Ask the Ethics Committee
The world of animal behavior consulting is always changing—we’re seeing new clients in unique situations, working with individual animals, learning about innovative techniques and cutting-edge research, and trying to navigate business, marketing, and social media. It’s no surprise that we find ourselves unsure of where to go for clarity when ethical dilemmas come up.
As part of the Council for Standards of Animal Behavior and Training, IAABC has developed a comprehensive code of ethics that we use to encourage best practices for everyone working professionally in animal behavior. When a complaint is brought to IAABC, the Ethics Committee investigates.
This column lets anyone ask a question to our ethics committee, completely anonymously. If you’d like to ask us a question, write to us here.
(Some questions have been edited for length and clarity.)
I would like to foster very young kittens in the future, and plan to raise them using methods from the various enriched puppy-raising programs out there.
My dilemma is about introducing leash walking. This is one of those activities that is much more likely to be successful if introduced early, and because there are so many novel experiences outside, early exposure is key to reducing fear. However, it seems like the average kitten adopter is less likely to be willing to walk their new pet than the average puppy adopter. So what happens if I’ve introduced a kitten to the outside world on the safety of a leash and then they never get to go outside again? Is that just setting up the kitten for a lifetime of frustration? Or will it cause behavior problems that will either lead to rehoming or escape? Is it better that a cat essentially never knows what they’re missing out on?
As with most things related to behavior, the answer is “it depends.” Multiple factors would go into determining whether or not a kitten might experience frustration if exposed to the outdoors at a young age and then not be permitted access to the outdoors in the future.
One could look at what happens with adult cats who are found as strays or who have lived primarily outdoors, and are then adopted into a family that chooses to keep the cat inside. In many cases, those cats live happily with minimal to no frustration. Other times, the family ends up with a cat who is frequently trying to get out.
Factors such as individual personality traits, the expanse of territory within the home, available enrichment opportunities, access to confined outdoor space (catios, etc.) will vary from cat to cat, changing what the cat experiences post-adoption.
Given that it may not be possible at this stage to reliably predict which choice will produce a better outcome, it’s especially important to keep in mind your responsibility to the client—the shelter or rescue for which you are fostering, in terms of helping them to understand the pros and cons of each alternative.
Principle I: Responsibility to Clients
1.3 Trainers/behavior consultants respect the right of clients to make decisions regarding their pet’s management, training, and care. Trainers/behavior consultants are responsible for helping clients understand the potential consequences of those decisions.
There’s a principle from the ethics of childcare, from Joel Feinberg, that you might find useful in thinking about this. Feinberg states that the main goal of a child’s primary caregiver is to create a situation where the child has the best possible chance of fulfilling their life’s goals—whatever they are. That means not exposing the child to things that might make it harder for them to flourish in the world as an adult (substances that could damage their brain, for example, or experiences that may traumatize them) and also not depriving them of the knowledge and skills they’ll need to do and be and thrive. Feinberg calls this the child’s “right to an open future.” For kittens, we don’t have to talk about rights, but we can think about what kinds of knowledge and skills we’re giving them to live their best lives as future adult cats.
Many adult indoor cats take a long time to get accustomed to a leash and harness, and need their owner’s commitment to extensive conditioning if they’re going to be happy to explore the outside world. Teaching a kitten leash-walking skills, even if they never get to use them, is part of guaranteeing that they could live their best possible life as an adult—their confidence would probably make it more likely a future owner would take them outside, because they won’t need the investment in conditioning to the equipment. I would recommend that focusing on behavioral soundness, and giving your foster kittens the best chance you can of an open future, is a kind and sensible approach to raising them, no matter where they end up as adults.
In the wonderful world of dog podcasts, professional animal trainers and behaviourists often refer to clients they have seen recently or in the past. It is unclear to me as a listener whether permission to discuss the case has been given. If it has not been given, should the case be discussed at all? And even if it is unlikely that someone could identify the client in question from the details given, if the client could identify themselves, shouldn’t explicit permission be sought?
