Ask the Ethics Committee

Conflicting interests in dog playgroups

Dear Ethics Committee,

At a recent dog trainer conference, I saw a video of canine socialization within a shelter context that I found troubling. A number of dogs were potentially traumatized for the sake of helping one problem dog to participate in group play. It seems like the only real benefit is to the dog with the undesirable behavior. Is that ethical?

Dear Reader,

With the proliferation of dog parks, the conspicuous growth of the dog daycare industry, and the increasing use of playgroups in shelter settings, interest in canine socialization among trainers and behavior consultants is probably at an all-time high. Along with this interest comes a new level of scrutiny regarding how off-leash groups are managed, including methods used to assess sociability and integrate new or unknown dogs into existing playgroups. Each context prompts its own set of ethical concerns, some unique and some overlapping, but the majority likely revolve around weighing the interests or welfare of one dog or group against the interests or welfare of another.

In a shelter setting, where the stakes are typically high and resources scarce, balancing conflicting interests can be particularly hard. It may be especially tempting under such conditions to rationalize shortcuts or allow emotions to drive decision making. If successful integration into playgroups is understood to increase a dog’s chances for adoption, or if playgroups represent the primary form of enrichment, there may be significant pressure to integrate new dogs quickly or to give every dog a chance, even where success appears unlikely or may come at the expense of more reliable dogs. Additionally, shelters bear a responsibility to prospective adopters, and to the community at large, to adequately assess sociability or lack thereof prior to placing a given dog into a home. In some cases, exposing friendly dogs to one that could pose a threat may be seen as a necessary or effective assessment strategy.

These pressures should not be mistaken for a blank check, however, in terms of the choices one makes. Balancing competing obligations and conflicting interests should always involve careful consideration of multiple factors as well as consideration of the full range of available options.  The best choices may only reveal themselves through the effort to make a genuinely informed decision.

While we may safely assume those orchestrating the playgroup you observed had reason to believe the potential benefit to the “problem dog” outweighed the potential risk to other participants, it’s unclear what alternatives existed or whether other options were in fact carefully considered. Would critical information be lost if the problem dog were given more guidance or prior coaching? Do the resources exist to run smaller groups or facilitate slower introductions? Would other forms of enrichment better satisfy this specific dog’s needs?

It’s reasonable in this case to ask whether a different approach might be safer for all, without undermining the problem dog’s welfare or the process’s assessment value. It is also important to ask such questions, from an ethics standpoint. Otherwise, we risk settling permanently into non-ideal practices on the mere basis of tradition or instinct.

Finally, we need to remember that ethics cannot dictate the impossible. In any given context, the most ethical course depends partly on what is feasible.

The answer to your question, therefore, is that it depends: on whether competing obligations are being weighed carefully, on whether better options actually exist, and on whether serious effort has been made to understand the true scope of alternatives.

Ruth Crisler – Ethics Committee Chair

Marketing and false impressions

 Dear Ethics Committee,

 How does ethics affect the way behavior consultants use marketing? For example, would selling gift certificates be considered unethical for a behavior consultant if they work on a per session basis?

Dear Reader,

The ethics of marketing is a vast topic, but there are a few hard and fast rules. For example, not listing credentials that you don’t have the right to use, and not using deliberately misleading language or making promises you know you can’t keep. Principle VII of our Ethics Code covers the basics, but there’s a whole lot of specifics. If you’re really interested, I recommend this Ethics in Marketing textbook.

You ask specifically about gift certificates. In themselves, gift certificates are not unethical, but there are some pitfalls to be aware of when selling them. The main issue here is whether a gift certificate for, say, an hour of your services gives a false impression that you can make significant progress in that timeframe. Another question is whether it’s ethical to work with a client who can only afford part of the program, knowing that just part is unlikely to result in significant progress for the animal and could prejudice the client against behavior consulting because it “didn’t work.” Section 6.3 of the IAABC Code of Ethics states:

6.3 Animal behavior consultants represent facts truthfully to clients and supervisees regarding services rendered.

It’s also important to make it clear that whoever is buying the gift certificate is not buying a solution to a problem. So, for example, if a third party buys a gift certificate because their neighbor’s dog is barking excessively and they want to help in a constructive way, it’s important to find this out at the point of sale so that you clearly state that a one-hour assessment is not a guarantee of a bark-free street. From the IAABC Code of Ethics:

1.6 Animal behavior consultants upon agreeing to provide services to a person or entity at the request of a third party, clarify, to the extent feasible and at the outset of the service, the nature of the relationship with each party and the limits of confidentiality.

In this case, I would recommend that you offer a gift certificate for a free assessment. State upfront, right on the certificate, that you’re offering to observe the animal and listen to its history of challenging behavior, make recommendations for management if appropriate, and give referrals to appropriate professionals. You’re not offering to “fix” the animal or even sketch out an intervention at this point, just to provide triage and be a point of reference for services they may not know about.

During the consult, if it seems like your client is invested in getting help for their animal’s behavior and if you believe you’d be able to provide that help, you can quote them a price for however many sessions you believe it would take to make progress.

Tiro Miller PhD – Ethics Committee Member

Questions in this column are based on submissions from Journal readers. Do you have a question for our Ethics Committee? Use our secure, anonymous online form to ask. We’ll try to get to as many as space allows.