Whether you want to take part in obedience classes or arrange private sessions to resolve your dog’s behaviour problem, choosing the right dog trainer can be a difficult decision.
Because dog training is unlicensed, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, regardless of whether or not they have any education.
So what should you look for?
The most important choice in hiring a dog trainer
When choosing a dog trainer, the most important thing is to find a trainer who uses reward-based dog training methods, which they might call positive reinforcement, force-free, or humane training methods.
However, just because you see those words on someone’s website, does not mean they actually use those methods (see below for the questions you should ask).
Reward-based dog training is based on either giving a reward (to make a behaviour more likely to happen again) or withholding a reward (to make the behaviour less likely to occur).
Technically speaking, using rewards to make a behaviour increase in frequency is called positive reinforcement. That’s why some dog trainers call themselves positive reinforcement dog trainers.
Others call themselves force-free or humane dog trainers, to distinguish themselves from people who use aversive techniques such as electric shock, prong collars, leash ‘corrections’, ‘alpha rolls’ or the like.
In practice, the reward that works best is food. It is possible to use other types of reward, such as play, but food is more efficient because it’s faster to deliver; it’s better for most dog training scenarios (for example, if you’re teaching a dog to sit-stay, play will encourage your dog to jump out of the sit); and all dogs love food.
So in other words, you want a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog.
That’s because there are risks to using aversive techniques. Those risks include making the dog aggressive or fearful, and these are serious problems that can take a long time to fix (if at all).
If you want to know more, check out my article seven reasons to use reward-based dog training.
Or if you want to know more about the scientific research, check out my dog training research resources page which lists articles on dog training methods (and places where you can read about those articles for free).
If your dog is on a special diet, don’t worry. There is always something tasty that fits with a special diet and that will motivate your dog. Once you’ve found a good dog trainer, tell them about your dog’s dietary needs.
So, now you know you need to find a reward-based dog trainer, what next?
What qualifications should you look for in a dog trainer?
Remember I said at the beginning that anyone can call themselves a dog trainer. But dog training is actually a skilled activity, and it also requires knowledge. Just to mention a few things, dog trainers need good timing, to be able to read a dog’s body language, to understand learning theory (that’s part of the technical information), and to have good people skills so they can explain it all to dog owners in a way they can understand.
So it’s not enough if someone has always loved dogs, or grown up with them. In fact that part doesn’t matter. You need to find a dog trainer who is qualified.
The best qualifications you can find are CTC and KPA CTP (those are the letters that will appear after your dog trainer’s name).
Don’t just take my word for it. In an article for veterinarians about what to look for in a dog trainer, veterinary behaviourist Dr. Lisa Radosta recommends trainers with the KPA or CTC and says these are the two programs she relies on for finding dog trainers.
|Photo: rebeccaashworth; top, Mila Atkovska (both Shutterstock.com)|
Both programs require course work and have examinations.
The CTC is an advanced, two-year program from the Academy for Dog Trainers, which covers both dog training and behaviour. The Academy is known as “the Harvard of Dog Training” and is run by world-renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson. You can find an Academy dog trainer here.
KPA CTP means that someone has taken the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional program. This is a six-month program and you can find graduates here.
Graduates of these two programs will only use reward-based training methods.
If you’ve found multiple dog trainers with CTC and/or KPA CTP in your area, you’ve got several to choose from and can move on to the next section of this article.
If you haven’t, then you can look for people who have CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA, or CBCC-KA (all assessed by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) or the PCT-A or PCBC-A (assessed by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board). Again, these are people who have had their knowledge of dog training assessed.
These are not the only dog training certifications. It’s actually quite a confusing situation for consumers, which is why I’ve chosen to focus on the main credentials. There are other kinds of credentials you might look for if your dog has serious behavioural problems, and I’ll get to those later in the article.
Membership of a professional dog training organization
Another thing to look for in a dog trainer is membership of a professional organization.
There are several organizations that a dog trainer might be a member of. One is the Pet Professional Guild, which is committed to force free dog training. Members of this organization will only use reward-based training methods.
Another organization is the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Note that this organization follows an approach called LIMA, which stands for ‘least invasive, minimally aversive’ which (as you can tell from the name) allows for the use of aversives in some cases, so quiz the trainer on the methods they will use. They say that "we allow trainers with all methodologies to join with the goal of exposing them to humane, science-based training methods. However, this does not mean that all trainers in our directory subscribe to this philosophy..." so you need to find out for yourself which methods they actually use.
By the way, APDTs in other countries are independent, have their own member assessments and follow their own guidelines; for example the APDT(UK) only allows its members to use non-compulsive methods.
If a dog trainer says that they are a member of a particular organization, remember that you don’t have to take their word for it. You should be able to look them up via that organization’s directory to verify their membership.
What about continuing education for dog trainers?
