Professional Dog Trainers: How Do We Measure UP?

In the last issue, we defined the terms profession and professionalism as they will be addressed in this series of articles. We also laid some groundwork: i.e., that this article is not specifically speaking of APDT members, but of the dog training community as a whole; additionally, this article is opinion-based. In this installment we’re going to analyze the major elements of a profession and see how we’re doing.

As a reminder, here are the elements of a profession as laid out by the Texas Small Library Association:

  • Philosophy
  • Body of Knowledge
  • Leaders or Philosophers
  • Guidelines for Behavior
  • Admission Requirements
  • Other

Let’s address each element individually, to see where we stand.

  • Philosophy – Professions have their own philosophy, which must be articulated in both written and oral form.

This is one of the stickier areas, in my opinion. I do think most dog trainers have the welfare of the dogs they work with as their primary focus. Few trainers come into this business for the money – they’re here because they love and care about dogs. So, I think we can safely say that the industry does have a common philosophy: To help dogs and owners live together harmoniously and happily.

The larger trainer organizations all have an explanatory paragraph outlining the purpose of the organization, most of which include the welfare of the dog:

Association of Pet Dog Trainers

VISIONAll dogs are effectively trained through dog-friendly techniques and therefore are lifelong companions in a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

MISSIONPromoting caring relationships between dogs and people by educating trainers in canine behavior and emphasizing professionalism and reward-based training.

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers

The CCPDT is an international testing and certification program for professional pet dog trainers.

The CCPDT’s certification program is based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge related to dog training. Competence and continued growth in training practices is promoted through the recertification of qualified professionals.

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (first paragraph of principle 1):

Animal behavior consultants advance the welfare of animals and families. They respect the rights of those persons seeking their assistance, and make reasonable efforts to ensure that their services are used appropriately. Core values for the profession are respect for client right to self-determination, positive regard and a non-judgmental approach.

International Association of Canine Professionals (opening paragraphs only):

The INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CANINE PROFESSIONALS is an organization established to maintain the highest standards of professional and business practice among canine professionals. Its aim is to  provide support and representation for all professional occupations involved with  any aspect of canine management, health, training and husbandry.

The INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CANINE PROFESSIONALS commitment is to develop professional recognition, communication, education, understanding  and co-operation across the wide diversity of canine expertise and knowledge.

National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (Preamble to Code of Ethics):

The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, Inc. was founded to elevate the standards of the dog instructing profession. Mutually to aid both dog and human in the solution of the many problems of the profession – To designate certain members as having certain skills and knowledge – And acknowledging these facts, the members are pledged to maintain a high level of trust and integrity in the practice of their skill.

Unfortunately, there is a big divide as to how we’re going to accomplish our common goal of helping dogs and families. This divide is huge and will continue until there is an accepted body of knowledge and a level of tolerance for differences.

  • Body of Knowledge – Professions must have a body of professional literature of research, study and comment.

Again, a tricky area. There is certainly a very wide chasm in our industry when it comes to understanding dogs. There are those who believe and rigorously practice pack theory and those who believe and rigorously practice learning & behavior theory – and most people fall somewhere between the two. We, as a profession, do not yet have an established, widely accepted body of knowledge.

However, the knowledge is there and easily available. The field of behavior modification, which is essentially what dog training is, has a vast body of knowledge which has been tested and re-tested. There is also vast knowledge from the biological sciences. This knowledge is available to all of us and, if we want to call ourselves professionals, we must begin taking advantage of the resources that are available.

We need to stop listening to every exciting hypothesis that comes along, and ask if that hypothesis makes sense within the laws of learning. To do that, we need to have enough knowledge of the laws of learning to know what to ask. We must also develop and use our critical thinking skills.

Although we do need to train under experienced trainers to gain expertise, we need to move away from the apprenticeship model as our sole source of knowledge. New trainers should be availing themselves of the academic knowledge available either before or while working with an experienced trainer. Combining these two educational methods will more closely follow the model that other professions follow, and will give trainers the ability to think critically about the information they receive from their mentors.

