More Than Fancy Words

As a dog trainer, I put a lot of effort into reframing key principles of animal learning for clients, avoiding the use of technical jargon. They’re looking for help with their dogs, not a lecture on applied behavior analysis or Pavlovian conditioning. Some are naturally curious, self-selecting to further learning; but most are happy to have concerns resolved without the heavy science discussion. I respect that their time is finite, so I need to be effective and efficient in my communication and skills, while ensuring I’m using best practices based in evidence. It’s not lost on me that I’m only able to do this having acquired a comprehensive education concentrated in known scientific principles, not in spite of it. This learning, for me, is an ethical and professional obligation – a pursuit that is ongoing, official directive or not. I hope for the sake of dogs and their owners that the law eventually requires testing in scientific literacy and related professional competency. That some don’t share that view should be troubling to consumers.

While I wouldn’t expect the average dog owner to be fluent or even decidedly interested in the science of animal learning and behavior, I do expect that of professional dog trainers. Yes, clients sometimes hold misconceptions – so long as adherence to them isn’t compromising the dog’s welfare or their own safety, that’s okay – and who can blame them? It’s a brutal chore for the dog owning public to navigate the sea of misinformation available out there. This is the unfortunate consequence of an unregulated industry, where no formal education or licensing is required to become a dog trainer – an industry densely populated with self-professed “canine behavior experts,” who not only lack education in valid animal learning, they are still relying on (and disseminating) outdated constructs of dominance hierarchies to define the behavior of dogs. If that isn’t preposterous enough, there are animal welfare groups, TV producers, and even some veterinarians endorsing some of these folks. Many are still promulgating the idea that it’s all just a matter of opinion. That it’s merely philosophical. It is not. The data has been in for too long, and there is far too much of it to plausibly deny.

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I do my best to accept that without professional sanctions, people won’t always find their way to the current science to inform their work with dogs. Many have never even heard of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (“AVSAB”), let alone read their position statement on the use of aversives in dog training – a position logically shaped by the mountain of evidence amassed in this field through peer-reviewed studies. For some it’s a choice to ignore the science; and so long as there’s no professional mandate, they’ll continue unapologetically to collect money for exploiting pain and fear in dogs and are unaccountable for any damage they cause. It’s stunningly reckless, but calling attention to it is considered taboo simply because the science is currently ahead of the law.

What other industry demands professional courtesy be extended to those perpetuating long debunked pseudo science? No reputable trainer who has stayed current on valid developments in the field is still talking about “pack leadership” or “energy”; and they certainly aren’t employing prong, choke, and shock collars. If you’re a dog owner looking for a professional trainer, the likelihood you end up with one of these folks is still sadly very high. As transparency isn’t required, you may not even know what they are doing to your dog. There’s no consumer protection.

Imagine an unregulated medical field, where the practice of individual doctors needn’t be informed by the current science, and your gallbladder needs to be removed. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the surgeon who stays up to date with scientific advancements and performs a laparoscopic procedure: a few tiny incisions, a micro camera, and a monitor. It’s low-risk for side effects, minimally invasive, and can even be done on an outpatient basis. If you aren’t so lucky, you might get a traditionalist or that person’s apprentice (who needs med school if you can just attend a few seminars and shadow a doc?) who will excise the old fashioned way: the surgery is significantly more invasive, requiring deep incision from stem to sternum, higher risk of bleeding and infection, a recovery period nearly four times longer, the placement of drains to rid your body of pus and fluids, and a higher mortality rate.

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Or imagine an unregulated legal profession, and you’ve found yourself in need of an attorney. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the practitioner who attended law school and passed the state bar exam. If not so lucky, you’ll get an avid viewer of Law & Order or Matlock. Sounds silly, but that’s the reality unique to dog training. You need a license to practice professionally as a plumber or a hairdresser and everything in between; but anyone can be a dog trainer and charge consumers real money to treat serious behavior issues, many using outdated methods known to actually increase fear and aggression in dogs. There is zero oversight and no qualifications necessary, and there are plenty of people in this industry hoping it stays that way.

