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Codes of Ethics and Policing Ourselves

Every so often another article comes out on the perils of dog training being unregulated. To trainers that means we are free to do pretty much what we want, within our own individual ethical code. It means much less to the people we service. Our clients are likely to do whatever we tell them because they are paying us for our opinion. On the other hand, some people who call themselves trainers couldn’t even train a stick to lie down. So how is the public to know who’s earned the title and who hasn’t? Good question with no easy answer.

I’m opening another element of the discussion that can help potential clients choose a trainer within their ethical code, reasons why it matters, and drawbacks to trainers policing ourselves. I’m offering no solutions.

Dog training is unregulated.

  • There are no laws or legal standards that prohibit or define what should or should not be included in the practice of training dogs. Any tool or method is available to any trainer.
  • There are no laws or legal standards that prohibit or define the education an individual should attain to call him/herself a dog trainer. Any or none are allowed.
  • There are no laws or legal standards that prohibit or define who can call him/herself a dog trainer. Anyone can “hang out a shingle” and do what they want to your dog.
  • The only regulation dog trainers have is the market and other dog trainers.

These are only some of the tools and methods of which I’m aware for training pet dogs.

  • Treats
  • Clickers
  • Lure and reward
  • Antecedent control
  • Stare dog down
  • Step on leash or collar and force dog down
  • Blow in nose or face
  • Slip collar
  • Prong collar
  • Head halter such as Gentle Leader®, or Comfort Trainer
  • Standard harness
  • No-pull harness such as Easy Walk®
  • Martingale or limited-slip collar
  • Electronic collar controlled by human
  • Electronic collar bark-activated
  • Citronella collar
  • Throw a can of coins or rocks
  • Water pistol or spray bottle
  • Hit dog with hand
  • Hit dog with leash or paper
  • Hit dog with board or bat
  • Step on dog’s toes
  • Knee dog in chest or belly
  • Kick dog
  • Alpha roll dog
  • Yell at dog
  • Dog psychology
  • Sssst
  • Electronic containment such as Invisible Fence®
  • Isolate dog somewhere in the house
  • Cattle prod on dog
  • Leash “pop” or jerk
  • Tie dog up
  • Hang dog by leash and collar
  • Muzzle the dog
  • Shove dog’s nose in urine, feces, or destruction

I believe all of these techniques and tools, individually and collectively, have supporters. The techniques a trainer uses may help define the label with which she identifies herself. As examples, trainers who refer to themselves as “force free, “ and “positive” often use primarily treats, clickers, and antecedent control. Those who refer to themselves as “balanced” often include tools and techniques such as slip and/or prong collars and leash pops.

These different training “camps” don’t always play nicely with each other. Most of the disagreements take place out of the public eye. Even if a trainer knows another trainer uses a tool or method she thinks is ineffective, inhumane, or damaging, this is seldom stated publicly. If we’re the only people policing each other, why don’t we let the public know? I’ve asked other trainers and these are some of the responses I’ve received.

  • Professional courtesy: Infighting makes us all look bad.
  • Fear of retaliation: If I speak badly about him, he will trash me next.
  • Fear of your own competence: A trainer may not want anyone looking too closely at her.
  • Fear of legal retaliation: One famous trainer is famous for this, too.
  • Personal ethics: It’s just the wrong thing to do.
  • Professional ethics: A Code of Ethics for an organization of which the speaker a member or certified by prohibits denigrating another trainer.

When these Codes were written, I assume they were to maintain a tone of professionalism. I’m not sure because I haven’t asked. However, the way they’re written, they inhibit the policing we need to be doing. Trainers feel they can’t turn in colleagues because it violates the Codes of Ethics. Below are the Codes of Ethics of national or international organizations regarding discussing other trainers. Where I’ve put “didn’t find one” that’s exactly what it means. A Code of Ethics wasn’t available on the website where I could find it, not that one doesn’t exist.

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants:
“Animal behavior consultants are respectful of colleagues and other professionals and do not condemn the character of their professional acts, nor engage in public commentary, including commentary in public presentations, written media or on websites, Internet discussion lists or social media, that is disrespectful, derisive or inflammatory. This includes cyberbullying, that is, the use of electronic media for deliberate, repeated and hostile behavior against colleagues.”

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers:
“to refrain from public defamation of colleagues, respecting their right to establish and follow their own principles of conduct, provided those principles are ethical and humane according to The CCPDT Humane Hierarchy Position Statement.”

Association of Professional Dog Trainers – USA:
“Be respectful of colleagues and other professionals and not falsely condemn the character of their professional acts.”

Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers:
“Maintain a spirit of co-operation with other trainers and Association members, and refrain from criticizing members and other trainers in public or to clients.”

 International Association of Canine Professionals:
(Didn’t find one)

Victoria Stilwell Professional Dog Trainer:
(Didn’t find one)

Karen Pryor Academy:
(Didn’t find one)

Pat Miller Academy
(Didn’t find one)

Association of Pet Dog Trainers – UK:
“Members shall respect the views and independence of others and shall not publicly denigrate their conduct or opinions.”

Association of Animal Behavior Professionals:
“Professionals do not participate in spreading untrue information about fellow professionals. Professionals ought to ensure that any discussion about a fellow professional be accurate and constructive.”

Pet Professional Guild:
“Ensure all communications are professional and based in fact. When discussing industry practices, trends or issues, members will limit discussion to practices and consequences rather than the individuals using them thereby ensuring informed, professional and civil exchanges that enrich members and the industry of force-free pet professionals.”

I would like to posit that these sections of the Codes of Ethics are part of the reason dog training is such a difficult profession for not only the public to understand but for professional trainers too. How do we balance our own ethics, organizational ethics, the public good, and bringing about changes? What do you think?


     I’ve heard several discussions recently from dog trainers about ethics. If you’re outside the profession you might wonder how ethics could affect us. There are many ways we need to consider ethics, often having to do with helping the people instead of the dog. 
     My own personal ethical dilemma arose this week with a client. She saw my ad in the newspaper and called me to come to her house and work with her small, male, American Staffordshire Terrier who jumps the fence to say “hi” to everyone he sees. She had to reschedule once. I went to her house this week and she had forgotten I was coming. Her son let me in.
     Ordinarily, I would just have left. This day, however, I saw this small woman whose demeanor was slow with hunched shoulders. Maybe she looks that way all the time, but being a dog trainer I’m attuned to body language. She was wearing pajamas and put on a housecoat to talk to me. Then she had a meltdown right in front of me.
     She started crying and shaking and telling me that she had to give the dog away because she can’t handle him and she’s moving and she has repairs at the new house and the old house and she has no money and she feels guilty about not being able to handle all of it and … So, do I walk out? Or stay and see if I can help the dog to give her some breathing room? What am I ethically obligated to do? I couldn’t live with myself if I just walked out. I stayed.
     I just let her talk and started working with the dog. I rewarded him for keeping his feet on the floor. In a very short time he was also offering a sit on his own. After she calmed down somewhat she saw what the dog was doing without me saying anything. I explained how to reward what you want repeated (feet on the floor) and ignore what you want to go away (jumping). She started taking notes on an envelope (one of many) on the counter. I stayed about ½ hour.
     My husband said I should call ahead of time to confirm appointments. Maybe he’s right. More than once, though, I’ve ended up in a situation where I had the tools to improve it. It feels to me like I was put there for a reason. I left some handouts and am trying to help her re-home her dog. If she pays me it will be a surprise.
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