Your Questions about the Joint Standards of Practice 

Written by The IAABC Foundation Editing Team

On September 11th, 2018, IAABC, APDT, and CCPDT announced an agreement called the Joint Standards of Practice. This document, adopted by all three organizations, lays out the principles we believe should govern competent, ethical animal trainers and behavior consultants. It also provides for a shared Code of Ethics for members of all organizations.

Read the Joint Standards of Practice here.  

Adopting shared standards is a significant development, and we knew many members would have questions about what it means for them. We created an anonymous web form for members to ask these questions. Our Ethics Chair, Ruth Crisler, Executive Director Marjie Alonso, and Journal Editor and Ethics Committee member (and ethics PhD) Tiro Miller have collaborated on answering a selection here.  

Now that these organizations have a Joint Standard, what are they hoping to accomplish? 

Cross-standards between organizations protect the public, the reputation of individual trainers and behavior consultants, and each organization that signs on.  

With the Joint Standards, clients seeking help with their animals can be assured that any professional affiliated with any of the organizations included will be committed to the same set of standards for the treatment of the animals and the people involved. Consultants and trainers also benefit, by having unified guidelines to refer to and adhere to. 

While the issue of licensing is controversial, it is critical that we are prepared. By setting this standard, the IAABC, CCPDT, APDT and other organizations and schools that adopt the shared standards will be in the forefront of the professional development needed, making it likely that we’ll have a seat at the table as regulation is gradually introduced. In order to develop into a formal and answerable profession, regardless of licensure, we needed to have a joint code by which trainers are held accountable, and on which the public can depend. 

Why did the organizations do this? Who was invited to participate? 

The IAABC, APDT, and CCPDT have always had a collegial and respectful relationship. The need for a joint standard has been clear for years, but putting one together has been no easy feat! After years of negotiations, organizations took the time to work through all the steps needed to create standards that would work for all of us; from those offering and not offering certification, to non-membership organizations, to schools, to organizations like ours that have many levels of membership. 

We reached out to many schools and organizations, and more adopters of the Joint Standards are joining on, which is incredibly exciting!

The process of discussing, writing, reworking and compromising—spending hours on things as important as an ethical guideline, and as seemingly inconsequential as a semicolon—takes a lot of work, and a lot of commitment to community, and a lot of willingness to work with sister groups and organizations. We’re incredibly honored and proud to have gone through this process with the other schools and organizations. 

What measures can realistically be taken to ensure that certificants and members are actually adhering to the Joint Standards–what methods will be employed to actually assess and enforce compliance with the standards? 

By adopting a shared standard of practice and common Ethics Code, our three organizations, and other schools and organizations also adopting the Joint Standards, can now operate with a single point of contact for all ethics complaints, meaning there is much less latitude for individuals to “ethics shop” or otherwise take advantage of differences in our wording or enforcement of LIMA guidelines.

When our ethics committee receives a complaint, a panel of members reviews it for evidence of a violation of any points of our Code, investigating further as needed. If violations are found, we assess the situation and impose sanctions or recommend appropriate resolutions. We have clear guidelines for who investigates, what gets investigated, and the scope of our powers as an organization.

No rule, in animal behavior professions or any other profession, can completely restrain people from unethical behavior. Along with the many good ones, there are terrible doctors, veterinarians, dentists, and plumbers. Having good rules, enforcing them fairly, and offering a supportive environment and education for betterment all contribute to a culture where these standards are embraced by everyone.  

We do not see the Ethics committee, nor the Standards of Practice, as punitive weapons. We believe in positive learning for humans as well as other animals. Through our ethics requirements, we strive to make all of us better at positive reinforcement training and professional, ethical behavior. 

Why are certain training tools mentioned in conjunction with LIMA?   

In developing the Joint Standards with APDT and CCPDT, we wanted to address concerns over the possibility of LIMA being incorrectly used to excuse harmful punishment-based practices. We wanted to clarify that such misinterpretation—whether accidental or deliberate—is inaccurate.  

LIMA is a guideline for professionals that requires education, experience, practical skill, the ability to work with, consult with, and get input from peers. It requires critical assessment. It demands a commitment to observing and responding to every learner with objectivity and compassion, and the capacity to weigh training protocols, not only in terms of their immediate intrusiveness or effectiveness, but in terms of long-term welfare outcomes. 

