The field of dog training is highly regulated like healthcare and law. Before being allowed to put hands on dog and influence the human/canine relationship first hand, trainers and behavior consultants must hold a four-year degree, with two subsequent years of specialty training. Most become involved in an apprenticeship program before submitting to exams and certifying agencies.
Once they pass both theoretical and practical exams in their chosen area of expertise, they still must comply with annual continuing education requirements to maintain their licensing and be allowed work as a trainer.
And this makes sense, because today’s companion dog is part of the family. He may have a fancy pedigree, maybe of a sport line, or he may have been imported or adopted. He isn’t born knowing how to behave in our homes, so naturally, he’ll need a little professional guidance.
He’s also highly likely to bite someone or something in his lifetime be it a family member, stranger, delivery person, gardener, child, or vet. Statistically, he just will. He won’t, necessarily, do it out of aggression; he may get his tail stuck in the door or redirect when heading after a squirrel.
And then, of course, most domestic dogs these days suffer from some moderate to severe behavior issue such as anxiety, fear, or aggression. Many are reactive behind windows or on leash. With the ever-increasing litigious nature of our society, it’s only reasonable that those called upon to counsel and correct these cases are so well vetted. A less-than-adequate practitioner could cause real physical and emotional damage, even financial catastrophe. An under qualified trainer could even cost a dog his life.
In fact anyone, including your own dog, can call himself or herself a dog trainer. Today. Right now. You. You could do it. Right now.
Laughing? Me neither.
And in some cases that’s not so bad. Some self-taught trainers are pioneers, critical thinkers, academics and superior technicians. Some of those are brilliant thinkers and teachers. While they do exist, these few are the unicorns of the field.
The sad truth is that most people who call themselves trainers have little to no formal education and spotty hands-on experience at best. The majority lack critical thinking skills and the ability to commit time and energy to continuing education. Some can train their own dog to an exceptional degree, thereby confirming their own breathtaking abilities with all dogs.
We are a field that suffers from inflated egos, fancy titles and strings of initials of little merit. We too often stand behind proud badges of obstinacy, touting, “we’ve always done it like this,” seemingly mistaking this for actual credentials.
And we do love to identify with which camp we endorse, not only in practice, but as the very backbone of our ethical and moral existence; positive, balanced, aversive, clicker, animal learning theory, sport, obedience, etc. Each of us more righteous than those guys over there.
And while all this is happening, we’ve taken our eye off the tennis ball, as it were, with dogs’ behavioral well-being and emotional soundness as collateral damage.
Until five years ago, I witnessed a steady and constant decrease in aversive collar (prong/pinch, choke, and electric/shock/tap) usage over the decade prior, in direct correlation to the increasing civility of the human/canine relationship. Flat collars and martingales widely outnumbered prong collars, it was highly unusual to see an e-collar on a companion dog, and the old Woodhouse choke chain all but disappeared.
We also saw the emergence of new companies to supply humane alternatives to these antiquated devices, and they produced great products; harnesses of varying contact points, head halters, and flat collars made with comfort in mind.
This was no accidental shift; organizations dedicated to the humane treatment of animals (such as the SPCA) have provided information to the public for literally decades, and we, the hungry warriors against aversive handling and management of dogs gobbled it up and dispensed it, grassroots-style.
Esteemed universities, research facilities, and academics answered the need for scientific evidence to bolster this advancement, despite how reasonable it sounded to take metal prongs off dogs and stop shocking them for the sake of “better” behavior.
At the same time, practitioners such as myself and my peers and mentors were continuing to advance our own skills and understanding of behavior to make sure we didn’t slide back into a culture where our clients were lead to believe they could only accomplish certain training and behavior goals by using harmful methods such as prong and e-collars.
We had to get smarter, and better. And we did. While today my cases are far more complex and higher-liability than ever before, not once have I employed one of these tools, or anything more aversive, for that matter, since crossing over to humane methods almost twenty years ago. My cases are infinitely safer and more successful without.
