The Complete Guide to Choosing a Dog Trainer

Nowadays, cities are absolutely full of “dog trainers”, each with a different method, different ethics, and different education.  Smaller towns may have one dog trainer (if any), and depending how isolated they are, the citizens may be at the mercy of that one trainer. Unfortunately dog training is unregulated in most areas of the world, which means anyone can call themselves a trainer, a behaviourist, a behaviour specialist (or any other fancy sounding names they can think up).

So when it comes time to choose someone to train your dog or to help them overcome behavioural concerns, how in the world should you choose the very best for your best friend?  Unfortunately, finding an educated, ethical trainer is either a matter of luck, or of quite a bit of research and education on the owner’s part.  The following list is meant to guide you through questions you should ask a trainer before you hire them, as well as red flags to watch out for.  Rather than listing specific programs that your trainer should have taken or certifications they should hold, this article outlines why certain knowledge is essential and when you should dig a bit deeper into certain claims.

Education

Have you ever found yourself on a site, had a click around, and ended up on the “About the Trainer” page only to find “Trainer X has loved dogs all her life…”?  Whoa now.  I’ve loved pizza all my life, I’ve spent lots of time with it, but I am by no means a chef or an expert on pizza matters.  “Trainer X has worked with dogs for so many years…”  I’ve also worked in a bakery for many years, but I’d hardly call myself a baker.  (Is there something opposite of being a baker?  Because that’s what I am). 

While there’s a ton of knowledge to be gained from simply being around dogs, there is so much more that is essential to learn to truly understand how dogs learn and why they act the way they do. There’s subtleties to body language, there’s the science behind behaviour, there’s different training methods to be aware of and understand how and why they do (or don’t) work. As someone marketing themselves as an expert in this area, it is important that a trainer has invested themselves into learning. There are many great dog training programs as well as amazing trainers willing to take on apprentices so there is no excuse for a lack of education.  

Certifications

This is a sticky one.  Theoretically, a certification should let you know, without a doubt, that Trainer X has completed some form of education, is committed to whatever values this certain agency represents, and is serious about her work.  A lot of the times, this is the case.  It takes hundreds of hours of training experience to be certified with most groups, some require a knowledge test or case studies and there is usually a requirement for ongoing education.  Unfortunately, many trainers nowadays are finding that hours aren’t verified, the tests are simplistic and basic, and ongoing education can fall under a number of different categories.  Worst of all, many groups are certifying trainers who are still using outdated methods.  Anyone can certify anyone, so be sure to ask lots of questions about who certified the trainer and research that person/group as well!

Experience

While the amount of experience should not be the end all be all (there are plenty of trainers with 35 years of experience that you should run far and fast from), at least find out what “real world” experience your trainer has.  Dogs are living, breathing creatures and while there’s alot of knowledge to be gained from books, book smarts alone won’t cut it here.

Ongoing Education

The world of dog training is constantly changing and evolving as science proves (or disproves) theories, new methods are created, and as individual trainers meet to share what they’ve learned.  It’s essential that a trainer constantly tries to learn as much as possible in order to keep up with all these changes.  Consider asking what books your trainer has read recently or what conference they attended last.

Social Media Presence

Check to see if your trainer is active in local Facebook groups.  See if what they’re saying lines up with what they claim to believe, and with your beliefs on how dogs should be trained.  Watch how they treat others in the group.  See if anyone has had anything to say about this particular trainer in the group.  

Make sure to read past the fanciness of websites and watch out for the red flags listed below.  Some of the most dangerous trainers have the nicest websites.

Words to watch out for

Alpha/dominance/pack – These theories have been disproved and/or misused so many times, it’s exhausting.  For more on this topic, check out this great link.

Behaviourist – Anyone can call themselves a Behaviourist, but in fact, there are only a handful of true Behaviourists throughout the entire country.  A true Behaviourist requires at least a Masters degree, completion of veterinary school to be a Veterinary Behaviourist, and years of additional schooling. If someone is claiming to be a behaviourist and is unable to provide the evidence of schooling to back up their claims, they are misrepresenting themselves and very likely are not going to be conducting themselves in an ethical manner.

Balanced – Balanced trainers utilize all four quadrants of Operant Conditioning.  While this sounds great, it really means that these trainers are happy to reward a behaviour with a cookie, and equally happy to punish bad behaviour with a leash jerk.  This article gives a quick overview of the issues associated with this. 

Guarantees and Quick FixesDogs are not robots!  Your furry family member has feelings, likes and dislikes, good and bad days and quirks.   If you’ve ever tried to change a habit of yours, you know just how difficult it can be and how long it can take you to truly change.  The same is true for our dogs!  Check out this link for more.

