What it is to be regulated

Since 2009 there have been many attempts to unify the training and behaviour sector behind regulations aimed at raising its practitioners into a truly professional status. Most attempts have been well motivated but nearly all have failed to understand what it means for a work related roles to be properly regulated.

The first requirement is to identify the work roles that are going to be regulated, what the scope of those roles is and any limitations to them, in other words, what people will be qualified to do.

The next requirement is to establish standards for those roles. There is a convention that dictates how a formal work related standard is written. It breaks down what people need to know (Knowledge and Understanding) to carry out the task and also what they need to be able to do (Skills). The knowledge and understanding also needs to be taught at an appropriate level of education.

There needs to be a clear code of practice/conduct that all practitioners declare they will abide by. This must be accompanied by a system of policing by an independent body, simple self declaration without any form of monitoring and control or ability to impose sanctions if the code is contravened has very little value whatsoever.

There must be a credible, independent governing body and the over riding principle for all its activities is transparency. It is essential for the management to adopt systems that independently confirm that all requirements are being met at all stages, not just for the practitioners and the organisations that represent them but also the governing body itself. This must be a ‘live’ system that continually verifies the performance of all concerned.

Only one governing body has satisfied all of the requirements creating a comprehensive framework that details every aspect of what it is to be a qualified practitioner and what is required to remain qualified. It is no coincidence that the veterinary profession and major animal welfare charities have come together in their support of the system operated by the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) and none of the others.

This begs the question ‘why have the other attempts failed to gather the same level of support?’ The answer is not the same for each, although there are some common themes. The foremost failing is the unwillingness of most organisations that represent trainers and behaviourists to surrender authority to an independent governing body. They all regard their autonomy more highly than a common set of comprehensive rules to abide by and more importantly, be judged against. Comprehensive rules and standards frequently undermine an organisation’s ability to make unsubstantiated claims of expertise and recruit members by promising professional status based on minimal requirements, all of which undermine commercial advantage. When commercial advantage is put ahead of animal welfare and professional standards there is something seriously wrong with the organisation’s operational ethos.

The past nine years has seen seven systems (including ABTC) with the aim of bringing the sector together, the irony that seems to escape the architects of each scheme is each one further divides the sector and adds to the confusion. The latest attempt is a charter for dog practitioners which is also bound to fail to attract institutional support, largely because it mimics some that have failed before but it also aims to allow organisations to operate independently without the strict control of a regulator.

There is a misconception that self declaration of expertise or qualifications (both at individual and organisational level) is adequate – it is not. There is a misconception that calling something a ‘National Register’ or ‘Charter’ gives it some kind of authenticity or authority – it does not. There is a misconception that signing up to a code of practice that is not enforced adds value – it does not.

With the exception of ABTC, most of the numerous cooperatives and groups that claim to deliver some form of regulation actually represent little more than a marketing tool for those on their lists of people or organisations and the approach has been somewhat desultory. Being a registered charity, ABTC is also the only one of these organisations that is a legal entity, the remainder have no status in law. Inevitably they seem attractive to people in search of some form of professional validation as they make bold claims and sound impressive, they are also generally easy and cheap to join with few, if any, checks. This demonstrates a clear case of getting what you pay for, remember, if it seems cheap and easy and offers much, there is probably a very good reason. Many people are being misled into investing money, time and energy into membership of organisations and schemes that will soon be shown to be of very limited value.

As the RCVS closes in on bringing para-professionals under their regulatory umbrella I predict that by the end of 2019 the training and behaviour sector will be clearly polarised. There will be those professionally qualified and formally regulated practitioners under ABTC at one end of the spectrum and the remainder who will be consigned to a category of the unregulated and unvalidated, no matter what professional status they claim.

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The next step towards regulating training and behaviour

Since the formation of ABTC in 2010 those who do not want to be involved have made much of the lack of legislation to regulate animal trainers and behaviourists as their reason for not engaging. It is true that successive governments have not had the appetite to introduce such legislation but each has encouraged voluntary self-regulation of the sector and the only such body referenced by Defra is ABTC.

