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 knowledgable, 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 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.


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 dog’s 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.



While your DVM is legally able to diagnose medical and behavior problems, your general practice vet may not know as much as you hope.  They may believe they know about training dogs because of their profession, but 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.  Unfortunately, it is common for a vet to immediately jump to recommending euthanasia for dogs who otherwise might live long, healthy and happy lives if treated properly.

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

Many vets will recommend you to a trainer, but in a poll sent to veterinarians, only 65% reported that they preferred trainers that used force-free positive reinforcement based training.  10% didn’t even evaluate the trainers methods.

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 www.avsabonline.org.

Trainers, Behaviorists and Specialists

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 have – or IF they have.

There are talented knowledgeable trainers.  These are people who get along well with both you and your dog, who continue to educate themselves.

Unfortunately, there are trainers that leave a lot to be desired when it comes to treating dog aggression.  Those that do treat dog aggression often treat aggression as if the aggression needs to be punished in order to stop it. Their solutions may be to increase the dog’s ability to respond consistently to commands, and/or become more of a “pack leader”.  However, to treat an aggressive as normal, but misbehaving and to expect a normal response to corrections can be dangerous.   Trainers of all kind 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?

It is always a good idea after consulting a veterinarian behaviorist to ask them what you should look for in a trainer. Many of them can even recommend one to you.

Dog Trainer or Behaviorist Certification

If you decide to consult someone other than (or in addition to) a veterinary behaviorist,  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. 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.

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.

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.


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

  • shock collars / electric collars / e-collars / static collars
  • prong collars
  • “correction” collars
  • choke collars, choke chains (sometimes euphemistically referred to as training collars)

See How to Chooser a Trainer (pdf)

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).