This paper was written in May 2017 for a class on animal ethics that I took during my anthrozoology studies at Canisius College. It may not reflect the most recent information, but it does include some valuable resources and insight I wanted to share given recent events in my area.
Currently in the United States, the dog training industry is largely unregulated: anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and charge for training services (Barry, 2008; Kaminsky, 2016). This unfortunate reality results in dogs and their guardians receiving potentially life-threatening misinformation, particularly in cases of aggression. Similarly, this also results in dog trainers who use training methods that can cause negative dog welfare. In late 2016, a self-proclaimed dog trainer on Long Island, N.Y. was caught on video abusing a client’s dog that was in his care (Goldberg, 2016). This did result in a New York State Senator, Todd Kaminsky, proposing a bill to require licensing for dog trainers. The bill has yet to be passed.
In this paper, I will draw from multiple disciplines to explore the ethics of dog training, particularly looking at different dog training methods as well as the necessary interplay of science and ethics in the dog training industry. Ethologist Marc Bekoff (2006) discusses “the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and cooperation” (p. 471), and I believe this applies to this topic as well as any. Additionally, I will examine the need for a standardized professional code of ethics for dog trainers and behavior consultants, specifically analyzing the ethical codes of various professional associations.
Why Dog Trainers Should Care About Ethics
Unfortunately, there is little empirical research on ethics in dog training, but dog trainers can benefit from discussions on ethics to help them critically think about the ethical challenges they often face. One of the most common and critical of ethical choices dog trainers and behavior consultants make is what training methods they will utilize. Other ethical challenges range from dealing with non-compliance from clients to dealing with aggressively dangerous dogs. Some issues may not present themselves as ethical dilemmas outright but rather seemingly simple business decisions (Barry, 2008, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1). Thus, it is important for trainers to have the appropriate tools in their ethical toolbox and to be comfortable and confident in their decision-making. Barry points out:
“Being conscious about our values and developing effective ways to pursue them are vital to our self-respect. Finally, it's very much in our interest to behave with integrity toward colleagues, clients and dogs. To do so enhances our reputation, enabling us to increase our ability to help, and maybe even our bottom line” (Introduction, Paragraph 2).
Additionally, Barry discusses how dog training is a business but not recognized as a profession as “professions need ethical standards to have credibility and grow (Introduction, Paragraph 2). I argue that, if dog trainers and consultants do hope to become true professionals, we all need to adhere to a professional code of ethics, ideally an industry-wide, standard of ethics formulated in the form of governmental regulation. Megan Mahoney, a dog trainer in Olean, N.Y., agrees:
“I do think all dog trainers should follow the same code of ethics in order to train. While I think that trainers should have a lot of freedom to explore different positive methods, I think there should be a code of ethics to prevent animal abuse in training. Before I became a trainer, I met a lot of people who called themselves trainers but used harsh and painful methods to get dogs to cooperate … I strongly feel that a dog's happiness and positive relationship with their guardian is much more important than having a well-behaved dog that feels pressured to comply...” (personal communication, April 15, 2017).
At the very least, dog trainers should be held accountable by a code of ethics through certification and/or membership to a professional organization. However, first, we must look at ethics from an academic perspective to guide us.
Principal Theories of Ethics
In any discussion of ethics, it’s important to analyze the different principal theories of ethics. We will be evaluating utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics as well as feminist care ethics and how they apply to the ethical issue at hand. In the context of dog training, these ethical theories are often ignored or misused, particularly in the utilization of aversive training methods and tools that rely on causing pain, discomfort or fear to decrease an undesirable behavior. Additionally, examining these various ethical theories can help us in our discussion of professional ethics, particularly in analyzing current codes of ethics of various dog training associations.
Utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism, is one of the more well-known theories of ethics, referring to acting in a way that maximizes happiness (also referred to as “utility”) and minimizes suffering for the greatest number of people (Waldau, 2014a, p. 5-6). What’s “right” and “wrong” is determined by the effects or consequences a particular act has collectively.
While there are certainly anthropocentric interpretations of it, of the major ethical theories, utilitarianism has been most commonly referred to in the development of the animal rights movement. Barry (2008) describes how John Stuart Mill, philosopher and early utilitarian, “argued that the benefits of our actions should "be extended insofar as possible to the whole of sentient creation’” (Chapter 2, Section 4.3, Paragraph 3). As Barry subsequently alludes to, one limitation to utilitarianism is that it requires predicting the consequences of our actions. Additionally, trainers have to attend not only to dogs but also to their guardians. Barry validly points out that “it has to be decided how to weigh the welfare of one species against that of the other” (Chapter 6, Section 5, Paragraph 4).
