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How to Choose a Dog Trainer

Parents are particular when hiring a tutor for their children. They research the tutor’s 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.

There is no license required to call oneself a dog trainer. In other words, your Uncle Bob could hang out a shingle tomorrow and open Uncle Bobby’s Dog Training. Frightening, isn’t it? When you call a trainer, you might be speaking with one who is just starting out, or one 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 he went through a three week course to become certified through that particular school. “Nationally Recognized” could mean she has a grandmother in Pittsburgh who recognizes her when she comes to visit! (Besides, if one really was nationally recognized, would one have to put those words in front of one’s name?) There is, however, an organization called the the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers which certifies trainers, offering designations including “CPDT-KA” meaning “Certified Professional Dog Trainer.--Knowledge Assessed” as well as others that denote hands-on experience, as well as even more advanced certifications. Even at the lowest level, "KA" means a trainer has passed a written exam and has met requirements that include at least 300 hours of training dogs, along with recommendations from peers and a veterinarian. As you can see, this certification alone tells you a trainer does have some experience and knowledge.

Letters indicating a degree such as B.A., M.A. or Ph.D. are impressive, but be sure the degree is actually in a subject that has some bearing on dog behavior, such as psychology. An M.B.A. (Masters Business Administration) will certainly help the trainer, but it won’t help your dog any. “Behaviorist” is a title 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 himself 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 that 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?” This one is a little tricky. Sure, you want someone who has at least a few years experience. But, a trainer with thirty years experience is not necessarily better than one with ten years experience, if the more experienced trainer hasn’t changed their methods or improved in all that time. Which leads us to…

2. “What is your background and do you pursue ongoing education?” The best trainers regularly attend seminars and workshops to further improve their skills and learn the latest techniques. Avoid those who think they already know it all. Many trainers are members of the APDT, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. This organization promotes the ongoing education of its members. (The web site includes a city-by-city listing of trainers who are members, and also lists which members are CPDTs. Other organizations that also have trainer listings and who promote positive training techniques are the International Assocation of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG).

3. “What sort of methods do you use?” Another tricky one. I haven’t heard of a trainer yet 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 comply with a request? If a trainer uses choke chains, by definition he is using “corrections.” (Within every style of training there is a range of trainers, some gentler and some harsher.) If he uses clicker training or lure-reward training properly, he is using positive methods. Some trainers call themselves “balanced,” which means they use both corrections and praise/reward.

4. “Do you train full time?” There are trainers who do other jobs while training on the side. That doesn’t mean they’re not good trainers. For basic obedience, someone who trains part-time might be fine. But for serious behavior issues, seek out a trainer who has been training full-time for at least a few years and has experience with the particular issue your dog needs help with.

5. For in-home training, can you do one session at a time, or are you required to pre¬purchase a package of sessions?

6. Does the in-home trainer work only with the dog? Or will they train you to do so? The second option is desirable because after all, you’re the one the dog will need to listen to in the long run.

7. For serious behavior issues, how much expertise does the trainer have? Some trainers specialize in specific behavior problems, while others won’t handle issues such as aggression.

8. For a group class, will you be allowed to observe a class first? A good trainer will have no qualms about letting you do so.

9. How many dogs per class? In a large class you’ll get less personal attention. Look for a small class, where the trainer demonstrates with students’ dogs hands-on and gives feedback. Dogs and people should look like they’re having fun, not being stressed out.

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

© 2016 Nicole Wilde

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