Buyer Beware! On Abusers in "Expert's" Clothing

"Thank you for calling Rewarding Behaviors.  This is Casey, how may I help you?"

"Hi Casey.  I have a small breed rescue dog.  I'm hoping you can help us.  She screams whenever we put the leash on her."

"When did you start noticing this behavior?"

"About three or four months ago.  We've had her for nine months now.  When we first got her, we would clip the leash on her and she wouldn't move.  She would just freeze in place, put her butt down on the ground."

"So what changed three or four months ago?"

The answer to my question reminded me of all the many times I've heard the phrase "don't ask questions if you would rather not know the answer."

The client informed me that three or four months ago, she had hired a "behaviorist."  She employed this behaviorist specifically to address the issue of her dog freezing on the leash, not moving forward.

The behaviorist arrived, choke collar in hand.  "I'm going to take your dog for a walk," she said.  "I'll be back in forty five minutes."

OF BLOODIED PAWS AND BEHAVIORISTS

Despite a "bad feeling" about the situation, the owners agreed.  Forty five minutes later, the "behaviorist" did indeed return with the client's dog.  The dog's paws were bloody and raw.  From then on, the dog screamed when the leash was brought out.

None of us can know what went on in those forty five minutes.  Regardless of what happened, the dog was now more terrified of the leash than she'd ever been before.  This "behaviorist" guaranteed her results but didn't specify what those results would be.  I asked the client if she had received a refund.  Sheepishly, she said, "no."

The client said that her dog was a puppy mill rescue.  In my experience, many mill dogs are rescued as adults and have never been leashed before (at best) or have very, very negative associations with a leash at worst.  Many of them do not know what a leash is or how to walk attached to it, so they plop their butts down when their owners try to take them for a walk. 

There are a number of training techniques you can use to help a dog who is afraid of the leash learn to not only tolerate, but actively enjoy leash walks.  Counter conditioning.  Desensitization.  Targeting.  Capturing and rewarding any movement while on leash.  Most of these dogs catch on rather quickly.  They may not be walking perfectly on a loose leash after forty five minutes, but they are not bloody-pawed, screaming when they see the leash brought out, trying to bite the owner, hiding, or urinating in fear any time she attempts to leash the dog.

BITING DOG WITH NO RECALL?  JUST LET HIM OFF LEASH AROUND A BUNCH OF STRANGERS!

Another area "dog psychologist" accepted a dog with an extensive bite history.  This dog had at least ten serious bites under his belt.  The dog psychologist's solution?  "Well, this dog obviously needs more socialization.  He needs to be around other people off leash."  She took this dog off leash at a public park near a busy interstate.  The dog had no recall.  An hour later, the dog returned.  I asked the client if there had been any bites when her dog was off lead at the park.  She didn't know, the dog was out of her sight for most of that hour.  The best part of the session was having her dog eventually return to her in one piece.  You see, her dog had an extensive history of running away when off leash.  She was apprehensive and uncomfortable with the "dog psychologist's" request, but assented reluctantly.  Who was she to dispute the "expert?"

We might all make the same mistake.  Who are we to question the experts? 

We are the dog owners.  You know your dog better than any behavior professional.  You know how she looks when she's happy, you know how she looks when she's sad.  Hopefully, you can tell when she's having fun and when she is afraid.  Your dog is constantly communicating with you through her body language - be sure you are listening.  Take her opinion into consideration when choosing a trainer or behaviorist.  Reading your dog and critically evaulating and assessing potential trainers will empower you to make the best decision.

I am happy to say that clicker training (and for the latter dog, careful and extensive management) has both of these wonderful ladies and their dogs on a path which leads to safety and happiness for human and canine.  I am not happy that these well-intentioned, caring dog owners sought professional assistance for their dogs' behavior problems and were encouraged by these "professionals" to put their dog at great physical and psychological risk.

The unfortunate fact is, dog training is an unregulated industry.  Anyone can print business cards today and start marketing themselves as a dog trainer, "psychologist," or behaviorist tomorrow.  While you need a license to give someone a haircut, apparently you do not need a license, insurance, or any sort of education/experience to open a business rehabilitating people's beloved family members who just so happen to have a mouthful of deadly weapons.  No requirements whatsoever when dog and human emotions and livelihood are at stake.  Scary, no?

A "love of dogs" or a "knack with dogs" is not qualification enough to be a good trainer, nor is "growing up with dogs."  A person may have spent the last sixty years with dogs.  This does not make her a trainer anymore than driving a car for thirty years makes you a mechanic.  A professional in any field must have both experience and education to optimally serve her clientele. 

