Just a Few Ramblings  Regarding  Ethics In The Pet Industry

An excerpt from Pet Training and Behavior Consulting: A Model for Raising the Bar to Protect Professionals, Pets and Their People. 

It is our view that dog trainers, behavior consultants and professional pet care providers are bound to pursue a philosophical approach that blends both the Golden and Silver Rules in that they have an ethical responsibility, a) to do no harm to the animals in their care, and b) to present their qualifications and experience truthfully with full transparency and disclosure.

According to Welfel (2012, p.3), professional ethics is about “being confident one has the correct combination of attributes, skills, and character.” But how does this apply in animal training or behavior consulting? To answer, we must first address why professional ethics are significant both to the general public and the professional.

Professional Ethics

According to Tudge (2010), professional ethics “cover the moral issues that can arise from the specialist knowledge that a professional body has. The industry’s ethics govern how this knowledge is used when providing a service.”

  • The general public benefits from ethical policies by recognizing a professional individual’s autonomy and the right to be treated fairly.
  • The individual professional, meanwhile, whose profession provides ethical guidelines and policies, benefits from the trust earned by being part of said professional body and an appropriate framework to operate within. Furthermore, a professional’s membership of a professional body may inspire confidence from their clients, giving said professionals the opportunity to continue to improve their skills and expand on their knowledge.
  • Professional ethics bring credibility to the profession as the public assumes that those following a specific set of ethical guidelines or policies will act truthfully and competently (Tudge, 2010).

As such, business ethics are also important, and not just the ethics of how an actual professional’s services are planned and delivered.

In the article, Defining ‘Business Ethics’: Like Nailing Jello to a Wall, Lewis (1985, p.377) states that: “Business ethics is a topic receiving much attention in the literature. However, the term ‘business ethics’ is not adequately defined. Typical definitions refer to the rightness or wrongness of behavior, but not everyone agrees on what is morally right or wrong, good or bad, ethical or unethical.

To complicate the problem, nearly all available definitions exist at highly abstract levels.” However, according to Weinstein (2017), the ethical principles that allow us to solve problems in our daily lives are the same principles that provide guidance not only in business but also in health care, law, and education. These principles are:

  • Do No Harm.
  • Make Things Better.
  • Respect Others.
  • Be Fair.
  • Care.


In its Code of Ethics and Conduct, the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (ESVCE) reflects these principles, stating that its members

“have a responsibility to their patients, clients and to the general public. Welfare of patient and client (including avoiding danger for third parties) are to be considered primarily. Training techniques and advice should not knowingly or deliberately cause avoidable psychological, physical distress or damage to any of the above…When collaborating with people who are not ESVCE Members, they should check that the assistant/collaborator (e.g. dog trainer) also conform to the code of practice.”

ESVCE members are also expected to “ promote the interests of animal welfare to colleagues and to society at large and, where necessary, promote public education programs and cultural activities, co-operate with colleagues and other professionals for the sake of animal welfare, and  co-operate with governments and other appropriate bodies to improve standards of animal welfare and ensure the welfare of all animals in their care.”

In the following two sections, we will attempt to summarize the ethical principles currently in place across medicine and psychology, both of which are pertinent to professionals working in the pet services industry.

Professionals who work in the fields of medicine and psychology impact and promote the mental and behavioral well-being of sentient beings, i.e., humans, while pet training and behavior consultants work alongside humans to enhance the mental and behavioral well-being of pets, also sentient beings.

Ethics in Medicine

According to Stanford University (n.d.), there are four basic principles of healthcare ethics:

  1. Autonomy: Patients should have autonomy of thought, intention, and action when making decisions regarding health care procedures. The process of decision-making should be free of coercion or coaxing, and patients must understand all benefits and risks associated with a procedure in order to make a fully informed decision.
  2. Justice: Both the burdens and the benefits of new or experimental treatments should be distributed equally among all groups in society and procedures should uphold the spirit of existing laws, while being fair to all involved.
  3. Beneficence: Procedures should be provided with the intent of doing good for the patient involved. This demands that healthcare providers develop and maintain skills and knowledge, continually update training, consider the individual circumstances of all patients, and strive for net benefit.
  4. Nonmaleficence: This requires that a procedure does not harm the patient involved or others in society.

Ethical Principles of Psychologists

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) (2017) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (herewith referred to as the Ethics Code) aims to “provide guidance for psychologists and standards of professional conduct that can be applied by the APA and by other bodies that choose to adopt them.”

