What Does It All Mean?
How many times have you looked at a website or poster for a dog training club, class or an individual trainer and wondered what the membership organisations are, or what the letters stand for and more importantly which trainer/instructor would be right for you and your dog?
Currently there is no single regulating body for animal trainers and behaviourists in the UK. This means that anyone can call themselves a trainer or behaviourist without any experience, training or qualifications. This terrifies many people seeking help for their animals and for others it is incredibly confusing, it has largely become the main reason why people end up using many trainers before finding the one that truly helps them. It also puts many people off until they are desperate rather than contacting a professional as soon as the issues begin. With this in mind I felt it might help people in need to translate some of the common phrases used within the sales pitch on posters or websites of trainers to avoid.
What should you be looking for?
There are a number of different organisations in the UK that people choose to become members of in order to try and show they are using particular methods and are adhering to certain ethical policies.
Here are three popular ones:
The APDT (The Association of Pet Dog Trainers UK), members have to sit an oral, written and practical test in order to be accepted for membership
The IMDT (The Institute of Modern Dog Trainers), this institute is one of the newer ones and is growing in popularity with a number if international trainers endorsing it, using a similar membership assessment program as the APDT
Another association is The Pet Professional Guild it also requires members to sit an exam in order to gain membership and expects all members to show evidence of keeping up to date with modern learning theory.
There is also a really good organisation specifically for behaviourists the APBC (The Association of Pet Behaviour Councillors).
However being a member of one of these organisations still doesn’t always guarantee that the trainer you use will be the right fit for you and your dog. You are the client so you have every right to question exactly what methods the trainer would use and what evidence there is that this it is a good way to help your dogs particular issue, so ask.
What can you do to choose the best person for you and your pooch?
Ask these 4 simple questions
What formal education and credentials do they have?
It is vital that a dog trainer is educated in the science of how dogs learn. They should be learning through accredited associations who promote evidence based positive reinforcement methods. Beware of any classes or trainers who mention “dominance theory” or suggest the use of half/full check collars, shakey cans, sprays, bark, citronella or shock collars.
What continuing education involvement do they have?
There are endless opportunities for dog trainers to continue their education, both in person and online. If the person is actively keeping up to date they will be able to tell you through which organisation, the name of the presenter, and the topics presented. They should seem like they enjoy keeping up with the latest studies and the evidence they provide, progressing their methods to be the best for you and your dog.
What exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it right?
A good science-based trainer will mention using a marker such as a word or a clicker to let the dog know they have got it right and will reinforce it with food, toys or praise dependent on the dogs individual motivation. They will not say just food or toys or praise as one size does not fit all, it has to be tailored to your individual dog.
What exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?
If your dog gets it wrong a good trainer will say that they won’t be called stupid, willful, stubborn or dominant, he will simply not be given a marker and the trainer will take a moment to assess how to set the dog up again to be more successful the next time. No physical punishment should occur through tools which rely on fear of pain or sound.
Some phrases that you should avoid and why.
Alpha / Top Dog/ Pack – Using one or all of these phrases is often an indicator that the trainer will rely on using punishment based methods or tools to suppress a behaviour through fear rather than addressing the reason the behaviour is occurring and what is reinforcing it. Dogs rarely repeat behaviours unless they are receiving some sort of reinforcement from it, figuring this out is key to any behanviour modification, using positive methods which have scientifically been proven to work best for our canine compaions.
Dog Whisperer / Dog Listener – Someone who refers to themselves as either of these or references these styles of training will be reliant on the erroneous methods known as ‘dominance theory’. This theoretical approach to training domesticated dogs was based on a study of captive wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel. What wasn’t taken into consideration was that these were unrelated wolves forced to live together for many years in a relatively small enclosure, creating tension between mature adults that doesn’t happen in a natural, wild pack. Thanks to scientist David Mech’s study and subsequent paper published in 2000 this theory was debunked, it was proven that in the wild, a wolf pack is a family, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring of the past one to three years. Occasionally two or three families may group together. As the offspring mature they disperse from the pack; the only long-term members of the group are the breeding pair. They work as a unit and don’t fight for ‘Top Dog or Alpha’ status.
It is equally important to remember that our domesticated dogs have 99% the same DNA as wolves and much like we have between 93-98% the same DNA as Apes we are very different species with different behaviours. Anything reliant on using fear and dominance to control dogs is guaranteed to have a very severe fall out in the future. Your pet dog has most of its life controlled already, you tell it when it can exercise, eat, sleep and mate. Empowering an animal and letting it make safe choices makes for a much happier and harmonious environment for dogs to live with humans. Learning to read dog body language and understanding sound scientific behaviour modification methods, makes for a far more successful outcome, with changes for life, not just a quick fix with terrible long term consequences.
Balance Trainers – These trainers use some positive reinforcement methods alongside punishment, this is incredibly damaging for your relationship with your dog as you are building up a bond and relationship built on trust through positive reinforcement only to shatter it by using fear and pain. It is usually justified by saying dogs are like should learn consequences, dog’s really are very easy to help when you identify and understand the antecedent, the behaviour itself and the consequence reinforcing the behaviour. If your trainer can’t identify these three things and come up with a plan based on sound force free evidence based methods then get another trainer. Suggesting dogs need to learn consequences alongside positive reinforcement in order to learn is simply an excuse for their own inability to openly admit they don’t know how to help your dog without resorting to outdated punitive punishment using fear and pain.
Ask for evidence supporting any claims about behavior and above all else if you feel at all uncomfortable, don’t be bullied into doing things you don’t want to, get another opinion.
For those of you interested in reading further about the reasons why Dominance Theory, Ceasar Millan and the whole Alpha Dog Whisperer train of thought is so awful here are some great articles. Great to use to help others cross over to positive methods too. Cross over trainers are EXCELLENT.