13 Jan

The Muddy Language of Dog Behavior Titles

If you’ve been around here a bit, you may have noticed a strong theme of transparency in my posts and on social media.  For those who may have missed it, dog training is unregulated in the US.  Not only does this mean consumers have no protection and anyone can do practically anything to your dog in the name of training, it also means there’s a lot of muddy language out there with titles.  Hopefully this will help clear things up and make people better consumers and know what questions to ask when hiring a dog professional. (Note, this is targeted for those in the US.  The UK and Canada have different uses of some terms.)Click for full PDF download

The term behaviorist is a particularly tricky one, because there are behaviorists, mostly Veterinary Behaviorists, who are certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists but there are only about 80 VBs in the whole world. There’s also Certified Animal Behaviorists, given the designation CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist) or ACAAB (Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist) by the Animal Behavior Society and there’s only about 50 of those worldwide.  So it’s not terribly likely the trainer calling themselves a “behaviorist” actually has these credentials.  But unlike falsely calling yourself a veterinarian, which would have high legal stakes, it’s not illegal to call yourself a behaviorist, so it happens without repercussions every day.  And to further complicate things, other places like the UK, use the term much more generally, so those coming here from other countries may be further confused.


And if you’re trying to make sense of the acronyms and letters after people’s names, here’s an incomplete guide.  (Please note: I’ve intentionally left out any that are endorse or are predominately aversive training methods like prong and shock.  Some listed here do follow LIMA training practices (least invasive, minimally aversive), so I do not endorse all of these.)

As you can see, there’s a lot of titles, and this isn’t even a complete list.  And it seems like there’s new schools or certifying organizations popping up regularly.  It can be overwhelming and confusing.

Stay safe out there.  One day I hope we will have regulation and minimum requirements mandated by a central overseeing body.  But until then, ask questions and walk away.  Don’t believe hype.  Remember, these are animals.  There are no quick fixes.  If someone promises to “fix” your dog quickly, run away!  Seek out a qualified trainer or contact me if you are unsure.  I offer remote sessions for many issues, or can refer you to someone who can help!

Happy Training!



23 Dec

Transparency in Animal Sheltering and Rescues

Just last week a NJ rescue I was formerly associated with (I resigned 4 years ago, to the day, this news story broke) was charged with almost 20 counts of varying charges including falsifying records “for the purpose of deceiving prospective pet owners,” knowingly selling and/or exposing to human contact a pet with a contagious or infectious disease and false advertising, among others. (Personal note: I resigned for a number of reasons, but this practice of hiding medical conditions was among the many reasons.)

This got me to thinking about transparency, not in dog training, like I’m usually espousing,  but about transparency in sheltering and rescue.  In 2018 eight prominent animal welfare organizations and foundations released a joint mission statement regarding accountability and transparency regarding data sharing of the numbers of animals in their care and their outcomes. But that transparency was all about the intake/outcome numbers — how to count what and the coveted “live release rate” (LRR) that so many shelters and rescues strive to have high percentages in to uphold a “no-kill” status.

But what about transparency with adopters including what information and the quality of the information they are told?  What about transparency regarding training methods or handling techniques the dogs have been exposed to?  What about accuracy of age, breed, medical history and behavior, including bite history?  Many of these may be disqualifiers to adoptability, which in turn would affect the LRR or other important measured criteria like length of stay at the shelter or returns.  This could further impact public perception, which would impact donations.  It’s a snowball effect, so it makes sense why some rescues and shelters may want to keep a tight lid on certain information.

And from personal experience, I can say that in both private rescues and sheltering, keeping information from adopters is sadly part of the adoption equation in many organizations.  Younger dogs, dogs of certain breeds, dogs without health or behavioral issues, all tend to get adopted out more quickly than older dogs with behavioral or medical issues, so that could be a motivator for groups to err on the side of adoptability, rather than the truth.

Why is all of this important?  Well, besides the obvious ethical/moral issues of intentionally lying or hiding information, it leads to well-intentioned people committing to adopt an animal that they believe is healthy (or a certain age or breed or with a certain behavioral or training history) but later discover fallout from that misleading information, whether it be financial (unexpected training or medical expenses) or emotional (surrendering back or euthanizing a dog the family wasn’t prepared to handle).

So how can you protect yourself? ASK, OBSERVE AND RESEARCH.  Conflicting answers or reluctance to answer questions are red flags.

