Pet Behaviorists: What They Do and Why You Might Need One

Sarah Sypniewski

Teka Martin Pet Behaviorist
Bark Pet Photography

Teka Martin, APDT has been an Animal Behavior Specialist for 25 years. She currently owns and operates K9 Toddlers in the Los Angeles area. We sat down together to talk about the differences between obedience training and behavior work, why it’s important to do one before the other, and why homeless dogs are some of the most well-balanced pets around.

What’s the difference between obedience training and behavior work?

“Obedience training teaches the people and dog what to do--commands like ‘sit,’ ‘down, ‘stay.’ Behavior modification is really understanding how the mechanisms work--about the physiological and psychological state of mind the animal is in while performing obedience training. Behavior modification is understanding the thinking process, the emotional process of the animal, even prior to obedience training.”

When should people start working with a behaviorist?

“I think everyone should see a behaviorist first. Behaviorists seem like a luxury to a lot of people, but they are the foundation for everything. You don’t want to wait until something happens, but unfortunately, somehow, that’s ingrained in society. So they go to a group obedience class, and then they say, ‘oh shoot, that didn’t work, now I have to find a behaviorist.’

Now, there’s nothing wrong with obedience training at all, but I always compare it to decorating a house. Before you can decorate, you have to put the foundation and all the rooms together, which is the behavior modification part. If a dog does not have a foundation or is not stable, they’re not going to listen to the commands. So even though a lot of people talk about puppy or group classes when they get a new dog, I think people should meet with a behaviorist first so they understand how behavior works, and then they can teach commands.”

What about the issue of cost? Behaviorists generally cost a lot more than group classes.

“A lot of people look at the cost of a training class versus the cost of a behaviorist and go with the class. But then the class doesn’t solve the issue because it doesn’t deal with the foundation. So they have to find a behaviorist anyway. A good behaviorist can teach you how the animal thinks and learns, PLUS obedience commands. You can learn everything from a behaviorist. The other thing to keep in mind is that I typically meet with my clients only one or two times.”

What We Can Learn From Homeless Dogs

“I always go back to homeless men with dogs. Those are the most well-balanced, non-trained dogs out there. They are essentially ‘in the wild,’ where they really depend on each other. The dog needs to watch his guy to see which way he’s going. The homeless dogs--even if they’re sleeping--they always have one eye on their guy. And it’s about the connection. They are so connected to each other, and that to me is my passion in training: the connection. Is your dog watching what you do? It’s not about hand signals or verbal commands. It’s deeper--it’s about body language, eye movement, laughing, and smiling. Dogs are so aware of that, and are constantly looking for clues in how to act and where to go.”

How can we address some common issues at home?

“Leash aggression and separation anxiety are the most common issues people call me for, but when you talk about root causes, dogs are a lot like kids or couples or families. If there are behavior issues, it often comes down to the animal feeling that he’s entitled, whether it’s ‘this is my house, nobody’s coming in’ (resulting in being territorial or aggressive), or ‘this is my food, not your food’ (presenting as resource guarding).

To combat this, it’s important to teach the animals that nothing is theirs. Animals are very primal in the way they think. They’re not like humans. Humans can connect and we can share. They don’t share. Sometimes, they may think, ‘okay, you can have it for a little while, but it’s still mine.’ This is a huge difference between humans and animals.

It doesn’t mean you have to be mean to your animals. I let my animals up on the couch and the bed, but they all know what’s mine is mine. They know I can take it away at any time. This takes work. For example, if we’re all on the couch, no matter how much we’re cuddling, I’ll stop and tell them all ‘off the couch.’ And it’s just for a few minutes. They should accept it and walk away. But, if they don’t--if they try to charm me and ask to come back up--then that’s not accepting that it’s mine. Once the animal totally leaves the area, then I know they have accepted it. So it’s really just minor things you can do throughout the day to keep things balanced.”

How to Help Your Behaviorist Help You and Your Dog

“Refrain from diagnosing the problem yourself or using emotion. Instead, observe and record objective details of what happens. Don’t write ‘my dog is aggressive;’ write ‘when (this) happened, he did (this).’ Everything is relative, so writing down the details is very important. What you see might mean something different to a behaviorist.

I usually enter the house not as a trainer, but as a visitor. I want people to act like I’m just a friend so I can see what natural dynamics are occurring. So I just watch. A lot of times, people will identify something as the problem, but sometimes, I’ll notice that a dog in the background is actually the problem. Often, the owners are seeing just one part of the puzzle, but I go there and look at the full picture, and work with all the pieces. And if we have to work on a different piece first to address what they originally brought me for, then we do that.”

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