Should you train dogs with reward or punishment? Views vary in the Singapore dog-training community

Dog trainers are responding to new accreditation scheme and updated methods, even though pet industry remains 'fairly unregulated'

Should you train dogs with reward or punishment? Views vary in Singapore community (Photos: Getty Images)
Should you train dogs with reward or punishment? Views vary in Singapore community (Photos: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE - Last December, the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) introduced the AVS-Accredited Certified Dog Trainer (ACDT) Scheme to raise the standards of the dog training industry.

The National Parks Board (NParks) said the scheme helps ensure dog training methods are "rooted in science" and carried out in the "least intrusive and aversive manner".

The updated methods differ from old-school dominance training, which uses positive punishment to discipline dogs, by instilling fear, anxiety, aggression and mistrust among the canines.

How has dog training in Singapore changed since the implementation of the ACDT scheme, and how are dog trainers responding to the new regulations?

Yahoo Southeast Asia had a chat with dog behaviour specialists Fraser Noble and Anna Koo, and dog trainers June Lim and Ricky Yeo, to find out more.

How dog training is regulated in Singapore

"Unfortunately, most of the pet industry is fairly unregulated in general. Anybody can call themselves a trainer, a behaviourist or a groomer. There's not really any requirement," said Fraser Noble, who runs Noble Canine, a force-free dog training school.

According to him, Singapore's dog-training scene is closer to the US, which is still very divided in training methodologies. He has noticed the old-fashioned training style of negative reinforcement and punishment remaining present here.

Still, Noble applauded the Singapore government taking steps with the ACDT scheme, which replaced the previous Panel for the Accreditation of Dog Trainers (PADT) scheme. Under the new scheme, accredited trainers have to keep themselves updated with the latest rewards-based training methods, in order to renew their accreditations under four independent certifying bodies.

Meanwhile, certified professional dog trainer and canine behaviour consultant Anna Koo, from Mutt Matters, said that the legislation of dog trainers is not just an issue unique to Singapore, but globally.

NParks has said in a media release that dog trainers accredited under the PADT scheme can continue practising as an “AVS-accredited trainer” for two years, up until 10 December 2024. Thereafter, PADT trainers who are unable to meet the criteria required for accreditation will be removed from the list of AVS-accredited dog trainers.

Koo acknowledges that the grace period of two years is a positive step, and can hopefully encourage dog trainers to look into educating themselves on the latest science-based training methods.

Changes in mentality and more education

Noble described changes in dog training methods in Singapore as a "quick massive shift", with a "slow transition", and also recalled getting a lot of pushback against force-free training from traditional trainers pre-COVID.

However, as people had more time during the pandemic, they started asking more questions, looking into what they were doing and educating themselves through social media and the news.

Noble referenced a UK television show, "Dogs Might Fly", that showed force-free training methods used to teach dogs how to fly a plane.

These days, people are more informed and would check in with dog training schools on their training methods, said Noble. While trainers are currently still being accredited by the old system, he hopes that it will reach a point where people are going to approach only accredited dog trainers through AVS' list.

"It's going to have a huge impact once people approach only those (trainers) that are using the most up-to-date methodology," he said.

Divided responses from local dog trainers

Koo has noticed an increase in the number of existing reward-based trainers looking to further upgrade themselves, by taking on formal certifications recognised by the ACDT scheme. What used to be a handful has now risen to more than 30, she said.

June Lim, an AVS accredited trainer and fear-free certified professional from A Smiling Leash, shared that most people are "excited" to have the ACDT scheme rolled out.

According to her, a lot of new dog trainers are trying to obtain certification, with more younger-generation trainers advocating for fear-free training.

"It's a good thing because there's a benchmark and guidelines. New or existing trainers have an avenue where they can upgrade their knowledge," she said.

Lim was part of the first batch of dog trainers to be accredited, allowing her to keep abreast with the latest developments in the field through workshops, seminars, online courses and teleconferences.

However, as the ACDT accreditation is voluntary, local dog training schools can still run their businesses without undergoing the scheme. Lim shared that there are dog trainers who might not want to go through the hassle of the knowledge acquisition phase to get accreditation.