Clearly, given the number of organisations that still resist coming under the ABTC umbrella and meeting their standards, there is still work remaining to establish comprehensive regulation but the next step is now on the horizon.

As far back as 2004 the RCVS has called for the regulation of para-professionals and since then they have been looking at ways to facilitate that. In 2007 VetNet LLN was created to support progression from vocational areas into veterinary and animal related professions. A more specific project within VetNet LLN aimed at examining the potential for such regulation amongst trainers and behaviourists gave rise to a working party from the sector in 2009, this working party subsequently transformed into the ABTC the following year.

In 2016 the RCVS created the Exemption Orders and Associates Working Party to review the activities of certain allied professions. They have created a set of principles on which the inclusion of additional exemption orders to the Veterinary Surgeons Act should be based and have subsequently created a set of recommendations for revising the existing exemption orders, creating new ones and removing defunct orders. They also created two models of ‘association’ with the Royal College to allow allied professionals to come under their regulatory umbrella under the remit of its Royal Charter, as is currently the case with veterinary nurses. Initially the focus was on Farriers and Dentistry but that has now expanded into the Manipulative Therapies and crucially, Training and Behaviour.

With roots in VetNetLLN and having long since enjoyed the support of the veterinary profession, ABTC has now had a very positive meeting with the Working Party to discuss formal association with the Royal College under these plans. The exact mechanism of such accreditation is currently being finalised and the process should be available to start early in 2019.

Once this level of formal association with the RCVS has been established there will be clear water between those regulated by ABTC and those who choose to operate under a less formal status. It is expected to further influence government recognition and could also have implications for the insurance industry.

Misinformation and social media

Over the last twenty years since Compass the animal (particularly dog) training and behaviour industry has changed considerably. Initially there was very little available in the way of courses for people to study and most people who were working with dogs had done their learning ‘on the job’. Courses for interested individuals were few and far between and everything was conducted on the phone and by post, a simple static website was seen as cutting edge technology. Not only was knowledge of animal psychology in its infancy but questions about the quality of course providers and the content of courses were never asked. In all honesty, the few that were available were generally reputable providers with courses based on the science available at the time.

The development of the internet and mobile communications has changed things beyond recognition in a relatively short period of time and not all for the better. For sure, speed of delivery has improved beyond imagination. Originally, we would be doing well to get cheque payments cleared and course material posted within 10 days, now students can register online and they are studying within 24 hours. What had started to appear with increasing numbers of course providers was the face of increased competition.

Competition can be a strong motivator to improve and as the number of course providers started to grow it meant that we and others constantly looked at ways to provide a better service, getting courses formally accredited and ensuring that tutors were qualified teachers for instance. Sadly, the less than ethical side of competition started to creep in as some searched for ways of convincing people to part with money, unfounded promises of qualification, worthless letters after their names and false claims about the level of study on offer became commonplace. Worse than this was spreading untruths about competitors and their courses. It became obvious around 5 years ago that the motivation for providing education had switched for many from the spread of knowledge to simply making money and the morality of the tactics employed to achieve this was irrelevant.

The mushrooming growth of social media has provided enormous assistance to such underhand marketing, a piece of (untrue) news spreads around the internet at an incredible rate. As the old saying goes ‘A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.’ What I still find amazing is that so many people are prepared to accept what they read on some websites, Facebook or Twitter as absolute truth, without ever questioning it or seeking independent evidence. It seems that the more outrageous or salacious the story, the more worthy it is of belief and sharing.

The unfortunate fact is that the truth is seldom exciting so it gets overlooked very quickly, whereas something that draws immediate attention, regardless of how true it is, gets shared and shared again very quickly. There are three types of mis-information:

The mistaken. In this case someone genuinely misunderstands something and posts their interpretation of it on-line, this is then taken as fact and passed on again as such.

The spin. Here a piece of news that reflects badly on someone is reported in such a way as to either make them appear a victim and therefore invite sympathy or to be economical with the truth in such a way that the event is presented as a positive outcome.

The lie. In this case a malicious story is deliberately spread in order to undermine or discredit another individual or organisation.