Setting aside that we are often merely guessing what impact our actions will have in these situations, predicting how actions may affect dogs specifically is exceptionally difficult given our limited understanding of their realities. However, this is where dog welfare and behavior science can assist us in utilitarian reasoning that considers their suffering. We also must not allow anthropocentrism to cloud our judgement when making ethical decisions in dog training. Aversive training methods may maximize the happiness of humans in diminishing dog behavior problems while simultaneously causing suffering of the dogs these methods and tools are applied to.
Unfortunately, some ethical theories are rooted more in anthropocentrism than others. Deontology is ruled-based, also often referring to doing what “duty” compels us to do because it is simply the “right thing to do” (Waldau, 2014b, p. 3; Barry, 2008, Chapter 2, Section 4.4, Paragraph 1). Influential philosopher and deontologist Immanuel Kant believed that while humans should be compassionate towards living beings, he also argued that nonhuman animals “are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man” (as quoted by Waldau, 2014b, p. 4; Barry, 2008, Chapter 2, Section 4.4, Paragraph 3).
Deontology may be more applicable than other ethical theories in the development of a professional code of ethics as these codes take on the role of assuming what is right and wrong. However, rule-based ethics are challenging to accept because of changing contexts, which most certainly occur in dog training given the number of variables in working with both humans and dogs. There also seems to be a disregard for the welfare of individual beings that these rules might impact, particularly if these rules are inspired by Kant’s human exceptionalism. These will be important considerations when discussing professional ethics later in this paper.
Waldau (2014b) discusses philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his views on the application of ethics in modern society (p. 10). He argued that humans don’t generally subscribe to just one ethical tradition, but rather, tap into a “hodge-podge of conflicting fragments” when making decisions. MacIntyre argued for the revitalisation of virtue from which virtue theory was born. This theory “is the view that the foundation of morality is the development of a right way of being” (p. 11). As our values and character traits inherently shape our words and actions, I believe virtue ethics can play a large role in dog trainers’ interactions with their human clients as well as their dogs. Undoubtedly, virtues like honesty, compassion and respect have a place in the dog training industry. Certified dog trainer in Denver, C.O., Laura McGaughey, agrees:
“Personally, ethics mean a lot to me. My integrity is important, not only for the sake of the dogs but people. I want to provide a good level of customer service and be as compassionate with the client's stress level as I am with the dog's. When you're dealing with behavior of a living being that cannot communicate on the same level that we do, ethics are a very important part of the equation” (personal communication, April 15, 2017).
Feminist Care Ethics
While not historically considered one of the principal theories of ethics, I believe understanding the feminist ethic-of-care theory could assist dog trainers and behavior consultants in their ethical decision-making. The feminist care ethic rejects “abstract, rule-based principles in favor of situational, contextual ethics, allowing for a narrative understanding of the particulars of a situation or an issue” (Donovan & Adams, 2007, p. 2). It considers each animal as an individual, recognizes their capacity for suffering as well as other emotions. "An ethic of care also recognizes the diversity of animals—one size doesn’t fit all; each has a particular history” (p. 3). This is absolutely applicable to dog training. Training and behavior modification plans must be specially developed given each individual dogs age, breed, size, history, temperament, personality, etc. The guardian must also be considered, with questions like: How much time and effort can the guardian commit to working with their dog? It’s also important to consider the guardian’s learning style just as much as the dog’s. Clearly, there are many variables that may influence exactly how that dog can be trained or rehabilitated.
There is also a special focus on animal communication and body language by some ethic-of-care theorists, specifically “that our attention be directed… to what the animals are telling us—rather than to what other humans are telling us about them” (Donovan & Adams, 2007, p. 4). Our ethical decision-making must include this level of attentiveness when training dogs. They are always communicating with us, and there is enough information available about their behavior to be able to more accurately decipher their body language if only we take the time to tune in to it.
Waldau (2017) describes animal ethics “as a principal form of humans caring about “others,’” referring to other-than-human animals (p. 17). People of various cultures and religions have been caring about animals for thousands of years. Barry (2008) discussed the similarities in attitudes towards animals of various belief systems:
“There are biblical references to the dignity to be accorded to animals; the Qur'an speaks of communities of animals, comparing them to human communities; and Buddhism counsels loving kindness to all creatures. It is also true, however, that in most major world religions, humans have higher inherent value than animals, so that their rights are paramount” (Chapter 1, Section 4.4, Paragraph 4).
Even in our “loving kindness” towards nonhuman animals, human exceptionalism has dictated our perception of nonhuman animals, perhaps leading us to the current state of human-nonhuman relationships today.
