Did you know that anyone in Massachusetts can charge you to train or handle your dog, whether or not they know anything about dog training or have ever trained a dog before?
It’s shocking but true: Whether for private lessons, group classes, or board-and-train, the trainer who handles your dog, and to whom you may pay hundreds or thousands of dollars, may not have the most basic knowledge or experience with dog training. Currently this is legal in MA. But there’s a new bill in our state legislature that can change that. I urge you to support it!
Mass. Senate bill 118 will protect you and your dog — but only if it passes. Why does this matter? Why should you care whether dog trainers are licensed?
Consider that all of these jobs require a professional license in Mass.:
- Hairdressers, nail-care technicians, cosmetologists
- Pharmacy technicians, pharmacy interns, doctors, nurses, chiropractors, physician assistants, dieticians, nutritionists, optometrists, massage therapists, and virtually all health-care providers
- Engineers, electricians, construction supervisors, land surveyors, plumbers, architects
- Family therapists, educational psychologists, rehabilitation counselors, social workers
- School bus drivers, run a child-care program, assist in a family child care program,
- People who store, repair, or sell cars; funeral directors; accountants; wholesale distributors of medical devices; real-estate brokers and appraisers, real estate salespeople
- Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, wildlife rehabilitators, horseback riding instructors, and pet shop owners in MA require a license to operate — but not dog trainers
Hundreds of professions in Mass., require a license to operate a business — but not the people who are rewarding or punishing your dog.
Why is it a problem if dog trainers are not licensed?
- Trainers without sufficient education on effective and humane training techniques can put your dog is at serious risk for physical and behavioral injury. There are a variety of trainers in Massachusetts. Some are in business for themselves. Some teach classes in pet stores. Some own the local branch of a training franchise that focuses on invisible fences or eliminating barking, etc. While some of these trainers in any category may be fantastic, others may lack necessary knowledge to safely and effectively train your dog.
A bad haircut is embarrassing and annoying, but it grows out. A car that is not repaired properly is a huge hassle, but it can be fixed. Because dogs have emotions, if a dog is physically or emotionally injured by incompetent training, she may never entirely recover. Bad training experiences can negatively affect a dog — and therefore their owners — for the rest of the dog’s life.
For example, I have worked with clients who told me their previous trainers…
- Told them to bite their dog’s ear. This was a couple who were training their golden retriever as a service dog for their son. This is one of the weirder pieces of training advice I’ve heard. It sounds funny. But if they had gone through with it, at best, it would have confused and caused their dog mild pain and given the owners a mouth full of fur. More likely, it would have taught the dog to be fearful of the owners and to avoid their faces coming near him. At worst, it set the owners up to get bitten in the face
- Instructed her to shock her fearful dog when he approached her horses. This was particularly dangerous advice in this case. This dog barked and charged at horses because he was afraid of them. Because of the way dogs form emotional associations (classical conditioning), this dog’s fear-driven behavior of charging the horses was made much worse by being shocked when he saw the horses. When this dog was surprised by a porcupine, he was so frightened that he killed it — meaning he attacked despite being quilled hundreds of times. Horses are large, powerful animals that are even more dangerous if they are spooked. This trainer’s advice not only potentially put the dog’s life at risk, but also the horse’s and the client’s
- Tried to force a puppy to bite his hand so that he could punish him for biting. When the puppy kept refusing to bite, the trainer pinned the puppy and forced his hand into the puppy’s mouth until the puppy lost control of his bowels
2. Incompetent trainers cost you time and money — and you have essentially no recourse. Causing damage to your dog is obviously the biggest concern for many people, but wasting your time and money is no small potatoes, either! Trainers who are not able to set up an effective training plan and instruct you to carry it out are doing a disservice to you, your dog, your relationship with your dog, your budget, and your community (which may be affected by your dog’s behavior).
At some pet stores, the employee who stocks shelves and works the cash register may also be given a manual to read about dog training and then start teaching classes. They might be an enthusiastic amateur trainer who talks impressively and has a few useful tips, or they might not. They might never have trained a dog before. I usually find that dogs who have taken classes at big-box stores require a lot of “catch up” when they join one of my classes in comparison to dogs that have taken classes with my certified, experienced colleagues.
I remember a service dog consult with a young woman had been taking her dog to classes at a pet store and thought the trainer at the store was great. He came across as very confident and experienced. However, her dog was lacking in basic manners training, and his greeting behavior had gotten worse from going to classes at the store. At the end of the consult, we spent five minutes on training her dog not to jump when he met someone new, and the client was astonished at how effective my recommendations were. She said she had learned more from me in those few minutes than she had in the months of classes she’d taken at the store.
Requiring licensure would weed out these trainers who have no experience and cannot pass a basic competency exam.
