It can be confusing for pet owners to know what sort of help they need and where to find it. The lack of regulation and transparency in the industry can lead pet guardians into pitfalls.
One local example of this is from a family I know who had an 8-week-old puppy.
Like all puppy owners, they were struggling with potty training. A week later they installed an electronic containment (shock) system in the back yard. And the installer led the puppy to the edge of the yard to shock it, purportedly to teach the boundary.
What the puppy learned, unfortunately, was the backyard was a scary and painful place. It refused to leave the house. So the unintended consequences of a professional not understanding the situation were failed housetraining and a fearful puppy.
That’s a risk people face when seeking training help, as well. Among approximately 50,000 dog trainers in the United States there is no educational standard or regulation of methods and equipment. Anyone may declare themselves a “trainer” and do practically anything to a family pet, with virtual legal immunity in most jurisdictions.
Training vs behavior modification
That is one reason it’s important for pet guardians to understand the difference between training and behavior modification.
Training is about teaching dogs how to do things like sit and lie down on cue. There is no emotional component, and dogs choose behaviors in response to consequences which follow those choices. Trainers use operant conditioning for this.
Behavior modification is about changing the way a dog feels about something, like fear of the vacuum cleaner. There is an emotional component, and change occurs on a subconscious level. Trainers use respondent conditioning for this.
Recently, I worked with a 100-pound Labrador who would perch himself at the picture window, barking at everything which passed by or approached the home. He launched himself against the glass until the person approached the door, such as for mail delivery. Then he ran to the entrance and launched himself against the storm door window. If a visitor entered the home, the highly aroused dog would jump on the person’s chest and clamp his mouth onto their arm, holding it while his eyes flared. Even if he settled down after a while, the Lab would jump and grab the person again whenever the visitor moved.
In that case, I first addressed the underlying emotional component and then taught the dog alternative behaviors. Today, he quietly watches from the window, and if a visitor approaches the door, he runs to his bed in the kitchen and lies patiently until he is released. Then, he approaches the visitor and sits, paying attention to his owner.
If I had thought of this as a training case, I would not have addressed the underlying stress and could not have modified the arousal. The unwanted behaviors would have continued unabated and somebody could have been injured.
If the dog’s trainer would have used aversive methods that remain common in the industry, the dog would have been punished for the unwanted behaviors without regard to underlying causes. The goal of aversive punishment is to suppress behavior, and it might feel more intuitive or “normal” to some people, but research has shown that doing so creates more emotional instability in 75 percent of dogs and aggressive responses in the rest.
Some of my behavioral clients have experienced this.
To avoid this problem, be sure you choose a professional with accreditation or certification. This proves knowledge of learning theory, behavior, equipment, and pet care based on a standardized examination testing.
Several reputable entities offer this certification, such as the Pet Professional Accreditation Board, Academy for Dog Trainers, Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and International Association of Behavior Consultants. These organizations maintain biographies of certified professionals that usually indicate their areas of expertise and have websites with search tools.
Don’t stop there. Interview the trainer.
The trainer should have questions for you about your pet, but remember, you are the one conducting the job interview in consideration of hiring them.
- Ask about certifications and memberships, then research and verify that information is correct.
- Ask about the trainer’s methods–what happens if the dog gets it right or wrong. These questions will identify the professional’s philosophy, methods and equipment.
- Finally, ask what outcome you can expect. True professionals do not make promises or guarantees of results. It is unethical and unrealistic to do so. However, it is ethical to talk about probabilities based upon experience with other dogs and to explain the pros and cons of each option.
Options in any case include management, training, and behavior modification. The professional should write a plan for your consideration, with options from each category. Working as a team, you would then determine which options you are willing and capable of implementing, with coaching and support from the professional.
Finding the right help for the right problem is both a consumer rights issue and an animal welfare concern. Sadly, some of my clients were surprised when trainers they trusted failed to divulge their methods or the potential harm to their pet.
Let the buyer beware, and be your dog’s best advocate. Doing so sets everyone up for success.