Canine Behaviorists’ Top 10 Issues

By the Numbers
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2010

Applied animal behaviorists are constantly developing new techniques, exploring new ideas, considering controversial theories and conducting research. So what is on the minds of the people in this dynamic field? What are behaviorists talking about right now?

1. The prevention of problem behaviors. As behaviorists, we generally deal with serious problems that have been going on for a long time by the time we become involved. For example, when someone whose dog has bitten a child for the sixth time contacts us, we are both glad that they’re looking for help and often saddened as well, since we know that early intervention might have prevented— or at least ameliorated—this problem.Prevention can take many forms, including responsible breeding, good matches between dog and household, proper socialization, effective training, and quick responses to warning signs.

2. An increasing focus on ethology. Ethology is the study of the behavior of animals in their natural habitat. A trained ethologist working in applied canine behavior has an ability to read a dog’s body language, understanding signs that indicate the dog is stressed, anxious or afraid. Additionally, a skilled ethologist working with dogs is able to interpret the displays and cues dogs use to communicate, and has a deep knowledge of the sensory world, or umwelt (also defined as the “subjective universe”) in which dogs live. An understanding of dogs’ natural history and behavior deserves as much attention as canine learning theory, which has been focused on so much of late.

3. The need for more research. Basic questions such as what information dog scent marks contain, how best to treat dog–dog aggression within a household and the purpose of canine play remain at least partially unanswered.Despite the obvious need, standard funding sources —the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH)—support precious little research in applied animal behavior.

4. Genetic studies that further our understanding of dogs. Findings of the latest research into dog evolution are exciting, and new discoveries are being made all the time. For example, a recent study identified a gene responsible for the tremendous variation in size among dogs. Advances in technology have facilitated a new wave of genetic research into the time and place of dog domestication and the development of breeds.

5. Breeding pet dogs. Regrettably, few breeders focus on breeding companion animals. Many purebred dogs sold as “pet quality”are somehow non-standard: They may be the wrong size, color or general structure to show; they may not have the drive necessary to compete, as in agility; or they may be afraid of the sheep they are supposed to be herding. There is a need for dogs with the behavioral traits required to be the best pets.

6. The need for interdisciplinary collaboration. When people have behavioral problems, psychologists, doctors, clergy, coaches and teachers often collaborate. Similarly, in an ideal scenario within applied animal behavior,we would have regular collaborations between ethologists, psychologists, veterinarians and trainers. When professionals from different disciplines work together, we are all more effective at helping clients with their dogs’ behavioral problems.

7. Reconsidering temperament tests. Some tests are designed to predict the potential for aggression in shelter dogs and to help shelter staff decide which dogs are adoptable. Others are designed to predict the personalities of puppies in order to determine which are best suited to performance homes, companion homes or working homes, and even which specific puppy would be most compatible with which specific household. These are admirable goals, but the problem is that no temperament test has been shown to be reliably predictive of future behavior or personality. Behaviorists talk a lot about the shortcomings of the existing temperament tests, whether or not more predictive tests can be designed, or whether these tests have intrinsic limitations.

8. Upgrading certification programs. Unfortunately, anybody can hang out a sign and call him- or herself a behaviorist, and there are certification programs with alarmingly low standards. The most stringent certification program is the one that leads to the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) designation. To become a CAAB, a person must have substantial coursework in both ethology and psychology, five years of experience in applied animal behavior practice, and either a PhD in a field related to behavior (such as biology, zoology or psychology), or a DVM, in addition to two years in a university-approved residency program in animal behavior.

9. The demand for more qualified behaviorists. There are very few truly qualified behaviorists, so it is hard for people whose dogs have behavioral issues to get the help they need. Training new behaviorists is a big challenge because the two kinds of experience needed—academic and practical—are not linked by any structured program that helps interested people transition from one to the other. Few opportunities exist in academia to pursue research in applied animal behavior, because most people with expertise in this area are working as applied animal behaviorists, not as professors. Therefore, despite there being many people with advanced degrees in ethology or psychology, few have significant practical experience in applied animal behavior, including the actual experience of working with dogs.

10. The importance of using humane, positive training and treatment methods for dogs.No matter how popular abusive and aversive techniques may be in the media, or how they are marketed to the public as the quick fix everyone wants, they are not the best choice for us or for our dogs. Better, safer options are out there, and behaviorists take very seriously their responsibility to educate the public about the difference between techniques that help dogs and techniques that harm dogs. This list includes some of the hot topics of concern and controversy that we discuss (sometimes heatedly, but always cordially) when we get together at conferences, seminars and workshops. But truth be told, there is a good chance that, at this very moment, your local behaviorist is doing what we all enjoy doing more than anything, which is talking about our own dogs. After all, as dog behaviorists, we are not just experts on canine behavior, but dog lovers of the highest order.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.