Article by Morag Sutherland RVN DMS Cert SAN

I am a Registered Veterinary Nurse of some 30 years experience with Continual Professional Development in animal behaviour and nutrition. I am very worried that a ‘vet led team’ is, once again, limiting the choice of animal owners and guardians. I’m going to confine myself to speaking about dogs and training and behaviour here, as that’s the industry I know best, but be assured that the lack of regulation applies to all animals and all aspects of their care.

There have been ongoing discussions in the world of animal training and behaviour.  Why am I bringing this to your attention?  Well, because potentially, not only are the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) limiting us as pet owners in our choice for alternative treatments but now, they could have governance over who we can turn to for advice about our pets’ training and any problem behaviours they may exhibit.  This proposal means there will be even less choice for consumers, us as pet owners.

One current political idea is that trainers and behaviourists will only be able to work on veterinary referral, rather like physiotherapists and osteopaths at present.  I absolutely agree that in a case where a dog is severely anxious, I would WANT to collaborate with the dog’s vet to put together a plan which may need to include powerful psychoactive medications.  I am incredibly fortunate that I have connections with excellent holistic vets and thanks to this, can often avoid the need for pharmaceutical intervention through sorting out nutrition, pain management, exercise regimes, meeting the dog’s behavioural needs, ensuring sufficient rest etc.  Very frequently, I see dogs who have been seen by their vet and the owners have been told they’re “not in pain” and yet when the dog is seen by a good body worker, there are all sorts of tensions (and sometimes worse!) that need addressing.  That’s because the body worker is a specialist in their area of knowledge.  I’m lucky, I have been around long enough and work with an excellent and open-minded team and have clients who trust me enough to keep investigating until we get to the bottom of the problem.

I have worked with vets who are kind and considerate to their patients simply as a result of their own personality being empathetic.  I have also worked with vets with an excellent grasp of learning theory and behaviour who apply this in their day to day work.  Much more frequently, I hear personally and from training and behaviour colleagues of incorrect and unethical advice being given to new puppy owners or (even worse!) shocking advice being given to owners of dogs who have developed a “problem” behaviour.  I use inverted commas as the behaviour is frequently a problem for the owner, not the dog !

Let’s imagine that your little daughter wants to learn ballet (comparable to you wanting to teach your puppy let’s say agility).  Would your GP refer your daughter to a ballet class? I think not . . .  (Just to be clear, puppies CAN start to learn foundation skills for agility when they’re very little, but can’t jump safely until they are at least 12 months of age, older for large breeds).

I wholeheartedly agree that there urgently needs to be some regulation of the dog training and behaviour industry to protect dogs from the abuse they suffer at the hands of unethical trainers.  There needs to be accountability for the actions of the trainers and behaviourists.  There are a number of excellent professional associations with rigorous assessment procedures for potential members and protocols in place for dealing with complaints from members of the public.  Very few members of the public have any understanding of the differences between these organisations, the benefits of using a member, the particular focus or specialisation of members.  In fact, it’s all a bit of alphabet soup, to be honest !

Now, even as a vet nurse with my experience, the RCVS does not allow me to advise on nutrition, as I am not a Veterinary Surgeon.  Frankly, madness, when I have studied and continue to study on a daily basis, and am continuously learning more.  Yet a vet, with no up to date knowledge of behaviour or training is absolutely at liberty to advise a new puppy owner to watch a certain television personality to learn how to train (possibly abuse) their tiny new puppy.  Vets have to know so very much about so many species of animal, it’s impossible for them to know everything about everything, AND keep up to date.  So yes, it’s completely right that they know who they can send their clients to for help and right that those sources of help are regulated and accountable for their actions. I would ask that vets are expected to be aware of evidence based behavioural advice in the same way that they would only give evidence based advice on any other topic. 

On the 8th June 2020, a new initiative was launched.  The UK Dog Behaviour and Training Charter is formed as a collaboration between a number of leading professional associations all pulling together to make it crystal clear that methods inducing fear and pain cannot be supported nowadays. The Charter is a very simple system where the signatory organisations remain entirely autonomous but pull together to make a real difference to dog welfare and customer confidence.  Customers can be assured that there IS an independent panel to scrutinise a complaint or advise a member organisation on how to proceed. The beauty lies in the simplicity of the Charter.  It brings together the industry, keeping individual assessment systems and keeping individual complaints systems.  How much better for teams to pull together to one common endeavour than to spend years in political debates.

As someone interested in the work of CAM4Animals, you’re probably here as you want to learn about the choices available to you in caring for your pet. So, let’s support those progressive organisations who have appropriate, current expertise in the area of animal behaviour and training and retain your ability to choose who you work with.

Read more about the UK Dog Behaviour and Training Charter

Morag Sutherland RVN DMS Cert SAN

Morag is a Registered Veterinary Nurse and a member of the Association of INTO Dogs. Morag has a special interest in nutrition for dogs and horses, particularly in how it affects their behaviour. She is the owner of Gelert Behaviour Training, offering advice for dogs and other pets, as well as regular workshops, talks and events in west Wales and other locations by invitation.

Disclaimer – Where blogs have been created by a guest author, CAM4Animals has reproduced this in good faith but cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracies of information in it or any use you make of this information

The veterinary Surgeon’s Act 1966 restricts the treatment of animals (usually other than your own*) by anyone other than a qualified vet. Always consult a veterinary surgeon if you are concerned about your animal’s health. *For full details visit the RCVS website

Morag’s three Working Sheep Dogs