Behaviour & Training Experts and Specialists- what to look for in a professional and what to avoid!

“I’m Roz Pooley and I’m one of the UKs TOP dog trainers and behaviourists”……..are NOT words you’ll ever hear me say! The reason being that just because someone can talk the talk, who says they can actually walk the walk? If they say it, it doesn’t make it so! The dog training and behaviour industry is unregulated, which is a ... Read More The post Behaviour & Training Experts and Specialists- what to look for in a professional and what to avoid! appeared first on The Mutty Professor.

Behaviour & Training Experts and Specialists- what to look for in a professional and what to avoid!

“I’m Roz Pooley and I’m one of the UKs TOP dog trainers and behaviourists”……..are NOT words you’ll ever hear me say!

The reason being that just because someone can talk the talk, who says they can actually walk the walk? If they say it, it doesn’t make it so!

The dog training and behaviour industry is unregulated, which is a welfare issue for dogs. Anyone can call themselves a trainer, behaviourist, expert etc and there are no legal consequences for doing so, even if someone is unqualified, lacks experience, aren’t accredited with an established organisation.
Basically, some one can totally ad-lib it as they go along, make money from misleading people about their level expertise and get away with it.

It’s a funny ol’ industry that I work in. Many dog trainers seem to gain or aspire to have celebrity status. This striving for notoriety combined with lack of regulation results in some pretty big claims being made by some, thankfully not all, individuals. “World-renowned expert”, “Advanced dog trainer”, “One of the UKs top dog experts”, “Behaviour Specialist”….Heck, I’ve even seen some online content providers insinuate they have created a new quadrant in dog training. If you don’t know what quadrants are, trust me when I tell you, it’s not scientifically possible to create a fifth.

You know, in the medical care industry for animals and humans, the title ‘specialist’ is hard earned. But for some reason, anyone can use it in our industry. How on earth are dog owners to know who is self-appointing themselves a status of excellence, and who has actually earned it via external assessment?
Even the media gets pulled in. Bristol’s own ‘Dog Whisperer’ got frequent air time on BBC Bristol Radio. Channel 5 have a show fronted by a tweed clad guy who has zero qualifications in dog behaviour giving very basic or conflicting advice and often totally overlooking the emotional state of the animal he’s working with.
BBC yesterday posted an article on an unqualified Southend based dog trainer who advocates prong collars, despite the wealth of peer reviewed research that shows punitive based methods can increase stress, anxiety and contribute to aggressive behaviour. Let’s not forget the original ‘dog whisperer’ who gained notoriety on Nat Geo. Actually, do your best to forget him if you can! Watch his programs on mute and you’d think you’re watching a program on animal abuse where dogs are strung up by their necks and jabbed in the ribs.

This matters! It is a dog welfare issue!
More dogs are euthanized due to behaviour problems than any accident or disease. Outdated, hands-on punitive methods run the risk of escalating behaviour problems in dogs or causing new ones which could ultimately result in people being bitten and/ or dogs being relinquished to shelters or euthanised.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ‘COMMON SENSE APPROACH’ TO DOG TRAINING?
Let’s break down what common sense actually is. Using a commonly (frequently) used sense of what is right? I mean, this is ambiguous no? Can you define a common sense approach in a way that is precisely recited and understood by multiple individuals? No! We need something a little more structured when we are working with the welfare of a living being.

SOME PEOPLE JUST LOVE SHOWING THEM ‘WHOSE BOSS’
For some strange reason, some people sway towards physical or psychological punishment as a strategy for behaviour change in animals. To dominate and be in absolute control, at the emotional detriment of the dog, seems to elevate the status of those who these methods appeal to. I’m not going into the whole dominance debacle, but I’ll tell you now- dominance is NOT a behaviour, it is NOT a diagnosis, it is NOT an emotional state. This label is almost never used nor applied in practising today’s Clinical Animal Behaviour.

For some dog owners, we will never be able to persuade them that having a dog want to respond to them because they like them, instead of fearing them, is a better way. Because some people are drawn to the ego and status that comes with the dominance approach. However, for many dog owners they employ these people because they simply don’t know any better.

This is why regulation is important, and why we should be clear and outspoken in why it matters. For as long as our industry is unregulated, dogs will still be shocked, yanked, prodded, sprayed, yelled at and intimidated with hard stares and body pressure. These dogs spend their days experiencing stress and fear and are not having all of their welfare needs met.

REGULATION AND ACCREDITATION. WHY IT’S IN A DOG’S WELFARE INTERESTS
There are some organisations pushing hard for regulation. Many of these organisations work cooperatively together, helping professionals become accredited via multiple avenues so as to not provide one route that may not be achievable for all.Some accreditation is only gained by meeting a certain level of academic standard through study. This isn’t a bad thing, because someone can be very experienced and amazingly skilled practically- but lack the knowledge needed to fully understand some aspects of behaviour.
Many dogs, regardless of your opinion on it, benefit from psychoactive medication. A non-clinical behaviourist could work alongside a veterinarian and leave the medication side of things up to them. However, many veterinarians rely on a behaviourist’s assessment of the dog’s emotional state and affected physiology to know which one to use.
For this reason, recognising one’s limitations and professional ability when taking on cases is needed. For this reason, many organisations offer different accreditations such as; Dog Trainer, Behaviourist or Animal Behaviour Technician or Clinical Animal Behaviourist who understand neuroscience and physiology to an adequate standard. Then you have your Veterinary Behaviourists who are qualified as a veterinarian AND a behaviourist.


