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Choosing the Right Dog Trainer
Do your homework!

I’ve always been happy to believe that my students need a dog trainer (otherwise, why am I there?), but it came as a surprise to learn that Pat Miller took her newly adopted puppy to class. Miller has decades of training experience; she’s the training editor of Whole Dog Journal, and people pay her to teach them how to train. So why … ?

Because, Miller admits, “I tend to get lazy about training my own dogs beyond the basics.” And because she lives on a farm, and it’s helpful to teach her dogs to be comfortable and mannerly in all kinds of environments. And because it’s good for her to “realize how it feels to be a student again.” One advantage Miller has is that she knows exactly what she’s looking for in a dog trainer, and she knows why. She isn’t reduced to making her choice on the basis of who has the cutest ad in the yellow pages, or an address nearby.

A good trainer is golden, like a good psychotherapist or car mechanic, and finding one can be equally hard—maybe harder. As Barbara Davis, of BADDogsInc. in Corona, Calif., points out, all you need to call yourself a trainer is a pulse and a business card. For example, recently I’ve seen fliers around my Brooklyn neighborhood advertising the services (names and details changed to protect the guilty) of one “Joe Smith,” who says he’s “certified by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.” Evidently, one assumes, a government body evaluated Mr. Smith’s skills; one imagines him taking a test of some sort, maybe undergoing a background check. One would be wrong: New York City has no certification program for dog trainers. Neither does any of the 50 states. Let’s improve your chances of avoiding Mr. Smith and his ilk.

Begin at the Beginning
The first and most basic question to consider is whether to take a class or sign up for private lessons. Fortunately, for most dogs and their people, there’s no wrong decision here (phew!). Private lessons are more expensive, of course, but your schedule might make group classes impossible, or you might learn so much more easily from a personal tutor that you wind up spending less than a class would have cost you. But a well-run group class offers advantages that private lessons can’t. From the outset, your dog will be practicing the skill of focusing on you, not other dogs, when she’s on-leash; some classes also provide an opportunity to study doggy social behavior in a safe context.

On the other hand, if your dog or puppy is shy or reactive, the presence of other people and dogs may frighten or overstimulate her and make the problem worse. One-on-one coaching could be the answer here, as it can be tailored to address any behavioral issues your canine friend may have. (There are also specialized classes for reactive and aggressive dogs.)

A third option is “board and train” (B&T): Your dog stays with the trainer and is returned to you with manners installed. The trainer should then practice with you so that your handling styles are consistent. B&T is the most expensive route to take; usually, lessons or classes are not only cheaper, but better, because they teach you skills that you can apply throughout the dog’s lifetime (think of that old saw about giving a man a fish). However, B&T may be the right choice if you just plain know that you don’t have time to train, even though you take good care of your dog otherwise. Keep this in mind, however: Your dog is going to be out of your sight and out of your protection. Be sure you know who you’re turning her over to.

References Required
Referrals, in my experience, come mostly from “my veterinarian” and “a guy at the dog park.” Both can be useful, and both have their pitfalls. Veterinarians have studied long and hard to learn how to diagnose and treat animal illnesses. Most vets have solid, practical animal-handling skills, but few are experts in dog training and behavior. Get names from your vet, by all means, but screen the list. Anne Martindale of Fultonham, N.Y., had a disastrous experience with a trainer to whom her vet referred her. The vet was unfamiliar with the trainer’s work, though Martindale didn’t know that at the time. “If a vet recommends someone,” she now says, “it would be good to ask how he or she knows this person is a good trainer.”

As for that guy at the dog park: The very first trainer I hired to work with me and my dog Muggsy was referred by several dog-park pals. His method involved eliciting the problem behavior—in Muggsy’s case, aggression toward strange men—and then punishing the dog by throwing a penny-shaker can at him. But you can’t punish anyone (human or canine) into liking people. A different trainer—also recommended by a dog park friend—showed us how to pair the appearance of strange men with delicious treats. Muggsy learned to like men PDQ, but for the rest of his life, reacted to that first trainer by barking and lunging at him whenever their paths crossed. Be aware that the stakes are high; someone ignorant and harsh can easily damage your dog.

Who Trains the Trainers?
Though a few highly regarded trainer-training programs exist, such as the six-week intensive course offered by the San Francisco SPCA, no educational institution includes a degree in dog training on its roster. Most people learn from hands-on experience, formal and informal apprenticeships, reading, and attending seminars.

