Dog experts and gynecologists

OpEd piece on qualifications in the dog behaviour professions in the Netherlands
By Laure-Anne Visele, Oct 2014
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About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus.

I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour.

When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Education vs. guts: another polarizing trend

I’ve had this discussion with a big name in the local industry lately. Someone I admire; someone who certifies great behaviourists. I think he was calling for:

  • less certifications / more practice,
  • less seminars / more experience,
  • less head / more heart.

I could hear what he was saying, but it alarmed me. Taken too far, does it mean disregarding certifications, forgetting about new ideas and throwing away skepticism?

Less certifications / More practice

Many dog behaviour pros resist the idea of a protected profession. I get why: the certification bodies churn out many less-than-perfect professionals, so why bother getting certified?

For a long time I wondered the same thing. It’s slim pickings out there when you’re looking for a great certification program. You have a choice between the:

  • Strong on the practical side but oh-so-weak on the theory.
  • Glorified personality cults.
  • Appallingly disorganized but academically top-notch.
  • Great all-round, but not taken seriously in academia/professional community.
  • Oh, and most disagree with each other on core points…

I ended up with a postgraduate course for Applied companion animal behaviour and welfare. It is recognized by insurance companies and universities, and heavily science-focused. Ideal for me as I want to go into research and have a science background.

Having started the course with some experience and having reviewed tons of books, I just wanted a piece of paper to certify my knowledge. I didn’t think I’d learn anything new. It turns out it taught me lots. I came out a better therapist.

Sure my fellow students graduated with too little experience. Having a degree does not make you a fully-fledged professional. But at least you have solid foundations upon which to start your career.

Gynecologist

I don’t get in what world having a certification could possibly decrease the quality of your services. Surely:

  • Experience + degree = two
  • Experience + no degree = one
  • No experience + degree = one
  • No experience + no degree = zero

Our clients and their dogs deserve a two, don’t they? Better to be inexperienced but certified, than neither experienced nor certified, right? And isn’t the best scenario experienced and certified?

I would support market regulation if I never again have to hear anyone say: “My dog hates other dogs more now. The trainer before you told us to jerk his leash every time he barked at one.”

Am not saying every certified pro would avoid that approach, nor that every self-made pro would advise leash-jerking, but most certifications steer away from force nowadays so that’s one more buffer against abuse in training.

Less seminars / More experience

Seminars: it’s as good as the speaker

Like the certification market, the seminar scene is tough to navigate: you have to avoid personality cults and fad techniques. But attending the right seminar once in a while is great for networking, re-framing your approach, and staying on top of new developments.

Some people are so seminar-obsessed they need a second mortgage to keep up with the habit. And they have little time to digest it and check it against reality. Does that make them better professionals? Not sure.

Do seminars replace experience? Also not. But even the most senior professional must prove he is keeping up – same with veterinarians, and… gynecologists.

Less head / More heart

The all-books-and-no-experience guy who thinks himself infallible is insufferable, granted. There’s different degrees of reliability and research findings are far from flawless – more on how I feel about that here (in Dutch). You have to weigh the merit of the research paper (that’s four hours of your life you’ll never get again) and one paper gives you absolutely no certainty.  And sure, attending seminars really is just listening to someone else’ fallible opinion so why reject your own fallible judgement for someone else’s?

"Never ignore a gut feeling but never believe it's enough" Kermit the frog (Photo by Kevin Galens, Flickr CC

“Never ignore a gut feeling but never believe it’s enough” Kermit the frog (Photo by Kevin Galens, Flickr CC)

But if psychology has taught us anything, it’s that gut feeling is the least reliable way of evaluating the world. Myths and old wife’s tales rely on gut feelings. We think it’s instinct but most often it’s just confirmation bias.

FallaciesAs an (annoying) skeptic, I treat my gut feeling like a working hypothesis: I try to reject it and if I can’t, maybe I’m onto something. I’ve been through the belief -> check -> discomfirmation cycle so often that I need reliable evidence for even the obvious things before I consider them fact. Like Matt Dillahunty says “I try to believe as many true things as possible, and reject as many false things as possible” The hardcore skeptic road is arduous: it’s frustrating, it’s slow, it’s unpopular, it’s confusing, and it’s not… instinctive.

So I boringly present every diagnosis like this: “This is my interpretation based on X. Those are signs of Y, which would mean that Z is most suitable for you and your dog.” It doesn’t sound as snappy as calling out my first impression, which was “Stop treating your dog like a spoiled kid”. Sometimes the gut feeling was right and the dog was just unruly and needed clearer boundaries. But first I’ll try to rule out the alternatives before I call it. More often than not, when you scratch beyond the surface, you see a dog who’s scared out of his wits and who is suffering.

So pro-experiencers also think formal training is good, but they feel experience counts for a lot more and that what was taught should be discarded if it doesn’t match with what is felt. That’s where I say “Wow there. Can we slow this down a minute?”

Why the post?

I get nervous with calls for more instinct and less education in a profession that is already so unregulated, and that deals with aggression cases. Sure, experience matters. A lot. But let’s not start putting down the ones who are trying to complement that with a formal education.

You wouldn’t trust the still-wet-behind-the-ears junior obstetrician to handle a complicated delivery. But you won’t trust it to the local witch doctor either, right? No matter how experienced he is.

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