Re-inventing the wheel – again and again

I have been closely involved in the activities associated with regulating dog (and other animal) trainers and behaviourists since they started and find it very interesting how the situation has changed in the last 20 years. In 1990 there were no organisations representing trainers and behaviourists in the UK, by 2000 there were six and when the Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC) report was published in 2008 there were eight, by 2010 there were eleven and now in March 2017 that figure is clearly in excess of twenty. Curiously though, several organisations are nothing more than a convincing looking website with very few people behind them (frequently the same people), creating the illusion of authority to bolster claims of prominence in the industry. It was pointed out to me this week that yet another one has popped up and it made me think about what motivates people to start up such enterprises when there are surely enough out there already. There can be no doubting that the sector has become considerably more popular in the last twenty years and that growth in popularity shows no signs of slowing yet.

In addition to these organisations there is also an ever-growing number of so-called National Registers and organisations laying claim to the position of sector regulator. Since 2008 we have seen four different organisations claiming to be regulators and at least five different registers simply compounding the confusing situation that all respondents to the CAWC survey said needed clearing up.

The industry survey carried out by the CAWC in 2007 prior to the report publication concluded that there was overwhelming support for regulation. What it was not prepared for though, was the undignified scramble to fulfil the regulatory role. The spectrum of thoroughness that was regarded as appropriate for a true profession was wide and the quality and depth of assessment that is applied to would be trainers and behaviourists across the sector today is equally wide. Apart from the possibility that more people working as trainers and behaviourists might need more organisations to represent them there are other factors that contribute to the creation of the ever growing list of self proclaimed ‘professional’ bodies, some being considerably less professional than others.

Financial gain

In some cases there is an obvious financial motive as the membership fees and potential for merchandising offers opportunities for income creation if sufficient numbers can be attracted.

Seeking notoriety

I am convinced that some people see the creation of an organisation and attracting followers as a way of becoming a figure of note in the sector.

Offering a different service

Some are based on a dissatisfaction with the choices that are already in existence and attempt to address those issues regarded as unsatisfactory. The problem here is that some do not accept the need for rigorous standards to be applied, someone who should know a lot better once said to me ‘dog behaviour is not rocket science’. If there was ever evidence needed for regulation there it was in clear statement of lack of understanding of what they were supposed to be teaching.

Improving animal welfare

This is, of course, the most important reason for anyone considering starting an organisation and if it is not at the forefront of the plans they should take a long hard think about the morality of what they are doing. I say this not just for the animals that will be affected but the people who will be misled into investing in the new business and perhaps following a career path that will lead them down a dead end.

Whatever the real motivation behind the creation of yet more clubs, societies and associations there are a number of factors that people would be wise to take into consideration.

  1. Telling people that they need so many years of experience as an entry qualification means they must learn their trade unsupervised and without guidance. This is not acceptable.
  2. Operating to a code of conduct does not constitute operating to a standard. When there is no body to police the code it becomes little more than an advertising tool that suffers widespread abuse.
  3. The ABTC abtcouncil.org.uk is already the organisation of choice to regulate trainers and behaviourists for the animal welfare charities, the largest number of organisations that represent practitioners, the veterinary profession and most importantly it has the support of Defra and is the only charity and legal entity set up to carry out the task. Continually trying to find ways to avoid coming under its umbrella is simply fuelling the confusion that everyone was clear they wanted to eradicate in 2008 and ultimately perpetuating poor practice and the effects that has on animal welfare.

 

Despite point three, various groups continue to blindly follow their own agenda and perpetuate the ridiculous muddle that exists outside the ordered environment within ABTC. This situation is unsustainable and demands the sort of clarity that can only come with government intervention and an unequivocal declaration of recognition for ABTC, something I predict is not that far away.

One question I have heard people ask with regular monotony over the last nine years as they start up a new organisation is ‘why re-invent the wheel?’ they then proceed to do exactly that. Without fail they have so far ended up with a wheel made of wood rather than one that is fit to support a vehicle fit for the 21st century – the ABTC.

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A toothless code of conduct?

For those who have been involved in the long running process of regulating behaviour and training since the CAWC report was published in 2008 you will know that the only constructive item that emerged from the ensuing talks in 2010 was a minimum code of conduct. It was not as comprehensive as some already in existence then or since but it did set the bottom line. Despite there being 100% agreement in its contents and a number of people signing up to it, it has been unable to be enforced and has been regularly breached over the last six years.

