Saturday, 26 March 2016

Fact Check: Will the UK Soon be Requiring Licenses for Dog Trainers?

A recent article in the Telegraph reported that the UK Government will soon be requiring everyone who works with animals professionally to get a license. People who have been calling for dog training to be a licensed profession - myself included - got very excited about this, as the article specifically mentioned dog trainers. But sadly, fact checking showed our jubilation to be premature. Here's a run-down of what's going on.

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is directly responsible for animal welfare law in England, and indirectly involved with the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

For the last few years, Defra has been streamlining regulations and legislative frameworks to ease the regulatory burden on local authorities and businesses. This consultation on the review of animal establishments licensing in England is part of the process, as well as explicitly being a response to public concerns about animal welfare.

The consultation document lays out the areas Defra proposes to reform. These include pet stores, boarding kennels and commercial dog breeders. 

What does Defra propose to do?

Essentially, Defra wants to create a general license for all establishments where animals are kept. The license will apply to the premises itself, and will be given subject to a yearly inspection. Licenses will be given if an establishment can meet a list of  Model Conditions,  based on current thinking about animal welfare. The backbone of these conditions will be the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, as the consultation states on page 1: 
"The law requires anyone responsible for an animal to ensure that its needs are met to the extent required by good practice. These needs explicitly include a suitable environment, a suitable diet, the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, and to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease."

How does this effect dog trainers in the UK?

There is no mention of dog trainers or behavior consultants in the proposal. Since the majority of trainers work in clients' homes, they don't qualify as a kennel (some will, if they run a board and train or daycare facility). It's clear that the intention of the proposal goes no further than business establishments, not professional individuals. 

As it stands, the Animal Welfare Act does apply to dog trainers as it does to every citizen, but this proposal doesn't add anything to it. The UK Government has already published a comprehensive Code of Practice that guides the implementation of the Animal Welfare Act, but as far as I can tell there have been no prosecutions of trainers that fail to implement this code. I will explain why the implementation of existing laws is not an adequate way to regulate dog training in an upcoming blog. 

There is one possible route to expanding the scope of the proposal to include dog trainers, however. The proposal mentions establishments like dog groomers, which are outside the scope of existing legislation:
"Such establishments are still subject to the Animal Welfare Act and have to provide for the welfare of their animals. Local authorities have powers to take action under the Act where poor welfare is evident. Indeed any person can take a prosecution under the Act. Nevertheless there have been suggestions that these establishments should be brought under the welfare licensing system although this would be a considerable new burden on the businesses and charities operating in this area. We are interested in stakeholder views and alternative proposals, such as sector-led UKAS-accredited certification schemes."
Not all dog groomers have physical premises - some are mobile, and visit clients, homes. If they are all covered by requirement to get a license or to register with UKAS, then such licenses can't just apply to the establishments where animals are kept, they could also apply to any situation where a professional is handling an animal. This would mean dog trainers could be included in the requirement to be licensed, too. 

However, it's important to note that this is not likely to happen, unless the consultation demonstrates a clear demand for it. 

What happens next?

The consultation period for this proposal ended on March 12th, so right now Defra is reviewing all the opinions and evidence they received, and will publish a summary at some point (they haven't given a time frame). The materials Defra received will inform the final proposed regulations, which will then be put into a parliamentary bill. 

In conclusion, this might be great for dogs being bred, housed and sold in the UK, and I don't want to take away from that. But it's more than likely not going to be the regulatory framework many progressive dog trainers want. However, there might be some scope to stretch it to require some sort of registration, at least. 

Monday, 21 March 2016

Why Self-Regulation Won't Work For Dog Training

What would the dog training industry need to do to make it easier for clients to find professional, highly skilled help for whatever problems they�re experiencing with their dog, and avoid hiring people who lack the skills, knowledge or compassion to deliver a high quality service?