Language might also pose another challenge, as the course requires trainers to attend written examinations and practical assessments in English. Additionally, the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants, one of only four organisations that can certify dog trainers under teh ACDT scheme, requires trainers to re-certify themselves every three years, which may not come so easily for old-time trainers.

"The accreditation requires dog trainers to do course studies, which may not be easy for those in their 50s or 60s, who are more practical and have rich experience, but may lack in theoretical knowledge," said Lim.

Ricky Yeo, a full-time dog trainer with 12 years of professional experience, acknowledges that the previous accreditation process "was a lot easier", but sees the good of the new scheme. He is currently undergoing the process to obtain certification.

"This accreditation process is a lot more difficult, because you have to go through an exam. There's money involved, and you have to study for it, so it's more tedious and laborious. Nonetheless, I still see the good in it," he said.

According to AVS' old scheme, candidates had to show an active track record of dog training conducted in the last two years, provide 10 verifiable client references, and demonstrate competency with the accreditation syllabus.

As such, Yeo sees AVS' updated ACDT scheme as a way to "filter out" previously accredited dog trainers who are still using aversive training methods.

Why some trainers still use outdated training methods

Yeo thinks dog trainers who still adopt more traditional methods of training are "those that are likely very stuck in their ways", or trainers who do not know how to pivot to positive reinforcement methods.

"Traditional methods are a shortcut. If you cause fear and stress, most dogs will shut down mentally. Symptomatically you will see them as obedient, because the so called bad behaviour is not exhibited. But it's a suppressive effect," he said.

Koo added that punishment-based training methods merely suppress behaviours, because animals naturally seek to avoid things that are unsafe or unpleasant, and does not address the underlying reason or emotions for a dog's behaviour (eg. a dog barking because it is afraid).

"If we do not understand how punishment works, dog trainers or owners may go away with a false impression that the dog became 'better', only to have the behaviour return again one day or become worse," she said.

Some trainers who use aversive consequences in training, thinking they are applying operant conditioning, may forget that dogs are also "classically learning" at the same time. A training action that managed to suppress a behaviour, would therefore be "aversive enough" for the dog to learn when a scary or painful thing is coming, through classical association.

As such, a dog that was initially barking due to its fear of a stranger, is now even more afraid of seeing strangers because it predicts humans to do scary things to it, she said.

"Sometimes, you see cases only starting off as a reactive behaviour like barking and lunging. But by the time it reaches the hands of another trainer, you may now have a case of biting and aggression with a lot of distrust," said Koo.

"Fear is very easy to instil and very hard to remove. Even if you can suppress a behaviour using punishment, you should not attempt to do so," she advised.

Koo has encountered cases of dogs who have undergone a history of compulsion-based training methods. Often, such cases may become more complex with the dog having distrust. As such, it may attack the new trainer, thinking the new person would do the same "scary thing" that the last person did to it in the past.

"I don't believe that trainers come into this job thinking that they want to harm dogs. They come in with the love of dogs. However, without a sound education and understanding on how animals learn, some trainers may not realise they are doing more harm to the dog in the long term," said Koo.

The abundance of outdated and conflicting information on dog training available on the internet could be even more perplexing for dog owners to navigate, she added.

"People were misled into believing that they have to be dominant over their dogs, but we already know for years that it's not true. Dominance theory has long been debunked by science for so many years."

How do animals learn?

According to Koo, the two ways that all animals learn is through:

  • operant conditioning: learning by immediate consequence of their behaviours, and repetition of behaviours that worked in the past

  • classical conditioning: making associations to predict what is safe or unsafe, or what predicts good or bad stuff

She also referenced the ABC model (antecedent-behaviour-consequence) in animal training:

  • antecedent: what happened before the behaviour

  • behaviour: behaviour of the dog

  • consequence: what happened after the behaviour

Despite differences in views, Lim acknowledges that there has been "a very positive change" in the dog-training industry in Singapore, with more focus on animal welfare.

"I really do hope that AVS can be more stringent in the benchmarking of trainers, and try to put a stop to trainers who are using aversive methods that are causing harm to the dogs," she said.

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