By: Staff  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

Mark Twain may not have known it, but he was talking about ethics when he said, “To be good is noble, but to teach others to be good is nobler and less trouble.” In professional organizations, the purpose of a code of ethics is twofold. First, a code of ethics protects the profession and brings increased credibility by setting standards for conduct. Second, a code of ethics protects the public or the consumers who use the services provided by a profession.

Ethics, the study of standards of conduct and moral principles, has roots that can be documented as far back as 400 BC. Socrates was the Greek philosopher who studied the principles of virtue and justice. His most famous student, Plato, continued the development of the study of ethics and contended that there is an absolute good to which human activities aspire. Plato became the teacher of Aristotle whose contribution to ethics occurred about 300 BC and emphasized logical, practical thinking. Perhaps one of the most well-known early ethical codes was the Hippocratic Oath. Hippocrates was a Greek physician about 400 BC. The Hippocratic oath represents his ideals and principles and is still administered to graduating medical students. A key component of the Hippocratic Oath that is relevant to dog trainers is “Do no harm.”

Early philosophers who studied ethics considered the moral aspect of the topic and related it to religion and theology much of the time. In the late 1700s, a German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, described ethical criteria that were independent of religious doctrine.


Ethics: A Recognized Area of Study

Ethics has become a recognized field of study. There are scholars and researchers in this area and a complete literature. One can receive graduate training in ethics and a distinction is made between ethical theory and applied ethics. Ethical theory addresses conceptual issues such as moral theory, relativism, and rights. Applied ethics addresses the problems and sensitive issues that face our culture today. Examples of issues in applied ethics include abortion, the death penalty, welfare, animal rights, and euthanasia. The ethical issues that we face as dog trainers will be addressed in the applied ethics area. As the field of ethics has become more sophisticated, many professional organizations now have a code of ethics. Professionals interested in the study of ethics can join the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics*. This association has an annual conference, and a newsletter, and it provides a variety of services to members.

Nine Core Ethical Principles

In other fields such as psychology, behavior analysis, and education, practitioners have turned to some specific ethical principles that can be used to guide ethical decision making (Beauchamp & Childress, 1989, Frankena, 1973, Josephson, 1991, Kitchener, 1985). Koocher and Keith-Spiegel (1998) have identified nine core principles that are seen repeatedly in the ethics literature. Dog trainers might never all agree on what is “ethically correct” in every situation. However, if we have a common understanding of the larger field of ethics and some common guidelines by which ethical dilemmas on any topic can be evaluated, we can maximize our ability to uphold a Code of Ethics once it is adopted. The nine core ethical principles that can be adapted for dog trainers follow.

1. “Do no harm” is the ethical principle that has guided professionals in the medical profession for centuries. As dog trainers begin to look seriously at issues surrounding the use of punishment, the appropriateness of aversive procedures in certain situations, and handling dogs with serious behavior problems, “do no harm” will be a most important ethical principle. Definitions will need to be developed for dog trainers to specify the meaning of “harm.” Harm is generally thought of as permanent damage or injury. For both humans and dogs, harm can be physical or psychological. In dog training, harm to dogs would most likely result from the inappropriate use of equipment or procedures or the excessive use of punishment. As we begin to address principles such as “do no harm” we will need to define terms such as “excessive,” “great” as in “great pain and distress,” and “inappropriate.”

2. Respect autonomy, defined as independence or the ability to function without control by others. In human settings, ethical therapists should work hard to have their clients become self-reliant. It is considered unethical for a therapist tell a client he or she needs to continue sessions simply so the therapist will not lose income if the client is terminated.

Dog trainers who are ethical think about making owners and their dogs as independent as possible. The skills we teach the dog should result in the dog being a well-mannered, well-behaved, respected community member who is loved in a family and welcome in public settings. Teaching dog owners responsible dog ownership behaviors will result in all of us who are dog owners having increased independence. We want to be welcome in hotels, public parks, and other public areas and the way to get welcomed is to have all dog owners behave responsibly. Trainers should teach owners the skills they need to manage their dogs effectively in both the home and community. If your pet dog class is having fun working on agility activities, you may find yourself having to tell a particular dog owner that his or her dog could benefit more from someone else’s class that teaches basic training and good manners. Pet dog trainers should strive to make dogs owners as self-reliant as possible when it comes to handling their own dog. This requires that classes and lessons provide a functional curriculum for pet dog owners. Why focus on teaching a figure eight and flip-finish when the dog will not even come to the owner when called?

