Why is there still confusion over regulating Behaviour and Training?

I am amazed how after five years since the start of a regulatory process in the field of animal behaviour and training there is still a lack of understanding at practitioner level about what is happening, who is going to be properly qualified, which organisations are recognised and recognised by which authorities.
There is a simple answer to the question ‘why is this the case?’ and that is that those who refuse to adopt the high standards that have been set by the ABTC continue to publish misinformation to justify their position (I would refer you back to my previous blog on unethical marketing). This is leaving individuals who are trying to find answers to their questions unable to make sense of it all and decipher what is correct and what is not. The sad result of this is that newcomers to the sector will invest time and money in training and education and many will eventually be very disappointed. They will discover that their efforts have been wasted because they have made decision based on information that is not entirely correct.
As far back as 2008 everybody that was asked agreed that standards were necessary and the series of talks chaired by CAWC followed in an attempt to create a regulatory system. Those talks broke down without any agreement other than for a basic code of conduct. The suggestion that any one organisation was in some way endorsed by CAWC as being the one to take the process on is a fantasy and anyone saying otherwise is at best hopelessly mistaken. No such endorsement was given although an encouraging letter was received from Lord Soulsby, the chairman of CAWC acknowledging the work and support that had been achieved by ABTC along with a similar email from the late sir Colin Spedding who chaired the meetings.
One of the most ridiculous notions out there is that there is a difference between an animal behaviourist and a canine behaviourist. This is really clutching at straws in a desperate attempt to somehow make a distinction between the two The real distinction is between those who have adopted the high standards of the ABTC and those who choose to remain outside of a process that is supported by the veterinary profession (BSAVA, BVA, BVNA) and the government (Defra). Any title that includes the word animal does so to allow for the speciality of any species, a quick glance at the list of speciality species on any of the ABTC registers will show that the vast majority of registered practitioners specialise in dogs. I should add however that even if someone only wants to deal with dogs there is an absolute need to have some knowledge of other commonly kept species because they frequently form part of the dog’s social environment and to not have that knowledge means you are not properly qualified to deal with such cases.
The fact remains that there are only two organisations that Defra refer the public, the police and local authorities to when there is need for trainers and behaviourists and they are the Kennel Club (those qualified under the KCAI scheme) and the ABTC (full members of approved organisations) and nobody else. Others have made representations to be included but they have been rejected, I would invite my readers to draw their own conclusions about the reasoning behind such omission.
The result of misinformation is that people are being confused in an otherwise very clear situation, make no mistake, the process is gathering pace and those who are able to distinguish between the reality of that and the multitude of nonsense that persists will be able to make wise decisions.

Unethical marketing

Unethical marketing has long been a subject that has irritated me, particularly where animal services and associated activities are concerned because ultimately it is the animals and unwitting users of services that end up paying the price. Finally the ABTC has a code of conduct to address this issue (see http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/images/Ethicalmarketingguidelines.pdf).
The main trick that is employed by the unscrupulous marketers is making misleading statements or inferring something that is not quite true. This is the grey area between telling the truth and being downright untruthful which creates a mental image about the product or service that the writer wants readers to conclude despite it not actually being the case. The defence that is offered for such marketing practices is ‘the advert/article does not actually say that’ although it doesn’t take too much grey matter to see what image the writer wants to create.
In professional marketing terms the word that describes this practice is ‘puffery’, which means the product or service is ‘puffed up’ to make it look better, bigger, more successful or sophisticated than it is in reality. A hypothetical example might be when someone writes a letter to a major dog rescue charity suggesting a method of behaviour assessment and subsequently claims in their marketing material that they have advised said charity, a statement that is not technically untrue yet creates a false impression to the reader.
Another darker practice that I see from time to time is negative marketing, this is when people seek advantage by telling their audience how bad their competition is, being outright critical. There is no excuse for this. If someone cannot offer reasoned argument for their preference and allow their audience to make up their own mind it says more about the writer than the target of their criticism. What compounds this misconduct is when perpetrators sign up to a code of practice that does not allow such behaviour yet they continue to do it anyway.
The advent of the internet has made the situation considerably more prolific because now it is so easy and cheap to spread misleading statements to a huge audience and the more ‘professional’ a website looks, the greater air of credibility it lends to the message being put forward. There is, a practice known as Search Engine Optimisation, which website managers use to get their sites further up the rankings when a search is made. This is open to all sorts of abuse and ‘black hat’ methods. A method is referred to as ‘black hat’ when something is created out of nothing, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Without getting into the technicalities involved it essentially telling lies about the product or service in the background so that search terms that people type in are directed to that site more frequently than others, thus pushing the site nearer to the No 1 spot. This can, of course, be achieved legitimately by simply providing the complete service that is stated and attracting genuine searches but the reader will never be sure until they actually sign up to what is being offered. I was even stunned to discover that it is possible to buy ‘likes’ on Facebook in order to make a page look far more popular than it actually is.
It boils down to a matter of conscience and honesty but there is constant pressure to compete and it is very difficult for those who do so in a truly moral fashion when faced with those that push the ethical boundaries. It has always been my belief that a reputation built on being truthful and fair is the only way to be because any short term gains achieved by behaving otherwise will eventually come back to haunt you.

