Dog training – let’s keep the concept simple

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated – Confucius

In July 2008, the Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC) published its ground breaking report into the Regulation of Companion Animal Services in Relation to the Training and Behaviour Modification of Dogs*. This 40 plus page analysis of the complications of this rapidly expanding sector made a number of recommendations and indicated that there was ‘considerable concern in many quarters about the treatment of some animals during Behaviour Modification Programmes (BMPs)’. This was despite the fact that CAWC’s ‘call for evidence’ which went out to many dozens of stakeholders prior to this research ‘failed to bring forward direct accounts of problems relating to a lack of regulation’. However, because of the fact that ‘many believe that problems exist as a result of lack regulation’, it was felt by CAWC that the whole question should nevertheless be the subject of a report. What they found confirmed what many of us involved in the periphery of dog training and behaviour modification already knew to be the case: the situation, which had been described by many commentators including myself, was ‘chaotic’. And inevitably, given the lack of reported problems, virtually all the ideas and opinions supplied to those responsible for compiling the report were hearsay generated by organisations and groups involved in the sector (who inevitably had their own interests and agenda) or from academic research (much of which has since been questioned by other experienced trainers).

Despite all this, the report proved valuable in many ways although perhaps not quite as CAWC intended. It was useful in that it set out some sensible proposals but at the same time it clearly demonstrated the immense range of ideas about dog training and behaviour modification which would, inevitably, make those proposals almost impossible to achieve.

Government action is unlikely

The first hurdle was inevitably that of regulation. The likelihood of any government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) introducing any formal regulation of the sector was nil then and is nil now. There may be some ‘recommendations’ eventually through Defra’s Animal Health and Welfare Board but officials know all about chalices and poisons – and hidings to nothing – so regulation will not be on the agenda any time soon. In addition, although there is much hearsay, there is little hard evidence that dog training and behaviour modification is in the parlous state many organisations would have you believe. This is not to say that there are no problems but, like grooming and many other canine related services, they are not serious enough to justify legislation. The government would love to have a solution to reducing dog biting incidents but regulation of dog trainers is not a feasible option although this has not prevented one organisation describing itself on its homepage as ‘the regulatory body’, a disingenuous statement if ever there was one simply because there is no related regulation on the statute book.

The second hurdle was the question of agreed standards. This has proved difficult but has met with partial success. Soon after the CAWC report was published the Council asked Sir Colin Spedding to host a series of meetings to which anyone with an interest was invited and eventually a Code of Best Practice was hammered out and agreed – although several of the organisations made it clear that it was not comprehensive enough and ‘their’ code made more demands on their members and more fully protected their clients. A second achievement was the recent establishment of nationally accepted occupational standards for dog trainers and those modifying canine behaviour**. This was a tricky and sometimes acrimonious series of meetings hosted by Lantra (the Land Based Industry’s government funded training and careers sector group which has animal care as part of its remit) with the Animal Training and Behaviour Council (ATBC) arguing the standards already established for all animals were perfectly acceptable for dogs while others, including the Kennel Club and the Pet Education and Training Council (PETbc), maintaining that ‘dogs are different’ so the skills were different too: dog trainers should have their own occupational standards. I am pleased to see that the ATBC now support those occupational standards, even implying that they were in favour of them all along!

One proposal = four representative groups

I hope all this gives you a flavour of the intricacies of the issues which have been most clearly demonstrated by the fact that after the first of the meetings referred to above several groups came together to form the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council. They subsequently asked me to be its chairman as someone who was independent and had some knowledge of the sector but was not actually a dog trainer. Unfortunately, and I believe regrettably, many of those who had a more academic approach to training and behaviour management in dogs and who, through their professional associations with the veterinary profession and having the ear of some of Britain’s major animal welfare charities (who themselves have generally little to do with dog training and behaviour), set up an alternative Council, the ATBC. Soon afterwards, the Kennel Club, with its Kennel Club Accredited Instructor scheme having been praised in the report, understanding the political complexity of the situation and preferring to remain entirely independent rather than be associated with either organisation, suggested the setting up of an ‘independent’ Registration Council with the remit of registering all dog trainers and behaviourists whatever their background and qualification. This group also received the approval of Sir Colin: the organisation was chaired by Bill Hardaway who made some headway but unfortunately passed away before it was properly established and little happened for several years.

