Choosing the Right Dog Trainer

In previous articles, I discussed the differences between dog trainers and behaviorists, and provided some insight into the various qualifications and professional organizations that are part of those professions.  Today, we’ll talk about how to pick the right person.

To keep it simple, I’ll limit this post to picking the right trainer:  What to look for and how to find one who meets your needs.  Picking a behaviorist will have somewhat different criteria and I’ll discuss that in my next post.  Note:  This assumes that we get back to a more normal society in the coming months and can have in-person interactions more freely than we can at present.  In the interim, there are a number of trainers who are providing very effective remote consulting, or one-on-one social-distanced training, during the pandemic.  But, for our purposes today, lets hope for the future.

So.  The first thing to do is ask around.  In this business there is nothing as beneficial as word-of-mouth advertising.  If one of your friends has a well-behaved and socialized dog, and had a good experience with a trainer, that’s definitely a plus.  Not only do you get to see the dog’s interactions and behavior, but you and your friend will probably have some shared values about training methods and similar lifestyles.

Next, look at the trainers’ advertisements and see what qualifications they have.  For example, if they have a CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA certification, that means they have documented experience, have demonstrated skills and knowledge and –  very importantly – are engaged in continuous education1.    That said, when you see some letters after a trainer’s name, take the time to look that up and see what that certification actually means, what that certifying agency is.  They’re not all the same.  By the same token, when you see “member of ________” , take some time to look that up.  Some professional organizations have stringent membership requirements in terms of qualifications and experience.  Others, not so much.

After that, look at what they offer in terms of training styles.  A trainer who is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, or holds most certifications, will adhere to the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) philosophy of training and behavior work.  I’ll get into the details of this in a later post, but for our purposes today it means that the trainer adheres to professional standards that avoid any punishment-based training measures.  If you see an advertisement of a trainer who promotes the use of punishment methods, such as e-collars2, I would consider that to be a red flag.  Not only are aversive training methods contrary to ethical standards, but they have also been found to be damaging to dogs’ welfare and are less effective than positive training methods3.  Similarly, I would advise looking carefully at a trainer who describes his program as “balanced”.  This can often mean that this person is more prone to implement punishment as a training measure, instead of as a last resort.

If your trainer uses phrases such as “pack”, “authority”,  “Alpha” or other terms related to a dominance hierarchy, this can mean that he is using outdated and discredited training methods4.  This points out the advantage of hiring trainers who are maintaining a certification and are required to keep current on developments in the field.

Trainers will offer a variety of environments for you and your dog.  They may offer anything from group classes, structured playtime for socialization, individual one-on-one training, or board-and-train programs.  They may have a facility for conducting classes, or they may come to your house to offer individualized programs.  Each of these approaches have advantages for dog owners.

If your dog is new in your house, regardless of his/her age, I recommend taking part in a group training session.  This is a good social and bonding event for you and your dog, and also gives you a chance to learn about how well he is socialized with other dogs in a controlled and safe environment.   Again, read reviews and get recommendations before picking a program.

One-on-one programs are particularly useful for specific training in your home environment, such as loose-leash walking, greeting strangers, or other activities that don’t require a social setting but are centered on you interacting directly with your dog.

Board and train facilities, or doggy-daycare facilities that provide training can be very favorable for working people who don’t have a lot of spare time.  However, these programs must include the dogs’ owners in the training.  Your dog isn’t a car that can be dropped off at a mechanic.  A good facility such as this will involve the owner in training and provide work to do at home.

Lastly, interview the trainers that you are considering and tour their facilities.   They should provide their rates up front, along with details of their training program; and information about their business license, insurance and bonding.  Find out if they are affiliated with any shelters or rescues and ask for references.

Every person and every pet have individual needs and personalities.  One size does not fit all. But this will hopefully help in identifying the kind of trainer you need.

Next up:  What to look for in a canine behaviorist.

1  How to become a certified dog trainer – CCPDT

China, Mills & Cooper (2020), Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement.  Frontiers in Veterinary Science 7 (2020).  doi:  10.3389/fvets.2020.00508

3  Fernandes, Olssen & Vierira de Castro (2017), Do Aversive-based Training Methods Actually Compromise Dog Welfare?:  A Literature Review.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 196 (2017).  1 – 12, doi: 10.1016/j.applanim 2017.07.001

4  The Dominance Controversy – Dr. Sophia Yin

Trainer or Behaviorist?

In an earlier post, I talked at length about the certifications to look for in a dog trainer or behaviorist.  If you took the time to read it, you might be wondering what’s the difference between them.  After all, they do the same thing, right?  Well, not really.  They represent two different disciplines that you might need in living with your dog.

So, you are sharing your home with a pretty intelligent non-human who has social and emotional needs, and communicates non-verbally.  And he is turning into a terrible roommate.  One of you needs help, but what kind of help?  As in all things, that depends.

First, keep in mind that anyone can put up a website, print some business cards and call himself a dog trainer or behaviorist – or dog whisperer, dog guru, dog spiritual healer, dog communicator, or any other title.  This is an unregulated industry, with its share of quacks and frauds.  In the first article in this series, What Do All Those Letters and Certifications Mean? I discussed the various organizations that certify and vet members of these professions.  In the next article, I’ll address what to look for in picking the right person to help you with your dog, but at this point, we’ll discuss what these professionals do.

What is a dog trainer?

Putting it simply, a trainer is someone who teaches you and your pet the skills needed to function well in your home and in society.  This includes manners, pet etiquette and behaviors that are needed to safety and a happy life.  These can range from basic skills such as sitting and lying down on command, coming when called, walking nicely on a leash, traffic safety, etc., to advanced skill levels such as protection training, sports and other activities.

Types of dog training.

The training can take many forms, ranging from multi-dog classes for teaching basic skills to owners and their pets, moderated play sessions for socialization (generally for puppies), advanced group classes, private sessions at owners’ homes, or board-and-train sessions in which the dog lives at the trainers’ location for a time.  In my next article I’ll go into these approaches in depth and discuss how to pick a trainer, but for the time being, it suffices to say that trainers have a number of tools at their disposal, and a number of different business philosophies and approaches.  One size does not fit all.

What is a canine behaviorist?

A behaviorist is someone who can address a problem behavior that your dog has developed.  A “problem behavior” being defined that something that the dog does too often, or not often enough.1   For example, if your dog has anxieties about certain situations – such as being left alone in the house, or your dog barks excessively at the neighbors, or is overly protective of his food bowl, these are problems that the behaviorist can help with reducing.

Behaviorist Methodology

Where a dog trainer uses repetition and encouragement to educate dogs and owners in how to perform certain actions; a behaviorist will work with the owners to observe what the dog does, determine what events or triggers cause it to happen, and develop an intervention to reduce or modify the problem behavior.  The key elements of this are to closely observe what happens before, during and after the behavior occurs; and develop an intervention based on behavioral science and professional ethics.

I hope this helped to clarify when you should seek a trainer or behaviorist.  We’ll get into the mechanics of training and behavior modification in a later article, along with what you should look for when searching for a reputable and effective professional to help you with your dog.