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Guidelines for Choosing Dog Trainers

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Vets on Behavior Proclaim: Never Use A Shock Collar-- How to Choose A Dog Trainer

(July 10, 2006 – WGRN Chicago) Steve Dale interviewed behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall and legendary dog trainer Captain Haggerty about how to choose a dog trainer…and referred to this story. By Steve Dale

Orlando, FL Never, under any circumstances, choose a dog trainer who uses an electronic collar (shock collar). “You wouldn’t send your kid off to a school where they use shock,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall. “So, why would you send your dog there?”

After falling out of favor, the electronic collars are making a comeback. ”We’re so concerned about keeping sharp knives or anything that may be poisonous away from our pets because we love them so much; yet, it’s acceptable to give our best friends a jolt,” says Dr. Kersti Seksel, who is a board certified veterinary behaviorist in both Australia and in the United States. “It’s appalling!”

Overall and Seksel led a group of 23 certified veterinarian behaviorists participating in the North American Veterinary Conference Post Graduate Institute in Advanced Clinical Behavioral Medicine, May 23 through 29, in Orlando, FL. In addition to providing accelerated advanced education, the Institute offered a rare opportunity to set a standard for the profession. The attending vets in the behavioral medicine group (including a vet from Spain, three vets from Australia, and three from Canada) created a document with a list of recommendations for choosing a dog trainer.

The document is based on science, and supports trainers who use praise and reward rather than punishment. Seksel, who is from Seaforth, Australia says in most places in Australia, electronic collars that zap dogs are illegal. “That’s how bad they are,” she says. “In general trainers who tend to rely on choke and yank training or electronic collars tend to be punitive in their methods. They punish the dogs for what they don’t do, rather than rewarding the dogs for doing something right. And that fact is that aside from being inhumane, this method of teaching only discourages learning.”

Overall, a researcher in the psychiatry department at the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA, agrees, “I’ve seen so many animals damaged by shock. And I’ve seen people devastated when they realize that the dog who they love has been made a nervous wreck or aggressive because they’ve chosen the wrong training method. Dogs that are chronically yanked and popped may have recurring laryngeal nerve paralysis and other physical injuries as a result, not to mention seriously damaged psyches.”

The veterinarians who crafted the recommendations also urged avoiding trainers who use chain link choke collars (also called training or correction collars) and prong collars (also called pinch collars, blunt metal prongs are fitted around the dogs’ neck). Flex or retractable leashes are strongly discouraged as training tools to be used in training classes.

Dr. Tamera Cole Stenson of Ft. Wayne, IN was among the group of vets who created the recommendations for choosing a dog trainer. She says it seems in many locations around America, there isn’t a single trainer who uses what the group defines as appropriate equipment. “We’re reaching for an ideal here,” she says

The tools veterinarians do recommend for trainers include using treats (to motivate), head halters (they’re kind of like horse halters for dogs, and include the brand names Halti and Gentle Leader), full body harnesses, flat buckle collars (the kind you affix your dog’s ID tags to), and of course, praise. Clickers are generally acceptable, depending on the owners’ ability to “click train.”

When choosing a dog trainer, consider first and foremost a trainer recommended by a veterinarian. However, be sure to ask if the vet has personally seen the trainer’s classes. Also consider the trainer’s experience, references from friends and neighbors, and membership to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. It’s also important for you to audit a class.  “The dogs and their people (in the classes) should look happy,” Overall says.

Cole Stenson adds, “I know many veterinarians recommend trainers based on reputation or other factors, but, that’s not good enough – veterinarians really need to see the trainers in a class setting.”

Ideally, puppies should begin their first class early enough to finish by the time they’re 16-weeks old. While this recommendation isn’t always – or even often practical - the vets who have a special interest in behavior offer indisputable scientific evidence that early positive socialization is as advantageous for puppies as kindergarten is for children. In fact, these classes are typically dubbed puppy kindergarten.

“Appropriate early training and socialization enhances the bond you have with your dog and teaches the dog good manners,” says Institute participant Dr. Randi Olson of Valparaiso, IN. “The goal is also to avoid behavior problems from developing later. When serious behavior problems occur, there’s a real life potential for those dogs to wind up being given up to a shelter.”

Other recommendations from the Institute list (if trainer is not sufficiently skilled in introduction and management of different ages and accessing class participants) include limiting enrolling dogs in juvenile class, defined as canines who are about from about four months old to 6 months old and not necessarily mixed with puppy kindergarten students (those that ideally graduate by their 16th-week) or dogs partaking in adult classes.

Trainers should have a curriculum offering reasonable and age appropriate expectations for their canine students. Puppy classes should be held indoors (juvenile and adult classes can be held indoors or outdoors). No matter where the classes are held, check out the safety of the dogs. For example, whenever anywhere near traffic, dogs should be on a leash. Proof of appropriate vaccinations should be a requirement to protect all the dogs in the class.

Finally, when trainers are in over their heads, they should accept it and refer those difficult cases to certified applied animal behaviorists, recognized behavior consultants, veterinary behaviorists or veterinarians with an interest in behavior.

“Our goal by making these recommendations is to raise the bar, for both the benefit of dogs and their people” says Cole Stenson.

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