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A recent blog being circulated via social media bemoaning the increasingly academic nature of dog training started with the telling of a conversation between the author and a training colleague who asked what operant conditioning is. His response to her explanation was, “Why can’t you just train the damn dog?” This question became a mantra throughout, the author insisting it really didn’t matter if these professional dog trainers knew the “fancy words” or what they meant (just to “feel legitimate in conversations with other trainers”), so long as they got results. In fact, the pressure to learn it was deemed offensive because that meant losing valuable time. This author is not alone. The suggestion that science is unnecessary in dog training isn’t new, but the implied integrity in the dismissal of it is, and it’s popping up a lot lately. Surely, that’s not the optimal direction for this already disastrous industry to trend.

Willful ignorance may be a prevalent reality, but it’s hardly a virtue. Tolerating the subjugation of the very act of learning so that some can continue to ply their trade in tradition or stumble along blindly without so much as a hint of intellectual curiosity is a magnificent failure of professional standards. It’s not outrageous enough that dog trainers aren’t required to accurately understand how dogs learn and what drives behavior, scientific illiteracy in this field is now to be repackaged as noble? I’m under no delusions that this problem is specific to practitioners in any one camp, either. It’s a critical industry fail that spans philosophical divides. While it’s currently legal to profit in practice uneducated, shouldn’t we at least draw the line at the glorification of that? At what point is professional courtesy to all simply perpetuating violations against dogs and their owners as industry standard?

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Because the act of learning and staying current in important developments in your field isn’t for the sake of sounding smart; it’s purpose is in understanding what you are doing. It’s about professional ethics, forming quality standards of care, and personal integrity. It’s been two decades that we’ve had the actual experts in the behavioral sciences practically spoon feeding dog professionals the necessary understanding and technology to work credibly and humanely with man’s best friend. It’s been available to anyone interested in learning it. Consumers are catching on, in spite of attempts by so many in the industry to obfuscate it, as are veterinary professionals and quite a number of animal welfare advocates. For dog trainers, the imminent reality is this:

If you need operant conditioning explained to you, you probably shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you don’t know the difference between operant and classical conditioning, you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you don’t understand the simultaneous relationship between operant and classical conditioning – that dogs are making important, innately persuasive associations impacting their quality of life as they learn behaviors – you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you don’t understand that operant and classical conditioning aren’t manmade constructs, but are naturally occurring phenomena we manipulate and long ago assigned language (language you should have in your vernacular as a dog training professional), you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you haven’t read the AVSAB position statement on the use of aversives in dog training; or, if after running your methodology up the flagpole with said position statement you find yourself in opposition to those guidelines, you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
Finally, if your primary concern about the dog training industry is that it has become “too academic,” you might consider finding a career for which you have an intellectual appetite. These aren’t inanimate objects we are talking about; they are living, thinking, sentient animals – animals that live in the homes and communities of people. If accurately understanding them as a species or learning how your interactions with them impact their behavior and their welfare is of such little interest to you, please stop charging people money to train their dogs.

Your reaction to knowing there is valid science to inform your work shouldn’t be one of disregard. It shouldn’t cause you to feel that your livelihood is threatened or to dig your heels in stubbornly in protest. It’s good news! As with any professional industry, staying current in it – not denying or dismissing it – lends to your professional credibility. There is nothing admirable or beneficial about willful ignorance. Hasn’t the time for it to be professionally tolerated in dog training just about run its course?

By Lisa Skavienski | June 6th, 2016

About the Author: Lisa Skavienski

Lisa Skavienski, CTC, is a graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers. Lisa lives in Rochester, NY, with her partner, Kevin, and their bevy of dogs, most of whom are stubby. Lisa is involved in the rescue community in her area with a primary focus on community outreach; and she is committed to making the world a better place for dogs and their humans through reward-based training.

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