Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why vets aren't behaviorists.

I have a common complaint with the veterinary medical field, and that complaint is our reluctance to call on specialists as often as our human medicine counterparts. Vets are pretty good about it when it comes to surgical matters, such as calling a cardiologist or osteologist for a particularly complicated surgical procedure. But when it comes to behavior, vets tend to consider themselves knowledgeable enough to educate their clients without consulting with or referring to a behaviorist. This annoys the crap out of me.

Behavior is not a topic that is stressed even remotely enough in veterinary student education, yet most vets - hell, most students - feel more than comfortable dispensing behavior advice. Often it's discredited, outdated information such as "The Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan's disgusting tactics, or simply just way off base, completely and utterly wrong.

Many vets have a background in dog training and feel that this establishes a level of knowledge that allows them to confidently give behavior advice, and to a certain extent I would agree. But again, only to an extent, and that is the extent of their knowledge, and most of them aren't very aware of where that line is. There is a difference between a dog trainer and an animal behaviorist. A dog trainer is trained, usually for a very brief period of time anywhere between a few weeks to a few months, and then they are certified to hold classes on very specific topics, such as potty-training, agility, etc. They typically hold on to the knowledge that they gained during that time period and don't keep up with the latest advancements in dog training/behavior very well. A behaviorist, on the other hand, has earned a Master's degree at the very least, oftentimes a PhD, after years of intense study and countless hours of research, pouring over the latest studies to be published and are up to date on the most recent advancements in animal behavior.

See the difference? And yet I have often seen dog trainers referring to themselves as behaviorists. Don't be fooled by them, and if your trainer claims to be a behaviorist, ask to see their degree. Don't be confused; a certification is not a degree, and having taken a six month training course doesn't compare to 2-4 years of grad school. That isn't to say that your dog trainer is completely untrustworthy, just to encourage you to be skeptical if yours claims to be a behavior expert. Many of them are knowledgeable about dog behavior as it pertains to topics that effect dog-owner or dog-dog interaction. Beyond that, see a behaviorist. Your vet will likely have a recommendation on hand if you ask.

This is all coming up after an experience I had at the beach earlier today where a few dogs were playing in the surf when another person arrived with a new dog. I have a background in working at a free-range, doggie daycare facility and also worked under a dog trainer who specialized in socialization, so I have some experience reading canine body language (note: I am not claiming to be a behaviorist, only that I have experience in this particular area of dog behavior). My focus immediately narrowed on the new dog, who was leaning forward, weight distributed onto his trunk and forelimbs, ears back and stiff, forehead tense, completely focused on the other dogs... In other words, this dog had the potential to become a big problem. His body language was screaming loud and clear, "I am WAY too interested in these other dogs, and not in a good way." I told my friend who I was swimming with, "He's going to be trouble."

Sure enough, several minutes later, he had his teeth sunk into the scruff of one of the other dogs while it howled bloody murder. Their owners tried to pull them apart but the aggressor dog was not letting go, and his body language indicated that he had no intention of doing so; his weight was forward, leaning into the fight the entire time. This was not a dog that bit out of fear because another dog spooked him. He was clearly the aggressor in this instance. The other dog was attempting to get away the entire time and only turned to snap at the aggressor dog a few times in a desperate attempt to shake him off.

To make matters worse, after separating him from the fight the owner of the aggressor dog then pinned him down in the sand for 1-2 minutes in a maneuver I strongly suspect she inherited from dear Mr. Millan. This does nothing but reinforce in the dog's mind that other dogs are associated with bad things and something to be feared.

Later I overheard both owners talking about how the dogs just needed to learn "how to respect boundaries" and "it wasn't a fight" and "if he really wanted to, he could have hurt him."

These people are clueless and a part of the problem with vet students today. You don't know what you're talking about. This was not a "boundary" issue. This was a dog that arrived on the beach looking for an altercation and started one at the first opportunity. If you're so naive to assume that if you hadn't of been there to separate them that it wouldn't have escalated into a full-blown fight, then I honestly don't know what to say to you.

(As a side note, I had the opportunity to study under and talk to some top notch animal behavior researchers as a student at Purdue University, one of whom was Dr. Andrew Luescher. Dr. Luescher is pretty well known as a parrot behavior expert, but he is also the director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University and has an extensive background in dog behavior and training. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Luescher over lunch once and pick his brain about a number of topics, including dog training and the notorious "Dog Whisperer." He referred me to a piece I'd read before but hadn't realized he had authored about Cesar Milan courtesy of the National Geographic channel, which sent him the pilot tapes to sort of test the waters a bit before airing the show. Needless to say they went ahead and put the idiot on the air, anyway, despite what Dr. Luescher and many other animal behaviorists had to say.

Here it is, if you're interested:


  1. I discovered your blog yesterday through BlagHag and I love it! I had no idea that Cesar Milan's techniques were considered outdated and often dangerous. Frankly, it never occurred to me to even check since he has the show on the National Geographic Channel. Thanks for pointing me in a more skeptical direction! I'm glad you're in school training to become a vet, we need more skeptical vets!

  2. Your comment is why I'm so concerned with advancing skepticism in vet med! Vets are one of the most highly respected and trusted professions and there is way too much woo being peddled by vets and other personalities that people view as authority figures and is readily accepted by the general public.