My answer has always been regulation, and I�m not the only person who feels this way. In particular, the model I favor is licensing. Although regulation is a serious step, and would change the industry as we know it with some potential for adverse consequences, I believe that it is the only way to ensure that the public - and their dogs - get the service they deserve. In the first part of this series of blogs, I explained what is wrong with the current model. In this post, I�ll explain what�s wrong with the current model, why a popular alternative - self-regulation - won�t work.

What about the existing professional bodies? 

Some people argue that because we already have a myriad of certification programs available for dog training professionals, we have no need of further regulation. All we need to do is make sure that the public recognizes these certifications as the gold standard in dog training, which is a marketing rather than a regulatory challenge. This is a mistake, however.

The dog training world relies heavily enough on marketing and lack of public knowledge that not having a certification from a professional body doesn�t mean you can�t still make money as a dog trainer. The big franchises offer all their training in-house, and don�t require any prior knowledge about dogs. They have formidable marketing budgets compared to average training companies, and they very rarely engage with their critics. For all that professional organizations, humane societies and other advocacy groups try to create educational materials for the public, they can only reach so far. 

Even with wonderfully effective marketing, there is a gap in the profession that certification in incapable of filling by design. To achieve industry-leading certifications like IAABC's Certified Membership and CCPDT's Knowledge and Skills Assessed, you already have to have logged hundreds of hours as a head trainer. Essentially, you have to be in the job professionally for at least many months before you have the chance to demonstrate your knowledge and/or skills for assessment. Mandating this lag between entering a profession and certifying in it effectively requires the very thing people who argue certification is all the regulation we need are using them to guard against - unregulated trainers who have to rely on marketing, not certification, to get clients, and who aren�t bound by any professional ethical code.  

These certifications and the professional bodies that offer them are an important part of the dog training world, because they allow people who are willing and able to do the research to find the best help for their dogs� behavioral problem. They represent the highest standards of professional education. Clearly, however, their existence is not enough to protect clients from incompetent trainers. We need standards that will reach everybody, not just those who already choose to adhere to them. 

What about self-regulation? 

If professional certification is not enough, what should we do? Recently, I was talking to someone in a professional organization for dog trainers about the challenges working in an unregulated industry can bring. This person argued that instead of pushing to make dog training a legally regulated industry, we should be focusing on the question of �whether we can regulate ourselves�.

Our interaction ended before I got the chance to ask what �regulating ourselves� meant in more detail, so I�m going to explore that idea here. 

There are three elements to self-regulation in an industry:
  1. Everyone in an industry has to sign up to a code of ethics, which describes best practice and outlines conduct that is considered unprofessional, harmful, or otherwise wrong. 
  2. The industry has to fund an independent organization to develop, monitor and enforce this code of ethics. 
  3. There has to be an incentive to comply with the code of ethics: failure to do so has to result in some kind of sanctions. 

The advertising industry is often held up as a paradigm example of self-regulation, but what works for the ad people won�t work for dog trainers. This is because it�s in the whole advertising profession�s best interest to rid itself of unscrupulous shysters. The more the public trusts the advertising industry as a whole, the easier it is for individual advertisers to do their job.

It�s not so clear that dog training as an industry is so invested in maintaining the trust of the public in general. This is because the dog training world is so divided that some groups within it already think others are fundamentally wrong on theoretical, practical and moral levels. The industry is rife with disagreement over everything from what counts as scientific fact to whether electric shocks count as ethical practice. There is simply no reason for force-free trainers to want the public to believe that all trainers - including those using positive punishment - are fundamentally trustworthy and competent. Likewise, there�s no need for BarkBusters or any other franchise to foster the public�s belief that independent force-free trainers can be just as effective as them. 

The only incentive to adopt a universal Code of Ethics that all dog trainers could share would be public demand. The pressure would have to come from outside. Unfortunately, the level of education the general public has about dog training is hugely variable. Between reality TV, the Internet, and non-expert sources of knowledge like vets and family members, the majority of average dog owners either don�t know, or don�t care about professional standards in dog training. 