The part of the code I refer to in particular is point 10.1 under the section covering Commercial Obligations, specifically that Practitioners must not ‘Make claims of superiority or disparage colleagues or members of other organisations.’ During the CAWC chaired talks, I and several of my colleagues were at the receiving end of some pretty unpleasant remarks but most of it was within the four walls of the meetings. Sadly, it then spread outside in various articles and blogs on the web but names and organisations were substituted with descriptions such as ‘elitist academics’ and ‘those in their ivory towers’ as a thinly veiled way of the writers feeling they were not breaking the code. I should point out that I actually have no problem with being associated with an organisation that is considered elite, it is rather flattering.

On occasion names have been published and fairly damning (and unfounded) criticisms have been laid out for all to see, clearly breaking the code. Strangely however no complaints have been made to the RCDTBP who have the responsibility of managing the code, could it be that some people associated with that body are authors of such offending articles?

The practice continues today with yet another blog this week. If it were not so seriously unprofessional it would have actually been funny as the article was not only based on the promotion of positive punishment as a routine method of training dogs but the author displayed a clear lack of understanding of learning theory. It is a while since I have seen such a profound demonstration of the need to have a proper education of psychological theory for dog trainers and behaviourists. Other unhelpful and immature exchanges are evident recently on Facebook with the use of derogatory terms aimed at force free trainers using language that would be more appropriate in a primary school playground than from people claiming to be professionals. You do not find such immature behaviour amongst vets, solicitors, doctors and I see no justification for it in our profession, I can only assume that the writers are unaware of how such posts reflect on them.

The irony of the situation is that those perpetuating this unprofessional behaviour claim to want the sector regulated yet object to the very body (ABTC) that is in a position to do so. They only get to behave this way with such impunity because there is no single regulatory body to stop them or at least point out the error of their ways. Equally the targeted individuals are not able to publicly defend themselves because criticising their attackers would also be seen as a breaking the code. I am not sure anyone would really want to get involved in that level of uninformed ‘tit-for-tat’ argument anyway though.

Within the ranks of ABTC this level of behaviour is not allowed, monitoring and control is actively applied and in 2016 for example, three website owners were requested to alter misleading information and one was referred to the Advertising Standards Agency. Interestingly though, over the last six years there has not been one case of claiming superiority over, or criticism of others. Perhaps ABTC registered trainers and behaviourists simply understand what it is to behave in a professional manner. This level of policing is obviously not carried out elsewhere judging by the outlandish and unsubstantiated claims made on a number of websites and the constant flow of public criticism that is all too frequently seen. If there were ever a case for ABTC to become that regulatory body, ensure people knew what they were talking about and cleaned up professional behaviour, here it is.

So who are these people that have no regard for professional behaviour? I will not list them because I will not break the code of conduct.

Canine or animal behaviourists

Leaving aside the original meaning of the word ‘behaviourist’ that has been adopted over recent times to mean someone who engages in the alteration of animal behaviour (it does not appear to apply to people), I want to discuss the bizarre notion that an animal behaviourist cannot be regarded as a canine behaviourist and the issues surrounding the subject.

Firstly, it has to be understood that, as with any job that demands an advanced understanding of the subject, both education and practical ability play an important part in becoming qualified to offer expert opinion and propose regimes that have a high likelihood of success. The main issue is that those who have a specific interest in dogs often do not complete their education by learning about other commonly kept species and how the interaction between them and dogs can have a profound effect on behaviour. There is an absolute need to be educated beyond the target species so that the behaviourist does not come to a problem dog with a blinkered and limited set of knowledge.

‘Canine behaviourists’ often state that they are specialists in dog behaviour problems which is all very good but it is not possible to specialise in a topic until an understanding of the whole subject has been acquired. You would be somewhat taken aback if you went to your GP with constant indigestion to be told ‘Sorry, I have only studied headaches’!

I find apparently confident statements like ‘Animal behaviourists cannot do the job of canine behaviourists because they do not have the focused knowledge required’ quite informative because it clearly shows that the writer is one of those people with a blinkered and limited set of knowledge and therefore does not understand the requirements. There is an old saying in the academic world that ‘you will never know how much you don’t know about something until you have studied it’ and I find that the people who make the most noise about how much they know are the ones who could profit from a good deal more study.