Treat-free – I’m not saying you need to use treats in your training.  I’m not even saying that treats are the thing your dog finds most rewarding!  But when a trainer says they don’t use treats, find out what exactly they use to motivate and reward the dog.  Dogs don’t exist to please us humans, they do what works for them.  If a fantastic sit gets them a yummy liver treat, they’re going to do it!  Likewise, if sitting on cue means they don’t receive a nasty collar jerk, they’ll do it in order to avoid the consequence. However, it’s important to consider which dog is going to be happier and more connected with their human? Which dog is going to be less likely to develop behaviour problems as a result of the training method?

Respect/leader – Often trainers who promote the concepts of being a leader who demands respect focus on training using punishment.  Many of these trainers still believe in dominance or pack theory and think that the human must be the Alpha.  Since these theories have already been disproved, these trainers are using outdated and dangerous methods that in no way address why a dog is doing something.  Your dog isn’t pulling on the leash because he doesn’t respect you, he’s pulling because he’s excited to get where he’s going and because this method has worked before for him!  Your dog doesn’t bark at other dogs because you’re an ineffective leader, he’s barking because he’s excited to see them or he may be barking to make them go away.  Finding out why your dog is acting the way he is is essential to changing his behaviour.

Correction – If you a trainer suggests a “correction” as a means of changing behaviour, make sure to ask more questions.  Do they mean a leash correction or another form of punishment? What is the ultimate goal of the correction? Unfortunately these methods don’t teach the dog what you’d like them to do instead of the unwanted behaviour, only that you don’t want to see the unwanted behaviour.

So what ARE you looking for?

Someone you and your dog can connect with and learn from.  If you or your dog aren’t comfortable with the trainer, each session is going to be uncomfortable and stressful.  If you learn a certain way and the trainer can’t adapt their teaching to this, you’re going to struggle to retain any information.  Find someone you enjoy being around, who makes you feel comfortable asking questions, and is someone that you trust!  

Someone who will team up with you and your dog.  To have success training your dog, you, your trainer, and your dog are going to have to work as a team.  Look for someone who will tell you “WE need to begin to positively associate these people that Fido considers to be a threat” or “WE need to remember how important it is to set OUR dogs up for success by taking OUR time.”  Everyone is in this together. 

Someone who can identify the link between the dog’s behaviour and their environment rather than labeling a behaviour and treating that “label”.  Simply slapping a label on a dog does nothing to address what is causing the behaviour and therefore finding the root of the problem. If someone tells you that your dog is “dominant”, what does that mean? What behaviours are occurring? What is the reason for the behaviour? There is so much more to understanding our dogs and changing their behaviour than just identifying what category they supposedly fit in or what label belongs on them.

Someone who will allow you to attend a class to see how they train.  Watch out for what happens when dogs get something “wrong”.  Are they corrected for it?  (Run)  Is the behaviour broken down into smaller and simple steps so the dog can understand?  (Stick around!)  Do the students (human and canine) look like they’re enjoying the class?  If not, how does the instructor handle this?  Everyone should be set up for success and be allowed to learn somewhere they feel safe and comfortable, and this may look different for each dog (or person).

Someone trained and educated in what you need.  Depending on their background, you may not want a trainer who specializes in dog sports to help you with your reactive dog.  Alternatively, you may not want a trainer who focuses on separation anxiety to help you with your nosework classes!  If you find someone you really like who doesn’t quite fit what you need, ask who they would recommend.  A good trainer knows their limits and is happy to refer to someone who can better assist you.

Questions to Ask

What happens if my dog gets it right?  What happens if my dog gets it wrong?

Are there any other less invasive methods to what you propose?

What if I am not comfortable with what you suggest?  What if my dog isn’t comfortable with it?

Can you explain that to me in simpler terms? What do you mean by ________________? (Someone who truly understands what they’re talking about will be able to explain it to you in simple, concise, everyday language).

Make sure to read reviews, ask the trainer for references and talk to people who have actually used the trainer in the past.  Remember, it’s possible to get results by using a variety of methods, but it’s important to consider the aftereffects also involved (read more here).

Because animal training is a completely unregulated business, it’s up to you to do your research to find an ethical trainer who will work with you and your dog.  There are lots of fancy words people use that may or may not mean anything, so be sure to check out each claim.  Choose someone you feel comfortable and confident entrusting with your dog’s life, and if something doesn’t sit right, don’t hesitate to ask questions or move on.  Your dog trainer should be passionate about training, happy to answer any questions you have and willing to admit when they don’t know something (and to then do everything they can to find the answer).  Training your dog (whether for fun or out of necessity) is a great adventure, one that will be made all the better when you have a excellent trainer to guide you through.  

This article is a collaboration between local force free trainers.  Special thanks to Chasity Simon of Redefining Rover, Angela Bricker of From the Ground Up, Sheila Gunston of Hudson’s Hounds, Catherine Harbord of Impawsible Possible, Lisa Partridge, Pam Bromberg of Off on the Right Paw, Aubrey Williams of You, Me, We, and April Lott of Wigglebums Training.