Alphabet Soup: What Does That Dog Training Certification Mean?

Author: Cathy Madson, MA, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Published: September 9, 2019

Updated: November 10, 2022

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certified dog trainer with border collieAs you're interviewing a dog trainer to work with you and your dog, one of the questions you should be asking is if they hold a certification in professional dog training or canine behavior consulting.

For more questions, you should be asking, read "What You Should Ask a Dog Trainer (and What Their Answers Should Be)."

It can be tough to decipher what all those different letters after their name mean, as there are quite a few different certifications available for dog training and animal behavior. Below we've listed common certifications and an explanation of the requirements for each.

What's the Difference Between a Dog Trainer and a Dog Behavior Consultant?

The certifications below are divided between dog training and behavior consulting and depending on what kind of things you want to work on with your dog determines what certification is the best fit.

A dog trainer is someone who trains basic to advanced training cues, teaches a dog polite manners, or trains a dog to participate in different dog sports and activities. Trainers do this in group classes, private lessons, or in board-and-train programs. Dog trainers have learned basic learning theory and honed their handling and physical training skills.

A canine behavior consultant focuses on treating behavioral disorders and other issues, such as separation anxiety, noise phobia, aggression, fear, resource guarding, etc. A behavior consultant focuses their education on learning in-depth dog cognition, ethology, and applied behavior analysis. Many behavior consultants work closely with veterinary behaviorists.

Being a certified dog trainer does not automatically make you a behavior consultant, although many dog trainers will take on behavior cases. Certified behavior consultants are likely to also be certified dog trainers, but not always.

The top tier of dog training and behavior consulting is a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist (DACVB), as they are the only ones who can prescribe pharmaceutical treatments with behavior modification plans as they are practicing veterinarians.

What is a Dog "Behaviorist"?

You may see someone marketing themselves as a dog behaviorist. This is a popular title and lends some connotative credibility to someone's skills. In the United States, ideally, the only ones who should be using this term are board-certified veterinary behaviorists (DACVB) or certified applied animal behaviorists (CAAB). Certified behavior consultants in the United States tend to shy away from calling themselves behaviorists, as they recognize this as being a high-level designation and want to respect those who have put in the time and energy into earning those advanced degrees.

However, in other countries, such as the UK, the term behaviorist is more commonly used by trainers who specialize in dog behavior. If you are considering hiring a trainer who calls themself a behaviorist, do your research into what education and background they have in applied animal behavior and whether they hold any professional certifications. Remember, the dog training industry is unregulated so due diligence is essential to protect the relationship and bond you have with your dog.

clicker training a dog

Dog Trainer Certifications

CPDT-KA & CPDT-KSA

This certification is given by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and is a third-party certification (meaning that the council is separate from any paid education or training of the certificant).

CPDT-KA stands for Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed. Those with this certification have at least 300 hours of dog training experience within the previous three years, obtain a reference from another CPDT-KA trainer or veterinarian, and agree to the certification council's Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics and Least-Intrusive Minimally-Aversive (LIMA) Behavior Intervention Philosophy. They have also passed a 180-question exam that tests them on instruction skills, learning theory, ethology, training equipment, and animal husbandry. To maintain certification status, trainers must complete continuing education credits or re-take the exam every three years.

CPDT-KSA is a secondary level of certification and stands for Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. Those wishing to obtain this certification must already have their CPDT-KA certificate, fulfill the same requirements as above, and pass an exam showing their training skills via video.

KPT CTP

The Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior is a popular certification program for many dog trainers and is known for its impressive faculty. The certification is considered a first-party certification, as certificants must complete courses through the Academy itself in order to earn the designation.

KPT CTP stands for Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. Dog trainers must complete a six-month-long program that includes: online lessons, quizzes, at-home training exercises, attend in-person workshops, and pass final assessment exams.

CTC

The CTC designation (Certificate in Training and Counseling) is a first-party certification given to graduates of the Academy for Dog Trainers. The online program was designed by Jean Donaldson, a well-known and well-respected dog trainer, and takes on average two years to complete. This program prepares students to work as both dog trainers and take on behavior consultations, but does not include an in-person training component in order to graduate.

PCT-A

The Pet Professional Guild offers a third-part accreditation through its Pet Professional Accreditation Board. A PCT-A is their second-highest level of certification and stands for Professional Canine Trainer (Accredited). Prior to this level, they also offer a CTT-A designation, Canine Training Technician (Accredited). Each level requires a certain number of hands-on training hours, references, continuing education credits, videos, and case studies. 

VSA-CDT

The Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior offers the VSA-CDT first-party certification for its graduates. They offer both in-person hybrid and online-only courses for students with a focus on basic training using positive reinforcement, learning theory, and common behavior problems.

ABCDT

The Animal Behavior College offers a hybrid certification program for basic dog training. This is a first-party certification, given to graduates who successfully pass all assignments. All coursework is completed online and students then complete a hands-on mentorship under another dog trainer and must complete volunteer work at a local shelter or rescue organization. 