By adding examples, we hope to clarify to all that LIMA is a requirement of skill, assessment, critical thought, and peer interaction. 

Why do the Joint Standards not entirely eliminate shock as a “training technique”?  

Abuses can occur with a flat collar, a bridle, an overly-restrictive environment, and even treats. The Joint Standards address the necessity of preventing all abuses, including that of destabilization through rehoming and abusively long sheltering, the use of food as coercion and other poor training practices.  

Starting with a requirement to stay away from only one specific tool, rather than encompassing all abuses, easily alienates those who could most use support in learning better, positive-based techniques. It does so before allowing them access to education, peer support and increased skill they need, which only serves to limit the effectiveness of education efforts toward positive reinforcement and away from aversive tools and techniques. It serves as an ideological barrier between “us” and “them,” and ultimately hinders productive engagement with our community and our ability to minimize the use of aversives. 

As with all learning, for human- and non-human animals alike, we aim for successive approximations of a behavior, not for a profound change to happen all at once. We try to tell the learner what to do, and then offer support and reinforcement that will help them be successful.  

What is your response to PPG’s position statement on shock and positive punishment in relation to the new joint standards?   

The PPG’s statement is a reiteration of their beliefs and consistent with other PPG articles, blog posts, and written materials. We applaud their steadfast commitment to making life better for animals, but we do not believe that blanket restrictions lead to critical thinking, or that a closed tent approach to community causes positive change away from the use of aversive devices and techniques, or other abuses in the name of training.  

We believe that educating people about evidence-based practices, giving them the conceptual tools to understand more about how animals learn and how we can teach them, will help trainers and behavior consultants to learn to be better, more effective, more thoughtful trainers, and avoid the use of punishment in their work.   

How can we be sure that LIMA is being appropriately followed and that this will be enforced, when the Ethics Chair is a self-identified “balanced trainer” whose blog is full of defense of aversive tools? 

Ruth Crisler, the Chair, has a statement below. To answer in a more general way, our Ethics Committee, including our Chair, is comprised of honorable, honest, and extremely hard-working professionals, deeply committed to our Code and to the profession. Ongoing and thoughtful review of the consistency, process, and legality of our standards and procedures takes place year-round. It’s not an exaggeration to state that the consideration given these matters, which we employ as opportunities for education, is without equal. We could not be more proud of, nor more answerable to, our standards and the extremely dedicated volunteers who ensure fair and measured findings. 

Ruth: “The Procedures for Handling Ethical Matters of IAABC are clearly outlined and designed to function independently of personal bias or opinion. As a longtime Ethics Committee member and Chair since 2015, I am committed to following those procedures and take pride in the part our team plays in upholding a standard of practice and professional ethics code that has become an industry model. 

I would like to stress that our role is not mainly to police IAABC’s members. We are presently focused on developing ethics education tools and providing better overall guidance to members regarding ethical practices. Of course, we respond to complaints against members, but we would prefer to lend trainers and consultants greater support in understanding and adhering to the Joint Code of Ethics, than to process violations. 

The Ethics Committee consists of three attorneys, a Ph.D. Ethicist, and several working trainers and behavior consultants including myself. My background is likely similar to many whose careers began before CCPDT or IAABC existed. When I earned my first certification after training on my own for a decade, I was eager to connect with a larger community of trainers and behavior professionals. This involved some growing pains, as I learned that dog training was more polarized than I had previously known. It involved engaging in debates—mostly collegial, some heated—on now-defunct lists. It involved a blog, which I tend to infrequently, and it involved joining IAABC, where I still enjoy a good debate and have been open regarding my professional experience and opinions. 

I don’t remember when I quit identifying as “balanced.” It was a gradual decision that reflected my frustration with the reluctance in that community to speak out against abuses or develop meaningful ethical standards, my acquisition of new skills and information that allowed me to evolve as a trainer, and a general desire to abandon empty labels in favor of more concrete descriptions of my approach to behavior work, which continues to be guided by LIMA principles and the IAABC Professional Code of Ethics.”