10959435_525395067601178_6321149830307587205_nIn his latest article in The New Yorker, “Overkill,” Atul Gawande writes about the epidemic of patients undergoing unnecessary medical care and suffering from overdiagnosis. I was struck by the parallels between Gawande’s writing and current problems in the dog training industry, most importantly the concept of caveat emptor and the difficulty in making it more than a consumer ideal.

Health care professionals possess a wealth of knowledge that most patients do not; when they recommend a procedure, patients typically listen. Gawande writes, “[Doctors] can recommend care of little or no value because it enhances our incomes, because it’s our habit, or because we genuinely but incorrectly believe in it, and patients will tend to follow our recommendations.”

Gawande advocates for caveat emptor, but concedes it only gets patients so far.  Describing one patient’s experience, “He did his research. He made informed choices. He tried to be a virtuous patient. The virtuous patient is up against long odds, however,” writes Gawande. “One major problem is what economists call information assymetry.”

This concept of what Gawande terms “information assymetry” is present in dog training but, unlike the medical and many other standard professions, is entirely unregulated. Anyone can set up business as a dog trainer and take money for services rendered. He doesn’t need credentials or education. He doesn’t even need to know one thing about dog behavior. He can still enter people’s homes, dispense professional advice, and accept payment.

If this prospect sounds frightening, it’s because it is. Information assymetry does little to help matters, either. Most dog training advice found online, in bookstores, on TV and from mouths of unregulated professionals is conflicting and not based in actual science. It’s understandably difficult for owners to protect their rights as consumers. Caveat emptor is only effective if the buyer is actually aware of what to beware. 

The dog training industry is inching toward regulation, but in the interim, it’s important for dog owners to know what to ask potential trainers to keep their dogs safe from ineffective, potentially harmful interventions and avoid untrained, potentially harmful professionals.

The following is a list of questions I recommend dog owners ask any potential dog behavior professional:

  1. What are your credentials? Any dog trainer should be able to provide credentials as proof of education and training. Imagine going to your doctor, asking where he did his residency, and being refused an answer. Credentials aren’t foolproof, but they indicate some regulation and expertise.
  2. What are the risks? Your trainer should be able to list any risks associated with all proposed behavior interventions, including emotional or physical side effects, so that you can make an informed choice about his methodologies. This will also help you understand whether your trainer is fully force-free, or whether your trainer uses pain, fear or intimidation to modify behavior.
  3. Do you use punishment, and how? You deserve to know whether your trainer intends on using punishment on your dog, and whether that punishment will involve pain, fear or intimidation. Ask what situations your trainer feels punishment is warranted, and whether your trainer uses positive punishment (addition of something aversive for an incorrect response) or negative punishment (the force-free type of punishment in which the trainer removes the reward for an incorrect response).
  4. What are your liability policies? A professional trainer should be prepared to show you contracts and waivers up front, so you understand if and when you will be held liable for your dog’s behavior, and what your trainer will do in case your dog is injured in his care. Your dog trainer should also have proof of professional liability insurance.
  5. What is your plan for my dog? Ask your trainer to outline what he will do throughout the training program. If at any point you feel uncomfortable about your trainer’s approach, speak up and get a second opinion if necessary.

In an unregulated industry undergoing a slow evolution, it’s up to dog owners to set the standard. By asking these questions and remaining vigilant, dog owners will ensure caveat emptor becomes a reality and not an ideal.

For more information:

– Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.