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.

David Montgomery

The clock is ticking to get registered as a behaviourist

Anyone that has been paying attention to the progress of regulation of animal trainers and behaviourists will be well aware of the work of the ABTC (Animal Behaviour and Training Council). The chances are that they will also be aware of those that have been working hard to try and derail this progress …… without success.
As the Council has become more and more established it is becoming apparent that a number of potential member organisations are still resisting regulation and as a result their individual members are being denied access to the ABTC practitioner registers and the professional recognition that accompanies such a listing. We saw at the end of last year how Defra are officially referring people to these registers when looking for properly qualified practitioners.
The register that is probably the highest priority at the moment is for Accredited Animal Behaviourists because it will close to new listings in April 2016, which is now only 16 months away. This category was created to give recognition to those who are currently engaged as behaviourists with a good level of appropriate education in the field, in effect a ‘grandparenting scheme’. It is known that there are quite a number of people who would potentially fill this register but if the organisation that represents them does not join the ABTC they will remain sidelined on the periphary of the profession. It might be suggested that 16 months is a long way off but if I have learned nothing else since being closely involved in the regulation process it is that things happen very slowly, it can take several months for a membership application to be approved for instance. From an individual’s point of view there may be more studying involved to reach the required level and that will usually take a matter of months, delays now could mean the loss of a big opportunity next year.
So what is the unlisted trainer or behaviourist to do because getting listed elsewhere will not enhance their professional status in the way that an ABTC listing will? The answer is one of two things, either move to an organisation that is already a member of the ABTC, or, convince those who run their organisation to apply to join. There are currently three such organisations with new membership applications being processed and another two considering the step.

David Montgomery

Answering those who criticise the regulation of training and behaviour

We knew from the start that there would be those who disagreed with the way in which ABTC was planning to organise a regulatory system for the training and behaviour of animals but given that:

  1. There was unanimous support (and, yes, that means everyone who expressed an opinion including some who are currently objecting) for the sector to be regulated and…..
  2. The overwhelming majority of organisations that had a vested interest in the sector supported the approach outlined by the scoping group that preceded the formation of ABTC.

..…it was deemed to be a worthwhile project. From the start everyone was and still is welcome to take part in discussions but as expected a small number of groups refused to join the Council and they still fail to answer invitations to join. The only effect their objections have had is to drive themselves closer and closer to the edge of a properly regulated profession.

A number of different tactics have been tried in an attempt to derail progress, all of which have failed and some of which have done nothing to enhance their own credibility. There are repeated claims that our members are all academics with little practical ability, which is patent nonsense and that as we deal with animals we can’t possibly compare with those who ‘specialise in dogs’, again a ridiculous suggestion. Firstly it is absurd to suggest that anyone can learn about dogs without studying them and as is always the case nobody knows the limits of their knowledge until they have studied the subject and as most of the ABTC listed practitioners specialise in dogs the latter comment makes no sense at all.

