Since the dog training industry has been largely ignored by government regulatory authorities, it is up to dog trainers themselves to set some standards, at least for now. Not surprisingly, the results are less than satisfactory. Dog trainers differ in their goals and values and these are not always in the best interest of their clients. While there is of course nothing wrong with promoting one’s business and setting oneself apart from the competition, the dog loving public clearly needs some reliable and unambiguous information on what it is they get for their money.
Labelling for change
Just like a patient wanting to understand a surgical procedure or a customer wanting to know the ingredients in their cereal, anyone intending to hire a dog trainer should be able to easily understand what exactly it is they are buying. The most common questions on people’s minds are “what is the result?”, “how long does it take?” and “how much does it cost?” But with growing sensitivities towards the treatment of animals and a better understanding of dog behaviour more people are turning into informed consumers rather than being easy to impress shoppers.
Unfortunately we do not hear the question “what methods do you use?” often enough but we do know people have started to pay attention to labels such as “positive”, “force free” or “reward based”. They may not know exactly what that means, but there is no reason to be cynical about it. The fact that those labels are increasingly used in the industry and that the public sees them as “qualifying” is a good thing. After all this is how change usually starts. Once there is awareness there will be questions. Soon there will be demands for evidence, for regulation and for certification. It has happened in relation to other goods and services and it will happen to dog training. In fact it has already started in some countries.
Yes, some unethical trainers label themselves “positive” and are in fact quite the opposite. As long as there is no legal protection for labelling in this industry, consumers need to be very wary and inquisitive. However, the fact that certain labels are used carelessly and seem to have no real value attached does not mean they should be avoided by those who claim them as their legitimate tags. I believe it is crucial that humane dog trainers set themselves apart from their dominance driven colleagues. We need to advertise where- and whenever we can that cooperative and scientifically supported methods work and that they come without the nasty risks and side-effects of confrontational training.
Force free training is a choice, not an outcome
While the dividing line between dog trainers generally separates those who use force and dominance from those who use rewards and cooperation, the reality can be a lot more confusing. Some trainers may not even be sure about exactly where they stand or they are reluctant to be lumped together with others. It is absolutely vital though that humane and ethical dog trainers stand as a united front to the public and in the industry. It is not helpful if we argue amongst ourselves, either because we are not clear on our own methods or because we have our own agenda. There are ways to advertise the uniqueness of one’s business without sacrificing or undermining the unifying ideals we all stand for.
Dedicated organisations who promote humane dog training such as the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) have definitions for terminology and provide training and handling guidelines. This is the kind of information that needs to be promoted widely and publicly so that everyone has a usable standard. Until we get some sort of government regulation or certification, it is in our best interest to accept the agreed-upon labelling as the best we have. There is no need to attack those labels as dishonest or misleading unless the goal is to attack the force free dog training community itself.
The meaning of force free is the avoidance of anything that could cause fear or pain (or any versions of these) in a dog. To begin with, this rules out any equipment or technique that specifically has the purpose of causing fear or pain (shock, prong and choke collars, yanking, yelling, pinching, rough handling etc.). But it also means observing the dog at all times for signs of possible stress or unease. Force free does not mean we can guarantee that a dog will have only positive emotions when we train them. Of course only the dog can truly know if they experience something as pleasant or aversive. But we can make sure we have the education and skill to minimize any possible negative impact our training might have. We can decide that we want to cooperate with a dog rather than overpower them. This is what force free means. It’s a choice of methods.
Let’s keep spreading the word
I will happily promote myself as being force free, reward based, positive, or whatever it takes to let everyone know where I stand. Furthermore, I’ll explain exactly what it is I do and how I interact with someone’s dog to achieve results. And I will continue to do so beyond the day when mandatory certification and protected labelling are introduced in the dog training industry.
Change happens because people learn about issues, talk about issues and eventually feel compelled to take action. Our global and hyper-connected society has never been more sensitive to human- and animal-rights issues or any sort of injustice or barbarity. There has never been a better time to talk about and fight for a better future in dog training. So, let’s continue to be vocal about what we do and why. Let’s not sacrifice a greater common goal for petty reasons.