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Your Dog Needs the Right Behavior Help

Canine companions each have their own distinctive personality, including traits that we love and sometimes those that are more challenging. Problem behaviors require different types of intervention and help, depending on the severity of problem.

Often a training class is enough to address a dog’s behavior issue. Certified trainers who use positive reinforcement methods can yield amazing results for a variety of problems. Specific issues can often be addressed in specialized classes, like the San Francisco SPCA’s Bravery Class for Shy Dogs.

Sometimes, when an emotional matter is causing a problematic behavior, training is not enough.  For example, your dog could experience fear that causes him to bite or results in separation anxiety that causes him to bark. This is when a behaviorist can help. A behaviorist can address the underlying emotional issue through management techniques and behavior modification exercises.

Trainers and behaviorists can — and should — work together, but ultimately they serve different purposes.

What is the difference between behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists? If your trainer or veterinarian recommend seeking the help of a behaviorist, it is important to understand the difference between an animal behaviorist and a veterinary behaviorist.

Behaviorists can help with a variety of problems, including aggression, attention-seeking behavior, separation anxiety, and house soiling. In fact, it would be challenging to think of a behavior problem these experts cannot help address.

The terms “behaviorist” or “animal behaviorist” are not protected titles, meaning they do not guarantee any level of qualification or experience. Instead, look for specific accreditations like “Certified (or Associate Certified) Applied Animal Behaviorists,” or CAAB or ACAAB, who will have formal post graduate education in animal behavior and a minimum of two years independent professional experience.

Veterinary behaviorists are veterinarians who have received at least three years of additional behavior training in a residency program. To become a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, a veterinarian must also publish scientific research in behavior, write case reports, and pass an intensive two-day exam. Currently, there are only 79 veterinary behaviorists in the United States.

Veterinary behaviorists are the only behaviorists that can legally prescribe medication for your pet. Medication can be helpful to reduce a pet’s anxiety, which can make an animal easier to manage and also facilitate learning. The medication a veterinary behaviorist prescribes is not intended to sedate your pet, and your pet may not need to stay on medication for the rest of his life.

When do you need to see a veterinary behaviorist? If training classes have not helped your dog, or if the behavior problem you’re facing is severe, it might be time to consider seeing a veterinary behaviorist.

Dr. Wailani Sung is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who recently joined the SF SPCA’s Behavior Specialty Team. She not only helps dogs, but also cats and birds. In addition to seeing new clients, she hosts open office hours 10:30 a.m.-noon on the first Tuesday of each month. If your pet has a behavior issue you want to better understand, drop by Sung’s office for a free 15-minute meeting. No need to RSVP; just show up at the SF SPCA Mission Campus Veterinary Hospital, 201 Alabama St. No pets, please – humans only. To book a behavior consultation with Sung or to learn more about the SF SPCA training classes and behavior resources, visit or call the SF SPCA Behavior Information Line at 415-554-3085.

 Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact


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Main article photo by: Photo of veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung courtesy SF SPCA