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Finding the Right Dog Trainer

You just brought home your new puppy. You’ve set up the crate and scattered a bunch of chew toys around the house. As a conscientious owner, the next task on your list is finding a trainer. So you pull out the phone book and flip through to the dog trainer listings. Who knew there were so many trainers? Oh well, you think, you’ll just pick the closest one because it’s convenient. How different could one dog trainer be from another? STOP! Read on before you make any commitments.

Many people are under the impression that dog trainers are mostly the same. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact there are significant differences among trainers in terms of specialization, background and experience, skills, and methodology. This article will help you understand the differences among trainers so you can choose the right trainer for you and your dog. Whether you’re looking for private lessons, classes, or a board and train situation (be very careful if you choose this option), the following information will help you know a truly great trainer when you meet one.

The first thing you need to know in evaluating a potential trainer is that, unlike many professional fields, there are no educational or licensing requirements to be able to hang out a shingle as a dog trainer. Literally anyone can call herself a dog trainer. The person you call may genuinely love dogs, but she may have very little real experience as a trainer. Remember a passion for dog training is not the same as having extensive practical experience as a trainer.

The second thing you need to know is that beyond experience, there are wide differences in quality among trainers. Just as there are poor doctors and lawyers, people you wouldn’t trust with your own well-being, there are poor trainers whom you wouldn’t want to trust with your dog’s well-being. Some of these might have nice looking brochures and facilities, and they might seem very professional and convincing. But a fancy building doesn’t make for a good trainer any more than a white coat makes for a good doctor.

So how does one sift through all those listings to find a truly great trainer? It helps to start by understanding some of the basic differences among trainers.

Specialization: Within the dog training world there are different areas of specialization (e.g., conformation, competition obedience, hunting, protection, etc.). Someone whose main area of focus is training dogs for AKC obedience trials might not be the best person to help you with a dog who is chewing your dining room chairs. A hunting dog trainer may not be able to do much with your out of control border collie. Look for a trainer who has experience in a number of specialties. A trainer who has had a broad focus will bring more approaches and experiences to training you and your dog.

Professional Background: A trainer’s professional background and experience are key. By and large, the majority of trainers giving group lessons are people who train on the side as a hobby. Generally, dog training is not their bread and butter. Often, they are active within the dog world and may train and show their own dogs, but their hands on experience training a variety of other dogs is often limited. Ironically, these people usually have trained more people to train dogs than they have trained dogs themselves. Although one can learn a great deal by giving training lessons, there is no substitute for hands on experience with a large number and variety of dogs. It is through direct experience with dogs that great trainers develop and hone the tools that allow them to help all types of dogs with all types of issues and temperaments.

“Hobby” trainers often talk a good line. They have the dog lingo down and seem to know everything about dogs and dog training. In reality though most of these types have been training for a short time (less than 10 years) and not in a professional, full time capacity. They may boast about their accomplishments with their own dogs, but when questioned they have actually trained very few dogs to a high and consistent level. Having one, two, or three dogs that have excelled in dog shows does not mean that that person has the professional skills to help you achieve what you want to achieve with your dog.

Another issue to consider is a trainers experience with different breeds. Some breeds are easier to train than others. Does this trainers’ background encompass many breeds or only 1 or 2 “easy” breeds (Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and Border Collies can generally be considered “easier” breeds). If this trainer has only trained Goldens and you have a mastiff, you might reasonably question if this trainer has adequate experience to train your dog. If you are watching a demonstration, consider the breed the trainer is working worth. If it is one of the easier breeds, ask if you can see this trainer work a different breed. If the trainer has worked successfully with terriers, hounds, toy breeds, and some of the large working breeds, and has kept these more difficult breeds interested, willing, and under control, you are on the right track to finding a great trainer.

Methodology: If you haven’t thought about training philosophy and methods, you should. The histories of hunting and protection dog training are riddled with abusive techniques. Even today, many competitive obedience trainers insist that dogs need to be “forced” in order to work at a high level. On the flip side, pet trainers who sell themselves as “positive” often don’t have the in-depth knowledge and experience to make these methods truly work. Too often the human is not in the position of a true leader. Furthermore, the trainer cannot get a consistent response from the dog unless food is continually shoved in its face. Neither of these scenarios create a trusting partnership in which dogs learn and respond eagerly. The concerned dog owner needs to find a trainer who can work with dogs without fear or bribery. A great trainer will help you set clear boundaries while motivating your dog to want to train.

