Dog Trainers: Who to Seek, Who to Avoid

As I delve further and further into the dog training world, it has become painfully evident that there is a lot of ignorance out there when it comes to choosing a trainer. So I wanted to compile a list of what you  should look for in a trainer, and what should send you running for the hills.  Sadly there are simply no requirements to being a dog trainer. It is a very poorly regulated profession. Any moron can set up their own training facility or get their own TV show.

Who to Seek

  • Humane/positive/no force methods only. They will often say they’re “positive reinforcement only,” but if you want to get picky about it they probably also utilize negative punishment. You want a trainer that reinforces the behaviors you want and takes away what’s reinforcing about the behaviors you don’t want. The latter comes in the form of negative punishment, which is akin to grounding your child. You take away what they want to communicate to them that you don’t like what they’re doing and it isn’t going to work. Clicker trainers are often great for such methods.
  • Someone who is willing to explain their methods in detail. Trainers should always be willing to really let you know what it is they do, how they do it, and why it works. Many of them will do free consultations to get an idea of your dog’s issues and how to tailor the training to their/your individual needs.

Who to Avoid

  • “Balanced” trainers. These trainers will sometimes refer to themselves as positive reinforcement trainers, but they actually combine positive reinforcement techniques and positive punishment techniques (hence the balance). They often utilize things such as leash corrections and prong collars. Some view the use of treats as bribery and avoid it, opting instead for praise as a sole reward. Their methods can work well on some dogs, but in my opinion they’re pushing the envelope. Their methods carry the risk of worsening many issues, especially in the hands of your average dog owner. It’s best to play it safe and avoid them.
  • Trainers who harp on dominance theory. Dominance theory is a hideously outdated and inaccurate idea. If a trainer ever uses the terms “dominance,” “alpha roll,” “scruff shake,” or says anything about your dog trying to dominate you and that you must show him who’s in charge, run the other way as fast as you can. This person is going to screw up your dog.
  • Trainers who use shock collars. There’s supposedly some responsible way to use these “remote trainers,” as they’re called by their supporters, but I don’t buy it. They’re painful and scary, especially the ones designed for barking or invisible fences. There are supposedly milder ones for training, but even if they were a humane method, I would not use them because they do not address and resolve the underlying problem. I would also not recommend prong collars or choke chains for the same reasons.
  • Trainers who are vague. If their website doesn’t give much information about their methods, there’s probably a reason for that. They’ll often use vague words like “other methods.” Don’t get me wrong, some good trainers won’t give a lot of detail on their websites, but watch out for anything that seems fishy. If they’re not willing to talk about their methods until you’ve signed up for the class, it’s probably not a good sign. These trainers will sometimes post videos of the results of their training, but not how they got those results.
  • Trainers with large classes. Good trainers try to keep class sizes small, usually an absolute maximum of 10 people. There are some trainers that allow up to 20 or so, which can be problematic. If you have excitable or reactive dogs, it will be extremely difficult for them (and your classmates) to focus. It’s also impossible to give a lot of good 1-on-1 help this way, which is important when you have dogs with individual personalities and issues.
  • Board and train facilities. Any place that allows you to leave your dog with them for a few weeks to train them without you present is a big no-no for me. It’s very important that the owner, a.k.a. the person that will be living with the dog for the rest of its life, be involved in training and learn how to do it themselves. Training has to be maintained; you can’t just send them off to be trained and be done with it, and if you don’t keep doing whatever training they were doing, chances are the training will fall apart and you’ll have the exact same issues you started with. Some places offer to do sessions with the owner after the weeks of board and training. Which is nice, but… why not just do that to begin with? I also just plain don’t like the idea of putting my dog in the hands of strangers for a few weeks where (unless they have a 24/7 webcam that I do indeed watch 24/7) I have no idea what they’re doing with my dog. There’s usually a reason they don’t want the owner present. I don’t doubt some are decent trainers who genuinely want to help busy dog owners. But this isn’t the best way to do so.
  • Trainers who guarantee results. Any trainer who gives a 100% guarantee to solve your dog’s problems or teach them something new is a moron. Every dog is different, every owner is different, every living situation is different. There are too many variables to confidently predict the outcome of a training program.

Side Note: Certifications and Experience

There are all kinds of certifications and memberships out there for trainers to obtain. APDT, CDT, CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA, etc. These are great, but I have found they are absolutely NO guarantee that the trainer is a good one. Some of these are incredibly easy to obtain, and there are much higher certifications than the ones I listed. So while these are nice to see, don’t hold your breath. I know a wonderful trainer who no longer has any of these titles (some of them just aren’t worth the yearly fee), but one or two awful ones who do.

As for experience, well, experience is great. You don’t want a trainer with absolutely no experience. But having a lot of experience doesn’t mean much. They could have decades of experience… using awful methods and believing inaccurate theories. I have a ton of experience with my car; I drive it every day. But I couldn’t even begin to tell you how it works!

