. 

Many animal trainers will label themselves as behaviorists.  While some of these trainers are well educated and highly competent, many are not.  Having the skill to train an animal to perform obedience behaviors does not automatically equate with understanding the underlying issues when diagnosing and treating problems such as aggression, anxiety and compulsive behaviors.  Obedience training will not cure these problems, just as a high school education will not prevent or cure a person of schizophrenia or depression.  Only persons trained in true applied behavior analysis should treat such conditions.

How do I know if my animal has a behavior problem?

Typically, if you are concerned enough to ask about your pet’s problem, it is worth talking to a professional for input as to whether you should seek further help.  While sometimes an animal’s behavior is perfectly normal, it can still pose a problem for you and your family.  A professional can help you find a solution that improves the situation but does not jeopardize your animal’s well-being.

When should I seek help for my animal’s problem?

Although there are exceptions, the longer your animal engages in an undesirable behavior, the longer it will take to resolve it.  Just like people, pet’s can have bad days when their behavior is more objectionable.  Additionally, their behavior may deteriorate if they feel unwell or are in pain.  If your pet persists in a behavior for longer than 2-4 weeks, you should seek assistance rather than wait until the problem becomes more severe.  This is particularly true for fearful or phobic reactions (e.g. storm phobia, separation anxiety).  Additionally, any behavior problem that is increasing in intensity or frequency should be addressed promptly.

Will seeking help guarantee that my pet will improve?

Unfortunately no guarantees can be given regarding the outcome of your pet’s behavior program.   It is misleading and disreputable for a business to give you specific guarantees regarding behavior problems, particularly such problems as aggression.  No animal is 100% predictable 100% of the time.  There are many factors that affect the success of any behavior program including the environment in which the animal lives, the animal’s underlying genetic make-up, and your ability to implement the recommended treatment steps.  In order for the pet’s behavior to change, you must be able to make changes in the environment and your own behavior.  Your pet’s behavior will not improve spontaneously.

Please remember that most behavior problems require time to correct.  The information you receive during your first visit is a starting point in your pet’s road to rehabilitation.  Follow up calls and visits will be necessary to ensure that your pet’s progress continues in a satisfactory fashion.  the more closely you work with whatever professional you contact, the more effectively your pet’s problem will improve.