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Sometimes, the WORST Thing you can do is hire a “Trainer”

Updated: Jun 20


 By:  Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc

 

 

Whenever problem behaviors arise, it is common for people to say they need a “trainer”…but do they really? 


Training and behavior are two distinct areas, although there can be some overlap. Unfortunately, the majority of my caseload comes from people who have already gone through multiple trainers for their dogs’ serious behavior issues.  Typically, they have already invested a significant amount of time, emotional energy, and money with the wrong type of professional for their dog’s issues.  Trainers are professionals whose expertise is in teaching new skills – most commonly, teaching obedience skills.  Unsurprisingly, more “obedience” skills is usually their proposed solutions for most pet behavior problems.  This does not address why the dog is actually behaving that way, nor does it address the emotions fueling the behavior issues.  Behavior issues can (and do!) significantly worsen if addressed incorrectly – sometimes to a point of no return.  

 

Non-veterinary behavior consultants/specialists fill a role more akin to a psychologist or behavior counselor.  Behavior specialists and psychologists who work with human behavior problems must be certified and/or licensed to practice because of the significant harm that can be done by incompetent professionals.  Unfortunately, that is not the case for animals where the fields of both behavior and training are completely unregulated in the United States.  Anyone can call themselves a “certified trainer”, “behaviorist” or “master trainer”.  Someone who is unqualified for a job should technically refer out to someone who is, but in reality, that rarely actually happens.  No regulations exist with regards to education, experience, methods/ethics, or credentialing that would force accountability. 

 

Skilled trainers and behavior consultants/specialists have very important – but different – roles to play in bringing about the best, most fulfilling lives for our pets. 

Learn more below about which professional you need for your dogs’ needs at different points in their lives, and how to find someone reputable.

 

 

What is a Trainer?

 

 

Trainers teach new skills – think of puppy classes or general obedience classes.  Trainers may be able to help with basic obedience/manners skills, housebreaking, loose leash walking, trick training, and crate training.  However, if things do not go as planned and your dog encounters difficulties then they may not be able to help resolve those issues.  They likely do not have training in canine biology or ethology, behavioral manifestations of medical issues, neurological issues, or psychological issues related to dogs.  They also may not have completed much education on applied behavior analysis or behavior modification procedures.  Due to this, they may not recognize underlying anxiety, arousal and emotional regulation issues, frustration, fear, pain, health, or temperament issues when they appear during training.  Certified trainers who have gone through third-party accreditation and are held to a code of ethics are more likely to recognize these issues and provide a referral to a qualified behavior specialist or behavior-focused veterinarian (more on this further below).  Trainers are best suited for puppies or dogs who are healthy and without behavior issues who are learning new, fun behaviors.  Trainers can also be good for dog sports, tricks, and service dog training, but again, they need to be aware of what they do not know!  This is where things typically fail.  If there are problems that arise during training with a trainer, it is best to seek out the assistance of a qualified behavior specialist and your veterinarian. 

 

Often times, trainers see problems that arise during training sessions as a sign of an obedience training issue.  They may label dogs as “lazy”, “dramatic”, or “stubborn” instead of actually addressing the cause of the behaviors and creating lasting solutions.  Taking that approach with a behavior issue can worsen the situation significantly.  Trainers may continue to have dogs engage in activities that are actually really stressful for them – due to pain, anxiety, frustration, or other issues.  This approach of continuing the course with more obedience/submission to the owner’s wishes not only yields negative long term behavioral results, but can poison their excitement to partake in the activities and poison the relationship with the owner.  The activity may involve toys or treats, but what is labeled as “positive” is not so “positive” anymore from the dog’s point of view.  It is not good.  But the fallout is immeasurably worse when it involves punishment/corrections-based training.  Hardly a day goes by where I do not encounter a dog who was shocked for months (or years) for having medical episodes like seizures that appear to the trainer as just unwanted behavior and not a medical issue, engaging in compulsive behaviors, engaging in anxiety or stress related behaviors like licking/chewing/scavenging, acting out due to chronic or acute pain unbeknownst to the owners, and other health/medical issues.  Many have gone through lengthy board and train programs, only to have the behavior issues resurface exponentially worse.  The issues were never properly addressed, and in many cases (since most board and trains are punishment-based), the trainers inflicted trauma and negative learning.  Whether positive, balanced, or punitive, trainers often do not possess the knowledge to recognize and help behavior issues, even if they advertise those skills and have some limited knowledge.

 

Three Cases

(Details in the three cases below have been changed to protect privacy.  Unfortunately, these cases are not that unusual or unique.  I see a lot of the same original problem behaviors and the same problematic “solutions” attempted by trainers, which result in substantially worsened behavior and welfare.)

