Buyer Beware! (And “HUSH”?)

by Kristin Lucey, CTC

 

 

It’s one of my most common refrains. I say it again and again. I warn; I apologize; I explain; I complain. “Dog training is an unregulated industry.”

Did you know it may also be an industry that, in some corners, is taking steps to squelch honest but negative reviews of itself? Could that possibly be legal?

Unregulated?

What do I mean by “unregulated”? I mean there is no governmental oversight entity to license dog trainers. Do you want to open a business to be a hairstylist in California? You need a license from the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology (“CBBC”). Do you want to charge people money to design landscaping for them in California? You must have a license from the California Landscape Architects Technical Committee (“LATC”).

But, do you want to train pet dogs for compensation in California (or in any other state in America)? No license is needed. Not one bit of relevant education in animal learning is required. Not a single proficiency test to evaluate basic knowledge or skills is administered. No industry-wide code of conduct for how to treat animals in your care is mandated. It’s the Wild Wild West out here and anyone can charge a fee to train dogs.

Why do I care?

It’s concerning to me, in part, because I believe the dog training industry should agree to and be bound by the principle that only humane, evidence-based, pain- and force-free training methods should be used. (The science backs me up on this. Some of those professionals that are licensed – such as Veterinary Behaviorists – back me up on this. The Academy for Dog Trainers, where I received my education, also backs me up on this.)

Why should you care?

It’s also concerning because there should be some way to hold dog trainers accountable when they don’t use ethical or humane or effective training methods and, as a result, dogs and humans suffer. Did your hairstylist engage in misrepresentations or falsely advertise their services? You can submit a complaint to the CBBC for that. Did your landscape architect engage in “gross incompetence”? You can file a complaint with the LATC for that. In fact, California Business and Professions Code Section 5620.1 states:  “Protection of the public shall be the highest priority for the Landscape Architects Technical Committee in exercising its licensing, regulatory, and disciplinary functions. Whenever the protection of the public is inconsistent with other interests sought to be promoted, the protection of the public shall be paramount.” I think similar consumer protection in dog training should be codified, as it is in landscaping.

It’s also concerning because there should be some way to hold dog trainers accountable when they don’t use ethical or humane or effective training methods and, as a result, dogs and humans suffer.

Let the Marketplace Take Care of It?

In the absence of licensing or regulation, one way for dog guardians to investigate whether they are hiring a competent dog trainer is by researching online reviews.

But can they trust those reviews?

Let’s say you have a small dog, Fluffy. Fluffy recently had a bad experience and suffered a bite from another dog that required stitches. Since then, Fluffy seems anxious on walks. She has started barking and lunging if another dog approaches her while she’s on leash. You are a busy parent of two with a full-time job; you need professional help.

You consider a large training company, and you carefully review the company’s website. You see nothing but glowing reviews. You call the company to discuss Fluffy’s issues with a trainer. You are assured that Fluffy will get a personalized training plan which uses only safe training methods. You are told the quickest way to help Fluffy is by the use of something called an “e-collar” which will “get her attention,” when other dogs are around, but won’t actually or painfully shock her. You fork over a hefty sum of money for a multi-week training package. You drop Fluffy off for her first session and go about your day.

When you go to pick Fluffy up that evening, you immediately see something is wrong. Fluffy is shaking; she’s cowering; her tail is between her legs; her ears are flattened against her head; and she refuses to walk out of the facility on her own. The trainer tells you Fluffy bit one employee and tried to bite several others. You are stunned. Fluffy has never bitten anyone before.

You listen to your instincts (and to Fluffy’s body language). You decide you should instead find a different trainer who will come to your home. You call the large training company to ask for a refund. You are then presented with a document and told you will only get back what’s left of that hefty sum of money if you sign this paper. The paper says:

“I agree not to call Animal Control if there is a discrepancy in how the animals are taken care of. I agree that I will be charged a minimum of $5,000 in damages if I report anything. I agree to a non-disparagement and protection of reputation clause. For purposes of this Section, ‘disparage’ shall mean any negative statement, whether written or oral, including on social media sites, about the Company. For every violation of this agreement, I agree that I will be charged a $5,000 fine per negative review.”

Aha. You suspect you now know why you saw nothing but glowing reviews on the company’s website.

Actually, Let the Feds Help Out.

It turns out there is a law that is intended to protect consumers’ “ability to share their honest opinions about a business’s products, services, or conduct, in any forum, including social media.” It’s called the Consumer Review Fairness Act (“CRFA”). It’s a federal law that was passed in 2016 and that is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”).

Per a 2017 press release from the FTC, the CRFA “protects a broad variety of honest consumer assessments, including online review, social media posts, uploaded photos, videos, etc. And it doesn’t just cover product reviews. It also applies to consumer evaluations of a company’s customer service.”

The FTC makes clear that under the CRFA, it is “illegal for a company to use a contract provision that:

      • bars or restricts the ability of a person who is a party to that contract to review a company’s products, services, or conduct;
      • imposes a penalty or fee against someone who gives a review; or
      • requires people to give up their intellectual property rights in the content of their reviews.”

Since 2019, the FTC has taken some actions against companies that were trying to use contracts to restrict consumer reviews. These companies had threatened legal action if a consumer dared to speak negatively about the company.

The language used in the Fluffy hypothetical was based on a contract that was the subject of an administrative complaint brought by the FTC against a horse trail riding business. In settling that complaint, and others, the FTC has prohibited the company “from offering a form contract to any consumer that includes a review-limiting term or requires that a customer accept such terms as a condition of the company complying with the contract.”

The Moral of the Story

Buyers beware: a mass of positive online reviews may suggest a company is, in fact, amazing. But a deeper dive might be needed to ensure both that the company will treat your dog humanely and that its trainers are knowledgeable about scientifically-sound dog training principles.

Trainers also beware: although our industry is still largely unregulated, consumers do have a legally protected right to use social media to talk about, and critique, the services and products they purchase from us.

Kristin Lucey is an Academy graduate and attorney practicing in California.