Confidentiality is very important for animal behavior consultants. We’re working in people’s homes, with their human and animal family, and often we’re privy to information that clients wouldn’t want the world to know. The IAABC Professional Code of Ethics addresses this question pretty directly under the principle of confidentiality.
Principle II: Confidentiality
2.1 Trainers/behavior consultants do not share confidential information that could reasonably lead to the identification of a client, or prospective client, research participant, or other person with whom they have a confidential relationship, unless they have obtained the prior written consent of the client, research participant, or other person with whom they have a confidential relationship.
A client’s personal information should only be shared with their consent, and whenever possible, they should be informed in advance regarding what specific information might be shared and under what circumstances.
Even sharing details that you think might not be important to the client, or ones that are general enough not to make the client identifiable, is not a good idea. For one, you don’t know what about a client could make them recognizable to other people. It might seem, for example, that “I saw a client with a French bulldog who was reactive to skateboards last month” is anonymous enough, but if someone else in the same apartment building as your client were to hear that phrase, knowing that you’re a behavior consultant who works in the town they live in, they could well figure out who you’re talking about!
Whether including client information in educational materials, magazine or journal submissions, social media posts, or public presentations podcasts, it’s best to make an effort to obtain specific consent for such uses.
It is very frustrating dealing with numerous “trainers” in my area who use force and shock. They also repeatedly share misinformation and position it as “science” and “fact” when much of it is erroneous and unethical. Is it okay to explain methods and why we wouldn’t advocate using them? Many folks will ask, “Have you heard of so-and-so?” (usually a competitor in the area), and while I am familiar with that trainer, I feel like I cannot warn people not to hire them without violating the IAABC Code of Ethics. How can we make the point that some trainers are actually doing harm, and make it in a professional way?
The IAABC Professional Code of Ethics lists respect for colleagues as a professional responsibility and disallows public commentary that is derisive or inflammatory. However, there are many ways to provide prospective clients the information they need to choose a competent, ethical trainer or behavior consultant, or to differentiate between sound and dangerous advice, without condemning the acts of individual competitors.
Principle IV: Responsibility to the Profession
4.1 Trainers/behavior consultants are respectful of colleagues and other professionals and do not condemn the character of their professional acts, nor engage in public commentary, including commentary in public presentations, written media or on websites, internet discussion lists or social media, that is disrespectful, derisive or inflammatory. This includes cyberbullying, that is, the use of electronic media for deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior against colleagues.
Reminding people that dog training and behavior is a largely unregulated industry, educating them regarding LIMA principles, the Joint Code of Ethics and the organizations that adhere to them, and sharing resources like the IAABC Consultant Locator, can all have a significant impact.
If asked directly about a specific trainer with whom you strongly disagree, it’s fair to point to ways in which your qualifications, assessment strategies, training goals, or approaches may differ. This is not the same as being hostile or disrespectful.
“It definitely makes sense to shop around before hiring a trainer. It’s an important decision and one that is unfortunately made harder by so much conflicting information. When interviewing, keep in mind that our industry is currently unregulated, meaning there is no universal professional standard of knowledge, experience, or competence. Be sure to ask if the trainer holds any certifications, whether they belong to any professional organizations, and whether they adhere to the Joint Ethics Code.”
“You mentioned having an appointment with so-and-so later this week. I expect you will find that our approaches differ in significant ways. My impression from watching a few of their training videos is that they seem more focused on suppressing unwanted behavior than on building new skills or conditioning more positive emotional responses. You may want to ask what sorts of tools and methods they plan to use in training your dog, or whether such choices are made according to any particular decision-making framework.”
“It’s great that watching Cesar Milan inspired you to find professional help for your dog. The message that behavior can change is such an important one. Of course, real-life dog draining is a little different from what you may have seen on TV—the good news is you do get to try it at home. Let’s get started.”
Read previous editions of Ask the Ethics Committee:
- Should my reactive dog wear a “Do Not Pet” bandanna?
- Using dog parks for behavior work | Is selling gift certificates ethical?
- Your questions about the Joint Standards of Practice