Who Gets to Label Animal Behavior?

Helping people with their pets’ behavior and training problems requires a variety of skills.  One skill is to know what are normal behaviors and what aren’t.  That can get a little tricky because to call something “not normal” we must have a frame of reference for “normal”.  Normal for all members of the species?  Normal for a particular breed? Or normal for this individual pet? 

It’s normal (maybe typical would be a better word) for our Irish setter Coral to relieve herself someplace outside (the backyard or on a walk).  If suddenly she’s relieving herself inside on our carpet, then we would say that is not normal for her. 

We could then put several interpretive labels on her behavior.  Coral is soiling in the house.  Coral could be doing so because she is not well – maybe she has a urinary tract infection, or has developed a metabolic problem that causes her body to make more urine.  If Coral’s veterinarian gives her a clean bill of health, there are many possible behavioral causes for housesoiling.

Coral may be afraid to go outside.  Maybe she’s afraid of the dogs in the yard behind us who frequently run the fence and bark at her.  If I determine Coral’s behavior is fear motivated, I’ve used my professional and scientific knowledge and experience to interpret and label the reason for her behavior.

What if I do that in my professional capacity as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist?  If I see a dog crouch low, put his ears back, lower his tail, avoid eye contact with me and show his teeth, and I interpret that as fear-motivated behavior and recommend a counter conditioning and desensitization program have I done something illegal?  I guess it depends on where you live, who you are, and who you believe.

We came across a recent article by the Associated Press that appeared in the Denver Post.  The article was actually about Cesar Millan’s 2010 suicide attempt and his new TV show “Leader of the Pack”.  In the article, Dr. Bonnie Beaver a veterinary behaviorist was quoted as saying that putting labels on behaviors (such as separation anxiety or dominance problems) is “making a diagnosis”, and that activity is “restricted to certain professionals”.   At least in the state of Texas. 

How many different types of people in their professional capacities, interpret or label animal behavior?  Animal scientists, zookeepers, animal shelter staff, animal control officers, field biologists, wildlife biologists, research scientists, doggie day care owners, professional animal trainers (including dog trainers), police and working dog handlers, and certified applied animal behaviorists like us, to name just a few. 

Is it inappropriate for these individuals, in the course of performing their jobs, to observe and interpret the behavior of the animals they work with, and based on their professional training and knowledge, suggest the best means possible to modify behavior when needed?  Should a doggie day care owner not be able to decide a dog under her care is afraid of another dog and find the best means possible to lessen that fear?

Let’s be clear about one thing.  Veterinarians should without a doubt be involved in all aspects of the health care of animals.  Everyone knows that behavior changes are often the first symptoms of disease or illness.  That’s one reason why, for over 25 years, our clients and their pets with behavior problems have come through veterinary referral.  Veterinarians and behavior and training professionals need to work together to ensure the best health and behavioral care possible for pets and other animals. 

But we do NOT believe that experienced behavior and training (and other) professionals who have a sound knowledge of the science behind animal behavior and learning, should be “restricted” from observing, interpreting, and devising plans to humanely modify behavior when needed in a professional capacity.

And we are disappointed that this issue was brought up in the context of being critical of Cesar Millan’s techniques.  Hitting, kicking, pinning and lifting dogs on choke chains are reasons enough for criticism. 

You can read the newspaper article HERE.

If you’re a member of Behavior Education Network, be sure and watch our webinar course on Increasing Referrals from Veterinarians.



  • Sadly I see far too often anyone that works with dogs or breeds dogs is an expert on behavioral problems. I wish I had a dollar for every person who has said to me “no you are wrong. I have lived/worked with dogs all my life and my dogs is not…….”

    Louise Kerr
    Elite Pet Care & Education

  • evelyn haskins

    Reply Reply

    It seems to me that anyone can describe a problem in words. to anybody else

    What people should NOT do is represent themselves as possessing qualifications which they do not have, be they legal, medical, engineering, or even giving musical instruction.

    That it as right for anybody to say to anybody “Your dogs has an anxiety problem”, as it is to say to someone else “You have the Flu.”

    I think that people can recommend over-the-counter remedies, be they medications or somebody running training classes.

    But if the they give that advice while claiming to be a qualified doctor, or a qualified Veterinary behaviourist, then I think, yes, that is wrong.

    Cesar Millan IS set up as having qualifications, which he does not. But in many ways I think that it is National Geographic which is committing the ethical misdemeanor, not Cesar Millan himself.

  • Gitta Vaughn

    Reply Reply

    I think it can be a fine line to cross. But how on earth are we supposed to communicate? Even with all the flaws of using a label, it is a lot quicker than a very lengthy and not necessarily more accurate description of the same thing.

    Imagine, instead of telling my car mechanic that I think I need a new spark plug I resort to describing what I mean without using that label.

    I agree, the real problem is not the labels being used – but what follows. BTW to me that article gives a hint into why he treats dogs the way he does. Not diagnosing! :>)

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Hi Evelyn – our point in this article was that there are certain folks in the veterinary behavior community who hold that ONLY veterinarians should be able to /and or / are qualified to put labels (“diagnose”) on behavior. I would argue strongly that is not a tenable position.

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