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Proper Education, Not Faulty Legislation For Pet Dog Trainers

Photo: (c) Can Stock Photo
Aversive training methods have been shown to result in stress, fear, anxiety and aggression. Photo: © Can Stock Photo

The profession of companion, or “pet” dog training is one that requires little more than the willingness to do it and promote oneself. There is no licensing required.

Let me state right up front that given the appalling lack of education and the major divisions among pet dog trainers, there cannot be proper legitimate licensing that will give consumers more assurances of quality when they choose to hire someone. It is for these reasons and a few others that I am against the licensing of any pet dog trainers in the current climate of poor education and the continued abuses masked as “training”.

The most pressing issue is not that of a dog trainer’s licensing, it is the use of aversive methods that can result in stress, fear and aggression in many dogs that aversive methods are applied to, for it is the very nature of the aversive approach to have some level of intentional fear and pain delivered by the professional. Then the professional will suggest that the dog’s guardians now apply the fear and pain based approaches as a form of “training.” The reality is that fear generalizes easy, and the dogs that do not shut down will have increased aggression, inordinate stress and increased fear. Does that sound like something consumers want from hiring a professional? Who wants more stress, fear and pain in their dog?

Until this issue of dog trainers using fear and pain to “train” dogs under the false notion the dog is trying to “dominate” them is stopped, there can be no safe and legitimate licensing of pet dog trainers. We need to educate before we can legislate.

Until professional and consumers alike come to the factual reality that dogs, when they reach social maturity between ages 2-3 have the cognition of a 3 – 4-year-old child, and they should not be given painful corrections like choke and shock, then there can be no serious discussion about licensing of pet dog trainers, because there are still people believing false information that can lead to behavior issues and aggression and an adversarial relationship with dogs.

If you are thinking “well there must be schools where people can go to learn how to train dogs properly”, there sure are. There are also schools that instruct people to use fear and pain based approaches. One such school/business instructs their “trainers” to toss a mesh bag of chains at a dog to startle them. I could write a few hundred words about why this “toss bag of chains” at a dog is not only ridiculous but in effective for teaching a dog, and it is potentially damaging to someone’s floor or other objects in the house. In short it is a gimmick, and not a very good one at that. Sadly, pet dog training is full of gimmicks and charlatans parading around like professionals.

There are also schools that instruct people how to use shock and prong collars that no doubt extol the virtues of just the right pressure or level of shock, all the while promoting how much they love dogs and that “some dogs need this” and it is for “safety” in the case where electric collars are used for recall. Again, no one seems to be instructing these so-called trainers about the fallouts of punishments and the generalized fear of aversive approaches.

No one will doubt that the use of aversive punishments can decrease behavior, but what is left in its place is typically a generalized fear. Generalized fear spreads, it is not good, it makes for “fuzzy triggers” and that means “bites out of nowhere”, generalized fear is how people get bitten and dogs lose their lives due to being euthanized.
Additionally, the pain trainers do not factor in spontaneous recovery, which is when the dog will retrieve a memory that triggers their fear, and thus respond to it in the previous way that was thought to be extinguished, or perhaps react with an even more pronounced aggression? In short, there is no 100% in behavior, so the goal should be to build trust with dogs and their humans, and work towards having them stay sound. That means using non-punitive methods based in applied behavioral analysis. (ABA)

The pain trainers will blame the dog for being stubborn, or they’ll determine, something is “wrong” with the dog, before they fault their use of aversive methods, and that is ridiculous. Sadly, I hear about this all the time from people that tried a shock or a prong collar and the dog became worse not better, and the “trainer” said the “dog has a problem”, and they cannot fix it.

Many pain trainers will determine that a dog with fear and aggression “needs” punishment like shock or prong collars as the dog is deemed “dominant”. Seeing as the dog already has fear and aggression why would anyone want to add more fear to that equation? In fact, to reduce the fear and aggression there needs to be a plan to decrease or stop the triggers, if possible remove them from the dog’s life, not add to them. Using fear and pain to “train” and already fearful and aggressive dog is like pouring gasoline on a fire and expecting it to burn less intensely.

Aside from the knowledge about dog behavior and a remedial understanding of cognition and physiology, as those are crucial for knowing canine students, what about the trainer’s mechanical ability to train a dog and communicate with the dog? What about their ability to instruct people or a group of people? These are also very crucial.

Dog training is a mechanical skill based on the timing of rewards and consequences. Point blank period.
Consulting is the process of educating people about dog behavior and training in a safe and effective manner.

It is not the job of a pet dog trainer to make their clients into dog trainers unless they are already perusing that path, it is the job of a pet dog trainer to reduce stress, properly educate the humans in the dog’s life and issue a common-sense plan that is based on the human’s skill levels and their life style, family dynamic, and issue a management plan for times they cannot train.

My skill level with training dogs matters in the sense that I can show my ability to the clients, this is to prove that I can train dogs, and that their dog is trainable, what they hire me for though is the proper explanations, the understanding of dog behavior, and the training plans for training and management of their dog, so they can reduce stress. That is a very big job to do if one is to do it properly.

If a “trainer” is going to show up for an hour and shock the dog or pop a prong collar and then tell the clients now you do that because your dog is “dominant”, that is not legitimate pet dog training, that is not paying for a service that sets one up for success and less stress, that is a rip off.
That is also something that should not be licensed by a state regardless of how long some has been doing it or that they are certified by a school. The shock and choke approach to training dogs needs to be eradicated from the profession before we can have any discussion of licensing.

The problem with licensing pet dog trainers is that the shock and prong collar trainers will also be licensed and thus gain a legitimacy they do not deserve.