In The Ecology of Magic, David Abram (1996) shares his experience of how connected indigenous peoples are with nature and animals. Their adept ability to be mindful and present in their natural worlds could translate to our interactions with dogs: as feminist ethics-of-care theorists would agree, dogs are always communicating with us if only we would pause and listen. I suspect that the indigenous people mentioned in Abram’s book would call for ethics that promote deepening our understanding of the realities of dogs as well as training and handling methods that are considerate of their emotional states as indicated by their body language. Perhaps, the feminist ethics-of-care tradition does just that.
Attentiveness to the realities of dogs can assist in determining what ethics looks like in dog training. This is most relevant in looking at dog welfare. In the dog training industry, there tends to be this dichotomy of science and ethics. Dawkins (2008) believes, however:
“Science, particularly animal welfare science, should play a role in establishing our ethical standards for animal professionals, because science reminds us to step outside of our human-centered perception of what is positive welfare. When establishing professional ethics in the animal industry, we can’t forgot to consider the realities of nonhuman animals” (p. 938).
It is also important to consider the limitations we face in fully understanding the realities of nonhuman animals. Additionally, Bekoff (2006) discusses how studying the emotional and cognitive lives of nonhuman animals can help us develop a greater appreciation not only for their lives but also for “what it is to be human” (p. 461). This begs the question: Would cultivating our awareness of the realities of dogs reawaken our buried biophilia and assist in improving other human-nonhuman animal relationships?
I hope that by critically thinking about these interdisciplinary topics, we can determine what methods of training are most ethical. However, many scientists, animal behaviorists and dog trainers would argue that reward-based training techniques that utilize primarily positive reinforcement are the most ethical due to the positive impact on dog welfare (Arhant, Bubna-Littitz, Bartels, Futschik & Troxler, 2011; Hiby, Rooney & Bradshaw, 2004; Rooney & Cowan, 2011; Todd, 2017).
Animal ethics can help us with ethical choices involving all animals: humans and nonhumans. Because dog training is an unregulated industry, it’s possible that many dog trainers don’t receive a formal education in ethics, let alone animal ethics. Thus, it is likely challenging for dog trainers to determine what is “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” “moral” or “immoral.” Animal welfare and animal behavior science, when taken into consideration with animal ethics, can help us make those determinations.
Ethics has been discussed in academia for hundreds if not thousands of years (Waldau, 2014a, p. 12-14). While these discussions have focused heavily on analyzing the various principal theories, it’s important to consider how to apply them to practical issues such as dog training. Barry (2008) believes that “the ethical dog trainer puts knowledge and skill into practice by implementing a clear set of beliefs, values, and principles” (Chapter 9, Section 2, Paragraph 1). Rollin (1999) discusses how, before an ethical dilemma can be resolved, “the relevant ethical components” must be identified and dissected (p. 18). While Rollin was referring specifically to veterinarians, this should apply to dog trainers and behavior consultants as well. Similarly, Barry argues that “end-based,” “duty-based” and “care-based” ethics can be applied to the ethical dilemmas dog trainers face by asking questions like:
“‘Who will be affected by my decision? (Include people and animals as well.) … What are my duties in this situation? … How would I feel if I were on the receiving end of my proposed decisions?” (Chapter 3, Section 13, Paragraph 3).
Many dog trainers likely don’t have the formal education on ethics to know how to apply these tools to the work they do, and they may not choose to seek out that type of education because it is not an industry standard. Unfortunately, Marks (2004) points out that even though many recognize that education on ethics for professionals is “sorely lacking” establishing curriculum for professional ethics “continue[s] to encounter resistance at many colleges and universities” (p. 1).
In the standardization and regulation of the dog training industry, education on ethics could be a valuable requirement if made more readily available. At the very least, requiring all dog trainers to adhere to a standard of professional ethics can be a step in the right direction.
Rollin (1999) discusses three different distinctions of ethics (p. 8-11). Personal ethics are based on our more individualized beliefs of what is “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” (p. 10). Social consensus ethics are the more basic and objective ethics that are “universally binding on all members of a society” (p. 9). For example, murder is universally unacceptable. However, because professionals are dealing with very specialized scenarios that the general public may not understand, they operate under a more specific subset of ethics, which Rollin refers to as professional ethics.
Are dog trainers “professionals?”
