Who Can Help?

Couple looking at paperwork while dog looks on

When we have an aggressive dog, we want to find someone who can give us answers on how to deal with it.  Unfortunately not only are there methods and practices that can be that can be harmful and even dangerous, anyone can call themselves a trainer, specialist or a behaviorist or some other kind of expert.

A past client may simply be swayed by that professional’s ability to convince the client that they are knowledgeable, so even referrals are not always helpful.  Where do you start when you don’t yet know enough to make an educated choice?  How can you make sure you are not going down a road that will cause more problems for your dog and leave you feeling emotional and financially duped?

Here are some suggestions to get you started

In this article:

  • Rational vs Emotional action
  • Types of experts and consultants and how to choose one
    • Veterinarians
    • Veterinary behaviorists
    • Trainers and other specialists
      • How to find a good trainer
      • Red flags to look out for when choosing a trainer to work with
      • Dog Trainer Certification
  • Online Canine professional associations, including member directories and information

Rational vs. Emotional Action

Humans primarily make decisions based on emotional reasons and quite often unconsciously. Quite often we make these decisions within minutes, if not seconds. We then look for evidence that supports our decisions, and depending on how convinced we are, may even reject facts that don’t support our decision.

Owners of aggressive dogs looking for help are particularly vulnerable to those who can convince us they can solve our problem.

Instead what we need is a way to deal with the immediate challenge and minimize any danger to buy yourself some time so we can investigate the best course of action.

What You Can Do Right Now

It may seem obvious, but the first thing you can and should do is avoid the situation that causes the problem. This will relieve some of the pressure to find help and rush you into seeking help from the first person who seems to know more than you.

The quickest way to avoid dog aggression is to avoid the circumstances which lead to the aggression short term. In other words, if you have two dogs that are fighting with each other separate them. If you have a dog who goes after strangers, avoid them or put enough space between your dog and them that your dog isn’t reactive, if you dog reacts to pushing them off the couch, don’t do that.

But this is not a cure, and does nothing to make your dog safer in the situation.

Don’t sugarcoat your dog’s issues to vets, or groomers, dog walkers, pet sitters or guests. Instead look for alternative solutions. In most cases all of these professionals have encountered problem behavior and are more than familiar with owners that are in denial.

Consultants and Professionals

Here is an overview on the main groups of professionals that work with aggressive dogs, and what you need to be concerned with to help you.


Your vet should be the first stop when dealing with a new aggression issue since your dog may be unwell.

But while your DVM is legally able to diagnose medical and behavior problems, your general practice vet may not know as much about treating aggressive behavior as you hope. (1) Many American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education–accredited veterinary schools do not offer a formal course in animal behavior. (2)

However, your vet can usually consult with a veterinary behaviorist on your behalf if you request.

Red Flags to Look Out For in Veterinarians

The majority of vets do not specialize in behavior problems and have not done the additional study and training that is involved in becoming a veterinary behaviorist (2).  Some may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist of trainer, but some might not. (3) Some vets will recommend euthanizing dogs for aggression who otherwise might live long, healthy and happy lives if treated properly and safely managed. (anecdotal evidence)

Veterinary Behaviorists

DVMs (Vets) and  DACVBs (Veterinary Behaviorists) are the only professionals who can legally diagnose medical and behavioral problems in animals.   That doesn’t mean that other don’t try or claim they can do the same thing.  However, aggression is complex, and there are behavioral disorders that need a veterinarian’s diagnosis.

A board-certified veterinary behaviorist will take a detailed behavioral history, consider the dog’s health and physiology, environment and family circumstances in order to both diagnose and come up with a treatment plan, and then may do follow-ups through the course of the treatment.  

While they do not train your dog, they can demonstrate a behavior modification plan, have an excellent understanding of how dogs learn, and what works for aggressive or anxious dogs.  While they are not trainers, they often work with trainers, or will recommend a trainer, or the kind of trainer you should be working with as they understand what training methods are both effective and safe.

If you have a serious problem, we currently recommend contacting your vet or the behavioral department at the nearest veterinary college for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist in your area (this might take some research to find out who is the best person to contact). The challenge is, there is usually a waiting list to see these individuals.

You can track a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at www.dacvb.org.  Although the number of these highly qualified individuals is limited, many of them also do consultations with other vets across the world.

