How to Find a Good Dog Trainer

There are lots of trainers out there. Some certified, some not. Some positive, some traditional. Some good, and some bad. So how do you go about finding a good one that meshes with your values on dog rearing and training protocols?

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you know that I favor relationship-based training. And you also know that I don’t think very much of Cesar Millan’s, or Jon Katz’s approaches to training. Just stating my biases upfront for the sake of disclosure.

On that same note, I should tell you that I started out with traditional training, and moved on to positive/clicker training when I got my deaf Australian Shepherd. When I had to deal with a serious aggression issue with one of my dogs, I finally discovered relationship-based training. This is the most complete, well-rounded process I’ve encountered.

For those trying to decide on a professional dog trainer, the American Dog Trainers Network offers the following criteria concerning what to look for. I think this is a great list and, to flesh out these points, I’ve added some additional thoughts in italics.

An excellent reputation. Shop around and get recommendations from your vet, the ASPCA, the city’s other humane societies, other reputable trainers, or your breeder/breed club.

  • Also ask your friends, and even strangers you meet in the park, for their trainer contacts, especially if you notice that they have a well-trained dog. Even if they don’t use a trainer, you can pick up some valuable training tips.
  • You can also look intoThe Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Trainer Directory. The directory has a search function that allows you to look for a trainer by specific geographical location. It also lists any other credentials, such as CPDT (certified by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, an international testing and certification program for professional pet dog trainers). This ensures that the trainer has a degree of knowledge and expertise. For instance, to be certified, trainers must have at least 300 hours of dog training experience and have passed an exam that assesses basic knowledge of canine training. For more details, visit the CPDT web site.

Widespread experience. Inquire about his or her training background, years of experience, and areas of expertise. You deserve to have your questions answered, so don’t be timid about asking them.

  • Make note of how the trainer reacts to your questions. A confident, effective and qualified trainer will be more than happy to answer your questions and provide you with all the information to help you make the most educated decision for your dog.
  • Also, verify how many years the trainer has been training dogs professionally. While years alone are not enough to determine a trainer’s experience level in and of itself, it’s certainly says a lot.

Humane training methodology and gentle, effective handling skills. Reputable trainers are concerned about their dogs’ welfare. They also know that harsh or abusive handling methods are not only unnecessary, but are often counter-productive as well.

  • Feel free to request the opportunity to sit in on a class and observe to make sure you’re comfortable with a trainer’s approach. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a difficult dog in the bunch and you’ll get to see what this trainer resorts to, to get the job done. Hopefully, what you’ll see is a calm, patient trainer with a deep and resourceful toolbox without needing to resort to “jerk and intimidate.”

A genuine love of and devotion to dogs. When you find a trainer with this important quality you’ll know it. The joy of living and working with dogs makes this person shine.

  • Bottom line, look for someone who uses dog-friendly, humane and positive training methods and techniques. Anyone who has to hurt a dog and/or overpower it really isn’t training, he or she is just bullying.

Extensive behavioral knowledge. Dedicated trainers keep themselves up-to-date by attending dog training and animal behavior courses, conferences, seminars and workshops whenever possible.

  • Simply put, all training involves behavior modification and all behavior modification involves training, and any qualified, educated trainer with years of experience should be well versed in scientific canine learning theory and behavior, along with the application of various behavior modification techniques. A qualified trainer should not only be able to help you teach your dog basic manners, but he or she should also be able to help with more specific issues such as separation anxiety, resource guarding, aggression and destructive behavior. Most importantly, a qualified trainer knows his/her limitations and when to refer to a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.

Good teaching and communication skills. Trainers who have this gift make the learning process quicker, easier and more enjoyable for their students.

  • In other words, both you and your dog must be able to understand what this trainer is saying without feeling intimidated or ill at ease. Learning should be fun, interesting and exciting. Communication should be easy enough to understand so that you can go home and immediately put into practice what you’re learning.

Affiliations with reputable associations, organizations and training clubs. While this is not mandatory, it’s certainly a plus.

