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Professional Ethics In Dog Training - A Few Thoughts To Ponder!

20 Nov 2018 9:40 AM | Joanne Tudge (Administrator)

By Niki Tudge. Originally published January 18th 2010

Why are professional ethics important to the public, the individual professional and the profession itself?

Professional ethics covers the moral issues that can arise from the specialist knowledge that a professional body has. The industry’s ethics govern how this knowledge is used when providing a service.  The dimensions of ethics collectively represent “the positive, ethical ideas and values of the profession” to the benefit of the client, the professional and the industry (Welfel p 4 2009).

 The public benefits from professional ethics as they recognize and respect the client’s autonomy and dignity. Ethics detail that individuals will be treated with respect and that the professional will do no harm through their professional conduct. Professionals will not only practice nonmaleficence but also beneficence and the professional will seek informed consent from their clients, be fair, confidential and loyal (O’Heare p 12 2009).

Professional ethics are also important to the individual professional because the individual professional benefits from the trust earned by being part of a professional body that is governed by a set of professional ethics. The individual professional also has access to a valid and reliable body of scientific knowledge so they can continue their education and collaboration with other like minded professionals (O’Heare AABP p 3 2009).

Professional ethics are important to the profession itself because they bring credibility to the profession. Professional ethics govern that professionals will adhere to a code of conduct, will act competently and will only consult within the range of their competency.  When necessary, professionals will refer clients to another professional. (O’Heare p 16 2009).

The notion of competence as it relates to the field of companion animal training and behavior consulting.

Competence is the most ethical obligation a professional has in their field of expertise (Welfel p 81 2009).  To be competent means the professional is knowledgeable, is schooled in the theory and research of their industry and has the necessary skills to actually apply that field of knowledge to a working situation with their clients (O’Heare 2009).  Within the companion animal training and behavior field “necessary skills” refers to the professional’s interviewing skills, their ability to use functional assessment procedures and technical skills, and their ability to use appropriate behavior change interventions (Welfel p 82 2009).

Competence is the measure of actual professional performance, not the level and amount of education.  It is unlikely that professionals will be competent across all their industry interventions. The scope of services offered by companion animal training and behavior professionals are referred to as “scope of practice”.  Competent professionals only work within the boundaries of their knowledge and skill body (Welfel p 83 2009).

Professionals are diligent and focus their attention on the needs of the client (Welfel p 84 2009). With companion animal training and behavior the client includes the animal. The animal is the vulnerable component in the consultation process as they cannot offer informed consent. The priority is always using successful interventions (O’Heare 2009).

An outline how informed consent is important to the companion animal behavior consultant and trainer.

Professionals recognize that it is the right and responsibility of every individual to advance their welfare. Clients have freedom of choice and do this voluntarily when they have adequate disclosure of information regarding the services to be provided and an appropriate understanding of the circumstances and the expected results. Clients have ethical and legal rights to this information (Welfel p 157 2009).

Clients in the companion animal behavior consulting and training relationship have the full responsibility for their animals. Professionals must fully disclose all aspects of the professional client relationship in terms of confidentiality, role of each partner in the relationship, the cost of services, payment methods, cancellation and reimbursement terms and liability and indemnity policies (O’Heare 2009).

The companion animal and behavior professional also has to consider the vulnerability of the animal and its inability to offer informed consent. Contained within the disclosure process there must be statements regarding conflicts of interest concerned with the animal’s welfare, the behavior change methods to be employed and the parameters of confidentiality and privilege relating to local and state animal controls, ordinances and laws (O’Heare 2009).

The priority of the dog’s interests as the vulnerable party in the consulting or training relationship. What is a true conflict of interests as it relates to this concept? How will you handle such dilemmas?

In counseling or consulting roles related to behavior and training there are two central aspects of informed consent, the disclosure of relevant information and free consent.  “The decision to engage in the activity is made without coercion or undue pressure” (Welfel p 157 2009). When working with animals and their guardians the companion animal professional must recognize they have two clients and should seek to meet the needs of both parties.