To quote Charles Darwin: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge, it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

It is also interesting to note that on the ABTC (www.abtcouncil.org.uk) registers of animal behaviourists all except three of the highly educated and thoroughly assessed practitioners specialise in dog behaviour. This can be regarded as truly specialising.

Unethical advertising

Following up my blogs on ‘post nominal letters’ and ‘profits before animal welfare’ there is something I want to say about ethics in advertising. It is a sad fact of life these days that people and groups will say things about themselves that infer they are something more than the hard truth would describe. In politics it is known as putting on a positive ‘spin’ and in slang terms it is known as ‘bigging up’. Either way, it is dishonest.

Sadly this practice has found its way into the word of animal welfare, in particular those advertising their services in the dog behaviour and training sector. I am sure that many do not understand what they are doing wrong or even that they believe it is perfectly acceptable but I am also sure that there are those who are well aware that they are bending the truth or not telling the whole truth in order to create an impression of superiority. You don’t have to look very far to find examples of unethical advertising though and here are some:

  1. The person has studied at a university and puts that university logo on their website. This infers that the university has endorsed their business which is highly unlikely and permission to use the logo has more than likely not been granted.
  2. An organisation that sends an email or letter to a government department offering advice then claims they are government advisors. Taken literally this might, at a stretch, be the case but the inference of the status claimed will be far from the reality.
  3. Using images of government funded services such as Police Dog Handlers or Home Office Dog Handlers in conjunction with courses or services implying that there is some form of formal relationship with such establishments when no such relationship exists.
  4. Claiming to abide by certain standards then ignoring them.
  5. Organisations that are at best, run by a few people (sometimes only one), who call themselves The British….or The National…..They are clearly not in the same league as British Aerospace or the National Trust but aim to deceive customers into thinking they are far bigger than they actually are.
  6. Making unsubstantiated claims about what they achieve.

Part of the problem is that the practice is so widespread it is seen as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable advertising practise’ but I assure you it is not. It has reached a stage that being perfectly honest can give the image of being inferior when compared with the elaborate propaganda that the innocent investigator can be faced with. Let’s be clear about this, the practises I am describing are fraudulent, the definition of fraud being: ‘someone who deceives people by saying that they are someone or something that they are not’ (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fraud).

To go one step further, Section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006 states that making false representations as to fact or the law either impliedly or expressly, being well aware that such representation is false for the purpose of deriving personal gain constitutes a criminal offence of fraud.

So, what is to be done? A start has been made by ABTC by publishing Ethical Advertising Guidelines which can be seen at: http://abtcouncil.org.uk/images/Ethicalmarketingguidelines.pdf

These guidelines are actively being enforced, all organisations that are members of ABTC and their individual registered trainers and behaviourists have to comply. There have already been several cases of people having to amend their websites in order to come into line with requirements giving the public some chance of being able to make informed choices. This is regulation of trainers and behaviourists in action but sadly ABTC has no jurisdiction over non members yet, but I predict that the day will come when they do and the whole sector will be made to clean up their act.

To behave ethically is to know the difference between what you have a right to do, what is right to do and doing the right thing even when nobody is watching.

Why not punish?

Despite the dog training world slowly becoming more enlightened as the full benefits of positive reinforcement spread across the sector, it seems that there are still some out there promoting positive punishment as a viable training method. Newcomers are being taught methods that belong firmly in the last century despite all the information and research that points to more effective and humane methods. So why do the remnants of these outdated methods still linger on in some corners of dog training?

The first point to make clear is that positive punishment can work but (and it is a very big BUT) it has severe limitations and consequences which those who have an ounce of compassion and patience will regard as unacceptable.

The first problem is that positive punishment will result in what I call ‘learning in context’, in other words the learnt behaviour will only be exhibited in the context it was taught in, while the threat of punishment exists. An example would be a dog that is taught not to jump up by smacking him on the nose or kneeing him in the chest, he will stop jumping up to the trainer but will not generalise that behaviour to other people who do not deliver the same negative experience. It is no different with people driving, the whole driver safety education system revolves around punishment and the threat of punishment, take speeding for example. Speed cameras pose a threat of punishment and drivers ensure that they slow down when the threat is perceived but as soon as the threat is removed they speed up again.