 

 

Example 1: Problematic “training” solutions with a well-meaning positive reinforcement trainer:

 

 

An Australian Shepherd dog was barking non-stop at dogs and people in his puppy/young adolescent group classes and never able to calm down from week to week.  They were instructed to continuously feed their dog a spray cheese filled food toy during the classes to try to help calm him.  They even took him behind a curtain during some classes so he would not see other dogs, but it did not help to calm him either in the short-term or long-term.  The instructors registered him in additional group classes at their facility, including scent work, despite his worsening behavior and emotional states.  They asked the owners to have him perform a "hand touch" for a treat (touching the nose to the person’s hand) whenever he noticed other dogs during class. However, the dog was consistently too far over-threshold to be able to do so.  All he did was lunge and bark at everything with very little responsiveness to the owners.  After months of group classes, the behaviors had only worsened to include severe reactivity to dogs and strangers over 100 feet away, hypervigilant behavior both at home and away from home, noise and environmental anxieties, emotional dysregulation, non-stop barking, and generalized to many contexts as he reached adolescence.  The dog was panting heavily and barking non-stop in the home, yard and on walks. He was also displaying other problem behaviors like counter-surfing/scavenging of non-food items throughout the home and guarding them.  The trainers had some idea that the dog needed behavior modification and calming, but they continued to flood him in highly stressful environment while attempting “calming” and “behavior modification”.  By taking a welfare-based evaluation of the behavior we addressed the issues with both behavior modification and veterinary intervention (some behaviors appeared compulsive and anxiety was extremely high in all contexts).  We were able to significantly reduce the barking, teach coping skills/emotional regulation to reduce frustration and control arousal, help this dog be around other dogs and strangers comfortably, address the environmental and noise sensitivities, and eliminate the resource guarding and counter-surfing, and eventually re-joined group classes.  But it took many months to undo the damage done by well-meaning but ill-informed “trainers”. 

           

 

Example 2: Problematic “training” solution punishing a pain-response

 

Owners went to a trainer for the issue of their pitbull-mix dog growling at other dogs who walked by.  Recently, the dog had also growled at the owner when he walked by him lying in a resting spot in the home.  The trainer suggested heavy exercise to tire out the dog and encouraged the owners to sign up the dog for agility classes.  He also suggested firmly correcting the dog when he growled with a shock collar.  The owner sometimes used the shock collar and other times used leash corrections or yelling.  The aggressive behavior worsened with time to where the dog was guarding objects in addition to resting spots and body space.  The dog also began growling when hearing the owner give particular commands, such as “leave it”, which had been punished with a shock if the dog did not obey.  During agility classes, the dog was also having difficulty with completely all 12 of the weave poles, often popping out before finishing them. The trainer said that the dog was being “lazy” and needed more firmness and repetition.  He put gates back around the weave poles to force the dog to finish them all the way without the option of exiting them early.  When I met with the dog, I noticed that the dog was most sensitive when others came up from behind him or when he was resting.  I also noticed issues with his conformation and gait that were not noticed by the owner, the other trainer, and had not been noted on previous exams by their regular veterinarian (in the veterinarian’s defense, they are lucky to get a few minutes with a dog in a small exam room, so they do not see the dog moving like I get to see at the client’s home.).  The dog walked with a stiff criss-crossing hind gait movement that lacked normal extension and ran with a bunny-hopping gait.  The back has a visible bump on the spine and lacked mobility and movement.  These issues along with the details of the presentation of the problem behaviors indicated that pain may possibly be a cause of the guarding behavior.  I referred them to a different veterinarian who diagnosed the dog with moderate-severe hip dysplasia and spondylosis in the middle of the spine.  A dog with these physical issues is not suitable to even be doing agility and had to be in significant pain while doing it, hence why the dog began showing aggression at class to dogs coming near him.  Dogs with pain issues in the rear often guard their personal space behind them and/or resting spots.  We worked on behavior modification once the dog’s pain was controlled via medications, laser, and physical therapy interventions.  We were able to successfully change the dog’s behavior around other dogs, the owner, resting spots, and resources.  As bad as it is to be in pain, it is even more awful to be forced into activities that will cause pain and then be punished for those predictable pain-related behaviors.