As a graduate of Animal Behavior College myself, I must include a note that this course covers only the basics of dog training and has a lax position on the use of aversives in their curriculum. Due to this, I no longer list this credential after my name.

As with all certifications, it's important to do your due diligence and clarify with any dog trainer you are hiring what methods and techniques they use in their programs. 

1-on-1 virtual dog training

Behavior Consultant Certifications

CAAB

The CAAB certification requires a very high level of education and experience. Requirements include holding a doctoral (Ph.D.) degree from an accredited college in biological or behavioral science with an emphasis on animal behavior and at least 5 years of professional experience. Read more about the extensive requirements needed for the CAAB here.

CDBC

A CDBC designation after a consultant's title is one of the more well-known and intensive certifications available for behavior consultants. CDBC stands for Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. Overseen by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, this third-party certification has extensive requirements. The certification is granted to practicing Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists upon membership application; other applicants are encouraged to have a minimum of at least 3 years and 500 hours of experience in behavior consulting practice, at least 400 hours of coursework related to the association's Core Areas of Competency, and submit 3 written case studies, 4 written discussion of case study analysis, and pass an exam covering terminology, techniques, assessment, and history taking.

CBCC-KA

This certification is given by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and is a third-party certification (meaning that the council is separate from any paid education or training of the certificant).

CBCC-KA stands for Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed and is an advanced certification for dog trainers that offer behavior modification as part of their services. To obtain this certification, trainers must have a minimum of 300 hours of experience dealing specifically with behavior issues (such as phobias, anxieties, and aggression), have a reference from a CCPDT certificant or veterinarian, and agree to the certification council's Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics and Least-Intrusive Minimally-Aversive (LIMA) Behavior Intervention Philosophy. They have also passed a 180-question exam that tests them on applied behavior analysis, consulting skills and best practices, ethology, body language, observational skills, canine health, development, life stages, anatomy, and physiology. To maintain certification status, behavior consultants must complete continuing education credits or re-take the exam every three years.

CCS

Graduates from the Northwest School of Canine Studies receive the CCS certification. NSCS is the only certification program in the United States conducted entirely in person and the school is state licensed by the Washington State Workforce and Education Board.

CCS stands for Certificate in Canine Studies. In order to participate in the program, applicants must have completed at least 1 year of college-level education and have at least 1 year of field experience working with dogs. Certificants have completed a 12-week program that includes hands-on practice as well as an in-depth curriculum addressing methodology, behaviorism, learning theory, and advanced behavior modification.

PCBC-A

The highest of three accreditations from the Pet Professional Accreditation Board, a PCBC-A is a Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (Accredited). Requirements for this certification include a certain number of hands-on training experience in group classes or private training sessions, references from other professionals, continuing education credits, proof of business insurance, submission of case studies, videos, and more. 

UW-AAB

The University of Washington offers an online certification program in applied animal behavior, and graduates receive the UW-AAB designation. The program covers comparative animal behavior, principles of applied animal behavior, and applied behavior in practice over three quarters. Heavily focused on learning theory and behavior principles rather than hands-on practice, this program is ideal for those already working in the animal training and behavior field to expand their knowledge. Learn more about the UW-AAB program here.

A Certification Isn't a Guarantee

training a dog using treats

Remember, just because a dog trainer or behavior consultant has letters behind their name doesn't mean that they will be the right match for you. A certification doesn't guarantee that a trainer or consultant will actually follow best practices like Least-Intrusive Minimally-Aversive, even though they might have signed an agreement stating they would. Avoid any trainer that relies on physical punishment or aversive training tools, intimidation, or fear in their training methods.

Make sure that the dog trainer you hire uses positive reinforcement methods and follows a force-free training philosophy, as well as matches your personality and learning style so that you can get the most out of your dog training sessions. Dog training should be a fun and positive experience for all involved, whether canine or human!

We'll be frequently updating this list of certifications — let us know if you think a particular dog training or behavior consultant certification should be added to this list in the comments below!
(Note: Only organizations that promote, at the minimum, the LIMA philosophy of training and behavior modification will be considered for this list. Certifications or memberships that include a "balanced" training proponent will not be included.)

 

About the author

Profile picture for Cathy Madson

Cathy Madson, MA, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

As Preventive Vet's dog behavior expert and lead trainer at Pupstanding Academy, Cathy focuses on helping humans and their pets build a strong relationship based on trust, clear communication, and the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods. With over 13 years of experience, she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dogs on a wide variety of training and behavior issues. Her specialties include dog aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, and puppy socialization.

Cathy is certified through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, holding both the CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA designations. Cathy is a Fear Free Certified Certified Professional, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the Dog Writer's Association of America.

When she's not geeking out about dogs, you can find her reading, hiking with her two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, or paddleboarding.

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