Some thoughts to keep in mind when you're looking to hire a professional to help you with your dog's unwanted behaviors:

  • Remember you are hiring a professional to do a job.  You should interview them as thoroughly as you would interview any employee.  Be as critical as you would when hiring a new baby-sitter, secretary, or personal assistant.  Ask for references from clients, other training professionals and other animal care professionals (vet techs, groomers, rescues, veterinarians, etc.)  Make sure to follow up on these references.
  • Ask for proof of liability insurance.  Any reputable trainer will carry a policy.
  • Ask about qualifications including formal education, apprenticeships, titles earned by the trainer's own dogs (especially if you are looking for sport training).  If your dog has other behavioral issues:  aggression, separation anxiety, resource guarding, etc., ask what experience they have dealing with those particular issues.  There are specialists amongst dog trainers and behaviorists.  Specialties include:  family dog training/manners, aggression, competition sports, conformation, service dog training, herding dogs, hunting, etc.  Find a specialist who has experience working with dogs like yours and owners with goals like yours.
  • Is the trainer or behaviorist a member of any professional organizations?  If so, which organizations?  What are the requirements for membership? 
  • Does the trainer work with all dog breeds or prohibit certain breeds?  A good trainer should feel comfortable working with a dog of any breed.
  • A true "behaviorist" will have completed at least Master's level education courses at an accredited university.  A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who is board certified as a specialist in animal behavior.
  • Trust your gut.  If you get a bad feeling about a trainer, look elsewhere. 
  • If you notice a particularly well-behaved, happy dog, do not hesitate to introduce yourself to the owner and ask if this dog has received professional training and if so, from whom.
  • There truly is no substitute for patience and good training.  When working with dogs with behavior problems, quick fixes can frequently backfire and exacerbate existing problems while creating numerous new problems
  • Some clients think less of a trainer that refers them to another behavior professional.  "This trainer isn't any good!  She sent me to someone else for my dog's aggression!"  Referring out should not reflect negatively on a trainer.  I would much rather see a trainer refer out cases she was not confident she could handle effectively than see her take on clients she knows are beyond her current experience level or skill set and put a dog at risk.  Referring to and consulting with other trainers and animal professionals in a cooperative effort to ensure the well-being of a dog in need is actually one of the hallmarks of a good trainer.

RED FLAGS

  • If a behavior professional is vague about the methods they use over the phone or through email, look elsewhere.  
  • If a behavior professional indicates you must be dominant to rehabilitate your dog, look elsewhere (http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statement...)
  • If a behavior professional insists that the first and only way to address aggression problems is through punishment and corrections, look elsewhere (http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statement...)
  • If a behavior professional refuses to let you observe a class before you give them money, look elsewhere
  • If a behavior professional won't let you see them work with your dog, look elsewhere
  • If a behavior professional insists on methods or tools that make you uncomfortable, look elsewhere
  • If a behavior professional suggests training techniques which may put your dog in danger of physical or psychological harm, look elsewhere
  • Observe a group class.  If both dogs and humans are not actively enjoying themselves, look elsewhere.
  • Be wary of "instant cures," behavioral panaceas, miracles, and other various behavioral snake oils
  • Be wary of trainers, "behaviorists," and "psychologists" who guarantee results.  I cannot gaurantee my husband's behavior tomorrow, let alone guaranteeing your dog's behavior six years from now.  If a behavior professional does guarantee their results, ask exactly what results they guarantee.  Get it in writing.  If you don't see the promised results, you may just have a legitimate case in small claims court.

Just because someone calls themselves an "expert" does not mean you have to hire them.  I've provided only two scenarios where well-loved companion dogs are put at risk by those hired to improve their lives.  I'm sure these stories are not unique.  Don't settle for the first trainer or behaviorist you talk to.  Explore your options. 

There are infinite examples of humans who are considered "expert" caretakers for children, elderly, or disabled individuals but inflict great harm and abuses on their charges when left to their own devices unsupervised.  It's worth being picky when selecting caretakers and educators for those we care and are responsible for. 

On the other hand, even the best trainer had to start out somewhere.  There are some very enthusiastic, skilled, and knowledgable young trainers looking to start a new training business and these talented professionals shouldn't be discounted out of hand.  If your dog only needs some lessons on the basics (sit, down, loose leash walking, etc.) and you find a young, newly established trainer you like, give him a chance!  (All the red flags listed above still apply.)  Young trainers may not yet meet eligibility requirements for certain professional organizations.  They may have a small referral pool amongst other trainers or animal professionals, as this referral network generally takes time to build. They may or may not carry liability insurance. 

If you are looking for more advanced training or behavior modification, you'll probably want to look for someone with more experience addressing the needs of clients with behavior and training goals similar to your own. 

 THE MORAL OF THE STORY

Remember that as a consumer, your dollar gets you power - the power to make a good decision. You owe it to your dog to spend those behavior and training dollars as wisely as possible; especially if your dog is a danger to himself, you, other people or other dogs. 

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) offers three position statements on finding the right behavior professional for your beloved companion. 

Finding Help for a Pet with a Behavioral Problem

http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statement...

Types of Behavior Professionals

http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statement...

How to Choose a Trainer

http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statement...

The truth is, an unqualified behavior professional is one of the biggest threats to your dog's safety.  The AVSAB articles referenced will guide you in making the right decision for your dog.  It is well worth the time to do a little legwork and research to choose one that will help, rather than harm, your dog.  Your dog will spend the rest of her life thanking you for it.