 

 

Example 3: Problematic “training” solution that punishes fear/anxiety

 

 

Owners began working with a self-proclaimed “military dog trainer” for resource-guarding and “disobedience” issues with their 1.5 year old German Shepherd mix.  Their rescue group had referred them to this trainer, claiming he was a “miracle worker”.  It is always troubling to me when a purported “rescue” refers to a trainer who creates fear, trauma, and comprises the animal’s welfare…the opposite of "rescue"...but that could be a whole other blog article.  Back to the case…the trainer they met framed it as a supposed issue of the dog trying to dominate the owners.  He put a tight prong collar on the dog with a short handle for the dog to wear 24/7 inside the home.  If he would not get off the bed or sofa they were to jerk the prong collar to correct him; if he snatched something off the countertops they were to correct him by snapping the prong collar.  If he would not go into his crate at night, they were also supposed to reach over and jerk the prong collar.  Within a few days, the dog started growling and lunging at the owners with bared teeth simply for coming into the same room.  He eventually bit two people in the home on their extremities as they attempted to walk past him.  There were never aggression issues before this punishment-based training beyond the occasional little growl when they tried to take away a resource.  The original issues normally could usually be solved rather quickly and easily by addressing the underlying anxiety and teaching skills to cooperatively give up resources.  The original issues were normal issues that we see appear with puppies and adolescent dogs.  Instead, the owners inadvertently taught that their presence was something to be feared, and the dog was ready to defend himself, especially if they reached toward him.  The owners never felt comfortable with any of this “training” from the very beginning, and also saw how things had quickly devolved.  They contacted me and were considering either rehoming or euthanizing the dog but wanted an objective assessment of the situation.  They no longer felt safe living in the home with this dog, especially with young children in the home.  I quickly got in touch with their veterinarian to work toward some immediate relief for the poor dog, created a management plan for safety, and put forth a plan to hopefully move forward toward emotional and behavior change.  However, I expressed that this is going to take time to undo the emotional damage and create trust, and there was always risk of management failing.  They loved their dog, but at the same time, they understandably did not feel safe living under the same roof as a large, fearful dog who was capable of serious physical harm.  The dog had grown to distrust people in general.  Without committed owners, cases like this sometimes do not have a positive ending.  It can be difficult and potentially unethical (or even illegal) for a rescue to adopt out a dog with an extensive aggression history involving multiple bites.  Luckily, a family friend was willing to take on the dog and successfully work together with me and a behavior-focused veterinarian on long-term emotional and behavioral change.

 

 

Which trainers are “qualified” to train?  And remember, these are still not “behaviorists”, “behavior consultants” or behavior specialists.

 

 

There are differences between “certified trainers” and those who have completed a certificate program, although some people may refer to themselves as “certified” because they completed a certificate program.  A certification is granted by an independent, accredited organization that does not provide the individual’s relevant education.  An independent certification organization judges the individual against the industry standard.  An equivalent to this is the bar exam that prospective lawyers take after completing law school.  Someone may have completed years of education, but we really only know the quality of their knowledge once they pass the bar exam.  Their school may have had a great program (or not), but the bar exam sets an industry standard to protect the consumer.  There obviously is still variation in the quality of lawyers who have passed the bar, but many do not pass it at all.           

 

Independent Certification Organizations:

•        Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA)

•        International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC-ADT)

•        Pet Professional Guild (PPG)

 

Examples of common certificate programs are Karen Pryor Academy (KPA), the Animal Behavior College (ABC), Dognostics, Victoria Stillwell Academy (VSA), Academy for Dog Trainers, and CATCH Academy, amongst others.  They are well-known to provide quality educational materials, but we do not know the details of how they process, score, and graduate their students, nor do we know all the details of the education received.  Plus, since money is exchanged there is not impartiality.  This is why independent credentialing organizations are important to assess levels of competence.  Some certificate programs focus heavily on the use of particular tools, such as a clicker device.  Others focus on how to teach new behaviors by breaking them down into small achievable steps, or successive approximations.  Other ones focus on that but also with some ethology, body language, and basic knowledge of canine biology and health.  Understanding feedback from the individual you are training is very important.  Pursuing knowledge by earning a certificate is an excellent career investment, but how do graduates measure up to the industry standard?  It is like going to law school versus successfully passing the bar exam.  Not all law school graduates are able to pass the bar exam.  Passing the bar exam demonstrates that they absorbed an education that meets/exceeds the industry standard.  That is why I greatly prefer third-party certification over a certificate program.

 

Then there are those with no certificate, who simply “love dogs”, have “worked with dogs my whole life”, or ambiguously claim to have worked with military dogs or police dogs, without much specifics.  I would not hire anyone who leaves me relying on their word that they are qualified, whether it is a plumber, gardener, drywaller, academic tutor, or other professional.  Online reviews are also a great place to look to check for experience, but it is important to understand that many disreputable companies may give discounts to potential clients for leaving five-star reviews online.  I see this most commonly with franchised companies, but not exclusively.  Education, experience, and ethics are all requirements for a qualified professional.  This information should be openly and transparently accessible to the public.

