Regina Collins wanted a place where she could take Chance, her bouncy 12-week old “doodle” puppy for boarding and training. So she dropped Chance off with Garrett Ridley at Ridley K9 Academy in Placerville, California.
Ridley’s website claims that he has been mentored by two different trainers with different philosophies, and says that he “has had extensive experience training with positive/reward based dog training methods and old school compulsion dog training methods. He quickly recognized the benefit of both methods and the fact that one without the other usually ended with an unbalanced dog.”
According to reports, when Collins went to pick up Chance, Chance wouldn’t come to her. When Collins asked Ridley what he had done to her dog, Ridley reportedly told her not to touch Chance because he was “in trouble.”
Alarmed, Collins took Chance to the vet. Her vet found Chance covered in urine, dehydrated and with eyes that were hemorrhaging. A video of Chance can be found on Station KCRA’s website. In the video, Chance’s eyes look eerily like injuries from “shaken baby” cases I have seen in my public defender days. Chance’s vet said that the injuries are consistent with having been restrained by the neck with high pressure.
Collins filed an official complaint, and El Dorado County Animal Services is currently investigating Ridley for crimes against animals. The investigation has also lead to a finding that Ridley did not have a proper license for a commercial animal establishment.
The debate over positive reinforcement versus force-based training has been raging for quite a while. To me – a mere dog lover with no training background other than trying to keep up with Sophie, my skittish Shepherd mix – the answer is quite easy. Positive reinforcement builds the bond between you and your dog. Force and compulsion rips the bond apart – if a true bond had even formed in the first place.
But I am lucky. Before I ever knew about the debate, my local shelter steered me to a wonderful trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods. Had I not had that guidance, I can’t say I would have found the right trainer and training methods. Nor could I possibly say that Sophie is “unbalanced” because I failed to use force based methods to “counteract” her positive reinforcement training.
Within the animal behavior and dog training profession, there is a ton of information and science to support the use of positive reinforcement. But that information does not always trickle down to the average person, who has to wade through flashy TV programs, books and advertisements that may promise “tried and true methods” and quick results. The risk is particularly great in Collins’ and Chance’s situation, with a board and train program.
Outside of the profession, there is currently very little regulation over dog trainers. But this is going to change. In fact, it has already started. Just last year, Iowa began requiring kennel licenses for dog trainers and groomers. Don’t get me wrong – regulation isn’t always a bad thing. But this economic climate could cause states and localities to regulate for the wrong reasons – most notably, sheer need of revenue. And officials may not bring in the most knowledgeable professionals to provide guidance.
Here’s a case in point. When Wisconsin finally passed a puppy mill bill, it stated that breeders would need to adhere to standards that were “to be determined.” In her blog post Could Breeders and Rescues Work Together?, Dr. Patricia McConnell expressed concern that trainers and behaviorists were not brought into the committee to decide those standards. It is amazing to me that Dr. McConnell, one of the few certified applied animal behaviorists and a top-notch expert in animal behavior and dog training, is sitting right there in Wisconsin, and no one asked her opinion on such crucial legislation.
Within the profession, there are many different associations for dog trainers, one of the most notable being the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. APDT’s Code of Professional Conduct requires “dog-friendly training,” but doesn’t go the extra step to define “dog friendly training,” much less to require positive reinforcement and prohibit force-based training. That said, APDT is a very well-established organization focusing on continuing education for trainers. This is evident just by looking at the incredibly impressive line-up of speakers at last year’s APDT conference. As to certifications and accreditation programs, APDT’s website lists seven different certifications that will support APDT “Professional Member” classification.
If you want to find the right kind of trainer, what are you to do? The doctrine of caveat emptor means it is your obligation to educate yourself and research the trainers you are considering.
Comb the trainers’ website and promotional materials to see how they explain their training methods and philosophy. Talk to them personally to get that explanation directly from the horse’s mouth. Read up on the types of accreditation and certifications trainers can have, and check the trainer’s certifications and education. Also look at which associations and organizations the trainer belongs to. Ask for recommendations from previous clients, and follow up with the clients to see what they have to say. Find out what kind of equipment the trainer recommends, and if the owner resorts to things like shock collars, choke or prong collars and invisible fences. And check up on their business credentials. Are they insured? Do they have a business license? This last simple question alone could have steered Collins away from Ridley. [If you have a pet related business or you are a client considering one, here's a quick checklist for you to start with.]
There is a lingering question of whether the dog training industry needs standardization and regulation. If this is to happen, I would like to see humane standards built in, and have those standards come from within the animal behavior and dog training profession itself. And I hope to see those standards reaching the public in a way that helps to guide the average person to the right kind of trainer and methods.
I also hope, if Ridley caused those injuries to Chance, that the authorities bring him to justice. Which brings me to one more tool that would be helpful to weed out “bad” trainers – animal abuser registries like the one started last year in Suffolk County, New York.