Dog Training Certifications – What They Really Mean

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What does it mean when someone says they are a certified dog professional dog trainer? Specifically, what do all those letters after a trainer’s name mean?

First, this won’t be a complete list of all the certifications and letters. There are too many. I’m going to focus on the broader question and then the specific certifications our trainers have.

Let’s start with the bad news. Anyone can call themselves a certified dog trainer. There are no rules or laws. We can even call ourselves a dog behaviorist if we want to (see I kind of just did it). No rules. Sally Q can go to Joe Bob’s school for dog trainers, get a slip of paper (or a PDF emailed to her) and say “Boom, I’m certified.” That’s the ugly truth of dog training. We are 100% unregulated. Your vet tech needs a license. So does your hairdresser and your insurance guy. Dog trainers? Nope. Not us.

Most trainers these days pay more attention to independent certifications than they do to certificates issued by dog training schools. Karen Pryor Academy is a school. It issues the KPA-CTP (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner). I’ve got one of those. The San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers issued it’s own certificate. Others do, too. The certificate is only as valuable as the school that printed it and it’s only a reflection of what that school teaches (think: diploma).

Independent certifications are often more rigorous and objective. They are awarded by testing bodies rather than teaching institutions.

The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) issues the Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) certifications. There is the knowledge assessed (KA) distinction and the knowledge and skills assessed (KSA) distinction. The latter means the certificant’s actual hands-on skills as a trainer have been graded.

The CCPDT does not teach classes in dog training.

Earning their certification requires:

  • 300 hours of experience
  • Recommendation from a veterinarian, behaviorist, or Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (more on what this is next)
  • Passing a 200 question multiple choice test covering – instruction skills, animal husbandry, ethology, learning theory, and training equipment.

The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) issues the Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (CCBC) certifications. They also issue other certifications not directly related to this blog piece.

The IAABC does offer courses and webinars on training and behavior but those are not required to earn certification.

Earning a CDBC or a CCBC is quite vigorous work. It requires:

  • 500 hours of experience
  • Minimum 400 hours of coursework, seminars, or mentorships
  • Familiarity with significant behavior issues including aggression
  • Three professional letters of recommendation
  • Passing an extensive exam that includes definitions of terms and concepts, analysis of behavior case scenarios, and actual case studies from the applicant. Earning my CDBC was still the hardest and most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my professional life.

Veterinary Behaviorists are different from trainers and behavior consultants. Many (like our own Dr. Lore Haug) are also excellent trainers. However, veterinary behaviorists have the distinction of being a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB). They are also licensed by the state. Most folks don’t need to take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist, though we do refer clients to Dr. Haug and we also work with many of her patients.

Non-veterinary Behaviorists are often academics with a masters degree or PhD. They may or may not have a specialty in (or even an interest in) hands-on training or the practical application of behavior interventions. And remember, the terms behaviorist, animal behaviorist, and dog behaviorist are still unregulated. Anyone can use them, and a lot of those folks shouldn’t.

Michael’s Dogs Behavior Group is a team of Certified Professional Dog Trainers, Certified Dog Behavior Consultants, and a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant. Though many refer to us as behaviorists, we think of ourselves as practical trainers and educators with a specialty in behavior change. Okay, ditch the fancy talk. We are dog aggression experts. We help people who have pets with significant behavior problems. We are the ones you call when others have failed. We are the end-of-your rope I think I’ve tried everything and I need help trainers. Experience, education and certifications are so important. More important, though, is a kind human being who understands what you’re going through, someone who can help you weed through the confusion and unpredictability, someone who will listen carefully without judging you. That’s us. We aren’t here to criticize. We are here to help. And yeah, we have the letters after our name to back us up. That helps, too.

 

Michael Baugh leads Michael’s Dogs Behavior Group in Houston TX.

 

The Case Against Emotional Support Dogs

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

In early 2002 a man came to my Sunday Morning group dog training class. During introductions he told the class that his doctor had suggested he get a dog, an adorable golden retriever, and that he should take a training class with her. Emotional support dogs weren’t so much a thing back then. And I didn’t know until weeks later exactly why his doctor had prescribed the dog and our class.

Humans’ shared history with dogs is relatively brief. In the big picture humans have been on the planet a very short time (about 200,000 years). Dogs and humans have been together for about 11,000 to 15,000 years give or take. Most of that time the work of dogs has been physical. They flushed prey and retrieved our kills. Dogs moved herds and flocks for us. They guarded flocks too and property and our lives. Dogs were extensions of our bodily will and force, weapons even. In war. In police states. The work of dogs was muscle and motion and might.

