How to Choose a Dog Trainer

Puppy Training

Like most professional dog trainers, I field a lot of inquiries. Most come from committed owners who’ve already done a good amount of leg work. A handful come across like well-intentioned stabs in the dark. They all share the common goal of finding the right person for the job.

Dog training is a unique and interesting trade, and good trainers come from diverse backgrounds and every walk of life. It is also unregulated, meaning levels of skill and experience, as well as overall standards of what constitutes a trained dog can vary radically.

Scanning websites, reading testimonials, and asking owners of well-trained dogs for referrals are all viable first steps, but will only get you so far. Before long, you’ll need to start asking questions.

Keeping in mind that every dog and situation is unique, here are some of the questions I recommend asking, the most important of which are in bold type:

  1. How long have you been training professionally and how did you learn?
  2. Do you hold any certifications or belong to any professional organizations?
  3. Have you put any titles on any dogs?
  4. What format (group classes, private lessons, board/train) of training do you do most? Which do you find most effective and why?
  5. How would you describe your approach?
  6. What methods or equipment do you prefer and why? What other tools or methods do you draw upon?
  7. Can you refer me to a client whom you helped with a similar dog/problem to mine?
  8. May I monitor a class or view a training demonstration before signing up?

The above questions are intentionally general, partly because I don’t think litmus tests are particularly useful, but also to encourage open responses.

In terms of answers, you should expect a patient and respectful tone to start. Good communication between trainer and client is key to the success of any program. If it doesn’t feel right over the phone, it’s unlikely to feel any better in person.

It should probably go without saying that experience is important, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyhow. Experience is how a trainer develops the timing and awareness that enables them to teach fluidly and efficiently. Experience also lends a trainer perspective, and the ability to recognize the dog in front of them and settle on the best approach with a minimum of trial and error.

Certification is never a bad thing, but all certifications are not equal, and there are fine trainers without any. Same goes for titles on dogs. Of course, if you’re looking to earn a title yourself, you should stick to trainers with proven track records in your event or sport of choice.

The main thing is to understand what a given title or certification indicates. For example,  CPDT-KA demonstrates a trainer has passed a multiple choice test based on knowledge of learning theory, ethology, and instruction skills. It is a good indicator of basic comprehension of certain principles, but does not guarantee practical skill. The letters CDT indicate certification through the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), an organization known for being open to a broad range of tools and methods. Their exam involves peer review of detailed case studies, along with client corroboration, written handouts, and letters of reference. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) offers a certification exam focused on testing basic knowledge of behavior theory as well as the ability to assess and address real canine behavior problems. A dog trainer who is also a Certified Canine Behavior Consultant (CCBC) may be better equipped to handle non-obedience issues, such as separation anxiety or certain types of aggression. The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) inducts trainers with proven instructing chops. Visiting their directory might be a wise choice if you’re looking for either classes or private instruction.

Regarding different formats (group, class, private lessons, board/train), each has its pros and cons. Carpe K-9 offers an excellent discussion of the relative merits of the most common types of programs. In the simplest terms, it often comes down to your money versus your time, but other factors may play a role in arguing for one program over another. In most cases, training goals can be met in a variety of ways, depending on personal preference and availability.

As for training approaches, they cover a wide spectrum, from trainers who put all their stock into positive reinforcement, to those that point to dominance as the root of every evil. As with most things, it’s usually wisest to steer clear of the extremes, and to pass on hiring a one-trick pony.

Dog training is a balancing act in many respects, between stimulation and restraint, between engaging and withdrawing, between taking responsibility and teaching it, between saying “yes” and saying “no.” A good trainer will help you strike the right balance with your dog, and help build a productive collaborative relationship based on sound principles of communication, leadership, and mutual respect.

One size does not fit all, so avoid any trainer who aggressively promotes a single type of equipment or strict methodology to the exclusion of all else or to the point of vilifying alternate approaches, as well as any trainer whose approach sounds more mystical than sensible. Such people may tend more toward zealotry than enlightenment.

Do expect a straightforward discussion of both methods and results, if not over the phone, then in person. I don’t mean hard promises or guarantees, but an estimate of what it might be fair to expect after x number of sessions, or at least a concrete discussion of training goals and the path to achieving them.

Remember, you want a trainer with the skill and experience to recognize and accommodate your dog’s individual needs, and one committed to serving those needs ahead of promoting himself or some patented method or gadget. You want good communication, and untimately, you want good results.

In the case of a serious, long standing, breed-specific problem, you should confirm the trainer has genuine familiarity with the issues at hand, and a successful track record in dealing with them. That said, don’t expect a quick fix even then. More often, the solution lies in rebuilding a shaky foundation of basic skill and communication before anything else. Not nearly as sexy as they make it look on TV, but more effective in the long term.

Most trainers offer free or inexpensive consultations, and many will invite you to monitor a class or watch a training demonstration prior to enrolling your dog. Be sure to ask, and take them up on it if they do. A trainer’s own dog, or any dog a trainer points to as trained, should be capable of prompt and reliable responses to basic commands, without obvious reliance on treats or corrections to get it done. Most importantly, the dog should appear generally confident and focused in his work, just as you want your own to be.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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  1. John Van Olden’s avatar

    Nice article, Ruth! I’d love to see this gain some real estate in the search engines, and push some of the ridiculous drivel that’s floating around cyberspace, sharing the same title/subject, down to obscurity where it belongs!

    Beware the “one trick pony”. :)

    Reply

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