Like any other profession, dog trainers ought to stay up-to-date on developments in their field.
Again, since dog training is not regulated, there’s no requirement for them to continue to learn. However, professional organizations do have continuing education requirements for their members.
If you are considering a dog trainer, check to see what continuing education they have listed on their website.
If they are a brand new dog trainer, they may not yet have had time to complete much continuing education (but make sure they have some education, as already mentioned). Over time, the list of continuing education courses should get longer.
Some of this training may take place at annual conferences, such as those of the organizations listed above. Some of it may be online, via webinars or other distance learning opportunities. Some dog trainers will even be giving talks and seminars at dog training conferences themselves.
There are certain names that are a very good sign. For example, if someone has attended training with the likes of Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Kathy Sdao, Chirag Patel, Ken Ramirez, Ian Dunbar, or Bob Bailey, that’s very promising, because these are all important names in science-based dog training.
There are also some additional certifications available to dog trainers who are interested in them. These include Fear Free certification (for trainers interested in making vet visits less stressful for their clients; maybe your veterinarian is also Fear Free certified?); Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers certified by Malena deMartini (for dog trainers specializing in separation anxiety); courses from the Karen Pryor Academy such as DogSports Essentials or Canine Freestyle; and courses for advanced professionals (webinars on demand) from the Academy for Dog Trainers.
What methods will they actually use to train your dog?
At the start of this article, I mentioned that some dog trainers may say they use positive reinforcement but not actually use it when working with your pet.
One reason for this is that they know there is demand for positive reinforcement and, well, dog training isn’t regulated.
One clue that they might not only use reward-based training is if they refer to themselves as ‘balanced’. Usually, balanced is used to mean that they also use punishment or ‘corrections’. And unfortunately, that means balanced dog training is not a good thing.
Another clue is if the dog trainer refers to ‘cookie pushers’ in a derogatory way or says that they train without food. Remember, you are looking to find a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog. If they say they don’t use food, cross them straight off your list.
And yet another clue is if you are reading through customer testimonials and they happen to refer to a shock collar. Or if the trainer has an online shop, and that’s what they sell.
If they mention dominance or being the alpha or pack leader, this tells you they are using out-dated methods too. For more information, see the AVSAB position statement on the use of dominance theory in behaviour modification of animals. Again, cross them off your list.
Transparency in dog training
Because there is no regulation in dog training, Jean Donaldson of the Academy for Dog Trainers started the transparency challenge. These are three questions to ask dog trainers about how they will train your dog. If you don’t like the answers, keep looking.
If you want to know more about the transparency challenge, you can watch the Academy's video about transparency in dog training, and read my interview with Jean Donaldson. (The interview celebrates 20 years since publication of Donaldson's influential book, Culture Clash, which should be on your reading list if it is not already).
Customer testimonials and social media
When you think you’ve identified a good dog trainer, read the customer testimonials and look at their social media accounts just to double-check that you are happy with your choice.
Hopefully they will have lots of positive comments from clients.
Many dog trainers also have social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram where they share interesting articles and photos of their client’s dogs.
If you hire them and you are agreeable, they may even share photos of your dog looking happy in a training session. (If you don’t want them to, that’s fine, just let them know; they should ask anyway).
Some dog trainers even have blogs that you can follow for useful pieces of advice and to keep up to date on their activities.
As above, if you see any signs here that a trainer uses shock collars, prong collars, pins dogs to the floor, refers to dominance or alpha rolls, or other kinds of aversive method, find another trainer.
What if I can’t find a good dog trainer in my town?
Some people are lucky and will have many good dog trainers to choose from. Other people might be unlucky, and struggle to find a dog trainer they are happy with.
In these cases, you could see if there is a suitable dog trainer in a nearby town. They will probably charge mileage to come out to you, but sometimes it’s worth it to work with the right person.
Another option is an internet consultation. These days, an increasing number of dog trainers are willing to offer consultations via Skype or telephone. This gives you a much wider choice of people to work with, and sometimes will be the best option. (Obviously, this only works for private consultations, and not for classes).
Choosing between classes and private dog training lessons?
Maybe you already know the answer to the question of whether you would like to attend dog training classes or have private lessons, but there are several things to consider.
If you have a puppy, then puppy class is usually the best option. Some trainers offer one-off puppy parties, but in the only study that looked at this, they found that a six-week puppy class offers better results in the long run. So if you want to go to puppy parties, it's probably better to sign up for several, to get more socialization and play with other puppies.
A puppy class must be exactly what it says – for puppies only, no adult dogs.
Puppy class will include socialization as well as basic obedience exercises. Your puppy should have some opportunities to play with the other puppies, and a good class will separate the shy puppies from the boisterous ones so that no one becomes overwhelmed.
