Choosing a Trainer: A How-To Guide

It’s no secret that the vast majority of First Class Canines’ clients have seen at least one other trainer – either privately, or in a class – prior to contacting us. Evidence of this can be seen in client reviews all across the web (except on Google Places, which apparently has a major problem with “losing” business reviews as of late), as well as on our Testimonials page.

Keeping that in mind, we have to admit that there were far fewer dog training options in southern New Hampshire when we started offering our services to the public nearly seven years ago. These days, however, dog trainers – especially private, in-home trainers – are cropping up on every corner, advertising lower-cost services as an incentive to draw in clients. What we’ve heard, time and time again, is that many of these trainers are taking dog owners’ hard earned money without providing any real information or assistance in the long term. Though we’d like to thank a lot of those trainers who have inadvertantly sent clients our way, we’d prefer not to have to repair the damage they sometimes cause.

Choosing a Trainer

In this world of online learning, there are several online “dog training schools” – institutions that, for a fee, will “teach” you how to be a professional dog trainer, and provide you with a certification upon your completion in their course. There’s two problems with this. First, no one can learn how to work with animals without actually working with animals (and we don’t just mean the lone dog in your livingroom or a few dozen dogs at the shelter.) Second, reading books and learning from experts is an important part of any education, but it is not the whole part (or even the majority). Books can give you the basics of applying science to training dogs, but remember: dogs don’t read the books, and don’t always respond the way that books say they should.

So what should you know about choosing a trainer, and why do we think you should choose us?

There aren’t any regulatory laws for dog training or dog trainers. There just isn’t any governing body that regulates dog training yet (but most of us are working on it.) The truth is that most of us learned how to train dogs by actually training dogs, and reading books about behavior and taking courses and sitting in on lectures, and so on. There are many roads to becoming a professional dog trainer – mentoring with a professional, taking an in-depth course, acquiring a higher degree, and yes, being “self-taught.”

Not all certifications are created equal. Would you let someone who read a plumbing book or two, watched a TV show about plumbing, and fiddled with some copper pipe on the weekends replace the pipes in your bathroom? Probably not without some serious hesitation. That person may know something that you do not, but it’s highly unlikely that he’s qualified to re-pipe your house. In short, a “certified trainer” may be someone who took a one week course on training, or someone who has studied extensively, worked with hundreds of dogs, and had their knowledge assessed by an independent body. Both have certifications, but they do not have the same knowledge or abilities.

Know their methods. Dog training methods vary widely, largely due to the lack of legal regulation in the profession. A quick search will give you trainers that use “only” or “primarily” positive reinforcement; trainers who are “balanced”; trainers who reject any form of positive reinforcement at all. You’ll find trainers who promise to enhance the relationship you have with your dog through the use of bribes, rewards, touch, prong collars, and collars that emit electronic “static shock.” Every trainer falls somewhere on this spectrum, but there are some things you need to know.

  • First, there is no such thing as a “purely positive” trainer. In order for positive reinforcement to exist, negative punishment must also be used. Dogs will make mistakes, and it’s how we handle those mistakes that matters.
  • “Balanced” trainers are, more often than not, simply using a buzzword to appeal both to dog owners who want a positive reinforcement based approach, and to dog owners who feel that they need to use training collars or heavy-handed methods. To learn more, please read this entertaining and informative article by trainer Eric Brad.
  • “Traditional” trainers often reject the use of food in training completely, and either misunderstand or intentionally ignore the difference between a bribe (which is presented before a requested behavior is performed) and a reward (which is presented after a requested behavior is performed.) These trainers use “tools” – including but not limited to choke, pinch/prong, and remote/electronic shock collars.

You need to know the difference, and what is best for your dog: using the wrong methods can cause serious and potentially permanent behavioral damage. (PDF)

A good reputation, a broad experience, extensive behavioral knowledge, and affilliations with reputable organizations. Trainers who are recommended by several sources – including veterinarians, humane societies, shelters and rescue groups, and other trainers – are generally well regarded in their community and within their profession. Experience with a wide array of dogs of differing ages, breeds, and backgrounds is important; ask about background experience, areas of expertise, and proof of behavioral knowledge. (Any trainer you consider should be able to point you to credible resources such as scientific, veterinary, or behavioral science journals.) Look for affiliations with trusted professional organizations such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. (I will likely get flack for this, but beware of the International Association of Canine Professionals, who made Cesar Millan an “Honorary Member” and whose members often claim that dominance is the cause for behavior problems. Please visit this website to read what well respected, educated professionals think of Mr. Millan’s training practices, and please read the American Society of Veterinary Behavior’s position statement on dominance. (PDF)

Ethics before profit. Financial success is important, particularly for those of us who train full time, and well educated dog trainers and behavior consultants deserve to compensated for their time and expertise in relation to that knowledge. But financial gain should never take precedence over ethics. Any trainer you consider should have fair and consistent rules regarding payment, prices, methods, and training tools. You should never be made to feel incompetent, irresponsible, or otherwise “bad” about your dog’s behavior, and you should have some say about what is done (and how it is done) to your dog – if you don’t like something a trainer is doing, you should feel comfortable enough to ask the trainer to stop doing it. Likewise, any trainer should explain what they are going to do to your dog before they do it and give you the option of saying no. (Please understand that most trainers won’t give you any information from the “how to” department unless you’ve scheduled an appointment – remember that trainers deserve to be compensated for their knowledge.)

A true love of dogs. Dogs should be more than your trainer’s profession. You should be able to tell that your chosen trainer really loves dogs. He or she should have a genuine concern for your dog, and be honest with you about your dog’s progress and, depending on the behavior at hand, about your dog’s prognosis. In short, your trainer should be concerned with your dog’s behavioral outcome, and should be concerned for the welfare of your dog as it relates to them.

Good communication and teaching skills. Dog trainers are the only teachers who work with two different species of learners, so it’s important that they not only be able to effectively work with your dog, but that they also be able to clearly communicate with and teach you to work with your dog. (If a trainer can’t (or won’t) explain how and why something does or doesn’t work, that should be a red flag.) Your trainer should check in with you during your training sessions to make sure that the humans are understanding the training.

A sense of humor! It’s impossible to have a genuine love dogs – and to live and work with them every single day – and not have a good sense of humor. Training should be fun for both the humans and the dogs! Eventually, the dogs will do something silly; if your trainer reacts to silly but inappropriate behavior by making light of the situation and using it as a learning experience for everyone, chances are pretty good that you’ve chosen a good trainer.

And there you have it: how to choose a dog trainer. We encourage you to compare First Class Canines to other dog trainers in New Hampshire, and make an educated decision, even if that decision is to give your business to another trainer. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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