The number one cause of death in pets isn’t cancer or kidney disease, it’s bad behavior. Whether it’s a kitty who’s missing the litter box, a bossy biting parrot, a dog who is literally biting the hand who feeds it, or a horse so terrified at novel sounds taking him out of the stall seems useless, these issues may cause a rift in the bond between people and their animals. And the consequences may be dire.
“Sometimes people don’t know that these animals can be helped, or they don’t know where to turn for help,” says feline behavior consultant Pam Johnson Bennett. “At best these animals are taken away from the only home they’ve known, but they may also land in a shelter and never get out, or lose their lives.”
Countless thousands of animals are killed because they’re misunderstood. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) maxim is “Your pets wouldn’t give up on you. You don’t have to give up on your pets.” The IAABC is a relatively new organization of certified canine, feline, parrot and equine behavior consultants. The mission is to assist companion animals and educate humans to interrupt the cycle of inappropriate punishment, rejection and euthanasia of animals with resolvable behavior problems.
The IAABC held their first annual conference, a meeting of professional behavior consultants June 3 through 5 in Columbia, Md. Kicking off the conference was Dr. Myna Milani, author of several books, with her take on what she called “the Animal Nation.” Other topics included a demonstration on working with aggressive dogs from canine consultant Pamela Dennison, author of “Bringing Light to Shadow: A Dog Trainer’s Diary” (Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, WA, 2005; $19.95), a demonstration on how the Gentle Leader training collar helps some problem dogs from veterinary behaviorist Dr. R. K. Anderson, and Johnson Bennett speaking about cats who miss the litter box.
Johnson Bennett, who lives outside Nashville, Tenn. says the truth is that most veterinarians don’t have the time or interest to deal with behavioral problems. Dog trainers may help, or they may not.
“Just because a dog trainer can teach ‘sit, stay and come’ doesn’t mean that trainer has the background or knowledge to work with aggression, compulsive disorders, or other behavior issues” says IAABC member and veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore (cq) Haug, department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine.
Previous to the IAABC, the only certification for expertise in dealing with behavioral issues were Ph.D behaviorists, (also called certified applied animal behaviorists); and boarded veterinary behaviorists. These two groups combined add up to fewer than 75 individuals. What’s more is some of these people work solely or mostly in research or work for industry so their services aren’t available to the public. “Clearly there aren’t enough of us to go around,” says Haug. “And there are too many pets in desperate need of qualified professional help; their life depends on it.”
That’s why Lynn Hoover of Pittsburgh began the IAABC in 2003. Hoover, a psychotherapist, started training service dogs for autistic children in the 1990s. By 1997, she transitioned to a full time dog trainer. “I enjoyed working with dogs, and besides it’s easier in many ways, the dogs have no unresolved issues with their mothers.”
Hoover joined the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, a professional organization for dog trainers, but she adds, “Something was still missing, there was no professional organization or certification or standards for behavior counseling.”
In recent years, as a marketing ploy, people who presumably enjoy working with dogs, cats, birds or horses just post a shingle on their door claiming expertise in behavior, calling themselves behaviorists when, in fact, they are not.
Johnson Bennett, who is arguably the most successful author of cat behavior books and has been counseling clients with poorly behaving cats in their homes for 23 years says, “The truth is some of these so-called behavior experts ” may or may not be well meaning. Their only training could be reading my books, or they just simply like cats. The advice they offer may be dreadful.”
Liz Wilson speaks at veterinary conferences about parrot behavior, which she’s been consulting clients on for 15 years. “Whether it’s people who want to make a quick buck, even vets who decide they want to do parrot behavior without the proper training or knowledge or people who think they know everything about parrots because they had a pet cockatoo or African grey, and then they all call themselves professional behaviorists. Often they do more damage, like dealing with a parrot who is afraid by scaring the holy hell out of the bird. Of course, these people are not professionals.”
That has been Hoover’s goal, to create a professional organization of behavior consultants; a resource the public can trust has qualified members. “I also see IAABC as a resource for veterinarians and dog trainers who just don’t deal with complicated behavioral issues,” Haug says. “Right now, too many veterinarians just use the phone book to find help for animals with behavior problems, obviously being an IAABC consultant is a more suitable qualification.”
Today, there are 270 IAABC members. Some are members who already have been “grandfathered” in as behavior consultants. They may or may not be veterinarians, such as Johnson Bennett and Wilson. Neither is a vet, but both have guided clients with success for many years, and no one would doubt their credentials or expertise in cat or parrot behavior respectively.
The behavior consultants grandfathered into the IAABC have a proven track record; some have conducted research or taught at veterinary conferences and/or veterinary schools, and all are recommended by respected colleagues and approved by the IAABC Board of Directors. Certainly Ph.D and veterinary behaviorists may also be grandfathered in, such as Haug.
However, many IAABC members are not so expert or experienced. Many IAABC members are associate members who are taking appropriate steps to become certified, and learning along the way.
“You don’t have to be a Ph.D in animal behavior or a veterinary behaviorist to be a certified behavior consultant,” says Hoover. “Experience and knowledge matter, but real behavior consultant should certainly understand what you’re doing, and why they’re doing it. There is science here that should be understood. There should be qualifications, a professional standard, and a code of ethics. The IAABC’s goal is to provide all of that.”
For an IAABC behavior consultant located near you: www.iaabc.org.