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.

 

How We Feed Our Dogs Can Make Them Smarter

 

Michael Baugh KPA-CTP CDBC CPDT-KSA

Feeding our dogs from enrichment toys, toys that dispense food, can actually make them smarter. It definitely seems to make them happy. Puzzling out the food inspires activity and thought. A lot of trainers liken it to the skills a scavenging dog or a hunting dog would need in order to eat the food they’d found or killed. Other trainers, me included, have noticed that it helps our dogs focus, activating their brains in a way boring bowl feeding simply doesn’t.

Food-Toy-BW (1)It turns out we’re probably right. Animals (and human animals) who successfully learn challenging skills are more likely to be successful at subsequent challenging skills. In other words, succeeding at hard stuff makes us better at doing more hard stuff.

The research actually dates back to the late 1970s. I came across it in Angela Duckworth’s great book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She cites the research of Dr. Robert Eisenberger from the University of Houston. He showed that rats that mastered a complicated task to earn food pellets, pressing a lever multiple times, we able to master subsequent complicated tasks (like running a maze) more easily. In fact they learned new tasks with more vigor and endurance. He ran related studies with children and college students in the 1980s with similar results. Eisenberger called the process Learned Industriousness. 

Are our dogs learning to be more industrious because we feed them from food-dispensing toys? I think so. The task-based eating process is similar to what Eisenberger used, teaching the animal to work for the food.  It also aligns with what many clicker trainers have observed. Dogs who learn tasks seem to learn how to learn. As they come to understand the process, the learning seems to come faster.

Almost all of my clients report that Mat Work, teaching their dog to lie on a mat, helps the dog become more focused. Mat Work is fairly complicated because it challenges the dog to figure out what do do with the mat (lie down on it) on his own. We don’t provide instructions, only feedback via clicks and treats. It’s a puzzle for the dog to solve. When we set it up properly and provide honest and clear reinforcement the dog figures it out, usually pretty quickly. It’s a hard skill that sets our dog up for more learning – for mastering other hard skills. In the clear light of Eisenberger’s research, all this seems to make more sense now. For a great primer on how Mat Work works, read Fired Up Frantic and Freaked Out by Laura Van Arendonk Baugh (no relation).

How do we teach our dogs learned industriousness? Let’s start with the toys. There are lots of great food-dispensing toys on the market. For beginners I recommend the Bob-A-Lot (pictured above). It’s perfect for feeding dry food. I’m also a big fan of the KONG Classic, which truly is a classic. Both are available online and at local retailers.

Michael Baugh KPA-CTP CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping dogs with aggression and fearful behavior

How Dog Training Makes us Better Humans

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I come to this work with few, if any, ulterior motives. I’m certainly not being manipulative, nor am I conducting any mad scientist experiments (benevolent or otherwise). I will admit, though, a bit of warm satisfaction when I see what dog training does to people.

Yes, even on the face of it, training our dogs helps us a great deal. It’s no secret. This is a human endeavor. We benefit as much as our dogs. Reinforcement based (think non-coercive) training helps dogs make better decisions. It helps them behave better. In turn, the dog stays in his home, lives longer, and seems more joyful. Humans? Well it’s a big relief when the bad dog goes good. Win-win all around. Everyone’s happier.

But, in my experience some other things are happening too. I’ve noticed a trend over these 16+ years in dog training. When a human being starts thinking about his dog differently, when he uses smiles and praise and food in training, when he sets aside his anger and force and restraint, something happens. There’s a change, not just in the dog. It’s a human change, sometimes subtle, but no less real.

This is what I’ve noticed:

IMG_0861We speak less and listen more. Of course when we think of listening to our dogs, what we really mean is we watch them. Folks who’ve learned how to communicate with and teach their dogs using force-free methods do this a bit differently, though. We really watch our dogs, with soft attentive eyes, like we’re looking at a brilliant painting, or watching a fascinating film for the fist time. All of the stories we tell on our dogs, all the commands and admonitions, they all fall silent. We change. Not so much the dog, but the human, we change. We stop looking for error and evil and we start seeking out our dog’s goodness, his correctness, and his best moments of simply being.

When we do speak, our words flow from kindness. What else can we say? When we start noticing our dogs differently, we speak better of them. They are two human behaviors naturally and inextricably connected. See goodness of being; speak the same. And, we smile. We are touched and we touch; we praise; we celebrate our dogs with food and play and quiet moments. We connect at a level that seems sometimes hard to explain to others.

And, then we cross the line. This is the part so many of us never saw coming. We learn how to be and how to act with our dogs. Our dogs learn in turn how to be and how to act with us. They reflect the lesson back and teach us and before long, so often, the lesson spills over. I’ve seen it happen first hand. It’s real – inexplicable maybe – undeniable nonetheless. We start treating each other differently. So much in the habit of seeking and supporting goodness, celebrating the actions we love from the beings we love, we start doing it more. With each other. We cross the line. We watch each other with soft attentive eyes. We speak to each other from a place of kindness. It’s God’s work or Dog’s work. Backwards and forwards, it is what it is.

IMG_0816 (1)I’ve left people’s homes too many times with butterflies in my gut and an impish (smug?) smile on my face for it to be mere coincidence. Dogs on the line, we trainers know all about them. Families on the line, we talk too little about them I think. I’m not being manipulative, no indeed. But once the door is opened, it’s hard to shut. See for the first time how reinforcement changes not only your dog’s behavior, but also how you feel about your dog, and you won’t soon forget it. See how it helps create long-lasting nurturing relationships with your fellow humans, with the people you love, and it’s nothing less than life changing. How could it not be?

I’ve seen it happen, witnessed it first hand to many times for it to be my imagination. In and out for a few sessions, job well-done, thank you very much, call me if you need more help. But don’t think I didn’t see it – the child and parent smiling and working together, the man in love with his wife more so now because she loves his dog, the family listening – taking turns – encouraging each other – just like they do with the dog.

I’m no mad scientist. In fact, I take no credit. It’s like I tell my clients. I just have some information. You get to make all the decisions. This is all you.

Michael teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with fearful and aggressive dogs.