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How To Choose a Professional To Work With You and Your Dog

By Lisa Hird

dog trainer telling dog to sit

Trying to decide whether you need a professional to work with you and your dog and what type of professional can be a difficult journey to navigate.

The very first thing to consider is, how will the professional work with your dog? Whether that is a dog walker, a dog day-care facility, dog sitter or a trainer or behaviourist, consider the way they work and the methods they promote.

There is no place for using aversive or punishment type training when working with dogs. We know that dogs are sentient beings and that the relationship with their carer is the most important foundation. Using punishment can cause a breakdown in the relationship and may even increase any behaviour problems exhibited. This can be true of dog walking, dog home boarders and day-care as well as trainers and behaviourists.

Dog walking as a career has become increasingly popular. Some websites suggest that the only skills needed are good customer service skills, physical strength, stamina and no formal education or qualifications. This is both irresponsible and far from the truth. Dogs are sentient beings and have emotional as well as physical needs but sadly it remains an unrestricted business, with little control over the way dogs are walked and managed. Some local authorities do impose some restrictions, but not all, so it is essential to check with the local authority where you live.

DEFRA brought out new guidelines in November 2018 for dog boarding, dog day-care, dog breeding, selling of animals and dog home boarding and they published The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations. Under these regulations, day-care centres are required to have a licence and display their licence number on their website. In order to be receive a licence a business will need to meet all of the minimum standards outlined in the document. In addition, businesses are encouraged to apply higher standards. A business that meets the higher standards will be able to gain a 4 or 5 star rating in the Animals Activity Star Rating System.

Some of the terms that may be used in relation to working with or training dogs may include the following terms:

Aversive – involves something unpleasant or something the dog does not like or is afraid of. These should not be used in dog training.

Balanced trainer – balanced trainers will use all four possibilities under operant conditioning which include positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment. These include aversive methods.

Correction- an action that punishes or stops a dog from doing an unwanted behaviour. For example, a jerk on the lead to prevent pulling. Corrections are a form of punishment and should not be used as a training strategy.

Fear-free - a low-stress approach to handling and training.

LIMA – “LIMA” is an acronym for the phrase “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” LIMA describes a trainer or behaviourist who uses the least intrusive, minimally aversive strategy out of a set of humane and effective tactics likely to succeed in achieving a training or behavior change objective. This means that punishment and negative reinforcement can still be used.

Positive reinforcement – a behaviour that is reinforced (rewarded) is more likely to be repeated. It involves the use of positive, desirable, or pleasurable consequences to teach a behaviour.

Negative reinforcement – the use of an aversive or undesirable consequence to teach a specific behaviour. An example is the use of a shock collar to prevent jumping or barking. The shock collar is turned off when the dog complies with the request. These should not be used. Negative reinforcement can also involve coercion – pushing down on a dog’s rump to get him to sit. The pressure on his rump is removed once the dog complies.

Punishment – a behaviour that is punished is considered to be less likely to be repeated. This may mean a tug of the lead, harsh words, intimidating body language or gestures. The punishment is given as a consequence for an unwanted behaviour.

Reinforcement, reward(s) - A consequence the dog finds pleasurable and desirable. Reinforcement and rewards are dependent on the individual dog and are often dependent on the environment, too. Some dogs may be motivated by a treat, while others may be motivated by a special toy or an extra session of play.

Relationship centred training – This type of training uses the cooperative relationship and bond between the handler and the dog to achieve mutually beneficial results, while at the same time enhancing and strengthening their relationship.

Heron et al (2009) looked at some of the confrontational methods applied by carers before their dogs were presented for a behaviour consultation. They also found that dogs presenting for aggression to familiar people were more likely to respond aggressively to confrontational or aversive techniques. It is essential for carers to understand the risks associated with such training methods and to seek a reward-based trainer/behaviourist who can advise resources for safe management and change of behaviour problems.

Ziv (2017) found that using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardise both the physical and mental health of dogs. In addition, although positive punishment can be effective, there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement–based training.

Vieira de Castro (2020) concluded that companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare during training sessions than dogs trained with reward-based methods. Additionally, dogs trained with higher proportions of aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare outside the training context than dogs trained with reward-based methods.

A number of well-known and respected dog rescue organisations including RSPCA, Blue Cross, NAWT and Dogs Trust only promote positive reinforcement as the way to train dogs.

When considering enlisting a professional to work with you and/or your dog, ask them what happens if the dog gets the request correct, and what happens to the dog if they get the request incorrect. The answers you get will help you decide whether they use fear free, positive reward-based, relationship centred training, or whether aversive methods or coercion may be used.

You may be unsure whether you need a dog trainer or a dog behaviourist. There can be some crossover but in the main, dog trainers will help train your dog to respond to various cues, such as for recall, or help your dog to perform certain behaviours, such as walking on a loose lead. Dog trainers often run dog training or puppy training classes and deal with the mechanics of teaching behaviours.

Dog behaviourists will look at the causes of the unwanted behaviour, the emotions behind the unwanted behaviour, and create a plan to change this unwanted behaviour. Most behaviourists will work with a carer’s Vet.

A behaviourist has a responsibility to work with the carer to identify the dog’s problem behaviour, and to explore the carer’s options in respect of changing that behaviour. The carer is then responsible for the decision on how to proceed with the unwanted behaviour and for carrying out a behaviour/training plan that has been agreed. The plan should be tailored to you and your dog. If you are not comfortable with any of the suggestions within the behaviour/training plan, ask questions.

Be wary of statements such as the number of years’ experience working with dogs. This does not necessarily mean the person has up to date knowledge, or indeed any knowledge at all. Statements that someone studied with an organisation is not the same as completing and passing a course. Do check out what courses the professional has completed and how recent their learning record is. Most professionals will belong to a membership organisation and their membership will be monitored to ensure they keep up to date with their knowledge and carry out a specified number of hours of professional development.

In 2020 some of the leading dog training and behaviour membership organisations came together to address the needs for self-regulation and improvement of dog welfare in the industry under the umbrella of the UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter.

The Charter was proposed as a model to bring together organisations behind a shared vision of standards and accountability for the sector. In April 2020 the Charter Group was formed, consisting of those organisations that were prepared to sign up to the common values of welfare and professional conduct directed by the Charter Document.

The Charter Group seeks to provide a collaborative approach to the many challenges that lie ahead for the industry, including regulation, welfare, and support of individual practitioners.

Professionals who belong to the signatory organisations can use the UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter logo on their own websites. If you are seeking a professional, visit UK Behaviour & Training Charter to find an organisation whose members have undergone a rigorous application process and are regulated for CPD, ethics and professional conduct.

The following organisations list reward-based trainers who have undergone a rigorous application process and have signed a charter to say they will only use reward based, non-coercive, fear free techniques. It includes The ISCP, where all of our practioners are skilled in dog behaviour and use only positive, force-free methods. You can find a local professional here.

· The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour Ltd

· INTODogs

· The Dog Welfare Alliance

· The International Companion Animal Network

· Fear Free Pets Practitioners

· ACE Education





· Pet Professional Guild

· Kennel Club accreditation scheme

· UK College of Scent dogs


First published in Edition Dog Magazine


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