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How to choose a dog trainer

Anyone can call himself or herself a dog trainer these days, so I want to make sure you all have the knowledge you need so you do not get involved with someone not qualified.

First lets talk about the different types of “trainers” out there. There are so many different titles these days; here is how I break them down. This is not meant to offend anyone; this is just a simple breakdown of terms. Further down I will put in what I recommend you ask and do before making a decision about hiring them.

  • Obedience Instructor: This is a title usually given to people that have a basic knowledge of how to teach your dog commands. Now anyone can teach a dog commands by reading a book, (some have only taken a class with their personal dogs and feel they have the qualifications to then teach) if it is just commands you are looking for, an obedience instructor is fine if they pass the questions at the end of this.

  • Dog trainer: A person that can teach your dog commands as well as help with minor behavior issues such as chewing, barking, jumping, etc.

  • Behavior Specialist: A person with knowledge of canine body language, and drives in your dog. They can teach you commands as well as help you through all behavior issues. Normally behavior specialists attend current behavior seminars to keep learning. They have experience working with all breeds and using all methods.

  • Veterinary Behaviorist: Just as the name says, a veterinarian that has furthered their education in canine behavior. They have a vast knowledge of the medical field and understand chemical imbalances and the causes of them. These are the only professionals that can prescribe or recommend behavior therapy drugs. Be careful of the trainers that recommend drug therapy without advising you to consult with a veterinary behaviorist.

Now there are no requirements to become certified in this field, does that mean without certification a trainer is not qualified to help you? No. If the person you are thinking about hiring has experience and can back their experience, then I see no reason for not hiring them. That being said, how do you know who is experienced?

The first thing I always recommend is to ask other professionals in the area. Veterinarians are the first choice, pet store owners, grooming shops, etc. Normally veterinarians will be careful whom they recommend, some have trainers they use themselves. Remember vets deal with dogs on a daily basis, if they recommend someone it is normally because they have seen the outcome of their work.

Ask them if they use treats as a training tool. I always tell people if you are teaching commands you should be using treats to do so. The trainers out there that tell you they do not “bribe” dogs to learn generally use physical manipulation or force to teach a dog, therefore causing a fear factor instead of a trusting working relationship. Remember you are teaching them a different language; there is no need to scare them into it. You must find a motivating factor for your dog, whether it is treat or toy based.

I always suggest asking how a trainer teaches a dog how to sit. Sounds simple enough right? The answer should be by using a method that guides the dog into position, not forcing them into it. Be wary of the trainer that uses the “tush push” (pushing its hind end down) to teach sit, they obviously do not have the knowledge needed to teach your dog! Next ask their method for teaching down. Again there should not be any physical force used here. If they suggest you push down on their shoulders, find a different trainer. Some dogs may have to be “coaxed” into position, but it should never be with physical force. There are other ways to overcome refusal of a command.

The next question you should ask is, “What equipment do you use?” A well-experienced trainer should reply, “We generally use (training tool) but evaluate your dogs needs when you come to class.” Be very wary of a trainer that is stuck on using just one type of training tool. With the popularity of prong/pinch and shock collars today, many inexperienced trainers will automatically fit your dog with one instead of taking the time to properly teach your dog leash manners. They should have knowledge of all training tools and in what circumstances they would be needed, not just rely on one tool.

The next question you should ask is, “ what are your feelings about Rottweilers, Boxers, Akitas, Chows, or any other “tough” breed?” The correct answer here is with proper training any dog can learn, no matter what breed, age or sex. They should have a basic knowledge of drives in your dog. If they do not know about the 4 main drives: prey, pack, defense fight, defense flight, they may not be able to motivate your dog or help you overcome behavior issues. The trainer that claims the above breeds are “stubborn, hard to train, fearful, stupid or dangerous” is not a good candidate for this field and should not be training.

The next thing you should do before you sign up for classes or hire them for personal sessions is to observe a class. Any trainer should be ok with you sitting in on a class. You want to look for the following in the class:

  • An instructor that actually likes dogs. Funny but some trainers are afraid of dogs or get easily irritated by young excitable, bold dogs.

  • Clear and informative instructions. A trainer should be able to explain how to teach the commands clearly, and have information as to why this particular command is useful.

  • Method of correction. (Here is where I make a big stand.) There is no reason to correct a dog for not performing a command it is learning!!! Remember you are there to teach your dog this command, meaning it does not understand what we are asking yet. It takes all dogs 1-2 weeks to learn a command with daily practice. To correct a dog during the learning process is uncalled for and should not be tolerated.

  • How helpful is the trainer? Do they allow questions to be asked? Do they show personal attention to all the class members? A trainer that just runs through the commands and seems “annoyed” by questions or if asked for assistance is not a good trainer!

  • Finally, if they have a barker or reactive dog in class, do they come up with a solution other then tethering them away from the class or reprimanding them? A trainer that suggests you tether your dog away from the class or yells at your dog for barking is essentially “sweeping the problem under the carpet”. If they cannot come up with a solution they have limited knowledge of basic behavior and can possibly make your dog more reactive.

Next to is decide whether group or private lessons are appropriate for your dog. Be careful of the trainer that suggests private sessions are the only way to go. While some dogs perform better in one on one situation, group classes are a great way to provide controlled socialization for your dog and have them listen to you with distractions.

If you have any doubts or concerns when talking to a trainer, do not feel pressured to hire them! There are many professionals out there, be picky! You trust them to help you and your dog create a bond and a working relationship; they should be everything you want them to be.

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