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Establishing and maintaining relationships with qualified trainers (Proceedings)
Behavior questions and concerns are pervasive among veterinary clientele. Clients should always be offered the option of seeing a veterinary behaviorist; however, in many cases a veterinary behaviorist may not be locally available; the client may refuse such a referral; or the pet's problem may be amenable to simple alterations in the client's training process (or lack thereof!).
Behavior questions and concerns are pervasive among veterinary clientele. Clients should always be offered the option of seeing a veterinary behaviorist; however, in many cases a veterinary behaviorist may not be locally available; the client may refuse such a referral; or the pet's problem may be amenable to simple alterations in the client's training process (or lack thereof!). Trainers provide a valuable service in these situations. Additionally many veterinary behaviorists work with local trainers to maximize the client's success and financial efficiency. In a number of cases, a competent trainer can assist a client in implementing the behavior modification steps that are prescribed by a veterinary behaviorist. Veterinarians should not refer to trainers without thorough investigation of those persons. Not all trainers are created equally! While there are extremely competent trainers in the US, there are also many that are poorly trained and downright abusive.
Veterinarians need to choose their trainer referrals carefully. Referring to a non-veterinary paraprofessional such as a chiropractor, acupuncturist, or trainer, may put the veterinarian at risk of legal repercussion if that referral results in "treatments" which are harmful or fatal to the animal. Additionally, referrals resulting in bad outcomes damage the veterinarian-client relationship and the veterinarian's reputation in the community.
While this lecture will focus primarily on dog trainers, the information applies equally to those people that work with and train cats, horses, parrots, or any other species. The most educated and competent trainers will be able to work across species boundaries.
There is no national standardized certification for dog trainers or "behaviorists"; therefore, any person can market him/herself as a professional trainer or behavior expert. There are several organizations that provide their own certifications including the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), the Karen Pryor Academy (KPA), PetsMart, National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) and the Animal Behavior College. Other organizations certify individuals as "behaviorists" including the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals (AABP) among others.
The quality of these certifications varies with the organization. In most cases, certification is based on classroom work and book knowledge. On-hands expertise is generally not examined or evaluated with any validity.
Trainers should demonstrate professionalism, expertise and capable communication skills with people. The image the trainer projects to the client directly reflects back on you as the referring veterinarian. Trainers minimally should demonstrate:
• knowledge of dog behavior (or with whatever species they work) – not wolf behavior
• knowledge of the scientific principles of learning (operant and respondent learning)
• an adherence to an ethical hierarchy
Preliminary information may be gathered by reviewing the trainer's website, resume and brochures. This should be followed by a personal interview and direct observation of the trainer's classes or training sessions. Certain red flag statements can make early discriminations easier.
Red flag statements
1. Food is bribery and should not be used. Food training makes you submissive to the dog.
2. This statement demonstrates that the trainer has little or no knowledge of the scientific principles of learning. While using food is not always necessary, a trainer that totally eschews the use of food wastes the most universally powerful reinforcer available to a trainer.
3. Guaranteeing results or outcomes.
4. Animals are sentient thinking beings functioning under the influence of environmental cues. Behavior is never 100% predictable. Additionally success of training often depends on the owner's ability to control the environment and implement appropriate training at home. The trainer cannot control this. Guaranteeing specific outcomes infers a lack of knowledge of behavior or an unethical trainer.
5. Corrections are necessary in training because the dog has to be told when it's wrong.
6. While the use of corrections is not always inappropriate and sometimes perhaps warranted, this statement is often used to justify rather harsh and domineering training techniques. This philosophy also disrespects the animal as feeling being and places a higher standard of behavior on an animal than on a human. We understand that humans, even highly educated (trained) ones sometimes make mistakes, yet we expect our animals to be perfect automatons. Animals can understand the concept of incorrect responses by a mere lack of expected reinforcement.
7. Dogs should work just for praise (because they should want to please us).
8. Again, this statement reveals a profound lack of knowledge regarding learning principles and motivational systems.
9. Dogs are pack animals. You have to be the "alpha" in order to train the dog.
10. Knowledge of learning principles makes dominance theory irrelevant to animal training. Current studies of feral and village dogs clearly demonstrate that dogs do not live in structured packs. Even if they did so, this has little relevance to artificial domestic home situations. Behavior is a product of the environment in which the dog behaves – change the environment and you change the behavior.
Review the trainer's resume. Does the trainer have any education or degrees specifically in the field of animal behavior? There are quite a few trainers that boast PhDs on their website yet the PhDs are in fields completely unrelated to behavior or psychology.