Why Physical Punishment Works

Physically punishing your dog is obviously a pretty controversial topic, whether it’s in the form of hitting, kicking, scruff shaking, alpha rolling, dominance downs, pinching, or leash corrections. There’s a reason these methods are still used and recommended by trainers to this day. It’s because they tend to work – and fast. And if there’s one thing we love, it’s a quick fix that requires minimal effort on our part.

But here’s the thing… physical punishments do not address or resolve the underlying cause of the dog’s behavior. Because of this, even if they were humane methods I would still not use them. It only fixes your problem. Not the dog’s.  In clicker training, we strive to solve the problem, not put a band-aid on it that can actually worsen behavioral problems. All physical punishments really teach a dog is that we can be bullies. Proper training requires an understanding of the dog’s mind and how they learn.

One thing I hear most often is “the dog knew better.” This is a line of thinking we really need to get away from. Dogs do not have the cognitive ability to understand the concepts of right and wrong. All they know is that when they perform a certain behavior, their owner becomes scary or violent. Dogs are masters at reading body language; it’s their first language, after all, and that is what they’re responding to – not what they did. They are cowering and looking “guilty” because your body language is telling them you’re upset, and things could get scary, so they’re throwing appeasement gestures at you to calm you and let you know they don’t want trouble. Not because they know they did something wrong. Worse yet, if you ignore these signals and punish them anyway, they only learn that those signals aren’t working and they need to escalate their response in the future. This could mean growling or biting.

Let me ask you something: when you get a speeding ticket, do you stop speeding? Yeah… probably not. You’re just more careful about how you speed. The same applies to your dog. The dog will still perform the behavior (for example, stealing food off the counter) because it’s still quite rewarding. Just not when you’re around. The dog doesn’t realize stealing food off the counter is wrong, just that you become scary and violent if the he does it when you’re around. But if you’re not around? Oh nothing scary happens and I get a tasty snack, this is awesome!

It is so, so much easier (for the dog) to teach them what we want them to DO, instead of teaching them what NOT to do. Our world is very complex and different from a dog’s. It is our responsibility to teach them and give them the tools to live and be happy in our world. But we have to do so in a way they understand. Dogs are much more simplistic and opportunistic than we tend to think, thanks to our love of anthropomorphizing them. Stealing food off the counter is something that only fits our definition of “wrong.” In their world it’s just food, they don’t understand that it’s inappropriate to take it in certain contexts.

Instead of yelling at or hitting your dog every time he steals something off the counter, start teaching him instead to sit politely and ask permission. Or even teach him that he should sit quietly at the door to the kitchen until you are done. This is much easier for them to understand and has a much better chance of success.

Sorry, I kind of rambled off course there – let’s get back on track to why physical punishment works. The dogs of physical punishers can be calm, quiet, and well-behaved. That would be impressive, if they hadn’t bullied the dog into being that way. Physical punishments only tend to suppress a behavior – not change it. Some dogs will even shut down and become too afraid to do anything for fear of punishment. The dog’s emotional state is still anxious or fearful (I should add here that most behavioral issues and “dominance displays” are caused by fear, not aggression). But if you slowly turn the situation around into a positive one, you can teach the dog that the situation is okay and fun. Then the dog will begin to look forward to and enjoy said situation. Everyone wins, even though it took a little more time and effort on your part.

With some dogs, though, physical punishments can actually worsen behavioral issues such as fear-based aggression. The dog goes into fight or flight mode and feels that it has been forced to defend itself from this crazy, violent human. This isn’t the dog rebelling, this isn’t the dog fighting for dominance, it’s just you having terrified the dog to the point he feels he is in a life or death situation.

And with issues like leash-reactivity, if you’re leash-popping with a prong collar or smacking the dog every time he growls and lunges at another dog, you’re typically just teaching him that it’s awful when other dogs come around because he gets punished. But if you change his emotional state to a happier one and turn the situation around into a positive one, then he learns it’s not so bad when other dogs come around and he doesn’t need to fly off the handle to keep them away.

I’m not saying physical punishments are going to ruin and break every dog. Some dogs do fine on things like leash corrections. But these are methods that are so, so easily misused and abused in the ignorant hands of your average dog owner. There are ways that don’t risk psychologically or physically harming your dog, and they help solidify your dog’s trust in you. But we still go the lazy route of physical punishment because it works faster and takes less effort.

I’m sorry if any of that was vague and not explained well, I’m trying to keep everything short and simple. If anything is fuzzy don’t hesitate to ask. Unless it’s your dog. Your dog is supposed to be fuzzy.

What Clicker Training Is Not

There is some… misunderstanding among some people about clicker training, and how exactly it works. Let me start with a quick list of what clicker training is NOT:

  • Bribery
  • A hippie-dippy love-and-peace method with no boundaries
  • Ineffective

Let’s tackle these one at a time, shall we?

Ah, the bribery theory… we meet again. A ridiculous amount of people seem to think most positive reinforcement methods, including clicker training, are a way of bribing the dog into doing what you want it to do, that the dog becomes dependent on the food to perform. And I can totally see why they would think that. When you take it at face value, we are giving the dog a treat in return for doing something. He’s not doing it because he wanted to of his own accord. He’s not doing it because he just loves us sooo much that he’ll do anything to please us. He’s doing it for food. A basic animal need. A bribe.