Remember, a veterinary behaviorist is not the same as a behaviorist or behavior specialist or a vet who has an interest in behavior.  Anyone can call themselves a behaviorist or trainer. Not anyone can call themselves a veterinarian or board certified veterinary behavior specialist.

American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) includes those in the US, Canada, Australia, Cayman Islands.  Some may do consultations with other vets across the world.

You may also be able to find veterinarians who specialize in behaviour or behavior clinics at some schools of veterinary medicine. Check the wikipedia page on this for a list of schools of veterinary medicine.

Vets with a high degree of interest in behavior.

There is also the vet who may not have completed the rigorous training necessary to become a specialist, but may have spent many hours continuing their education, and may be up to date with the latest knowledge and research in the field of behavior. These vets may also be able to help you.  

You can find one at this level of expertise at the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) at avsab.org

What to be Aware of During the First Visit

In order to get your dog treated, most trainers and consultants should require an initial first meeting to talk with you and evaluate your dog. They should evaluate your dog, take a detailed history and be willing to listen to your concerns and goals prior to making suggestions.

A veterinary behaviorist visit can take an hour and a half or longer.

In most cases the appointment requires your dog to be present although some Veterinary Behaviorists will look at video or do remote consultations. They will be looking for other behavior from your dog that is not just aggression based. Trough experience, they know what is “normal” and what may indicate a problem that medication could help improve.

Usually the appointments do not include training demonstrations. If you want demonstrations you can ask, or ask for a recommendation on how to find the right trainer to help.

Most if not all veterinary behaviorist are familiar with even the most serious cases, so don’t sugar-coat your observations and experiences.

Trainers, Behaviorists and Specialists

There can be some overlap between veterinary behaviorist, trainers and other specialists since training methods have long been established.

The easiest way understand the difference between a veterinary behaviorist and a trainer is to imagine the difference between a doctor and a teacher. They do not prescribe medication or diagnose. They usually are not trained in physiology and may or may not have a good understanding of how stress affects learning. They may not be focused on the effects of anxiety and how it affects learning.

The advantage of a trainer is they can teach behavior and even teach you how to read some dog communication and signalling. You might work with them several times and a good one can help you adjust your timing and behavior to get the best from your dog. They can often break down a behavior you want to teach into smaller steps and link or chain them together.

Those that work in consult with veterinary behaviorists or understand behavior modification can be a fantastic resource for owners provided they understand dog signalling and anxiety cues.

Trainers may understand unusual or abnormal behavior, but do not have the credentials to diagnose an anxiety disorder. Some may offer an opinions, make suggestions and seem authoritative on the use of medication for behavior issues, but this is outside of their realm of expertise and would regard any advice or thoughts as just opinions.

Experienced trainers may know when to suggest a veterinary behaviorist consult. Many do not and some will not for fear of losing you as a client which is unfortunate.

Trainers and various other specialists can be amazing resources to have both in conjunction with a veterinary behaviorist or even on their own. Many have many hours of working directly with dogs and owners.

Before you Hire a Trainer

But before you hire someone, note that anyone can call themselves a trainer, behaviorist or specialist.  Unless a behaviorist is called a “veterinary behaviorist” or an “applied animal behaviorist”, it does not indicate what experience or education they might have.

How to Find a Good Trainer or Behaviorist

Trainers of all kinds may not be skilled in recognizing anxiety in dogs, and unfortunately may push your dog into situations he is not ready for, making the issues worse.  

Some trainers deem the dog to be beyond help and recommend euthanasia even when most aggressive dogs do not need to be euthanized. But without having access to data on generalized anxiety disorders, medical or drug interventions, are these recommendations sound?  How do you know when a trainer is recommending euthanasia simply because his or hers methods don’t work or have made the problem worse?

A couple seeking a behavior consultation about their dog

If possible find a professional that has verifiable crendentials back. Veterinary behaviorists are not the only options, but they can be a good place to start and can refer you to trainers that have been vetted.

If they are unable to make recommendations or you can’t use the dog trainer they have referred, (perhaps they are not in your area or have too many clients, for example) is always a good idea after consulting a veterinarian behaviorist to ask them what you should look for in a trainer.

