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An Open Letter to Dog Owners

In early-April 2022, a heartbreaking video surfaced showing a local, well-established trainer using extreme and abusive methods in the name of "training." Since then, we've been watching as our animal-loving community has gone through a myriad of emotions - from anger & sadness to shame & mistrust. We feel that amidst this painful time, it's also an important moment to educate our community and animal lovers everywhere.

Below are the news stories that cover this event. WARNING: Although the most graphic portions of the videos are not shown in these clips, images are shared that may be upsetting.

At the time of the original writing of this article, there was an open investigation into potential animal abuse. Currently, we're not aware of any formal charges or consequences but will update this article if we learn of any changes. As of the last update, the trainer & company in question is still in operation, taking new clients and is removing all negative public reviews. It is profoundly disturbing that this type of behavior can occur and business to carry on as usual. It truly is a "buyer beware" situation when searching for a dog trainer.

Here's what we want you to know.

This is not an isolated incident. Not at the facility in question, not within the local training climate and not within the profession across the nation. There is no regulation or oversight of the dog training industry; which means there's no minimum requirement of education, knowledge, ethics or standards of care required of people offering dog training services. Trainers hear stories all the time from owners who have seen it, experienced it and been suspicious of it. Dogs ARE being abused and "professionals" are calling it training. The stories we hear from distraught owners are among the most difficult burdens that qualified, ethical, humane trainers live with on a regular basis. We've been worried about the consequences of this facility's work for a long time (and they're not the only one).

Without standards of care, dogs and owners are at risk. The stories that trainers hear regularly, and owners are now sharing with hindsight, highlight the varied ways that trainers can abuse their position as a "professional" to mistreat dogs. We're hearing stories of dogs returned with significant weight loss, illness & injury, increased fear or aggression, or otherwise traumatized from their training experiences. Within these stories and others we've heard over the years, the risk for abuse in the name of training is twofold:

Gross mistreatment subject to investigation for abuse, such as the events depicted in the videos released last week. Most (although surprisingly not all) people who view these videos are in agreement that this type of physical handling of dogs is unacceptable and should have legal consequences. The problem often lies in producing proof. Without physical evidence, these events often continue under the radar within established training facilities and are justified by the "difficulty" of the dog or case in which they're employed.

Failure to follow a humane, progressive decision-making process regarding methods that should be employed in dog training. This type of mistreatment is far more common. Owners should be aware of the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive ("LIMA") approach, which provides both a standard and guidelines for working with dogs as effectively and humanely as possible. A LIMA approach to training includes evaluating each dog and each case from the ground up: starting with interventions that research shows carry the least risk and are least aversive to the learner. This ensures we protect the physical and emotional welfare of each individual within our care and treat them as an individual. Too many trainers jump right up to the top of the ladder, employing aversives such as shock collars (e-collars), prong collars and choke chains as the starting and primary intervention. It's worth noting that the difficulty/severity of the case or another trainer or consultant's efforts are not relevant to the decision-making process - each animal deserves a competent trainer to start at the beginning to ensure an adequately skilled attempt at the least invasive strategies to resolve the behavioral concerns. An easy to interpret graphic on the Hierarchy of Procedures can be found here.

We don't blame owners for being susceptible to good marketing, confusing language and the allure of fixing their dog's problems. Most owners are just looking for help and want to do what's best for their dog. They don't understand when and how things go wrong... and can't connect the dots that often have to do with the methods employed during their dog's training or care. They're putting their trust in a "professional" and often doubt their own perspective on the results of their experience.

When you know better, you can do better. The main goal of this post is so that you *KNOW*. Know that you need to vet your trainer (and anyone else you entrust your dog's care to). You need to ask about education, credentials and methods and not rely only on "years of experience." Ask more questions and be prepared to walk away if you're at all uncomfortable with the answers or what you see. Experience wrangling and training dogs is super important, but so is formal education and credentials. Just like with school teachers, you wouldn't want your school to hire people who ONLY have experience with children. You also want them to be trained in learning theory and know how to work humanely with even the most difficult students. This isn't a far away story: this is happening all the time in our community. In training facilities, in rescues and behind closed doors under the pretense of "saving" dog.

Here are some resources on how to find and assess a dog trainer's qualifications:

Trust your gut. If you've had a suspicion that your dog was not cared for or trained in a safe, kind, humane manner: trust that instinct and ask more questions. There may be a simple explanation; but if the answers you receive are not steeped in concern, include attempts to find an answer/solution/adjustment for your dog's welfare, or you are otherwise meant to feel like you're 'crazy' - know that you're right to be concerned. Sadly, as this story comes out, more people are kicking themselves for letting their concerns get swept under the rug.

Don't get bullied or intimidated into silence. This is how abuse is allowed to continue. You believe the lies or get convinced it's your fault, it's your dog's fault, it's unavoidable or unrelated, you're crazy, it wasn't that big of a deal, you won't get your money back, you can't leave negative feedback, you're scared, you're the outlier. Remember that each time you decide it's not your role to question or speak up, you're allowing more dog to be at risk for this treatment. We're grateful for the whistleblowers who may have been unable to intervene in the moment but decided to speak up about what they experienced and capture some of the abuses on video.

We will always, always put your dog's welfare ahead of your training goals. (Yup, you heard that right: a dog's needs will always come before an owner's desire for a seemingly "quick fix"!) If your training goals compromise our ability to keep your dog safe - both psychologically and physically - we will not proceed. There is no training goal or behavior concern worth exploiting fear, intimidation or abuse to obtain. Not only is the exploitation of fear and pain unnecessary to effect behavior change: all the available peer-reviewed, published research makes it clear that the probable side effects of such training methods place dogs, their families, and their communities at unnecessary risk. Our job as professional dog trainers is to prevent such risks, not exacerbate them.

With love and dogs' best interests at heart,

Maggie Keippel, CTC, CBCC-KA Owner, Certified Behavior Consultant

Practical Obedience LLC

Big thanks to our fellow trainers, especially our friends at Dog Educated for assisting in edits for this piece.


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