On a much larger scale related to autonomy (not being controlled by others), many dog owners are affected by legislation that negatively impacts dogs and their owners. Legislation in some cities discriminates against certain breeds, some locations restrict the number of dogs people can own, and other places ban dogs from public areas such as local parks. This legislation generally comes following problem incidents where dog owners have not been responsible. Being a part of a society means that we will have rules and we lose autonomy to some extent. The loss if autonomy will be even greater in settings where dog owners are not responsible.

3. Benefit others. Benefiting others in the dog training context means that decisions made by dog trainers should have a positive effect on both dogs and clients. In human settings, ethical issues are applied to the professional to client relationship. Ethical issues also apply to the professional to professional relationship. For example, doctors should not speak badly to their patients about another physician. In dog training, there is an additional element added to the ethics formula – the dog. Dog trainers must address ethical issues regarding trainer-client relationships, trainer-dog relationships, and trainer to trainer relationships.

In all of the relationships a trainer has, whether they be with dogs, clients, or other trainers, the ethical principle of “benefit others” applies.

4. Be just. Actions that are “just” are actions that are fair and impartial. This is the principle that says as dog trainers we should treat both dogs and clients as we would like to be treated. Another part of being fair to clients is that they are not promised something a practitioner can’t deliver.

Trainers will take the physical and psychological well-being of the dog into account when planning behavior programs. For example, it would not be fair to use punishment with a dog who engages in an undesirable behavior that was caused by a health problem. Trainers should also refrain from giving unreasonable guarantees regarding the outcome of training.

5. Be faithful. Being faithful in both human services and dog training settings relates to being truthful, sincere, and without intent to mislead anyone. Faithfulness with regard to ethics relates to maintaining allegiance. This allegiance can be to dogs in general, to an individual dog, or to a client. Allegiance also pertains on a larger scale to adhering to one’s principles and high standards for dog training. Ethical trainers will do what is in the best interest of dogs and their owners.

Being faithful in professional settings also applies to confidentiality, promise keeping, and not violating a trust. An ethical dog trainer would not discuss one client with another client. The relationship between a trainer and client is a fiduciary relationship, much like the relationship between and therapist and client.

6. Accord dignity. Professionals in human service settings begin with the assumption that every person is worthy of respect. Expanded to dog training, every client is worthy of respect and every dog is worthy of respect. Trainers can give clients dignity by giving them strategies and procedures to use with which they can have success with their dog. Clients are given dignity when trainers understand their problems, needs, and the dynamics of their particular situation at a given time. Some clients have physical limitations or learning problems and a trainer who gives a client dignity will make the necessary adaptations to ensure that the client can experience success.

Dogs are given dignity when trainers recognize that each and every one is a unique, remarkable creature. Different dogs learn in different ways and ethical trainers will identify training methods for individual dogs that results in the dog having an opportunity to be successful and get reinforced for correct behaviors.

7. Treat others with care and compassion. Treating others with care and compassion is an ethical principle applied in medical and therapy settings that can also apply to dog training. Being able to imagine one’s self in the place of a frustrated, novice dog owner with a problem dog is one mark of an ethical trainer and understanding that a dog is not being noncompliant, instead, he is really just very confused about what you want him to do, are abilities related to ethics.

8. Pursuit of excellence. In professional settings in many areas, the pursuit of excellence relates to becoming a competent professional, supporting other professionals who are trying to become more skilled, and attempting to prevent unprofessional and unethical actions.

Dog trainers who are ethical should be in constant pursuit of excellence. This means improving one’s own skills as well as helping colleagues, clients, and dogs “be all that they can be.” This means that clients will learn specific dog training skills as well as what it means to be a responsible owner. Excellence as related to dogs is a far bigger picture than learning to sit and come when called. Ethical dog trainers will do their best to have an impact on the larger dog training community, but they will not attempt to work out of the range of their own professional limitations.

9. Accept accountability. Accepting accountability relates to considering the potential consequences of one’s actions, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and refraining from shifting the blame to others. In dog training, a person who is accountable has to accept some responsibility for both clients and dogs. For example, if none of the students in a group class learned last week’s lesson, a trainer might have to accept responsibility and recognize that it could be that the instruction was not effective.


The nine core ethical principles used by other fields to analyze ethical problems can clearly be applied to dog training. Trainers can use these principles to further understand the ethical dilemmas that face us as we work to become an established, accepted profession. Although we have our own unique needs and parameters as dog trainers, we can learn from the larger field of ethics and from other professions who have struggled with ethical issues before us.

And while you’re pondering ethics for trainers, remember one more thing that Mark Twain said, “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”


About The Author

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All Authors Of This Article: | Mary R. Burch, PhD |
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