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Evaluating behavior services (Proceedings)

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Nov 01, 2010

The first thing to appreciate about animal behavior services is the lack of specific credentials that assure competence. Currently there are at least three scientifically oriented groups attempting to set standards for the business of animal behavior modification and training. There are at least four groups of professional dog trainers who have their own certification programs and concepts of competence. Outside the framework of formal groups are many thousands of dog trainers who have no credentials other than experience - and no particular interest in acquiring outside approval for their skills. Your resource-pool for behavior services comes from the totality of people who work with dogs and cats.

Science and Animal Behavior Services:

The skills necessary to control a dog's behavior are relatively simple - dogs are relatively simple animals. The idea that a master's degree in a behavioral science is automatically a criterion for competence is not supported by objective evidence. Behavioral sciences include behavior analysis, social work, education and a host of other specialties that are not directly or indirectly connected with training a dog. At least two of the scientific groups attempting to set standards in this field require a graduate degree in a "related field" as the primary criterion for joining their organization. That means that an elementary school teacher with a minimal involvement in dog training has a chance of being a certified member of a professional group with little practical experience. A person with 30 years practical experience training dogs will have to go through some high hurdles to gain the same privilege.

In an effort to define the field of animal behavior in broad scientific terms there is a major drawback. Currently, few scientists outside veterinary medicine have any direct experience with animals in either an academic or clinical setting. Even fewer have practical knowledge of animals in a real-world environment. Of the various science based organizations, veterinarian behaviorists have an undeniable edge, regardless of their practical knowledge of dog training - they are competent and qualified to assist in the use of psychotropic drugs. In cases where a clear diagnosis of a neurological disorder makes chemical treatment necessary, a veterinarian behaviorist is a welcome expert. They also have a broad base of knowledge of the clinical treatment of animals. In the long haul, veterinarian behaviorists are the ones most likely to propel this field to excellence.

When evaluating scientific credentials, it is necessary to specify a correlation between the particular course of study and the specifics of working with companion animals or large animal behavior. The Achilles Heel of most academically trained behaviorists is practical experience. i.e. Having a wealth of knowledge of human psychology and years of experience working with at-risk kids is potentially useless when treating a with a history of biting "at-risk" kids.

Professional Training Groups and Modern/Scientific Dog Trainers:

The current vogue in dog training groups is to pretend to use scientific techniques while claiming to use "dog friendly" methods. A definition of this concept is available on the web...

"Dog-friendly training is training that utilizes primarily positive reinforcement; secondarily negative punishment, and only occasionally, rarely, and/or as a last resort includes positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement." Author's note: If you are not familiar with the language of behavior analysis, negative punishment is a time-out or withholding of a treat or ball that is supposed to make behavior decline. Positive punishment is the application of a choke-chain correction or some other tangible aversive stimulus that causes a behavior to decline or stop.

While this appears to be a concise, thoughtfully worded credo, there are two problems with it. First, though it apes the language of behavior analysis, it is not actually based on scientific principals and second, neither positive reinforcement nor negative punishment can inhibit a dog's normally occurring behavior. To be specific, aggression is a normally occurring behavior, as is digging, chewing, running out a gate and tugging on a leash - the behaviors most likely to get a dog abandoned or killed. To openly shun the tools necessary to fix the most common dog problems is an unscientific and impractical bias.