The latest accusation is that the ABTC is falsely promoting itself in the name of animal welfare, yet there is nothing false about this statement at all. Anyone who is unaware of the damage that can be done by using outdated training methods, inappropriate training aids or refusing to accept that unwanted behaviour might possibly be rooted in illness is clearly demonstrating their lack of knowledge and one should question whether they qualify to be discussing appropriate regulation of the sector in the first place. Such suggestions are simply engaging in irresponsible meddling in an attempt to hold back progress at the expense of the dogs (and other animals) that don’t get a say. They are also misleading those entering the profession into believing that no standards are required for this skilled work and devaluing the efforts of those who have worked hard and gone about their education and training in a responsible manner.

On the subject of no standards at all I am told a new website is planned listing anybody that wants to be listed as a dog trainer with no qualification or experience required whatsoever and that all are welcome to join it. It is ironical that the opportunity to join in the shaping of the future of our industry with ABTC has been ignored for the last four years and now that the ABTC has a regulatory system with registers of suitably qualified practitioners in place organisations should be invited to join something devoid of acceptance criteria. It can only be said that this will be a useful reference point for trainers to avoid when looking for a dog trainer.

Why regulate dog (animal) training and behaviour?

..Because the industry wants it and we owe it to our animals.

I have watched with great interest how training dogs has developed over the last 50 years, from the days when rubbing a dogs nose in the puddle on the carpet was called house training, through Barbara Woodhouse, yanking on a lead and ordering dogs to ‘Sit’ in the early 1980s, through the era of prong collars and of dogs being set on dominating their household, to the more enlightened time we find ourselves in now.
It is amazing how quickly things have changed and how we now understand so much more about psychology and how it can be applied to any animal in order to train them or help with behaviour issues. With these advances in knowledge comes a requirement to study the subject because it is complex and goes way beyond the days when you could learn all you needed to know by simply doing the job and picking it up as you went along by trial and error.
That is in no way under valuing experience, I have always said that covering your walls with certificates is worth nothing if you cannot connect with your dogs but equally, all the experience in the world is not going to give you the knowledge you need to be a fully functioning practitioner. There has to be a balance of both. After all you would not be happy if your doctor said, ‘don’t worry, I didn’t study medicine but I’ve been doing this for a while and seem to get good results’!

One characteristic of knowledge is that those seeking it never get to the end, there is never a point at which anyone can say ‘I now know it all’, research is constantly pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the world around us. I was late in going university but clearly remember only twenty years ago being ridiculed by an older lecturer for suggesting that personality tests should be adapted for animals. Now of course this is a hot topic of research but it is certainly not something that you can learn about by simply making casual observations of dog behaviour.

We are currently in a period of transition as far as training and behaviour go and there are so many people who have invested time, money and effort trying to do the right thing to get as ‘qualified’ as they can in this field. Sadly the only guidance until now has been the huge range of organisations all believing that their way is best, many of which have been doing quite a comprehensive job but there are also those that offer worthless certificates and apparently impressive memberships yet do an excellent sales job on their recruits. The sector has been crying out for a regulatory body to set standards to approve organisations and education provision and it is now here with the support of Defra and the veterinary profession. Inevitably there will be some who resist change or have concerns about having their own standards scrutinised, that is human nature but as new people come into this line of work it will be the norm and the die-hards who cannot adapt will drift into an ever dwindling minority. This is not just my speculation either because the responsible organisations are coming forward to ask how they can be part of this movement and what they need to do to measure up.