What is the duration of the trainer's experience? Experience does NOT equate to competence; however, it is unlikely that a trainer with under 1-5 years experiences will be knowledgeable enough to work with animals that have moderate to severe behavior issues (e.g. aggression). In what organizations does the trainer maintain memberships and for how long? Continuing education is extremely important particularly for someone that will be working with animals with more serious behavior disorders. How does the trainer obtain continuing education?
Interview the trainer in person
Remember that the trainer is a reflection of your professionalism and public image. You should refer to someone with whom you feel comfortable and can develop a harmonious professional relationship. Does the trainer present him/herself in a professional manner? Does the trainer treat you with respect or behave as though you are behaviorally ignorant (whether that is true or not!)?
The trainer should be able (and willing) to answer your questions regarding training his/her training philosophy and how that may have changed over the years. It is helpful to write some questions down on flashcards or a notepad in advance and jot a few remarks as to which answers you find acceptable and which answers may immediately eliminate the trainer from consideration. It is also often illuminating to ask the trainer about specific behavioral scenarios. Do not be satisfied with generic answers. While each behavior case is individual, the trainer should be able to provide you with some relatively specific information regarding the trainer's approach to the problem.
Ask the trainer to provide you with a list of books and DVDs that he/she might recommend to you or a client. Are there any specific pieces of equipment that the trainer consistently uses or forbids altogether? A progressive trainer should primarily use tools that are not specifically designed for a correction based program (e.g., pinch collars, choke collars and shock collars).
Most importantly, do you sense that the trainer has a respect for animals as sentient beings and adheres to a humane training hierarchy?
References from other trainers or veterinarians probably carry more validity than client references provided by the trainer. Even incompetent trainers have success stories.
Directly observe training classes or sessions
Observe at least two training sessions. (I particularly like to ob view how the trainer teaches leash walking, down, and come.) The trainer should show respect to the animals and the owners. The trainer should not appear to be showing off or take risks with a client's animal in order to demonstrate prowess.
Observe the dog(s) in the session. Is the animal distressed, distracted or overwhelmed? If so, does the trainer recognize this and take steps to mitigate the problem? Is the trainer able to clearly explain and demonstrate training methodologies to the owner? It's one thing for a trainer to be able to skillfully work with the dogs. They must also be able to teach the owners.
The veterinary – trainer relationship
Once you've found a knowledgeable and skilled trainer, there are a number of things to consider in maintaining and quality working relationship. First, respect the trainer's skill. There ARE many trainers that know far more about behavior and the mechanics of training than most veterinarians. Good trainers can be an extremely valuable educational resource for you and your staff. Take advantage of that. When your philosophy/knowledge conflicts with the trainer's, be open to the fact that the trainer's approach may actually be the correct one.
Second, establish a four-way team: you, the veterinarian – the trainer—the client—and the patient. This comprehensive team is particularly important for animals with behavior problems such as aggression or anxiety disorders. Third, set the limits for your expectations of the trainer's role in your cases. Are you comfortable with the trainer discussing housing or diet changes; medications? Again, many trainers are quite knowledgeable in these areas, but YOU have the veterinary degree. If a trainer infers information regarding a medication, you are ultimately responsible for what happens if you prescribe it.
The trainer's role
Things that fall clearly into the trainer's role include:
• Educating the client on normal behavior
• Educating the client on the principles of learning and mechanical training skills
• Making general training recommendations to enhance your treatment program
• Instruction in basic obedience and resolution of general unruliness (mouthing, jumping, chewing, etc).
Interventions that fall clearly into the practice of veterinary medicine include:
• Making a formal "diagnosis" of the animal's problem
• Giving the client specific treatment information regarding nutrition or exercise ("this dog should have 'X'.")
• Making any recommendations regarding the treatment of any physical disorders (e.g. ear infections, skin disease, orthopedic disease)
• Making recommendations regarding drug therapy
The trainer assists the client in implementing the behavior modification program. The trainer should provide the referring veterinarian with written and/or oral feedback regarding the animal's progress.
I do not refer to trainers so that they can cut me out of the loop. If you refer to a certain trainer and the client "disappears", then you may rethink referral to that person. Good trainers should and will maintain active communication with you.
The veterinarian's role
It is the veterinarian's responsibility to make a diagnosis and lay out a treatment plan for any animal with a behavior problem extending beyond general unruliness. If the veterinarian is unable to do this, then referral to a veterinary behaviorist should be offered to the client.
Stay involved in the process! Behavior problems, particularly chronic ones, impact the animal's health and vice versa. Treat the animal as a whole, not as a set of compartmentalized symptoms. Stay approachable and open minded if the trainer suggests that there may be a physical problem complicating the training process. Experiences trainers are often able to identify small deviations from normality that indicate an unidentified problem.
Show your appreciation. Truly skilled trainers are difficult to find and worth their weight in gold!