Choosing a Dog Trainer

By Vanessa Williams

Finding the right trainer can be difficult to navigate. There is no oversight in dog training so ANYONE can say they are a trainer. Different facilities use different methods. A lot of correction/pain based trainers that use prong or electronic collars know how to phrase it to make it sound like they aren’t harmful and are actually natural/beneficial to the dog. It can be very confusing to make the correct choice. Here are a list of questions I use when interviewing trainers and facilities and the responses that I’m looking for:

  1. Q: What skills will my puppy/dog learn in this class/lesson?
    A: They should say more than just control and obedience. Things like focus, coping mechanisms, learning strategies, confidence, trust, relationship building, socialization, and focus with distractions should come up.
  2. Q: What skills will I learn in this class/lesson?
    A: They should say things like relationship building, timing, reward schedules, increasing criteria, understanding canine behavior, safe handling techniques, luring, shaping, and marking correct behaviors. Remember, a training class is less about a trainer training your dog than it is about the trainer teaching YOU how to train your dog. One session a week is not enough to teach a dog good obedience.
  3. Q: What happens if my dog gets the lesson right?
    A: They should say things like rewards, value levels, positive experiences, jackpot etc.
  4. Q: What happens if my dog performs incorrectly?
    A: This one is key. Any type of physical or harsh verbal punishment is NOT acceptable. Puppies are babies and are in part of a critical learning and socialization period. Even adult dogs only have the mental development equivalent to a 2-3 year old human child. ONE bad experience, especially if performed with improper timing can set the dog up to have lifelong consequences. I’ve known a dog to become neck sensitive because of ONE leash pop while they were dealing with a fear episode. The handler saw it as misbehavior instead of a panic attack and it took them 2 YEARS to get the dog over it’s dislike of having it’s collar touched or leash tension. I’ve also known a pup to become fear reactive due to a prong collar correction when he was trying to go play with another puppy that was barking at him. That one correction was such a bad experience that the puppy associated barking dogs with terrible things happening to him. They ended up rehoming the pup when he was 8 months old and I have no idea what came of him. What you ARE looking for is: positive interruption and redirection or ignoring the bad behavior and focusing on the positive behaviors. ANY correction based training carries risks for negative side effects, especially if the person doesnt have good timing, which most owners just starting off training will be. Conversely, a positive ONLY class has zero truly negative side effects. You cannot ruin a dog by rewarding them too much. They may learn some bad habits, but it will not create lifelong emotional trauma that leads to significant behavior issues like correction based training can.
  5. Q: What equipment do I need for my dog?
    A: They should require a flat collar or harness and 6 foot leash. NO prong, slip/choke, or shock collars and NO retractable leashes. If they even allow those tools in class, find a different trainer.
  6. Q: What behavior is required out of my dog and other dogs?
    A: You want a trainer that keeps a relatively calm classroom environment. This creates a safe, focused, and pleasant place for learning. Dogs learn MUCH better when they are in an environment like this rather than one that is stressful with other dogs barking and lunging and owners yelling. When dogs are kicked out of training classes because they are unruly, it often doesnt mean that the dog is bad or that the trainer is incompetent and cant handle it. It is because one disruptive dog can create a bad learning environment for the rest of the dogs. A trainer that cares about having a good learning environment is a good one to have. Many facilities will offer accommodations for reactive dogs, either by giving them a lot of space with a larger facility, or requiring private lessons to help rehabilitate the issue first so that they wont be disruptive during class.
  7. Q: What is required out of ME during the lesson?
    A: Again, dogs learn best when they feel happy and safe. Trainers should make sure to tell you that harsh verbal corrections, yelling, leash popping, etc is not allowed in class (or at home). They should ask you to find out what REALLY motivates your dog and suggest some good food rewards to bring. They may ask you to hold off on the nearest meal so that the dog is more motivated to work (though NOT with a young puppy). They should ask you to exercise and then rest your pup right before class so that the energy is burned and the dog is back to a calmer state of mind. They should tell you that the class is not about training the DOG, but training YOU how to teach your dog important life skills. Therefor, they should tell you to be prepared to learn. Many facilities are now prohibiting smart phones so that people focus on their pups and the trainer instead. Additionally, any training class or trainer worth their salt will give you HOMEWORK to do. If they say they can fix/train your dog with one session and no follow up, then they are LYING to you in order to get your business. Training takes TIME. There is NO QUICK FIX.
  8. Q: How much education do your trainers have?
    A: There are NO requirements for people to claim that they are dog trainers. Any joe schmo can say they are a trainer. What you are looking for is someone who has been educated in the science behind how animals learn and who has the experience to really understand canine behavior and have things like timing down pat. CPDT-KA is a good certification and you want someone experienced in the field they are training. For example, an agility trainer should have proof that their dogs compete and do well. “I learned it all from the dogs I’ve had” is NOT education. A LOT of balanced or correction based trainers say things like this and most of their “knowledge” is based on incorrect assumptions, behavior suppression, and a lack of understanding of canine behavior and body language. Yes, we SHOULD learn from the dogs we work with, and I have learned a TON from the dogs I work with, but only within the context of my education as a guide to what I am seeing and experiencing.
  9. Q: How much time do your trainers spend on continuing education every month?
    A: This is one that a lot of people dont ask, but it is SOOO important. There is so much more research being done on canine behavior and canine learning, training methods, body language, brain chemistry, and more. New studies come out almost every week. I spend around 40 hours a month just reading new studies, going to conferences, taking webinars, conversing with other trainers, reading blogs and articles by other trainers, etc. Now, not every puppy class teacher will do that. I train high drive high energy working dogs, so I’m a bit more intense than a lot of people, but if they dont do ANY continuing education, then in my book, they are not very dedicated to their craft and not someone I want helping me shape my puppy’s formative periods.

It’s important to note that if the trainer/facility will NOT answer these questions for you, then you should walk away. A good trainer is like a good veterinarian and should be a lifetime relationship for you and your dog. Someone who is unwilling to answer a few questions to get your business is someone who wont be willing to help you out with other questions in the future.

Also, ask for references for clients that have had similar issues to yours so that you can get a good idea of how the trainer has handled these things in the past and what to expect.

Here are words that if you hear from a trainer or facility, you should walk away:

These terms show that the trainer/facility does not have a sound understanding of animal learning and canine behavior and that they are likely a correction/punishment based group. Remember, what dogs learn about the world when they are puppies can have lifelong impacts! Most importantly, you want to find someone that is the right fit for you, your dog, and your situation. Choosing the right training facility, trainer, and class can make a big difference in your dog’s future so it’s important to take your time and make the right choice!

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