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 Dominance theory is a hideously outdated and inaccurate idea.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!

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