Professional Dog Trainers: How Do We Measure UP? Installment 3

In the first article in this series, 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 the second installment we analyzed the major elements of a profession to see how we’re doing. In this installment, we’ll begin looking at the first two elements of professionalism.

The first section, profession, addresses the elements a profession needs to be considered a profession; whereas, professionalism is about an individual’s behavior. In this article, we’ll discuss Criteria and Characteristics. Again, as a reminder, here are the main elements of professionalism as laid out by the Texas State Libraries; each main element has sub-elements which will be addressed individually:

  • Criteria
  • Characteristics:
  • Professionals juggle many responsibilities!
  • Professionals are expected to . . .
  • Competencies
  • Education
  • Support
  • Issues[1]

Criteria

  • Training: There is an extensive period of training, often after a combination of formal education, training and apprenticeship; usually in a higher education environment.

As mentioned in the last installment, the education is available to trainers. However, most of the formal, organized programs for dog trainers have no oversight or parameters. There are a lot of dog training programs popping up, because there is a market for them. Unfortunately, most of the programs are inadequate at best.

There are good programs out there. Unfortunately, because there are no standards or oversight, people coming in to the field don’t have any way to know if they are getting a good program. Most people coming into the dog training field are very naïve about the requirements, have had minimal exposure to the field of training, and therefore have no way to judge the programs and their content.

Even some of the better schools have spotty education. They are often training to a philosophy, and feel no need to address certain necessary aspects of learning and/or behavior.

The formal education that is available through universities and colleges is not geared for dog trainers. You can get a degree in psychology, biology, animal behavior, and so on. However, to use that education as a trainer, you still have to find additional education outside the university or college.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however! Some community colleges and vocational schools are beginning to offer programs in dog training. However, because there are no standards or oversight for the dog training field, the caliber of information varies widely.

And last, but not least, the vast majority of dog trainers do not avail themselves of any formal education, and their informal education is spotty, at best.

  • Intellectualism: The intellectual component is dominant.

This is an area that goes back to the education situation in our field. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant, so I called Jim Barry who says that this means a professional must always be aware and thinking about what they are doing. Jim has an excellent background in this area – in fact, he has recently published a must-read book called The Ethical Dog Trainer, which is now a required book in my Beginning Dog Trainer’s course.

I think that this is a problem in dog training, particularly for those who do not have a good foundation in the science of learning and behavior, receiving most of their education through an apprenticeship program. Not having that foundation of academic knowledge can narrow critical thinking abilities.

  • Autonomy: Professionals usually have autonomy in their work.

This is certainly true in our field.

  • Judgment:  Professionals are in a position, given their training and education, to use their own judgment in determining the appropriate approach to their clients or customers.

This is true in our field. However, for this to be meaningful, we must avail ourselves of the tools provided to make good judgments.

  • Independence: They can work independently and charge fees or they can be part of an organization.

We can certainly work independently and set our own fees. It’s not quite as easy to be part of an organization. This was discussed at length in the last issue.

  • Service: Their abilities can provide a valuable service to society and operate with little or no self-interest.

There is no doubt that pet dog trainers provide a valuable service to society. Our society is changing and the role of pet dogs is changing with it. Dog owners need more help as these changes take root and dogs are expected to behave in ways they have not yet learned or to which they have not adapted.

I also think that most dog trainers are operating with little self-interest. We all have the desire to help owner-pet relationships work and do our best to achieve that goal.

The problem lies, again, in a lack of proper education. When uneducated, poorly educated, or under educated trainers attempt to tackle problems beyond their abilities, they can unintentionally do more harm than good.

  • Dedication: Professionals are dedicated to services and institutions.

Most dog trainers are entering this field because of a passion for dogs; consequently, they are very dedicated. Unfortunately, this often creates its own set of problems. Trainers don’t know where to draw the line and become too involved in their clients’ problems. This can result in working without compensation, feelings of frustration and guilt, and a myriad of other problems. There is a very high incidence of burn out in this field.

  • Pride: They take pride in the quality of their work.

There’s no doubt that trainers take pride in their work! We all know how good it feels to turn a bad situation around. This is what ultimately keeps us going.

Characteristics

  • Professionals are considered experts.

Dog trainers are considered experts in their field by their clients and each other. There is some question as to whether or not veterinarians consider trainers professionals or experts. Certainly some individual veterinarians do, but does the veterinary profession? There is some argument within the veterinary field that trainers should only work under the direction of a veterinarian. If this happens, then there is no doubt that dog trainers will not be professionals.

To muddy the waters even further, there are many others in the dog-related field that appear to not consider trainers as professionals. Groomers, pet store workers, breeders and just about anyone else in the profession, including veterinarians (we won’t even go into brothers-in-law and neighbors!), feel qualified to give advice on dog behavior. I find this worrisome, because I can’t imagine a doctor giving dental advice or legal advice. A doctor would respect the professionalism of an attorney, and acknowledge the limitations of his own knowledge. By doing this, the doctor is acting in a professional manner and, in my mind, simply giving further evidence of his professionalism – he is not willing to encroach on another’s field of expertise when he knows they are better qualified than he. To me, this says that we have not yet established our professionalism within the general field of dogs.

Additionally, many dog trainers do not stay within the bounds of their expertise. Many dog trainers give nutritional and medical advice to clients, when they have no credentials in that area. Until we understand the parameters of this particular element, I do not see us qualifying as professionals.

  • Professionals have a high degree of generalized and systematic knowledge with a theoretical base.

As stated before, this is one of the areas where we really have to improve.

  • The primary orientation of professionals is to their public and/or community interest.

I think this is true of most dog trainers, and is an area we do well in with the caveat that we can do better by educating ourselves properly.

  • Professionals have a high degree of self-control of their behavior and are governed by a code of ethics.
    • The code of ethics is a statement of values.
    • The code ensures a high quality of service.
    • The code guarantees competency of membership, honor and integrity.
    • The code is a direct expression of the professions’ principles of service orientation.
    • The code emphasizes no personal gain and protection of the client or patron.

Again, we do have professional organizations that meet this criteria. The problem is that the vast majority of dog trainers do not belong to these organizations. Therefore, the vast majority of dog trainers have no guiding principles other than their own.

  • The professional’s system of rewards is primarily a set of symbols of work achievement.

This is another area where I consulted with an expert – Cara Shannon (neé Vacchiano), JD. This would encompass symbols such as certification, degrees, peer accolades, etc. Again, we do have this system but few trainers avail themselves of it.

  • There is a system of testing the competence of members.[2]

Again, there is a system, but most dog trainers do not take advantage of it. Until this happens, I do not see us rightfully being considered a profession. I urge everyone reading this article, who isn’t a CPDT, to go to www.CCPDT.org and consider sitting for their exam.

Correction: The guidelines used in this article come from the Texas State Library and Archives Com

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.


[1] Texas State Library and Archives Commission http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ld/tutorials/professionalism/IC.html

[2] Texas State Library and Archives Commission http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ld/tutorials/professionalism/IC.html