The role of the pet behaviour counsellor is to advise owners whose pets have developed inappropriate behaviour. This is different from standard obedience training offered by dog trainers. Behavioural problems include such things as aggression towards people, dogs or other animals, destructiveness, toileting problems, inappropriate vocal behaviour and phobias.
Bona fide pet behavioural counsellors work on referral from veterinary surgeons. Where necessary there will be close liaison between the counsellor and the referring veterinary surgeon.
To become a pet behaviour counsellor, you will need an academic knowledge of the theory of behaviour and solutions to problems, practical handling skills and experience, and an empathy with, and an ability to communicate and motivate owners. The ability to run a professional, financially sound and accountable practice is also essential.
There is no single recognised route for study, but there are an increasing number of courses related to pet behaviour counselling on offer and many organisations have agreed on the standards detailed by the Animal Behaviour and Training Council here. To become a Full Member of the APBC, applicants require education to Honours Degree standard or higher in a biological or behavioural science, including appropriate elements of zoology, physiology, psychology, clinical techniques and research methods. From March 2016 the APBC will require applicants for membership to have become a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB) and meet the full requirements of education, experience and endorsement as detailed here.
In addition to academic knowledge, it is essential to acquire a thorough understanding of companion animals and one of the best ways of doing this is by gaining practical, hands-on experience. Working in a kennels, cattery, stables, at a veterinary surgery, or one of the animal welfare societies for several years is an ideal way to do this.
There are very limited career opportunities for pet behaviour counsellors in the employment field. Some of the larger welfare charities now employ a small team of counsellors, but vacancies will be few and far between. Most PBCs are self-employed and run their own practices.
APBC members share their journey towards a career as a pet behaviour counsellor:
During my psychology degree and diploma, I was very interested in clinical psychology and how to help people overcome emotional difficulties. This interest developed as I took on my first rescue dog. Our family had always owned dogs but this was the first one that had really needed help. I attended training classes run by an experienced trainer and registered behaviourist. Whilst the methods in those days were a mixture of choke chains and rewards, I realized that with positive reinforcement and practice, a dog’s behaviour could be changed effectively and that people really needed guidance on how to teach them. After a long stint as an assistant in class, I began to instruct parts of the class under supervision from the senior instructor. I then went to the British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers to earn my instructor qualification. This was the main instructor training institution, as the APDT did not exist in its current form in those days. After many years as a dog training instructor, learning to handle all breeds of dog and all needs of owners, I began to see more difficult cases including aggression and it was at this point that I decided to join the APBC to develop the support network I needed to progress in this area.
For anyone considering a career as a pet behaviour counsellor, be prepared to put in long hours not only gaining the relevant qualification but also handling many different types of dog. Be prepared to counsel people that are in crisis and who may not want to listen at first. Never try and rush this process of learning, and do not set your sights to start taking cases too soon. You need to apprentice yourself to a trainer and behaviour counsellor to gain the experience you need, for several years, before starting out on your own.
At an early age I read Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, a ground breaking book and one that made me want to learn more about animals and how best to ensure welfare from their point of view. So I suppose it is no surprise that I ended up working for a national animal welfare charity for 19 years. From teenage years onwards I have spent my time getting to know and care for many horses and dogs (always the ‘tricky’ or unwanted ones). When I left school I took an office job, with good pay and short hours, to ensure I could continue to care for my dogs and horses. A few years later, on the strength of my practical and handling abilities, I was offered, and took, a job working full time with ‘problem’ dogs. A few years later I accepted a job as a rehoming centre manager with Blue Cross (an animal welfare charity). This provided even more opportunity to help and handle a wide variety of animals.
To top up my practical experience I completed a BSc(Hons) in psychology (at the time there were no specific degrees directed at behaviour counsellors), then a post graduate teaching certificate followed by a post-graduate diploma in companion animal behaviour counselling. I was working full time as head of behaviour services at Blue Cross, lecturing in psychology in the evenings, running a behaviour consultancy and still competing in dog and horse sports. It was hard work and looking back I have no idea how I managed it.
For anyone considering a career in animal behaviour counselling I advise getting lots of experience handling, training and living with as many animals as possible. Taking in a variety of rescue animals with ‘problem’ behaviour not only helps develop skills but also gives you an insight into what clients are struggling with. I’d also advise selling your TV – you won’t have time to watch it!