In 2004 the RCVS made a call for paraprofessionals to self regulate so that they would have a single body to talk to for each area of expertise that was outside veterinary surgery, the dentists organised themselves but little else happened. In 2008 the Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC) published a thoroughly researched document titled The Regulation of Companion Animal Services in Relation to the Training and Behaviour Modification of Dogs (1). Despite referring to dogs in the title, a much overlooked suggestion at the end referred to applying any framework to other animals too. At that time the report concluded that there was overwhelming support for regulation but that was just the start of the disagreements concerning how it should be achieved and what constituted a sound level of education and training. Thankfully the vast majority of organisations were prepared to find common ground and work together for the benefit of our dogs and other animals and realistic standards are now in place that reflect the skills and education required of the truly professional practitioner.

Slowly but surely those engaged in training and behaviour will either find themselves part of a highly respected and organised profession under the umbrella of the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (www.abtcouncil.org.uk) or simply be sidelined into the category of the gifted amateur that was unable or unwilling to reach the standards required of that profession. Eventually the ABTC will be as much a part of the language of animal welfare as RCVS, BVNA, RSPCA, PDSA, Dogs Trust and others.

The following is an extract from an editorial titled The Rocky Road from Odiham which forms part of volume 14 of Veterinary History (2). There are some clear parallels with what is happening today in the training and behaviour sector and what happened in the early days of the veterinary profession.
The most defining characteristic of any profession, with a corpus of knowledge that embodies their particular art and science, is its ability to constantly improve, and most importantly to be able to transmit this knowledge to new entrants, in a word – education. In this respect veterinary medicine is no different from any other sector of knowledge transfer.
Veterinary medicine sprang from stony ground, with a seemingly strange admixture of folk-lore, mumbo-jumbo, religion and ‘secret’ remedies plus some accurate observations combined with a sprinkling of developing medical knowledge.
The story of the Odiham Agricultural Society is well known, of how this group of men proposed in 1785 to try to put an end to the perceived animal cruelty caused by quackery and to provide young farriers with a scientific education.

(1) http://www.cawc.org.uk/080603.pdf
(2) http://www.veterinaryhistorysociety.org.uk/EditorialVol14-3.pdf

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.
Charles Darwin

What is an Accredited Animal Behaviourist?

As I said in my last post the ABTC has now completed its suite of standards for the animal behaviour and training sector but many people are asking what this means to them and how they can be listed on the various national registers. The first point to be clear about is that only organisations can be granted membership, individual practitioners cannot become members of the ABTC in their own right except by invitation of the Council. Organisations that represent practitioners should apply for membership and part of that process is to demonstrate how their practitioners meet the appropriate standard. Historically each organisation has developed its own method of assessing people based on what they deemed to be important rather than matching their requirements to a universal standard so it is no surprise that each organisation has different membership criteria. The ABTC seeks to harmonise this situation so that each organisation will be meeting the same high standards, some organisations may exceed the requirements and others may need assistance to ensure the standards are met.

As it is expected that this process will take some time the category of Accredited Animal Behaviourist (AAB) was created, it applies to all those currently carrying out the role of behaviourist with a reasonable level of education and training that does not quite meet the strict requirements of either Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB) or Animal Behaviour Technician (ABT), in short a ‘Grand-parenting Scheme’. Be aware though, this is not a free ticket to avoid eventually becoming qualified in one or other of these two roles. People who most appropriately fall into this category have until the end of March 2016 to get themselves onto this register, after which new applications will no longer be accepted. Those who are on the register at that time will have until the end of March 2021 to complete any gaps in their education and skill sets to transfer onto the CAB or ABT register and the AAB category will then cease to exist.

The message therefore is to either convince your organisation to join the ABTC or move to an organisation that is already a member (or is taking steps to achieve membership), I am also personally aware of at least two possible new organisations in the making based on ABTC requirements that feel too many practitioners are currently unrepresented.

This is the point at which the individual can start making a difference to animal welfare by making their needs felt to those who manage their chosen group and get on board with the ABTC, a movement that is now a permanent fixture in the animal behaviour and training sector.


What is an Animal Behaviour Technician?

