How to Find a Qualified Dog Trainer (source)
When it comes to finding a trainer for Fido, beware of dog … trainer. The world of dog training can be a bit like the “wild west of professions,” where anyone can advertise being a trainer without necessarily having gone through proper education or licensing, said Jean Donaldson, director of California’s Academy for Dog Trainers.
“It’s kind of like if there were kidney specialists but there was no need to go to medical school or get a medical license,” she said. “That’s not O.K.”
Beyond wasting time and money, unqualified trainers can cause psychological harm to your pet, possibly leading to permanent damage. “The dog can suffer,” said Marc Bekoff, an animal behaviorist in Colorado who has written extensively on canine psyche. “You can be using techniques that won’t work or using techniques that increase fear and stress.”
Mr. Bekoff added: “All you have to do is put up a sign that says you’re a dog trainer.”
So how do dog owners, when seeking a trainer, make sure that they get the real deal?
Look for Certifications
Owners should look out for the handful of reputable certifications dog trainers can earn.
“It’s kind of like doing a background check,” Mr. Bekoff said. Certified Pet Dog Trainer, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and Certified Dog Behavior Consultants are three that experts point to. Accolades from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the American Animal Hospital Association are also promising signs.
Certifications, however, are not a guarantee, said Dr. Ian Dunbar, an animal behaviorist in California who runs seminars for dog trainers. It is not unheard of that such credentials might be faked. Moreover, these programs tend to focus more on theory than practice.
To verify such certifications, “check with the body the trainer claims certifications from,” Ms. Donaldson said.
Trainers Should be People People
It is obvious that trainers should be good with dogs, but they should be equally competent with humans, too.
“If the owner comes away feeling, ‘Oh my god, the trainer is this natural genius with dogs, but I have no idea what to do at home,’ and they come away feeling inadequate, that’s a flag,” Ms. Donaldson said.
“The trainer has to be someone who’s good with people, who understands people psychology and motivation,” Dr. Dunbar said. “In addition to being able to tell people what to do, they have to motivate people to do it.” You want a trainer that “you click with,” he said.
Person-to-person communication is key with trainers, but words matter only so far as they can be translated into action. “Any kind of woo-woo language, about ‘energy,’ ‘packs,’ ‘leadership;’ anything that sounds very non-concrete, where you come away thinking, ‘O.K., but what’s actually going to physically happen with my dog here?’; any attempt to obfuscate — that is a huge red flag,” Ms. Donaldson said.
Experts suggest, too, for owners to preview trainers before signing up. Attend a session to observe. “If they don’t allow that, then I wouldn’t go,” Dr. Dunbar said. At the very least, he adds, insist on “a trial session.”
Expect Personal Questions
The best dog trainers will want to know about the bond you have with your dog, Mr. Bekoff said.
“Look at the relationship you have with your dog, because that’s what it’s all about,” he said. Paramount, then, to correcting a behavioral issue is figuring out how a given issue relates to the relationship between dog and guardian. A good trainer, advises Mr. Bekoff, will say to you: “Tell me about you and your relationship with your dog: Do you work at home? Are you home a lot? How many people are in your house?”
Personal trainers should also be willing to operate remotely, adds Dr. Dunbar, and venture into the real world to an area where a dog is misbehaving: a dog park, for instance, or along a regular walking route.
Avoid Heavy-Handed Tactics
A rewards-based approach is always better than fear-based, and across breeds, too.
“If they’re eschewing the use of positive reinforcement, saying, ‘We don’t want to use food or toys,’ that’s just not going to get the job done. That’s been amply disproved by research, Ms. Donaldson said. “Anyone making that claim is on very flimsy ground.”
Mr. Bekoff agreed. “You can get a dog to do whatever you want him to do in a heavy-handed way, but then you’ve got a miserable dog and a terrible relationship between you and your dog,” he said. “Positive reinforcement is definitely the move.”
Dr. Dunbar said research backs up this idea. “It’s a scientific fact that reward-training is quicker and more effective than punishment-training,” he said. “Why? There’s only one thing to teach: what’s right.” By contrast, with the harsher training, you have to “punish each and every mistake.”
“And when you screw up with treats, the dog loves you,” he added. “You screw up with a shock-collar, you’ve done a lot of damage, the dog doesn’t like you very much, and he doesn’t like training.”
Additional Helpful Resources
Dog Star Daily, a site started by Dr. Dunbar with a cornucopia of articles on dog training, including free e-books for download
Everything You Need to Know About Trainer Certifications, a comprehensive article by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers about training certificates
Dog Emotion and Cognition course, a free online class from Duke University taught by Dr. Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology with a specialty in dogs.