The Truth about Certifications
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
When I was 30, an acquaintance told me that in his native language, my name means “gullible”—to which I responded, “Seriously?”
It was funny then and it's still funny now. But some gullibility has consequences. And sometimes, gullibility is farmed. Some of that farming is called “marketing.” I have no problem with marketing; small business owners like myself must rely on good marketing for our good work to become known. Please note that I said good marketing—emphasis on good.
I think we can agree that good marketing should not exploit the innocence of others, nor put others at risk, especially not by misleading them. Yet such exploitation occurs every day, and there seems no way to stop it. We can, however, do at least a little something to minimize its power over us--by educating ourselves and then helping others to understand. As a former college professor, and before that an adult education teacher, it's just habit I suppose. Today I hope to help you understand a little more about dog trainer marketing.
One thing that we dog trainers do is share videos. I won’t be talking at length about this right now, but do want to mention that just because the results in a video look great, that does not mean that how the results were achieved were great. In dog training, the process is just as important as the end result, and it should be a Do No Harm—emotional or physical—process. You might be surprised to hear me say that I've seen emotional harm done to dogs, including very young puppies, not just by shock trainers and 'balanced' trainers, but once in a while also by a positive reinforcement trainer. Not on purpose, but simply because the positive trainer did not know what s/he was doing. Maybe she didn't have enough experience, or enough education and training, or was attempting to work outside her field of expertise, or some combination. One memory especially upsetting to me is the little face of a young puppy being clearly frightened by a clicker and box game, while the trainer and owner thinking things were going great. Please don't misunderstand. Clicker training with young puppies can, and I dare say should, be done--I've done it with as young as 3 week old puppies. But it needs to be done carefully, with those who know how to avoid installing, for example, fear. In other words, we need to be more careful.
Another thing many of us do is lead with our credentials. Credentials are very important because they tell the public how qualified a trainer is or is not. Yet this is where things can get very confusing for the public; after all, how are you supposed to know what each credential means, where it came from, whether it’s reputable? Given that dog training is an unregulated industry, absolutely anyone can call themselves a “master dog trainer” or a “dog behaviorist” even if they’ve never taken a single dog training or behavior class. There’s more bad news: Some of these folks then open dog trainer “schools” that “certify” new trainers after as little as week or two. How would you feel if you found out you'd been entrusting your beloved pup to someone whose training school consisted of only one or two weeks of classes? What if, on top of that, you learned that the person teaching those classes had a less than impressive educational background him/herself, or worse yet, a less than stellar approach to the treatment of animals?
The good news is that there are professional certifying organizations with ethics rules for professional, certified trainers. Here's a breakdown of the key players:
The independent testing and certification organization for dog trainers and canine behavior consultants is the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). The CCPDT sets the global standard for rigorous exams that demonstrate expertise in humane, science-based dog training. To become certified, you must first show documentation of several hundred hours working with clients and clients’ dogs, then pass a strictly proctored, objective, 180 question examination, must abide by the code of ethics, and must update your education regularly. CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, and CPDT-KSA are the certifications awarded. That said, there are differences between the designations awarded by this organization. The CBCC-KA is more difficult to achieve than the CPDT-KA. Only 70% of people pass the CBCC-KA; 89% of people pass the CPDT-KA. There are only 232 CBCC-KAs worldwide; there are 3,467 CPDT-KAs worldwide.
If a trainer claims to have one of these certifications, you can confirm it at the CCPDT website. CCPDT does not teach classes, and with the exception of the -KSA, does not use videos for testing thereby ensuring fully anonymous/'blind' examinations, which makes the CCPDT uniquely qualified and, it seems to me, trustworthy to test and certify candidates without bias. That's the big upside. The downside, some say, is that it is LIMA/Humane Hierarchy based. Many R+ trainers wish to see LIMA/HH replaced with something even more humane. For example, some trainers would like a replacement hierarchy that disallows P+ under any circumstances. There are even some trainers who would like to see aversives disallowed altogether.
