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When It's Time to See a Specialist

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

I sometimes refer current or even potential clients out to specialists in certain situations. Specialists might be trainers with specific certifications, skills, or facilities, or they might be the psychiatrists of the dog world, veterinary behaviorists.

Veterinary Behaviorists

There are many issues that might be best served with a visit to a veterinary behaviorist (VB). Note that some trainers erroneously refer to themselves as behaviorists; there are just a few high-level degrees that allow someone to accurately refer to themselves as a behaviorist. Specialists in veterinary behavioral medicine have both the medical and behavioral knowledge to evaluate cases to determine if there is a medical component and to recommend which medication(s), if any, would be most appropriate. Typically I will recommend this approach for issues like anxiety and aggression. Check out this brochure to see all of the behavior issues that might be best resolved with a VB on the team.

I tend to refer to a VB for specific cases like:

* a dog is phobic, shut down, or panicked by things we can't avoid (walks, sounds, objects, family members,...),

* a dog has bitten multiple people resulting in serious injury,

* a dog has bitten and initiated contact when the person or dog injured was at a fairly long distance away so the dog could have chosen to avoid the situation instead,

* a dog has bitten maybe only one time, resulting in serious injury with little or no warning,

* a dog is anxious about or showing aggressive behavior to a particularly vulnerable member of the community (child or elderly person or person with health concerns or special needs,)

* a dog is showing predatory behavior toward another pet in the house,

* a dog is showing anxious or aggressive behavior and also has serious medical concerns,

* a dog panics or injures himself due to separation/isolation issues or stereotypes (repetitive behaviors)

Please note that aggressive behavior is not cured; it is managed for the lifetime of your dog. What that means is that we may be able to do a better job of managing the environment and changing your dog's feelings about stressors going forward, but we will not be able to change the fact that when under extreme stress from his perspective, your dog will choose to use his teeth to end the conflict. We want to be certain that you are clear that we cannot change that with any amount of training sessions. In Maryland, you face significant liability after multiple reported bites and may wish to consult an attorney as you make decisions.

Locally we are lucky to have many specialists within about a 2-hour drive:

Dr. Meghan Ropski, DVM - vet behavior resident, boards in 2023, usually fastest to get in

Dr. Marsha Reich, DVM, DACVB, 301-384-3900, does in-home visits

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety looks like a doggy panic attack. Destruction is often aimed at exits, the dog may self-injure during a panic, confinement usually makes it worse, and sometimes the dog will defecate or urinate. It's important to differentiate between separation distress and anxiety and closely-related isolation distress or anxiety. This article should clear up the distinctions. If you think your dog has separation anxiety, you should look for a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) or Separation Anxiety Pro Trainer (SAPT). Although I am an SAPT, I do not have enough availability to set up weekly appointments for a few months out, and typically you want to start ASAP. Check out this amazing resource to find a CSAT and this one for an SAPT.


Reactivity typically looks like lunging, barking, growling, and snarling at other dogs, particularly on leash. Many trainers say they work with reactivity but you would do well to ask how many dogs they have available for generalizing the skill. In other words, will you work with the trainer's one or two dogs or are there five or ten dogs the trainer might rotate through so your dog decides that all dogs are no big deal, not just the trainer's dogs. I also find that tightly controlled group classes are the most efficient in terms of bang for your buck. If you try to work privately with a trainer, you need a location with a privacy fence so no dogs pop out unexpectedly. In a well-run group class, you will only see the helper dog working with your dog at any given time. Locally my favorite class is Kranky K9s at The Coventry School.

Dog Sports

For dog sports, check out this facility where just about every professional there is force free. Always use your own judgment about letting someone handle your dog and ask what happens if your dog gets it right and what happens if your dog gets it wrong.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are another specialty area, and you should be aware that you generally don't send a dog you already have to someone for service dog training; typically, the service dogs are trained, and then families meet them. Read more here.

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