In its Introduction and Preamble, APA (2017) states that the Ethical Standards listed in its Ethics Code are enforceable “rules of conduct for psychologists,” and that the Ethics Code intends to “provide specific standards to cover most situations encountered by psychologists. It has as its goals the welfare and protection of the individuals and groups with whom psychologists work and the education of members, students, and the public regarding ethical standards of the discipline.” APA (2017) goes on to note that: “The development of a dynamic set of ethical standards for psychologists’ work-related conduct requires a personal commitment and lifelong effort to act ethically; to encourage ethical behavior by students, supervisees, employees, and colleagues; and to consult with others concerning ethical problems.”

APA (2017) also sets out its five General Principles. These, unlike the Ethical Standards, which are enforceable, are aspirational in nature and should be “considered by psychologists in arriving at an ethical course of action.” The intent of the General Principles “is to guide and inspire psychologists toward the very highest ethical ideals of the profession.” (APA, 2017). Much could be taken from APA’s Ethics Code and General Principles in terms of application and potential adoption by the pet industry and we will set out some examples in this chapter. Meanwhile, we present here a brief outline of APA’s (2017) five General Principles paired with, in our view, their relevance to pet industry professionals (in italics):

  1. Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence – Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. Training and behavior professionals must always have the welfare of the pet as their first and foremost priority, not the tools, method or financial gain from the service engagement.
  2. Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility – Psychologists establish relationships of trust with those with whom they work. Pet Professionals must be trustworthy and operate with integrity.
  3. Principle C: Integrity – Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology. Pet Professionals must be open and honest with clients regarding any methods, tools and approaches they seek to use and/or recommend.
  4. Principle D: Justice – Psychologists recognize that fairness and justice entitle all persons to access to and benefit from the contributions of psychology and to equal quality in the processes, procedures, and services being conducted by psychologists. Pet Professionals provide fair market value services to all clients in their service areas.
  5. Principle E: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity – Psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination. Psychologists are aware that special safeguards may be necessary to protect the rights and welfare of persons or communities whose vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision-making. Pet Professionals respect the dignity and confidentiality of all clients.


Striving to benefit those with whom we work and taking care to do no harm (Principle A) should apply to both humans and animals, as should establishing relationships of trust with those with whom we work (Principle B). Potential problems associated with the pet industry often involve the non-disclosure of the methods used to train and/or care for a pet.  Honest, accurate discussion about the training methods employed would allow pet owners to make reliable decisions regarding informed consent (Principle C).

In any situation where an animal is the “client” (e.g. a training class, a behavior consultation, a trip to the groomer, or a stay in boarding or daycare), he rarely has any say in the situation or option to partake in informed consent. Nor is he in the position of being able to direct or take responsibility for his own welfare in such situations, making him extremely vulnerable. It is essential, then, that the pet professional’s participation is beneficial to the animal. This is a “foundational principle of professional ethics.” (Tudge, 2010).

Principle D references the equal entitlement for all to access and benefit from the same quality of service, stating that: “Psychologists exercise reasonable judgment and take precautions to ensure that their potential biases, the boundaries of their competence, and the limitations of their expertise do not lead to or condone unjust practices.” (APA, 2017). Should pets and their owners not also have the right to expect a certain established quality of training not limited by the boundaries of a professional’s knowledge and skills, especially when incompetency can lead to unjust and inhumane practices?

Principle E is especially pertinent in terms of protecting “the rights and welfare of persons or communities whose vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision-making.” (APA, 2017). It should go without saying that those involved in the care and training of pets treat both owners and their pets with respect and dignity. Pets, by their very nature, should have their welfare protected, for who is less able to speak for themselves than they? “As pet owners and pet professionals, we are the voice both for our animals and for those we see in practice. We are the ones that can stand up for them, speak on their behalf, look out for their welfare, and make sure they are treated with kindness and compassion.” (Gregory, 2019a).

Ethics in an Unregulated Profession

Welfel (2012, p.3) presents that ethics encompass five dimensions and that, when these are all brought together, they represent the “positive ethical ideas and values of behavior counseling professions.”

In short

The five dimensions (summarized here by the authors) include:

  • Having sufficient knowledge and skills to use effective interventions.
  • Respecting the dignity and freedom of clients.
  • Using the power of their professional title to act responsibly.
  • Behaving in a way that promotes public confidence in the profession.
  • Committing to placing the welfare of the client as the highest priority.

Animals have the ability “to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences.” (American Animal Hospital Association, 2019). In other words, they are sentient beings with the capacity to experience both positive and negative feelings, which “requires a level of awareness and cognitive ability.” (Broom, 2019). “Biological science, as well as common sense, supports the fact that the animals that share our lives are feeling, sensing beings that deserve thoughtful, high-quality care. The care that is offered should provide for the animal’s physical and behavioral welfare and strive to minimize pain, distress, and suffering for the animal.” (American Animal Hospital Association, 2019).