At the end of June this year the ABTC published the standard for Animal Behaviour Technicians (ABT) (http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/standards-for-practitioners.html#tech ), this latest standard completes the suite of core roles in the sector of animal behaviour and training. It provides practitioners with either a career ‘stop-point’ or a point at which they can start working with a range of behaviour issues to gain practical experience as they continue their studies towards becoming a fully qualified Clinical Animal Behaviourist.

Although training rehabilitation forms a good part of the role the main emphasis will be towards offering advice and educating owners and handlers to avoid issues arising in the first place, prevention always being preferable to cure. This makes it an ideal role for veterinary nurses, dog wardens, rescue establishment workers and many more in the animal care sector, as well as trainers and training instructors who want to progress with their education.

Inevitably there are a lot of questions about this role as it is new to the sector so I will attempt to address the ones most likely to arise:

Can I be a Canine Behaviour Technician? In a sense you can in that you can specialise in dogs but it is important that you have a working knowledge of other species too because frequently other animals form part of the social environment that dogs are kept in and therefore have an influence on their behaviour. Equally, this is a core role that applies to the animal care sector which means that people can specialise in dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, parrots or any other species they wish to hence the use of the word ‘animal’. This is the same reasoning behind Animal Behaviour and Training Council, Clinical Animal Behaviourist, Animal Trainer, Animal Training Instructor etc.

Why doesn’t the name include the word behaviourist? As there are already three standards that include the word ‘behaviourist’ (although the Accredited Animal Behaviourist will cease to exist in 2021) there is a need to create a clear distinction between the roles and avoid confusion for those engaging the services of such a practitioner. The title was the subject of lengthy discussions and as there are technicians in other parts of the animal sector it was finally decided to go with an established convention.

How do I become an ABT? As the year progresses you will find courses becoming available that are designed around the standard but in the meantime ABTC member organisations will be able to submit their members’ names for inclusion on a new register based on previous education and assessment of practical skills that satisfy the role requirements.

What’s happening with the regulation of training and behaviour?

To the individual who has been getting on with their business of dog/horse/cat/rabbit etc behaviour therapy and/or training it may have seemed that little has happened since the flurry of activity three years ago when the ABTC was launched. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. Building an organisation with the support of the establishment that is likely to exist well into the future has proven to be quite a task, certainly not something that can be thrown together by a few well meaning individuals in the space of a few weeks or months. Nearly four years on since the first working group meeting the structure is fairly well in place and now the time is right for responsible organisations that want to be acknowledged as operating to the highest of professional standards to join those who have worked so hard to make it all happen.

All of the core standards have now been published and before the year is out you should start seeing which courses satisfy some or all of each individual standard. This will make it simpler for those joining the sector to work their way through the wide spectrum of quality and value that has characterised the industry for so long. At last people will be able to choose a meaningful career path without having to make decisions based on little more than the adverts and media ‘spin’ they are frequently presented with.

There will, no doubt, be those who will continue to resist and criticise the aims and accomplishments of the ABTC but as I have said since the beginning, anyone hearing such comments should ask themselves ‘what motive would anyone have to resist the moves to improve animal welfare that have the enthusiastic support of so many practitioners, the veterinary profession, the overwhelming majority of the animal welfare organisations, the Sector Skills Council and the Parliamentary under Secretary for Defra?’ I personally fail to see a convincing argument.

I will be posting on this subject as events unfold throughout the year and encourage supporters to spread the word, convince the doubters and join the movement that is reaching an unstoppable momentum.

David Montgomery

Bad marketing practices can lead to poor choices of course provider.

