Well Educated Behavior Consultants Help Pets and Families


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Marjie Alonso with Bear

Marjie Alonso with Bear

Houston, TX. At every turn, you could hear the sound of a clicker, or see a bouncing Kong or Busy Buddy toy at the Conference of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), April 24-26.

The IAABC consists of certified and associate dog, cat, parrot and horse behavior consultants. “(Animal) behavior consulting is truly science based,” says IAABC President Marjie Alonso. “And science expands and changes, and the conference is one method for keeping up with the latest, and also for consultants to share information.”

Alonso adds, “We do more than teach dogs to sit or horses to jump.” Not to be confused with dog or horse trainers, or so-called cat or parrot communicators, certified IAABC consultants deal with often serious and complex behavior issues, such as aggressive dogs, horses who pace relentlessly in stalls, parrots who scream incessantly or cats who miss the litter box. There’s no effort made to psychically communicate or use magic voodoo – methods are based on science and always implements the least intrusive minimally aversive approaches. Consultants work in tandem with veterinarians and/or veterinary behaviorists.            

Alonso, who is based in Cambridge, MA, points out that behavior consultants also require ‘people skills.’ “You can have all the science in the world, and be as skilled as can be with animals,” she says. “But there’s a human equation to all this also, since it’s people who live with dogs, cats, parrots and horses. So, our job is to help people to help animals work through their troubles.”

Jim Akenhead, a dog consultant from Alliance, OH and an IAABC board member relays a statistic that suggests only about a third of all dogs who go into homes survive the original home. “The remaining two thirds are either given away to a friend or someone else that person knows, given up to a shelter or that mythical farm in the sky where they can run free. Of that two-thirds who don’t make it in the original home, about two-thirds of those are euthanized.”

Pam Johnson-Bennett, a cat behavior consultant in Nashville, TN and founder of the IAABC Cat Division, points out that while cats are, in fact, more popular as pets than dogs, they are typically more misunderstood. “People have so many misconceptions of what cats are about; sometimes that causes those behavior problems, At other times not understanding cats makes it impossible to effectively deal with problem behaviors because people take the wrong advice.”

The good news is that help for animal behavioral issues is available. The bad news is that not all those ‘helpers’ are qualified and there is too much ‘wrong advice.’    

“There’s a great deal of misinformation out there,” says Akenhead. “That’s partially because there are no legal regulations, so anyone can call themselves a behaviorist. When finding someone to help your pet look carefully at credentials, dig deeper than the sign on the door or their business cards. Is this person really certified as a behavior consultant (by IAABC), a veterinary behaviorist or a PhD behaviorist?” Marketing is one thing, being the real deal is another thing.

Here are some conference highlights:

The keynote presentation was given by Susan Friedman, psychology professor Utah State University, Logan, UT. She’s an animal behaviorist who gives workshops around the world to veterinarians, zoo professionals and others. “Behavior is what it’s all about and the focus can be on the behavior itself,” she said. “The secret (to solving a behavior problem) is to make it easier to perform the right behavior rather than the problem behavior. Ultimately you want to eliminate whatever reinforcement the animal was deriving from presenting the problem behavior.”

So do dogs really attempt to dominate? Maybe. They certainly have their own social rank. However, they don’t attempt to dominate people, according to certified animal behaviorist Pam Reid, vice president of the ASPCA Animal Behavior Center, and adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, IL. “The notion that dogs necessarily invoke dominance relationships when interacting with other dogs and people is pervasive among dog trainers and lay people alike. Dogs with behavior problems are characterized as ‘dominant’ to such an extent that, regardless of the nature of the problem, owners are advised to be ‘alpha’ and perform obligatory irrelevant abusive practices. Too many times, this only leads to a rapid deterioration of the human-animal bond.”

Certified cat behavior consultant Jacqueline Munera of Tampa Bay, FL demonstrated how clicker training can help solve behavior problems, from counter jumping to dueling with other household cats.

Other topics included how nutrition impacts animal behavior; the language barrier between people and dogs; clicker training horses for disabled riders; a comparison of wild to captive Hyacinth Macaws; an overview of the problem of cats eliminating outside the litter box and understanding parrot stages of development and how they relate to behavior.

Certified Dog and Therapy Animal Consultant Janet Velenovsky of Premier Pet Products, earned the Animals and Other Nations Award for her support of the IAABC mission.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services