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How to Choose a Dog Trainer

Updated: May 9, 2019

Parents are particular when hiring a tutor for their children. They research background, experience and more. Yet many dog owners don't ask any questions when hiring a dog trainer other than the fee. Making a careful choice can have a huge impact on the way your dog is trained, which can in turn have long-term effects on your dog's emotional well-being and behavior.

In the state of California, there are no licensing requirements for dog trainers. In other words, your Uncle Bob could hang out a shingle tomorrow and open Uncle Bobby's Dog Training. Scary, isn't it? When you call a trainer, you could be speaking with someone who is just starting out, or a professional who has been training for twenty years or more. To make matters more confusing, some trainers use a title before their name, or letters after it. Find out exactly what they mean. "Certified," for example, could mean someone went through a three week course to become certified through that particular school. On the other hand, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCDPT) is the leading certifying organization for the dog training profession. Certificants have hundreds of hours of experience, must pass rigorous testing to demonstrate mastery of science-based, humane training methods, and must keep up their certification through ongoing education. A trainer who is certified through CCPDT will have CPDT after their name, or be listed on the CCDPT website. I am certified through the CCPDT. Regarding a trainer who calls him or herself a "Behaviorist," this title is accorded to those who have a Ph.D. in Applied Animal Behavior. While it is acceptable for a trainer who specializes in behavior issues to call him or herself a behavior specialist, it is not ethical to call oneself a Behaviorist. Check out any claims of this nature.

Getting a recommendation from your veterinarian or a friend who has used a particular trainer is always the safest way to go. But even if you do, here are a few questions to ask:

1. "How long have you been training?" Of course, you want someone who has a least a few years of experience. But, a trainer with thirty years of experience is not necessarily better than one with ten years, if the more experienced trainer hasn't changed their methods or improved in all that time.

2. "What sort of methods do you use?" This is a tricky one. I haven't yet heard of a trainer who advertises "rough, punishment-based methods." It just doesn't sell! Although a trainer might call herself "positive," find out exactly what that means. For example, what would she do if a dog did not obey a command? My personal answer is to go back to the step at which the dog was successful, and build smaller steps from there. This sets dogs up to succeed. I do use food treats in training, as it is quick and efficient. However, the treats are not a bribe and it is done in such a way that the dog does not become dependent on them. If a trainer uses choke chains or e-collars (a.k.a shock collars), by definition he is using punishment. Some trainers call themselves "balanced," which means they use both punishment and praise/reward. Please note that positive, reward-based methods are just as if not more successful than punishment-based methods, and do not carry the fallout of creating fear, aggression, or other behavior issues.

3. For in-home training, can you do one session at a time, or are you required to pre-purchase a package of sessions? I allow my clients to go one session at a time. If someone were coming to work with me and my dog, I would not pay them for a package of sessions up front, as I’ve never seen them work with my dog! How do I know my dog likes the person, or that they work well together? How do I know I like the person? Besides, one set number of sessions cannot possibly be right for every dog and owner. Going session by session allows clients to get what they need while keeping costs down.

A professional trainer should welcome questions and have a pleasant attitude. If you feel a trainer is being rude or unfriendly when you ask questions, move on. There are others who will welcome your business and treat both you and your dog well. Happy training!

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