The next issue is that of fear, anyone with a basic grasp of classical conditioning will understand that the pairing of an unconditional stimulus (pain) with a neutral stimulus (training venue) will lead to the training venue becoming the conditioned stimulus. In short, the dog predicts that entering the training venue will lead to pain and therefore elicits a fear response before any punishment has even been hinted at. No different than dogs becoming fearful of going to the veterinary surgery. It is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that something in the training venue (floor covering, noise, smells etc) will be generalised to other locations and the dog will unexpectedly become fearful for no apparent reason. The human equivalent would be fear of dentists, needles or even a dislike of a food or drink that made you ill. While fear can be a powerful component of classical conditioning it should have no part in training using operant conditioning, a process that drives the dog to work to achieve the desired behaviour rather than working to avoid punishment.

The other dimension of fear and other unpleasant stimuli is how they affect the capacity to learn. I am sure we all had a particular subject at school that we did not like, perhaps a teacher that was unkind or had an aggressive manner, inevitably this was a subject that we did not excel in, partly due to a lack of motivation but more importantly the readiness to learn is impaired by the state of stress during those lessons. Exactly the same principle applies to dogs, if it is fun there is motivation to perform, if it unpleasant the only motivation is to get it over as soon as possible or even disengage.

Some trainers will hide behind negative reinforcement in the belief that this clears them of inflicting positive punishment on the dogs. What often goes unmentioned however is that removing a negative stimulus requires a negative stimulus to be applied first, thus inflicting positive punishment before negative reinforcement can be exercised. In the case of a choke chain for example, the pressure of the collar on the throat cannot be released until it has first been applied and before the tightening collar is blamed on the dog pulling, take a look at who put the device on the dog. When negative reinforcement was first thought of by psychologists it was a process to describe how people might take an aspirin to remove a headache, or move into the shade on a hot day (as will dogs) not as a description of a useful training method.

Given the disadvantages of using positive punishment as a training method you might think that would be enough to avoid it but there are also good reasons why positive reinforcement should always be the method of preference. Firstly it creates a stronger bond between trainer and dog, secondly it cannot, by definition, include any unpleasant or cruel stimuli, lessons learned are readily generalised to other contexts, the learning will be more long-lived and the dog will ‘enjoy’ the process. The only possible downside (that is hardly worth mentioning) is that it may, in some circumstances, take a little longer for the learning to become established.

So why do people still use punishment as a matter of course? Possibly because the results (including the limitations and consequences) can possibly be achieved faster than by more humane means, possibly because the trainers do not fully understand the subject of learning, perhaps it is because they are told it is OK by people who are perceived by the uninformed as being something of an authority or perhaps they are unable to accept that what they have been doing for years is plain wrong. Whatever the reason, if they do not have the patience and knowledge to deliver training in a humane and informed manner that will enhance the handler/animal bond and be an enjoyable experience for both, they should perhaps consider the possibility that they have made an unsuitable career choice.

It is not a great leap from inflicting pain to abuse.

An explanation of Pre and Post-nominal letters

An explanation of Pre and Post-nominal letters

Accepted convention dictates that individuals may be authorised to display letters or abbreviations before or after their name indicating their social status or that they hold official appointments, honours, degrees or membership of learned societies.

Pre-nominal titles indicate profession (eg Doctor, Professor, Reverend), social title (eg Mr, Mrs, the Honourable, Sir), or military rank (eg Captain, Major, Sergeant).

Post-nominal letters indicate honours, appointments, degrees and memberships.

Honours and Awards cannot be in dispute as they are awarded by the government on behalf of the monarchy (MBE, CBE, VC, DFC).

Appointments include appointments to the Queen (ADC), politicians (MP, MEP) and legal positions (QC, JP)

Degrees awarded by universities (BSc, PhD).

Learned Societies limited to those holding a Royal Charter (MRCVS, FZS).

As this system is only bound by convention and not governed by law recent years have seen some practices that were not originally intended, drift into common usage.

Some qualifications other than degrees or are now awarded post nominal letters such as PGCE and Cert Ed but it should be noted that they are still awarded by universities or official regulatory authorities. A qualification is not simply any course of training or education, in order to be a qualification it must be one of two things:

  1. a) Academic. In order to satisfy academic criteria it must appear on one of the formal qualification frameworks approved by Ofqual or equivalent, this does not include what is known as customised provision which covers virtually all of the animal training and behaviour courses.
  2. b) Professional. An approved regulatory authority may award post nominal letters to those who have met the requirements to be recognised by that body as competent practitioners of their skill.

