How Do I Pick the Right Dog Trainer?


Are you looking for help teaching your precious pup some manners?

Confused by all your options?

Flip on the television and you’ll see people who present themselves as professional trainers giving out contradictory advice.

Do a quick web search for local trainers and you’ll find quite an array of prices, class types, trainer experience, and philosophies.

Should you pick the cheapest? The most expensive? The one with the prettiest website? The one with the most competition titles? The one who has been around dogs the longest?  Help!!

By finding the answers to these questions, you can ensure you’re selecting a quality trainer – one that is right for you and your dog!

1) Does the trainer treat humans with respect?

The Positive Trainer

A respectful trainer will…

  • support the owner through his or her struggles
  • recognize the dog’s behavior as simply the actions of an animal
  • encourage dog owners with information and tools that build empowerment
  • use training methods that appear safe and reasonable to perform

The Negative Trainer

This trainer will…

  • use words that minimize a dog owner’s feelings
  • shame the owner for the dog’s behavior
  • blame the dog or suggest the dog is on a power trip
  • use methods that appear dangerous or forceful

2) Does the trainer treat dogs with respect?

training techniques

A trainer that uses gentle, humane methods based on rewarding the dog for performing good behaviors is a trainer that respects your dog. Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to teach your dog manners.

Be wary of a trainer who recommends choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, or verbal and physical punishment.  Forceful training methods can have negative fallout such as creating aggression or fear.

Every professional behavior and veterinary organization in the U.S. recommends reward-based dog training and warns against forceful methods. This includes:

…and more. If a trainer you are considering uses forceful methods as a first option, they are going against the advice of every true behavior professional in the country! This should be a huge red flag.

Observations & gut instinct

Take a look at how a trainer teaches dogs in her class, and also how she interacts with her own dog. Is she using a happy tone, encouraging the dog, and focusing on building behaviors by letting the dog earn toys, petting, treats, or other fun rewards? What does she do if the dog makes a mistake – ignore it? Redirect the dog? Yell at the dog? Hurt the dog?

Does the dog look like it is enjoying the training? Is he wagging his tail, looking at the trainer, and choosing to interact with the trainer? Or is his body language subdued or avoidant of the trainer?

Translating marketing language

How can you tell who will use force-free training with you and your dog? Words matter.  Look for these:

  • “reward-based”
  • “science-based”
  • “clicker training”
  • “gentle”
  • “dog-friendly”
  • “positive reinforcement”

and watch out for sneaky words that usually indicate force-based training:

  • “motivational training”
  • “we never use food to train”
  • “natural methods”
  • “no-nonsense”
  • “common sense”
  • “balanced training”
  • “teach the dog his place in the pack”
  • “guaranteed training” 

These words make for attractive marketing to unsuspecting consumers, but they are generally a cover for trainers who plan to hurt or scare your dog in order to teach him.

3) WHAT KIND OF KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE DOES THE TRAINER HAVE?

There is no entry-level requirement to call yourself a dog trainer. Some spend years and thousands of dollars on education and practice; some train their own dogs to get a title or two and then decide to hang out a shingle! You as a consumer MUST educate yourself on the background of each individual and make your own decision. Here are some of the pathways that dog trainers can select in order to become a professional:

Formal Education

Some dog trainers hold a degree in Animal Science, Biology, Zoology, or Psychology.  Valuable information on animal learning, physiology, behavior, and ethology can be gleaned from these types of degree programs. An undergraduate degree is a good indicator that a trainer is serious about their field, is committed to scientific education, and can handle the critical thinking and analysis that is vital to problem solving. However, there are no formal degrees offered in dog training itself, so hands-on experience must be acquired elsewhere.

A Master’s, PhD, or DVM degree is required in order for a trainer to become a certified behaviorist. However the title “behaviorist” is not regulated, so be aware that not every “behaviorist” out there can credibly use the word. Ask for evidence of certification if your potential trainer is using the term “behaviorist”, and be wary of those who use it loosely just to appear more qualified.

TRADE School

If you do an internet search, you can find a dizzying array of both online and in-person “certified dog trainer” for-profit schools or courses. There is no regulation in the industry, so none of these schools are required to meet a set of professional standards.

These two dog training schools have the best reputation in the industry because the offer structured course of study, are taught by experts, and teach modern, humane training skills:

  • The Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior
    • Graduates earn a KPA-CPT title (Karen Pryor Academy – Certified Professional Trainer)
  • The Academy for Dog Trainers, founded by Jean Donaldson
    • Graduates earn a CTC title (Certificate in Training and Counseling)

If your potential trainer lists a dog training school or course as a qualification, this is a positive indication that they have sought to improve their skills and education, but it is up to the owner to research and verify the specific program to determine if it fits within their own expectations of training philosophy, knowledge, and hands-on work. A four week course and a two year course will likely result in very different competencies.

Apprenticeships & Volunteering

These types of unstructured experiences can be wonderful ways for potential trainers to build practical experience. Many trainers will start out by volunteering as an assistant to classes,  by training shelter animals, or by shadowing a more experienced trainer. Taking one’s own dogs to multiple classes certainly counts as a good form of experience as well, even apart from a formal apprenticeship.

The positive aspects of these types of animal training education are:

  1. lots of rehearsal of the mechanical skills required in training
  2. experience can be passed down between practitioners
  3. an unstructured format allows the trainer to focus on the areas they are most interested in

A couple of cautions if your trainer’s only qualification is an apprenticeship:

  1. it is quite possible to practice doing things the wrong way
  2. improper or outdated techniques can be passed down as institutional knowledge
  3. an unstructured course of study can create knowledge gaps

The best trainers will have a solid foundation of formal education as well as practical experience.

4) What are the trainer’s Professional Certifications & Affiliations?

Affiliations

There are a number of organizations that trainers can choose to affiliate themselves with simply by purchasing a membership. These organizations offer professional benefits such as lower cost group insurance, continuing education, access to the latest scientific research on animal behavior, discussion forums, and other incentives.

Although we don’t have time to discuss or even list each of these groups, the following list includes the primary well-regarded industry affiliations.

  • Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT)
  • International Association of Animal Behavioral Consultants (IAABC)
  • The Pet Professionals Guild (PPG)
  • Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT)

Certifications

On top of this, some of these organizations offer professional certifications based on trainers meeting a stated level of experience, education, or a combination of the two.  The Association of Professional Dog Trainers offers a complete (and dizzying) overview of these certifications.

Listed are the two premier independent certifying bodies:

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT)

These organizations offer certification titles, such as Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), that represent a standardized level of experience and education that must be achieved by anyone who earns them.

Because of the costs of membership and testing, as well as personal preference on which organizations to identify with, every good trainer will not hold every membership or certificate, but a trainer with no professional affiliations or certifications at all should be viewed with caution. Being involved in the industry and staying on top of new information, trends, and research is vital to a true professional.

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So, now you know what questions to ask. It’s not all about price, location, or convenience, however tempting those are to us as wise consumers! Get these important questions answered *first* to create a short-list of trainers you feel comfortable with.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful in pointing you toward a great trainer!

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