Accreditation is where professionals are assessed externally (not just by themselves) and are considered to meet a certain standard. Assessments are tough! I’ve been through two major ones and am gearing up for my third and final one. I had to submit extensive case studies, showing my thought processes and working. I have had to submit evidence of practical skill and I have had oral interviews with three non-bias (they didn’t know me personally) peers.It’s crucial that professionals have their skills assessed, identifying weaknesses they can develop and work within their limitations.
I don’t think it is fair on dog owners for professionals to knowingly take on a case that may be beyond their academic and professional ability- resulting in the clients being referred on at an additional cost or worse, a dog being advised to be put down. This happens! I’ve had plenty of cases where the owners were told the dog was ‘unfixable’ and should be put to sleep. When in fact the behaviourist was unqualified and attempting to work well beyond their ability.

DO QUALIFICATIONS MATTER?
It depends! Being unqualified doesn’t mean someone cannot help you train your dog. Many unqualified trainers are amazing at what they do! Some of my very good friends are amazingly skilled unqualified animal trainers who I have learned a lot from! But, some unqualified professionals *may* not always have a firm grasp on the many factors that can influence behaviour for the worst.

If we’re teaching a new behaviour or changing the behaviour of an individual who is generally in a low stress state- then they may not need a qualification for this. Loose lead walking, recall, ‘drop’, puppy starter, Hoopers, Agility etc are all examples of training someone practically skilled and unqualified can do an amazing job at teaching.

A degree isn’t everything, I have plenty of colleagues without a degree who are outstanding at what they do. Professionals are able to learn a huge amount through lower level education (that said, Level 5 & 6 Diplomas are still hard work!) books, courses, webinars and workshops. But that level of academic knowledge certainly can help and I can personally vouch for it. I worked with dogs for 11 years and started my Master’s Degree 4 years ago, qualifying just a year ago. Before then I held multiple diplomas, and even through gaining these I observed a huge difference in standard between organisations.

Working with humans suffering from mental health issues that result in compromised behaviour and a diminished ability to cope is generally (and hopefully) considered best left to qualified individuals. Why should this be different for animals? Understanding the physiology, emotions and cognitive processes that underpin behaviour is crucial to managing or changing complex behaviours and gaining knowledge via a nationally and externally recognised syllabus can provide reassurance.

WHAT QUALIFICATIONS SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR?
Qualifications are an official recognition of skill and knowledge- so choose those who hold qualifications you may recognise such as Diplomas and various levels of University Degrees.
Too often we see the words ‘qualified’ used in this industry, with no mention of what this qualification actually is! Who is the official labelling someone as qualified? Is it a qualification that meets external standards and criteria, or is it a qualification granted by an organisation who is not externally regulated.

DOES EXPERIENCE MATTER?
You betcha! I’ve met loads of University Qualified folk who lack the confidence and skill in practical application and thankfully most of them recognise the need for practical experience and strive to gain it. Look for professionals who continue to develop themselves professionally. Infact, many organisations offering accreditation require a certain amount of CPD to be undertaken by members each year. If a professional is not accredited, how do we know they are up to date or not? Look out for their CPD list if they aren’t.

SO, DOG OWNERS- HERE’S A SUMMARY

LANGUAGE:
Look out for clever, ambiguous use of language. Where’s the specific information that supports the self appointed title of specialist, advanced trainer, expert, qualified, experienced. There can be notion of them being superior to other professionals who are ‘doing it all wrong’. Generally those confident in their ability don’t feel the need to belittle others on their website/online content, instead focusing on their own achievements, rather than the failures of others.

If they’re drumming up hype around experience and recommendations- can you see reviews to support this or a list of completed CPD?

TRAINER OR BEHAVIOURIST:
Dog simply doesn’t know how to? Trainer.
Dog struggles to cope, is stressed and/ or cannot contain their emotions (negative or positive)? Behaviourist.

QUALIFICATIONS:
Do you recognise it as a qualification? What specifically is it?

VET REFERRALS: No professional in their right mind should take on a dog behaviour case without getting the official all clear from that dog’s veterinarian. Pain and Disease is so often a reason for behaviour change in animals. No-one other than a veterinarian is qualified nor allowed by law to say ‘this dog is healthy’. We owe it to dogs to be 100% sure they are not suffering pain or ill health before we go tampering with their daily lives!