Anything that is not described by either of these two categories is not a qualification and should not legitimately attract post-nominal letters. If post nominal letters are associated with such courses they are usually issued by the course provider and not a professional authority, it is usually done for marketing purposes solely to infer a greater value or worth than actually exists.

Professions were historically limited to Religion, Medicine and Law however by the end of the 19th Century, Teaching, Social Work and peripheral occupations of the original three such as Nursing, Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy also claimed professional status. In recent decades many have sought to trade off the social status afforded to established professions by altering the accepted meaning of ‘profession’ to simply that of a vocation that provides an income, thus completely undermining the original value in being a true professional. An indication that someone has successfully undergone the required education and training to be assessed as competent can be indicated by post nominal letters such as VN (Veterinary Nurse) or CEng (Chartered Engineer). In order to be a bona fide profession there must be an authoritative regulatory body with the power to decide upon appropriate levels of education and the right to admit and discipline members with some degree of monopoly of rights.

The proliferation of post nominal letters that indicate completion of courses that are self proclaimed is both confusing and without worth serving to simply undermine established traditional values, especially when many of the courses are set at little more (sometimes less) than the equivalent of a GCSE. Such letters are worthless and the deception is often perpetuated when people use their meaningless letters to appear highly qualified to unsuspecting pet owners. It would be laughable to place a list of GCSEs after your name on a business card and that is how most of these post nominal are regarded by those who are properly qualified.

David Montgomery

The real meaning of accreditation

I have written before about some of the topics surrounding quality education provision to try and help people through the maze of information and mis-information they are presented with. One topic that has come to the fore recently is the question of the different levels of accreditation that are available and what value they add (or not) to the courses they apply to.

Education is jointly regulated in England (Ofqual), Wales (DCELLS) and Northern Ireland (CCEA), in Scotland this role is carried out independently by SCQF. Their responsibility is to ensure that the quality of education that is delivered in schools and colleges is standardised. Education that leads to academic qualifications is then listed on a database and depending on the level that is attributed to it, it may contribute credit points (CAT points) to the successful students that would support university applications through UCAS. Collectively this is known as the Qualifications and Credits Framework (QCF). In addition Ofqual regulate Awarding Bodies to accredit provision that is not on the QCF which is known by a variety of names such as private provision or customised provision.

The first three points to note are:

  • Getting credits (CAT points) towards a university application is only of real value to those under 21 because applications for those older than that are classed as ‘mature’ and a broader look at the applicant’s life experience and other education is taken into consideration.
  • Credits awarded for customised provision do not count towards CAT points.
  • The QCF provision and customised provision is quality controlled in exactly the same way, the notion that more generous level attribution is found from some awarding bodies is absurd. It is more than their own awarding body status is worth to bend the rules.

There is another aspect that often gets overlooked and that is where vocational education leads to a professional qualification, in other words whether the subject being studied has to cover certain topics at levels specified by a regulatory authority. A prime example is the Veterinary Nursing qualification, it can only be studied at specified colleges and the course content is matched against the professional requirements before it is approved. Where the job is not regulated by a statutory authority eg dog training and behaviour, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever whether the course is on the QCF or not because nobody but the course provider is saying that content is relevant or that it qualifies you to do anything. The only thing any kind of accreditation is doing is giving some level of assurance that the course will be delivered with appropriate academic rigour, nothing about the content.

One characteristic of getting courses on the QCF is that it is an expensive process and this is translated into the cost of undertaking the course so the long and short of it is that unless you are under 21 and want to use your studies to gain a place at university, the single difference between accredited private provision and QCF provision is the latter will be considerably more expensive. The problem of an authority approving courses for animal training and behaviour is about to be solved with the imminent launch of the ABTC course recognition process. This will map course content against the ABTC standards for a range of roles so that individuals will be able to tell which courses are going to deliver the right education for their needs and by exclusion, which ones might not be such a good investment.

On a final note I have also recently mentioned what it means to behave professionally and honourably in terms of not criticising competitors. My last observation that some people are making much of how they are operating within these most basic of professional standards yet hide behind private forums to pedal their unethical and biased stance to promote their own enterprise has since been evidenced on more than one occasion. In some ways it should help people decide who they should study with because such behaviour might indicate the level of integrity that is applied to the running of their educational establishment.