  1. Request to see all medical records, not just vaccine records.  Ask if their staff or partner vet is available for you to discuss any concerns you have.  Look for any discrepancies between intake paperwork and what is being advertised. Glaring age, breed or weight differences should be a red flag.
  2. What is the dog’s known history – not just where did this organization get the dog but what do they know before then?  Was it stray?  Owner surrender?  Hoarder? Puppy mill dog? Meat market dog? Street dog from another country? History is important because dogs with poor early socialization or bad experiences may be may require more extensive training but be sure to confirm what they KNOW versus what they’re ASSUMING.
  3. What socialization has the rescue or shelter been doing with the dog, especially if it’s a puppy?  What do they know about the dog’s formative early months of life? Do they have the puppy’s mother?  Have they been using food during socialization or just exposing the dog to things without ensuring it was a positive association? (If the mother is available/known, insist on meeting her.  There is a strong likelihood that if the mother is fearful, the puppies will be fearful.  What you see in mom, is very likely going to be what you see in the puppies as they age.)
  4. Ask to see a behavioral assessment.  If the dog has come from another shelter they will have some sort of behavioral assessment from the transferring organization.  Concerns  should be discussed with their certified trainer (who should also be the one administering behavioral assessments).  Inquire about guarding behaviors, body handling and sociability observed while the dog has been in their care.  Receiving organizations often repeat these tests on their own, for insurance purposes.  Ask to see them.
  5. Why was the dog surrendered, if the dog was an owner surrender? Was it for behavioral reasons?  Many rescues and shelters often try to downplay behavioral concerns or owner blame.  This is a red flag.
  6. Where has the dog has been while in this organization’s care?  In a kennel?  In a foster home?  What interactions has the dog had with children, kids, cats or other dogs?
  7. What training methods do they use?  If they don’t publicly say, ASK!  What does their contract specify?  It should specify they do not condone the use of aversive methods including prong, choke or shock collars or electric fences.
  8. Research and read reviews (dig into the hidden Yelp reviews too!) about the organization you’re considering adopting from.  If they are a charitable group, check sites like Charity Navigator to see how they stack up with other orgs you’re considering.
  9. And lastly, OBSERVE:  Before you’re ready to adopt, visit adoption events or the facility a few times. Do the animals seem happy, well cared for and the volunteers/staff happy to be doing their job?  Are the dogs being happy talked and given treats?  How are the animals being handled?  Are they being dragged around by their leash at events?  Are they cowering in their crates?

In many states there is little to no oversight to those who are taking care of homeless animals.  It’s surprisingly easy to form a rescue so just claiming to be a rescue, there’s some bad ones out there.

So it’s buyer beware, and it’s up to us to help keep groups accountable.  Ask lots of questions, demand answers and yes, trust your gut. Making good matches – for both the people and the dog – should be their top priority, not just trying to move out as many animals as possible.


25 Nov

Noelle’s Story: A Doggie Boot Camp Victim

In my previous post cautioning about aversive dog training “boot camps” I touched on the long-lasting negative effects that often happen.  I wanted to share the story of a dog I worked with, named Noelle.

I worked with Noelle after she was sent to a 6 week board and train shock trainer in NYC.   The day she returned from boot camp, she was wearing both a prong and a shock collar, was malnourished and bit the adult owner within hours of returning home.  She had been sent off to the board and train because she was barking at other dogs on leash and was a little bit of a bully at the dog park, but hadn’t injured any other dogs.  Her family concluded she was “being aggressive” and “acting out” and that she needed to be “fixed.” So they sent her off to a place claiming to rehabilitate dogs.

They didn’t know better and it’s not their fault.  With no licensing, regulation or education requirements, anyone can call themselves a trainer and it’s up to consumers to muddle through to figure out who is legitimate or not so it’s easy to fall prey to fancy talk from charlatans.  That’s why it’s so important that before you hire a trainer that you look for transparency and ask them these questions.

Now, after spending $6500 on that trainer, Noelle had a human bite history, injured 2 dogs at the dog park, sending them both to the vet for multiple stitches and antibiotics, was lunging and snarling at strangers and had developed fear of being touched (body handling).  Not only was she not “fixed” but now she had new, much more serious issues than what was present when they sent her off to boot camp six weeks prior.

Obviously these clients had no idea how damaging boot camp would be or they wouldn’t have sent their dog there.  They thought this person who claims to be a trainer and a behaviorist (more on the appropriation and abuse of that term another day, but in short, unless the person is a veterinary behaviorist or holds a CAAB or ACAAB from Animal Behavior Society, they are not actually a behaviorist) was going to help their sweet dog. They didn’t know what questions to ask and were swept in with promises of their dog being fixed all without having to juggle their busy schedules for private sessions or spend time practicing training exercises.

