How to Find a Trainer or Behavior Expert With the Right Experience for Your Pet
If your dog treats walks like a game of tug-o-war or tears up the couch cushions when you leave for the office, you might be thinking about enlisting the help of a dog trainer or canine behavior consultant. But choosing the right professional for your pet is easier said than done—especially when their credentials look more like a random spoonful of alphabet soup than a meaningful guide.
But because these confusing credentials do matter, we've created a quick guide to common certifications and accreditations for dog trainers and behavior consultants in the United States–all of which are committed to positive reinforcement rather than punishment. We'll also cover some of the credentials available for those who work with felines.
And while credentials can tell you a lot, they don't tell you everything. It's always a good idea to talk with your veterinarian about any behavior issues and ask for their recommendations. You may find that your pet would benefit most from visiting a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB). These are veterinarians who've completed residencies in animal behavior on top of graduating from veterinary school.
Trainer Or Behavior Consultant? Which One Do I Need?
Though trainers can have behavior consulting certifications and vice versa, the two roles fill different needs within the pet care field. According to the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, trainers help animals and their caregivers learn the key skills they need to live happily and safely in their respective roles, whether the animal is a service animal, family pet, or otherwise. Animal behavior consultants, on the other hand, are skilled in identifying causes of behavioral issues (such as anxiety or reactivity), developing intervention plans, and helping owners implement these plans.
Dog Training Credentials
Dog training is an unregulated industry. With zero licensing requirements or regulatory oversight, anyone can call themselves a trainer. And anyone who gets paid to train dogs can call themselves a "professional."
However, there are several training certifications available that can demonstrate knowledge and expertise. Here are some of the most common credentials:
Certified Professional Dog Trainer–Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA)
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) is an independent certifying organization for dog trainers. Before trainers can even take the 180-question certification exam that measures knowledge and skills in ethology (the science of animal behavior), learning theory, dog training technique, and instruction, they must have a minimum of 300 hours of dog training experience within the last three years. Moreover, certificants must recertify every three years by either retaking the exam (which is regularly updated) or by completing continuing education units. This helps ensure they stay up to date on the latest practices, methodologies, equipment, and terminology.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer–Knowledge and Skills Assessed (CPDT-KSA)
Trainers who already hold the CPDT-KA credential can take it a step further with CCPDT's skills-based certification. Instead of a written exam, trainers must submit videos of themselves completing assigned hands-on exercises. CPDT-KSA certificants must also renew their certification every three years via either testing or continuing education units.
Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC)
Graduates of the Academy for Dog Trainers can earn a CTC designation. The program is organized into four levels and takes an average of two years to complete (with six months spent on each level). Students are trained in case triage, prognosis estimating, and counseling skills for pet parents whose dogs display fear, aggression, and other behavior issues. They also gain an understanding of canine ethology, applied behavior analysis, evolution, learning theory, breeds, and genetics and their effect on behavior. To progress to each next level, students must submit videos demonstrating their training skills and pass each level's required assignments and knowledge test. Certification is awarded after passing the final exam.
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP)
The Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior offers a certification program that teaches both the science and the practice of dog training. Certificants also learn how to instruct pet parents, solve canine behavior problems, and manage a business. Graduation requirements include the completion of 21 online lessons and all quizzes, home training assignments, writing assignments, and workshops. Certificants must also pass a final exam and two practical assessments on both teaching and training. They're even required to train at least one non-dog species as part of their coursework.
Professional Canine Trainer–Accredited (PCT-A)
The Pet Professional Guild's Pet Professional Accreditation Board offers accredited Training Technician and Professional Canine Training certification for professionals who are committed to positive training and behavior practices. Certificants can be accredited as either Canine Training Technicians (CTT-A) or Professional Canine Trainers (PCT-A), with the latter being the more advanced tier. Technicians typically work with or for a canine trainer. Certification is based on several factors, including experience, continuing education credits, and references.
Victoria Stilwell Academy–Certified Dog Trainer (VSA-CDT)
Students of the Victoria Stilwell Academy Certified Dog Trainer program are educated in training dogs, teaching people, and branding and marketing their business. The curriculum includes topics like dog body language, cognition, learning theory, enrichment, and advanced behavior modification, and students learn a variety of training methods under the positive reinforcement umbrella.