Because little was happening and PETbc was an organisation of organisations rather than individual trainers, I believed such a register would be of value so I launched the National Association of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists last year (www.itraindogs.uk). It is founded on a very simple membership concept and is a totally independent group which any dog trainer who receives fees for their services may join so long as they are prepared to abide by the CAWC Code of Best Practice. However, there are still many who believe a formal Registration Council is required and several high profile members of the dog training community are currently engaged in creating the criteria for membership and designations to describe the many specialist roles for what is the Registration Council for Dog Training and Behaviour Practitioners (RCDTBP). This is not an easy task for it needs to encompass everyone from the trainer who runs local obedience classes to those who deal with very complex behaviour issues which, if not resolved, will mean that a healthy dog may have to be killed.

At the same time, the techniques required for those socialising puppies, training guide dogs and the many other specialised assistance dogs, gundogs, other working dogs such as sniffer and rescue dogs, along with obedience, agility, flyball, rally and all the rest, require special training skills and techniques. It is also important that people’s levels of expertise are defined: someone might be perfectly competent helping owners teach their puppies to walk to heel, sit, wait and return but would be unable to effectively advise owners on the best way to modify antisocial or difficult behaviour of dogs in which these traits have become embedded.

It does not help that we are swamped with advice from those who have televisual appeal, much of which is contradictory and often challenged by effective and experienced practitioners. Even taking into account the inevitable and understandable editing to make the programmes more watchable and exciting, some methods are questionable to say the least. The furore and impact of ‘tailgate’ at Crufts and at the recent World Show give you some idea of the passions which are aroused by anything to do with canine welfare and indicate how much of a divide there is between those actively involved in training dogs.

All these issues arise because there is money to be made through referrals from veterinary surgeons, running training classes and individual consultations through franchises (whether they are overtly commercial or disguised as groups of trainers with a similar outlook) and so we must also find ways in which they can demonstrate their experience, qualifications and professionalism to the general public.

Can we keep it simple?

Of course, most dogs are amenable and it is relatively easy to train them to sit, stand, stay, comfortably walk on a lead and come as well as ensuring that they understand their boundaries within their environment, their family, with family friends and with strangers.

Many dogs are very well socialised and beautifully behaved but unfortunately there are still far too many dogs that lack basic training despite the efforts of the Kennel Club (through the Good Citizens Dog Scheme which was created to encourage owners to train their dogs), dozens of television programs setting out the basics of dog training and the easy access to small training clubs throughout the UK. I sometimes wonder whether people actually like to have pets that misbehave so their owners can have something to talk about! I am sorry if this seems flippant or dismissive but it does seem that, in the same way as many people appear to be less inclined to ‘do it themselves’ as far as painting, wallpapering and plumbing are concerned, their first response is to call in an ‘expert’. So if the problem is with their dog then they call dog trainer, canine psychologist or canine behaviourist who is more than ready to come with help and advice – and charge for that advice, of course. But how does the owner with a badly behaved dog choose?

A preliminary search under ‘dog trainer’ in any search engine throws up many thousands of websites: not only are there hundreds of individuals and organisations but the clamour and ‘noise’ of their competing claims are overwhelming. There are dozens of different explanations, references and expressions used in describing trainers, their methods, the organisation to which they belong and their commitment to helping their clients. How does anyone find their way through the maze? I hope this article will help.

Whether we are socialising a puppy, training a sniffer dog or preventing a dog from fighting or barking, we are modifying its behaviour. The ways in which we do this are many and varied and so there is a wide range of skills and experience required for anyone involved. Given the complexity of the subject my approach is that we should keep it simple – as simple as we can.

Dog Training

To begin at the beginning, we know that an important key requirement for puppies is that they are handled regularly by humans from the nest so they begin to know and respect people. If this handling is neglected the puppies will identify much more closely with their siblings and would tend to be more ‘canine’ orientated than ‘human’ orientated so canine traits may become ascendant over those of docility, disposition to please, amenability and cooperation. There is no ‘training’ involved but we are nevertheless modifying the puppy’s behaviour just as we do when it is later given a treat for performing a desired action.

