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How do I find a good trainer?

There is a lot of jargon with it comes to dog training. We’ve already talked about some of terms like “lip lick”, “calming signals,” “markers” and more. Coming from outside this crazy (and excitingly awesome) dog filled world it can be sometimes a bit difficult to navigate. Let’s say you’re in the situation where you have a dog with some behavioral issues you would like to work through with a trainer. But how do you go about even finding a “good” trainer? Heck, what even makes a “good” trainer and how do you sift through all the “bad” ones to find a good one? Let’s take a look at some key things you should look for in a trainer.

  1. Promotes Positive Training Methods.
    I will say that “positive” training is (and should be) all the rage. However it’s a more difficult to understand than just shocking a dog or jerking the collar to punish the dog does something wrong. That’s because positive training methods are based solidly on the science of how dogs learn and general learning theory. Sadly this popularity means that lot of dog trainers say they are positive, then have you forcing your dog to do things the dog clearly doesn’t want to do. Or worse these trainers have you doing things to your that you don’t think you should be doing. Positive trainers should NEVER use fear, pain, or intimidation to get a dog to do something. Instead they should rely on something pleasant (positive) like food/praise/toy/petting/etc to increase the likelihood that the wanted behavior will happen again (reinforcement). Your trainer should NEVER asked you to do something that you do not feel comfortable in doing. And finally you should avoid any trainer that uses terms like “pack theory” or “dominance” or “alpha rolls” in their training methods – all of these have been disproved by science.
  2. Digesting the Alphabet Soup of Dog Training Certifications
    In my opinion the worst thing about the dog training world is that it is unregulated. That means that there is no centralized governing body that determines what someone has to do in order to become a “dog trainer.” If I wanted to make a “Ellen’s Best World Dog Trainer” program I could, and people who graduated from it could be called “Professional Dog Trainers” – even if they had never actually worked with or touched a dog. O.o This to me is a huge disservice both to those wanting to become masters in their fields and those seeking a well educated professional for training purposes. A lot of trainers will belong to or have graduated from certain dog training programs. I myself will soon be a graduate of the CATCH dog training academy. It’s important to research these programs to understand the background of your trainer. A lot of these programs, for instance the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen Evaluator simply requires an attestation that you have worked with dogs for 2+ years and you pay a fee – that’s it. There are plenty other programs that will simply take money in exchange for a certificate or title. Others never require you to ever touch or interact with a dog to be certified. They key takeaway from this is that fancy letters after a dog trainer’s name does not always equate to actual knowledge or experience in working with dogs.
  3. Check Out Reviews & Online Presence
    While I know not all trainers are as tech savvy as I am, a lot of trainers now have youtube channels or websites where you can go read about and watch the prospective trainer in action. One of my favorite youtube folks, Zac George, has weekly videos showing him working with dogs. This is perfect for being able to see your dog trainer actually work with dogs. You can take a look for things like: are both the dog/trainer comfortable? Are both having fun? Does the trainer’s actions support their descriptions of how they train? Other trainers have online reviews posted that you can read about other’s experiences with that trainer. If you can’t see them digitally, ask if you can sit in on a class to see what it’s like. Most trainers should let you audit a class (without your dog) to see if their methods are a good match for you. Other important things to look for is the communication style. Is the trainer able to break training theory/tasks down into small manageable steps? Are they able to explain things when you have questions? Effective communication between someone who lives and breaths a subject and someone who is just starting out is very key to having a successful experience.

Now that you know three things to look for (or look out for) in your prospective trainer, let’s talk about how to find a good, positive, experienced trainer.

  1. Check the APDT Trainer Listing
    The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) has a search feature for those trainers who have joined them. This, while being another title which requires only a brief application and fee, is a very well known throughout the dog training world as being one that works hard to promote dog training methods based soundly on science. I myself am a member and I have also used its search capabilities to locate a trainer for a consultation of one of my own dogs. That’s RIGHT. I asked for a second opinion on one of my own dogs. Dog trainers can’t know everything. Some trainers will have small niches of things they excel or super enjoy training and they’ll have others which they aren’t so good at. Good trainers know their strengths and know when they are out of their areas of expertise, and will be upfront with you about it. If they tell you they need to refer you to another trainer/professional/vet trust they are doing this for the dog. I ended up finding a wonderful local woman to watch me work with my feral rescue who I had, then, only had for 3 weeks, to ensure I wasn’t pushing too hard or causing more stress as I helped Luna adjust to the world around her. She gave me some tips and exercises I hadn’t already thought of, and reconfirmed that sometimes two brains are better than one! 🙂
  2. Ask Your Friends, Neighbors, or Coworkers
    Almost 50% of folks in the U.S. have dogs. And I can guarantee almost all of these dogs have something they are currently working on for a behavioral improvement. A lot of these dogs’ parents have participated in some form of dog training. Ask them for information about who they used and what their opinion of the place/trainer was. You could also try checking out places like dog parks or local agility/trial clubs to see if they have recommendations for trainers too. Then research those suggestions to find the match that’s right for you.
  3. Appreciate the Art Form of Dog Training
    This is very key when you first start working with a trainer or evaluating one. Dogs, much like people, have different learning styles, different motivators and different ways of solving problems. A good trainer will know this, but for newbie trainers or newbie owners it’s easy to overlook. Dog training never has a one-size-fits-all solution. If a trainer comes in with a plan before they have even met you or have diagnosed the dog with an issue before they have even seen the dog, steer clear. Dogs speak from head to tail using their entire body and voice to communicate. If a trainer doesn’t take the time to read these “words” then you probably won’t have a good experience and neither will your dog. You also need to be conscious of this fact. After a dog trainer evaluates your dog, you will both come up with one or more plans for adjusting the behavior. These plans might not work out. This doesn’t mean you or your trainer is wrong, only that it might need some adjustment to match your dogs learning style and personality. 🙂

Overall when seeking out a trainer for anything related, you need to be patient and thorough in order to find one that is experienced, professional, and fits both your needs and your dogs. In the case of a behavioral issue or even just basic obedience, it is never a decision in which you should take lightly or just flip through the phone book to find. You (and your trainer) want the absolute best for your dog – so take the time (and have the patience) to find one that’s the perfect fit for you!