Dogs and humans beware

During the past year I've had a number of emails from people both lauding and severely criticizing the dog trainers to whom they went to help them teach their dog to live with them in their homes and elsewhere. Of course, different people have different needs and dogs are unique individuals, so it's essential that a dog trainer/teacher be well versed in dog behavior and various principles of ethology/animal behavior and psychology. They also need to be able to assess the nature of dog-human interactions. 

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Source: usernetsite free images

In her scholarly and well researched law review article called "OCCUPATIONAL LICENSURE FOR PET DOG TRAINERS: DOGS ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES WHO SHOULD BE LICENSED," Elizabeth Foubert notes, "In the United States anyone can work as a dog trainer, regardless of the person’s qualifications. Scientific research in animal behavior and canine ethology indicate how to humanely train dogs, but nothing in the law requires that dog trainers apply these proven methods in practice. Dog trainers may use training techniques that bring harm to dogs and deceive consumers as to its efficacy. The onus is on consumers to educate themselves to these dangers when selecting a 'qualified dog trainer.'"

There's a lot at stake when a person entrusts their dog's life to a trainer. Thus, I was shocked to learn that in the United States anyone can call themself a "dog trainer." I went online and did many different searches, and while there are many excellent certification programs, it is the case that anyone can legally hang up a shingle that says "Dog Trainer" and begin to work with dogs and their humans. I also queried a number of trainers and they also agreed that there really is a "dirty little secret" about which many, perhaps most, people are unaware, as I was. And, if course, it's not a little secret at all, but rather a huge one, because of the incredible damage that can be done by someone who isn't trained to be a dog trainer. Of course, certified dog trainers also can cause harm but that goes beyond what I want to write about here. 

A dog named Sarge: Justice is a dog's best friend

Last week I wrote an essay called "A Dog Named Gucci: "'Justice Is a Dog's Best Friend'" about a severely abused dog named Gucci who catalyzed changes in legislation in Alabama (and in other states) that resulted in dog abuse being elevated from being a misdemeanor to a felony. Coincidentally, as I was pondering what to do with this newly discovered and depressing knowledge, I received the following email (reprinted here with permission of the sender):

My puppy, Sarge, was attending daycare, where they use dominance based techniques. He was dead within 2 hours of a training session.

Sarge was a 3 ½ month old Shih Tzu/Pekingese mix. He weighed 8 pounds. 

Because Sarge wasn’t ‘heeling’, the trainer grabbed Sarge and held his mouth closed with his right hand while holding his neck with his left – Sarge thrashed and collapsed. The trainer said, ‘that’s normal, because he’s a puppy, he exerted all his energy’ – and ‘I won that battle, but you may not next time because he is strong’. I said, ‘but his eyes are glazed over, and his tongue is hanging out’. The trainer made Sarge get up. Sarge tried, but collapsed again.  

I first took him to the training facility's veterinarian close by. I was then referred to the emergency clinic. I believe Sarge died in my arms as I was entering the door of the emergency vet; I could feel his heartbeat fading. He suffered terribly and had a hard time breathing his last two hours.

Incidents reported for this particular training facility ... date back to 2004.

Dog training that harms dogs is abuse. The person who sent this note asked to speak to me about her and others' attempts to introduce legislation for insuring that dog training techniques are safe. I called her and I was astounded to learn more about Sarge's treatment and death. I wish I were dreaming, but I was not. 

There also is another widely publicized case about dog training and abuse. In December 2016, dog abuse at a training facility in Oceanside, New York, led to a call for legislation calling for a state-issued license for dog trainers “to curb the unregulated practice of individuals claiming to be dog-training experts.” (You must subscribe to be able to read the article.)

"Don't settle for smoke and mirrors" when it comes to selecting a dog trainer

The purpose of this short piece is very simple, namely, to alert people that dog trainers can legally range in education from being highly educated about dog behavior to knowing little to nothing about dog behavior. Many Psychology Today readers live with dogs and I've heard from them from time to time with questions about behavior and other matters of dog. 

To sum up, neither I nor the people with whom I spoke are aware of any dog training regulations. Elizabeth Foubert's excellent and well-researched essay confirms this fact. The Academy For Dog Trainers rightfully has called for transparency. They write

What should owners look for in a dog trainer? If you ask us, the most important thing is **transparency**. If a dog trainer is not willing to fully disclose, in clear language, exactly what will happen to your dog (in the physical world) during the training process, keep shopping. Look for verbs, not adjectives. Demand to know what specific methods will be employed in what specific situations. Don't settle for smoke and mirrors.

Amen. Cruelty can't stand the spotlight. And, abuse must be countered head on. Dogs need all the voices they can get. We are their lifeline, their oxygen, and they are totally dependent on our goodwill and for us to work selflessly and tirelessly on their behalf. If we don't, it's a dirty double-cross (please see, for example, "Dog Trust: Some Lessons From Our Companions"). It's indisputable that we severely psychologically and physically harm our companions when we let them down, when we neglect them or dominate them selfishly with no interest in the deep hurt for which we're responsible. The hearts of our companion animals, like our own hearts, are fragile, so we must be gentle with them. You can never be too nice or too generous with your love for our dear and trusting companions, who are so deeply pure of heart.

When we betray our companion's innocence and trust our actions are ethically indefensible and we become less than human; it's simply wrong, so let's not do it -- ever. Much pure joy will come our way as we clear the path for deep and rich two-way interdependent relationships based on immutable trust with our companions and all other beings.

Learning about dogs is a win-win for all

There really is a "dirty little/huge secret" in the world of dog training that many so-called trainers want to push aside and many others want to expose and change. I hope that Sarge's and numerous other stories will lead to enforceable legislation that will make it a requirement for all dog trainers to be rigorously educated and tested about dog behavior, about dog-human interactions, and to be formally certified. This really should be an incredibly enjoyable experience as people become trained as dog ethologists -- a win-win for all -- a point I stress in a forthcoming book. 

All dogs who need training depend on their humans to make the best choice possible. We owe it to them to do the best we can and to be sure that when we entrust our dogs' well-being and lives to someone who calls themself a trainer, that they really are qualified to work with these highly sentient beings and their human guardians. Dogs and humans beware.

Perhaps, sometime in the future, there will be a film called "A Dog Named Sarge" that will have a similar effect to that of "A Dog Named Gucci," namely, to generate compelling grassroots and legislative support to develop laws so that dog trainers who abuse dogs pay for their crimes. Transparency and regulation are essential. 

Dog training can be abusive, and we must do all we can to make sure it is not. 

Note: For more on some recent legislation for dogs please see "Dogs, Dominance, Breeding, and Legislation: A Mixed Bag." I thank Tracy Krulik for doing some research for this essay. 

Anonymous and ad hominem comments will not be accepted. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018.

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