EAU CLAIRE, Wisconsin (WEAU) – Pulling on the leash, jumping on others, reacting to other dogs are all reasons dog owners sometimes seek out dog trainers.
However, dog trainers can market themselves as such without certification, instruction, or experience—and it’s perfectly legal.
The association of professional dog trainers is trying to change that and is hoping for legislation that requires authorisation.
“If you’ve hired a dog trainer and they do something that gets your gut feeling, ‘oh I don’t know if I like that,’ that’s a big red flag. You’re right,” said Heather Mishefske, owner of emBARK in Eau Claire.
Many families have welcomed a new furry member into their home in the last two years.
As pandemic puppies get older and naughty behavior is discovered, many dog owners turn to dog trainers for help.
“At that point, anyone can claim to be a dog trainer, so really regardless of education, experience or ability,” Mishefske explained.
“Anyone can identify as a dog trainer, whether through past experience, reading a book, or taking an online class,” added Bradley Phifer, executive director of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
For this reason, industry insiders say dog owners shouldn’t blindly trust their trainers. Mishefske, who is also on the board of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, says it can be quite dangerous.
“Dogs lost their lives because someone ‘trained’ them, which is horrible,” Mishefske reflected. “I hope we don’t see dogs in the news again that have been hung from a choke chain because they misunderstood the issue and ended up suffocating.”
Experts say that even a well-intentioned dog trainer with a lack of knowledge can harm dogs. Phifer says it’s not always physical — sometimes it damages the bond between owner and pup.
“If you walk up to someone and they say, ‘You have to put this collar on your dog and clack it a few times so he’ll listen,’ it affects the way you see your dog,” Phifer said . “It affects the way you see, how your dog thinks, learns and feels.”
Both emphasize that there is a difference between being certified and having a certificate. So they go to the legislature with a model law, hoping it gets passed.
“What would that look like? It would look like some sort of regulatory agency that would set standards of care and competency,” Mishefske said.
Mishefske says the organizations are working to get the legislation on the record for New Jersey first and from there for the rest of the country.
The licensing process would ensure that trainers use the least invasive, minimally aversive techniques.
However, it is not a one-stop shop. Once the trainers get their license, they still have a lot of work to do.
“With licensing comes accountability,” Mishefske explained. “If they don’t follow those guidelines, they can be reported and go through our ethics committee and determine if they can still be in that particular organization, so they’re going to be doing a lot of checks and balances.”
Both have advice for those who need training now.
“Always ask the question, ‘What happens if my dog doesn’t do it right?’ and the correct answer to that is, “Well, your dog doesn’t understand what the question was. Let’s go back, let’s look at that again,’” Mishefske added.
“Make sure your trainer has demonstrated competence in some way, that the trainer is on an ongoing basis. That they use positive reinforcement as their primary training tool,” Phifer said.
Experts say always trust your gut feeling.
For Mishefske, licensing protects the owner and their dogs, so this is her passion project.
“Dogs that are stressed out in the hands of trainers are just so heartbreaking,” Mishefske added.
Heather adds that you should always ask prospective coaches about their code of ethics and if they’re looking for more education.
A list of dog trainers recommended by the APDT can be found here.
To learn more about the model law, click here.
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