Choosing a Dog Trainer

Making the decision to get some training for your dog is a great investment in your life-long relationship. Choosing a qualified trainer can be tricky. The dog training profession is unregulated, so anyone can call themselves a trainer regardless of their experience or education. Here are some things to know before hiring a trainer for your dog.

The essential thing to look for is a trainer committed to using humane, reward-based techniques to achieve behavior outcomes. Reward-based (sometimes called positive) means rewarding dogs with something they love (usually food or play) for appropriate behaviors, and teaching alternatives to unwanted behaviors. Training with rewards also strengthens the human-dog bond because the learning process based on trust and cooperation.

Some trainers falsely claim to be reward-based, or positive. Watch out for terms like ‘tailoring the training to the dog’, ‘being the alpha’ or offering ‘balanced’ training. These are euphemisms for using any means necessary to gain compliance, including physical and potentially harmful methods. Using force and intimidation in training is unnecessary and less effective than reward-based methods, due to the risk of adverse effects including increased fearful and aggressive behaviors.

The American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recommends looking for someone who uses “primarily or only reward-based training with treats, toys and play.” They also recommend avoiding any trainer who “advocates methods of physical force”, which include using equipment such as choke, prong or shock collars.

The trainer you choose needs to have an education in training, so they’re well versed in learning theory, body language, good handling skills and able to communicate effectively with dogs and their humans.

Certifications demonstrate a commitment to learning and continuing education. The main credentials to look for are CTC, or KPA CTP, as these trainers have completed a course of study with the Academy for Dog Trainers or the Karen Pryor Academy, and are committed to reward-based training.

The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) is an independent certifying body which tests applicants on their knowledge and skills (CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA and CBCC-KA) but is not a guarantee that a trainer will use only reward-based methods. The Pet Professionals Guild also certifies trainers (PCT-A and PCBC-A) and requires adherence to a humane, force-free code of ethics.

If your dog needs help beyond obedience training, you may need a behaviorist as not all dog trainers have the knowledge or experience to deal with all behavioral issues.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) have a graduate or PhD level education in animal behavior. Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) have specialized education in animal behavior and can prescribe medications to aid with behavioral problems. Most CAABs and veterinary behaviorists focus on issues such as fear, aggression and anxiety.  Any ethical dog trainer will gladly refer you to a behaviorist if the problem is outside their area of expertise.

All these letters and titles can be confusing, but don’t worry. Renowned author and founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers, Jean Donaldson, created a transparency test for consumers. There are three simple questions. What exactly will happen when my dog gets it right? What exactly will happen when my dog gets it wrong? Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

You should get clear, specific answers from the trainer, not vague descriptions of energy projection, pack mentality, or other non-sensical language. For example, “When your puppy sits, he’ll get a treat, since positive reinforcement increases the likelihood of the behavior repeating”. Not, “When I project my alpha energy waves, the puppy will sit because he wants to please me”.

Finally, because behavior is variable and depends on many factors, an ethical trainer cannot and will not guarantee the results of training. At the same time, an ethical trainer should ensure their services are provided to your satisfaction.

In the end, you need to be comfortable with the methods and equipment the trainer uses, along with your ability to apply those methods as they will impact your relationship with your dog for years to come. If you’re not comfortable, keep shopping.