How to Choose A Dog Trainer
So you've decided to hire a trainer. You type in "trainers near me" in Google and a huge list appears. How on earth do you choose? What should you be looking for?
Although this process should be straightforward, it rarely is. Unbeknownst to many, the dog training world is unregulated, meaning any one can claim to be a dog trainer and charge for their services, with no legal repercussions.
Sadly, since the pandemic there has been a significant increase in dog trainers setting up businesses and charging a significant amount of money despite having no experience and/or qualifications as a dog trainer or behaviourist. Many are unknowingly placing their dog’s future in the hands of people that don't actually know what they are doing and this is having a severe impact on dogs. It's also creating difficulties for genuine trainers that have spent years dedicating time and money to their education. Therefore, it's imperative to be aware of what to look for in a trainer.
Have they Got Qualifications?
So what should you look for? Firstly, determine if the trainer has qualifications in Canine behaviour and training. Usually trainers share their qualifications on their website on the ‘About me’ section. It is not rude or unreasonable to ask a trainer what qualifications they have. If they respond by saying, "Qualifications aren't the be all and end all of everything", you can usually conclude they don't actually have any.
Trainers that genuinely care about dogs and the quality of service they deliver, study continually to keep up with behavioural science, which is constantly changing. So if the trainer has qualifications and is regularly attending webinars and completing courses, this is a good indicator that they care about their continued professional development.
So what recognised dog training organisations should you look out for? Well there are many but the most popular include:
Dog Training College (DTC ADT)
Karen Pryor Academy (KPA)
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) (CPDT-KA)
Absolute Dogs (PRO DOG TRAINER)
Victoria Stillwell (VSA)
Each of these are education providers that offer both courses and memberships. However, it should be noted that some organisations only require payment to become a member, so it’s best to ask what qualifications a trainer has in addition to their memberships, to determine if they have qualifications and whether they have been fully vetted.
Some trainers may have attended University to acquire a degree in Canine behaviour, making them a qualified behaviourist. Believe it or not, some people will self-proclaim themselves as a behaviourist without even having basic qualifications as a dog trainer, because it sounds better, but if you truly want a qualified behaviourist, they should have a degree or a level 6 equivalent qualification.
So, don’t assume that every dog trainer or behaviourist listed on the internet is qualified. Do some digging and ask the trainer about their qualifications before booking their services. You should ask the trainer open ended questions to discern what kind of trainer they are and how they will adapt their training to meet your dog’s needs. Questions, such as ‘What happens when your dog gets it wrong,’ can reveal much about the trainer’s education and training methods.
Have they Got Experience Training Dogs Professionally?
Of course, experience is also an important factor, especially when dealing with anxiety and aggression, however, it's important that the trainer has experience as a professional, rather than just personal experience training their own dog. While experience working with their own dog can be beneficial, it isn’t equal to professionally training a variety of dogs with differing behavioural issues. Those that don’t work as a qualified trainer on a full-time basis or those that do it as a hobby, often aren’t experienced, qualified or even insured to train dogs, all of which should be requirements when choosing a trainer.
It’s important to note that every trainer will have their own expertise. Some trainers focus on reactivity and anxiety, while others specialise in aggression. Some trainers may only offer basic obedience and game-based training, thereby being unqualified for serious behaviour issues, such as aggression.
It's not uncommon for trainers to refer specific cases to other trainers in the community, if they feel inexperienced with a particular area of behaviour. In fact, if a trainer refers you to another trainer, this demonstrates that they care far more about your dog's welfare than their own pride. So ask the trainer what professional experience they have. A qualified trainer will be more than happy to share experiences that have shaped their career.
Look at Their Website
It’s also recommended to check the trainer’s website and determine the kind of training they offer. Avoid trainers that give out guarantees to "fix" your dog's behaviour. No trainer can promise you results because it depends on the behavioural issue and the severity, not to mention how much time and effort you are willing to put into training.
If you see photos or videos of the trainer using lead corrections, punishment and/or aversives, this is a huge red flag. If the trainer promotes his/her training using terms, such as pack leader and Alpha, this usually indicates that the trainer has no education in Canine behaviour. Such terms are based on a scientific theory that has long been debunked by the very scientists that introduced it. So, no recognised dog training education providers, such as those listed above would promote such cruel methods to their students.
That being said there are many Ex-Police Dog trainers offering training that still use these old-fashioned methods. Whilst these may appear to be experienced trainers, many of them (not all) are not up to date with Canine behavioural science and may not understand the significant emotional damage of using punitive training with dogs.
You also need to beware of the term ‘balanced training’. This means that the trainer uses all 4 quadrants of operant conditioning but usually to extremes. While it can be argued that positive trainers do use all quadrants to a degree, such as withholding treats until the correct behaviour is displayed, positive trainers only promote force free and fear free training. It's a stark contrast to physically abusing the dog. Balanced trainers often state they will use positive reinforcement as long as it works and then only use punishment as a last resort.
You may also notice terms, such as LIMA, which stands for, "Least intrusive and minimally aversive". This means that the trainer will try to use the least unpleasant and most ethical training methods to train your dog, however, balanced trainers often use such terminology to justify resorting to aversives, so be careful of trainers using this term. While some trainers will be faithful to the principles of LIMA, many may claim that positive reinforcement isn't working and even blame the dog for being totally resistant to positive training.
They may even argue that positive reinforcement will not be effective with certain dog breeds or severe cases of aggression, which is ridiculous when you realise that the same force free methods are used successfully with predators, such as lions and tigers. I am sorry but if they claim positive reinforcement isn’t working, then the trainer isn't doing it right.
What to Expect of Your Trainer
All training should be force free and ethical. The trainer should be eager to use what your dog finds particularly reinforcing, in order to motivate them and teach new behaviours. If something doesn't work, the trainer should be able to adapt and determine what other factors may be involved, rather than blaming the dog. If the trainer blames negative behaviours on a lack of respect, trying to be the pack leader or dominance, stay well clear. These trainers are often bullies to both you and your dog and make excuses to disguise the fact that they have no idea how to address your dog’s behaviour.
A trainer shouldn't try to judge or intimidate you. Instead, a qualified trainer will want to develop a working relationship with you and your dog in order to keep training both fun and effective. They will break down training into obtainable goals and explain why such training is used and why its effective. Most importantly, training should improve your communication with your dog and strengthen the relationship between you.
That being said, it's important to have reasonable expectations of your trainer. Training isn't magic and improvements do not occur overnight, as dog training shows would have you believe. A trainer's success is very dependent on you to follow the management plans and practice the training with your dog in between sessions.
So in conclusion, make sure you choose a trainer that is...
-Qualified with an accredited education provider.
-Up to date with behavioural science.
-Engaged in regular continued professional development.
-Experienced working with dogs professionally.
-Offering reward-based training that is ethical and force free.
-Happy to address any concerns you may have.
-Happy to share their experience and evidence of their education.
Don't be pressured to stick with a trainer that bully's and hurts your dog. If you are not comfortable with the methods used, find another trainer! Your dog deserves to have a professional trainer that truly wants to help them reach their true potential and so do you!
If you are looking for a qualified trainer, you can use the Dog Training College database, which finds qualified and vetted trainers in your local area. Just click the on the link and type in your postcode.
Here's my listing.