If you are thinking “well there are positive dog trainers getting hired and they are not up to snuff”, I agree, more on that in a bit. However, with a dog trainer that knows their behavior science, and has a modicum of skills, knows how to write a training plan and offers email support, the family of the dog will at least have safe information founded in legit science and continued help. If the positive pet dog trainer is not a complete fraud, and they are out here, when they can devise a common-sense plan, they are always a better choice than the dog trainer with a shock or prong collar as tools in their kit, because it is safer and not harmful to the dog.

Positive does not mean professional or proficient at all. I am not going to say that all positive dog trainers are the best in the field, unless they are, what I will say is what I said above, if the positive dog trainer has a modicum of skills and can communicate through presentations and written training plans how to train the dog, and how to better understand what the dog is thinking by way of associations and consequences, that by and large humans provide, the positive dog trainer will be better than a shock collar or choke chain trainer any time, as the dog will not suffer any undue stress by way of fear and pain, thus the dog will have better chances of staying sound.

ALL pet dog trainers need to raise their game. If you are a positive dog trainer, work on your skills and knowledge. If you are still using fear and pain to train dogs get off that team and join the legit team.

If someone is thinking “well surely Vets know about training and behavior”, guess again, they do not. As Dr. Karen Overall former head of behavior at UPenn stated in an interview I did with her in 2012. “it is exceptional worldwide if there is a behavior specialist on the faculty” (at Veterinarian Colleges).

The local Vet is typically the place people get a recommendation for a dog trainer. Dr. Overall goes on to state that “many Vets have the same misconceptions” that dog guardians have.

Seeing as Vets, for the most part have no idea about behavior and training and professionals calling themselves dog trainers are still using fear and pain to train, and think dogs are looking to dominate humans, how can there be any form of legitimate licensing of pet dog trainers?

There cannot be, as the educational system about dogs is fractured and to date not complete and thorough enough unless the individual takes it upon themselves to obtain the proper education. As discussed that too is a very precarious venture as not all dog training schools are created equal or educating students in legitimate ways to train and consult consumers of pet dog training.

I have had thousands of conversations with all manner of people from all walks of life in the past 17 years as a professional working with dogs. I have discussed training dogs with clients, with people on the street, I have listened to what people think in terms of how dogs learn, and unless they were mentors of mine, or fellow colleagues, no one, not a single person I have spoken to knew fully what they were speaking about. This includes clients, people on the street, Vets, people speaking freely at social gatherings, dog advocates, some trainers, politicians, no one, unless a colleague or mentor, has fully understood behavior, and had the skills to consult and train dogs professionally. In fact, I would venture that 99% of the people walking the planet have no idea about how behavior works and then how to apply it for training a dog.

This means that there Is not one single person working in any state agency that has the understanding and skills to even assess a dog trainer, and then decide if they can be licensed. Even if we remove the discussion from the use of aversive training practices, who at any government office has the understanding and skills to assess what a proper pet dog trainer is and is not?

I say there is no one at the state licensing boards, at least not up to my standards to judge me. Then that begs the question, if most people do not know what the hell they are doing in terms of dog training and behavior sciences, how then should they be the judge of what I’m doing or anyone else for that matter? They cannot and they should not.
For now, I say leave the licensing alone and focus on the educational system that is available for pet dog trainers and Veterinarians and require that people have a clear understanding of behavior science and the fallouts from fear and pain based approaches and get the cruelty laws to protect consumers of pet dog training, then we’ll be making head way in terms of protecting dogs and consumers.

Here is what I suggest to anyone concerned about the of licensing pet dog trainers.

Look at the cruelty laws in your state and see if they are correlated with the common practices of shock and prong collar trainers. Abuse in the name of training is the biggest issue facing the profession of pet dog training. Until that is eradicated or at least drastically reduced the issuing of licenses to pet dog trainers is futile.

Much of the language in cruelty statutes have phrases like “no animal shall be over worked or unduly burdened”. Shocking and choking dogs to “train” them is an act of unduly stressing and burdening a dog.

Spreading false notions about dogs being “dominate” over humans and having moral imperatives is akin to any other falsehood when transactions of commerce and service are being made, it is a lie and it needs to be eradicated from the culture of pet dog training as it sets up an adversarial relationship where one does not exist. This notion of dogs “dominating” humans is as dangerous as any libelous crime and should be treated as such.

Once those issues are solved by creating provisions in the existing cruelty laws that protect consumers of pet dog training we can have a serious discussion about licensing. Once Vets as well as people looking to learn about pet dog training can start obtaining proper behavior and training education, that does not include the use of fear and pain based approaches, then we can discuss having some sort of licensing that makes sense. Because then we will be protecting dogs and consumers in greater numbers by legitimate means and proper education.

Licensing pet dog trainers will only make a state money. If there is a real and legitimate concern for the profession of pet dog training by anyone in a state office, attorneys, Vets, or pet dog trainers, it should be to help obtain proper education so the professionals are armed with a legit understanding of how dogs learn and how human behavior can have a positive effect on the dog’s training and overall behavior.

In the current climate, with the severe lack of education, and the continued falsehoods and aversive methods being used, all licensing of pet dog trainers will do it give legitimacy to ignorance and outdated methods that need to be eradicated from the profession not legitimized.

I implore all organizations such as AVSAB, PPG, The Humane Society. APDT, et al, PhD’s, dog trainers that know their behavior science, and pet dog guardians that have been through the convoluted nonsense that pain trainers inflict on dogs, to resist the idea of licensing and focus on strengthening the cruelty laws to protect consumers in the context of pet dog training and require pet dog training schools have a non-aversive curriculum aside from learning about the harmful fallouts when they are used.

We need proper education, not faulty legislation if we want to help consumers and their dogs who are looking for professional help.

Don’t legislate, educate.

Interview with Dr. Karen Overall

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