3. Even if you don’t have a dog, lack of regulation of dog trainers can affect you. Dogs that are ill-behaved can have a negative impact on the community due to nuisance issues (e.g., barking, running away, etc.). They can also affect community safety. Trainers who lack an understanding of applied behavioral psychology may exacerbate reactivity or aggression in vulnerable dogs.
Hairdressers require a license….
If this bill becomes a law, what will it mean?
It will mean that in order for someone to work as a dog trainer in Massachusetts, they will have to show that they have met a very basic set of requirements, which mostly amounts to:
- 300 hours of dog training experience, working under supervision of a licensed trainer
- Pass an exam on how dogs learn (behavioral psychology principles), training instruction, dog behavior, and basic dog husbandry
- Pay a fee to maintain licensure
Isn’t this the bare minimum you’d want from someone whom you were paying for their expertise? Before you pay someone to instruct you on how to handle or train your dog — or who is responsible for your dog 24/7 in a board-and-train where you can’t see how your dog is being treated — wouldn’t you want to know they have at least minimum experience and competence in the field?
Will this law make it harder or more expensive to hire a trainer?
No, it shouldn’t. Its main effect for consumers should be that you’ll be less likely to accidentally hire someone who will harm your dog.
The majority of current trainers will still be licensed. In fact, all trainers who are already certified through the most reputable certifying bodies will be automatically eligible for licensure. So the pool and variety of available trainers in MA should still be large and diverse.
In terms of cost, we don’t yet know what it will cost for trainers to get a license, but for a trainer who is working full-time, the increased cost should be negligible in the grand scheme. For example, I already pay $2,000 to $4,000 per year to maintain professional memberships, certifications, insurance, and corporate status with the Commonwealth of Mass. The fee for licensure probably won’t make a substantial enough difference to affect my fees. (Once licensure is required, I might let some of my other certifications lapse.)
Will this law mean that only really good trainers will be licensed?
Sadly, no. I’m reminded of that old joke:
Q: What do you call the person who graduates last in their class at medical school?
Just as not every physician is the right doctor for you, nor even necessarily a particularly good doctor, it is critically important that any practicing physician have a medical degree and a license to practice medicine. I would rather go to the doctor who graduated at the bottom of their class than one who couldn’t graduate at all!
Likewise with Mass. dog trainers. There are trainers I’m sure will get licensed whom I would not recommend to clients, but there will be many who will be weeded out. I think the most likely to drop by the wayside if licensure becomes law include…
- Pet store “trainers” — essentially sales associates who are dabbling in or trying to learn dog training
- Training franchise owners and employees — people who currently can simply buy a franchise location without necessarily having a training or behavior background
- Hobby trainers
- Experienced trainers who have been avoiding, for decades, educating themselves in the science of animal behavior and training that would be assessed by the licensure exam
Would the trainers I’ve referenced in this article — the ear biter, the shock-for-seeing-horses trainer, the puppy traumatizer, and the big box trainer — likely become licensed? It’s possible, I doubt it. Some are hobby trainers and dabblers. Others are in the “willful ignorance” camp.
I’m certain there will still be some trainers whose methods are inhumane or whose skill level is subpar even after licensure. What licensure will mean is that the person to whom you are handing over your dog or trusting for critical training information has at least invested substantial time and some money into learning essential information on dog training and practicing it. They will be indicating that they are professionals who take this work seriously. I think this is the bare minimum we owe to our dogs and ourselves – don’t you?
3 Easy Steps to Help Dogs in MA
- First and most important! Contact your Mass. senator and representative and ask them to support S. 118 “An Act relative to the licensure of dog trainers.” These is easy and only takes a minute. It’s best if you call them, but emailing them is also great! (Find your senator’s and representative’s contact info here.) Tell them that you support S. 118 “An Act relative to the licensure of dog trainers.” Tell them about your dog (just a little bit — not your dog’s entire life story!) and any experience you have with dog training that makes you feel strongly about protecting dogs and their owners in the Commonwealth. If they seem interested, ask them to cosponsor the bill. Even if this version of the bill doesn’t pass this time around, if our lawmakers know that we care about this issue, it will be more likely to pass eventually (and sooner rather than later).
- Share this post. I give permission for anyone to repost this blog post in its entirety with an attribution to Sharon Wachsler, At Your Service Dog Training LLC. I also give permission for anyone to link to this post. I also give permission for anyone to excerpt a section of the post as long as it includes a link back to the complete post. Here is the link for this post: http://atyourservicedogtraining.com/2019/07/21/ma-trainer-licensure/
- Ask your friends, family members, dog care professionals, and others to contact their senator and representative to support Senate Bill 118 — “An Act relative to the licensure of dog trainers.” People who don’t have dogs should also care about this bill. This is about consumer protection for your dog-owning friends and family members, and for their community that shares space with their dogs.
Have you had an experience with a dog trainer — good or bad — that makes you in favor of licensure? Share in the comments!