Choosing a great dog trainer is critical to success. Here are some tips.
Lisa Radosta DVM, DACVB
When my daughter was young and ready to go to school, I spent time looking for the right fit for her and for our family. I am one of those moms who is not afraid to flag down complete strangers with children in the grocery line, restaurant, and hair salon to ask them about their child’s school. Despite the vastness of the internet and social media, a great way to start the search for a great product or service is still by word of mouth.
I called the schools that seemed to fit and interviewed the director of admissions for each school (I am sure that they thought they were interviewing me). Then, I visited the school and asked questions about the curriculum, qualifications of the teachers, discipline policy, bullying, accomplishments of alumni, and school philosophy. In other words, I researched each school before I made a decision as to where my daughter would start her academic career.
Oh, if only we were half as careful with whom we trust to train our dogs as we are with the teachers of our children! Finding the right class and the right trainer can be challenging if you don’t know what to look for. If you choose wisely, you and your dog could be off to a great start. If you choose poorly, you could be staring down the barrel of a behavior problem that requires long-term treatment. Well, in most cases that might be a little dramatic, but it is true to say that choosing the right dog training professional can change your dog’s life. Luckily, finding the right dog trainer comes down to 7 critical questions.
#1: What type of methods do you use?
This is the million-dollar question so you might as well lead with this one! The dog training professional should answer that she uses positive reinforcement techniques using some system of rewards like play, treats, or toys. Positive reinforcement training began to really penetrate the dog training community over 20 years ago. If a trainer is still jerking dogs around on choke chains and pinning them in the dominance down, they are way, way behind. There are plenty of published studies out there and easily accessible continuing education showing that positive reinforcement training is the most effective way to train a dog AND is least likely to do your dog any harm. Don’t accept anything less.
#2: Do you have any certifications?
Currently, dog trainers do not have to be licensed in any state in the US. In other words, there is no level of minimum, required knowledge before a person can call themselves a dog trainer, pet behavior consultant, animal behaviorist or anything in between. This can make it very confusing when attempting to find someone who is qualified.
If a dog training professional chooses to get a certification or education, it shows a greater level of commitment to learning and not trusting only in the school of experience or hard knocks. Many dog training professionals elect to be voluntarily certified. Start your search by finding one of these trainers. Not all dog training certifications are the same. Look for one of the ones listed below:
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers
Karen Pryor Clicker Training Academy
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
Academy for Dog Trainers
Victoria Stillwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior
Pet Professional Guild
Some dog trainers may also have a bachelor’s degree (BA or BS) or a master’s degree (MS) in an animal-related field. It is always a plus to work with someone who has an education in animal behavior. Yes, training animals is an art, but first and foremost it is a science. Knowledge of how things work makes working with animals easier.
#3: When is the last time you went to a continuing education seminar?
No matter how much experience you have and what your profession is, there is always something to learn from others. A dog trainer should have attended at least one continuing education seminar in the past year, not including the ones that may have been given by the company for whom she works. You will find that the best ones attend a lot more seminars than that! Think about it, would you want a teacher who graduated from school and never learned anything since then to be responsible for teaching your child? Of course not! You want to know that this trainer is reaching out to others outside of her circle to improve her level of knowledge.
#4: How long have you been training dogs?
Experience is very important, but it can’t replace education or continuing education. It all goes together. Look for a trainer who has been training dogs other than her own for at least a year. Trainers who don’t have a year of experience may work under someone who does have more experience. You may feel comfortable with a trainer with less experience if she is working under one who has logged more hours. If this is the case, make sure that she will be consulting a more experienced trainer if need be.
#5: What dog breeds have you trained?
Dogs have different personalities and predispositions. Trainers have to know those differences and have tools in their toolbelts to effectively train each type of dog. Accumulation of tools in this area comes from the accumulation of dog training hours. If the trainer has a Golden Retriever who is very well-behaved, that doesn’t mean that she can train your Rottweiler who isn’t. We are talking about apples and oranges here. While you don’t have to hear “your” breed in her answer, you should hear something similar in size and temperament.
#6: What training gear do you use?
Look for flexibility, humane choices, and up-to-date knowledge of tools. There is no one tool that works with all dogs. If the trainer says that she puts the same collar on every single dog without even assessing their needs, she most likely doesn’t have the flexibility needed to train all kinds of dogs. Politely hang up the phone. She should use tools that don’t cause pain by design and she should have knowledge of the newest collars and training tools such as head collars, no-pull harnesses, and clickers. There is no place for shock collars, pinch collars or choke collars in training dogs. Shock especially is a powerful tool that in one repetition can increase fear and aggression. Choke collars are outdated, ineffective, and difficult-to-use training tools which can be dangerous. Avoid working with trainers that use these tools.
#7: Do you guarantee the dog’s behavior after it is trained?
This is a bit of a trick question. We all want that guarantee whether it be from our doctor, our spouse, our child’s teacher, or our dog trainer. Just as your child’s teacher can’t guarantee that your child will be an astronaut because your child is a living, breathing being with her own mind, your dog trainer cannot guarantee your dog’s behavior. There are too many factors (you, your dog, the environment) that affect your dog’s behavior for anyone to guarantee results. Instead, they might be able to let you know how many dogs they have trained and what the results were with those dogs.
There are lots of wonderful dog trainers ready to act as catalysts for the strengthening of your bond with your dog, enhancing your communication, building teamwork, and skills, and creating reliable behaviors. Good luck!
Narration by Lisa Radosta: