Disclaimer: This post has been sponsored by Figo Pet Insurance. In addition, we earn a small commission if you get a quote through one of the affiliate links in this article. We use and love Figo! In addition, I am not any type of animal behaviorist and am only writing from my personal experience. Tufts and Dr. Borns-Weil have no affiliation with The Broke Dog or Figo Pet Insurance.
Have you ever had a pet with a behavioral problem? I know the struggle. Luckily, there are professionals who are specially trained in deciphering and remedying problem pet behaviors: behaviorists!
Henry has always had a few, shall we say, “challenges.” He’s the absolute sweetest dog in the world — and the best cuddler — but can be very anxious around other dogs and can snap if he feels trapped. We had been managing it well for years with training and a Prozac prescription but, after talking to his vet, we decided to take things a step further. We made an appointment at the Behavior Science department at Tufts Cummings Veterinary Medical Center with Dr. Borns-Weil, a Veterinary Behaviorist.
What is a Veterinary Behaviorist?
There are several types of pet-behavior professionals, each certified (or not) by individual organizations and with varying levels of education and experience. For the purposes of this article, I am going to be talking about Veterinary Behaviorists.
Veterinary Behaviorists are veterinarians who have an incredible depth of knowledge about animal behavior, have completed a residency, have passed a qualifying exam, and are up to date on the most recent scientific research in the field. They are required to stay up to date through continuing education and can prescribe medications to help combat issues such as anxiety and fear. Veterinarians may only call themselves ‘behaviorists’ if they have achieved board certification by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). Veterinary Behaviorists are so valuable because they are in a unique position to both diagnose medical issues that are causing any problems as well as address the behaviors themselves.
Applied Animal Behaviorists
Of course, there are behaviorists who are not veterinarians — these professionals are called Applied Animal Behaviorists and have earned an advanced degree (MS, MA, or Ph.D.) in animal behavior and can also be certified (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists ). These professionals can address problem behaviors as well as work closely with you, your dog, and your vet to determine if medication is necessary. While they aren’t a “one-stop-shop” like a Veterinary Behaviorist can be, they can be a great option if you don’t have access to a Veterinary Behaviorist in your area.
What About Dog trainers?
Some trainers use titles such as “behavior counselor” or “behaviorist,” but may not have the same amount of education or required experience as a Veterinary Behaviourist or Applied Animal Behaviorist. That’s not to say they aren’t deeply knowledgable — they certainly can be! They just serve a different purpose: to help train your dog, not diagnose behavioral and associated medical problems. Be sure to do enough research to know you’re hiring the right professional.
Does My Dog Need a Behaviorist?
If your dog has any of the following issues or other problem behaviors, a behaviorist may be able to help:
- Aggression toward people or other animals
- Anxiety, including separation anxiety
- Phobias, such as fear of thunderstorms or riding in the car
- Compulsive behaviors
- Urine marking and inappropriate elimination
- Excessive barking
Life has changed a lot for everyone in the last year — including your dog! Maybe, since you’re home more, you’ve realized that they have been barking all day long. Perhaps they have been losing their patience with your home-from-school kids and have even snapped or bitten. After months of sharing a couch, you might notice that your pup is having some separation anxiety when you head back to the office. If you want to help your furry family member, it could absolutely be worth talking to a behaviorist.
How Can I Find a Behaviorist?
If you suspect seeing a behaviorist might be a good route to take, I recommend talking to your vet first. They will be able to recommend professionals in your area, as well as confirm that the problem behavior isn’t stemming from a medical issue like an ear infection, arthritis, or other pain. Your vet might have a trusted colleague that they’ve worked with before and have an excellent relationship with.
If you want to find a certified Veterinary Behaviorist, there is a directory of over 80 Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists (called Diplomates)‚ at the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) website. This is a worldwide list, and it is possible that there are no Diplomates in your state or region. According to the ACVB website, many Diplomates will consult with you over the phone with your local veterinarian.
If you are planning to use Figo Pet Insurance or another insurance plan to cover your behaviorist visit — Yes! Your pet insurance may be able to help with the cost! — it’s always wise to call and double-check that the professional you want to see will be covered. As mentioned above, not all behaviorists are medical veterinarians.
What Will My Appointment Be Like?
Your appointment’s structure and timing will vary based on your provider. Tufts Cummings Veterinary Medical Center protocol usually includes an in-person exam and consolation at the facility in North Grafton, Massachusetts with Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil. We initially made our appointment for Henry in February 2020, when Henry started growling at my husband’s feet but, due to COVID, we had to postpone our visit. When we were able to reschedule, our appointment consisted of a quick 15-minute in-person exam at Tufts with Dr. Borns-Weil and an hour-and-a-half Zoom with her the next day.
The In-Person Exam
When I arrived, Dr. Borns-Weil greeted Henry and me outside of the new Behavior facility (she told me we were the first appointment in the new place!) We went inside, and Dr. Borns-Weil observed Henry in different situations — how he greeted her, how he accepted a treat, etc. After discussing his issues and history, she mentioned that it’s likely that Henry’s ongoing fear and reactivity might stem from a trauma in his youth — perhaps the leg he broke before I adopted him at a year and a half.
The Next-Day Zoom Call
The next morning, my husband Henry, and I logged onto Zoom and chatted with Dr. Borns-Weil about Henry’s diagnosis and how we can help him. Because my husband and I are hoping to start a family at some point, we also discussed a plan of action to make sure that Henry’s transition to big brotherhood is successful. She also prescribed a new medication — Trazadone — to add to Henry’s daily Prozac. If all goes well, the medication will make it easier for him to manage the small stressors in his life, therefore making it easier for him to handle the bigger things.
In the next several months, we are going to acclimate Henry to a basket muzzle. If we create a positive association for him, he will happy to wear it when in a sticky situation. (For more information on why muzzle training can be a great idea, check out the Muzzle Up! Project). In addition, we are going to work on reinforcing some of his training and practice some new behaviors.
Dr. Borns-Weil also sent us a very detailed report with instructions for all of the steps we need to take with Henry and recommended an eight-week follow-up to see how he is doing with his new medication.
How Much Does a Behaviorist Cost?
There is no single answer to this question since it depends on your individual provider. Our consultation cost $425, but pre-COVID it was going to be $575.
Yes, that’s a lot of money. If you love your pet as much as I do, you know they’re worth it. Behavior problems are a major reason that pets are surrendered to shelters. If one of those issues is biting, it can be even harder to place a dog in a new home. Depending on the shelter, that could lead to euthanasia. Consulting a behaviorist could be an actual matter of life and death.
Figo Pet Insurance Can Help Make It More Affordable!
The good news is that there are ways to make a behaviorist consultation more affordable! For example, Figo Pet Insurance covers medications to help address behavioral problems — as well as the consultation fee if you elected to cover veterinary exam fees when signing up.
Of course, I can’t stress enough that your insurance coverage will vary based on your plan, so always check with your insurance provider to double-check before making an appointment. If your pet has shown symptoms of the issue before enrolling in the plan, it will be considered preexisting and will not be covered. But this is an excellent example of why it’s good to sign your pet up for insurance as soon as possible!
If you are interested in learning more about Figo Pet Insurance, CLICK THIS LINK to get a quote.
If you aren’t interested in pet insurance or your plan won’t cover it, see if your behaviorist or their practice can set up a payment plan.
Want to know more?
For more information and some great resources, check out the Tufts Behavior Service blog.
If you want to know how much a plan with Figo Pet Insurance would cost you, CLICK THIS LINK to get a quote!