Guest blog written by Nickala Squire, CTC, owner of Carefree Canine.
With a few exceptions based on locale, auto mechanics are required to obtain several licences specific to their work.
There are hefty education requirements as well as licensing requirements for veterinarians to legally practice medicine. A board certified veterinarian must have completed at minimum, 7 years of education in a few different contexts as well as pass multiple examinations.
According the NITC, “plumbers need to be certified to ensure that unnecessary plumbing failures or accidents are drastically minimized” and must have at minimum 2 years of experience before working on their own.
Even hair stylists report to a board of cosmetology and if doing more than shampooing, must be licensed.
So in this day and age of consumer protection via both education and examination, it boggles the mind that dog trainers have no minimum requirements to take consumers’ money. You read that right. There are no minimum education requirements, no standards of care or standard operating procedures, not even a requirement to be transparent about what will happen to a customer’s furry family member during training. As Jean Donaldson bluntly but eloquently put it in her keynote speech for the 2019 BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium, this is comparable to a veterinarian attempting to neuter a cat with a spoon, complaining they can’t figure out how to do it, potentially injuring the cat, but still getting paid and accepting clients.
You may be thinking “that’s hyperbole, a veterinarian could seriously injure or kill an animal without education.” Here’s the kicker though, dog trainers do injure, emotionally scar, and even kill on a consistently frequent basis. If you can stomach it, go to Google right now and type in “dog trainer abuse.” At the time I’m writing this, I get 72,200 results in the ‘news’ section alone. You have to go back quite a few pages to get anything that isn’t recent. These stories continue to happen because anyone can proclaim they’re a dog trainer (or less accurately, “behaviorist”) and do whatever they want to your dog.
Imagine a guy named Billy decides one day that based on trial and error with his family dogs he’s figured out dog training methods guaranteed to work! He sets up his new business and begins teaching people how to force their dog’s head underwater while the dog gasps and struggles for air, to resolve digging holes. He instructs people that for aggressive dogs, teaching them to respect people is key. Teaching “respect” is done with a special collar that they are to hang the dog with, until the dog can no longer fight back either because they are busy gasping for air or because they are no longer conscious, either are fine. For both your sake and my own, I won’t go on.
Sadly again, these are not hyperbole. The two “techniques” I described are still used very frequently by popular trainers, organizations, and fairly recently the former example could be seen on TV by a “dog psychologist who rehabilitates, not trains” (quotations because this is an inaccurate marketing ploy.) There are trainers who use force, intimidation, fear, discomfort or pain, and trainers who arrange the environment so they only need to use things the dog wants such as play, food, access outdoors or to furry friends, etc. But there’s also a massive spectrum in between with combinations of both. The examples above may be on the far end of the spectrum, but they’re not even as outlandish as real training techniques being sold, such as peeing on the dog for marking or spitting in dogs’ mouths to resolve aggression. Seriously, the dog training industry is a mess.
It gets worse. There are an impressive amount of dog training schools and certifications programs out there. You would think this is good news, but unfortunately the instructors have the same requirements to teach dog trainers and dog trainers in general. That is: none. A trainer in training can spend $50,000+ on a rigorous program to learn inaccurate information and harmful techniques. But boy do those letter titles and certificates look impressive to clients. This is not okay for anyone involved; the duped trainer, the duped client, or the innocent dog who was already struggling.
Differences in opinion or approaches aren’t inherently bad, they can lead to great progress! Problems arise however, from the following:
Lack of transparency. It is not ethical for a business to say they will do one thing, and do something completely different. This comes back to comparisons such as your mechanic saying they’ll replace a part of your vehicle, but actually just duct taping the old piece back on. Or your veterinarian saying they’ll eliminate your dog’s painful joints with the least invasive method, but performing a lobotomy in the back room to make the dog unable to express their pain instead. When a dog trainer says their leadership energy is changing behavior, look closer. I’d like to see one of these trainers change behavior on a green dog with a confident temperament without touching it, including via the use of electric shock collars.
No consumer protection. Imagine your dog trainer told you they’d solve your dog’s problem of jumping up on visitors, and since they said it doesn’t hurt, they shock your dog via a special collar every time the dog jumped. Training was remarkably fast and now your dog doesn’t jump on people, but they do bark, cringe, and raise their hackles. Months or years later you have family over and your once uber-friendly snuggly loving dog lashes out and bites. The bite requires stitches and antibiotics or worse. Can you expect the dog trainer to fork up for these medical costs? The scientific literature does say after all that electric shock is likely to cause stress and anxiety that can lead to aggression. Nope, not a chance. You can always sue though right? If you can even find a lawyer willing to take the case, good luck winning. This is not true of other, regulated fields with standard procedures for common issues based on evidence of efficacy.
Lack of education. We have too much research to contain in a single blog post that together proves beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s unnecessary to hurt or scare your dog to train them. There’s also plenty of research showing that this is actually harmful to the dog’s welfare and the side effects are likely to create or exacerbate aggression later on. Does your hairstyle put you or the public in physical danger? Unless you’re a modern Medusa, I doubt it. Regardless of what methods someone uses, they should understand how those methods affect behavior. If a trainer on either side of the spectrum doesn’t understand how this all works, they are likely to make mistakes. Mistakes that, depending on the issue and/or the methods used, can cost dogs their lives and children their faces.
It is not alarmist to say that the dog training industry is a minefield right now. What can you do? Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your local politicians. We need regulation. We need licensing. We need legislation. We ban entire subsets of dogs based on appearance faster than we ban training techniques that are proven to increase bite risks. Most importantly though, don’t become a victim. There are great dog trainers out there who do rely on evidence based techniques that will not harm your dog and will get results.
I recommend the following organizations if you are looking for a trainer:
CTC or Certified Trainer and Counselor via the Academy for Dog Trainers. Graduates have gone through a rigorous 2 year program to prove their knowledge of dog behavior, training, coaching owners and are required to show their practical skills. Even if you can’t find a local trainer, remote coaching is an option more effective than many realize. Check out their directory here.
KPA or Karen Pryor Academy graduates go through a 6 months course to learn the principles of operant conditioning, necessary to build behavior. They excel with dogs needing obedience and manners or dog sports & tricks. Here is their directory.
PPG or Pet Professional Guild members pledge not to use aversive collars or inhumane techniques, a great starting point. They have a directory here.