It’s pretty great that this is a topic of discussion at all. More and more dog owners are deciding to bring a professional into their lives; and some are even choosing to do so before there is a problem (rejoice!). I wish the days of deciding whether or not to have a dog trainer at all were irrevocably “over,” but they are not. So, for discussion’s sake, let’s just say that if you’re reading this blog you have or want to have a dog trainer in your life. If you’ve browsed the dog shelf at the book store or tried searching the internet you’ve undoubtedly noticed that there’s a confusing mess of information out there regarding dog training, and it really is not surprising that so many people wind up dissatisfied with their choice. The following list is what I hope you use to guide your decision.
- Credentials. Yeah, all professionals should have them, but you’d be amazed at how rarely I am asked about mine. There are currently no laws or regulations governing this field, so you have to do your homework when you are picking a dog trainer. Specifically, your chosen professional should hold a legitimate certification (like those offered by the CCPDT or the IAABC, for example), and should be able to tell you about the last continuing education seminar he/she attended. Your dog trainer should be a member of a dog training association, like the APDT, as well. As a sidenote on this whole membership and certification thing, if I were you I would look into the organizations your prospective trainer is associated with. Just being associated with something doesn’t mean much, and if your trainer is associated with two organizations that have pretty different mission statements (for example, if your trainer is both a member of the APDT and the IACP), then you need to dig deeper to find out which kind of training this person actually endorses.
- Experience. The only way to know what kind of experience a dog trainer has is to ask. Notice I said what kind and not how much. I am asked about this more often than about my credentials, but still not often enough. The tricky thing here is that “X number of years” is not necessarily a good answer, and more questions are warranted if that is the kind of answer you receive. For instance, a dog trainer who has been working in the field for more than 10 years is much more likely to have an “old-school” approach to training than one who was certified in the past 5. The longer a person has been training dogs, the more likely that person is to have used aversive or even abusive methods. If a person has been training dogs for decades then you should expect that she has changed what she is doing significantly since the beginning of her career. A better question than “how long have you been training?” is “where/how did you learn to train dogs?” There are no hard and fast rules regarding what is a good answer and what isn’t, so use your judgement and check on the rest of the things in this bullet list.
- Influences. This might be a tricky question, but I encourage you to ask your potential dog trainer who her biggest influence is. Then I encourage you to Google (or Bing, or whatever) that name and read up. Patricia McConnell and Karen Pryor are both great answers, but they are totally different answers. If the influence rhymes with Schmezar Schmillan, look elsewhere.
- Equipment. This is pretty telling. Ask a trainer what equipment she uses, and ask for specific examples if she says “every dog is different” or any other non-commital answer like that. Front connection harness, head halter, clicker, and food are all good answers. Flat buckle collar is a good answer too. If I were you I would avoid trainers that use choke, prong, or electronic collars. There’s just no place for that garbage anymore.
- The trainer’s own dogs. Ask about them. Meet them, if you can. I have met trainers who didn’t have dogs of their own, and I have to say that freaked me out. In between dogs, I understand, if the person is actively seeking a new furry friend. But no dogs at all? RED FLAG! If the trainer seems reluctant to talk about her own dogs, that might be a red flag as well. A great specific question to ask is “what kind of behavior issues have you faced with your own dogs?” Any trainer who tells you her dogs have no problems is lying, and I personally think we learn more from our own dogs than from any other. A person who has lived with, loved, and healed a dog with a serious problem will be able to bring much more compassion and wisdom to the table than a trainer who hasn’t, period.
- And the question that isn’t as relevant as you might think: Have you worked with my breed? Working with a variety of breeds is a great thing to have under your belt, but a better question to ask is whether or not the trainer has successfully helped a dog with the same issue yours has. If you have a Shiba Inu with separation anxiety go for the trainer with the experience in separation anxiety, not the one that has experience with Shibas.
There you have it. Of course, I could write a whole book on this topic alone, but this should get you started. What about you? How did you pick your trainer, and were you happy?