Category Archives: Ethics

Dog Trainer License Finally Proposed in NY

New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky is introducing a bill that could help the highly unregulated dog training industry gain credibility here in New York State. Senate Bill S8219 proposes establishing a dog trainer license and minimum education standards for obedience dog trainers. You can see the full text of the proposed bill here. 

The bill has been proposed because “dog trainer” Brian DeMartino of NYDogWorks on Long Island was caught on camera abusing a dog. If you don’t want to view animal abuse, don’t click on the link (I personally can’t bring myself to watch it). I love that Senator Kaminsky is pushing for a dog trainer license in order to reduce abuse in the name of dog training. I applaud him for it, and I hope that we can work together and shape the regulations and our industry for the better. Leading organizations I respect such as IAABC have already reached out to Senator Kaminsky to offer their guidance and support.

 

Dog Trainers Support Licensure, Right?

If dog trainers are all great at one thing, it’s disagreeing. Not all trainers support a dog trainer license. Trainers on all sides are going ballistic over what tools or methods may or may not be banned. Many trainers are worried about educational requirements. Some trainers feel the educational requirements don’t need to include a university degree, stating that materials covered in academic coursework are less applicable than the hands-on training for-profit schools currently provide. Others believe having lenient educational requirements will further devalue the work we do by giving increased credibility to poor trainers who could point to a license to defend their legitimacy. Veteran trainers without formal education are concerned this bill will put them out of work. Many fear increased start-up costs (education, licensing fees) could trickle down to consumers, making professional training assistance unaffordable to many who desperately need it. Everyone is concerned that the “wrong side” will influence the future regulatory body and the bill will set the wrong standards.

Many of these concerns have legs. Cesar Millan was given an honorary graduate degree, though he likely couldn’t pass even the basic CPDT test. Having him on board would be a disaster. Many states (and Canada) have a history of tearing sweet, loving dogs out of their homes and murdering them in the name of irrational and misguided breed specific legislation. Despite evidence that BSL doesn’t work, these laws still exist and continue to be adopted in the face of professional pushback. Luckily, New York State has laws that “identify, track and regulate dangerous dogs individually – regardless of breed – and prohibit BSL.” Even though we live in a state that up until now has made good decisions about canine-related legislation, there is plenty of room for legitimate concern about the way new regulation could unfold. The wrong requirements could be more than ineffective, they could backfire.

In all likelihood, the minimum standards for a dog trainer license will be just that: minimal. It’s not likely that any tools will be banned. The educational standards won’t be set high enough. However, in every training plan there is the first step.

Change more frequently happens in tiny increments, not sweeping leaps. This could be the first step towards great change for an industry with many problems.

I don’t want to be grouped in with trainers who hang dogs in the name of training (yes, I’ve spoken to trainers who do this “for 10-15 seconds” so the dog “never does behavior X again”). I do want to be held to a higher standard, and I believe holding dog trainers to a higher standard will increase the demand for better education.

 

What “Better Education” Means To Me

Professional dog trainers currently come to different conclusions about how to help our clients because we are coming from different and often incomplete educational backgrounds. We should all be following the same procedures via the tools we have from welfare science, applied behavior analysis, etc. If what I am doing is unethical, if my education is not well rounded enough and I am not making the best decisions, I should not be licensed. It doesn’t matter how much time or energy I’ve spent on education and certifications up until this point nor how long I have been working professionally. I don’t know of one comprehensive program that currently covers everything, and that’s a huge problem both for dog trainers and for dog owners.

I would love to see the future pet dog trainer license requirement include a bachelor’s degree that was both academic and practical, but no such bachelor’s program currently exists. Some dog trainers point to undergraduate psychology degrees as a qualification but these departments are not catering to dog trainers. Psychology undergrad students aren’t currently learning ethology,  genetics, applied behavior analysis, welfare science, hands-on skills, or professional ethics.  I would love to see a bachelor’s program where students learn theory in the classroom and earn credits doing practical work by teaching shelter dogs, provided low-cost dog training classes and consultations through a university dog training school (supervised), and have internships at local zoos. Most dog trainers I currently know have bachelor’s degrees – just not ones that support the work that we do. A program like this would not only be good for future dog trainers, it would provide free or low-cost support to shelters, community dog owners, and underfunded zoos.

I would love future behavior consultant licensing requirements to include education requirements (Masters or Ph.D.), supervising requirements, and testing similar to the licensing requirements for social workers and psychotherapists. A licensing board isn’t going to take your tools away, but they could make sure that you understand multiple scientific disciplines well enough to make informed decisions about any training scenario or tool you may use. This would further draw a distinction between “dog trainer” and “dog behavior consultant”. Too often dog trainers don’t know that they don’t know how to help a dog with a serious behavior issue and take on clients that they shouldn’t. This leads clients to believe that “science-based” “force free” professionals don’t know what they’re doing. Regulations would help owners find more effective help so they don’t waste time and money on professionals who may be quite talented but who aren’t quite ready to take on a severe behavior challenge. Dog trainers teach manners and help owners with nuisance behaviors like inappropriate jumping and chewing. Dog behavior consultants deal with problems ranging from separation anxiety to aggression, often in conjunction with veterinary professionals. This is a delineation most pet dog owners (and many dog trainers) are completely oblivious of.

I imagine a world where academic scholars and veteran trainers work side by side and challenge each other. I imagine a world where all trainers are able to read and understand a research study. I dream of a world where we all have awareness of our own biases and are better equipped to make educated decisions based on research and science instead of dogma.