The animal as a client cannot make self-determination, they cannot make a decision regarding the situation, they cannot partake in informed consent and they are not capable of directing or taking responsibility for their own welfare.  This leaves them very vulnerable. As professionals we practice nonmaleficence which means do not harm, in fact we also practice “do good”. The companion animal professional’s participation must be beneficial to the animal.  This is a “foundational principle of professional ethics” (O’Heare p7 2009). 

Companion animal professionals must ensure that procedures and protocols are as minimally invasive and intrusive as possible and companion animal professionals must make the animals welfare their main priority and they must always protect the interests of the animal.  Conflicts of interest can arise when a companion animal owner either prescribes to highly invasive or intrusive training protocols or their daily management of the dog causes discomfort or physical/ mental damage. Being the owner of a pet “does not give the client moral license to unjustifiably harm the animal” (O’Heare p 8 2009).

Should conflicts of interest arise the companion animal professional should seek to educate the client on more appropriate, effective and efficient training methods. When clients cannot be dissuaded from their actions a companion animal professional must not endorse or condone treatment that is damaging to the animal. The consultant should remind the client of their professional ethics and opt out of a consulting agreement rather than attempt to manage an unethical course of action.  (O’Heare 2009).

The  decision making process regarding intrusiveness of interventions and training programs

The decision making process used by a companion animal professional  to determine how intrusive training and behavior interventions should be is driven first and foremost by the professional’s ethical obligations. The companion animal professional must use the least intrusive and effective intervention available. The companion animal professional has an obligation to use effective protocols to address the target behavior but must also recognize that they are responsible for the animal’s entire wellbeing (O’Heare p 14 2009).

When developing training programs or behavior change interventions the professional needs to decide if they are adding to the animal’s behavior repertoire, training a new behavior or reducing the strength of an existing problematic behavior.  When choosing an intervention or a training program, the risks and benefits must be considered particularly when taking into consideration whether to use aversive stimulation. Intrusiveness is on a continuum and the professional, having completed a function assessment and developed a contingency statement, should proceed forwards using the least intrusive procedure available to them from a recognized behavior change strategy (O’Heare p 10 2009).

The companion animal professional should start their intervention at the lowest level of “the least intrusive effective behavior intervention algorithm and levels of intrusiveness table” (LIEBI). If the least intrusive behavior change program is unsuccessful the professional trainer needs to reconsider and revaluate the components used to determine the contingency statement and then make the necessary adjustments to the behavior change program.  

If the professional has continued failure in achieving the behavior plan goals using the intervention then before considering an increase in the intrusiveness of the intervention it would be wise to obtain another perspective on the problem from a more qualified professional and either work under their supervision or consider referring the case to them. The professional trainer can also decide at this point to move to level 2 or level 3 on the LIEBI model as both of these levels are considered minimally intrusive (O’Heare p 14 2009).

If the behavior change program is still not effective and the companion animal professional is considering more intrusive interventions a decision should not be made prior to or without considering if the client needs to explore psychopharmacological solutions. The professional also needs to, in concert with the animal’s owner, consider if the behavior is an unacceptable safety risk or is unmanageable. It may be necessary, based on these factors, to make a decision on whether the environment can be manipulated through antecedent control measures to “mitigate the effect of the problem behavior” (O’Heare p 15 2009).

The professional should consistently be looking at the risks and benefits prior to making any decisions particularly as they move further along the algorithm. The decision to make use of more intrusive interventions is weighed against doing the least harm and the animal’s dignity. The decision to increase the intrusiveness of the intervention needs to be well thought through and justified. Could the consequences of a failed behavior change program be more aversive to the animal then a behavior change program with a more intrusive intervention?  If a companion animal professional  is considering using an aversive behavior change program they need to decide if they are competent enough to ethically carry it out and if not, they  should decide between referring the case or working on the case under the supervision of  a more competent professional (O’Heare p 14 2009).


O’Heare, J. (2009). The least intrusive effective behavior intervention (LIEBI) algorithm and levels of intrusiveness table: A proposed best-practice model. Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior. 3(1), 7-25.

O’Heare, J. (2009) Professional Ethics 106 2009, CASI,

O’Heare, J (2009) AABP A Guide to the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals’ professional practice guidelines

Welfel, E.R, (2009) Ethics in Counseling and Psychotherapy.  Fourth Edition. Brookes Cole USA.

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