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Accredited Dog Trainer (IAABC-ADT)
To be eligible for this program, the IAABC suggests a minimum of two years of dog training experience, at least 100 hours of coursework, seminars, mentorship, and education in the organization's Core Competencies, plus a working knowledge of learning science, training, and husbandry. Applicants must also submit references and demonstrate applied knowledge, skills, and abilities with the IAABC Core Competencies. Continuing education is required to maintain accreditation.
Free Free Certified Professional–Trainer (FFCP-Trainer)
The Fear Free Animal Certification Program is designed for certified trainers who would like to implement Fear Free techniques with their clients' pets at the veterinary clinic, through in-clinic training classes for puppies and kittens, and in day-to-day training outside the clinic. Certificants must complete training modules and then sign the Fear Free Pledge, which is a commitment to uphold a human, emotionally protective code of conduct and ethical standard for pet care, training, and professionalism. They must also complete continuing education hours every year.
Dog Behavior Consultant Credentials
As with dog trainers, anyone can give themself the title of "Professional Dog Behavior Consultant." But considering the seriousness of the issues they address, it's crucial to find those with the education, skills, and experience needed to safely and successfully modify behavior. Looking for these common credentials can help:
Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB)
ACAAB is one of two certification routes offered by the Animal Behavior Society. Applicants must meet specific education, experience, and endorsement requirements to become certified. This includes holding a master's degree in a biological or behavioral science with an emphasis in animal behavior and a research-based thesis, having a minimum of two years of professional experience in applied animal behavior, and at least three letters of recommendation from relevant sources (including a certified Animal Behavior Society member).
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB)
The second and more rigorous of the two certification routes offered by the Animal Behavior Society, CAAB applicants must have a doctoral degree in a biological or behavioral science with an emphasis on animal medicine, including five years of professional experience, or a doctorate in veterinary medicine plus two years in a university-approved animal behavior residency and three years of professional experience in applied animal behavior (among other requirements). As with ACAAB designation, CAAB applicants must also provide three letters of recommendation.
Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC)
Offered through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), CDBC designation has an extensive list of eligibility requirements, including a suggested minimum of four years and 500 hours of experience in animal behavior consulting, a minimum of 400 hours of coursework, seminars, mentorships, and education in the IAABC Core Competencies, as well as working knowledge of learning theory, counterconditioning, desensitization, training, and husbandry. They must also submit letters of recommendation and complete written demonstrations of their applied knowledge, skills, and abilities with the IAABC Core Competencies. Certification must be renewed every three years.
Certified Behavior Consultant Canine–Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA)
The CBCC-KA program offered by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) is for dog trainers who offer canine behavior modification. Eligibility is based on a number of requirements, including a minimum of 300 hours of experience in canine behavior consulting (on fear, phobias, compulsive behaviors, anxiety, and aggression) within the past three years. Certificants must also pass a 180-question exam and then become recertified every three years by either retaking the exam or by completing continuing education units.
Professional Canine Behavior Consultant–Accredited (PCBC-A)
The most advanced accreditation offered by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board, PCBC-A applicants must be able to demonstrate their experience by having either 300 hours of group training classes or 150 hours of private training consultations under their belts. They must also have earned 30 continuing education hours within the past two years, work or volunteer in a force-free training environment, and have professional references–including one from a client.
Certificate of Canine Studies (CCS)
The Northwest School of Canine Studies in Olympia, Wa., is the only dog behavior professional certification program in the U.S. that's conducted entirely in person. Before entering the program, students must have completed at least one year of college-level education and have a minimum of one year of hands-on experience working with dogs. Students complete 10 to 12 weeks of education in areas like animal learning theory and ethics, as well as weekly hands-on sessions with dogs, before graduating with their CCS credentials.
Cat Behavior Consultant Credentials
Dogs may dominate the training and behavior consulting sphere, but cat parents know that their pets need help sometimes, too. Board-certified veterinary behavior specialists (DACVB) and animal behaviorists (ACAAB and CAAB) are all highly qualified to help with feline behavior issues, and Fear Free Certification also applies to working with cats.
The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) offers a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (CCBC) credential, too. As with the canine version, CCBC designation includes a suggested minimum of four years and 500 hours of experience in animal behavior consulting, a minimum of 400 hours of coursework, seminars, mentorships, and education in the IAABC Core Competencies, as well as working knowledge of learning theory, counterconditioning, desensitization, training, and husbandry. Certificants must also submit letters of recommendation, complete written demonstrations of their applied knowledge, skills, and abilities of the IAABC Core Competencies, and complete continuing education hours to maintain their credentials.