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. 

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