Informed consent is not something we hear of much in dog training circles. I believe, however, that dog training just is animal educational psychology - we are trying to bring about changes in behavior and, in many cases, in emotional state. This means we should consider it subject to the same ethics of consent as human educational psychology.
When parents are making this kind of decision about a educational or psychological intervention for their child, they are acting as their child�s proxy. They have their child�s best interests at heart, but also have to consider the effects of the intervention on their own household. Analogously, dog owners who are making the decision to undergo training are overwhelmingly doing so with their dog�s best interests at heart, as well as their own and those of other family members.
So what does informed consent look like between the dog trainer and the dog owner? We can use the same three key elements that we find in human medical ethics, which are disclosure, capacity and voluntariness. Of these, disclosure is the most important.
The dog owner has to know what the risks and consequences of the trainer�s program is before he consents to it. The trainer has to therefore be transparent and honest about what she plans to do to the dog. Simply put, dog owners need to know what will happen to the dog during the training process, both physically and psychologically. You can�t consent to something that you don�t know will happen.
The second important piece of knowledge concerns whether the trainer is using the most humane and effective method possible. The huge majority of people want a happy dog who no longer does things that get him into trouble, and they don�t want to make their dog suffer unnecessarily. Owners need to know whether there are alternatives that have fewer risks, work faster, or are less painful and invasive. Could the same results be achieved with rewards rather than punishments?
On the subject of alternatives, owners also need to know whether there is an approach that requires less disruption to their lives, or poses less risk of harm to the dog and the rest of the family. This is especially important when we are dealing with potentially dangerous behaviors like self-harm, ingesting objects or aggression, where there are risks associated with management during training as well as with the training process itself. Balancing the risks and benefits of a training protocol for everyone involved is a large part of making an informed decision to consent to it.
There are some things that trainers have to know too, if they are to be in a position to offer full disclosure of all the relevant information to their client so that he can choose whether to consent. Trainers need to be aware of the alternatives to their own preferred approach and be able to justify why they choose the methods they do. I wouldn�t trust a therapist who had only read medical textbooks from a century ago and wanted to cure my depression by sticking me in a freezing bath. Nor would I trust a dog trainer who had never heard of a front-clip harness. Techniques and protocols change even if the subject matter remains the same, and it is therefore important to understand one�s own approach in relation to the state of the art. This is true no matter how the trainer identifies herself, whether �force free�, �purely positive�, �natural� or �balanced�.
Simply claiming that your method works is not enough to secure informed consent because it's not giving the owner all the information he would want. Especially if pain or suffering is involved in the training process being proposed, because we can fairly assume that most people prefer less pain and suffering to more for their loved ones when they are given a choice.
Capacity and Voluntariness
Capacity is less of an issue than disclosure. We can assume that if someone has come to a dog trainer with their dog, they have the capacity to understand basic concepts of training. But one rule is important - the necessity of phrasing descriptions of what is happening in language that anyone can understand. It is important for the owner and trainer to be on the same level of understanding, even though the trainer's knowledge will be deeper. A trainer who overuses scientific jargon or the unique terminology from her own particular theory is making it less certain that her client has the capacity to consent to what she is proposing, and introduces scope for manipulation.
Voluntariness is also related to manipulation. Although we could assume that because the owner has sought your services, they must be voluntarily agreeing to whatever the trainer is offering, if the trainer uses sales-talk and obfuscation to explain something, she is deliberately creating a picture in the owner�s head that has diverged from what�s really going to happen. The owner is saying �yes� to what�s in his head, not to what the trainer is offering, and therefore the consent isn�t valid.
An example of this is showing examples of dogs the trainer says are calm but are really shut down and miserable, by way of a testimonial. The owner says, �Yes of course I want a calm dog who doesn�t jump up or bark�, but in reality that�s not what he�s getting. Selling something you�re not really delivering is unethical.
Trainers therefore have a responsibility to show that their method is the best one - the most humane and the most effective - because they are in the role of an authority. Owners can read up, but they are not authorities and can�t be expected to know which side of a debate is right if they don�t know the science behind the issue. There is a lot of information about psychology - human and animal - out there on the Internet, but just as we don�t expect patients in therapy to know the risks and consequences of one kind of counseling technique or another, we don�t expect dog owners to know whether clicker training is better than shaking a can, or whether pack theory makes more sense than pressure/release. The responsibility has to lie with the trainer, to inform the owner about how their method works in the clearest way possible so that they can be aware of the consequences.
It's also important for the trainer to respect the beliefs and desires of the dog owner, even when they differ. For example, an owner may believe a prong or a slip collar to be the best for him and his dog whilst out walking, but may hire a clicker trainer who recoils at the sight of such equipment for help with an unrelated behavior happening in the home. A trainer seeing people who don't believe the same things as she does as deficient in reason or in compassion is not only disrespectful, it limits that trainer's perception of her own responsibilities. People who use the information given to them to reach a conclusion the trainer disagrees with, or who are only interested in help for a specific problem and not general advice, are still entitled to that information and they are entitled to reach their decisions voluntarily, without manipulation.*
The vast majority of dog owners who seek help from trainers just want everyone in their household to be happy, including the dog himself. If an owner learns that the behavioral outcome they are looking for from their dog trainer could have been achieved with rewards and not punishment, they may well be entitled to claim a lack of informed consent.
*Think of a Jehovah's Witness in an emergency room; all the doctors may strongly believe the best medical decision is to give him a blood transfusion, but his personal religious conviction is that transfusions are wrong. The doctors should respect his decision even though they don't agree with it, and they should continue to give him as much medical treatment as he allows.