Modern human history started around 6,000 years ago when we first formed what we refer to as “civilization.” Villages and Towns. Concepts around the mind and mental wellbeing came later: western and eastern philosophies and religions. Not until the 1800’s did the ideas around modern psychology start to emerge in Europe. Vienna was a hotbed of psychological thought and the home of what became psychotherapy. Dogs in Vienna back then were hunting and killing rats and mice, by the way. Many quite successfully.

Here’s what we know. Our relationships with dogs make us feel good. Please note that I didn’t say dogs make us feel good. They don’t. Not all of them. Not for all of us. Humans produce a hormone associated with social bonding (oxytocin) when in contact with their own dogs. Dogs they know. Dogs they like. This is not new information. And this reaction has little or nothing to do with the dog itself. We produce the hormone in response to our relationship with the dog. It happens with my neighbor who adodores her 10o lb shorthaired block-head dog. It happens with my sister who dotes on her doodle. It happens to me when I look into my dog’s dewey eyes. It happens in men. It happens in women. Oxytocin does not care if your dog pees on your carpet, lunges and threatens strangers, or listens when you call his name. It does not even care if your dog returns your feelings of love and admiration.

Here’s what else we know. Our relationships with our fellow humans make us feel good too. Oxytocin is associated with human bonding most especially. And certainly there are other factors at play. In fact, data throughout the decades indicate that the most important contributor to our overall emotional wellbeing as humans is (wait for it) our successful relationships with other human beings. Compared with any variation of psychoherapy, day-to-day human relationships matter more. (A therapist early in my adult life literally told me to go make some friends. It worked). Yes, human relationships are messy. They are reciprocal. And, sometimes they are not. They are dynamic, blissful, painful, all that. And human relationships are what we humans are built for. And, when done right – they are consensual.

Our dogs have no choice. When I adopted Stella she had no idea what my intentions were. Would she be a game retriever? Would she be a rat hunter? Would she be required to carry the burden of my human emotions, of which she likely has no understanding? Stalk, chase, grab, shake? Yes, dogs are built for that. Navigate the complexities of our human life? I daresay, no. Who among us has even figured that out? And may I also ask, why are we putting this added responsibility on our dogs?

The truth is our dogs need our emotional support. We have taken these formidable physical hunters and guarders and herders and put them on leashes and in cars and up against our sobbing bodies. In many cases we have denied them the sniffing and the sprinting and the seeking they were built for and (literally) boxed them into “calm down” and “hurry up” and “let’s go.” I’m guilty of it too. On top of it all, over the past few decades, we’ve added an extra burden: “and, take care of me please.”

Thirty years ago my profession did not exist. There were no trainers who specialized in emotionally at-risk dogs. And my hope is that in 30 years hence it will not exist again. Let’s shift the focus off ourselves. Let’s take the weight of our own emotional fragility off of our dogs. Let’s challenge ourselves to turn to each other for care and support. And then, let’s turn to our dog and ask “How can I help you?” In relationship with humans dogs produce oxytocin in their own bodies, too. They feel. They bond. They are social animals. Let’s make these simple commitments to our dogs:

  • I will learn to better understand your emotions by leaning how you communicate nonverbally with your body and face.
  • I will keep you safe and protect you from stressors that I can see cause you pain and suffering.
  • I will teach you how to navigate our complex human world with kind and gentle positive reinforcement learning.
  • I will play, exercise, and relax with you. I will share my time with you.
  • I will connect with other human beings to support my emotional wellbeing so that I can better attend to yours on a daily basis, every day for the rest of your life.

A few weeks into that group class back in 2002 I asked folks how they were doing. The man whose doctor had prescribed the dog and our class spoke last. He spoke softly. I will prophase as best I can remember. I have depression. He said.  It’s hard for me to get up some mornings. I don’t always like being around people. But, I have to get up in the morning to take care of (he said his dog’s name). I have to train with her. And, I come here every week. She’s having fun. I think it helps her. And, it’s good for me to get out. I think it’s helping me too.

I think of that man and his dog often. I wonder who his doctor was. What a brilliant idea he had, teaching his patient that a dog could get him up and out in the world. The healing wasn’t in the care his dog provided  him – it was in the care he provided his dog. It’s such a simple and beautiful concept. Go to a training class. It was a specific remedy to go be among people. Fellow human beings – travelers together down this same uncertain path. Even now, I remember the walk up the stairs to my own therapists office. “Go make some friends, Micheal.” Yes. Yes. “Look for the helpers,” as Fred Rogers famously said. Look for each other. Turn to each other. Bond with and care for each other, with a dog at your side if you wish. Make some friends.

