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Dog training is an unregulated industry. That means anyone can advertise themselves as a dog trainer. They do not have to have a special license, certification or even any training. It’s important to understand what is best for you and your dog for a happy and healthy relationship.

The research presents compelling evidence in favour of reward-based training. Over the last 30 years, animal behaviourists have studied the undesired effects of training with aversives such as shock collars, prong collars and dominance based theories. I recently read an article in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science (2009) where Dr. Meghan Herron, DVM, one of the lead authors of the study, says:

“Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behaviour and can elicit aggressive responses.”

Over the years, more trainers are choosing to reward instead of correct, and more owners are becoming aware of the difference, and discerning about their choice of a trainer. With such compelling testimony, it should be easy to find a trainer who uses modern, scientifically sound positive reinforcement-based techniques, and those who continue to hang onto the old, outdated methods should be going the way of the dodo, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

How is that possible you might ask?

Why you might wonder, would any dog owner or trainer choose to set up a dog as an antagonist that needs conquering when the goal is to have a companion? Now that there are excellent alternatives, what could possibly be keeping choke, prong and shock collar manufacturers in business?

Well, in great part, popular T.V. personalities are to blame. Predominantly, Cesar Millan. Using outdated and debunked pack/dominance mythology as his basis, he has gained great popularity playing the part of a dog expert on TV. His whole persona is based on creating drama by grappling “dangerous” dogs into submission. Dog owners and even “trainers” buy into the illusion he generates. Granted, it would be pretty boring to watch an aggressive dog being treated by slow, systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning, which requires keeping the dog calm at all times to be truly effective. Sadly, he has set dog training back 30 years by making dog abuse alluring. And frankly, it is pretty vulgar.

Another reason is that modern training methods based on scientific research is relatively new, and people don’t like to change. You can intimidate any living creature into compliance with the use of fear and pain, which are powerful motivators. So if a trainer has been using prong collars for the last 30 years, likely they will be heavily invested in justifying those methods anecdotally.

Choosing the right trainer

The term “trainer” has become an umbrella for a wide range of knowledge and experience, not all of which are appropriate for all problems and not all trainers are knowledgeable in all areas of training and behaviour. With the exception of specific certifications offered by professional organizations, there are few (if any) regulations about who can call themselves a trainer or a behaviourist. The following are the most commonly accepted certifications:

Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist (DACVB): A veterinary behaviourist can be invaluable for dogs with behaviour problems, especially when the cause is medical or requires the use of anti-anxiety medication to overcome the problem. A board-certified veterinary behaviourist has received additional education on animal behaviour beyond their DVM.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB): This certification requires a Masters or PhD, experience and ethics. Many behaviourists work in universities and conduct the studies that provide the information animal trainers and behaviour consultants need to better understand and work with behaviour cases.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Certified Behaviour Consultant Canine (CPDT and CBCC): A CPDT and CBCC have met the requirements as an instructor (including a minimum length of training experience), has submitted references from a client, a veterinarian, and another training professional, has passed a certifying examination and is required to meet a minimum of continuing education every two years. These requirements are set by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, the only independent certifying body in the industry.

Karen Pryor – KPACTP provides online and combined hands-on certification using non-coercive positive reinforcement methods.

International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants – IAABC members work to minimize the use of aversive stimuli and maximize the effective use of reinforcers to modify animal behaviour. They require a minimum length of training experience and working case studies.

Labels to be cautious of: Master Dog Trainer, Head Trainer, dog psychologist, behaviourist, behaviouralist and others are all terms which anyone may apply to themselves without restriction.

Make Yourself Aware of Red Flags

First understand, “bad” behaviour in dogs can have a lot of underlying causes, including, but not limited to stress, fear, anxiety, pain and illness. Be very prudent of a trainer that adjudicates that bad behaviour should be punished without taking these factors into consideration.

If Dominance/Pack Leadership is specified as cause or solution, beware! Dominance theory has long been debunked. “Establishing dominance” is often a euphemism for physical and sometimes harmful methods that will only temporarily suppress a problem behaviour. “Dog Psychology” is neither a method nor a science. It is nothing more than a popularized catchphrase.

If a trainer claims to use positive reinforcement but not food rewards. This is often a claim made by trainers who lack a basic working knowledge of positive methods. Some trainers are using the term “positive reinforcement” to describe rewarding a dog after they have used compulsive methods to get the dog to perform a behaviour. What they are using is positive punishment and negative reinforcement, not positive reinforcement.

If a trainer claims to not use a “one-size-fits-all” approach. This is often a euphemism for varying degrees of aversive methods and equipment. In reality, applying different forms of aversives ARE a one-size-fits-all approach. A skilled trainer uses many approaches to teach a dog, all of which take into consideration the dog’s individual history and behaviour, and adapt to that dog without resorting to the use of aversive methods or equipment.

If the trainer is vague or defensive when asked about methods or tools or uses equivocal terminology. A reputable trainer has nothing to hide, so a trainer should be willing and able to explain what they do and how they will do it.

And also watch out for charming little euphemisms. For example, shock may be referred to as a “tap,” “stim,” or a “muscle stimulator.”

Final Food for Thought

If you want a truly dog-friendly trainer or training class that uses modern, scientifically researched positive reinforcement training techniques, you will have to research past the advertisements. Certainly, the tools required (choke, prong or shock collars) are a dead giveaway. But there can still be force and coercion used. Beware of yelling, poking, loud noises used for startling, physically forcing dogs into position, alpha rolls or any kind of pinning, etc. Any reference to the words “alpha” or “dominance” should also make you vigilant, as that’s a good indication that the trainer is leaning on the old outdated myth.

The best way to determine whether or not a training class is right for you and your dog is to ask to sit in on a session. If your trainer won’t allow this, that could be a warning bell. Look for signs of stress in the dogs, such as tails being held low and into the body, mouths tensely shut, avoiding eye contact, crouching etc. You should see happy, eager, relaxed dogs and people having fun. If you feel uncomfortable with anything that you see, look elsewhere!

Also, remember that it doesn’t matter how fantastic your dog trainer is, if you are not following through and doing your homework, you likely will not see the desired results. You will only get out what you put in!

By: Erin Jones B.Sc., AWC, CPDT Candidate

Cited References:

  1. Herron et al. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviours. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2009; 117 (1-2): 47

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