See How to Chooser a Trainer (pdf)

Dog Trainer or Behaviorist Certification

If you decide to consult someone other than (or in addition to) a veterinary behaviorist, it is a good idea to look for evidence of certification that indicates that they have proven experience in behavior work, passed tests and use/recommend positive reinforcement methods before becoming certified.  Keep in mind that these individuals can not legally diagnose and treat behavior disorders, medical problems or prescribe medications.

However, some may work very closely with veterinarians.

Be aware that “certification” may still not help you find the right trainer to help with your problem.  For example, there are other associations that sound official and issues certifications.  Some of these trainers use shock based training and this is not recommended for dog aggression.

Some of the professionals you could consider are those who have certification with credible organizations, such as 

  • CAABs (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists),
  • A CDBC (Certified Dog Behavior Consultant),
  • CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed).
  • A CPDT-KA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed) trainer may also be able to help you.

A trainer who is the right fit for your dog should be using positive methods only for dealing with aggression.  They should also understand that your’s aggression likely has a component rooted in anxiety (opposed to simply being a misbehaving dog).  They should understand aggression is not the result of a lack of training or obedience, or a matter of you needing to be “Alpha” or “top dog”.  These concepts are long outdated, and often harmful to the dog.  A good trainer should be more than willing to get a veterinary behaviorist involved in serious cases.

Recommended Training Methods

Training methods that are reward based are recommended.

Generally any reward based methods are considered beneficial whether it is with food or play.

Clicker Training

Clicker training is a form of reward based training. But the phrase “clicker” is sometimes co-opted by those using shock based collars because the remote control they used is similar to a TV “clicker”. This is not clicker training.

Clicker training uses a manual device with a spring in it to make a clicking sound only. You teach the dog that the sound means that they are going to get a treat or some positive reward. You can use any sound to do this but the clicker is very distinct.


Avoid trainers that put down or discourage consulting veterinary behaviorists. Good trainers should understand these professionals do not threaten their business in any way.

Avoid trainers who discourages the use of prescribed behavioral medication or suggests they know whether your dog requires medication or not. Only a veterinarian behaviorist can diagnose.

Avoid trainers who recommend punishment in treating aggression issues.

Avoid trainers that use the following tools as these tools can cause fear and anxiety:

  • shock collars / electric collars / e-collars / static collars / stim-collars
  • prong collars
  • “correction” collars
  • choke collars, choke chains (sometimes euphemistically referred to as training collars)
  • Anyone referencing any kind of electrical device or remote control and calling it a clicker. This is not clicker training.

Red Flags to Look Out For in Trainers

Concerned people with dog

A dog training business is a tough business to run. Most don’t get into it because they hope to get rich. Instead get into it because they have a passion of teaching and training. But it’s not enough to be able to handle dogs. To be successful requires the ability to persuade dog owners that they need the consultant’s services.

That is not to say that the dog training industry is full of charlatans. A trainer may fully believe they know how to help. But even the most well meaning consultants don’t always know the best way – or all the ways – to handle your dog’s particular issues.

Quick fixes, Cures and Minimizing Issues

Any trainer who insists he or she can “fix” your dog, or uses language to suggest that your dog’s aggression can “disappear”, may be trying to to persuade you into using their services. Alternately they may convince you that the issue is just mild or not out of the ordinary and a few classes or consultations will take care of the problem.

Here relief and the promise of more relief can be very persuasive.


There is no question that dog aggression can lead to some serious consequences. But the more serious a person can make a situation seem, the more anxious we feel, and then the more urgent your situation becomes.

Here the more anxious we feel, the more likely we feel we need a quick decision to fix it.

Authoritative or Technical Language

In some cases trainers may be unaware using overly technical language, because they are using the best descriptive language. But anyone who is truly an expert should be able to easily adapt their language so that the listener understands. If you’re not getting it even when asking for clarity, or if you leave the meeting with confusion, this is likely a red flag. Some consultants will use language that you might not understand that make them seem like an authority.

Here overly technical language can do one of two things or both: It can

  • Confuse us about how the training actually works. Trainers that use methods a dog finds unpleasant (and therefore the owners may also be uncomfortable with it) may use confusing language that sounds convincing, but also unclear
  • Convince us that the person using it knows much more than we do. But it can make us feel unintelligent or lacking in knowledge. This situation naturally sets a hierarchy where we feel they can lead us.
Missing language

Any trainer should be completely upfront with the kinds of methods they use. There are no new methods, and very few “trade secrets”. The value of a trainer really resides in how well he or she can teach and communicate, how creative they can be in recognizing and solving problems and how well they can understand and adapt to the various quirks of people and dogs.

