Jun 05, 2016 01:35PM
By Elisabeth Catalano, MA, CPDT-KA, CDBC
It should be easy enough. You get a dog or puppy and you hire professionals to guide you. If your search includes a dog trainer, however, finding a qualified one can be extremely difficult. In fact, even the term ‘qualified’ might be difficult to define. What actually determines whether a dog trainer is qualified? The truth is, unfortunately, not much. Anyone who has ever taught a dog to sit can consider themselves qualified and they can call themselves a ‘trainer’ and charge for services. Neighbors, friends, and internet users alike are often self-described “behavior experts” and are not shy about giving plenty of advice, much of it wrong.
While this might not seem like such a big deal, giving wrong advice in many situations can make the problem worse, be outright harmful or in some cases even be dangerous. Advice should always come from someone who is truly knowledgeable not only about the problem but also about the ramifications of the offered solutions. For example, punishing jumping on strangers increases stress around strangers and sets the stage for aggression. It may solve jumping in the short term but also creates a bigger problem in the long term.
Dog owners are often overwhelmed by opinions. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, there are no guarantees that opinions are informed. Opinions are often formed from personal experiences or just passed along without much thought. The problem with personal opinions is that they can be skewed to an experience that is very limited. It is nice that your neighbor has had five dogs in his life, but real experience is gained from hundreds even thousands of encounters backed by a sound understanding of the science of behavior. When seeking a ‘professional opinion’, one must ensure that the professional is basing their thought process on more than their “gut feeling” or “personal view”.
It is important to remember that training is a science and a technical skill. It is not an opinion and it is not subject to interpretation. There are rules that govern it.
If you search for dog trainers you will find individuals that claim certification from a variety of organizations, but that is not a guarantee of knowledge or expertise. The act of obtaining a certification does, however, show a certain level of interest and commitment from the trainer. Keep in mind that there are many certifying organizations available to trainers, but none is held to a standardized test or prescribed base of knowledge. Their certification is recognized by their own organization only.
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) is an exception. The organization offers a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) designation based on psychometrically sound examinations that meet two important criteria: validity and reliability. The tests are also administered through an independent body that has no financial investment in the success of the students as some retail chains might. Through consultation with experts in the field, this exam measures a specific body of knowledge that is based on the scientific principles of animal behavior and learning theory. But, even this isn’t fool-proof.
Just because you pass the test doesn’t guarantee your application of such knowledge is competent or that you possess the technical skill. When looking at an individual’s credentials, do a quick search to find out what was required to obtain that particular certification and how it is maintained (i.e., continuing education units).
Continuing Education Obtaining a certification means little if nothing else is done to enhance the professional’s education and skill. Continuing education is essential. A professional dog trainer should be able to supply you with a list of any and all continuing education they have acquired. CEUs are essentially a commitment of time and money and most professionals are proud to share their experiences. CEUs should be varied, ongoing and scientifically sound. Specifically, attendance at seminars and workshops given by Veterinary Behaviorists, Animal Behaviorists (Ph.D.) or Professors should be included and not just by people who proclaim themselves Master Trainers or retired professional handlers.
Observation Nothing will give you insight into a professional’s expertise like an observation. Ask to observe a class or training session even if it is via video. There are several things to look for when observing a trainer: 1. The trainer must be first and foremost able to train the dog. This is the technical skill part. It should look fluid and efficient, not clumsy and confusing. 2. The trainer must also be good with people. I hear so many stories of rude trainers or clients that were brought to tears. This should be a good experience for BOTH you and your dog. 3. If you have selected to take a class, the class should be organized and controlled. There should be clear explanations for each activity and each participant should get feedback from the instructor.
Methodology There is no doubt that you will need to consider where you stand in relation to the process of training. The training community is divided into several camps ranging from methods that are primarily punishment-based (i.e., shock collars, choke collars) to all positive reinforcement, with many individuals falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. You will have no trouble finding a trainer from any camp. All animals can be taught through pain, fear and intimidation or by patience and positive reinforcement. However you think a lesson should be conveyed, you will be able to find someone who will do it. The question is, should they?
It is important to know that the repercussions of using punishment-based methods are well-documented. The use of such methods raises stress levels in all animals. That can, and often does, easily lead to fear and aggression and the effects are lasting. You can never get a positive emotion from a punishment-based method. There are, however, no lasting negative effects from the use of positive reinforcement. As a result, The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published position statements that discourage the use of punishment-based training methods. Reinforcement training always works. If the desired results are not obtained, it is not the fault of the dog or the method. The fault lies with the trainer. It isn’t simply about “tossing a cookie” to the dog, there is a wrong way and a right way and, as had been said before, skill is involved. Any behavior can be trained using positive reinforcement, there are no limits. A skilled professional can train anything that the animal can physically do. Positive reinforcement does not mean permissive. Limits for behavior must be set and animals must be trained how to behave the way we wish them to. The difference is that with positive reinforcement, animals are set up to succeed and then rewarded, not set up to fail and then punished.
When to be Concerned
Abuse is not training. I have unfortunately had many clients that have had a previously bad training experience. They have described everything from puppies being punched in the head for barking, to dogs being hung by their leashes from doorways to ‘stop’ aggression. Let’s be clear. This IS NOT TRAINING it is AB-- USE. Trainers that employ these methods should be avoided at all costs. One myth that is continually perpetuated is that shock collars, also referred to as ‘electric or e-collars’, don’t hurt. That, by definition is untrue. The collar’s purpose is to stop a behavior from occurring. To accomplish this, the stimulus (or shock) must be sufficiently painful so that the animal will avoid it, even at the expense of something highly desirable. Simply put, the collars work because they are painful. Sadly, these devices are often recommended by trainers to ‘correct’ fear-based behaviors like separation anxiety. Punishment may suppress the signs of fear, but the fear itself still exists and exacerbated, resulting in other potentially worse behaviors, such as self-harm or aggression.
Coercion and intimidation should never be part of the training equation. Stress is not conducive to learning and can, in fact, inhibit it. Punishment should be a last resort, well thought out, clearly explained and its application thoroughly defined.
Training should be an opportunity for both you and your dog to enjoy the process of learning to work as a team. Your relationship should be enriched by it and you should both feel proud of what you accomplish together. Do it right and your bond will deepen and you will both be able to trust the other. Do it wrong and you may pay a higher price that the cost of a simple class. Choose wisely! “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” —Harlan Ellison