Interestingly, Barry (2008) argues that dog trainers don’t yet truly qualify as professionals, but rather, dog training is a still a “craft” (Chapter 7). He discusses Harold Gortner’s “seven characteristics of a profession” which are as follows:
This absence of regulation results in many dog trainers who aren’t members of professional organizations, and therefore, aren’t held accountable by any code of ethics. For trainers who do join a professional organization, if they violate their code of ethics, their membership may be revoked, but nothing stops them from continuing to train unless legal action is brought against them (Barry, 2008, Chapter 7, Section 1, Paragraph 1). Additionally, Marks (2004) discusses the “success at any cost” issue in the business and professional world, and from personal experience, I’m concerned that this is pervasive in the animal industry, as well. Understanding and adopting a uniform standard of ethics should be a requirement to prevent that profit-driven “success at any cost” mentality, which by doing so, would prevent negative dog welfare as well as dishonesty towards clients. In an interview with Jackie Johnston, dog trainer at Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Boulder, C.O. and student at The Academy of Dog Trainers, she said:
“I think ethics also play a role in transparency in dog training. The fact [is] that trainers don't have to say what they're going to do to your dog or what the side effects will be … [T]hey can blatantly lie about the methods they are using causing pain or fear” (personal communication, April 15, 2017).
Veterinary Professional Ethics
Modeling professional ethics in dog training after professional ethics in the veterinary industry may be a good place to start. Veterinary students do receive some level of ethics education, although the quality of their education in ethics is still up for debate (Waldau, 2007). Veterinarians also take an oath that promises to “[keep] with the principles of veterinary medical ethics” (AVMA, 2017). The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics (2016) includes a statute indicating that veterinarians are to minimize pain and fear, which I believe should also be adopted by all dog trainers and behavior consultants. Interestingly, from personal experience working in the veterinary industry, many veterinarians refer, perhaps unknowingly, to trainers who don’t abide by that principle. Veterinarian Patrick Flynn of Tampa, F.L. said:
“I do think that from a veterinary point of view, veterinary hospitals and staff need to continue to elevate their knowledge on this subject and make a sincere effort to align with a certified trainer in the same way that they align with a specialty hospital” (personal communication, April 15, 2017)
Welfare & Ethics
While decreasing negative animal welfare is included in the aforementioned principle in Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics (2016), the promotion of positive welfare is neglected. I believe the professional codes for dog trainers and behavior consultants should not only stand against methods and tools that cause negative dog welfare but also encourage trainers to promote positive welfare where possible. When discussing animal welfare, historically, the “Five Freedoms” have been considered the standard (Conklin, 2014). The Five Freedoms consist of the:
“Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
Freedom from Discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
Freedom from Fear and Distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.”
Mellor (2016) proposes a revision to the “Five Freedoms,” as our goals should extend beyond simply avoiding negative welfare. Rather, the goal should be to create positive welfare, and with the emphasis on simply avoiding negative experiences and states with the “Five Freedoms,” this is difficult to envision. Mellor recommends focusing on the “Provisions” rather than simply the “Freedoms.” He also suggests the addition of “Animal Welfare Aims.” The new model would look like this:
Using the fifth freedom as an example, Mellor’s model goes beyond simply the “freedom from fear and distress,” but to also “promote various forms of comfort, pleasure, interest, confidence and a sense of control.” This is extremely relevant to dog training and behavior consulting. Dog trainers and consultants need to be utilizing methods that don’t just “minimize fear” but also help dogs build confidence and allow them to make choices. Thus, I believe Mellor’s model could be used in the development of professional ethics for dog trainers.
Dog Training Associations’ Codes of Ethics
Unfortunately, many of the current codes of ethics adopted by members of various dog training professional organizations are often anthropocentric, and while many of them promote minimally aversive training techniques which discourages negative dog welfare, they don’t directly encourage the promotion of positive welfare.
The International Association of Canine Professionals (2014) has a “Code of Conduct,” that while 14 statutes long, does not address dog welfare. It does mention well-being in this context:
“Continue to further his/her education and increase his/her knowledge, skills and experience to stay current and be able to increase the well being (sic) of themselves, the profession, clients, customers, dogs, the dog ownership community and other affiliated bodies.”
It’s difficult to not see human exceptionalism in the diction of this statute. In fact, the word “dog” is only found three other times in this document, and the only mention of humane treatment towards dogs is the following:
“Any member who has been convicted in court of cruelty to dogs or inhumane treatment of animals shall be terminated from the International Association of Canine Professionals and all privileges withdrawn.”
The code does, however, discuss at length the accepted techniques and “tools of the trade,” which include slip (also known as “choke”) collars, prong collars and remote electronic collars, and that no member shall attempt to restrict the use of these tools.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (2016), on the other hand, promotes in their code of ethics the “LIMA” approach to dog training, which stands for “least invasive, minimally aversive.” Another statute requires its members to “[treat] all dogs and clients with respect.” I suspect that positioning “dogs” in this sentence before “clients” was done so with purpose. However, these two statutes are the only ones that guide trainers in their ethical decisions involving dog welfare.
