How to Become a Dog Behaviorist


Many animal-science careers, like dog behaviorist, are paraprofessional positions. To become a dog behaviorist entails a three-fold process: (1) training and experience; (2) education in behavioral science; and (3) practice in the art of behavioral-training techniques. Depending on a person's rapport with dogs, amount of time spent with them, resources and other factors, a person can become fully trained and qualified as an dog behaviorist within two to five years.

Things You'll Need

  • Job or volunteer position working with dogs
  • Access to online or other college courses in animal behavioral sciences
  • Two to five years

Basic Dog Trainer Skills

To be an animal trainer requires being comfortable around all animals. You should be able to hold and handle a dog, assess its general health and understand its normal behavior patterns. Learning skills, as opposed to book knowledge, comes with time and experience. A dog behaviorist may face aggressive "clients" that must be handled firmly without fear. Much of an animal's aggression has to do communication. Karen Pryor, a noted animal behaviorist, states that most aggressive animals will "pull their punches." Snarls and snaps and other mock attacks, for instance, warn of inner turmoil, pain, role confusion or other factors. The major component of behavioral analysis involves finding the causes for canine misbehavior. Once you have gained training and experience, you can turn a ferocious dog into a big puppy.

In the early 1900s, Ivan Pavlov discovered what became called classical conditioning. With this method, Pavlov showed that a dog's involuntary bodily responses could be controlled by controlling the stimulus. For example, a dog will get excited when he hears the clinking sounds of his leash because he thinks it means he is about to go for a walk (because he almost invariably goes out to the park once you pick up that leash). Or a dog will start to salivate when she hears a can opener (because she generally eats after you open her can of food).

B.F. Skinner became the father of operant conditioning, which forms the basis for all behavioral sciences. Skinner showed that it is the reward (or punishment) received after an action that controls the action. Positive reinforcement, Premack's principle, shaping, and punishment form four of the integral components of this science's techniques. It will require active participation in a college-level course (not necessarily part of a degree) to become fully educated about all of the many facets of behavioral analysis.

Once you have a familiarity with dogs and a sound understanding of behavioral principles, you can start applying them—and once you do, you will see how amazingly helpful they are. Normally intelligent dogs can easily learn tricks through operant conditioning. Step (1): Make a signal to the dog (e.g., point your finger and say, "Bang-bang!"). Step (2): Gently get the dog to roll over on her back (play dead). Step (3): Reward the dog by vigorously rubbing her belly. Within 10 to 20 repetitions, most dogs will do this trick independently with no help—the power is in the reward (pleasure) being paired to the action (play dead).

Working with animals can be difficult—but also rewarding. Karen Pryor writes, when referring to a difficult training session, "It was infuriating." Her book "Lads Before the Wind" covers her life experiences training dolphins, whales, otters, birds, dogs and other animals. A dog behaviorist will have to become used to the unexpected on the job. However, as Karen Pryor also expresses in her book, training is an art, and a good trainer, like a good artist, will use the tools of behaviorism to make living beauty.

Tips & Warnings

  • Jobs such as dog-grooming assistant or veterinarian assistant or voluntary positions with county or private animal shelters provide best "ground-floor openings" for initial experience.
  • Working with overly aggressive, emotionally upset, untrained or undomesticated dogs can be dangerous. Be aware of the dangers and ready to accept them before considering this as a career choice.

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  • Lads Before the WInd by Karen Pryor (1975)
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