Superficial routes to appearing professionally qualified

Having watched the animal training and behaviour evolve for over twenty five years I have watched dubious ways of creating an apparently professional profile mushroom out of all recognition and some things go full circle back to the days when virtually no courses were properly accredited. Everyone seems to be chasing the cheap, quick fix when none actually deliver genuine results.

At one point course accreditation was an important factor in demonstrating quality but slowly many course providers have found that the profits that are lost by not being accredited is not enough to justify the extra effort and cost involved in maintaining accreditation. This leads to a business decision to drop external quality checks leaving them free to lower their standards and make more money. Equally I notice the rise in businesses offering accreditation services that are not regulated and therefore of the same standard as others. UK Rural Skills for example are not a regulated awarding body, unlike NCFE, Lantra Awards and others who are regulated by Ofqual, the government Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation.

Unregulated awarding bodies are cheaper, conduct far fewer checks and controls on course providers and are not overseen by a higher authority but the course provider can legitimately say that their courses are accredited which makes it look as if their courses are on a par with those who are properly regulated. It also means that the provider can artificially inflate the levels of their courses to make them a more attractive purchase, this explains the widening selection of apparent level 5 and 6 courses. It does mean that the students looking for the right course need to be aware that such courses are not recognised as valid when compared with properly regulated accreditation. Another organisation that is of little or no value in our sector is the CMA, this stands for Complementary Medicine Association, it is an American business that displays articles on subjects such as Men’s Health and Natural Beauty yet is presented by at least one Dog Training Education provider as a governing body that provides ‘Global Recognition’ for their course. Forgive my scepticism but how this adds any value whatsoever to their course provision escapes me.

Of more significance now is the ever increasing number of logos people and organisations can collect and display to create an air of industry recognition and professionalism. To the un-initiated such an array can look impressive because they do not understand which of them has any real value and which are simply bought with little or no checks or monitoring. Self-declaration of expertise is valueless, for example, anybody can declare that they will not use force when training dogs for instance but there are many other ways of causing stress or mistreating a dog and if someone is not properly educated and trained the chances are such practices are quite likely to take place despite the good intention of the person with the flimsy validation.

For years I have also warned people about the bogus post nominal letters that some course providers say their students can use to make themselves look well qualified but still that practice continues. Ofqual describe this practice as a ‘misleading representation’. The people that proudly display such letters have no idea that they are actually advertising the fact that they are poorly qualified, the unsuspecting pet owning public buy into the charade as well because they don’t know any better. In mainstream education the use of such post nominals is seen as laughable. What is really alarming is that many people wanting to be dog trainers and behaviourists put their money and efforts into this without understanding that they are being misled, they genuinely believe that they have real and meaningful credentials.

In 2008 the training and behaviour sector unanimously agreed that regulation was needed (it is probably the only topic that attracts total agreement) but actually that is not quite what many want. What has emerged is a desire to appear regulated with minimal effort or controls, in other words, freedom to do whatever each organisation sees fit in the way of education of its members in the most profitable way. The latest trend is to equate a code of conduct with professionalism but this is only a part of what it takes to be a professional and simply signing up to a code of practice camouflages the more important issue of thorough education and training to produce competent practitioners.

Latest progress towards regulation

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the decision to form the Animal Behaviour and Training council the sector is coming close to a major milestone in the recognition of a formal regulator. It is a topic that has divided opinion and raised emotions since the CAWC report was published in 2008.

 

As things stand there are far more regulatory requirements to sell burgers than deliver training and behaviour services to our pets, this cannot be right and has to change. The irony is that the majority of people involved in this work agree that regulation is required but many don’t want anything that is going to impact on the way they operate and that is the root of the problem of voluntary self-regulation. Without any compulsion to take part in regulation only those who least need it get involved, those with the lowest levels of knowledge and training simply avoid being a part of it.

 

Everybody believes they an expert, nobody wants a system that is going to mean undertaking further education and assessment and they don’t want to be told what they can and cannot say on their websites because it is only others that need such interventions. Organisational loyalties play a large part for many as well with clearly identified ingroups and outgroups (see social identity theory) and conspiracy theories abound as a result.

 

On 29th October a meeting to consider the question of regulation again was attended by about 175 interested people, it was hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Dog Advisory Welfare Group at Westminster. I say ‘again’ because it is something that was first considered around twenty years ago and has had regular airings since. The mood at the meeting reaffirmed the general agreement with the principle of regulation and we went on to hear opinions and some new proposals for such a structure although this has been done several times before. We are now at the stage when some of the people learning about this topic were still at school when the process started and are not fully aware of the work that has gone into reaching the point we are at now. We have now gone full circle and are starting to go over ground that has already been discussed tried and not succeeded before.

 

Since 2009 there have been five different attempts to bring practitioners together under one regulator but none have enjoyed the steady growth and progress seen by ABTC. No other has the support of the veterinary profession, no other represents as many practitioners and no other operates a fully comprehensive system of ensuring that trainers and behaviourists are suitably qualified and competent to practice. It operates the only independent complaints and disciplinary process and is now poised to be accredited by the RCVS in early 2020.

 

If you are interested in another blog on the subject  go to https://www.bva.co.uk/news-campaigns-and-policy/bva-community/bva-blog/integrating-qualified-trainers-and-behaviourists-into-the-vet-led-team/

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.

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.