Dog owners sometimes need a little extra help. Maybe no one is home during the day and the dogs need to be exercised, or there are behavioral problems and training is needed. Turning to a professional would seem to be the obvious solution, right? It is, but when it comes to hiring a professional to care for or work with your dog, it’s a case of buyer beware. Check out these two recent news stories:
A couple in California hired a dog walker for Olly and Maggie through Wag, a popular app for on-demand dog walking. After a few weeks, the dog walker, Adam Vavrus, called the couple about an incident that occurred during a walk. Shortly after the call, the couple say, Ollie “threw up blood and just laid there.” The vet told them the specks of blood were signs of severe stress. When the couple went over their home surveillance video from the time of the last walk, they saw that Vavrus had shown up with four other dogs (something that is clearly against company policy). A few minutes into the video, he was seen approaching Olly from behind in a way that caused Olly to snap and bite him. Vavrus told an investigative news show reporter that he, “needed to test Olly and make sure he understood who the pack leader was.” He was also seen on video, in the course of 12 minutes, chasing Olly around the house, growling at him, kneeing him in the chest, and whipping him with a leash. The couple filed a police report and Vavrus was charged with animal cruelty. It should be noted that although Wag does an initial background check, an incident had occurred three months prior where several people at a dog park had called police to complain that Vavrus had been behaving aggressively toward animals there. There was no official complaint, so it’s likely that Wag had no way of knowing about it. Wag did cut ties with Vavrus and offered the couple a refund plus $100 credit toward future walks. I’m guessing those are never going to take place.
In a separate incident, a family sent their rescued dog Oreo to a Sit Means Sit franchisee. Annette Mansfield paid almost $2,000 to have Oreo live in trainer Billy Salcido’s home for a week. Salcido showed her the remote collar (a.k.a. shock collar, e-collar) that would be used, saying it would be set to vibration mode to get Oreo’s attention. When watching a video after the fact of Oreo being trained, Mansfield noticed a bloody wound on his neck. She panicked and demanded that Salcido bring Oreo back immediately, which he did. A veterinarian confirmed there were pronounced burn marks on Oreo’s neck, as well as raw sores on his paws and multiple wounds on his body. The family was traumatized, and so was Oreo. According to Mansfield, Oreo is now distrustful, skittish, and nervous around strangers, none of which he was before. When made aware of the incident, Sit Means Sit pulled Salcido’s license, refunded the training fee, and paid the veterinary bills.
These types of incidents are certainly not limited to these two companies. And I don’t believe that either of these companies, or any company that serves the public’s dogs, ever intend to cause harm. No doubt they hire people they feel will do a good job, or in the case of franchisees, people who will carry out the company’s mission in the prescribed way. And both of those offenders clearly did things that were not company policy or procedure. But how careful can a vetting process really be? It is standard practice to look into criminal records, and to root out sex offenders and people on global watch lists. But beyond that, can you really tell how someone is going to behave with a dog? In the cases of dog walkers or pet sitters, there’s the added liability of the person actually being in your home. Surveillance cameras can help if something happens inside the house, but that offers only limited coverage.
So, what’s an owner to do? When hiring a trainer, pet sitter, dog walker, groomer, or other canine professional, do your homework. First and best of all, try to get a personal recommendation from clients who have used the service before and have been pleased with it. Check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure no complaints have been lodged against the company or individual. Do a Google search to look for any news stories or complaints. If there’s a dog-related Facebook group for your local area, check out the comments about various professionals and post your own inquiry. You’ll certainly get an eyeful, both in recommendations and complaints. As far as pet sitters, mine, who I trust completely with my home and my dogs, is a member of and certified by Pet Sitters International. She is licensed and bonded, was recommended to me by a friend, and was able to provide references from other clients before I hired her. She is also certified in canine CPR, regularly attends seminars to expand her knowledge of dog behavior, and is certainly kind and gentle with my dogs.
As far as training and behavior modification, a personal recommendation is still best, but if you can’t find one, organizations such as the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants all have online trainer search functions. Although a license is not required for dog trainers in most U.S. states, you can find a trainer certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, where becoming certified requires a certain level of experience, knowledge, and hands-on experience, depending on the level of certification. But regardless of which search tool you use, speak to the potential trainer yourself and ask questions that go beyond pricing. You can ask about experience, but keep in mind that just because someone has 30 years of experience, it doesn’t mean they’ve evolved in that time. It might, however, weed out brand new trainers who might not be equipped to address more serious behavior issues. More importantly, inquire about training methods, and ask specifically which tools the trainer will and will not use and for what purpose. I also suggest asking, “When a dog is learning a new behavior, what would you do if he doesn’t comply?” The answer can be very telling. Answers along the lines of, “You just have to show them who’s boss,” for example, beg the question of how exactly that would be accomplished. My own approach to training is to set dogs up to succeed by teaching them in gradual increments. If a dog doesn’t comply while learning a new behavior, we go back to the step at which the dog was successful and build smaller steps from there. If a potential trainer gets their hackles up at these kinds of questions, move on. Ask too roughly how long the trainer thinks it might take to address your dog’s issues.
If your goal is to get your dog into a group class, watch the trainer teach class a few times before signing up. Any trainer who won’t let you do this should be crossed off your list. As far as board and train, be very, very careful. I’m not saying there aren’t good board and train facilities or individuals out there—there definitely are. But any time your dog is going to be not only out of your sight but out of your care completely, caution is warranted. (It’s important to understand too that even with board and train, you’ll still need to continue the training when your dog gets home.) Again, personal recommendations are best, but even then, interviewing the trainer who will be assigned to your dog is a must. Ask the previously mentioned questions and again, check for complaints against the company and do further research online. Ask whether you can watch the trainer work with other dogs before leaving yours in the facility’s care, and ask whether there will be a live feed or at least video of the training that you can monitor. Without any way to monitor the training, I would be very hesitant to leave a dog in anyone’s care.
Of course, anything could still happen with an individual who belongs to a reputable professional organization or works for a reputable company, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect on the organization or company as a whole (unless it seems to happen over and over to a particularly company, in which case, steer clear). And it’s true that there might have been no way for the owners to have prevented what happened in the two cases mentioned above. But in general, it is still incumbent on owners to check things out as thoroughly as possible, just as they would with a child, rather than blindly trusting any service professional with their dog. Above all, trust your instincts. Even with all the right credentials, experience, and everything else seeming perfect, if you get a bad feeling about someone, run the other way. There are plenty of good, qualified, ethical professionals who would be happy to have your business.