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Choosing the Right Dog Trainer

The ideal trainer is not only knowledgeable, she’s cordial and respectful. She doesn’t roll her eyes at the students or make fun of them (well, maybe gently, in the context of a well-established relationship). She looks for what students do right and builds on that, rather than relentlessly pointing out what they do wrong. Her explanations are clear and patient, and she really, truly believes that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Most of the people in the class should look as though they’re enjoying themselves, and so should their dogs.

Watch out if the dogs in class don’t like the trainer. Special classes for reactive or shy dogs are an exception, of course, and a dog with a specific fear (of men with beards, say) may react negatively to someone who hasn’t done her any harm. Some puppies pee whenever a person so much as looks at them. But nothing should be happening in an ordinary good-manners class to make the average dog or human unhappy or afraid.

What Do You Want to Learn?

Besides being smart, educated, skillful and kind, your instructor should have expertise relevant to your needs. I would be wasting your money if you hired me to teach French Ring Sport. On the other hand, someone who specializes in training for formal competitive obedience may or may not suit you if you’re looking for help with polite pet manners rather than a perfectly straight “sit at heel.”

The same goes for behavior problems; by happenstance or because of their personal interests, people acquire varying degrees of expertise in helping dogs overcome particular kinds of difficulties. The behavior counselor who refers you to someone else for help with separation anxiety may be the go-to person for food-bowl guarding or dog–dog aggression. An ethical trainer is honest about her expertise and its limits.

Have a puppy? There are classes just for them. Also known as puppy kindergarten, these classes often include playtime. (Adult-dog classes usually don’t, but there are exceptions.) Well-run play breaks help puppies learn doggy social rules—sometimes an older “nanny dog” assists with this—and get their ya-yas out, and are also a blast to watch. Puppy play should be carefully supervised and the puppies should be segregated by size, age, outgoingness and play style—badly run play breaks can be canine versions of Lord of the Flies, with shy puppies overrun by larger, older, more exuberant comrades, and incipient bullies getting really good at scaring the daylights out of their peers.

Categories needn’t be rigid; a small, super-confident Terrier type may do just fine with a Lab mix twice his size. But steer clear of a trainer who allows a 15-pound body-slammer to chase a panicked 3-pound Maltese around the room, or who doesn’t take steps to increase the confidence of a shy puppy crouched under his handler’s chair.

Look for puppies eagerly engaging with each other, whether they’re low-key or rowdy; if not actively playing, they should be happily exploring the play space. The trainer should be carefully supervising, interrupting inappropriate play, and perhaps narrating and interpreting the action. If there’s a shy puppy, progress may take place over more than one session, but in any case, the trainer should be keeping an eye on him and his owner. No puppy, however inappropriate his behavior, should be handled roughly or berated.

How About Methods?
Dog training has a long and sad history involving rubber hoses, collar jerks hard enough to take dogs off their feet and shock collars set to “stun.” Unfortunately, these practices are still around. Hanging the dog or swinging him through the air constitutes abuse, period. And choke collars can damage the tracheas of small dogs and young puppies. The American Humane Association’s Guide to Humane Dog Training (americanhumane.org, $10) discusses these issues thoroughly, but a good rule of thumb is never to allow anyone to do anything to your dog that makes you uneasy.

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