Choosing a Dog Trainer

To help you choose the right trainer for your puppy or dog.

The first thing you need to know about training your puppy or dog is to start right away.  Puppies are learning from DAY ONE!  It is always best to start them off learning the good stuff. Off-Leash puppy classes are the most efficient way for puppies to learn bite-inhibition (to not use excessive pressure when they grab something with their mouths), impulse control (patience), and good household manners.  Dogs, just like kids, learn faster when they’re young.  It’s never too early to start, and puppies do NOT need to have ALL of their vaccines before beginning training, they simply need to be on a vaccine schedule (have their FIRST shots).  It’s also never too late.  If your dog is a little older, a fun training class can help refine those good manners, and greatly enhance your bond.

So where do you go for training?  There are many different kinds of Trainers, and many methods of training out there.  These different types of training fall into two main categories:  Traditional training, which was developed by retiring military dog trainers, and the more modern reward-based training.  Reward-based methods, including clicker training, lure-reward training, and other positive reinforcement modalities are based on scientific learning principles and focus on the dog as a member of the family.  In the past, dogs were workers or employees of the family, with a specific job to do: protect the sheep, guard the house, pull the sled…Traditional training taught the dog that he must perform his job perfectly or suffer the consequences.  These days, dogs are much more a part of the family. Their job usually involves keeping the couch warm and playing with the kids.  The old way of training does not lend itself well to the modern domestic dog, and does not always result in a dog that can perform his/her job very well. 

The traditional trainer will use methods that teach dogs to obey in order to avoid something bad.  This type of training uses an aversive to “correct” the dog for making mistakes.  This type of trainer is still very common; they will often use a choke chain, pinch collar, or electronic collar.  This type of training is often based on the flawed precept of dogs as “pack animals” like wolves; and is based on the human head of the household acting like an Alpha wolf.  Well, first of all, NONE of the techniques look anything like what a wild Alpha wolf would do, and secondly there are some stark differences between wild wolves, wild dogs, and domestic dogs.  Domestic pets are not wild animals, and you will never fool your dog into thinking you are an alpha wolf (which your dog would likely view as a predator anyway).  Some traditional trainers have started using food rewards to encourage good behavior, but they still use intimidation and pain, which can actually cause certain dogs to become aggressive out of fear.  Choke chains, pinch or prong collars, and electronic collars can have serious, detrimental results both mentally and medically if used incorrectly.  The problem is they don’t come with instructions, so even many “trainers” do not know how to use them as they were intended. I have found them to be an unnecessary, extra step in the training process.

Reward-based Training relies on positive reinforcement to elicit desired behavior.  Modern, educated trainers will use a number of reinforcers to reward the dog’s good behavior.  The methods used are based on a healthy relationship of mutual trust and respect between the dog and his/her family, and utilize universal learning patterns: Operant and Classical Conditioning.  Basically: If you do this, something good happens, and if you do not do this, nothing good happens.  Dogs, being opportunistic, will only do something if they get something out of it.  These training methods are also family-friendly, and don’t come with a “do not try this at home” disclaimer.  Kids can often safely participate when they are old enough to follow simple directions.

Clicker Training is a form of Positive Training that uses a clicker to tell the dog exactly which behavior is the correct one.  The “Lure-Reward” method uses a lure, generally a treat, to help the dog figure out what it is that we want him to do.  For example, holding a treat over a dog’s nose and moving backward slowly will generally get him to sit.  The only problem thus far with this type of training, is the dog can very easily work for the food and not for you. This is easily avoided by appropriately placing the reward as a consequence of the behavior within the first 10 trials.  When we teach a new behavior, we will be fading the food as “lure” by the end of the first lesson, in most cases.

The best trainers will be educated in a variety tools and techniques. If they recommend that you use (or not use) a specific tool, they should be able to explain why. Most of my clients are families who want a well-behaved pet, not a showpiece who only listens when he's wearing a special collar or when treats are presented.  I first focus my attention on building that relationship between the family and the dog.  We must open up those lines of communication and teach the owner and dog how to listen to each other and trust each other.  Then we can focus on “shaping” good behaviors. 

Being a ‘positive’ trainer is not the same as being a permissive trainer.  The dog does not get to do whatever he wants to.  He must demonstrate acceptable behavior in order to get his reward.  Undesirable behavior must be prevented, ignored, or interrupted and redirected to a more desirable behavior.  The “bad” behaviors do not get the dog what he wants; therefore they simply diminish, and go away.

The list of reinforcers you can use is not limited to treats.  In fact, the most effective rewards can be things that happen every day, like play and attention.

When looking for a training class, you should look for a trainer who covers basic obedience cues, but also canine communication, problem behaviors, and good manners. Dog Training is a largely unregulated industry, so you will need to ask questions to ensure that you contract with a qualified and helpful professional.  If the trainer has no real training, so recent continuing education, no professional affiliations or certifications, then move on.  There are so many educated and certified trainers around that there is simply no reason to risk working with anyone else.

Some of these new "trainers" even claim to have their own, new and unique method of teaching dogs or people that somehow only they have figured out and only they can do. Also be wary of guarantees. Dogs are living beings, and there are countless factors that influence behavior, no one can guarantee that behavior training will work. We can try to guarantee satisfaction, but not results.

A quick word about certifications. There are several different types of certificates that dog trainers can earn. There are the certificates they obtain when they complete a course. The ABCDT is (Animal Behavior College - Certified Dog Trainer) an example.  This means that the trainer has competed the course and earned the educational diploma to go along with that course.  Then there are the "certifications" which need to be administered by a certifying body. CPDT-KA and CPDT-KSA are the only two objective certifications administered for professional dog trainers in existence so far.  They are administered and granted by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (www.ccpdt.org). Then there are higher level certifications (CBCC-KA, CDBC, CABC, CAAB, ACAAB...) which generally designate that the individual is also certified to deal with more complex behavior problems like aggression, or anxiety based behaviors.  If you are seeking help for a behavior problem, other than trying to teach your dog basic manners, I would recommend seeking out a professional behavior consultant with a certification identifying that they have been evaluated to be knowledgable about canine behavior. 

Here is a list of questions you may want to ask a potential trainer:

Where and for how long did you go to school to learn how to train dogs?

How long have your been a Dog Trainer?

What certifications do you have?

When (and what) was your most recent continuing education seminar or workshop?

Are you a member of any training organizations, such as NADOI, APDT, IACP, The Pet Professional Guild, or IAABC?

How long have you been training dogs?

Have you worked with many dogs like mine, with the same issues?

What methods of training do you use?

What type of training equipment will I need?

What will the classes cover?

How much will it cost?

Can my kids come to class?

Can I come and observe a class before I enroll?

Do you offer other types of training?

Do you have any references I may contact?

Don't just ask the questions, but be comfortable with the answers.  And check references.  Not only with the references the trainer gives you, but check Yelp, The Yellow Pages rate-card, or even Angie's List to see if there are any complaints.

Additional Resources & References:

Don’t Shoot The Dog by Karen Pryor © 1999

Family Friendly Dog Training by Patricia McConnell, PhD and Aimee Moore © 2007

Positive Perspectives by Pat Miller © 2004

Any books or videos by Dr. Ian Dunbar








Michelle Douglas, CPDT-KA, CDBC teaches Puppy Social Skills, Basic Canine Life Skills and Intermediate Refined Canine classes through the Stratford Recreation Department, as well as REAL WORLD classes, private in-home training, and behavior counseling through her business The Refined Canine, LLC.  E-mail her at TopDog@refinedcanine.com for more information.

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