No reputable trainer will ever give you a guarantee of success or promise to fix your dog.  In fact, it’s unethical to do so according to The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (from which I hold a Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA), an advanced certification for dog trainers who offer canine behavior modification).  “Trainers/behavior consultants refrain from providing guarantees regarding the specific outcome of training and behavior plans.”

Noelle’s story, unlike so many others, has a happy ending but it took almost of year of undoing the damage that 6 weeks caused.  If you need help finding a qualified trainer, check The Academy for Dog Trainers directory or the Pet Professional Guild directory.  If you still can’t find help or are unsure if the trainer you’re considering is using the right methods, contact me.  I also offer remote sessions for many issues, including basic obedience, house training and fear and aggression.

Happy Training!





18 Nov

Why Doggie Boot Camp Isn’t The Answer

Very often I get contacted by potential clients who are debating whether to use my private services or send the dog off to “boot camp.”  I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound very fun to me.  When I hear “boot camp” it conjures up images of military boot camp, with pre-dawn wake ups and being yelled at, up close and personal.  This isn’t what training should look like.  Training should be fun – for you and your dog.  But, these “boot camps” have grand claims of “fixing” dogs or robotic obedience promised in just a few weeks, often with a guarantee.  The allure of sending off an untrained dog to get magically fixed and not having to do anything, except pay for it, is almost always too good to be true and here’s the main reasons why. (Note: There are some positive reinforcement board and train places and they are not the places I’m talking about here.)

Most “boot camps” use outdated, aversive or dominance methods, usually using any combination of aversive methods: yelling, leash hanging/corrections, shock/prong collars, spray bottles, citronella, fear and/or dominance.  These methods are not only cruel and not recommended by veterinary behavior pros but can have long-lasting negative effects, especially on puppies or fearful dogs.  As dog training is unregulated, before you hire a trainer, find out what methods they will be using and what happens when the dog makes a mistake. This video on transparency and what questions to ask is a good guide.

Another problem?  Owners aren’t dog professionals, so they don’t always have a good grasp of what the dog’s “problem” really is, and they shouldn’t be expected to.  That’s my job!  But this can cause an owner to think a dog is merely “misbehaving” and seek out obedience training when in reality the dog may be fearful.  To the owner, the dog isn’t doing what they are asking, so the dog is misbehaving.  But, sending a fearful or aggressive dog off to a place that uses aversives definitely won’t help and will almost certainly make it worse.

So what’s an owner to do?  I get it – we’re all busy.  And sometimes we buy ourselves time by delegating things to others.  I call a plumber when I have a busted pipe – I don’t spend hours and hours to try to fix it myself.  But, as convenient as sending your dog off sounds, dogs aren’t pipes that can just be fixed.  They’re not robots that you can just program to do stuff.  Ultimately, you need to be involved in your dog’s training.  Training isn’t just teaching the dog cues but also includes managing their environment, exercise,  enrichment and educating owners (and kids!) about body language, consistency and how to effectively communicate with this animal that you’ve brought into your home.  And, if it’s done right, you will have fun,  your dog will have fun and your relationship will be better off!

Another important thing to keep in mind is dogs are terrible generalizers – it’s why your dog sits at home but seems to forget how to sit when he’s outside.  He hasn’t forgotten how to sit but translating what the dog has learned in one context doesn’t always translate to a new place or new person immediately, especially if there’s more interesting things going on.

And lastly, some issues are better worked on where they are a problem.  If your dog is nipping at your kids or protective of a specific location in your home, it’s much more efficient to tackle those things where they happen and include everyone involved in the training. If you have kids, we need to include kids in the training process, both for the dog and for the kids.

So what are the options?  You want your dog trained but don’t want to or have the time.  Consider day training, where a trainer comes into your home (usually while you’re at work) and works directly with the dog and then every few sessions, you’re involved in what’s called a transfer session, to hand off the skills and bring you up to the dog’s speed.  This can be a great compromise – very efficient and your dog is learning in their own space.

If you’re really looking to send your dog away to a board and train, find a positive reinforcement trainer who offers this service.  They do exist, but overwhelmingly the ones advertised tend to be the aversive ones I’ve been talking about.

No matter what you decide, be sure to ask questions of any trainer you’re considering working with – whether or not they’ll be boarding the dog.  If you need help finding a qualified trainer, check The Academy for Dog Trainers directory or the Pet Professional Guild directory.  If you still can’t find help or are unsure if the trainer you’re considering is using the right methods, contact me.  I also offer remote sessions for many issues, including basic obedience, house training and fear and aggression.

Happy Training!