Then there are the most respected schools. Certified Dog Trainer Professionals are graduates of the top program of The Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) for Animal Training & Behavior and hold the title KPA CTP (Certified Training Partner). CTCs (Certificants in Training & Counseling) are graduates of The Academy for Dog Trainers. Trainers who graduated from KPA or ADT are generally considered the go-to professionals in the industry. Still, always do your own investigation. I read a claim about the differences between these two schools recently, written by a grad from one of them, that is absolutely inaccurate. She claimed that only one of them teaches its students about animal behavior and behavior modification. That's an unfortunate thing to say. I know people from both schools, some who know more, some who know less--it doesn't matter which school. As with pretty much everything, it depends on the person. You get out what you put in. KPA is stated to be a 6 month program and ADT is stated to be a 2 year program, but I know of people who were in KPA longer and people in ADT shorter, some saying that it could be finished in 1 year. Who knows--another good example of how you get out what you put in, perhaps? In any case, both of these schools seem to provide a solid education. If you are spoiled for choice and having a hard time deciding on a trainer, I guess you could watch out for the Dunning–Kruger effect (that's where people who know a lot about a given topic might get to the point where they think they know absolutely everything in that field) and for the sake of your dog, lean toward the trainer that knows she doesn't know absolutely everything. We are always learning, and in animal training, we must always be learning about what the dog right in front of us needs from us in order to learn, grow, improve, and, in the case of behavior challenges, survive. It's important to be able to recognize when we need to open our minds, check ourselves, start over, try again, go to plan b. FYI: Many shock / pain trainers use this as an excuse -- so please do not misinterpret what I'm saying. I'm not saying Plan A would be counterconditioning and Plan B would be a prong collar--no! That would be like saying 'Let's toss out piles of scientific data because shock trainer is impatient.' What I'm saying is Plan A might be classical counterconditioning and Plan B might be DRI, LAT.... That sort of thing.
There are many other, newer, and / or less extensive training schools. Some of them are, and some are not, committed to humane—force free, fear free, intimidation free, pain free—practices. There are some that train different levels, whether in positive reinforcement or "balance" (i.e., uses shock, prong, etc.) where the first level may be just a week's worth of class, the second level, 2 weeks, the third level, 3 weeks, and so on. Indeed, you may be surprised to find that your trainer was given a certificate printed by one of these businesses, calling it "certification." They are not, in reality, the same thing. "Certification" means expertise has been independently assessed and verified--that is, that the candidate has passed a thorough, objective, unbiased examination to demonstrate qualifications in order to be certified. Any people or organizations who gain money or other value to train, teach, and then test and certify a candidate are by definition biased and not objective, so this type of certification could always raise questions about subjectivity. This is why even those who graduate from KPA and ADT still then seek independent certification from CCPDT; it's no secret and no shame that certifying schools are, and should be, separate and distinct from independent certifying bodies.
A "certificate" is a piece of paper that says someone attended or completed a class or met other cursory requirements set, often by the creator of the class. It does not, generally, declare expertise.
Lately several people have mentioned to me "the AKC certification" referring to CGC. This is a great example of what I've just explained. This is not certification. All one has to do in order to teach and test for CGC is be 18 years old, fill out some paperwork and self-evaluate--and pay $10. This is an example of an organization merely providing people permission to teach and test you and your dog in order to award you a title and ribbon. Does it rise to the level of certification? No. Now, there are some certified trainers who also do CGC, but there are many uncertified folks also teaching and evaluating for CGC. Being an AKC/CGC evaluator does not mean a person is certified. Remember, the only independent certifying body for humane, professional dog trainers is the CCPDT.
In case you're wondering why your favorite org isn't mentioned: I left out a variety of other organizations because either they are not certifying bodies, or they are not independent (e.g., they offer classes to the same people they offer certification, and/or their testing is not anonymous/blind, unbiased, proctored, etc.), or they do not fall into what I would consider the "humane" category because they welcome shock / aversives trainers.
Upon sharing this essay on the dreaded social media giant where so much humanity withers away, I was swiftly attacked for not including one person's favorite anti-aversives group. Apparently that person isn't aware that I am deeply involved with that group as a volunteer. Whether or not that is the only reason I didn't include the group, that reason alone is an ethical argument against mentioning said group.
Social media does offer a little entertainment, if only in the form of bittersweet irony: The person then suggested that I not work to educate others on a topic without staying updated on the latest goings-on related to said topic--especially regarding that particular group.
A different version of this essay first appeared in the Seaside Signal