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What is an Animal Behavior Specialist?


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Does your dog try and bust down the wall when you leave for five minutes? Does your cat continue to spray places that are not pleasant? What about your horse? Does he think that the wood on his stall is extra tasty for some reason?

All of these are behavioral issues. While some people may find them entertaining or somewhat funny -- they are not. They are underlying issues of some deep psychological problems. Issues like these are why tens of thousands of animals in shelters are euthanized every year. Luckily, most people can see that there is a problem with how their pet is feeling, and that is when they may call in an animal behavior specialist.

Animal behavior specialists, or ethologists, are the psychologists and psychiatrists of the dog world. Their job is to observe and record every aspect of an animal's behavior and then either make hypotheses or treatments based on what they observe. You may have noticed this profession in movies such as Zeus and Roxanne, March of the Penguins, and Paulie. In real life, some notable animal behaviorists are Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, Cesar Millan, Jane Goodall, and Ivan Pavlov.

Formal Education

While some are fortunate enough to have a natural gift of understanding animal behavior, like Cesar Millan, most others must attend formal education. Individuals wanting to practice ethology must receive at least a Bachelor's degree in ethological studies. Many universities offer degrees in animal behavior.

Besides a degree, like most jobs, an ethologist needs time in the field. Whether this be an internship or slipping right into the job, they get hands-on experience. Most animal behaviorists will work in government or private research industries, college teaching, zoos, aquariums, national parks, or if they are lucky, have their own practice.

What's the Difference?

So how do animal behaviorists and dog trainers differ? Dog trainers, or any animal trainer for that matter, focus on obedience. They teach an animal how to listen and obey important commands, whether for entertainment, sport, or a job. An animal behaviorist searches deeper; they go to the root of the animal's issue and seek the problem from within. Then, they teach the animal and more importantly, the human, how to resolve it.

Animal behaviorists can help solve issues such as:

  • Aggression
  • Nervous or excessive barking
  • Anxieties
  • Separation anxiety
  • Over-preening of feathers
  • OCD tendencies
  • Cribbing from horses

A veterinarian may suggest you hire an animal behaviorist if they cannot treat the pet's issue in their clinic. While there are many medications and treatments for animals, such as anti-depressants, it doesn't help strengthen your bond with your pet. An animal behaviorist will study and work with you on how to make your pet more comfortable.

To do this, they will show you how to pay closer attention to the signs your pet is trying to give you. For example, if your pet has separation anxiety, this could mean that you possibly made a big deal of leaving when your dog was a puppy, and now they associate you leaving with being a bad thing. The animal behaviorist can show you how to backtrack and help your pet realize that being left alone is not the end of the world.

Another example is one commonly seen with birds. When they are stressed, they may pull out their own feathers. This is unhealthy for a number of obvious reasons. An animal behaviorist may suggest spending more time with the bird, getting them a friend, or providing a better cage with more toys to keep them entertained.

Animal Behaviorist, What's Covered?

It can be hard to care for pets when it seems you don't see eye to eye. Sometimes a behavior that a pet sees as natural is a really big nuisance to us. However, it is an animal behaviorist's job to help this happen. As a general rule, when your pet is being treated by an animal behaviorist, they should cover these main areas:

  • Exercise - How much is your pet getting?
  • Diet - Could your pet have an allergy? Is there too much "junk food"?
  • Commands and communication - Are you as a pet owner making clear what you need or want your pet to do?
  • Control systems - Do you have the right kind of equipment to keep your pet safe and in control (harness, kennel, stall)?
  • Stimulating environment - What can you provide to help keep your pet entertained, educated, and fulfilled?
  • Behavior programs - The specialist should be able to give you a plan to follow to help you and your pet solve their issues and stay on track.
  • Medicine - If needed, they can prescribe psychological drugs to help your pet feel more at ease.

These are the main categories that a behaviorist should cover. All of these categories separately, or combined, could be the reason why your pet is having difficulties. If given a specific behavior plan, you should be able to follow it easily and daily to get on the path to a happier, healthier pet.

For exotic animals or animals in captivity, it is a bit different. Most people don't keep bears or dolphins as pets. However, thanks to the vigorous studies of ecologists, zoos or aquariums that care for animals can better understand them. Ethology helps bring the bond between humans and animals closer.

Jane Goodall is famous for her study of chimpanzees in Tanzania. At the time, this was ground-breaking information. Thanks to her, we now understand how unique these animals really are. We have learned how intelligent they are and how human-like their lives seem.

Without animal behavior specialists, we wouldn't be able to co-exist with animals. Or, even more scary, we probably wouldn't know anything about them at all.

An animal behaviorist's job may seem like it's pretty straightforward. However, it can be very difficult. Sometimes after all of their hard work and dedication to a case, the owner of a pet gives up and reverts back to old behaviors or even worse, doesn't even try at all. In the wild, studying certain animals can be very dangerous up close.

If you do hire an animal behaviorist, make sure that you are going to be dedicated to helping your pet. It takes a lot of time and effort to have a healthy relationship with your pet, just like a human relationship.

As you can see, animals and humans are more closely related than people realize. Thanks to ethologists, that is becoming more clear. Without the proper environment and care, both humans and animals can suffer. Luckily, there are many ways to help your pet feel back up to snuff, even on the doggiest of days!

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