1. How does a person become an animal behaviorist?
Unfortunately, anyone can call him or herself an animal behaviorist even if they have virtually no experience with training or in comparative psychology of animals. There are, however, two gold standards for becoming professionally certified in animal behavior modification. One way is to get a veterinary degree and perform a several-year residency in animal behavior (www.veterinarybehaviorists.org). A second way is to get a master’s degree or Ph.D. combined with research and hands-on behavior consult experience, followed by certification by the Animal Behavior Society (www.animalbehavior.org).
I became a behaviorist by a fusion of these two methods. After receiving my veterinary degree and working in private practice for a number of years, I went on and did a master’s in animal science with an emphasis on animal behavior. My course work included classes ranging from primate social behavior, hormones and behavior, and comparative psychology, to comparative nutrition. During my master’s program and beforehand, I also participated in several one-month natural horsemanship clinics, a low-stress livestock herding clinic, chicken training/operant conditioning workshops, research on cattle as well as on barking as vocal communication in dogs, and training projects involving horses, ostriches, giraffes and more.
2. Do you see more dogs or cats in your practice?
I see far more dogs than cats in my practice, even though more cats are relinquished to shelters due to behavior problems than dogs. This is most likely due in part to the fact that people don’t know that cats can be trained, often more easily than dogs (See Videos: Summer Sits and Come When Called). I also work with exotic animals such as lions, porcupines and giraffes when I consult at places such as the Santa Barbara Zoo (See Giraffe Hoof Trim).
3. What are the top behavioral issues in dogs? in cats?
For dogs it’s fear aggression toward humans or other dogs and for cats it’s urinating outside the box. Interestingly, both issues are related to fear and inadequate early socialization. Early in life, when puppies and kittens are between 3 and 14 weeks of age, they go through a sensitive period for socialization wherein they startle easily but recover quickly. This is the time when they need to have positive interactions with all types of people, pets, sounds and environments on a daily basis until they are comfortable and relaxed meeting new people and pets and visiting new environments, including the veterinary hospital. Cats that are well socialized don’t need to hide when guests come over, and easily welcome new members into the household rather than becoming upset or stressed at minor changes (stress can lead to urinating outside the box). Dogs that are well socialized are comfortable around both new people and other dogs (See Dr. Yin’s puppyclass and kittyclass).
4. How do you feel about medicating animals with behavioral issues (e.g., doggie Prozac)?
In most cases of behavioral problems, anti-anxiety medications are not needed; rather, the biggest change can be brought about if the human family members change their habits. Additionally, even where they are indicated, when used alone without a careful behavior modification plan, they have a minimal effect. On the other hand, in some situations medications can have a huge beneficial effect if you are patient in trying them sequentially. Many take a minimum of six weeks for full effect. In general, a full blood panel should be performed before starting medications, and then yearly. Plus the pet should be examined by the veterinarian supervising the modification plan on a yearly basis.
5. Do you ever give up on a pet?
I always provide the owners with a full range of options as well as the potential consequences of their choices. In my experience, in most cases, the most important factor in determining success is the human family and the pet’s environment. For instance, the fewer household members and pets, the easier it is for everyone to carry the plan out consistently. Additionally, the presence of young children to thwart or just keep your focus away from the pet’s behavior plan, as well as elderly members who are set in their habits, can greatly slow the modification process down. Because of all of these confounding factors, it’s important that owners be willing to commit to a series of consults so that the plan can be tailored to their situation.
6. What do you say to people who think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
I usually just take a few minutes to train their old dog to perform a new trick. Then I explain that realistically, animals have evolved to keep learning throughout their lives. If an animal in the wild stopped learning, it would quickly starve when it didn’t learn that it needed to find food in a new location. The problem with training old dogs is that their humans are set in their ways. The humans have already established habits of behavior around their pets that lead to accidental rewarding of undesirable behavior. In order to change their pet’s behavior they must remove the rewards for the undesirable behavior and instead reward more appropriate behavior. They must do this consistently (and within one second of the desirable behavior) until the new behavior is a habit, and they must first reward the more appropriate behavior frequently (e.g., 100 times a day at first if they want the new behavior to become a habit quickly). (See How Fido Learns)
The best part of my job is that clients form a better understanding and stronger bond with their pet. When they come in they are often frustrated and confused about their pet’s behavior. As we progress, they understand how many of these behaviors are a result of inappropriately rewarded behavior and how to read their pet better so that they can “hear” what their pet it telling them. They learn that you don’t have to boss your dog around or use force; they can reach their desired goals by instead removing rewards for undesirable behavior and rewarding the desirable behaviors. And these changes can occur virtually overnight. In fact, they often see their pets make the decision to willing and happily perform more appropriate behaviors within the consult (See Rewarding Calm Behavior, Part 1 and Part 2).
For more videos and information about behavior go to www.AskDrYin.com.