Trainers that use e-collars, or corrective methods that are based on making a dog uncomfortable, anxious or afraid, or use methods that are based on “dominance” or pack theories may not openly discuss this on their website or other marketing materials.

Dominance Language

Some language indicates a certain training philosophy that could be harmful to aggressive dogs or or their owners. Here are just some:

  • Alpha
  • Pack leader
  • Dominance
  • Language based on wolf theories
Red Flag Training Methods

Twenty years ago trainers using coercive, punishing or force-based methods were much more upfront about it. Since then these trainers have adapted their language to be less inflammatory as more and more discussion and education appeared online. They will continue to adapt their language so their methods are less off putting to potential customers.

Some trainers call themselves balanced trainers (meaning they use both positive and negative consequences). It is not to say that negative consequences aren’t effective to inhibiting some behaviors. But to treat an aggressive as normal, but misbehaving and to expect a normal response to corrections can be dangerous.   

Also be aware of the use of the word “command” and attitudes that rely on absolute obedience.

Trainers that reference wolf behavior, pack theory (unless we are referring to sibling aggression) or needing to be a pack leader may also indicate a certain dog training philosophy that may not be beneficial for treating dog aggression.

Things to be Aware of During First Trainer Consultations

In order to get your dog treated, most trainers and consultants should require an initial first meeting to talk with you and evaluate your dog. They should evaluate your dog, take a detailed history and be willing to listen to your concerns and goals prior to making suggestions.

While most Veterinary Behaviorists have a waiting list to be seen, trainers may be actively looking for customers and therefore a first consultation can be step in the door to winning you as a customer for some consultants.

Not only does familiarity make us more comfortable, but as dog owners, we tend to make or validate our decisions based on “soft skills” such as how much the consultant appears to like our dog, how comfortable they make us and how convincing or authoritative they are as knowledgeable experts.

While we do want to feel that we are respected and we are comfortable to ask questions and that our dog will be treated well, we also need to evaluate their experience and knowledge to the best of our ability.

You should feel comfortable asking about their experience, any credentials or education they have (and whether you can get proof of that), references, etc.

Be skeptical of what you have seen in video or on television, as well.  Video content is edited to make it more exciting and interesting.  The stuff no one wants you to see is left out.

Separate Your Feelings From Your Dog’s Behavior

You may love the consultant. They may seem warm and friendly with you. If you are a people-pleaser, you may find yourself wanting to agree to every suggestion. But watch your dog. The interactions between the consultant and your dog should feel non-threatening to your dog (as much as your dog can regard hman interaction with strangers as non-threatening). But he or she should not be doing anything to increase your dog’s anxiety. Your dog cannot learn to relax in situation where he or she feel wary or anxious.

If your dog is anxious regardless of the situation, then you may have to rely on your own judgement. Be aware of any trainers that seem harsh toward your dog if they don’t comply (such as raising their voice, jerking on their collar, etc.).

A consultant might choose to ignore your dog and that is okay and quite possibly desirable since dogs often feel pressure when strangers are pfocusing on them.

Don’t feel pressured into follow-up appointments if you have doubts. But note that follow-ups are usually recommended to get the most out of what trainers can offer you.

Online Canine professional associations, including member directories and information

(please note, this section was just added at the request of some professionals.  If you experience a dead link, please do an online search).






(1)Shalvey, E., McCorry, M. & Hanlon, A. Exploring the understanding of best practice approaches to common dog behaviour problems by veterinary professionals in Ireland. Ir Vet J 72, 1 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13620-019-0139-3

(2) Shivley, C. B., Garry, F. B., Kogan, L. R., & Grandin, T. (2016). Survey of animal welfare, animal behavior, and animal ethics courses in the curricula of AVMA Council on Education-accredited veterinary colleges and schools, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association248(10), 1165-1170. Retrieved Feb 17, 2023, from https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/248/10/javma.248.10.1165.xml

(3)Fatjó, J., Ruiz-de-la-Torre, J., & Manteca, X. (2006). The epidemiology of behavioural problems in dogs and cats: A survey of veterinary practitioners. Animal Welfare, 15(2), 179-185. doi:10.1017/S0962728600030268



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