While delivering one of my free mini-courses recently, I answered a lot of questions about specific problem behaviour in the comments’ section of the course site, in private messages and in emails.
And in one of those conversations, the issue of getting professional help came up.
One person said: “I’ve spent a lot of money on two trainers, and still have the problem”.
After asking what the two trainers had attempted to do, I realized that they had probably made matters worse, due to incompetence. One of them had used aversive techniques that frightened the animal, and the other had advised against using treats in a situation that demanded it – screamed for it.
And so, I had a really uncomfortable insight.
Trainers’ competence is highly variable, and many pet owners and animal guardians have no way of assessing whether the people they hire to help them solve a behavioural problem actually know what they’re doing.
And so they give up. Thinking it’s their fault. Or the animal’s fault.
That they’ve done everything in their power to help their animal – and failed.
And I got really frustrated: if the choice of professional help is unfortunate, “everything” hasn’t been done! Not by a long shot!
Hence this blog post.
The next time you need to seek professional help to address problem behaviour in the animals in your care, make sure you ask the right questions.
Four questions to ask your prospective behaviour consultant.
- Where and how were they trained? Check their credentials. Do they have any formal education, are they members of any professional associations? Though this is no guarantee, a behaviour consultant should be trained in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is crucial to understanding and solving the most difficult behavioural problems. Most will also collaborate with a veterinarian, given that in some cases medical conditions may explain the problem behaviour.
- Ask them whether they use corrections as part of their techniques (if they say “yes” without hesitation, move on)
- Ask them whether they are familiar with systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (if they say “no”, move on)
- Try to find out if they keep learning. Science marches on – a lot of what was taught 20 years ago is now completely outdated!
If it were me asking those questions, I would make sure that the prospective behaviour consultant followed an ethical guideline, such as LIMA, the Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive approach.
In other words, that they choose intervention strategies that are as humane as possible, not inflicting more discomfort and intrusion than absolutely required to help resolve the challenging behaviour, and that they would only, hypothetically, resort to intrusive techniques if non-intrusive options have been tried and found ineffective.
And by that I don’t mean to condone the use of punishment techniques; in my experience really good behavioural consultants actually never end up using punishment to change behaviour.
And I mean that literally. Skilled behavioural consultants will typically help resolve even difficult aggressive cases without ever having to use corrections.
Another thing: they will typically spend a lot of time trying to understand the why (what brought about the unwanted behaviour, in which context it’s shown and what purpose it serves for the animal) before suggesting any type of intervention. And as mentioned, they will often suggest visiting a veterinarian to rule out any potential medical condition.
Expect a good behaviour consultant to ask many questions, and offer an answer tailored to your specific situation – and perhaps try different solutions. You should have a good gut feeling about their ethical standpoint.
If it were me, I wouldn’t just want the behaviour consultant to fix my problem, but also help the animal solve his problem – in a respectful way.
When sharing some of these thoughts with my students, I had some interesting – and disconcerting – feedback.
It turns out that in many places around the world, good behavior consultants are hard to find – they’re lost in a minefield of “traditional” trainers that may do more harm than good in some cases.
Many of my students could attest to stepping on one of those mines and getting bad advice that did nothing to improve the situation – or even made it worse.
So, it’s clear that people are struggling to find help, and that many don’t know what they’re looking for. Or, even if they do know what they’re looking for, it’s hard to find.
Hopefully, the four questions I listed above will help you navigate that minefield, if the time comes when you need professional help managing an unwanted behaviour.
What’s your experience? In your area, are competent behaviour consultants easy to find? Have you successfully received the help you needed to solve your behavioural problem? What questions did you ask before you decided to hire them?
In addition to getting external help, you can also educate yourself.
Watch TV? Well… Although one purpose of public media is to educate, it goes without saying that TV shows showing animal training and addressing problematic pet behaviour should not propagate potentially harmful, outdated techniques but be ethical and educational, not simply entertaining – but that’s not always the case.
Browse the internet? Well… We’re back to that minefield: the sound advice is lost in an avalanche of well-meaning suggestions that don’t work.
Many behavioural problems do not have quick fixes – you need to understand behaviour on a deeper level, in order to solve them – or nip them in the bud before the situation escalates!
- Learn more about how animals learn – and how to go about teaching them what they need to know to thrive with humans.
- Learn how emotions impact behaviour and wellbeing.
Incidentally, these are the topics that I teach in my online courses, and last weeks’ free mini-course was one such opportunity. If you want to be notified the next time I’m releasing a blog post, free training or course that will help you get happier animals that are reasonably well behaved and thrive with people, just sign up below and I’ll keep you posted.