Behavior: Helping your clients choose the right trainer

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May 01, 2009

Recommending the right trainer is of utmost importance because a positive training experience can result in fewer behavioral problems, a less fearful dog, a stronger human-animal bond and an appreciative client.

On the other hand, recommending a trainer that uses punishment or confrontational techniques can aggravate existing problems and lead to a more fearful or aggressive dog. This could have a negative impact on the veterinary practice, not only from the behavioral problem itself, but from a weakened human-animal bond and decreased compliance with future recommendations.

In a recent study, training with positive reinforcement alone was associated with significantly less attention-seeking, avoidance and aggression, while training with punishment resulted in significantly more aggression.

Another recent survey assessed the effects of a variety of confrontational training techniques that had been used by owners of dogs with behavioral problems. Some of the most common — including hitting or kicking, growling at the dog, physical force, alpha roles, staring at the dog, dominance downs and grabbing by the jowls and shaking — led to aggression in about one quarter of the dogs. Dogs that were previously aggressive to familiar people were more likely to respond aggressively to these confrontational techniques.

Because dog training is an unlicensed and unregulated profession, individual trainers may or may not possess accurate knowledge of canine behavior and learning principles. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) has an annual conference and publishes quarterly newsletters. Its focus is on understanding normal canine behavior and the use of learning principles in dog training. However, membership in any dog-training group does not guarantee quality nor does it ensure compliance with the association guidelines. APDT also offers a Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) designation to those who accumulate sufficient hours of training, obtain references and pass an exam.

The following guidelines for selecting a trainer are modified from a chapter co-authored by Jean Donaldson in a recent issue of Veterinary Clinics of North America Small Animal Practice:

1. CREDENTIALS AND EXPERIENCE, including basic education, continuing education and certificates (such as CPDT): Be wary of trainers who will not provide their credentials and those who indicate their expertise is self-taught or an innate skill.

2. LANGUAGE: Speak to trainers, read their literature and view their Web sites. Trainers should have a sound understanding of how animals learn and use terms such as reward-based, dog-friendly and force-free training. However, make certain that they practice what they preach. Trainers who use phrases such as correction, pack leader or alpha dog, or who refer to the dogs' innate desire to please, likely are using confrontational techniques or lack a clear understanding of reinforcement-based learning. Aversive devices and prong or vibration collars (often a pseudonym for shock collars) focus on suppressing undesirable behavior rather then reinforcing what is desirable.

3. MOTIVATING THE DOG TO LEARN: Positive reinforcement-based trainers will use treats, toys, clickers and verbal rewards.


Suggested Reading
4. A GOOD TRAINER WILL OFFER A VARIETY OF SUPPORT MATERIAL and should be willing and able to offer different approaches and management devices, such as head halters or body harnesses that best suit the needs of the dog and owner.

There are similar concerns when recommending training books, because some of the oldest and most popular are inaccurate, outdated, inappropriate, inhumane and potentially harmful. Donaldson cites a number of examples, including "whipping dogs until they submit," "filling a hole dug by the dog with water and holding in the head until he is sure it's drowning," "jerking harshly upward with a choke chain," "lifting the dog by the neck and shaking or cuffing dominant breeds under the chin," "abrubtly turning unexpectedly or clothes-lining" and "using an umbrella or stick to look bigger than the dog (advice also given for children)."

Therefore only recommend books that describe normal canine behavior, how pets learn and a positive approach to training. Also recommend the position statements posted on the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Web site ( http://www.avsabonline.org/).

When recommending a trainer, check credentials and experience, ask questions, get references and, ideally, observe the trainer at work. Most importantly, be certain that the trainer focuses on positive reinforcement, is educated in canine behavior and is willing and able to modify the training to meet the needs of the individual.

The author practices at North Toronto Animal Clinic, Thornhill, Ont., Canada.