Training – Canine behaviour modification – progress towards practitioner accreditation and registration

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


Through the Animal Care College I have, inevitably, become deeply involved in the politics of canine training, behaviour and modification. I should make it clear that I do not consider myself a dog trainer or a behaviourist other than in the sense that our own dogs are reasonably well behaved in that they are properly socialised and domestically obedient. However, in the research and development that has been necessary over the years for the programmes delivered by the College I have come to understand the basic mechanisms by which dogs and animals behave and learn.

Several things become clear very quickly: the ways in which animals can be effectively trained covers a very wide spectrum, those who do the training are usually totally convinced that they have the only solutions and that dogs are quite different to other wild and domestic animals.

I would like to examine each of these elements in some detail but I must first emphasise that I am giving an overview here. My historical summary does not mean that all trainers were cruel for many will have been, instinctively, just very good at what they were doing. For instance, shepherds, huntsmen and obedience enthusiasts training their puppies by running them with experienced trained dogs so that the responses were learned by example rather than by force is an excellent example of sensible and effective conditioning which never required force. But the general perception of the development of training techniques is at variance with these techniques.

Effective training ranges from fear to what is currently termed ‘positive reinforcement’. If an animal is frightened it will do what its trainer demands because it does not want to be hurt. At the extreme, the animal is cowed and this is a technique has been used for centuries, especially with wild animals and as far as dogs are concerned, with service dogs. I remember early in my teaching career I worked with a very good teacher who had been a dog handler in the air force during his National Service. We had just got our first Finnish Spitz so, to me, he was an expert. Fortunately, I did not put his advice into practice for we moved soon afterwards but the techniques used were those of the circus and based on ensuring the dog was too scared to do anything other than follow the handler’s instructions.The dogs were trained by regular dog training air men using a strict regime that was absolutely meticulous and structured so that every dog was trained in the same way and to the same commands. They were then handed to the national servicemen who, from what I was told, were trained in much the same way using much the same techniques. When the servicemen had competed their two year stint, the dogs were dumped in a compound with no human company for six weeks. They were so pleased to be let out that they immediately identified with their new handler and automatically took up where they left off, obeying the commands and behaving precisely in the way that they had been trained.

Real change began when Konrad Lorenz developed a number of theories and processes within the natural world and began to study imprinting and animal behaviour patterns. This gradually led to more modern approaches to dog training based on pack hierarchy. This rejects ‘fear’ (and therefore pain and misuse) as the prime trigger to force dogs to behave in specific ways for what can best be described as ‘force of personality’ typified by the Barbara Woodhouse approach. This at least stopped dogs being beaten if they did not obey the trainers’ commands and of course, it worked perfectly well (as did the ‘fear’ method, of course).

Then came Karen Prior (among others, certainly, but I believe she was the first to put the idea of ‘positive reinforcement’ into words) who discovered – in her work training killer whales and dolphins – that if you waited until the animal exhibited a behaviour you approved or wanted, you just had to reward it at the right time with a unique signal for that behaviour.. to be quickly learned and repeated It works with any species – and this includes animals and birds as well as fish! Karen Priors ideas were developed for dogs by her, John Rogerson, John Fisher and others and the approach was taken up by experienced trainers and obedience enthusiasts such as Mary Ray and enables the advanced training now used in Heelwork to Music and the other canine training disciplines for support dogs in a dozen areas of disability.

So far, so effective but other layers were being added to what had become the incredibly complex and competitive world of what was once, simply ‘dog training’.

This has been largely due to the fact that dogs are quite unlike other animals. Over the centuries they have become integrated into human society in a unique way that has psychologically changed their nature for most never have to fend for themselves in the natural world. The result has been an animal which although incredibly intelligent, sensitive and responsive to human society has a mentality which is in effect, stunted and juvenile compared to its wolf forebears. What is more, the increasingly complexity of modern life in the West has brought with it extra external demands which have resulted in a range of problems from separation anxiety to unstable temperaments. Suddenly there was not just a demand for dog trainers but for canine psychologists and those who could effectively modify canine behaviours so that pet dogs would ‘fit in’ to their family and environment without causing their owners any trouble.

