A really cool thing happened last week. We took another step away from causing dogs fear, pain and discomfort - and we did it together!
Three of the biggest certifying organizations in dog training came together to announce a joint Standards of Practice to create a unified agreement on ethics and code of conduct across the three groups. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) have all had separate guiding principles for members of their organization but have now come together to agree on only accepting and promoting the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) training and behavior modification methods.
"LIMA does not justify the use of punishment in lieu of other effective interventions and strategies. In the vast majority of cases, desired behavior change can be affected by focusing on the animal's environment, physical well-being, and operant and classical interventions such as differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior, desensitization, and counter-conditioning." You can read more about the LIMA principles and the combined Code of Ethics here.
So, why does this matter? It matters because the dog training industry is unregulated which means it is still legal to do anything at all to motivate dogs without any disclosure regarding the risks and potential side effects to the animal. It matters because among all the confusing "he said, she said" there is in dog training methods it's another step towards providing dog owners with a consistent message of what qualified and competent trainers look like and what methods are acceptable in dog training.
Here's the other really cool thing - all the discussions I've been monitoring among trainers that are stemming from this announcement. I'll be honest - it's a mixed bag. Most trainers are thrilled at this step and see the value in this unified position being promoted. Still, many are left struggling with the door still being left open far too wide for the use of methods that are not only unnecessary but actually harmful. Although positive reinforcement training methods are being advocated as the "first-line" and best practices, the door hasn't been closed completely on trainers using harmful training methods such as shock when they feel it is necessary.
I see three major wins we can currently take away from this joint message:
1. It's calling out the trainers who don't follow LIMA and publicly letting you all know that's not acceptable. It's putting pressure on trainers (of which there are many) who promote a "shock collar & prong collar for every dog and every problem" and asking why they're not trying a more humane, less aversive method first. I also hope it sends the message to dog owners that if they're currently using or considering punishment or dominance-related training methods that they should seek help from a qualified professional because there are better, less invasive training methods to solve their behavior problems - whatever those problems may be.
2. It's asking for trainers to become more competent and to know their limitations. It's letting trainers know that if you're not able to solve the behavior problems within the scope of the first tiers of the humane hierarchy (wellness, environmental arrangement, positive reinforcement, building alternate behaviors) you should be looking first at yourself and your competence rather than blaming the animal or jumping to a more intrusive and risky training method. It urges trainers to recognize the boundaries of their experience and promotes referrals to more qualified consultants.
3. It has started conversations that will hopefully lead to further change. If we are in agreement that punishment should never be used as a first-line or early intervention of training and behavior modification - who decides what is "early"? Who decides that you've competently and effectively executed each stage of the humane hierarchy to justify moving onto methods that are scientifically shown to increase stress, fear and avoidance behaviors in animals? A trainer can say they tried positive reinforcement without success but without knowing that trainer's experience and effectiveness, it becomes just an excuse to move up the ladder. This position statement is pushing us to ask the harder questions - the answers which will ultimately result in further definition, regulation or removal of when and why it would be acceptable to train based on an animal avoiding fear, pain or discomfort.
I'm excited to be a part of the dog training industry right now because across the profession we're moving closer and closer to more humane and dog-friendly training methods. The light is being shown on methods that are out-dated and harmful to animals. Positive reinforcement training is growing, becoming more popular and available to the public. I'm not aware of another time these three separate major organizations have to come together to say "we agree - it's time to change the standard". It's a unified step in the right direction and I'll be eagerly anticipating further changes and progress in the near future.
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