Why more people are hiring “pet shrinks”

The field of animal behaviorists, trainers, and counselors, is burgeoning.
The field of animal behaviorists, trainers, and counselors, is burgeoning.
Image: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
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“He clearly has the makings of a very good dog,” the vet told me, as he wrangled our growling, shivering, Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix on his lap to cut his nails. “I’m going to give you the number of a pet psychologist.”

My husband and I rescued Bowie Philbert from a California kill shelter almost three years ago. We adopted him six months after Stewie, my husband’s beloved Chihuahua and a faithful companion, died at 13 years old.

A great dog, with all the makings of an even better one.
A great dog, with all the makings of an even better one.
Image: Jackie Bischof

We love dogs, and have had them our whole lives. Bowie is a 8 kg (17 lb), sweet-natured, and goofy ball of energy. He’s house trained—except when he’s particularly annoyed at us—and good with our 16-month-old son.

He’s also very anxious.

Bowie is prone to barking at any perceived threat, from the buzzer to a postman. He’ll growl at other dogs if they don’t want to say hi to him, and snaps if we try to take something away from him. Oh, and did I mention he pees on things when he’s peeved?

All this means life with Bowie is a rollercoaster of emotion. It’s easy to love your dog when you’re snuggled on the couch with his head resting sweetly on your lap. It’s harder when he hysterically greets an Amazon delivery that arrives in the middle of a work meeting.

We want to be good pet owners, and we want Bowie to have a happy, anxiety-free life. Our vet recognized that impulse, probably because it’s become increasingly common. In response over the last few decades, the field of animal behaviorists has grown. Their overarching goal: to help create optimal conditions to breed human-pet relationships.

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Pet vocations

The number of employed pet trainers in the US has risen significantly in the last 10 years, a reflection of the explosion in the broader business around pet ownership. But there’s no way to know how many pet behaviorists there are globally—largely because it remains an unregulated sector, governed only by independent organizations that dole out voluntary certifications.

That said, “if you look at the increase in behavior organizations over the last 10 years, you will clearly see a huge increase in this vocation as a career choice,” says Rosie Bescoby of the Association of Pet Behavior Counsellors (APBC), a 30-year-old UK-based organization whose full members are all certified clinical animal behaviorists or technicians. Behind that shift, she thinks, is an increasing ability to see animal training as a profession. “A greater understanding of animal sentience [and] emotion has lead to the realization that degree-level knowledge is required,” says Bescoby.

Accepting pets as emotional creatures is a natural result of accepting them as part of our families. For centuries, humans could be found surrounded by nature and living in agrarian communities. Now we’re in high-rise buildings, isolated from our families, with the mailman our most constant connection to the outside world—and that was even before the pandemic. So over the last 50 years, we’ve increasingly dealt with that disconnect by moving pets into our home, explains Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist who founded one of the first animal behavior clinics in the US, at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, in 1986. “I think it’s natural when you’re under that kind of stress of what is, in effect, a form of isolation, to want to have a connection,” Dodman says.

With pets in our homes, “the affection of the bond builds,” says Dodman, “unless there’s a glitch.” Our pets can become anxious. They start running around in circles, or become prone to eating disgusting things off the side of the road. Some of this dysfunctional behavior is the result of genetics, and some of it is the result of what Dodman calls the “dyadic relationship” between a pet and their owner. Since a pet can’t say how they feel, we can look to their biology and their behavior to try understand the causes of those glitches.

But until recently, there hasn’t been a natural place to seek that help. Historically, vets have been trained to focus on the physical health of pets, not their behavior. So in the last 30 years, a cottage industry of behaviorists—what Dodman describes as a “wastebasket term”—sprang up to fill the void, including:

  • Non-qualified animal trainers;
  • Certified dog trainers, accredited by a governing body like the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT);
  • Certified applied animal behaviorists, such as members of the international Animal Behavior Society;
  • Animal counselors, such as members of the Association of Pet Behavior Counselors; and
  • Veterinary behaviorists, who are qualified vets with additional training in behavior medicine (technically there is no official category of pet psychiatrist or shrink, this category is about the closest you’ll get).

“The bottom line,” says Dodman, “is all of these institutions and organizations—for dog trainers, for academics, for veterinarians—are burgeoning.”