At the same time, it became clear that some dogs had behavioural problems which stemmed from their physiology so a veterinary input was needed to ensure that the dog was not suffering from a dietary problem or a disease.

in just a few years an immense specialisation has been created and the techniques used for behaviour modification in dogs have been sliced and diced to the extent that the current landscape resembles that of the competing and often vitriolic schools of human psychology beginning with John Locke at the end of the 17th Century through Freud and the emergence of psychoanalysis at the turn of the last Century to the detailed research into the working of the human brain today.

For all these reasons, the study of canine psychology and the modification of canine behaviour cannot be compared to other domestic animals, including the cat and, most certainly, to the behaviour of animals in the wild. This is not to denigrate the study of animal behaviour: it is an important area of science and whether the research involves animals in their natural surroundings of plain, jungle, sea or air or in zoos and wildlife parks the conclusions will have significant effects on the sustainability of the natural living world.

At the same time, the world of canine psychologists and trainers will have a significant effect on the well being of humanity in the Western world, especially if you believe, as I do, that pets in general and dogs in particular, are an important element in both the physical and mental health of our society. However, therein lies a vital feature of any work with dogs –people are an essential factor in this equation. This quite different to the study of animal behaviour in the natural world where, generally, the impact of humanity other than in an environmental sense, is insignificant.

It is therefore surprising that the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) is developing such a strong (and for some, unwelcome, voice) in the discussions generated by the Council for Companion Animal Welfare (CAWC). This series of meetings has been held as a result of their report published last year into the Regulation of Companion Animal Services in Relation to Training and Behaviour Modification of Dogs. They have been fascinating in that for the first time so many differing facets of the world of dog training and behaviour have been gathered round the same table.

I have no quarrel with ASAB. They are a highly esteemed academic organisation and their magazine, newsletter and conferences are hugely influential. However, a survey of their publications, articles and conference presentations reveals that none are about dogs. This is not surprising for only a tiny proportion of their 2000 or so members are involved in the world of dogs. For instance, sixteen people are listed as being certified as ‘Clinical Animal Behaviourists’ in cat and/or dog behaviours (you can see the academic requirements for accreditation at

and there is no doubt that the accreditation process is very thorough – as you would expect of an academic organisation. What is interesting though, is that although I understand some members of ASAB are veterinary surgeons, none are actually listed as Clinical Animal Behaviourists nor are any veterinary surgeons members of the various committees.

A further complication which worries many trainers and behaviourists is that there appears to have been a tendency that as more veterinary surgeons have become involved in this area, some conditions which would respond to normal behaviour modification techniques are being treated with ‘prozac’ type drugs, many of which have not been tested on dogs. I have discussed these difficulties (and those regarding the arrested development of the canine mind) in more detail in the past and I have republished those articles here – just scroll down.

There is no doubt that the world of animal trainers and behaviourists is a tangled mass of conflicting views and ideologies and it needs a structure if it is to be respected and effective. But the academic route, however important it is within its own narrow focus, is not about training dogs – and the vast majority of problems the ordinary pet owner faces is about dog training and there are thousands of effective, worthy and sensible dog trainers and behaviourists in the community who are more than capable of solving 95% of canine problems and training dogs without any academic qualifications (this is not to knock academia – just to put things in perspective).

What is more, the Kennel Club has, without doubt, got the most extensive and comprehensive accreditation scheme already in place. What is required is for all groups and practitioners to sign up to it. I hope that this is achievable. An agreed code of practice, an effective complaints procedure and the KC accreditation scheme is all that is required to get the whole sector working together for the benefit fo dogs and their owners – and in the long term, our society as a whole.

Yes we can!

2 Comments on “Training – Canine behaviour modification – progress towards practitioner accreditation and registration”

  1. Good day! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?
    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content.
    Please let me know. Many thanks

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