The Most Vital Piece of Knowledge for Any Pet Care Business

What do dog walking, dog hotels, dog boarding, dog kennels, dog groomers, dog day care, dog trainers, dog nutritionist, and all pet professionals need to know? What is the singular most vital piece of knowledge and important component of any pet business in order to keep dogs safe, healthy, and happy in any scenario? Behavior. And there’s extra credit for an in-depth knowledge in psychology, cognitive ethology, force free dog training, behavioral ecology, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, learning theory and animal husbandry.

I wrote about why most dog hotels, boarding and day cares are not safe nor helpful for your puppy or older dog, however this list extends to all pet care professional services including, but not limited to: dog walkers, dog groomers, pet sitters, dog trainers and the like. As being part of, while disassociating from, many different pet sitting and dog training organizations over the decades, it is astonishing how many are clueless about dog behavior, LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive practices) and are relics, A.K.A. out dated and clueless about force free training. I covered some of this ignorance before in my article the foible of inclusivity in teaching.

It seems obvious to me that the world revolves around behavior and communication for all animals to exist harmoniously and happy. So why is it that a detailed knowledge of a dog’s behavior is not the most important and common question when vetting and doing due diligence on a pet care provider? Behavior is vital to understanding and communicating amongst humans and conspecifics but even MORE vital with heterospecifics and nonhuman animals. A dog’s primary way of communicating is through body language and nonverbal communication. We have a hard enough time reading our partner’s or child’s body language, nevertheless a dog’s!  It’s not like a dog can verbally tell a parent that the groomer, walker or dog boarding place scared them, or they got kicked, poked, yelled at, sprayed with chemicals, intimidated, stressed, hit or bullied (which happens more often than not). So we must take responsibility as the care takers and advocates for our family and become educated on canine ethology to find pet services that meet our and our pet’s needs.

Behavior Must be the Foundation on Which All Pet Services Stem From

Without a thorough, in-depth canine behavior background (theoretical and practical), all dogs are in jeopardy of even the most well-meaning services.

Boston Terrier Body Language

Why Behavior?

In an elaboration of my colleague Patricia McConnell’s recent blog post about dog walkers, a logical extension is that it doesn’t matter whether we are speaking about a dog walker, dog hotel, a dog kennel, dog boarding, dog day care, dog grooming, or even veterinary medicine. I would be remiss without including shelters, rescue agencies, dog kennels or any business, for profit or not for profit, that act as guardians for dogs in this list. The leading cause of death in companion animals is a dog or cat’s behavior.1 In addition, as Linda Case sums up, only “40 percent of dog owners and 65 percent of non-owners were unable to correctly identify signs of fear and stress in an unfamiliar dog. Moreover, a substantial number of the non-owners (17 percent, or about one in six people) misclassified a fearful dog as a happy dog”. All pet professional services require a stranger spending time with your dog alone without the parents around. Considering that in many cases these professional will spend more time with your pet than you do, it is astonishing that the most care and attention is not placed on the due diligence process of a dog professional’s experience, expertise, education, continuing education courses, methodologies of teaching, training, certifications, licensing, bonding, insurance and testimonials from educated, verified sources.

Dog day cares, dog walkers, dog boarders, dog trainers and ALL pet services have NO requirements to label oneself as such and the industry has NO regulation nor barriers to entry. Many professionals are misguided and deluded into the incorrect belief that because they once “owned” a dog and love dogs that they can provide a healthy environment for a dog and earn some extra income. This is why we have seen an explosion in dog boarding, dog hotels, doggie day cares and dog “trainers” with sites such as: Rover, DogVacay, Petsitter, Thumbtack…etc.

Regulation helps consumers trust. As world renowned security expert Bruce Schneier states, “A variety of mechanisms can create trust. When I outsourced my food preparation to a restaurant last night, it never occurred to me to worry about food safety. That blind trust is largely created by government regulation. It ensures that our food is safe to eat, just as it ensures our paint will not kill us and our planes are safe to fly.”

It is all well and good for companies to ensure safety, best practices force-free positive reinforcement training and up-to-date education on relevant topics, “…but this presupposes that we have comprehensive regulations. Right now, it is largely a free-for-all out there…” Bruce continues, “When robust consumer-safety regulations underpin outsourcing, people can trust the systems. This is true for any kind of outsourcing. Attorneys, tax preparers and doctors are licensed and highly regulated, by both governments and professional organizations. We trust our doctors to cut open our bodies because we know they are not just making it up.” We need a similar regulation professionalism in dog training and behavior.