Some dog trainers offer private sessions for puppies. These can be a good choice, but because socialization is so important for puppies, you need to ensure either that the trainer will include socialization as part of the package, or to make sure to do it yourself. A good trainer will explain this to you.
Classes for adult dogs usually cover basic obedience and can continue through to more advanced levels, including Canine Good Citizen certification.
Some dog trainers also offer classes for reactive dogs; if you have a reactive dog and are tempted by this, check that the class is small, and that your dog will not be ‘over threshold’ during class (in other words, find it too difficult due to other dogs being too close by). These classes can work well, but some reactive dogs will need private sessions instead.
Many people enjoy the social atmosphere of classes, and the opportunity to meet other dogs and their owners. Make sure you are happy with the size of the class, because small classes are generally better. Classes will usually have at least one assistant to help the trainer and maybe more, depending on class size.
Classes are also available for a whole range of fun activities including agility, tricks, nose work, Treibball, flyball. etc. There may be opportunities to try these out with your dog or to observe them before signing up for a whole set of classes. Some people enjoy these activities so much they go on to compete or to become a dog trainer themselves.
Private training involves the dog trainer coming to your house for a lesson. In some cases, they may have an office that you go to instead or arrange to meet you in a public location such as a park.
Private lessons are best for behaviour problems, because the trainer comes to you and sees the dog in his or her usual environment. They will develop a plan for your dog, and will do some training whilst at your house and coach you in how to deal with the problem. In between times, expect to be given some homework.
With private training, you have time that is dedicated to you and your dog instead of having to share the trainer with others like in a class. Many trainers will also provide support by email or telephone in between sessions, and they will tell you what to expect.
If you attend a class but it turns out your dog has behaviour problems that are beyond the scope of the class, don’t be surprised if your trainer suggests private sessions instead (or as well). That’s because they can work with you more easily to resolve the problems that way.
If your dog has a behaviour problem, it’s generally better to try and do something to resolve the issues early on, instead of waiting for the problem to get worse before you seek help. This is especially important if you think your dog might bite someone (or indeed if your dog has already bitten someone). In these cases, make sure to ask how you can keep everyone safe until the appointment. (For serious behaviour issues see below, what if my dog has a behaviour problem?).
What about board and train?
Another option is board and train, where your dog goes to stay with the dog trainer for a period of time, usually several weeks, and is trained while there. This can work well for some issues, such as house-training, but not so well for other issues.
This may also be useful if you are planning to go away and need somewhere to board your dog, and would like your dog to get some training as well.
Even though the trainer will be doing most of the training, you should still expect to have to do some work yourself; the trainer should keep in touch with you about your dog’s progress, and will schedule at least one session to ‘transfer’ the training.
After all, even if your pooch has learned lots of new commands, they won’t be much use if you don’t know what they are; and if you aren’t prepared to keep practising them, your dog may forget them.
|Lindsay Helms (Shutterstock.com)|
With board and train, you need to take even more care to select your dog trainer carefully and check references. Because they will be training the dog away from you, you won’t be able to see the training they do – so you need to be sure they really will be using food to train your dog, and not an aversive method such as a shock collar.
Vaccinations and Cleanliness
Expect to be asked to bring vaccination certificates to your first class. Adult dogs should have DHPP (distemper – parvo) and rabies vaccinations.
For puppies, the guidance from the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour is that,
“In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class”
Read their full position statement on puppy socialization for more information.
The premises where classes take place should be clean, and sanitized before each class. Carry your puppy from the car to the class.
Kindness and Courtesy in Dog Training
You want a dog trainer who will be professional and polite in their dealings with you. You also want a dog trainer who is a good teacher, because at least part of what they do will be teaching you how to train your dog.
Like I said above, dog training is actually quite a skilled activity and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. So find a dog trainer who will be encouraging. Classes should be fun for you and your dog.
I hear stories of people who go to a dog trainer only to feel disheartened, discouraged and upset because the trainer told them their dog’s problems were due to them not being the alpha or not providing leadership. Don’t sign up with such a trainer. They are using out-dated dominance methods. And they are also showing they are not a good teacher (and sometimes being downright rude as well).
Courtesy works both ways. If your dog trainer asks you not to feed your dog before class, to bring treats to class, or to do some homework, do your best to comply. You will get more out of the training that way.
And if you find a dog trainer you like, you can always leave them a positive review. Your recommendation will help others in their search to find a good dog trainer.
What if my dog has a behaviour problem?
If your dog has a behaviour problem, you still want to find someone who will use reward-based methods. For more information, see the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour position statement on the use of punishment for behaviour modification in animals.
"AVSAB’s position is that punishment (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals."
Who should I hire if my dog has a behaviour problem?
While dog trainers can deal with many issues, there are some behaviour problems that need more expertise. Also, some dog trainers only take certain kinds of cases. For example, they might work with reactive dogs but not with fear and aggression cases.