‘When Jess my Border Collie arrived from rescue aged 1.5 years she was chasing or biting just about everything. To this day I have never met a worse behaved dog with so many behaviour problems. I suddenly found there was a lot more to learn about living with dogs than my previous rescued Labrador and rescued Collie/Spaniel cross had implied. It was clear that living with Jess was going to be a life changing experience.
I was working with a local dog trainer teaching puppies but we could not get Jess in the class, never mind to sit in the class or take any notice of me. I sought help from various behaviourists and Jess gradually worked her way up to top of the class, and eventually became a demo dog for the class. During this time I realised there were so many conflicting views, so I enrolled in a degree level course at the University of Southampton, just to find out what was going on. I rapidly discovered how little I knew, but with more study at University combined with working at the dog training classes, Jess and I learned how to live together.
Having developed the basics, I enrolled in a post graduate diploma in companion animal behaviour counselling at the University of Southampton and then completed an Msc, also at Southampton University. Jess’s antics continued to challenge my growing experience and knowledge, but finally she was able to help me work with other dogs and their owners. Jess taught me everything I know, but to understand Jess it was essential to formally study animal behaviour, as otherwise I would never have known what she was trying to teach me.’
Having grown up with two parents who worked as experimental psychologists I was always fascinated by how minds work. From a very young age animals caught my attention and I had various pet creatures from my garden to keep me going until my parents finally agreed to my first pet rat, Bubbles, at the age of 5. So a natural career choice was to become a veterinary surgeon so that I could work with animals and I feel so privileged to be able to spend my time doing a job that I find so rewarding and pleasurable.
However I felt that being a vet on its own was not enough for me as during my training there was little training about the behaviour and emotional welfare of my companion animal patients. Thankfully veterinary training has improved since my time but there are still improvements required.
I was lucky enough to come across the Southampton University post graduate diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling and spent the next 2 years using up all my CPD allowance and holiday allowance to complete this course whilst continuing to work full time in general practice.
I was then incredibly fortunate to be offered a job by Sarah Heath, an internationally renowned veterinary behaviourist, and I worked for Sarah for a year gaining invaluable experience. Pregnancy then forced me to stop commuting up the M6 every week and I set up my own behaviour referral practice in Warwickshire whilst continuing to locum in general practice.
I have found my behavioural knowledge absolutely crucial for interacting with and treating my patients in general practice and hope that the future will see a whole generation of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses who have been trained appropriately in animal behaviour with regard to what I believe to be an essential aspect of veterinary medicine.
I started my career in the animal industry as a veterinary nurse. Working day to day with sometimes fearful, aggressive or excitable dogs made me want to learn more about dog behaviour and in particular how to prevent dogs being euthanized on behavioural grounds. I therefore enrolled to study applied animal behaviour via a degree level block release course at the University of Southampton which, when combined with a distance learning veterinary nursing degree, gave me the theoretical knowledge I needed to become an accredited behaviourist.
I already had a great deal of practical experience handling dogs with problems from my work as a VN and my own rescue dog Amber, who had quite a few problems including aggression to people and dogs and separation issues when I adopted her. I built on this through my local dog training club, where I was a regular participant and committee member, and was fortunate enough to see practice with a couple of APBC full members before feeling ready to start taking cases on my own. I cut my teeth conducting pro bono (or as my ex liked to call them ‘pro bonio’) behaviour consultations for clients at the PDSA hospital at which I was working at the time, with guidance from the APBC and ESVCE forums and other fellow professionals.
At first I used to conduct two consultations separated by a week to enable me to consider the history and seek guidance when needed before making a diagnosis and developing the treatment plan. As my confidence grew I then started to see a couple of cases a month freelance, and I eventually build up enough experience to apply for full membership of the APBC. Since being accepted my practice has snowballed and I now work full time as a behaviour counsellor, lecturer, speaker at CPD events and writer.
It takes time and dedication to build up the knowledge, experience and reputation needed to do the job. However once you get here there is never a dull moment!
With my academic qualifications complete, gaining those first clients was a frightening step. So I made it easy for myself by helping those owners that were struggling at the classes where I assisted. At first this was just a little help with the dog that tended not to listen to her owner in class, or the dog that pulled on lead. But gradually it was clear that some dogs needed a little more assistance after class, so I offered one to one dog training sessions to keep them up to speed with everyone else. This progressed to offering to help people to those owners who had attended the classes with their dogs, but then began experiencing training problems at adolescents. Soon I had friends of owners who had been to the classes asking for help and gradually the difficulty of the behaviour problems increased.