What these short-sighted folk are not quite grasping is why food is used and how to use it so that it does not become a bribe. It’s only bribery to your dog if you’re doing it all wrong. For instance, I would argue that lure-reward training is probably bribery, yeah. For the most part, the dog is focused on the food, not the handler. That’s not what we do.

To understand how clicker training works, you must first understand dog behavior and how they learn. It’s a science. A proven one, for that matter. To put it simply, we use food because it makes the dog happy. It changes their emotional state. For instance, with a dog that is fearful of other dogs, we use food to bring her emotional state into a happier one every time she sees another dog. She starts making that connection (dogs are a bit more simplistic than us in this area, obviously), and pretty soon she begins looking at other dogs excitedly, even when there are no treats present. I know plenty of positive reinforcement trained dogs who will perform cues when he/she knows there are no treats around. It’s because he has been conditioned to enjoy performing that behavior, because his emotional state was changed to make it a fun experience.

Try and think of it this way: let’s say you and some friends go to the amusement park for a day of fun and excitement. But while you’re there, it seems as though you have the worst luck. You lose your wallet, strangers are rude and unhelpful, you keep stepping in gum, and there are screaming children. You know this is supposed to be a fun place, but you had a miserable experience, and you don’t look forward to coming back as much as you used to. There was nothing wrong with the park itself, but your emotional state while you were there made it an unpleasant experience. On the other hand, if everything had gone smoothly, you found a $10 bill on the ground, and you had a blast with your friends, then of course you would be more excited to come back because you had a positive experience associated with the park.

If you are just shoving food in the dog’s face trying to get it to do what you want constantly, and he will not perform unless there is food present, then yes, that is bribery, and you have goofed up your training. We do not even touch our bait bags until the dog has performed a desired behavior. There is also the magic of variable ratio rewards. A great little article on that can be found here: http://www.clickermagic.com/clicker_primer/clicker_p18.html

But to sum it up, once the dog has the behavior down, you begin rewarding only intermittently and randomly, so the dog never knows when a reward is coming.

Also, if you find bribery so damned abhorrent, then I’m gonna have to ask you for your boss’ phone number, because he/she should be told that apparently you would be perfectly fine working for no pay. It will never cease to irritate me how some people expect our dogs to be perfect, to be better than us.  If you aren’t willing to do half the crap you ask of your dog, why should she be expected to do it for nothing? Why did you opt to get a relatively simple creature with its own mind when clearly what you wanted was a flawless robot with advanced AI? Stop it. It’s not fair to the dog.

Clicker training is also not a hippie-dippy method where we’re all about love and peace and kindness and letting the dog walk all over us. Trust me, I hate that stuff. Sure, we don’t psychologically or physically punish the dog, because that’s, y’know… not good… but we don’t let the dog get away with everything and walk all over us. We often use negative punishment (taking away something the dog wants) when the dog performs an undesirable behavior. This is akin to grounding your child. It doesn’t harm them, but it does get the message across. It is entirely possible to be a benevolent leader without the use of physical/psychological intimidation and force, I assure you. You didn’t follow and obey the kid that bullied you in high school, did you? Probably not, but if you did it’s safe to say it was a very unhealthy relationship in which you were not happy.

Luckily I don’t actually encounter many people who claim clicker training is just downright ineffective, so I will keep this part relatively short (maybe). Just take a look at this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTsw7RlmyJE

Those dogs were trained with clicker training. Notice how they look happy and clearly enjoy performing the behaviors, plus they are focusing on the handler, not the treats (in some cases she wasn’t even wearing her treat bag at all). She has some excellent videos of her methods as well, not just the results.

Some people claim that positive reinforcement only training (with no physical corrections or punishments) failed to help their dog and others. That it simply did not work on them. I would have loved to have witnessed the people using these methods to find out why they failed. Training is a skill and an art – if you don’t do it correctly, of course it is going to fail. Too many trainers blame the methods when they need to re-evaluate their skills as a trainer, and they need to learn it’s okay to admit you need work. I sure do. Clicker training is NOT for lazy people with short attention spans. It takes so much more patience and work than harsher methods. But people today are obsessed with shortcutting and quick fixes. That extra time and patience is worth my dog’s emotional well-being, not to mention the trust and confidence it builds up.

Now, why do people still deny this method? Why deny proven science? Because they either don’t/won’t/can’t understand it or they’re too stuck on the fact that their outdated methods still work (it’s usually a combination of both). Yes, your methods of yelling, alpha rolling, and leash corrections do work — quite well in some cases. I have never said anything to the contrary. But there are better ways. I can shut up a screaming child by slapping duct tape over its mouth, but you don’t see that being a highly recommended method. It is entirely possible to train your dog without having to strike fear into her, without having to intimidate and physically harm her. There are ways to train her that strengthens her trust in you, that improves the bond between you as partners. And yet still, so many people prefer to bully their dogs into compliance… It is heartbreaking to me as a future trainer, and as a human being.