However, the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss is what actually makes someone qualified to communicate with, fully understand and be able to de-stress, ameliorate and pacify your dog when stressed, hyper active, or in an emergency or scary situation? How will a professional set your dog up for success, or read a dog’s body language in order to make their life as enjoyable and stress free as possible? How do pet professionals prevent and stop dog fights, dog bites, aggression, bullying, annoyances, and what are a dog professionals protocols for handling emergency procedures such as, dropped leashes and all of the variables and accidents that can happen while a dog is under someone’s care? What makes a dog trainer, walker, sitter, hotel, or any professional qualified to take care of your dog and prevent emotional, physical, and mental stress and injury? Is it someone’s fancy web site, a beautiful dog day care facility or dog hotel, an inexpensive kind dog walker, a pet sitter who is punctual, a journalists recommendation, a nice neighbor who is out of work, a web site who lists pet sitters or walkers? These glib, criteria may seem seductive but they are at your dog’s expense. Most businesses put profits before people/dogs/pets and are keenly aware that they are catering to the human’s psyche and not the dogs. After all, it is YOU who makes the decisions on where to spend your hard earned money, not your dogs. Who is qualified to structure your dog’s day and interactions with other people, dogs, environments, animals, rest and play schedules and all other exercise, training, education and medical health aspects throughout the day?  I would no sooner let my neighbor perform open heart surgery on me with their qualification being, because they have a sibling, claim to love people, or enjoy watching Dr. Oz on television, than I would let a doggie day care, walker, trainer, hotel, boarding facility, pet sitter or groomer take care of my pet without a proper background and professional career dedicated to a behavior and training and the aforementioned.

Why Else is Dog Communication and Behavior so Important?

Human parents and our children have a huge advantage. We rely on our children to communicate through the spoken word with us about what is going on at school, day care or in their lives. Some daily questions we may ask or expect to be told about are: How was your day? What was your experience like? Why are you sad? Why are you happy? What happened today? How are you feeling? You seem stressed, want to talk? What is this rash from? Why are you hoarse? Why are you limping, sweating, bruised, scraped…etc. the multitude of conversations and communications are endless. However, when we pick up our beloved best friend from a day care facility, a dog hotel, a dog boarding place or after a dog walker comes and goes, what can our dog or the pet professional tell us? Nothing! Without an in-depth knowledge of ethology and a great deal of honesty and trust, you might as well be wearing a blindfold and earmuffs. What goes left unsaid? Everything. All communications are lost in translation and your dog suffers greatly because of it.

black and white labs barking

How Else Can we Detect Stress Levels or Levels of Happiness in Dogs?

It’s not like most of us are lucky enough to have access to stress detecting cortisol level machines via a dog’s blood, or saliva samples or can take accurate scientific measurements of stress levels. We rely on an animal’s behavior, sounds, smells and our interpretation, and analysis of the context and the individual. In applied behavior analysis, when performing a functional assessment in a behavior consultation, it’s a hard enough endeavor in a one-on-one scenario, and when you add in more dogs, people and environments to the equation, the analysis becomes even more complex, nuanced and difficult. When children go to a school, even at a young age, we rely on certified university/master/PhD educated teachers who have dedicated their lives to communication, LIMA, learning theory, teaching and education, not fly-by-night companies or someone who decided to open shop and put a “teacher” or “university” sign on their  door or website. The advantage our human children have over dogs are that our human teachers are fully versed and understand child psychology, learning theory, communication, training, and formal education and are regulated, licensed, insured and reviewed by peers, boards, independent evaluation standards, institutions and states. Additionally, these educators are routinely drug tested, reviewed, analyzed and graded by independent bodies at institutions. These many supervisory roles help ensure the emotional, psychological, physical and cognitive safety of our human family members. But what if our school, day care health care and hospitals had no mandatory regulation, licensing, schooling or continuing education, licensing body, and what if our child did not speak at all and relied on subtle body language to communicate? What if the school practiced corporal punishment? How safe would they be if the place where we sent our child every day for hours on end could not speak or communicate with them? This is the state of affairs in ALL professional dog, cat and pet care professions. This is how disempowered, confused and scared our dogs feel when we leave our dogs with pet professionals and handlers who are clueless to the real underlying comprehensive health of our dog.

Summary

The fact is, without an intimate knowledge of canine behavior and most up-to-date, scientific force free training, continuing education in ethology, behavioral ecology, psychology, cognitive ethology, dog training, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, learning theory and animal husbandry one should not be in the pet service industry. We must learn to ask pet care providers the right questions and to not accept vague, ambiguous or abstract answers. Take note of any red flags and incongruity of the dogs condition vs. what the establishment states. Dog’s don’t lie, people do. The dog and cat industry needs trust, accountability, professionalism, education, licensing and regulation. These may not be panaceas but they have proven effective at helping our other industries that we rely on so much for our human family’s health, so why should it be any different for our dogs and other pet family members? Please share your thoughts below.

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  1. Miller DM, Stats SR, Partlo BS, et al. Factors associated with the decision to surrender a pet to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996;209:738- 742