All my life I have had pets and took over my mum and dads’ garage to house an array of mice, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs and the odd snake. I also procured and ruined the lawn with a variety of runs. From school I went straight to work as a riding school assistant then after a very cold year moved indoors to work as veterinary nurse.
Then after six years I desperately wanted to be Dian Fossey so I went back to college and then onto university to study animal behaviour and then spent a further four years studying what makes a happy rat and a further year as an editorial assistant for the journal “Animal Behaviour”.
Then armed with a degree and an MPhil I spent a few years living in countries such as Oman, Singapore and Saudi Arabia and every where I went I found animals. I found animals in the sea, animals in the deserts and animals in the jungle.
Then I came home with a new husband in tow and realised if I wanted children and a family life I couldn’t be Dian Fossey so I became a pet behaviourist.
Is there any advice you would offer those wishing to follow this career?
Unlike the “olden” days if you are looking to become a professional companion animal behaviourists there are now plenty of specifically designed and accredited university courses. There are also plenty of “other” courses so do your research, ask your peers, listen to what other folk are saying and find out as much as you can about each course and whether it is suitable for you and your future career. Gain as much practical experience as you can along the way and never stop learning.
It’s a dog’s life… Reproduced with permission of iAfrica.com
Full APBC member Sally Jones (45) is an ex-accountant and IT consultant who swapped the world of economic figures and computer workstations for, well… a dog’s life really! Instead of briefcase-clutching suit-clad individuals, her new clients are furry, yelping, slobbering, excitable, smelly-breathed pooches of all shapes and sizes.
How long have you been involved in dog training and how did you get started?
I have been a dog owner for a very long time but I didn’t start teaching others until 1991 when the agility club I belonged to became desperate for volunteer trainers.
As for where I trained, I learnt most of it at the coal face. Our second dog, Boogie, was a real challenge and I had to employ the services of a professional dog trainer just to be able to live with the great oaf. This trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour so I started reading everything I could and started to seek out the people who I admired in the competitive obedience and agility world for private lessons.
In 1996 I reached a watershed. A new dog, Venn, challenged all my previous methods by remaining un-trainable even after six weeks of intensive effort. It was then that I discovered clicker training (based on the behavioural science of operant conditioning). This was a revelation and Venn went from the worst to the best dog in the obedience class in the space of a week.
So impressed was I with this technology that I travelled to Arkansas in the US to study with the pioneers of the method, Bob Bailey and the late Marian Breland Bailey. I trained chickens for two weeks! In the same year I embarked upon a post-graduate diploma in companion animal behaviour counselling at Southampton University.
Is it emotionally and financially rewarding?
Wow, talk about opposite ends of the spectrum!
Then there are the days upon end when I witness clients strengthen the bond with their dog. Only yesterday I was helping a lady train her deaf dog for agility. I have a secret signal for this dog to let him know just how clever he has been (backed up with a hefty treat) and after a particularly brilliant performance yesterday he gave me a beaming grin when I used it.
As for financially rewarding, I live in the wrong country. My job is highly skilled, potentially dangerous, requires an education to Masters level and yet my hourly rate is less than that of a car mechanic. Given that it is a physically and mentally demanding job, I simply cannot work long hours and keep up my standards. I am able to do the job because my husband has a decent job and my career up until now has been well paid.
What is the potential for career growth
Diversification. I started as an agility trainer and then branched out into obedience, pet training, puppy socialisation and behaviour consultancy. I have written for various magazines since 1995 and one day they might start paying me. I have a book in the process of being written and I am hoping it will do very well. I am also starting to organise unaffiliated (non-Kennel Club) agility shows designed to attract the beginners to the sport. I do not want to employ staff because I am too demanding. I would love a larger premises but that is long way off.
Then again, if I moved to the US it would all be different. I have taught there on many occasions and I am always invited back because, amongst other things, I am not expensive. Yet the fee they are prepared to pay for one day’s training is often more than I earn in two weeks in the UK.
What skills are important in this career and how does one go about becoming a dog trainer?
First and foremost:
The dog trainer has to respect the client’s views on how they want to interact with their dog. However, if the client is using inappropriate training techniques on their dog then the trainer/behaviourist has to employ the utmost diplomacy in explaining why this may be contributing to the problem.
Do you move around to your clients, or do your doggy clients come to you?
