Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


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How Can I Tell A “Good” Trainer From a “Bad” One?

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 TrainersAPDT’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.


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Virginia Finally Proposes Minimum Standards Of Care For Agricultural Animals

Virginia Delegate Robert D. Orrock, Sr. (R-District 54) has introduced HB 1541, a bill that will lay out minimum standards of care for agricultural animals. 

Currently, Virginia has minimum standards of care for companion animals, but lacks the equivalent for agricultural animals.  This has seriously hindered law enforcement officers, who often feel the need to wait until conditions for agricultural animals reach life-threatening levels that can support animal cruelty charges.  A perfect example of this is found in Sullivan v. Commonwealth, dealing with an extreme lack of care for a horse.

The heart of HB 1541 is the addition of Code Section 3.2-6503.1, setting out the standard of care for agricultural animals:

§ 3.2-6503.1. Care of agricultural animals by owner; penalty.

A. Each owner shall provide for each of his agricultural animals:

1. Feed to prevent emaciation;

2. Water to prevent dehydration; and

3. Veterinary treatment as needed to prevent impairment of health or bodily function when such impairment cannot be otherwise addressed through animal husbandry or humane destruction.

B. The provisions of this section shall not require an owner to provide feed or water (i) when such is customarily withheld, restricted, or apportioned pursuant to a farming activity; (ii) if otherwise prescribed by a veterinarian; or (iii) if the owner is unable to do so due to an act of God.

C. The provisions of this section shall not apply to agricultural animals used for bona fide medical or scientific experimentation.

D. A violation of this section is a Class 4 misdemeanor.

I would have liked to have seen more aggressive standards of care, and harsher penalties.  A Class 4 misdemeanor carries a maximum fine of only $250.  But this is a much-needed start.  And it will hopefully serve as a launching pad for stricter laws in the future.

So what is an “agricultural animal”?  Virginia Code Section 3.2-6500 defines “agricultural animals” to include “all livestock and poultry.”  “Livestock” includes “all domestic or domesticated:  bovine animals; equine animals; ovine animals; porcine animals; cervidae animals; capridae animals; animals of the genus Lama; ratites; fish or shellfish in aquaculture facilities…; enclosed domesticated rabbits or hares raised for human food or fiber; or any other individual animal specifically raised for food or fiber, except companion animals.”  “Poultry” includes “all domestic fowl and game birds raised in captivity.”

For comparisons of the definitions of “agricultural animal” and “companion animal,” and the competing minimum standards of care, take a look at Virginia Code Section 3.2-6503 and my previous post, So What Are My Responsibilities As a Pet Owner?

I have heard through the grapevine that HB 1541 has very wide support, and I certainly hope this is the case.  If the General Assembly passes HB 1541, law enforcement will have a new tool to aid agricultural animals before conditions reach critical levels. 

UPDATED:  After many thoughtful comments and more thinking particularly of the relationship between this bill and the current animal cruelty statute, please refer to my later post for my current thoughts on this bill.


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Pushing The Envelope: Acknowledging Animal Law’s Acceptance And Feeling Our Way Around The Legal Status Of Companion Animals

Deputies in Frederick County, Maryland went to the Jenkins residence to serve court papers on Sandra and Roger’s teenage son.   The deputies knocked on the door, and Roger answered.  Roger asked if he could have a moment to put the family dogs away before they came in.  At that moment, the Jenkins’ Labrador retriever, Brandi, noticed the unfamiliar cars in the driveway and began to bark.  In response, one of the deputies shot Brandi in the chest and leg.  Brandi collapsed, bleeding, in the snow.

Fortunately, Brandi survived.  But the Jenkins family says that Brandi is permanently disabled from the shooting.  They have filed a law suit against the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office for reckless endangerment and infliction of emotional distress.  The Sheriff’s Office has denied liability, claiming the shooting was justified.

I am glad to see that animal law – and specifically companion animal law – is gaining acceptance.  In fact, the Jenkins family’s tragedy spawned articles coast to coast – from the Baltimore Sun to the Los Angeles Times.  But the downside is that the awareness stems in large part from law enforcement shootings of beloved family dogs.  This is hardly a new phenomenon, unfortunately, and it’s something I have already blogged about in Dogs And Guns Don’t Mix.

Hopefully, the positive side to all of this will be further development of the legal status of companion animals.  Maryland may just be the state that will push these boundaries.  Brandi’s case is not the only one pending in the Maryland courts right now.  Another law suit is pending in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  That case involves the shooting and killing of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo’s two Labrador retrievers  after the officers suspected the mayor’s wife was involved in drug trafficking.  And in a recent Maryland custody case, a Calvert County Circuit Court judge set up joint custody of the family dog, declining to treat the dog like mere property.  You can read more on this in Pets, Property And Price, Part 1:  Is Fido A Pampered Pooch Or Mere Personal Property?

As the law currently stands in Virginia, a plaintiff like Jenkins or Calvo cannot recover damages for emotional distress if officers were negligent.  But the Virginia Supreme Court has specifically left the door open for intentional torts – and perhaps gross and wanton recklessness.  To read more about the status of Virginia law and damages, take a look at Pets, Personal Property And Price, Part 3:  What Damages Can Fido Sue For?  If you would like to track the Jenkins and Calvo case, you can do so at the Maryland Judiciary Case Search site.


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Happy New Year! Looking Back at 10 Posts from 2010

As we ring in 2011, here’s a quick recap of 10 facts and lessons from last year’s posts:

  1. Although federal law only requires labeling of fur garments, Virginia law actually prohibits garments made of dog or cat fur.
  2. The ADA definition of “service animal” is changing to limit service animals to basically only dogs.
  3. The videos involved in the US v. Stevens First Amendment case involved depictions of dog fighting, not animal crush videos.
  4. The American Veterinary Medical Association just changed the veterinarian’s oath to include animal welfare and the prevention of animal suffering.
  5. The Lynchburg Fire Department honored a search and rescue dog it recently lost by distributing pet oxygen masks on rescue vehicles.
  6. An appellate court in Wales just upheld legislation banning shock collars.
  7. Suffolk County, New York was the first jurisdiction to establish a public Animal Abuser Registry.
  8. Many home owner insurance carriers charge higher premiums or even exclude coverage for animal liability if the household contains a dog such as a pit bull, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Husky, Chow or Akita.
  9. Many Northern Virginia jurisdictions limit each household to three dogs, and require a kennel license for more than three dogs.
  10. A California Court of Appeals decision determined that the “exigent circumstances” exception the warrant requirement can include protection of the life of an animal.

May 2011 be peaceful, positive and prosperous for you and your loved ones!