And, when the time comes get a petsitter for the dog.

And, take a trip with a friend. You can always share a plane ride with a dear fellow human being.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in dogs who behave fearfully or aggressively.

How Balanced Dog Training Fails

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Balanced trainers pride themselves on using a mix of positive reinforcement dog training and, when needed, punishment. They might use food and praise or even clicker training. They might also use choke collars, prong collars, or even shock collars. At first glance it sounds pretty good. Let’s use all the tools and techniques available to us. And if the dog does well with positive reinforcement we don’t have to resort to the nasty stuff. Fair enough. Right?

Honestly, I can see the appeal. But I see the trap doors and trip wires, too.

The truth is all dogs do well with positive reinforcement training. We know this because it’s the natural way all organisms learn. No one invented this. We discovered it. It’s a law of nature like gravity. You don’t have to believe in gravity. It just is. You don’t have to believe in positive reinforcement either. It simply is and it doesn’t fail (just like nothing ever falls up). Balanced trainers rest on some binary thinking that seems intuitive. If the dog fails, then we resort to pain or intimidation (the euphamism they often use is “pressure.”) But, here’s the flaw in their logic.  Our dogs don’t fail. Nature has already hard-wired them to learn this way. So, where’s the failure? Why do we so easily reach for the leash correction or the shock collar?

Here’s what I’ve learned. Positive reinforcement is easy for our dogs. It’s hard for us. Don’t misunderstand. The ideas are straightforward and clear. And even the mechanics of doing positive reinforcement dog training are fairly easy. Some of us just have a hard time wrapping our brains around it. We humans are bombarded with punishment and the threat of punishment all day everyday. I can understand how we could see punishment-based dog training as a viable option (or perhaps the only option). Even dog trainers dedicated to teaching with positive reinforcement struggle. We learn and re-learn year-after-year. We need reminding because positive reinforcement doesn’t come naturally to some of us. We know it works. Yes. We can see it working, of course. And yet, we remain blind. A balanced trainer is simply this: a positive reinforcement trainer who lost sight.

Positive reinforcement training teaches our dogs what to do. It’s proactive. Come. Sit. Lie down. Stay. Punishment is reactive. And here’s how else balanced dog training fails. Punishment doesn’t really teach our dog what we think it does. It doesn’t teach him what not-to-do. When the scale tumbles toward using pain and intimidation in training we are tumbling with it into some treacherous territory. Here’s what we’ve learned over the past century about what punishment really teaches.

Escape. We and our dogs retreat from things that are painful or scary. This is as natural as positive reinforcement, but it’s much less precise. A dog escaping a shock by running back to his human can masquerade as good training. But, we are teaching the dog more about what he’s running from than what he’s running to. Don’t count on any lasting dog-human bonding here. There’s also the very real danger of the punishment getting hitched up with other triggers in the environment. Think of ripples in a pond. The shock is scary. Run. But what else is associated with the shock? A bird? A cracking twig? That guy over there? Lot’s of things can start to spook our dog now. Anything can predict a shock and lead to a terrified bolting dog.  Plus, we are sliding dangerously close to Escape’s more troubling cousin.

Avoidance. Sometimes we just shut down. We’re done. I’ve met dogs trained on shock collar fence systems who won’t leave their back porch. I’ve met dogs for whom walks are so punishing they are afraid to go out at all. I’ve met dogs who hide and cower and won’t do anything. Of course, this common effect of punishment doesn’t look like training at all. The dogs get slapped with labels like “stubborn” or even “dominant” when in fact they are just terrified of what could be. It’s sad but not as dangerous as what could come next.

Counter Coercion. That’s the technical term for pushing back. We do it. Some dogs do it. There are plenty of studies now that link painful training with owner-directed aggression. I suspect that the ripple effect of punishment is what leads to dogs lashing out at less culpable targets as well. Violence begets violence. It’s a mnemonic we know well but too often forget when we think of our dogs. And too many dogs end up paying for our forgetfulness with their lives.

I sometimes wonder what life would be like if we constantly supported and encouraged each other’s best behavior choices. And then in the next thought, what if we could start doing that even just a little. What if, instead of crashing into a punishing day, we tilted into the nature of our better angels. What if we could tip the scale all the way to a lighter, more joyful, more natural kind of being – with our dogs and with each other?  What if our lives, in this one beautiful way, were delightfully out of balance?

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training.