What is a Behaviorist?

What is a Behaviorist?

FAQ: What is a Behaviorist?

A behaviorist is someone who subscribes to the concepts of behaviorism, also known as behavioral psychology. Behaviorism is a theory of learning that assumes all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment through conditioning. Hence, all behavior is simply a response to environmental stimuli. Behaviorism is only concerned with observable stimulus-response behaviors that can be studied in a systematic and observable manner. While revolutionary at the time, from today’s perspective, it is pretty evident that this view was very limited and, in many aspects, has proven to be incorrect.


Behaviorists are generally people with a college degree in behaviorism. Those tend to work in research. However, many dog trainers call themselves behaviorists these days to advertise their focus on working on behavioral challenges in dogs. That doesn’t indicate they have any advanced degree in behaviorism or any particular skill set. They just repurposed an official college degree into something other. Many of these so-called behaviorist dog trainers are stuck in a 1950s mentality of thinking that has been upended by subsequent advances in understanding. That doesn’t diminish the importance of behaviorism and its models. They are very important. But it means there is much more to understanding behavior and resolving behavioral challenges than this early field of scientific understanding.

Veterinary Behaviorists

A special breed of behaviorist that has emerged in the last ten years is the veterinary behaviorist. Veterinary behaviorists attend veterinary school and are the psychiatry arm of veterinary medicine. They usually prescribe drugs instead of training. This creates a new monthly revenue stream. There are different levels of education for veterinary behaviorists. At the highest tier, they do have to attend a specialized school and complete intense studies. However, the problem is that it is primarily theoretical. Their daily interactions with dogs are very limited compared to dog trainers. As a result, it is very difficult for them to understand, let alone explain, what is and isn’t a behavioral problem. When you lack the knowledge of how to interact with a dog, classifying behaviors as problematic is a highly questionable practice.

This is especially concerning as a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (May–June 2021, Volume 43, Pages 46-53) found that these medications essentially don’t work. The study stated, “…surprisingly, we failed to find any significant associations between treatment response and the administration of specific medications…”.

A Brief History

The journey of the scientific understanding of behavior started to take off in the 1860s with the studies of Ivan Pavlov (known for classical conditioning) and John B. Watson (known for The Little Albert experiment). Watson laid the foundation for behaviorism (1900–1950), which was further advanced by Edward Thorndike (known for The Puzzle Box and the Laws of Learning) and, most famously, B. F. Skinner, who formulated operant conditioning as we know it today.

As a counterbalance, humanistic psychology (1930–1970) developed. It was a rebellion against what some psychologists saw as the limitations of the behaviorist approach. As a result, humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasizes looking at the whole being and the uniqueness of each individual.

Next came the cognitive revolution (1950–1970). It was an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s as an interdisciplinary study of the mind and its processes. It later became known collectively as cognitive science. A key goal of early cognitive psychology (1970–present) was to apply the scientific method to studying human cognition.

In parallel, ethology (1930–present) looked at behavior differently. Ethology focuses on behavior under natural conditions (instead of the lab) and views behavior as an evolutionarily adaptive trait, not simple stimulus-response conditioning.

Today: Evolutionary Psychology, Neuroscience, and Genetics

Evolutionary psychology (1980–present) is the current field of study and where our most advanced understanding comes from to date. Evolutionary psychology synthesizes developments in various fields, including ethology, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology. At the base of evolutionary psychology is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. This is further aided by our advances in understanding genetics.

Evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and genetics shape our current understanding of behavior. Over the last 70 years, the advances have upended many behaviorism doctrines and refocused our efforts on seeking more profound understanding and not superficial observations alone. Focusing on observable behavior was a fine start when we had no other options. However, today we have functional MRI scanners and no longer have to treat the brain as a black box. Behaviorists focus primarily on observable behavior only and, as such, have a narrow view of most behavioral challenges.

Related Article: Dog Behaviorist or Dog Trainer?

