No Pain, No Force, No Fear: An Interview With Niki Tudge

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Niki Tudge is the founder of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), whose mission is to promote the use of force-free pet training and pet care
  • Among its goals is PPG’s focus on providing practical business advice to its 8,000 members
  • PPG’s initiatives include a junior membership program, standardization of training-related operating procedures, a credentialing program, and the Pet Dog Ambassador program
  • PPG is also about to launch a brand-new tool, the Pet Rescue Resources for use by shelters, foster organizations, fosters, adopters, and others

I'm very excited to have a fantastic guest with me today, Niki Tudge, who founded the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) in 2012. The PPG mission is to provide educational resources to pet care providers and the public that emphasize force-free pet training and professional pet care.

Following are the highlights of our discussion. You can download the full transcript at the link above.

One Terrified Dog Was the Inspiration for the Pet Professional Guild

Niki has been training dogs since 2002, and in 2006, she and her husband bought an animal hospital and pet resort. One afternoon, Niki was in a pet store buying supplies for her business and watched, horrified, as a trainer in the store was "literally choking a dog because it was reacting to other dogs." The poor animal was howling in fear.

Niki found the manager and told him what she'd just witnessed. He insisted the trainer was following protocol and refused to discuss it further with her.

"I actually left the shopping cart, which had several hundred dollars' worth of equipment, in the store," Niki recalls. "I walked outside and burst into tears."

That evening, as she went back over the incident in her mind, she thought, "Wow. How could this not only take place, but take place in such a large organization, and with people just passing by thinking it's absolutely okay?"

Up to that day, Niki had been training dogs more as a hobby than a career, but on that day, she decided (with her husband's blessing) to create a platform of sorts for like-minded professionals to come together to voice the need for force-free training and pet care.

"The voice doesn't have to be an extreme voice," Niki thought, "and it doesn't have to be a critical voice. It just needs to be a voice that says 'here is the science, here are the facts, and here are the ethics. This is where we should be taking this industry in this era."

Niki has a background in business, so setting up and marketing her new venture wasn't an intimidating experience for her. However, what was intimidating was the overall culture of the dog training and pet care professions.

"It is very much a whack-a-mole type of environment," she explains, "where if you say something someone else doesn't necessarily agree with — whack!"

Niki realized very quickly that she needed to surround herself with people who were true professionals with integrity and a similar vision, who could support and protect one another from the inevitable criticism they would encounter.

Today, the Pet Professional Guild has about 8,000 members according to Niki's estimate. The organization has what she calls "unwavering" guiding principles and nonnegotiables. However, since PPG members are professionals, they exercise autonomy in how they run their businesses and the training techniques they use — as long as they stay within the parameters of nonpunitive methods (e.g., no yelling, shouting, or physical punishment).

PPG Provides Practical Business Advice to Its Membership

One of Niki's goal with the PPG is to provide practical tools to members in the form of free webinars, handouts, and other types of information and training. Because she has a background in business, Niki quickly realized that lots of dog trainers leave the profession due not to a lack of training experience or skills, but because they don't know how to set up or manage a business successfully.

"It broke my heart every time someone said, 'I'm not renewing my membership because I'm just not able to make a living at this'," says Niki. "I would think, 'But you can! You absolutely can'."

Like so many small operators, dog trainers who start their own businesses are required to be not only dog trainers, but public relations, marketing, financial, and human resources experts.

In my opinion as a practicing veterinarian, even though vets graduate with little to no background in animal training, we really need to be on the front lines in terms of referring clients to trainers who use positive, nonpunitive methods.

It would be wonderful to have a single resource to refer people to with complete confidence. It can make the difference between a pet who returns with his human to our practice year after year grounded and well-balanced, and a pet we never see again because his family dropped him off at the shelter due to his behavior problems.

We see this revolving door in veterinary medicine all the time. And the missing piece for us is being able to point pet owners in the right direction to get the help they need to build relationships with their animals rather than neurotically trying to control them.

PPG's Guiding Principles and Programs

Niki's goal in defining the PPG's guiding principles was to make them not just groundbreaking, but also realistically achievable. For example, she looked at all the equipment dog trainers use, and advocated against any that are designed to inflict harm, such as choke, pronged and shock collars.

In terms of a philosophical approach, the PPG advocates for "no pain, no force, no fear" training methods. It's important not to cause physical harm; it's also important not to approach training with the mindset "you will do this, or else." The goal is to foster good dog-human relationships.

As time went on, it became necessary to more clearly define certain terms, such as "no force," because it means different things to different people. Niki ultimately decided that a forceful approach is one that causes physical or emotional fear.

There are many dog trainers out there who say they use positive reinforcement techniques, but who in practice have an aggressive demeanor or don't allow the dog any choices, which creates an overall environment that is very unpleasant for the animal.

One really exciting aspect of PPG is their junior membership, which is for young people 12 years and up. They have their own study guides and tests and credentials. The goal is to be able to shape the behavior of young people who may be looking at a career in dog training.

At the present time, PPG is also working on standardizing three specific operating procedures: boundary training, recall, and no bark, because, as Niki points out, "We can't expect Joe Public not to buy an electronic fence or a shock collar if we don't provide him with alternatives."

Niki's group has also developed the Pet Professional Accreditation Board, which offers three levels of credentials, including "Canine Trainer," "Professional Canine Trainer" and "Behavior Consultant." Each level tests for knowledge, skills, and teaching ability/people handling.

Niki has also published a book that Niki believes is the right model for the industry going forward. It covers topics such as ethics, competency, continuing education, and oversight.

The PPG Pet Dog Ambassador program is fashioned after the AKC's Canine Good Citizen program, but it's more about "real life skills," says Niki. Whereas the dog obedience business tends to be very formal and stiff, Niki's approach is more laidback. She believes in letting dogs be dogs, while helping them learn to live in harmony with people.

PPG's Brand-New Pet Rescue Resources Program

PPG is about to roll out a brand-new program, two years in the making, called the Pet Rescue Resources. It will be a massive free resource targeted to shelters and "fosters, adopters, rescues, cats, dogs, birds, whatever," says Niki. The first two protocols will address dogs who jump or mount, and dog playgroups. Shelters will be able to implement the protocols right away because they contain guidelines, videos, handouts — all the tools needed for each protocol.

"I think when it comes to the welfare of animals, and I know this is a really broad statement because resources are so limited, but it just doesn't make sense to me that organizations that exist to save animals don't put as much focus on behavioral wellbeing as physical wellbeing," says Niki.

"I'm really hoping that next year we can shape how we interact and work with the rescue community. And our advocacy committee is also working on goals as well as a shock free coalition to hopefully partner more effectively with the veterinary community."

Niki is obviously very skilled at taking a vision or dream and turning it into an action plan, which is fantastic. Very few people can do that. And she's also doing a magnificent job of covering all possible bases, such as veterinary community relationships and the homeless animal population.

If you're interested in learning more about PPG, you can visit the website at Pet Professional Guild, which contains lots of free educational resources and a member directory. If you decide to join PPG, "don't be afraid to step forward," says Niki. "It's not the sort of environment where if you're not one of the crowd, you feel you have no value."

I'm looking forward to checking in with Niki again in a year or two to see what new initiatives PPG is working on, and the evolution of the organization!