7 Tips for Picking a Dog Trainer
Choosing a trainer to work with you and your dog, whether an adult rescue or a brand new pup, is a big decision. The relationship between dog trainer and pet parent can set the tone for how much or how little your dog learns. A good trainer knows how to support and encourage their students and is a mix of therapist, teacher and favorite buddy that both you and your dog look forward to seeing every week.
But how do you find a good fit? How can you tell if the trainer is a using the most up-to-date techniques? And what the heck is a “master trainer” anyway? The following list will help formulate the right kinds of questions to ask potential dog trainers and lead you to the perfect match!
Phone a Friend
Fellow pet parents are a great resource when it comes to finding a reputable dog trainer. Ask them what type of methodology their trainer used (force-free is critical), where the lessons took place (was it a comfortable environment?), how many people attended classes (could the instructor handle all the people and dogs?), and if the trainer was good at conveying the necessary information each week (did everything make sense?). And make sure to ask if they enjoyed the classes – dog training should be fun for all.
If you see a well-mannered dog while out and about, don’t be shy to approach the person to ask where they went to school. It’s a huge compliment to the pet parent, and you’ll probably end up with a great referral.
Do a Background Check
Dog training is an unregulated field, so anyone can claim that they’re a trainer, behavior specialist, “whisperer” or expert. It’s possible for a dog trainer to get a “certification” just by taking an online course – without actually handling a dog! Just because a person has a few letters after his or her name doesn’t automatically mean that they’re qualified to train, but trying to determine which accreditations are worthy can be confusing.
A great first step is checking out the certification overview on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website or Sophia Yin’s breakdown, which includes veterinary medical professionals. That way you’ll understand that the trainer with a “BBTS” designation got it from “Bob’s Backyard Training School,” and the trainer with a CAAB is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist with a PhD in behavioral science and over 200 behavioral cases completed. Big difference.
Learn the Method of Training
Before getting into the when-and-where specifics of a training class, first ask your potential trainer about the type of methodology used. The trainer should be able to clearly describe his or her approach to working with dogs in terminology that you understand. Vague descriptions (with words like “balance,” “energy” or “dominance”) don’t give you insights as to how the trainer actually achieves results. Similarly, the expression “positive reinforcement” means different things to different trainers, so it’s important to have the trainer clarify exactly how he or she applies the technique.
A trainer that embraces a modern, science-based methodology will explain that they don’t use pain or punishment to train and that they use reinforcements like treats or play (or whatever motivates the dog) to bring about behavioral change.
Find Out What You Need to Bring
Ask the trainer what kind of equipment will be needed for class. Trainers who use outdated methodologies will mention “correction collars,” “slip leads,” or worse yet, “e-collars.” Training that requires a specific type of collar – other than a flat collar or harness – is likely a punishment-based methodology that’s not aligned with how dogs learn.
A dog-friendly trainer that uses modern, force-free techniques will probably tell you to bring high-value treats, a treat pouch, a toy and a positive attitude.
Set Your Goals
Before you sign on for a training class, make sure that you and the trainer have aligned goals. If you just want to have some fun with your dog and help him become a polite family member, you might not need a class that that teaches a competition-level “heel” and rock-solid “stay.” Or if you want to focus on your dog’s burgeoning leash reactivity, you might not be a good fit for the train-and-play class at the local doggy daycare center.
Talk to the trainer about how they run their sessions and what a graduate of their classes is capable of. If it sounds like more than you need, or doesn’t touch on the specific issue you’re facing, keep looking.
Look for Feedback
While many dog trainers are excellent at communicating with their canine students, some fall short when it comes to interacting with the student who signs the check at the end of the lesson. A good trainer should be able to cheerfully engage both ends of the leash, offering advice and feedback as you progress.
Training your dog can occasionally get frustrating, so finding a trainer that supports you when the going gets tough will make the process less challenging. After you chat with a potential trainer ask yourself, how did that person make me feel? Respected? Or talked down to? Did the trainer want to learn about your dog’s history, and what you hope to achieve? Or were they more interested in getting your credit card information? Listen to your gut; if you don’t feel a connection with the person, move on. Your dog trainer should be an ally as you and your dog learn to share a common language.
A trainer who guarantees results might sound like a good investment, but much like a personal trainer at a gym won’t guarantee that you’ll lose 25 pounds if you work out with him once a week, reputable dog trainers know that they can’t guarantee your dog’s behavior. Keep in mind, dogs aren’t machines awaiting programming; there are many factors that contribute to how much (or little) a dog learns.
Additionally, the responsibility for working with your dog is on you once you leave the training facility. There are one hundred sixty-eight hours in a week – an instructor-led class only lasts for one. So how is it possible for the trainer guarantee that you’ll hold up your end of the deal? Reputable trainers recognize the fluid nature of behavior, and understand that it’s impossible to guarantee a dog’s responses when the variables are out of their control.