 

How Do We Get From Here To There? One step at at time.

There are many wonderful organizations and leaders in our field. Historically, professional organizations have fought for legislation to improve and protect the work they do (See: NYS Society for Clinical Social Work – History). Our existing professional organizations and our educated and respected veterans must come together and lead us forward to help shape the next generation of canine experts. These organizations already set our code of ethics, provide our coursework and organize our conferences. Working towards licensure and legitimacy is the natural next step, so I am not surprised that these organizations are pro-licensure.

To start, perhaps the dog trainer license will require us only to pass a basic theory test, agree to a code of ethics and meet continuing education requirements. All legitimate trainers have already done these things. These minimal standards will weed out only the truly abysmal trainers and will need to be improved upon. As the average trainer gains knowledge, minimum standards will rise again. I am no expert on regulatory bodies, but this is what I hope to see over the next 50 years. When higher standards evolve, our collective knowledge will push both licensing requirements and the research envelope. New discoveries will help us all to make even more refined, effective, and ethical choices for the companion animals who depend on us for everything.

 

Can Your Dog Trainer Solve Your Problems?

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At my very first clicker expo, one of the talks I attended was “Common Trainer Mistakes” by Ken Ramirez. The mistake Ken closed his talk with was “Assuming All Training Can Be Done By Anyone”. I thought of this talk again while reading this blog post recently. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a worthwhile read. In it, my friend and colleague Andre Yeu argues that good trainers are turning down hard cases for fear of not knowing enough. He makes some great points and his post resonated with me. I am The Dog Trainer Colleague Who Undersells Herself, and I might suffer slightly from both Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect he references. Andre warns that when well informed trainers pass on difficult cases, clients are more likely to fall into the hands of aversive “shock and pop” trainers. My differing perspective is that taking a case you might not be ready for is unethical and just as likely to lead clients into the hands of trainers who offer sub par, harmful solutions. Accepting a client without certainty of your ability to solve their problem is a common trainer mistake Ken warned us of.

A quick glance at my books reveals that I’ve spent over $20,000.00 on continuing education over the past five years. Last year I had four times the continuing education credits required to maintain my certification. While I am not a seasoned veteran, I’m good at what I do and I take the responsibility I have to my clients seriously. There are many specialties in training and many paths I could follow to broaden my abilities. I could focus on puppies, manners, tricks, various sport training, working dog training , body conditioning for canine athletes, or behavior modification. Within these specialties are further subspecialties. Some trainers only teach agility. Others only work separation anxiety cases. While I am focusing on behavior modification, many of my clients are interested in more than just manners work. While I would never purport to be an expert in a specialty I have only a basic knowledge of (when was the last time you saw a gun dog working in Manhattan?) I feel that it’s important to have a foundation in all of the above disciplines to best serve my clients needs. The trainers I most respect are humble education junkies, continuing to expand both their intellectual knowledge and their skills. As Aristotle said, the more you know the more you know you don’t know.

Aristotle

Shouldn’t we know what problems we’re qualified to help our clients solve? This is the crux of the issue. There are great schools and organizations, but there is no one school, program, or organization that teaches it all. I  must put my own curriculum together and connect the dots by myself. While I have fabulous mentors guiding me, it’s not the same as attending a well designed comprehensive program where material  builds on itself. Unlike therapy for humans, there are no supervision requirements. When you are continually learning, it’s hard not to feel like you know nothing when there’s nobody there to tell you that you’re doing a great job. We rely on our clients satisfaction to keep tabs on our capabilities, but there can still be a seed of doubt. Could I be doing this better? Quicker? Is there a different approach?

It’s up to each individual trainer to listen to their inner voice and make responsible decisions about accepting a case or referring out. I would rather decline a case than provide a partial solution to a client’s problem, leaving them questioning the efficacy of humane training methods. If we are thoughtful with our self assessments and honest about our current level of knowledge and skill sets, we can make very good decisions for ourselves – and for our clients – about what cases we shouldn’t take on. In this profession, clients come to us with high stakes problems. If a case is handled incorrectly, the safety of a client or the public at large may be compromised. Rehoming or euthanasia may be on the table. If a professional has 90% of the knowledge they need to help these clients, 90% of the knowledge they need is not good enough. The sliver of information missing could result in prolonging the suffering of an animal in severe physical or emotional distress or suggesting euthanasia to an animal that might otherwise be helped.

While not every trainer has the luxury of being surrounded by a community of other excellent professionals to refer to, we are lucky to have that here in NYC. There is an excellent network of trainers, behavior consultants, and veterinary behaviorists in the NYC area that are happy to work together. On the occasion I feel a case might be beyond my experience level, I provide the client with immediate management suggestions while sending the client to both a veterinarian (medical issues can cause behavior change) and a colleague better equipped to handle the case. If you are a fellow trainer, for the good of our profession and our clients, I urge you to to do the same.

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Tips For Dog Owners
  • Read your trainer’s biography and philosophy. If they don’t have one listed, keep looking.
  • Make sure your trainer has obtained a certification. This is not necessarily proof of competence, but it’s a good start.
  • Ask for your trainers official resume listing the courses they have taken and continuing education they have done and/or the seminars and workshops they have taught to other professionals.
  • Ask if your trainer has solved your problem before.
  • Ask who your trainer turns to when they’re stuck. Look up that person’s biography.
  • Ask your trainer in what scenarios they refer out to other professionals. If they don’t list any scenarios at all, keep looking. Even the most experienced behavior modification professionals need to refer to veterinary behaviorists on some cases.