The code of ethics for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (2014) says: “Animal behavior consultants work to minimize the use of aversive stimuli and maximize the effective use of positive reinforcement to modify animal behavior.” Similarly, the IAABC (2014) website features a position statement on their support of the “LIMA” approach to dog training. The position statement includes valuable information for trainers and behavior consultants regarding how animals learn and the most effective and humane ways to teach them. While neither the code of ethics nor the position statement mentions welfare explicitly, decreasing negative welfare with this approach is implied.
The code of ethics for the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (2014) also does not mention the word “welfare,” but it does state that certificants are to establish humane training goals in accordance to their position statement on the “Humane Hierarchy.” Their position statement on the “Humane Hierarchy” is similar to IAABC’s position statement on “LIMA,” and it specifies its purpose “as a guide in [our certificants’] decision making process when implementing training and behavior protocols” (CCPDT, 2015, p. 1). The CCPDT’s “Code of Ethics” also included two unique statutes worth sharing:
“A certificant of the CCPDT pledges to abide by the following … To use training and behavior modification methods based on accurate scientific research, emphasizing positive relationships between people and dogs and using positive reinforcement-based techniques to the maximum extent possible … To act with honesty and integrity toward clients, respecting their legitimate training and behavior goals and the autonomy of their choices, provided they conform to societal and legal standards of humane treatment for their pet” (CCPDT, 2014).
CCPDT has what I believe to be the most adequate codes of ethics in which a standardized code could be modeled from. The reasons I believe this to be true are as follows:
Code of Ethics Limitations
The limits of a professional code of ethics should also be recognized. As these codes are often more general standards, they frequently don't assist trainers in solving the ethical dilemmas they routinely face (Barry, 2008, Chapter 3, Section 3.3, Paragraph 2). CCPDT does the best job in their attempts at this, for example in their statute referring to ensuring clients are treating their animals humanely. One local trainer I know recently faced this dilemma when an elderly client of hers, who is possibly suffering from dementia, used excessive force to punish his dog for jumping to greet her. She reached out to our local trainers’ group in search of advice. However, CCPDT’s statute doesn’t assist this trainer in determining what to do if an animal is being treated inhumanely.
Similarly, as an ethical code is inherently rule-based, it is important to remember one of the criticisms of deontology. There are a lot of complicated ethical problems that vary greatly depending on context and other various factors which rules, or in this case, a code of ethics, cannot comprehensively account for.
A standard code of ethics may not assist dog trainers and behavior consultants in solving all of their ethical dilemmas. However, including many of the considerations discussed in this paper can facilitate the development of a code that can do so more effectively than those currently utilized. Given the aforementioned limitations, an ideal code of ethics for dog trainers will utilize knowledge of animal ethics as well as animal welfare and behavior science with consideration for the realities of dogs. For example, Mellor's (2016) “Animal Welfare Aims” provides useful inspiration for an ideal code of professional ethics. Similarly, it will consider the human-dog relationship as well as the relationship between human client and dog trainer or behavior consultant.
Analyzing principal theories of ethics from an interdisciplinary approach can also assist dog trainers in ethical decision-making. Feminist ethics-of-care as well as exploring the perceptions of animals by indigenous peoples is particularly applicable. Most importantly, considering the realities of dogs and their welfare, especially positive welfare, provides critical knowledge that should be applied to the ethical dilemmas dog trainers face.
Some dog trainers may not have the skills to critically think about these issues. Thus, making professional ethics education more available for dog trainers, such as the education that veterinary students undergo, could be paramount.
Finally, if the dog training business is to transform from a craft to a profession, and an ethical one at that, we must work together to decrease divisiveness and increase uniformity in our work. Barry (2008) believes:
“There is no simple approach to resolving conflicts of values, and making a choice can be an uncomfortable and lonely process. Becoming an ethical trainer is more than knowing the rules. It is a lifelong journey toward principled behavior and integrity” (Chapter 8, Section 5.6, Paragraph 13).
Waldau believes that “ethics is living and breathing” (personal communication, May 7th, 2017) . This refers to the ever-changing ethical questions and challenges arising in our everyday lives. I believe dog trainers should be equipped with the tools to critically think about these challenges and make ethical choices that promotes positive welfare and wellbeing for both dogs and humans.
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Owner of Coexistence Consulting. Master of Science in Anthrozoology. Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer. Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior. Student in The Academy for Dog Trainers.