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Canine behaviour Expertise

by Mr David Ryan
Clinical Animal Behaviourist
(More about Mr Ryan)


Our association with the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) began about 15,000 years BP. Since then, dogs of all shapes and sizes have become an integral part of human society. The United Kingdom supports a canine population of some 7.3 million, estimated to be one in every four households.

Dogs are utilised as guards, in sport, by shepherds and as cattle dogs; as guides for the visually and hearing impaired, as assistants for the disabled and in therapy; in search and rescue, by the police, and in the detection of substances as diverse as explosives, drugs, food, accelerants, blood spots, human remains, dry rot and cancer. But the vast majority of dogs are kept as pets, providing companionship, encouraging us to exercise, facilitating social interaction, and conferring health benefits simply through stroking them.

However, it isn’t all positive. Dogs bring with them disease, parasites, faeces, noise, destruction and aggression. Each can result in serious injury or even death.

Area of expertise

There are a large number of scientific studies relating to dogs in particular and animal behaviour in general. An expert will be able to provide informed opinion on any aspect of canine behaviour, including the influence of inherited tendencies, the environment, training methods and owner interaction. An expert will be able to assess welfare, reasons for actions and the likelihood of the behaviour recurring. Areas of litigation in which an expert is likely to be able to assist range from the more usual, such as:
  • The Dogs Act 1871
  • The Animals Act 1971
  • The Guard Dogs Act 1975
  • The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (as amended)
  • The Control of Dogs Order 1992
  • The Animal Welfare Act 2006

to more obscure questions such as the admissibility of evidence of a police tracker dog, or the use of a dog as a weapon of offence.


The study of canine behaviour is a subset of the wider study of animals in general, a recorded discipline that has been with us since Xenophon, Pliny and Aristotle. But modern canine studies began around the turn of the 19th century with empiricists such as Pavlov, Skinner and Thorndike and ethologists such as Lorenz and Tinbergen. To some extent, the division of the laboratory-based empiricists and the field-based observations of the ethologists still exists. Laboratory-based studies are most useful for determining universal laws, while environmental studies help us to observe how those laws influence behaviour. Combining the approaches provides the benefit of a holistic view, and modern canine behaviourists can address a wide range of subjects including, but not exclusively, the genetics of inheritance, ontogeny, ethology, neurology, physiology, pharmacology, welfare, cognitive theory, human psychology, counselling and attitude theory.

What constitutes an expert?

The closeness of our relationship with domestic dogs is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because there is no shortage of subjects to study; they are all around us! But it’s a curse because that availability can lead to each individual forming their own theory of canine behaviour based on the limited experience of their owned dogs.

One of the greatest barriers to the public understanding of canine behaviour is the proliferation of unsubstantiated theories presented as fact by the well-meaning ill-informed. The problem is further compounded because there is no legal protection for the term canine ‘behaviourist’ or ‘trainer’. Therefore anyone can call themselves such with little or no justification. Likewise there are providers of training in dog behaviour who are recognised as such by themselves only, so an apparently impressive list of postnominals may also be misleading.

Membership of associations confers no guarantees, but the more established organisations (e.g. Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors [APBC] and the UK Registry of Canine Behaviourists [UKRCB]) have a code of practice and provide a means of continuing professional development, an important factor in a rapidly expanding subject. Most associations will have a website where members’ qualifications and experience can be checked.

What to look for in a canine behaviour expert

The answer to all this confusion is to go back to combining scientific study with practical experience. The study of animal behaviour is burgeoning, and an increasing number of UK universities specialise in animal behaviour degrees. An expert will have a university qualification to at least graduate level. Some will have postgraduate qualifications or even higher.

The second criterion is a little more imprecise – practical experience. Practical experience can be gained in a variety of ways, but a start point would be to look for a universally accepted form that has independent accreditation, for example employment as an instructor training guide dogs or military/police dogs, or certification of competence by an independent official body, such as the Kennel Club or the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB).

A competent expert in canine behaviour will therefore have an educational qualification to degree level or above combined with independently verified experience. They may also be a member of an association that demands high professional standards.

by Mr David Ryan
Clinical Animal Behaviourist
(More about Mr Ryan)


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