Since we started Compass Education 15 years ago the provision of distance learning education has changed beyond recognition. There are so many more people and groups involved and accreditation has developed from non-existent to a reasonably common feature. Unfortunately the increase in provision has brought about its own problems and students are still left wondering who is worth signing up with and spending their hard earned money on. The problem is not made any easier by courses that have appropriate accreditation yet still offer poor value for money in terms of the quality of what is taught. I have written before about the potential pitfalls that students face in choosing a course provider because I am angered that despite all the safeguards that seem to be in place, students frequently end up at Compass following a poor experience elsewhere. Comments such as ‘the tutoring was terrible’ or ‘what I received was a waste of money’ or even ‘they claimed to be experts but clearly did not know what they were talking about’ are all too common even when supported by suitable accreditation.. Politicians quite rightly receive heavy criticism for massaging the truth and dodging questions in order to appear whiter than white and sadly the same bad habit has crept into the descriptions that some course providers use about themselves. Some of the tricks that are employed are: 1. The use of a fake address, apparently impressive addresses can be rented for very little money when the ‘national college’ is actually being run from a back room in someone’s house. 2. Tutors and course writers being described as experts yet they have little or no proper credentials to support the claim. 3. Appearing to have a wide selection of courses when they are actually just agents selling on other people’s courses. 4. Using recorded messages such as ‘All our staff are busy answering calls at present please leave your name and number….’. When actually there is nobody there at all. 5. Inflating study levels, I was actually told once that if we advertised a level 2 course as a level 3 it would sell better! 6. Making unsubstantiated claims, for instance making statements that are not, in themselves untrue but when the full context is known a very different interpretation emerges. An example might be a claim to be influencing government in the formulation of animal related policy when the truth is that suggestions were made in a public consultation that was open to everybody. I could go on and on but you can probably understand where I am coming from. One important point is that even though proper accreditation is of value, it only covers the academic process, not the content. There is so much more in the way of bad practice that is not controlled by this measure alone. It can be very difficult to work out who is genuinely providing a quality education in all respects and who is more motivated by profit at any cost. Be careful. David Montgomery

How to choose a distance learning course in animal care/welfare/behaviour/training

There seem to be so many courses available these days that it can be tricky choosing the right one for you and there are a few things that people should take into consideration before parting with their hard earned money to avoid a bad buy. Fifteen years ago when Compass Education was started there were few courses to choose from and there was not the public interest there is today but coming from a teaching background we knew it was important to have some form of independent approval to reassure our students. We were the first to achieve such approval from an academic awarding body in the form of OCN, we even introduced our main competitor to them. Since those early days we have been accredited by no less than four such bodies and approved by a number of government sponsored organisations and professional associations (see http://www.compass-education.co.uk/Articles.asp?ID=252) which makes us the most widely approved private provider of animal related courses in the UK.
What people do not generally understand is what such accreditation actually means. We are constantly asked the question ‘is it a recognised qualification?’ but that question itself is full of difficulties to explain. As there are currently no regulations governing the subject there is no such thing as a course that qualifies practitioners. This is actually in the process of changing as the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (www.abtcouncil.org.uk) are about to publish standards and will accept courses that are submitted for approval from 2012. I predict that very few of the accredited courses that are currently available will reach the required standard. If they do it will be the most important measure of relevance and quality that has ever been available. Needless to say Compass will be doing everything possible to achieve this important level of accreditation.
When learning providers advertise their courses as accredited by an awarding body all it means is that it will be delivered to a good standard, it does not mean that the contents have been checked against any national requirement because there isn’t one (at the moment). They are simply teaching you what they think you need to know.
Many will indicate that they are registered as learning providers on the UK Register of Learning Providers which might make you think that some kind of checks have been carried out as to their legitimacy. Nothing could be further from the truth, a registered number is obtained by simply completing a registration form. This gives the student no protection whatsoever and says very little about the organisation.
You should be sure that the people who write the courses and the people that teach them are qualified to do so. It should not be enough for them to say that they are practicing behaviourists for instance. Just because someone has been doing a job for a while is no measure of their ability or authority to pass on anything other than their personal opinions on the subject. At least check to see that course authors have studied the subject themselves and that tutors have some form of teaching qualification otherwise you could be walking into a poor investment.
Of course if you are studying for the fun of it rather than to improve your employability or professional knowledge much of what I have said reduces in importance but most people want value for money these days. Just remember that if it is cheap there is a reason for that!