There are casualties as a result of this new world, integrity and quality are put under pressure and people wanting to invest in a career are convinced to invest their hard earned money into education of questionable value. I was recently asked on Facebook what deals Compass was going to offer for Black Friday. When I explained that we didn’t get involved in that sort of marketing because dramatic reductions can only happen on the back of extortionate profit margins it was met with ‘lots of other companies do’.

Things to check when choosing a Learning Provider

As people are becoming more and more aware of the need to get educated if they want to work with dogs (or any other animals) the course provider industry that has developed on the back of that has grown out of all proportion. Sadly, so have the marketing tricks that are employed to grab a share of the business. I have touched on this subject before but feeling very strongly about delivering quality education in a fair and transparent way I feel readers need to be made aware of the sort of tactics that are employed by some so that informed decisions can be made when investing their hard-earned cash.

VAT. Contrary to what some would believe (and tell their potential students), all private provision of courses is most definitely subject to VAT. In the near 20 years that Compass Education has been delivering such courses we have seen two distance learning providers shut down overnight by HMRC and all their students lost out financially. Of course, they may be a very small business with around only 200 students a year, in which case they will probably be under the VAT threshold of £85,000 but most are quick to advertise how popular they are and how many hundreds of students they attract each year. If those claims are true, they are not only defrauding the tax authorities but gambling with the money people pay for courses.

Accreditation. Compass was amongst the first to see the value of getting courses accredited by an independent body that was, itself approved by a higher authority. It gives some assurance to the student that they are investing in something worthwhile. Unfortunately, this system of quality assurance is open to abuse by those who simply want to ‘appear’ genuinely concerned about quality. There are so many such bodies to choose from it is possible to get approval on the basis of a commitment to develop systems up to the required standard yet not deliver on that commitment. Before the accreditation is removed for failing to achieve the standard (generally around 3 years) they simply move to another awarding body.

Another aspect to consider is the advent of awarding bodies that are not recognised or governed by any other authority. ABCC is one such organisation and more recently UK Rural Skills, they may be perfectly good at what they do but the reassurance that is given by recognition of the relevant government education authorities should not be underestimated. The other consideration is which professional body recognises the course and how closely related they are to the course provider. Call me cynical but if a course provider also runs a ‘professional’ membership organisation based on their own courses alarm bells start to ring for me.

UK Learning Provider registration. Anybody can register as a UK Learning Provider and most do but it doesn’t add any value to the provider. There are no checks, no qualifications required and no standards applied yet the logo is often displayed in a position to appear to be meaningful.

Course fees. Any seriously minded course provider that has quality at the top of their priorities will have a pricing structure that balances the needs of the students against the demands of running such a service. If the pricing policy is governed by special offers and other gimmicks to pressurise people to sign up quickly, once again, alarm bells should start sounding. Education should not be considered the same as buying last season’s styles with the aim of getting a bargain in the sales. If a course becomes available at 20% off if you act quickly, it is still profitable for the provider which means that gross profits are normally being applied. Although it is not always the case that you get what you pay for, if you pay a low price for your education, the quality and therefore value of what you receive, will be the first to suffer. If you get taken in by cheap marketing stunts don’t be surprised if you end up disappointed.

The political will for regulation of trainers and behaviourists

Since the publication of the 2008 CAWC report into the regulation of dog training and behaviour services several things have happened. It was concluded that there was wide spread support for regulation but that is where any sense of unanimity ended. Following 18 months of meetings several factions emerged each with different ideas about who should be the regulatory authority and the shape those regulations should take and they went their separate ways. Those diverse attitudes very much remain today and are unlikely to change given that people have staked their reputations on them.

The irony of this situation is that forming multiple organisations has further compounded the confusion that all agreed was in dire need of being untangled and simplified. There are still three or four such organisations and I believe there are even plans to try and create yet another not to mention the various registers of ‘professional’ trainers and behaviourists, one at least carries out no checks at all on those wanting to be listed. None have made the sort of progress or receive the level of support that the Animal Behaviour and Training Council enjoys yet all claim to represent trainers and behaviourists and high standards but those standards and their implementation vary greatly. One such organisation only requires a declaration that the prospective member adheres to a code of conduct and pays a fee, for instance. The other characteristic to note is that being a registered charity only ABTC has any legal status other than that of a club.