 

There are a few professional training organizations appearing for punishment-based trainers to provide certification.  Unfortunately, many are just paid membership without vetting their knowledge, education or experience.  Additionally, they do not have strict ethical codes regarding the methods and techniques these trainers employ.  I suspect that some certifications are more for marketing purposes if they do not have substance. The methods of these trainers tend to fall far outside what is currently recommended by prominent scientific and medical organizations whose main work is addressing problem behaviors in companion animals: the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB).  The ACVB and AVSAB recommend reward-based approaches and are firmly against the use of fear, pain or coercion in training or behavior modification, including in aggression cases A good third-party certification should vet the knowledge and quality of the trainer, continue to improve the quality of the trainer through continued education requirements, and provide confidence to the public as to what they are receiving.

 

Buyer beware!

 

 

What is different about a behavior consultant/specialist? 

 

 

A behavior specialist is a wide-encompassing category that can include credentialed behavior consultants, graduate degree-holding animal behaviorists, certified animal behaviorists, and veterinary behaviorists.  There are huge differences in the educational levels of all these individuals and differences in the roles they play in addressing problem behaviors.  Some work on the behavior modification end of things is similar to a psychologist or behavior counselor except that it is for pets. Then, there are also others who do that but are licensed medical professionals who are qualified to diagnose and treat the medical sides of the behaviors.  These professionals can evaluate and address anxiety and aggression issues, separation distress, chewing/destruction, phobias, environmental sensitivities, compulsive or repetitive behaviors, resource or territorial guarding, stress behaviors, and other inappropriate behaviors.  They are educated and experienced in evaluating problem behaviors, conducting applied behavior analysis and behavior modification procedures in a way that is as much an art as it is science.  Many are also highly skilled trainers, and some are active in the dog sports world.  There are also trainers who are completing additional education and mentoring with other certified behavior consultants/specialist to hopefully earn certification from a third-party organization at a later date. 

 

Broadly speaking, non-veterinary behavior specialists look at the whole dog to address problem behaviors, similar to a psychologist.  Many of us utilize models such as the Humane Hierarchy to evaluate problem behaviors, identify underlying causes (not just short-term bandaid solutions), and how to move forward addressing them effectively while preserving and improving the animals’ welfare, enhancing the dog-human bond.  Often times, this can include referring back to the to the original veterinarian, a behavior-specializing veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist, and other professionals to work as a team.  Health and behavior are forever intertwined.  It often surprises owners when behaviors are found to be caused or exacerbated by medical/pain/discomfort issues that were completely unknown to the owners.  Behavior consultants are trained to be able to identify what is normal vs abnormal behavior and when pain or medical issues should be suspected.  They then direct clients to appropriate medical professionals who can evaluate, diagnose and treat any potential issues.  Sometimes, things must be addressed through both medical intervention AND behavior modification to change problematic behaviors.  As I regularly mention to clients, we can work on behavior modification or obedience training all day with steadfast commitment, but the long-term emotional and behavioral consistency will not be there if there are medical conditions or pain at play.  That is why it is absolutely crucial to address medical issues swiftly if we are to bring about positive long-term outcomes.  By working together with veterinarians, we can optimize the prognosis for long term effective behavior change.

 

Always refer to a behavior specialist who is independently assessed and credentialed.  Remember, anyone can call themselves a “behaviorist” in this unregulated field!:

 

 

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)

•        IAABC certifies through successful completion of several rigorous case studies, written exam, veterinarian and colleague recommendations, requires commitment to a code of ethics


Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT)

•        CCPDT certifies through an exam, experience requirements, and veterinarian recommendations, requires commitment to a code of ethics


Pet Professional Guild (PPG)

•        PPG certifies through both written and video-taped performance exams and case studies, requires commitment to a code of ethics


Animal Behavior Society (ABS)

•        Animal Behavior Society (ABS) certifies through graduate college education in behavior and either completing case studies or published field research


American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB)

•        Veterinarians who have completed education, residency, and achieved board-certification in behavior medicine.  They are also skilled with behavior modification.  They can diagnose and treat conditions related to behavior or emotional/psychological problems.


American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB)

•        General practice/non-specialty veterinarians and veterinary technicians who have an interest in behavior medicine.  The levels of behavior-specific knowledge and education varies significantly between individuals since there are no education or knowledge requirements.  But this can be a good starting point when looking for a behavior-focused veterinarian if there is not a veterinary behaviorist in your area.

 

 

I hope this has helped shed some light on this confusing topic.  Trainers, behavior consultants/specialists, and veterinarians all have very important – but different – roles to play in bringing about the best behavioral outcomes in pets.  With a trainer, that is teaching good behaviors BEFORE problem behaviors start.  If problem behaviors appear, then seek out a behavior consultant/specialist and maybe a veterinary behaviorist.



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Featured photo credit of Eileen Koval & Gilgamesh: Danielle Hiltner Photography


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Eileen Koval and her dogs

Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.

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