And yet I see more prong collars today than I did five years ago, even after ten years of seeing their numbers dwindle. After such a steady and obvious diminishment, this contrast has been startling and has forced many of us to consider the reasons behind it. After all, the science hasn’t changed and long-respected organizations publicly denouncing their usage haven’t changed their position.
But despite impetuous fledging and stubborn old-timer claims that prong and pinch collars are, actually, perfectly humane as long as they’re fitted correctly and used properly, this is just our industry’s version of cries of fake news.
Science is beautiful because you don’t have to believe in it for it to be true. A prong collar hurts at the point of contact, and it has measurable detrimental effects on the emotional health of the dog wearing it. Period. That’s why it works.
But don’t take my word for it, seriously, don’t. Check out the SPCA’s website of research studies on aversives (as the collars I’ve mentioned are classified). Or consider the AVSAB’s position on aversives in training. And most recently, Eileen Anderson used math to objectively explain it.
And so why the slide? Why the arrested evolution, the reversal back into methods we happily left in the past as clumsy tools of yesteryear, accepting their place in history as stepping stones to which we will never return? And why the unyielding resistance to hard, cold, facts and public’s craving for training methods worthy of today’s progressive human/canine relationship?
There are several contributing factors, but there’s one we’ve been especially reticent to admit; it’s the training community itself. It’s us.
There has been a surge in the number of professional trainers in the market, new to the field. Many are vocationally retrained, some are retired and on a second career. Some entered the field part time and maintain a full time job in a different field. Many of them take advantage of new quick certificate programs, many only requiring a day or two of theory. Some are a weekend with a hands-on component, some are entirely online. Nonetheless, each attendee is given the stamp of “completion” and title, “dog trainer,” upon completion.
This aversive shift has developed alongside the appearance of a population of professionals with minimal qualifications who’ve either self-identified as experts or are simply working under the title they’ve been given through one of the programs I mention above. I see few to no new trainers seeking apprenticeships with more established practitioners, and have regular conversations with people interested in entering the field unwilling to slow down and get good. It’s just so easy these days to get busy and work now; social media ensures it as does the craving for quick fixes, fast dollars, seasoned by a cultural empathy deficit.
And so we have a landscape currently populated by novice trainers working over their ability technically, theoretically, and ethically. They exist in all camps, even positive and force-free. They do not know what they don’t know, and worse, once they begin to find out, they dig in and refuse change.
New trainers in the force-free/positive community are failing dogs and sending them into the hands of more aversive trainers. Aversive trainers are having immediate but false success, as is the nature of punitive training. Owners don’t know to be more diligent than ever in selecting professionals to work with them and their dogs and they are burned out emotionally and financially. Cue the spin cycle.
So what can be done?
There are professional efforts underway to address the issue and implement change in both positive training and traditional training. I remain cautiously optimistic that some of the organizations currently working on the matter will make good, actionable choices on how to improve the field again.
\Image from Cristone Dahl.But here are facts and tools all dog owners can use now:
- Even the most complex behaviors can be treated without aversives such as prong and shock collars. A professional opposing this fact simply lacks the experience and knowledge to think his or her way out of a problem without using force.
- You have the power, right, and responsibility to advocate for your dog trusting that the above point is true. If you don’t want to use an aversive collar and your hired trainer says you have to, find another trainer. Seriously. There are many of us out there.
- Be prepared to hear, “collars don’t hurt if they’re fitted properly,” and “they are humane if used correctly.” This is just bunk. Sail on.
- Critically review the credentials of any person who dispenses behavior and training advice including family, veterinarians, pet store staff, and even self-identified trainers with strings of letters behind their names.
- Confidently hold professionals and amateurs accountable; If someone knows the facts about aversives in training and still fastens a prong collar around a dog’s neck, he is resigning to hurt him to get better behavior. Knowing how much information is available supporting the detriment in doing so, he does so without the protective guise of ignorance or moral superiority. Say something. Do something. Advocate for dogs.
And lastly, remember there is truly only one tool more superior than any other in dog training and behavior modification; the human brain. It can be honed more sharply than any prong collar and wield more power than any volt of electricity.
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.