Certified dog trainers are in a unique situation with respect to canine health. Here are some facts that make your position as a professional dog trainer uncomfortable on occasion.
1. Reputable dog trainers verify that participants in their group classes meet minimum legal vaccination requirements, if not a higher vaccination standard.
2. It is imperative for the health and safety of puppies attending group puppy class, that dog trainers follow certain cleanliness standards regarding the space in which these classes are offered.
3. Your clients will likely see you more frequently than they see their vet.
4. Clients, especially puppy clients, frequently ask simple health questions, the answers to which certified dog trainers are familiar and happy to share with clients. For example, at what age do puppies lose their puppy teeth?
5. Trainers certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers are required to abide by a code of ethics that includes adherence to the Humane Hierarchy. The first tier in the hierarchy includes health, nutritional, and physical factors. Specifically that the trainer identify health concerns that should be addressed by a licensed veterinary.
Combine all of the above, and it is undeniable that certified professional dog trainers: 1) are making some simple health determinations (Are your dog’s vaccinations current? Does your dog display physical signs of illness?), 2) that the trainer is placed in a position of authority regarding some health issues (minimum vaccination standards to join group classes and cleanliness standards for puppy class), and 3) that the trainer may have more contact with her client than does the client’s vet.
Unfortunately, clients frequently come to the conclusion that their trainer is a health expert. Not only are dog trainers not experts in canine health, but there are strict state laws regulating all aspects of veterinary practice, and non-vets may not practice veterinary medicine.
What to do?
- Do not disseminate advice to your clients that exceeds simple, practical solutions. For example, I frequently recommend to clients with teething puppies that they use a wetted then frozen rope toy or knotted washcloth to ease some of the everyday pain of teething.
- Never shy away from recommending a veterinary visit. This is especially true for any sudden change in the dog’s behavior or appearance, including rapid weight gain or loss, hair loss, increased or decreased appetite, changes in elimination habits, and so on. It may not always be clear to your clients that there has been a sudden change in behavior or appearance until they begin discussing training challenges with you. Help your clients pinpoint them and direct them to their vet.
- Stay abreast of interesting veterinary developments that directly impact dog training and dog behavior. This blog post by Patricia McConnell is an example of one such topic and includes her thoughts: “The Plot Thickens: Spay Neuter Effects & the Health of Our Dogs.”
What not to do?
- Never recommend the administration of drugs, over the counter or prescription, unless you are directly consulting with a veterinary. Even then, the veterinary should be making the recommendation to the client, not the trainer.
- Refrain from diagnosing health issues. Diagnosing falls within the veterinarians’ pervue, and should not be done by trainers. You may call the vet and discuss your concerns with them, but you should not discuss those concerns with the client – that’s the vet’s job.
- Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean you should share it. While you may have a personal relationship with some clients outside of training, while interacting in a professional capacity with your clients be careful to limit your health comments.
As a certified professional dog trainer you are a dog training resource, which may at times include some very simple statements regarding canine health. This makes you by default a dog health resource for your clients. But you are not a dog health expert. Be aware of your limitations and encourage a strong relationship with open communication between your client and his/her veterinary.