Dog Training – Further thoughts on dog training, behaviour modification – and accreditation

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


Complications continue to abound within the world of dog training and behaviour modification and as chairman of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council I have been asked several times over the last few months for an update.  I hope that this article will answer some of the questions being posed.  He

It is many years since the family dog ran free and worked off its energy and frustrations running the streets and countryside.  Society has become more sophisticated and regulated and ‘the dog’ is now expected to ‘fit in’ after thousands of generations just ‘being’.  We should not be surprised that the transition is confusing for the dog and difficult and uncomfortable for us.

We demand much of our ‘best friend’ and are concerned and disappointed when he is found lacking in the social and personal skills we have come to expect via Fred Basset, Lassie Come Home and Lady and the Tramp.  Puppies still have enormous appeal to all ages but many are square pegs that find it difficult being forced into the convenient round holes of modern life.  When they present a problem we want an ‘expert’ to solve it as we do when a tap leaks or the lights fuse.  It is therefore not surprising that the demand for dog trainers and those who set themselves up as being able to modify canine behaviour has soared

Over the past fifteen years many hundreds of books have been written and published on training dogs and an immense amount of related material is available.  Some is very sensible and useful to dog owners but much is confusing and buried in jargon: a jumble of ideas, techniques and unproven ‘experience’ moulded into a convenient  and sometimes flashy ‘package’ of smoke and mirrors which conceal rather than illuminates

The result is that much dog training consists of a range of either vague aspirations or formulaic, prescribed  and mechanical processes delivered by those who only partly understand the basis of their techniques – and misunderstand the rest.  It is not surprising that much behaviour modification is unsuccessful.

And it is no accident that many ineffective methods wrapped and ‘spun’ with unrealistic promises of success abounds on web pages.  The result has been that over the past 15 years there has been a huge increase in dogs being dumped in rescue and being designated as un-trainable. The word ‘discipline’ is frowned upon by the theory extremists and so the number of dogs being euthanized is constantly rising. Other organisations have a more modern  balanced intelligent  training approached, have much more success and prevent hundreds of dogs from being rejected and put down.

As a result, the world of training dogs and those who are involved in the modification of their behaviour is in turmoil.  In fact, although a report in 2008 by the respected Companion Animal Welfare Council in the UK does not actually use the word ‘chaos’, even the briefest scan of its 52 pages can leave the reader in little doubt that the situation is thoroughly unsatisfactory and this is reflected throughout the western world, wherever dogs are expected to ‘conform’ to the standards set by humans and their regulatory regimes.

Current situation

Because of the wide range of ideas, theories, processes and techniques that have gained an adherence over the last 30 years, many organisations have been established which purport to represent the best methods and practitioners of dog training and behaviour modification.  Most are member organisations of like-minded people and each seeks to establish its authority through a series stated aims, objectives and ethical standards.  The situation has been complicated by the involvement of the major charities whose role is no longer to just re home dogs but to rehabilitate them as well.  Some have instituted research to help them achieve this objective but there is general agreement among dog trainers with experience that this research has not been sound which has led to even more disagreements between the varying factions.

One reason why there is so much bad blood and disinformation between groups is the decision by the pet insurance companies to accept claims regarding pet behaviour.  Understandably, the insurance companies want to ensure that claims are dealt with quickly and effectively and the mechanism that they have introduced is that of referral by a veterinary surgeon.  Vets are busy people – they do not have the time to assess the quality of practitioners so it is easier to select someone with a ‘qualification’ even if that qualification is irrelevant or spurious and the practical experience of the ‘expert’ is minimal.

In addition, the political ramifications within the competing organisations have often led to their focus being on their status and influence as an organisation rather than what is best for the dog.

The report by the Companion Animal Welfare Counsel referred to above suggested that there should be one registration organisation for practitioners and a series of meetings were held in 2009/10 to try and achieve this worthy objective.  Those present recognised that this was likely to be very difficult and probably impossible.  In practice this has proved to be the case.

Standards and accreditation

In their attempt to establish themselves as the prime group, each organisation has set themselves standards to which they expect their members to adhere.  Some are fiercely academic, insisting on a science degree for all their members and stressing their ‘clinical’ qualifications (qualifications which do not exist in dog behaviour – a fly on the wall while the definition of clinical’ was discussed at the meetings called by CAWC would have wept!)  while others emphasise their professionalism, vocational study, experience and dedication.  A perennial problem is that there is confusion between the undoubtedly important and valuable academic study of animal behaviour and that of dog training and dog specific behaviour modification for there is an assumption that a degree or postgraduate general study in animal behaviour gives some extra insight into dog behaviour/training and practical modification skills.  This is not the case, not just because dogs form no part of most animal behaviour degrees but what little is taught is only theory. This critical fact is not explained to the public by people using these general animal behaviour degrees. The Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council promotes a more transparent and open classification of experience so the public can choose their ‘expert’ from relevant, credible and reliable information about the qualifications of any individual  rather than irrelevant ‘animal behaviour’ degrees which do not provide an appropriate  knowledge base.

Choosing a trainer or behaviourist  is not rocket science but it requires a degree of common sense which balances experience, personality and dedication.  Qualifications are relevant but it is certainly not just about academic expertise.  If a student wishes to obtain a Degree, two are available in Britain specifically in dog behaviour so solving the problem for those wishing to attain a high level of knowledge in dog behaviour.  The questions which need to be asked about anyone purporting to be a canine behaviour specialist are:

  • Are they successful?
  • Is their web site transparent and open about their expertise, experience and specific specialised canine qualification
  • Does the owner of the dog with a problem behaviour feel confident in their ability?
  • Is there a change in the behaviour of their dog when the expert is present and post consultation
  • Do they use they kind, balanced and practical methods?
  • Do they spend time with the owner helping them understand the circumstances (that they have often created) led to the dogs fear, distress or recalcitrance?
  •  Does the expert try to blind the owner with irrelevant jargon and complex scientific concepts or do they take a common-sense, practical approach?
  • In dog behaviour cases does the expert provide a report and assessment which reflects the consultation process
  •  Can the expert practically handle the dog especially in aggression cases when the owner is in difficulty and in real situations not theoretical.
  • Are they recommended by owners whose dogs they have successfully treated?

All groups struggle with the problem that there is no satisfactory definition, status or fully professional designation for a person who trains and/or  modifies the behaviour of dogs.  There are an increasing number of qualifications, both work-based and theoretical, that are available but until last year when the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council published ‘Defining roles for dog behaviour and training professionals’ there has been no common consensus of the various roles of those involved.  This was written in consultation with many organisations including the Police.  It is now the widely accepted model and standard

Most organisations have developed some form of internal accreditation system to justify the status of their members.  In fact, there is a deliberate intention to mislead by some organisations who state that they have ‘created’ an independent organisation that accredits them.  Clearly if that organisation has no history or knowledge base or has the very people on their board from the organisation they are supposed to be accrediting, their role can only be described as fraudulent.

As a result, the whole concept of the term ‘accreditation’ has become devalued.  The dictionary definition isthe act of granting credit or recognition (especially with respect to educational institution that maintains suitable standards)’ but the most important and key element is that the accreditation of any person or organisation should be truly separate and independent from the person or organisation accredited.  There are a number of organisations in Britain that carry out this task and you can find a full list by accessing theNational Database of Accrediting Organisations on the Internet: unless an accrediting body is a recognised University or on this list, then it will have been set up specifically to give credence to standards which are not genuinely independently audited.  Whatever the claims of separateness and independence, any accrediting body worthy of the name will be on the National Database of Accrediting Organisations.

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