In the last five years or so, there’s been a shift in the training profession. More young people are coming into training with a career in mind. They are better educated and understand the importance of education. Additionally, trainers as a group seem to be hungry for education. The key will be making sure they are getting a good education!

In my opinion, the only acceptable path is the science-based path, as that is the only body of knowledge that has any basis or any way to be tested. Additionally, this body of knowledge has been studied, tested, proven and applied. This is not to say that anecdotal information is not important and useful or that only one branch of science should be used; just that the foundation of our knowledge should be based in science.

  • Leaders or Philosophers – Professions have, both historically and currently, those who write about and research the profession. Leaders can be writers, doers, role models and those active in service.

Certainly, we have many leaders and philosophers within our industry. However, again, many (probably most) of the industry leaders do not ascribe to a standard body of knowledge. Many of our most beloved leaders are positing hypotheses which are then taken as fact. These leaders must take responsibility for this information and make sure that the trainer population understands the basis of the information – i.e., has it gone through the scientific process or is it anecdotal. And, of course, we have leaders in all camps – so, again, there is no standardized body of knowledge going out to trainers.

The good news is that we’re getting more leaders with higher education and we’re getting more trainers who are pursuing higher education. Hopefully, this combination will begin to set the standards for our profession.

  • Guidelines for Behavior – Professions have codes, guidelines, creeds, oaths, commitment statements, belief statements — such as statements on ethics and professionalism.

Each of the larger dog training professional organizations has a code of ethics or other statement of professional conduct. Additionally, each of these statements addresses the most important aspects of conduct in essentially the same manner. They do have minor variations which reflect the philosophy of the particular organization, but the core issues are recognized and addressed by each organization.

  • Admission Requirements – Professionals in many professions are licensed, certified, and have specific initial and advanced education, as well as requirements for ongoing education. In addition, many professions require both initial and ongoing testing for admission and maintaining membership.

Not all of the organizations have stringent admission requirements. APDT and IACP allow anyone to join, but they do categorize their members according to experience and/or certification. IAABC does have certain educational requirements before one can join the organization; certification is not a requirement for joining, as part of IAABCs purpose is to certify. NADOI has fairly strict requirements; applicants must be professional trainers. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) is a certifying organization and not a member organization; to be a certificant a trainer must pass their certification exam.

This is another area that has seen significant growth and improvement over the last ten years or so. However, only a very small percentage of dog trainers belong to a professional organization, so we have a long way to go in that respect.

In my opinion, CCPDT has the best potential to set the industry standards for our embryonic profession. I envision all trainers belonging to the organization that best reflects their philosophy, and working toward certification through the CCPDT. The other organizations may have requirements of their own, but they will encompass and be complimentary to the CCPDT’s.

  • Other – Many professions require support and/or professional development opportunities outside the work environment such as associations or professional organizations.

This is very broad, and consequently difficult to respond to. Of course, we have professional organizations. However, one thing that I’ve noticed is that it can be very difficult to earn a living as a dog trainer/consultant unless you own your own consulting business. There are a few large organizations that employ trainers, such as PetsMart and PetCo, but these are not organizations that allow for growth in the field of training – they tend to be entry-level jobs. There are opportunities in peripheral businesses such as boarding, shelters and veterinary clinics, but there are very few training facilities that can provide a comfortable living or any opportunity for advancement for a trainer as an employee.

I believe that this particular deficit will hinder the dog training business by not allowing trainers the opportunity to make a decent living. Not everyone is cut out to be a business owner, and most training businesses are not particularly well run. New trainers must often work a part-time job while struggling to build their training practice; many don’t have the luxury of working part-time, but must hold a full-time job while trying to build a practice. This can be very difficult and results in a very high turnover. This turnover is not healthy for a profession. I think for a profession to be viable, potential trainers need to be able to make a career decision and then have a reasonable chance of earning a living in that career.

To sum up, we have made significant progress over the last 10-15 years, but still have a long way to go. I would say that our biggest obstacle to becoming a viable, cohesive profession is in the area of having a standardized body of knowledge. If we could come together in that area, it seems to me that the rest would fall into place.

In the next issue, we’ll explore the elements of being a professional.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.