At the other end of the scale is the training of dogs to assist human beings both for the physically or mentally disabled, to herd sheep, retrieve game, perform simple or complex routines or sniff out drugs. All these activities are ‘training from scratch’ and require trainers who work with the natural instincts of the dogs to develop useful skills. The way in which the behaviour of these dogs is modified is by consistent and kind training through positive reinforcement: that is, we move forward progressively through time, increasing the skills of the dog through practice. A ‘Dog Trainer’ needs to be knowledgeable and skilful in the psychology of dogs to be successful and this is a sound, sensible term summarising this expertise,

Modifying embedded behaviours

Let us leave ‘training’ for the present and look at the other aspect of behaviour modification i.e. when dogs are not being ‘trained from scratch’ but where the training is required to alter or change embedded behaviours. For numerous reasons (innate temperament; poor socialisation; mistreatment at best and cruelty at worst; traumatic experiences; being left without company for long periods) some dogs will develop a range of undesirable traits which make them difficult and sometimes impossible to live with. They may bark or be destructive, they may be aggressive and lunge at people, bicycles motorcycle or cars, and they may escape and roam the streets or indulge in unpleasant and disagreeable habits from soiling soft furnishings to coprophagia. These behaviours are usually dealt with by canine ‘behaviourists’ who not only have experience and understanding of canine psychology but also have an insight into human psychology too – along with the skills to assess the dog’s environment, its circumstances, its relations with its owners and family and, just as important, the family’s relationship with the dog/s or other pets. ‘Canine Behaviourist’ seems a sensible term for those who treat these problems.

The advanced ends of each skill involve complex scenarios but the basic ‘train’ scenario and ‘treat’ scenario are the two common threads upon which we can base descriptors so that we begin to define specialisms and levels of expertise which will make sense to the public.

Easily comprehended terms for specialisations include: Puppy; Obedience; Gundog; Security – to include the military and police; Assistance; Activity – to include obedience, agility, heelwork to music etcetera, If these are clear, levels of expertise are little different from any other job.   Too many involved in the sector are determined to complicate the issue even though they insist they want to retain clarity for the public: they are not succeeding. Some of the descriptors bandied about include, ‘practitioner’, ‘animal training technician’ (yes really), ‘clinical behaviourist’, remedial behaviourist. ‘animal behaviour therapist’, ‘training instructor’, ‘veterinary behaviourist’ and ‘accredited behaviourist’ just to name the most common. Some are quite straightforward but others require several paragraphs to explain why one differs from another. As I said before, let us keep it simple.

Frankly, there is no reason why the term ‘Qualified Dog Trainer’ should not be used for all those who train pet dogs. Some will be more competent than others but this is inevitable. For those who are learning to become dog trainers why not ‘Trainee Dog Trainer’? For those with enough expertise to teach dog trainers and to assess their abilities I would suggest ‘Dog Trainer Assessor’ while for someone who has the expertise to work at a higher level with, say, assistance dogs, we should use the term ‘Professional Dog Trainer’ who will generally be a full time employee of major charities, the security services, police or the military.

Someone involved in the modification of unwanted embedded behaviours will almost always have come from the first ‘thread’ and have been a dog trainer and will have studied and gained advanced qualifications to support their considerable experience. The designation ‘Canine Behaviourist’ is sensible and acceptable: they are already working at an advanced level and will be capable of assessing fairly complex behaviour problems in dogs. Those who have considerable further expertise and you teach and assess at that level and should be referred to as Canine Behaviour Consultants.

Here is a simple chart which sets out these ideas – the ‘Levels’ are those defined by the Department of Education’s Qualification and Credit Framework.

Level Training Dogs Modifying Embedded Behaviours
Level 1-3 Trainee Dog Trainer
Level 4 Qualified Dog Trainer Trainee Canine Behaviourist
Level 5 Dog Trainer Assessor Canine Behaviourist
Level 5-6 Professional Dog Trainer Consultant Canine Behaviourist
Level 6 and above Canine Behaviourist Assessor

*http://www.cawc.org.uk/080603.pdf

**http://nos.ukces.org.uk/Pages/results.aspx?u=http%3A%2F%2Fnos.ukces.org.uk&k=dog%20training

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