One of the reasons self-regulation is seen as attractive to dog trainers - at least, a reason that is often given when I�ve engaged people about the subject - is that external regulation means involving the government, with all the bureaucracy and concerns about privacy that seems to entail. However, self-regulation is not independent of the government or the legal system. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority (the industry-funded regulatory organization) can refer noncompliant marketers to Trading Standards, which has the legal authority to prosecute through the courts. They can then be subject to fines and even imprisonment. Other than animal cruelty laws, there are no such legal backstops in the dog training world, so self-regulation would mean creating new laws. 

Professional bodies like IAABC, CCPDT and PPG have a significant role to play in raising the standards of dog training as an industry, but they should also be involved in lobbying for greater regulation through the legal system. Without the introduction of a legal backstop - a sort of Trading Standards for dog trainers - their codes of ethics and educational outreach alone won�t do enough to tackle the real problems. 

In my next blog, I'll explain why licensing is a better idea than self-regulation, looking at the way licensed professions are administered and exploring how advocacy groups could be involved in the drafting of best practice guidelines that would inform licensing bodies. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

"Relationship" and training shelter dogs: not a good fit

There are obvious problems with the statement that �relationship� should be the lens through which a trainer�s methods are judged, which I�ve mentioned in previous posts. Here, I�m going to focus on pure pragmatism. 

I spend most of my time around dogs at a local shelter, where I�m part of a group of volunteers who work with our more challenging guests. Although I love developing bonds with these dogs, when I�m training a shelter dog I pay absolutely no attention to whether I believe the dog likes me, or whether I like her, or whether we�ve even spent time together before. In every case, with every dog, I try to apply the principles of learning theory with a strong focus on counterconditioning and positive reinforcement for desired behavior. In short, relationship is completely irrelevant to how I choose to train dogs at the shelter, and moreover, I believe it ought to be irrelevant. 
"You don't have to say you love me, just have a treat in your hand"
One reason relationship can�t matter is time. We don't know how long a dog will be in the shelter and I'm lucky that the shelter I volunteer at has a high turnover. A dog could be with us for weeks, or just a few days. A frightened, highly reactive dog needs behavioral modification right away, starting with feeling safe in her environment. So, we need something that will work without a relationship.  

Training methods always have to be safe for the human, and have as small as possible risk of harming the dog. When a dog comes in as a stray or a surrender, we don�t know what kinds of associations that dog has made in the past. Some dogs are fearful of the leash, or human hands - I once had a rescue dog that was completely petrified of newspapers. Adding extra adrenaline to the mix by punishing a dog that�s also liable to panic at certain triggers is a perfect setup for unpredictable aggression. 

A shelter dog also needs the kind of training that can be replicated. Not relying on relationship - or perception of relationship - means shelter dogs can be trained by all the volunteers with the skills to do it. And that training can be passed on to the owners and extended through other trainers. 

The dog's adoptive family needs to have tools to reward good behavior and discourage what they don't want before a relationship is formed. Otherwise, the dog is more likely to be returned. Training based on operant conditioning uses a well-established set of principles that can be applied by multiple handlers with no special connection to the dog, and it's also less stressful than using pressure or punishment. Besides, nothing fosters a good relationship like learning and having fun together! 

When rescues and shelters are looking for trainers to help with their more difficult dogs, they should ignore any mention of "relationship" as a justification for the methods they use. The ethical principle at work here is that if a concept is used to justify doing something, like the concepts of relationship or of "knowing one's place in the pack" are used to justify compulsive training, the justification only applies so long as that concept is relevant to the situation. If there's no family pack, and no relationship, these can't work as justifications. 

Shelter dogs should be protected by asking the questions Jean Donaldson proposed last year
  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
Trainers should be able to answer these questions without reference to relationship, or trust, or what the dog ought to know and believe. If they can't, their methods are not suitable for short-term work in shelters or rescues.

At the shelter, we are more like teachers than family members. It's our job to teach the dogs in our care like a good educator would teach a student; not by relying on power dynamics and compulsion, but with clarity and kindness. Think summer camp, not orphanage!