The political view was originally that the sector should self-regulate which, had there been any level of agreement amongst the organisations involved, might have been a possible way ahead. It could be argued that this is what has been attempted but in no way can it be considered as being anything other than partially successful.

Recent trends are also worrying, as there is currently still no compulsion to join a regulated organisation other than a personal desire to do so based on a responsible attitude. There are many people who avoid the need for often lengthy (and potentially costly) education and training and seek the easiest and cheapest route they can find to any organisation that will call them a trainer or behaviourist. There are also those that don’t join any organisation and still call themselves professional trainers or behaviourists.

There are several organisations that feed this mentality by stating on their websites that the government is not about to consider any form of formal regulation any time soon. This gives the irresponsible free reign to do as they wish, if not actively encouraging them to do so making the originators equally irresponsible. Inevitably the easiest route is to not have education and skills rigorously assessed against independently developed standards.

For those who do not monitor political trends you should be aware that there is a developing appetite for regulation of trainers and behaviourists that will leave a lot of people out in the cold. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) have very recently made that recommendation to Defra as follows:

‘DEFRA should regulate the industry of animal behaviour and training to ensure that pet owners can find reputable professionals to help them. This could be considered as a future part of the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) Regulations 2018 currently being developed or during a review of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966.’

It couldn’t be any clearer, regulation of trainers and behaviourists is clearly on the political radar, potentially as soon as next year.

What value are UCAS Tariff Points?

Of the many questions I get about the accreditation of courses that are available in the Animal Care Sector (particularly relating to behaviour) is the topic of providing a springboard to a university course. There is an awful lot of mis-information on the subject, most of which revolves around the subject of applying for university through UCAS – The Universities and Colleges Admissions System.

The formal process of applying for a university place through UCAS is largely designed to cater for school leavers and anyone under the age of 21. If you do not fall into this bracket UCAS Tariff Points are of much less importance. Mature students (those over 21 and generally all of those studying to become a behaviourist) have a more flexible set of opportunities and universities have the ability to judge your suitability based on experience and a broader spectrum of education that might be better suited to the chosen degree course. The following paragraph is taken directly from the UCAS website – Tips for mature student applications:

Don’t worry if you don’t have the right qualifications – just ask universities and colleges whether you can meet the entry requirements in a different way.

You could get accreditation for life and work experience.

Accreditation of prior learning (APL) is essentially credit awarded for wider learning evidenced from self-directed study, work or training.

In short UCAS Tariff Points are far from the be all and end all they are often made out to be. This goes further, just because a qualification is on the Tariff, does not mean a university will accept it. Therefore, it’s really important to check the entry requirements for the course you’re interested in.

There are only a certain number of qualifications on the Tariff. A university may accept a qualification even if it isn’t on the Tariff, so it’s best to check with them to see if they will accept your qualification. Remember, lots of universities do not use Tariff points.

So, how do courses get onto the Tariff? Put simply they need to appear on the Qualification and Credit Framework (QCF) which is a list of courses approved by Ofqual for delivery in mainstream colleges. It also opens the possibility of the course provider drawing on government funding to deliver it. The downside for course providers is that they must give up the intellectual ownership of the course and it becomes available to any other college to deliver. As far as the accreditation goes it is very little difference to the accreditation offered to the privately provided courses which is primarily aimed at the quality of delivery, not the content.

The whole subject of accreditation has changed dramatically in the last twenty years and is still changing. Initially there were no privately provided courses that came with any form of Ofqual based accreditation, then slowly it became the mark of quality until now the choice of courses (and range of quality) is bewildering. The next development is for the training and behaviour sector to be regulated, many of my readers will understand that this process is now quite advanced. The introduction of regulation will mean that courses and their content will have to meet strict criteria and the vast majority of courses will not meet those requirements and it will not matter whether they attract UCAS Points or not.  I predict that, in the not too distant future, an awful lot of people will be very disappointed with choices they have made and money they have invested based on advertising promising that they will become ‘qualified’ behaviourists.

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.