Meet Our Animal Behaviourist (PhD)

What is the difference between an Animal Behaviourist and a Behaviour Veterinarian?

Firstly, their qualifications are very different. An animal behaviourist is not a medical professional and does not have a veterinary science qualification (B.VSc. or DVM) like a behaviour veterinarian has. An animal behaviourist has an advanced (post-graduate) degree such as a Masters or PhD in Animal Behaviour. Advanced degrees are obtained after a typical 3-4 year undergraduate degree. This means the Animal Behaviourist has at least 6 years of relevant tertiary education, and at least 2 of those years will have been under the direct supervision of usually 2 academics who teach and research in a relevant discipline (e.g. veterinary science, zoology, psychology) while undertaking a research project.

Animal behaviour research teaches a range of advanced skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, evidence-based practice, theoretical knowledge, and practical skills. What this means is that an animal behaviourist with an advanced degree has a wealth of theoretical knowledge to draw on in understanding complex behaviour and the drivers behind it. They are adept at applying their theoretical knowledge to new situations, meaning they are good at figuring out the function of behaviour no matter how strange it is, and using that combined with their knowledge of how animals learn, they can create a plan to change the animal’s behaviour. They can then use their extensive practical experience to implement the plan.

There is quite a bit of overlap between what a behaviour veterinarian and an animal behaviourist can provide you with. They can both provide behaviour modification, training and management advice on complex behavioural problems. However the animal behaviourist will be able to help you implement these plans in a more practical way, as their technical handling skills would be more advanced than a behaviour veterinarian. On the other hand, a behaviour veterinarian is skilled at taking a thorough medical history, making medical diagnoses and providing you with any medical advice that may be necessary to address medical conditions that may be contributing to your pet’s behavioural problem, which an animal behaviourist is not qualified to do.

Click here to read more about behaviour veterinarians and what they do.

Why hire an Animal Behaviourist instead of a Trainer?

A trainer who has completed a recognised or well-regarded dog training qualification typically has a certificate-level qualification (Cert III or IV). These take around 2 years part-time to complete through a vocational training organisation and will include a practical component. Vocational training is focused on skills needed directly to perform a job, whereas university courses are much more intensive, require a bigger time commitment, and focus more on theory and how to apply it to suit a range of jobs than on specific skills. Trainers are therefore an excellent choice for training young animals, animals for specialised roles (e.g. detection dogs), general obedience and life skills and minor common problem behaviours. Some trainers have undergone further training and can handle more complex cases.

Due to their advanced training in critical thinking and problem-solving, animal behaviourists are an excellent choice for animals displaying problematic behaviours, animals that are not very responsive to first-line training techniques, animals prone to anxiety, fearfulness or aggression, and animals that are displaying strange behaviours that are hard to make sense of. Animal Behaviourists are also equipped to work with multiple species, because their theoretical knowledge includes many aspects of behaviour that are relevant for all species.

What does the term “Behaviourist” actually mean, anyway?

In most parts of the world including Australia, anyone can legally call themselves a ‘behaviourist’, ‘dog psychologist’, ‘dog trainer’ or even ‘behaviour specialist’ (ironically, unless you are a vet!), even if they don’t hold any behaviour certifications. To make matters even more confusing, some trainers with very good training qualifications also call themselves behaviourists and use these terms interchangeably. There is no professional body that regulates the use of these terms and any claims that are made, which means that many people can be misled into believing that certain professionals are more qualified than they really are. This makes choosing a behaviour professional really difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Pet owners can be rest assured that the professionals who work for Pet Behaviour Vet are all fully qualified and are who they say they are. Take a look at our staff profiles and see for yourself!

Find out more about our Animal Behaviourist:

Dr Melissa Starling (PhD)