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Do you want your new puppy trained right from the start? Are you looking for help for your fearful dog? Do you need to resolve a severe aggression problem? You came to the right place! We are experienced, professional dog trainers. Ralf has trained over 1500 dogs in over 18 years, and Sarah has trained over 1200 dogs in over 11 years. Consequently, we can help you with any dog training goal.

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For many of our clients, we train their dogs from puppyhood, getting them off to a great start. However, we also have extensive experience training rescue dogs from all imaginable backgrounds and circumstances. Our Board-and-Train program is our most popular.

We can help you, regardless of your dog's challenges or training goals. Being a professional dog trainer means having experience, knowledge, and skill. Further, we developed a highly effective training program to specifically help fearful dogs gain more confidence and become the best possible version of themselves. Building Confidence is our second most popular training program.

Last but not least, we are experts in dealing with all types of aggression in dogs and are often the trainers of last resort after many other programs have failed. Most of our aggressive dog clients previously spent significant money on half-baked solutions without much improvement. This is different from us. We will give you an honest assessment of what goals are realistic for your dog. We will tell you what can be resolved reliably and what likely needs to be managed before we start.

Our flagship product is our board and train program. But our virtual dog training and coaching services have become quite popular over the last couple of years. Our setup enables us to deliver online dog training services from our indoor and outdoor training areas. This allows us to help clients worldwide.

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Also, check out our Free Dog Training tips on Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Potty Training aka Housebreaking, and Leash Handling for expert solutions to common challenges.

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About Ralf and Sarah

Happy Dog Training is the pet dog training business of Ralf Weber and Sarah Gill. We are certified professional dog trainers in Southern California. We are specialized in advanced obedience training, all forms or behavioral challenges and service dog training. For behavioral training, we are known for our work with aggressive and fearful dogs. Our service dogs, through Total K9 Focus, have a nationwide reputation for their reliability, longevity and performance.


Certified Professional Dog Trainer Ralf Weber is lead pet dog trainer of Happy Dog Training. Ralf is a long-time dog owner of German Shepherds. During his career, Ralf has worked with over a 1500 dogs of many different breeds. Moreover, Ralf has a thorough understanding of all aspects of canine training. This includes evolutionary psychology, ethology, and, most importantly, learning science. Ralf is specialized in resolving dog behavior challenges—especially fear and aggression. Apart from this, Ralf trains dogs in basic and advanced obedience, service dog tasks, and GRC Dog Sports. Ralf is further certified in a broad range of other canine training areas. Last but not least, Ralf is the author of the behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk: Understand Your Dog Like Never Before.

Ralf loves helping people have a better relationship with their dogs. He is a certified professional dog trainer in the Training without Conflict™ methodology by Ivan Balabanov (TWC CPDT). Ralf is also a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and also holds their basic and advanced dog trainer certifications (IACP CDT, CDTA). In addition, Ralf is an AKC-approved evaluator for the AKC Puppy Star, CGC, and Advanced CGC programs and is also certified in canine first aid by the Red Cross.

Sarah Gill, Certified Professional Master Trainer

Sarah Gill, is a professional service dog trainer and handler. Sarah entered the world of professional service dog training after a car accident. As a result, she had to use a wheelchair for almost two years, trying to maneuver in a house not designed for it. No one expected Sarah would walk again. This opened her eyes and became a driving force behind pushing herself to defy the odds. When she regained some stability, Sarah attended a dog training school and learned how to train service dogs. Sarah completed her Master Trainer Certification and gained further experience by training new trainers. However, the school wasn’t accommodating to those with physical difficulties and PTSD. Hence, Sarah moved home to Dallas. In 2019, Sarah teamed up with Ralf and moved to California.

Sarah started this journey because she had a trained dog to mitigate her disabilities. But Sarah needed additional tasking for a new diagnosis. The only option she could find was getting a second dog for the new diagnosis. She knew there had to be a different way to address this. Sarah's passion is changing the ways of the service dog training industry.