While doing some research today (thanks Google!), I came across something that I found upsetting. I know, finding something disturbing on the internet is hardly news. But this happened to be language in a dog training contract, and it bothered me enough that I felt the need to write this quick post about informed consent in dog training.
Here’s the language I came across (slightly edited):
“Owner fully understands the tools and techniques used to train and modify the behavior of the dog and agrees to the tools and techniques which include prong collar, bark collar, remote training collar, and flat collar.”
Yikes! I find a few pieces of this worrisome.
Can an owner be expected to fully understand the tools and techniques used in the training program? If they did have such deep knowledge, why are they seeing a professional for help? They may nearly well have the skills to do the job on their own. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect any pet parent, even one who does their due diligence, to “fully understand” the tools and techniques. I seriously question the ethics of asking a dog owner to swear that they “fully understand” the tools and techniques. Why is the trainer requesting such an oath?
As a devil’s advocate, maybe the dog owner did have a discussion with the trainer to understand how these tools and techniques work. In this case, a better approach may be to ask the owner to sign a document to confirm their receipt of the counseling session and perhaps a handbook. What I would like about this latter scenario is that the trainer clearly discloses the training tools and techniques, and the owner is then able to provide informed consent.
I have had students who had the very unfortunate experience of visiting a training business whose website advertised their use of positive reinforcement. This was true. However, the trainers also used prong collars, and did not disclose this fact. The students arrived early to pick up the dog from the facility, and found training equipment being used on their dog to which they had never consented. I now advise anyone seeking a trainer to explicitly inquire about what tools and techniques the trainer uses – reading the website philosophy is not enough.
Let’s go back to the original contract language. Before training has begun, the dog owner has been asked to agree to the use of several training tools and techniques, some of which cause discomfort or pain. A good trainer will follow the Least Invasive Minimally Aversive principle. In short, be the kindest that you possibly can be. The contract itself doesn’t mean that the trainer isn’t following this principle, and indeed they could be a very humane trainer. But the contract language presents a conversational roadblock should the student and trainer disagree on the use of a tool or technique. Will the trainer just say “Well, you signed the contract, so this is what we’re going ahead with.”? Will the student even voice their concerns in the first place?
When we begin private training and group training sessions, we always tell our students that they can say “No”. Each student is ultimately responsible for the well-being of his or her dog, and should be empowered in that position. It can be hard for some of us to question people that we view as professionals, experts, or in a position of authority – so it help to be told that this is acceptable. We make sure to ask students if they have any questions. We never want a student to feel uncomfortable or powerless. We’re happy to explain in further detail our reasoning for using a certain tool or technique, and our reasoning for excluding other options. If that still isn’t acceptable to the student, then we will happily propose another solution that everyone can agree is ethical and humane.
This isn’t just Fetch – this is any trainer worth their salt. If a trainer is unwilling to engage in discussion about their choices and to answer your questions, if the trainer does not honor your request to find a solution that you find humane and acceptable, that is not a good trainer. You can leave the situation. And your dog will thank you.
When I read the language of this contract snippet, I imagined a pet parent that I know too well: very worried about their dog’s future, concerned for the well-being of their family, and exhausted from the daily stress of trying to manage the dog’s unwanted behaviors. This pet parent is at the end of their rope, and coming to the trainer with a heavy heart and their furry family member in tow. They are unlikely to be in a position to “fully understand” a cornucopia of training tools and techniques, and they are unlikely to have the energy or confidence to question if some of the tools are appropriate. In my opinion, this doesn’t feel like engaging and empowering the pet parent – it feels like bullying.
Maybe I was a bit too sensitive, or read too much into this contract. Maybe it doesn’t even legally hold a drop of water. But I do know that it made me want to shout from the mountains – or from the heights of my teeny blog – that dog guardians can indeed say “No!” in defense of their dog’s well-being. In fact, I encourage you to take it a step further. Make it your mission to find groomers, veterinarians, and trainers who ask you this: “What do you and your dog want to say YES to?” Now that’s the kind of relationship that I want. Don’t you?