We need to demolish those ‘Ivory Towers’

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

All national institutions[..*.] appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. – Thomas Paine

The All Party Group for the Welfare of Animals (APGAW) has published a Strategy for Dogs in England. In my view little is likely to be achieved as there is, despite the varying pronouncements of all political parties, both a lack of will and, as was clearly stated by other speakers at a recent APGAW meeting, a significant lack of resources to carry out many of the suggestions.  That said the Strategy Document contains much that is thoughtful, sensible and sound (along with some wishful thinking) but there are some glaring inaccuracies and assumption in one aspect of the strategy: that which concerns training and behaviour.

Under ‘Education’ the document says: ‘All animal welfare organisations, public sector bodies and central government should ensure all messaging in this area is up to date, evidence-based, clear, consistent and accessible and visible. Such information should be positive in its tone rather than the scare mongering approach some advice currently takes. The understanding of dog behaviour and welfare has improved and advanced significantly in the last 10-15 years and is now a well-established science and discipline. Some previously accepted theories and techniques have been shown to be outdated and can place dog welfare at risk making behaviour problems worse and placing people in danger. There are still practitioners that use these theories and techniques and this is compounded by the problem that anyone can still call themselves a ‘behaviourist’ regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, experience and skills. This has resulted in a plethora of people offering behaviour therapy and training and because there has been no joined up agreement on where to sign-post the public or other industry practitioners there is much confusion. Over recent years, the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) has developed, maintains and oversees a range of standards for those in the behaviour therapy and training industry to which the majority of stakeholders have signed up. For the standards that have been created by industry to be upheld and recognised, the public needs to be informed of them and there needs to be clear signposting from Government that these bodies offer the highest standard and demonstrate best practice. Additionally the Kennel Club accredits dog trainers, providing a high quality standard of training from accredited instructors and those working towards accreditation. In 2010 the scheme achieved City and Guilds recognition. Recommendation: Defra needs to urgently identify and endorse a suitable industry standard and independent regulatory body (including qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience) so that the public can be confident in finding and going to a suitable behaviourist or trainer.

Evidence based?

I was especially interested to see the phrase ‘evidence based’ because although much of the above is correct some of its statements and conclusions are quite wrong. I am not a dog trainer but have been involved in animal care education for almost 40 years through the Animal Care College and eleven years as deputy to the Director General and manager of training with Battersea Dogs Home so I am therefore absolutely behind much of this report, especially those general points made about education. It is certainly true that sometimes confusing messages bombard the public. This needs to be addressed although the report omits to point its finger at those responsible: those groups, charities and lobbyists defending their own particular castles of influence. They are institutions which occasionally work together but their prime objective is inevitably, as Gavin Grant said in a published interview in PR Week a couple of years ago when he was appointed the Chief Executive of the RSPCA: ‘My first job must be to bring in enough money to pay my staff’!

I think I would also take issue with the phrase suggesting that dog training is now: ‘a well-established science and discipline’. You would not think so reading the immense amount of contradictory material available through books and the Internet. But let me address my specific concerns about the above paragraph. And I would add that I am not on my own – many organisations have already expressed doubts regarding the summary which contains a number of assumptions and inaccuracies.

First and foremost is the report’s endorsement of The Animal Training and Behaviour Council. The statement that it ‘developed, maintains and oversees a range of standards’ is simply not true and the assertions on their website are disingenuous to say the least. There is no doubt that ATBC has done a great deal of work but the ‘standards’ referred to are incorporated in the National Occupational Standards recently agreed by Lantra and I wrote about them at the time.  These standards were created by many organisations working together: they included the Kennel Club, the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council and the Guild of Dog Trainers among others.  Not only was the ATBC not one of them but, in fact, it argued strongly against their adoption as may be confirmed by Lantra.

Furthermore, the list of organisations which ‘support’ ATBC is mostly made up of groups (mainly those ‘castles of influence’) which only have a peripheral impact and influence on dog training and behaviours.  This is not to undermine the work that any of them do but it is important to understand that the various ‘bars’ set by ATBC and its few associated training/ behaviour organisations is such that the vast majority of those involved in dog training who have knowledge, experience and expertise could not comply – and do not need to.  

It’s not rocket science

Basic dog training is not rocket science: socialisation and the simple behaviours that families required for their pet dog do not need degree level knowledge and expertise.  Complex behaviour modification and the training of support dogs, search and rescue and sniffer dogs require immense skill, and expertise but, sit, walk, stay, come and fetch, the basics, are all straightforward. The APGAW report complicates the whole issue by supporting the view of ATBC and other ‘castles’ that just a few highly educated, expensive, dog trainers only should be allowed to train dogs and modify their behaviour.  This ignores most of the excellent work being done for thousands of dogs and their families in the community by practical, experienced dog trainers both individually and through the many training clubs – many of which work closely with the Kennel Club.

It is essential that the dog training sector gets away from the ‘ivory tower’ approach and reaches out to everyone involved – preferably through membership of one of the sensible and practical  organisations which belong to the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council (www.petbc.org.uk) or through the independent National Register of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists which I launched recently. The Register is free and welcomes any and every dog trainer or behaviourist who is prepared to sign up to the Companion Animal Welfare Council’s Code of Practice – the one and only thing, I might add, that everyone within the sector has ever agreed to. Unlike any other organisation it provides links to all the Kennel Club Training Clubs and all the recognised organisations which themselves ignore and often seek undermine each other.
To make progress we need to open doors – our society seems to be more and more determined to close them.

*Thomas Paine was writing about religion and the church/es in this quote but I think it applies equally to most institutions

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