  • Remember, absolutely anyone can call him or herself a dog trainer or dog behaviorist, regardless of experience, education or professional training. Scary, huh? The title behaviorist was originally reserved for Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists who have graduate degrees in the field of animal behavior, and Veterinary Behaviorists who are board certified and practice behavior medicine. Unfortunately, it’s become not much more than catch phrase in recent years, often used to imply that the person is more than just a dog trainer. For example, Cesar Milan refers to himself as a behaviorist or dog psychologist, though he holds no graduate (or even undergraduate) degrees in animal behavior or, for that matter, human behavior. Contrast this with behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar, who holds both a PhD in animal behavior and is a licensed veterinarian. Just a wee difference between the two. For more information about dog trainers and behavior specialists, visit the Veterinary Partner website.

Ethics before profit. Is monetary profit his or her primary motive for training dogs? Is everything this trainer does geared towards making money? While financial success is great, ethics must come first.

And last but definitely not least–

A sense of humor. Training can and should be fun for both dogs and owners. A positive attitude and a little laughter goes a long way.

What guidelines have you used to find a good trainer?


11 thoughts on “How to Find a Good Dog Trainer”

  1. It drives me nuts to hear of dog trainers who put “Behaviorist” after their name. If you work on certain basic behavioral issues, fine. But to call yourself a Behaviorist is misleading and slightly unethical.

    I’m a dog trainer and I have no qualms telling people that because I’m proud to be one. If they need a behaviorist I’m happy to point them in the right direction. Unfortunately, a lot of people go for the trainers because they’re cheaper than a certified behaviorist, but they’re not getting the level of care they need.

    Good post. Lots of good information here.

  2. Meredith, can you give me a little more information. How is it misbehaving? What is it doing that you’d like to change?

    Nutmeg, clicker training is really fun! It’s a great way to get the dog involved with wanting to learn, rather than traditional training which is about forcing the dog to learn. Even though the end result might look the same, it’s whole different kettle of fish.

  3. Gordy and Georgie, sorry for your difficult experience with your dog.

    Meryl, absolutely finding a trainer with experience with your breed makes a huge difference!

  4. And although this falls under the heading of “experience” and the like, it can be helpful if you have someone that’s worked with your breed.

    Our first trainer had an incredible obedience and teaching record with German Shepards, but that didn’t necessarily translate to our terrier.

    The second time around we found someone that had worked with terriers before. She understood that it wasn’t that our little guy didn’t know what we wanted him to do–he just needed to learn why it was worth his time to do it. It made a world of difference!

  5. gordy and georgie

    Experience. I have had different ones for different dogs; individual lessons, group lessons including at Petco. One came highly recommended and qualified. The training was because I had a dog that was a difficult breed that was getting aggressive. He didn’t trust the breed and it was obvious that he thought it was a lost cause (at $75 for half an hour-I could only afford four lessons) Dog was untrustworthy and I returned it to the breeder. Dog then went and attacked its’ dam (musta had a screw loose). Another trainer was nice but a bit too laid back treating training time like play time. I also read a lot of training books like Milan, etc. Love Suzanne Clothier’s books and talk with other dog owners about how they work on issues. Oh and your blog is very helpful too!

  6. Joni, click here for the Cesar Millan post.

    One of my problems with Millan and his followers is that they only know one way, the punitive (which is so unnecessary) way of training. Talk to any serious trainer and they will be familiar with traditional and positive and relationship-based training. In other words, they’ve made an informed choice.

  7. Karen since I am sort of a newcomer to your blog can you point me to your post regarding Cesar’s training methods? I am just interested in your opinion of this man’s technique. Thanks.

  8. We have been very lucky in that our dog’s breeder is also a trainer. She knows German Shepherds inside and out and she has personal knowledge of our dogs and their lines. She has fixed several “issues” with the dogs that I didn’t even know we had. Our dogs have really become part of the family because we finally knew why they were doing the things that we didn’t like. I couldn’t be happier with her.

    The trainer before her told us she didn’t like German Shepherds and she didn’t like kids, needless to say we didn’t go back.

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