So you've come to the decision that you need a dog trainer. But what now? An internet search of trainers in your area may leave you with one option (and who knows if they are any good) or a hundred options depending on where you live. Friends, family and neighbors may have suggestions- but they aren't exactly experts in the field any more than you are. And, unfortunately there are bad trainers out there who can accidentally make behaviors worse rather than better (in ways which can then take months or years to repair). So how do you go about choosing a trainer? Here are our 5 suggestions:
1. Look for credentials. There is no one license or certification that grants somebody the right to be a dog trainer, and while some certifications indicate real skill and experience, others can be ordered online without any effort. MANY people will title themselves as professional trainers or behaviorists without any credentials other than the fact that they're good with dogs (or have a certain number of years of experience). So, look for letters after a trainer's name and then do 5 minutes of research to find out what the letters mean. Good certifications usually require that the trainers have completed some kind of schooling or testing to prove that they have a certain amount of knowledge, experience, and skill with training and teaching. Some of the most common (and trustworthy) certifications to look for are:
- KPA CTP (Karen Pyror Academy Certified Training Partner)
- CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge or Skill Assessed)
- CDT (Certified Dog Trainer)
2. Look for Continuing Education. Historically dog trainers were self-taught and were hired because they seemed good with dogs; but, in the last few decades science and dog training collided and raised the standards of training methods. Trainers are now be expected to be able to defend their methods with reputable, modern research and utilize the techniques at an expert level. To meet that need, there are hundreds of conferences, seminars, and graduate level programs around the world to allow people to keep up with current research and further their training skills. So, I highly encourage you to work with a trainer who pursues this continuing education as it reflects their knowledge of current scientific understanding and their commitment towards continual improvement in their field. How do you know if they have been continuing their education? Many trainers will list this information within their "about me" sections on their websites (or you can always just ask them if they've been to any training conferences or workshops recently!)
3. Look for Membership to Professional Associations. This goes right along with the certification and continuing education. It is important that a trainer (or any other animal professional such as groomers, vets, or breeders especially) be respected, held accountable, supported, and mentored by other professionals in their field. Not all professional associations will do this- but many do, and membership to an association is a good sign that your trainer is (hopefully) being held accountable by somebody else outside of their own company (a certification is best for that- but the membership is good too).
4. Look for Professionalism and Teaching Skills. I cannot count the number of stories I have heard about trainers who don't to respond to emails, manage client payments poorly, or are flat out rude to clients; and yet people work with them anyway under the assumption that that's how dog trainers act. If you are looking to hire a professional trainer, then require that they be professional. Never feel obligated to excuse or look past a lack of professionalism, just because they are a trainer. Professionalism means they take themselves and their job seriously (a trait which means they are more likely to give you a high quality service) if you see anything less than that, just move on and find a trainer you can trust to give you excellence.
Furthermore, keep in mind that it doesn't matter if your dog will do a handstand when your trainer bats an eyelash- what matters is that your trainer can teach YOU how to effectively help your dog calm down and focus. This requires trainers to have good teaching and people-skills, in addition to being good with dogs, so having degrees (or experience) in Psychology, Education, Communication or other people-oriented fields is important.
5. Trust them AND THEIR METHODS inside and out. To reduce risk to you and your dog, I recommend finding a trainer who uses positive reinforcement or "force/fear -free" methods. On the flip side, I do not recommend working with anybody who is mentions being "alpha"/"pack-leader", "needing to show your dog who's the boss" or who refers to your dog as being "dominant". Words like that often imply that the trainer may be operating on old, dis-proven theories of dog behavior and probably plans to use tools or techniques that will utilize fear, discomfort, pain, or intimidation to change your dog's behavior. Utilizing these methods is risky for you and your dog, so my advice, is that when you come across these trainers (or vets or breeders or groomers): (politely) get out as fast as you can. That being said, I understand some of you may be looking for a trainer with methods different than my own and I want to emphasize that you should look for all of these criteria in your dog trainer REGARDLESS of what method they use. A referral from a friend, a certain number of years of experience or titles from sport competitions (such as agility) alone should not be enough reason to put your trust in somebody.
So how do you know if you should trust somebody enough to hand your dog's leash over to them (even briefly)? Make sure you FULLY understand: what they plan to do, how they will be doing it, why they will be doing it, and what the possible risks are. Ask one hundred questions if you have to (I like it when clients take the time to ask me a question rather than just going with whatever I say!) but make sure you understand and feel COMPLETELY comfortable with whatever their method is before handing over the leash for the first time or trying any of their advice. If something feels off- just leave. Do not let anybody push you into something you aren't comfortable with. You can always pause for that day and take some time to do your own research or get a second opinion before starting again. Sadly I am approached on a very regular basis by clients (and friends/family) who only learned about the risks of any particular training method after their dog had been injured or their behavior worsened; and many express regret that they didn't ask more questions, get a second opinion, or be bold enough to walk away when something seemed off. There are exceptionally good, qualified trainers out there who can help so hold the person you're considering to high standards, and don't settle for anything less (even if your dog is dealing with severe behaviors that need to be addressed immediately)- I promise there is someone else out there. Many trainers will work remotely, so don't give up hope even if you have very few local options.
There are thousands of people (trainers, behaviorists, friends, vets, groomers, pet store employees, family members...) who will be happy to give you advice about how to train your dog, but at the end of the day the decision is yours and your dog is counting on you to make the right one. So it is important to find a qualified, professional individual; one who is being held accountable by other professionals in their field (preferably by certifications or professional memberships) and then ask them as many questions as you need to in order to ensure that you fully understand and trust their methods. If you live locally- we hope you'll give us a call. If you live out of our area- feel free to give us a call anyway and we will help connect with you a trustworthy professional in your area.