Dear Ethics Committee,

Concerns about litigation can potentially limit dialogue about issues such as fear aggression. For example, if my dog is uneasy near strangers, I may be counseled not to talk openly about the dog’s bite risk or put a “Do Not Pet” sign on the dog’s harness, because to do so might increase my liability should my dog bite someone.

 Is there a conflict between ethics and the law here? To me, it seems a more ethical approach to encourage open dialogue than to hide concerns. But that approach does not seem to be supported by society, including dog advocates.

Dear Reader,

It is true that the law may at times conflict with ethical principle. Some behavior that is legal may nonetheless be unethical, while in some instances the most ethical option might in fact be illegal.

Ethical rules and principles often demand more of us than laws do. For example, a bystander may be under no legal obligation to intercede on behalf of someone being threatened or harassed. Yet we may recognize the moral necessity of doing so and applaud those who put their own safety at risk to protect a stranger.

The IAABC Code of Ethics recognizes many ethical obligations that are not necessarily reflected in current law or legally binding, including embracing a non-judgmental approach, maintaining client confidentiality, and prioritizing the effective use of positive reinforcement to modify behavior.

In some cases, behaving according to ethical principles could expose one to greater legal risk than behaving unethically or merely abiding by the law. I imagine you had such a situation in mind when you raised the example of managing a fear-aggressive dog in public.

Before we look further at that example, let’s remember we should be considering it from the perspective of an IAABC-affiliated behavior consultant hired to advise a client. As such, we have a duty in relation to both the law and ethics, as stated under Principle III of the IAABC Code of Ethics, “Professional Competence and Integrity”:

3.3 Animal behavior consultants maintain adequate knowledge of and adhere to applicable laws, ethics, and professional standards.

When consulting on a case involving a dog with a history of fear-aggression, it’s important to remember that IAABC’s Code of Ethics defines the consultant-client relationship as confidential, but the law does not. This means that a consultant may be compelled to disclose all communications with a client regarding a dog’s behavior history, knowledge of actions taken by the owner, and advice given. Such potential limitations to the client’s right of confidentiality should be made known to the client. Section 2.1 of the Code states:

2.1 Animal behavior consultants inform clients and other interested parties, the nature of confidentiality; possible limitations of the client’s right to confidentiality; circumstances where confidential information may be requested and where disclosure of confidential information may be legally required. This may be done in writing or in a verbal review.

It is equally important to remember that as much as we may think we know about the legal liability associated with various management strategies, from warning people not to approach to labeling a dog’s harness to muzzling the dog on walks, we are by no means in a position to dispense legal opinion or advice. To do so would be advising outside our area of competency, as stated in Section 3.8 of the Code:

3.8 Animal behavior consultants do not advise on problems outside the recognized boundaries of their competencies.

It is therefore the ethical obligation of consultants to give the most appropriate and comprehensive advice within the law regarding managing and/or resolving the behavior issue in question, based on their knowledge of animal behavior and humane training methods. As to any possible legal implications of following that advice, the consultant should recommend clients consult a lawyer, their homeowner’s insurance agent, and/or Animal Control.

Lastly, it’s useful to keep in mind that fear of legal liability is often not the only obstacle to client compliance with sound advice in aggression cases. Using a muzzle in public or preventing neighbors from approaching one’s dog often draws unwanted attention and may carry significant social stigma for the human. As behavior consultants, we have a responsibility to be non-judgmental with regard to these and other client concerns.

Ruth Crisler, IAABC Ethics Committee Chair.

Questions in this column are based on submissions from Journal readers. Do you have a question for our Ethics Committee? Use our secure, anonymous online form to ask. We’ll try to get to as many as space allows.