Some dog trainers are able to work with dogs with certain behaviour problems, and will know if and when they need to refer you (e.g. to a veterinary behaviourist). Some dog trainers even specialize in certain kinds of behaviour problems, such as fear or separation anxiety.
As mentioned above, make sure to check your dog trainer has qualifications. Dog trainers with the CTC from the Academy for Dog Trainers have studied behaviour modification as part of their course.
Animal behaviour consultants are certified by the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants. Certified members have a minimum of 500 hours experience in behaviour consulting and at least 400 hours of coursework in required areas, and must supply case studies and references (at the Associate Certified level, it is 300 hours of experience and 150 hours of coursework). IAABC follows LIMA. Members can be found via their online directory which is organized by species (dogs, cats, horses and parrots).
Certified applied animal behaviourists (CAABs) are certified by the Animal Behaviour Society. CAABs must have a doctoral degree in a relevant field, as well as experience of working with a particular species, and references. Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists may have a Master’s degree. They can be found via the CAAB directory. Some CAABs are also veterinarians.
Veterinary behaviourists have a vet degree plus at least 3 years of further training in animal behaviour. As well, they must have published a research report, provide case studies and take a two day examination. The kind of problems they treat include aggression towards people and other animals and anxiety. The American College of Veterinary Behaviourists has a listing of board-certified veterinary behaviourists.
Some of these professionals are willing to take distant clients via Skype/telephone.
Why has my dog trainer asked me to see the vet first?
For some problems, your dog trainer will ask you to see your veterinarian first, to rule out any medical conditions that might be affecting your dog’s behaviour.
A typical example is for house-training issues. If a dog that was already house-trained suddenly starts to make a mess in the house, they need to see a vet in case it is caused by a medical issue. A urinary tract infection can cause dogs to have accidents in the house, for example, and no amount of training will take the place of antibiotics if they are needed. It’s only if your vet rules out medical issues that it would be appropriate to work with a dog trainer.
Any sudden changes in behaviour would also need a vet visit, because for example they could be a sign that your dog is in pain.
In some cases of fear and anxiety, your dog trainer might ask you to see your veterinarian in case they want to suggest medication. Dog trainers and pet behaviour counsellors are not able to prescribe medication (or even to recommend it), and so there are times when they will suggest you ask for an opinion from your veterinarian.
Only veterinarians can determine if your dog needs medication.
If, after seeing your vet, it’s decided that you do need to work with a dog trainer or behaviour counsellor, they will be willing to coordinate with your vet as necessary. For example, if your vet prescribes medication, this may have an effect on any training (e.g. if training should be delayed to allow the medication time to take effect, or if it should proceed at the same time). Your veterinarian will advise.
Prices and Packages
Dog training classes are usually sold in a package, typically a set of six classes starting on a particular date.
For private dog training, most dog trainers will charge more for the first consultation. That’s because they are meeting with you to find out what the problem behaviour is and will devise a plan to resolve it. After the session, they will send you a report outlining the problem and what they propose should be done.
Future sessions, which involve carrying out that plan, typically cost less. Many trainers offer a package that includes the first session and then a set of follow-up sessions. This is usually cheaper than booking each session separately.
Although some dog trainers list their price on their website, others do not. Don’t be afraid to contact them and find out how much they charge.
Remember that, since you are choosing your dog trainer wisely, they have taken the time to educate themselves, gain experience, join a professional organization and stay up-to-date. You are paying for their expertise and so their rates should be set accordingly.
Having said that, since dog training is an unlicensed profession, some people charge a lot of money despite having no education. That’s why this article hopes to help you choose an excellent dog trainer.
Your dog trainer should have insurance, and this information is usually included on their web page, but if in doubt, ask.
What if it all goes wrong?
Some people have the unfortunate experience of signing up with a dog trainer who they think will use positive reinforcement, and then when they turn up to class or the trainer is at their house, they find out that actually the dog trainer is recommending aversive techniques such as a shock or prong collar.
This post is designed to help you avoid that experience.
However, if it happens to you, remember that you are your dog’s advocate. Don’t let someone else treat your dog in a manner that you are not happy with. It may feel difficult or socially awkward to find yourself in this situation, but explain that this is not what you want for your dog.
Then find another trainer.
If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you’re obviously a dedicated dog owner. I hope you can use this information to find a good dog trainer near you.
Remember, to choose a good dog trainer, look for:
- a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog;
- who has an educational qualification in dog training (ideally the CTC or KPA CTP);
- who is a member of a professional body;
- and takes part in ongoing continuing education.
If you see any of the warning signs I mentioned, keep on looking. The right dog trainer is out there, and your dog deserves nothing less.
If you found this article useful or would like to share some feedback with me, please feel free to send me an email. (companimalpsych at gmail dot com).
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