For many years, there has been debate about regulation of the dog training and behaviour industry. The government even created a group to investigate, this was called CAWG (Companion Animal Welfare Group). Their findings agreed that there is a risk of poor animal welfare without regulation. The trouble is that all the parties who engaged after this could not agree on standards. Some of the stakeholders use quite strong forms of punishment and wanted to continue, whilst others felt very differently. As could be predicted from a group dog trainers, agreement was not reached. CAWG suggested self-regulation as the government was not in a position to prioritise formal regulation.
From these meetings, the ABTC was born (Animal Behaviour and Training Council). A great deal of effort was put into drawing up job descriptions for the different aspects of animal training and behaviour, the result of which was four roles:
AT - Animal Trainers. These individuals train animals directly and include people who work in zoos, and animals in performance industry etc.
ATI - Animal Training Instructors. These individuals train people to train their animals, most notably, dog trainers.
ABT - Animal Behaviour Technician. These individuals have a deeper understanding of behaviour and work preventatively. These roles include vet nurses, rescue staff and even dog trainers wanting to help owners to be able to prevent the development of the more complex problems. These individuals can work on behaviour cases of a less complex nature (typically excluding aggression).
CAB - Clinical Animal Behaviourist. This role requires a high standard of understanding. CABS work with all behaviour cases and are expected to have a deep understanding of how medical factors affect animal behaviour, including an understanding of how medicines and psychopharmacology works and their influence on behavioural change.
There is also another role, which was a grandfathered role, the AAB (Accredited Animal Behaviourist). This role was designed for those already working as animal behaviourists, but who may not have, at that time, met all the criteria for CAB. The aim being that individuals then attempted to meet CAB criteria by 2021 to move into the CAB role.
Each of these roles have detailed skill requirements and can be seen on the ABTC website by any interested parties as this is transparent.
The aim of the ABTC is that organisations under the scrutiny of the regulator ensure their members meet these high standards and, once assessed as meeting them, could be listed on the ABTC register in the appropriate role; AT, ATI, ABT, CAB. This is spot checked by the ABTC to ensure standards are maintained.
As you can imagine, this was quite some undertaking and there was a massive exercise to enable organisations to assess members at the different levels.
Along with many others, I wanted to be assessed so that I felt confident of my own competence. Like many women, I tend to suffer imposter syndrome - a syndrome in which we do not believe that we are good enough. I am not saying this to be sexist, it is a fact; more women than men suffer this psychological condition. Having someone else say "you know what, you are fit to practice" was a much needed confidence booster. I frankly don't know why any professional would not want to know and show that they meet high professional standards if they are passionate about their craft.
The industry suddenly received a boost in popularity and a huge, and highly lucrative market for dog trainer training courses sprung up. These dog trainer training organisations then formed memberships of their own members and accredited them. The problem with this is that there is no scrutiny. Of course, it is in the interest of the education provider to pass their student and give them membership as it makes them look more successful. Now, I am NOT saying these people aren't good. In fact, I work with many excellent trainers who are not registered on the ABTC. I just find it a shame that their organisation does not ask to become a member organisation of the ABTC where their standards will have to show they meet the ABTC standards of practice. After all, if they are confident of the skill level, why would they not want to be regulated by the ABTC?
So, rather than join the ABTC, other organisations keep popping up to try to act in a regulatory capacity and be seen as regulator without actually regulating. Signing up to codes of conduct or charters are not regulation. This is creating a great deal of confusion in the industry and taking us further away from being properly regulated. Why is this a problem?
Lack of regulation is a problem because it enables people with low training skills and poor welfare ethics to practice legally. We will never remove punitive or low quality trainers from this industry without formal regulation.
Whilst it is lovely to have a charter that says members must use (LIMA) Least Invasive Minimally Aversive methods, and I totally agree with this ethos, (I use kind and ethical methods of training and am passionate about this,) how do we know that members are using LIMA if their competence has not been assessed? And how to do we know each organisation's members are competent if there is no scrutiny?
Why is this a problem? Well, if an animal trainer does not have the necessary skills to train an animal in the least invasive minimally aversive way, this would mean that the animal was not trained effectively. For example, knowing how to cue, or mark behaviours, timing of introduction of the cue word, proofing behaviours etc. Or the failure of training because the dog won't work for treats and the trainer is not familiar with the Premack Principle or other reinforcers that dogs will work for. The failure to realise a dog's desired response is being overshadowed by something more salient. Or the trainer fails to understand the impact of blocking on the ability of a dog to learn a new alternative behaviour where an undesirable one currently exists, or the failure to be able to make unwanted behaviours extinct? What if the the trainer fails to recognise the emotional state of an animal and how this can influence the ability for them to respond appropriately. In the dog world, a dog owner may lose confidence in the kind ways of training as they don't work (because the trainer lacked the skill to be able to make them work). Despite the trainer being in favour of LIMA, this dog owner could wander off to a local punitive trainer because they lose confidence in the kind approach. We cannot have a policy of LIMA, if we cannot show that the trainers possess the skills to enable clients to use it across all situations, including emotionally upset ones.
I am writing this because I want dog trainers and owners to understand why regulation is important in our industry. I would urge any dog trainer who currently is not on the ABTC register to try to get on it. If your organisation is not a member organisation of the ABTC, it does not matter. You can join organisations that ARE. All you need to do is show that you meet the standards set by the ABTC to that organisation and you will become a member. The APDT, TCBTS, P.A.C.T and APBC do not need you to do any educational courses with them to be assessed. If you feel you have the skills, apply to join one of them. If you don't feel you have the skills, and are not prepared to improve your skills so you can get onto the ABTC register, why on earth are you doing this job then?