A single program obviously can’t make a seasoned dog trainer. But, assuming a trainer also has lots of experience, should you limit yourself to those who have attended one of these programs? I’d say no. Space in the good programs is limited, and tuition is high. Many people are able to acquire skills through independent study, and there are other routes, such as apprenticeships and volunteer shelter work, to practical experience. Many skilled older trainers entered the field before formal programs existed. And not everyone who graduates from them is necessarily competent and kind.

Still, education is a Very Big Clue, however the trainer goes about getting it. Dog training isn’t a mystical art; it’s a combination of particular mechanical skills; a good, solid knowledge of the processes by which animals learn; and an understanding of canine evolution and behavior.

Whatever method of dog training you feel comfortable with, skip the trainer who talks about dogs being “spiteful” or “defiant” (complicated states of mind more likely to be held by humans), or who isn’t familiar with learning theory, or who talks about your household as though it were a wolf pack (dogs aren’t wolves). The important thing to remember is that dogs are a whole other species, and someone who’s taking your money to help you train yours really ought to have taken the trouble to learn some of the relevant science.

There is only one national independent certification program. It’s administered by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and people who earn this credential get to put “CPDT” after their names (see “Source Code and Resources” sidebar). Elaine Allison, of Canine’s Best Behavior in Los Angeles, who has the CPDT and is endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Trainers, stresses, “It’s important that the bells and whistles after [the trainer’s] name are not the sole factor.… Ultimately, it’s best to see them with dogs, particularly how well they relate to their own dogs.… [People] should be looking for someone who has skill and rapport with their dog.” Anne Martindale rejected a trainer whose “remote-control dogs … had no spontaneity left in them.”

As for experience, the more the better—just keep an eye out for the trainer who’s been working with dogs for 30 years but hasn’t learned anything new in the last 29. Animal training, like every other field with any claim to being scientific, grows and changes over the years. Real professionals work to keep up.

Personality Matters
Your dog trainer doesn’t have to be your new best friend, but it’s hard to learn from someone who leaves you utterly cold—so, just as you’d study the trainer’s rapport with her dogs, consider her relationships with people. A good teacher looks the same whether her field is algebra or loose-leash walking. Observe a class or two; any ethical trainer will be happy to let you do this.

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.

My own view is that the best dog training is solidly grounded in science and requires no force to develop desirable habits in place of undesirable ones, and of course, I’d like to steer you to trainers who share that view. Gail Fisher, the owner of All Dogs Gym in Manchester, N.H., has more than 30 years of professional training experience. An expert traditional-style trainer now wholeheartedly committed to clicker training, she says that “over the past 15 years, there has been a sea change in dog training philosophies. Trainers using positively oriented, dog-friendly techniques can be found virtually everywhere … And we are all the better for it.”

In conclusion, if someone who makes her living as a professional dog trainer avails herself of others’ expertise, the rest of us mortals should probably consider it, too. Many people don’t know where to start, or have a hard time translating the words they read into physical movements. Some just need encouragement. As for the dogs, even minimal training greatly increases their chances of staying in their home for life. Good training takes work, but it isn’t drudgery—it’s a joy. And out of joy grows love.
 


 

The Name Game
Generally, a trainer is someone who works on mannerly behavior (polite leash-walking, waiting at the door instead of barging out, ignoring that pork chop on the sidewalk), while behavioral counselors (or behavioral advisors, or behavior modification specialists or any of a number of variations) are the people you call when your dog barks and lunges at other dogs on-leash, or growls over her food bowl. Just as anyone can call himself a trainer, anyone can legally call himself a behaviorist. To be certified by the Animal Behavior Society, an individual must have a PhD, or a DVM with at least a two-year, university-approved residency in behavior, as well as three years of practice in applied animal behavior. Visit certifiedanimalbehaviorist.com for more on how to find a certified behaviorist in your area.
 

FAQs
Your initial contact with a potential trainer will most likely be over the telephone. The answers to a few quick questions can help you decide if the person to whom you’re speaking is a likely candidate. And remember, you have to be willing to fully participate in the process—your dog isn’t the only one being trained!—so check your own reactions to the candidate’s tone and attitudes.
1. Training philosophy and background?
2. Training specialties?
3. Size of classes? Are classes divided into ages/sizes of dogs?
4. Is it possible to observe a class or two before signing up?
5. Are references available?

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 39: Nov/Dec 2006
Brooklyn-based Jolanta Benal is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who has studied positive-reinforcement methods with Pat Miller.

Illustration by Donna Grethen

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