Professional Dog Trainers: How Do We Measure UP? Installment 5

This is the last article in this series. We’ve looked in depth at the elements of both a profession and a professional. This article will go over the last few pieces of the “professional” criteria. Remember, professionalism is about an individual’s behavior rather than the elements an industry needs to be considered a profession. In this article, we’ll discuss “Competencies,” “Education”, “Support” and “Issues.” Once again, here are the main elements of professionalism as laid out by the Texas State Libraries:

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

Competencies

  • Mastery of Theoretical Knowledge

This is one of the biggest areas that we need to improvement. Although there are a couple of primary philosophies of behavior and training in our profession (behaviorism and pack theory), there is not one accepted view. Additionally, within these two broad philosophies are many off-shoots which confuse the issue even more! The truth is, a dog trainer can develop any philosophy he wants, based on any information or mis-information he wants, and run with it whether it has validity or not.

The truth is, we are in the business of behavior modification. Even though most of us do not have the academic credentials to call ourselves an applied behavior analyst, that is what we do every day. We are out in the field using knowledge that has been researched, proven and refined – whether we realize it or not! If you are changing behavior, YOU ARE USING THE PRINCIPLES OF LEARNING AND BEHAVIOR. There are trainers who prefer to call themselves ethologists. Well, ethology is relevant to what we do; however, ethologists are not in the business of modifying behavior, they are in the business of observing behavior. We, as a professional community, need to embrace the principles of learning and behavior, and realize that they will give us the tools to excel at our profession.

  • Capacity to Solve Problems

In my opinion, this relates very closely to Mastery of Theoretical Knowledge. If we have the knowledge, we have the ability to solve problems. If we do not have the knowledge, we only have “recipes” – cookie cutter solutions that may or may not resolve the problem. Unfortunately, if these solutions do not work, we blame the animal – it’s “incorrigible,” “dominant,” “aggressive,” or any number of other labels. This approach too often results in unsatisfactory solutions for the animal and the client.

  • Application of Theoretical Knowledge to Practice

Having the ability to analyze and assess problem behaviors and solutions is a skill that requires the base knowledge of learning and behavior. It then requires practice and maintenance – both academic and applied. This point is dependent on Mastery of Theoretical Knowledge – until we have that, we can’t apply it.

  • Ability to Create Knowledge as Well as Possess It

Animal consultants today actually have the ability to create some amazing knowledge within our field. We see so many animals in their natural environment that we could compile massive amounts of data with just a little organization. We can also do research as individuals and add to the body of applied knowledge.

  • Enthusiasm and Commitment to Clients

I think there’s little doubt that we have enthusiasm and commitment to clients. Animal consultants are passionate about their job.

  • Commitment to Continuous Learning About the Profession

I think, no matter what philosophical “camp” a consultant belongs to, those of us who belong to one or more professional organizations do have a commitment to learning and improving our profession.

Education

  • Unique training
  • Formal education
  • Achieving credentials
  • Activity in continuing education opportunities
  • Joining and actively involving yourself in professional associations

I’m addressing the education category in one paragraph because we have gone over all these points before and much of this category overlaps with the Competencies category. We have training that is unique to our profession; we have both formal and informal education appropriate to our profession; we have an organization that has a means of independent, legitimate credentialing which requires continuing education; and, last but not least, we do have several good professional organizations. All the infrastructure for our profession is in place – we simply need to reach some common ground.

Support – Professions have responsibilities to professionals.

  • Professions create structures of subcultures for professionals.
  • Professions provide legal reinforcement for the activities of professionals.
  • Professions strive to provide environments of public acceptance.
  • Professions promote ethical practices.
  • Professions define penalties for professionals who work against the tenets and practices of the profession.

We’ve also gone over all of these issues previously. Again, I think the infrastructure is in place, and it’s just a matter of pulling it all together into a cohesive structure. We still have a way to go with this category, in general. We don’t yet have public acceptance or penalties for members who work against the tenets and practices of the profession. However, our professional organizations are working toward these goals and we are past the point of gathering momentum – it should be just a matter of time (and not a long time, at that!) before these issues also fall into place.

Issues

Any professional reading the current body of professional literature will encounter discussions, research and information on the following issues.

Well, there’s no doubt that this is true. However, getting all our members to read the current body of professional literature is one of the biggest hurdles we must overcome.

Summary

Overall, I think we are making great strides toward becoming a respected, legitimate profession. There are still some very important issues to be addressed, but we are making headway. We must begin utilizing the body of knowledge that is available to us – it’s there, it’s accepted, it’s respected, and it’s absolutely critical to our future as a profession.

I also think that we, as professionals, must create a culture of cooperation and respect for all consultants – even those we philosophically disagree with. In our current climate, we will never have a reasonable discourse, and that is necessary before we become a cohesive group.

Many consultants come into this business with no formal education and very little background in a professional environment. Expectations are often unrealistic with little understanding of exactly what an organization is capable of doing or what we can reasonably expect from our fellow consultants. Part of being a professional is understanding how to effect change in a productive manner. If you would like to become more active, please contact your professional organizations and see if there is a way you can volunteer to help.

Also, take the time to educate yourself in professionalism. Jim Barry has written an excellent book called “The Ethical Dog Trainer.” “Robert’s Rules of Order” will give you an excellent idea of how organizations work – I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the entire book, but there are abridged versions as well as “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” versions which will give you an excellent overview. There are many other books out there, as well – we spend a lot of time, money and effort on improving our training skills, but we need to spend time, money and effort on improving our business and professional skills, as well.

I hope this article has given you a better idea of what a profession is, and what a professional does. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact me.

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