I remember many years ago before I got into Animal Behaviour attending a class with my own dog. At the time I had no idea what I was doing or what was a good class or anything about how dogs actually think. Looking back the class was horrendous, full of people shouting at dogs, slapping them and yanking on choke chains. As an uneducated person in all this I had no idea of the harm this can cause to fragile emotions. I find that the majority of the public are in the same position, just wanting to do the best for their pet but not knowing what is appropriate.
Looking for professional help with your pet can be a minefield. There is a lot of choice, behaviourists, trainers, dog walkers, groomers and day care. Choosing the right person is essential but can be very difficult.
The industry is not regulated. Anyone can set up in practice and call themselves a professional but many are ill equipped and do more harm than good. There are a large number of “cowboy professionals” out there and the majority will be well meaning but in reality they are out of their depth. For a potential client knowing what to look for and avoid is not easy.
How does one know what professional bodies are reliable, what qualifications are suitable and what methods and practices are damaging? Research is essential, most humans wouldn’t just dump their child in a nursery without doing the research first and checking it out and it should be the same for your pet.
So with this in mind let’s break it down into the different professions and take a look at how to choose your professional.
Choosing a behaviourist can be a tricky business. There are many people who give themselves that title but are unqualified to do the job. Reading a few books, copying a TV trainer or owning a few dogs is not enough. Anyone calling themselves a behaviourist should undoubtedly be qualified to do the job. You would not visit a human doctor who was not qualified, not would you consider a counsellor who was unqualified. Remember a behaviourist is a behaviour counsellor and specialist at what they do. So what should you look for?
Your chosen person should be a member of reputable force free regulatory body. Look on the behaviourists’ website, there should be details of who they are registered with. Go to the website of that organisation, look at their ethos, methodology and practices and see if it lines up with yours. To register as a member most of these groups put applicants through stringent tests to prove they are qualified to do what they say they can do as well as verifying their qualifications. This way you can be sure anyone listed will be qualified to do the job. There are lots of registries to look at but Pet Professional Guild, COAPE Association of Behaviourists and the APDT are good places to start.
Your chosen professional should show evidence of constantly furthering their knowledge attending courses and training. They should demonstrate a strong awareness of the latest research and back up what they do with science. Anyone promoting dominance or pack leader type training is not up to date with science and is to be avoided. These methods have been totally discredited by science and the experts in wolf behaviour all acknowledge this is not how wolves or wild dogs behave. They may at times appear to work but often what has happened is the animal has either shut down or their supposed new “good” behaviour is being driven by a new fear added in by the trainer. (See my blog on treating fear with pain).
Your behaviourist should demonstrate knowledge of the following:
A sound understanding of the brain and how it works, an understanding of the emotional mind and knowledge of hormone cycles and behaviour changes within that, physical and emotional development – what’s normal what is not, an understanding of how dogs think and learn within the emotions that they feel, understanding of predatory motor patterns, breed differences, canine body language and much more. A behaviourist should understand illness and disease and how they affect behaviour, the effects of pain and medication on behaviour, learning styles of humans and dog, dynamics of the human dog relationship as well as dog/dog relationships. A good working relationship with local vets is also important especially in cases where pain is involved or obsessive compulsive disorders are evident. In addition it is important to understand neurological issues and neuro-chemicals and how they affect all behaviours,
A good behaviourist will NEVER put a dog into a position in which it feels it has to defend itself
Not all dog trainers practice in behaviour work, therefore they won’t all be qualified in behaviour science however, as with behaviourists they should show evidence of continually updating their knowledge and be registered with an appropriate member body. Many dog trainers are with APDT and many have or are working towards Kennel Club Accreditation. When I look for a dog training class this is a good check list to follow:
Check the trainer is a member of a regulatory body and look at their website. This will give you a good idea of their ideas and methods.
In your early conversations check for any mention of Dominance or Pack Leader style training. As stated above this has been totally discredited and is not endorsed by most regulatory bodies.
Ask if you can watch a class first and assess:
The size of the class. 6-8 dogs are an ideal number.
If there are assistants check that they are actively involved in the class and work with the trainer.
Look at the types of class offered. Are they well run and accommodate for the needs of all the dogs involved?
Dogs should not be off lead having a free for all. Puppies do not yet have the social skills to deal with this and young dogs need careful management and matching for social interactions while hormones are peaking.
Watch the dogs and assess if they are all comfortable. Look at whether any dogs are being eyeballed or intimidated by another dog and if they are is anyone doing anything about it? E.g. moving it to somewhere more comfortable so it can concentrate on learning.
Watch the owners – is anyone getting ignored or frustrated? Are they being supported?
The trainer should be willing adapt the class to accommodate the dogs and owners if they are not yet ready to move on.
Struggling dogs should be offered the chance to leave class and opt for 1-1 care separately. Young dogs should be allowed to leave early on any given night if they are struggling.
Check the dogs are given the room they need to maximise their learning and allow for mistakes
Dogs should not be dragged around against their will. They should be given choices and owners encouraged to help them make the right choices.
Dog Walkers and Day Care
This is another area where no qualifications or evidence of understanding canine behaviour is necessary and has the potential to cause a number of problems although most dog walkers and carers are fantastic. When looking for either walkers or carers here are some guidelines:
There is no requirement for Dog walkers to be licensed however,if they are boarding and doing day care as well then they need to be registered with the local council. Guidelines will vary from one council to another but generally they can’t take on more than 6 dogs at any one time.
Check they have appropriate insurance.
If the dog walker also offers training and/or behaviour work check they have appropriate qualifications as outlined above.
Find out where they walk and turn up one day to observe them discreetly. Look at how they treat the dogs in their care.
Look at the size of the groups. Large groups can be problematic. Different personalities and dynamics will affect the walk and it is very difficult to keep more than 4 under adequate control therefore groups should be small and dogs carefully selected to walk together according to their temperaments.
Look at whether the dogs are happy to be near their walker or are they avoiding them?
Are the dogs off lead and would you be happy with that? Remember dogs new to the walker will not have a relationship with that person and trust will not be established. If they are off lead are they recalling?
Check how they transport the dogs? Dogs should be transported in vans in separate crates which are securely fastened. The crates should be large enough to fit the dog comfortably.
Speak to other people who regularly walk in the area. Does the person you are thinking of hiring have a good reputation? Contact the authorities and ask if there are any reviews or comments on your chosen walker.
Following a simple guide such as this should set you and your dog up with a solid support system in your journey together.