ACCREDITATION: Has this individual been assessed by anyone but themselves? Who are they assessed by?
Organisations to look out for:


APDT- these guys assess dog trainers who can be unqualified. Passing and APDT assessment demonstrates a suitable level of skill to train dogs that are not exhibiting a behaviour problem underpinned by a negative emotional state and high levels of stress.
ABTC- these guys have lots of avenues through affiliated organisations to be listed on their register, ranging from Trainers to Behaviour Technicians, to Clinical Animal Behaviourists to Veterinary Behaviourists. All those listed on their site will have been assessed by an organisation, which includes…..
APBC- To be an APBC member you have to have a certain level of academic ability and this has been opened up to beyond having a University Degree. Members have to map their CPD to demonstrate a level of learning, development and ability. Full members are accepted after submitting extensive case studies, evidence of practical skill and an oral exam. Most insurers cover APBC CAB members for behaviour modification.
ASAB CCAB- Similar process to APBC.
PACT- Content meets external education standards, these guys offer courses (practical and theoritical) that can help them move onto higher accreditation (such as with ASAB / APBC). Assessments cover practical skills, written theory and an exam leading to those who pass being listed on the ABTC register.IAABC- Assessment via submission of in depth case studies- may have changed since I did it though! Accreditation gets you listed on ABTC register and you can gain different levels of accreditation.
COAPE- Students are educated to Diplomas level 5 & 6 including practical and theoritical skills and knowledge and then assessed.

There are other organisations offering qualifications and accreditation out there, but I have only listed those who I have experience in working with or have respected and esteemed colleagues and peers affiliated with. If I’ve missed any, please don’t be offended as it’s hot, I’ve melted and this post is getting too long. In my opinion, a marker of a good organisation is that it is run by highly qualified individuals, which may demonstrate that the standard they wish members to achieve, whether those members need to be qualified or not, is high.

If you note an organisation is run by individuals who have no University Degree or Higher / Advanced Diploma in Animal Training, Behaviour and Welfare- how do we know whether that organisation adopts a modern, scientific approach to dog behaviour change?

REMEMBER: You would unlikely send your anxious child to Teresa down the road who has just done an online course in child psychology, who has briefly worked in a school as a teaching assistant and who has had 5 kids of her own. Despite her sudden interest in child psychology and experience, you would likely feel more reassured getting referred by your doctor or booking in with a suitably qualified, accredited and externally regulated child psychologist – someone who has qualifications you recognise. Why is it different for dogs? They have similar cognitive abilities to children and share many of the emotions we have.

PROFESSIONALS: Do right by owners and detail who you are and your hard-earned journey honestly, avoiding ambiguity. Your reputation counts, your experience and knowledge matters. Your academic journey, no matter what that may have been, matters. But there are indeed differences between independent recognition of skill and knowledge, lower and higher diplomas, Foundation Degrees, Bechelor’s Degree, Masters Degree etc. Be mindful to not insuinuate (albeit accidentally, one would hope) that you are of equal academic level to someone who has spent a lot more time and money taking their education to a higher level.
Your effort counts and isn’t invalid nor inferior, but there are differences, such as the undertaking of an extensive, in-depth research project in Master’s Degree or of course, the ultimate PhD!

Stay humble! Operate within boundaries and strive to recognise what these are. We’ve all been there……you take on a loose lead walking case and all of a sudden you’re working with a dog like they’re a behaviour case. Don’t be afraid to refer on and refine your inquiry process to avoid this happening as much as possible.

Get yourselves assessed- embrace regulation, don’t be scared of it. It’s the right thing to do by dogs and owners. You don’t HAVE to have a university degree, but don’t limit yourselves too much. After getting along just fine professionally with diplomas under my belt for years, I self funded my degree while running my own business.

Keep pushing yourself forward, learning how to do a better job. For years my professional practise was by all means adequate, but no where near the level it is now. I’ve made mistakes, sometimes without realising I’ve made them at the time. But striving to be of the highest official standard I can be has helped my reflect on my practise historically and continue to improve.

There are some fantastic, affordable courses (not just degrees!) out there and I have to say, based on my direct experience, Compass Education’s Advanced Diploma doesn’t break the bank and is of a good academic standard. There are other courses from other providers of an equal or lower acaedmic level available too, I cannot list them all.

View an official qualification, of any level, as a way of giving clarity to owners and setting a standard we should all aspire to uphold. The more people who have some form of recognisable qualification (For e.g. a Diploma), the more obvious it will be to dog owners when someone is missing this.
By all means, immerse yourself is a broad variety of CPD- the courses don’t have to be regulated. But doing a course doesn’t automatically make you ready- opening yourself up to assessment is a great way of getting an idea of where you are at in your professional ability. Improving our practise is never a bad thing.

REMEMBER EVERYONE- not all parties with music blasting the loudest have the best dancefloor. I personally like to dance with those who refine their dance moves discreetly and quietly bust their awesome shapes on the outskirts of the arena where there’s less jostling for position.I n my experience, many who make a huge difference are often very humble. Just because someone says something, it doesn’t make it so. That includes me too…..look for evidence that backs up the claims being made.

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