Finding a great trainer—one who is professional and experienced, and who understands how to use food to motivate learning—is not easy. But it is worth making the effort to seek out that rare bird. Consider this: you will be spending ten or more years with your dog. The time, money, and effort you put into your dog now will determine whether those years are satisfying, frustrating, or even tragic. The sad fact is, despite the best intentions, dogs with a poor start often end up in shelters or euthanized because their owners cannot control them and cannot find help to turn negative behaviors around. Whether you are starting with a puppy or are rehabbing an older dog, the experience and methods a trainer applies will affect your dog, positively or negatively, for its lifetime. Wherever your dog is in its life, you both deserve to develop a relationship that is fulfilling, rewarding, and fun. It takes a special trainer to help you do that.

So take the time to do your homework (see the list of questions and considerations below). Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be sure to ask for a demonstration. A good trainer will be more than willing to show you how she trains dogs, either with a client’s dog or her own. Observe the dog, not just the training. Is the dog happy and willing? Is the dog actually trying to figure out what the trainer wants or would he rather be doing something else? What is the trainer’s demeanor? Does she degrade the dog or make excuses? When the dog is released from a command is it wild or out-of control? You are not looking for a robot dog, but rather a willing partner that exhibits self-control. If the dog does lose control, the trainer should be able to regain it quickly and easily.

At a glance, here are some things you will want to consider when choosing the right trainer:

  • How long has the person been training dogs?
  • Is training this person’s full time occupation?
  • What breeds of dogs has this trainer owned?
  • What breeds of dogs has this person trained (actually hands on, not just giving a lesson)?
  • Can the trainer provide you with a dog training resume including how many different areas of dog training they have worked dogs in (hunting, service dog work, competition, protection, etc.)?
  • What other dog related areas has this trainer has worked in?
  • What training methods does this trainer promote?
  • Does the dog worked for you show that these methods have been used and have worked? (i.e. if a trainer says they are a “positive” trainer but the dog looks unhappy or unwilling, how truly positive is the trainer?)
  • Is the dog under control and looking respectfully, but also willingly and happily, at the trainer?
Here are some red flags. If you encounter any of the following, go elsewhere:
  • The trainer is quick to put puppies into alternative collars such as prong collars. If the trainer is skilled, puppies can be taught not to pull without the use of a prong collar. Prong collars on any breed less than 6 months of age shows that the trainer does not have the skills, knowledge, or willingness to really teach a puppy what is expected of it. Instead he/she just slaps on a piece of equipment to get control.
  • The trainer has an “I told you what to do and you have to do it” attitude towards either you or dogs.
  • The trainer says not to expect much due to a dog’s age, breed, size, or temperament. The trainer is exhibiting a lack of experience and skills in working with a variety of dogs
  • The trainer condemns a dog because of its breed.
  • The trainer immediately puts a prong collar on a large breed dog without first working the dog to find out its temperament. In reality, prong collars rarely need to be used. Lazy trainers use them frequently instead of teaching the dog the desired response. Many times, the same can be said of head collars such as Haltis and Gentle Leaders.
The Whole Dog’s Trainer Interview Checklist

Questions to ask the trainer:

  • How long have you been training dogs?
  • Is training your full time occupation?
  • What breeds of dogs have you owned?
  • What breeds of dogs has have you trained (actually hands on, not just giving a lesson)?
  • Can you provide me with a dog training resume including how many different areas of dog training you have worked dogs in (hunting, service dog work, competition, protection, etc.)?
  • What other dog related areas have you worked in?
  • What training methods do you promote?

Observations to make about the demonstration:

  • Does the dog worked for you show that these methods have been used and have worked? (i.e. if a trainer says they are a “positive” trainer but the dog looks unhappy or unwilling, how truly positive is the trainer?)
  • Is the dog under control and looking respectfully, but also willingly and happily, at the trainer?

Red Flags:

  • The trainer is quick to put puppies into alternative collars such as prong collars. (If the trainer is skilled, puppies can be taught not to pull without the use of a prong collar. Prong collars on any breed less than 6 months of age shows that the trainer does not have the skills, knowledge, or willingness to really teach a puppy what is expected of it. Instead he/she just slaps on a piece of equipment to get control.)
  • The trainer has an “I told you what to do and you have to do it” attitude towards either you or dogs.
  • The trainer says not to expect much due to a dog’s age, breed, size, or temperament. The trainer is exhibiting a lack of experience and skills in working with a variety of dogs
  • The trainer condemns a dog because of its breed.
  • The trainer immediately puts a prong collar on a large breed dog without first working the dog to find out its temperament. (Prong collars rarely need to be used. Lazy trainers use them frequently instead of teaching the dog the desired response. Many times, the same can be said of head collars such as Haltis and Gentle Leaders.)