With that many options to choose from, though, where should a concerned pet owner begin? Dodman, whose nonprofit Center for Canine Behavior Studies educates owners on pet care, advises that any visit to a pet trainer should be preceded by a trip to the vet. A large percentage of pet problems have an underlying health cause, which a vet should rule out before training begins.

Then, you should look out for a professional with “alphabetty spaghetti after their name—somebody with valid training qualifications, who’s passed the more rigorous training exams,” advises Dodman.

The end goal of successful work with a behaviorist is for the owner to feel like what ever the dysfunctional behavior was has improved and the pet appears to be feeling better. That said, “the placebo effect is alive and well in vet medicine,” says Dodman. It’s not necessarily “that the dogs ‘thinks’ it is getting better, it’s just that the owner does.”

I talked to Dodman briefly about my own experiences with Bowie, and how I should approach working with a trainer. He counseled patience, and to experience the training in an “inclusionary way”—that is, as a partnership. “You’re the dog’s friend, and you’re there to help it to learn from people who know how to teach,” he said.

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Finding the right animal trainer

The “pet shrink” that my vet had referred us to was North London-based Penaran Higgs, who has her own alphabet soup of credentials: a BSc in human psychology, a PgDip CABC (post-graduate diploma in companion animal behavior counseling), and a full membership with APBC.

Higgs got into the field because she was interested in animals and curious about the psychological interplay between pets and their owners. “The interesting thing about working as an animal behaviorist is you also actually have to like people as well, because so often it’s about the relationship between the animal and their owner,” she says.

Higgs believes that the increased demand for pet behaviorists is partly a result of overbreeding resulting in less physically and psychologically robust dogs (and hence, more behavior problems). But she also sees it as a reflection of the fact that “people are actually starting to realize how complex dogs are.”

As an example, one area that I’d like to explore is how to best manage our 16-month-old son’s interactions with Bowie. “A lot of time when a baby comes along, a dog’s nose is put out of joint,” Dodman observes when I talk to him about Bowie. Reacting the wrong way, like pushing the dog away because we’re concerned about safety, risks “building up animosity between the dog and the baby,” Dodman says. “It’s a bit like sibling rivalry.”

We hope to do a course with Higgs in the near future to learn how to teach my son the right way to show Bowie love and affection, in a way that makes Bowie feel safe and included.

In the meantime, I asked Higgs what she’d advise for people who can’t see a trainer, but would like to explore immediate ways to help their pet. She suggested starting with some of the free resources available on websites such as APBC and the APDT, and provided by their members on their social media accounts. Owners can practice training techniques, and make sure they’re giving their pets outlets for their energy or frustration, such as stimulating toys or things they can rip up, like cardboard boxes with treats hidden inside. A high-quality diet is key, and supplements can help with anxiety. Additionally, avoiding punishment, and focusing on rewarding good behavior can also serve to help a pet relax. “We want to get them calm,” she says. “If they’re calm, we’re calm.”

When an owner is ready to look for a trainer, there are some unifying principles for a successful behavioral plan. Higgs’ advice is to look for behaviorists who not only have a high standard or training, but who also don’t suggest anything “aversive,” like punishment, to get a dog to comply. “A good behaviorist works to understand why a dog wants to do something, and provides an outlet for that motivation,” she says, “so that they still get to do what they want to do, but not in a way that is problematic for the owner.”

That advice could be useful for all pet owners—but perhaps especially those who are new to the game. Many people have purchased pets for companionship during the coronavirus pandemic. While Dodman is pleased that’s resulted in rescue dogs finding homes, he’s concerned about those owners that might not have thought their decision through—a surprising number of people “don’t think very hard before they get a dog,” he says.

Higgs’ primary pandemic concerns are about the impact of lockdowns on the ability of dogs to socialize with humans and other dogs, and get use to being apart from their owners and strangers in their home. She wonders whether owners, particularly with younger puppies, have taken advantage of classes online, which could be as effective as in-person, she believes (Higgs charges £375 or about $500 for an online package, including an initial assessment and three follow-ups.)

The more time we’ve spent at home with Bowie as a result of the pandemic, the clearer the dynamics of our relationship have become. The experts I’ve spoken to have shed light on how his behavior is not disconnected from ours. If we want him to behave better, we’ll need to first learn how to behave better to him ourselves.