Both. If the behaviour problem is related to a particular situation then I have to see the dog in situ. There is no substitute for seeing the dog in its own environment surrounded by all members of the family. I also travel to agility clubs around the country and world to deliver seminars. But the majority of my work is done at my training barn in East Devon.
Describe a typical day…
There is no such thing. I am self-employed so it is up to me what time I get up. My first lesson tends to be at about 10am and I do not teach for more than 5-6 hours per day. Every client is different and during the day I may see several who want agility training but for very different standards. Some may have behaviour problems or some may want obedience training.
I have to plan each of the lessons in my head and also make sure that I get equipment set up or handouts printed out. Every now and then I get to train one of my own dogs, but it’s very rare. Then there are the phone calls and emails requesting information and help. Of course there is paper work, accounts, reports, adverts, fliers. I also have a monthly column to write for the UK’s leading agility magazine ‘Agility Eye’ and various other publications.
What about you job gets you up smiling in the morning?
The fact that I like my clients and I love dogs. I also know that I make a difference. I get to share wonderful breakthroughs when the light bulb comes on. The owner and I exchange a glance and a grin and I punch the air in celebration. Sometimes I think that I should be paying them because I get such a buzz. I know I will get to laugh during the day because dogs never fail to do something to entertain me.
Ever been bitten by a wayward dog?
Believe it or not, only once. It was several years ago before I had learned to interpret what owners say about their dogs. This one was a small dog that was reported to jump up at the elderly visitors who came round to the house to play cards.
He was described as ‘a little bit naughty’ and I didn’t ask any more questions before my visit. It didn’t do much damage but it taught me a huge lesson. I am not confrontational with dogs, I am a big fan of muzzles and I am pretty good at reading body language. However, there is always a risk and I do not underestimate it.
Advice for anyone considering dog training as a career?
Don’t, unless you are both wealthy and related to Mother Theresa!
Rate your job on a stress scale of one to 10.
(one being a walk in the park and 10 being ready to pull your hair out of your head.)
The higher end of the scale for much of the time, hitting the 10 a few times a year. My head is normally buzzing with something to do. My phone rings all evening and all weekend and I never get a holiday. But I love it.
Sally lives in Devon, south-west England with her husband Steve and their 10 rescue dogs. Her company is called ‘Dogs R Dogs’, aptly expressing her philosophy that dogs are not human, and so should not be expected to behave and respond as such. She chats to us about her job as a dog behaviourist and trainer.
“My job as a pet behaviour counsellor causes me to travel a lot. I have nine regular clinics around the Midlands in veterinary hospitals, PDSA and RSPCA clinics as well as at The Queen’s Veterinary School, Cambridge. I also consult at the Pet Behaviour Centre in Worcestershire, where I am based.
On a full clinic day I may see five or six clients, all on referral from their veterinary surgeons. I spend about an hour and a half each of them, taking a detailed history of the problem and discussing how best to modify their pet’s behaviour. After the consultation I remain in telephone contact with my clients for updates, progress reports and where necessary to modify the advice in light of the dog or cat’s response to the behaviour modification programme. I always plan to be in my office on one particular day of each week so that clients and vets know they can reach me. That day will be spent almost entirely on the telephone. On other days the phone is always manned in office hours and I am contactable if necessary.
The success of behaviour modification very much depends upon owner compliance in carrying out the modification programme. Unfortunately a few clients wish you to wave a magic wand and make everything better, but it doesn’t work like that. Although in some instances very rapid progress can be made, more often a thorough and systematic approach has to be taken which can be time consuming and involves all members of the family. It is extremely satisfying to see a family enjoying their dog again instead of it just causing them stress.
As well as consulting I give talks and lectures in the UK and overseas, which I particularly enjoy. Of course I also attend other people’s talks, and within the APBC we have regular education days so that all members are kept up-to-date with latest developments in the field of behavioural therapy. I also spend quite a lot of time writing, both articles for the canine press and also books and booklets”.
Extracted from How to Work with Dogs (How To Books), written by Pauline Appleby and
A Career as a Pet Behaviour Counsellor, published by the Blue Cross and written by Gwen Bailey.
Gwen Bailey, APBC member, has set up a nationwide network of puppy class tutors that provide kind, effective training and socialisation of young puppies. Comprehensive training and advice will be provided to enable you to open a Puppy School in your area, along with training in animal and owner behaviour. For further details, contact:
PO Box 186
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