5 Things to Consider When Hiring a Dog Trainer

by Dr. Becker

If you're thinking about hiring a dog trainer for your canine companion — or if you're past the "thinking about it" stage and are actively looking for one — it can be a daunting task. There are all kinds of trainers out there, and a mind-boggling menu of training philosophies and methods.

In addition, as of this writing there's no state or federal certification needed to be a dog trainer in the U.S., so pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle and start signing up clients.

Assessing Potential Trainers

It goes without saying that helping your dog shape (or reshape) her behavior starts with finding an experienced training professional who is right for both you and your pet. That's why it's important to know what questions to ask and what criteria to look for when evaluating potential trainers. Things to consider:
  • Training method — There are a number of different training methods, some of which are punitive in nature. Scientific research and most experts agree that the most humane and effective approach is positive reinforcement behavior training.

    It's important to avoid trainers who use punishment, fear-based or pack-theory techniques, as these approaches aren't scientifically supported and are very controversial, in terms of long-term, positive outcomes.

  • Education — Since there are no state or federal certifications for dog trainers, it's extremely important to find one whose background includes professional training courses and certifications, and who keeps up to date on the latest industry developments.

  • Areas of specialization — Just because a person is a dog trainer doesn't mean he or she has experience with every conceivable type of training situation. For example, training a puppy in basic obedience requires different skills than helping a rescue dog overcome severe separation anxiety. Depending on your dog's individual needs, it can be very beneficial to try to find a trainer who specializes in one or more of them.

  • References — It's extremely important to ask potential trainers for references, and to make contact with those clients to get their input. Do they feel using the trainer was a good investment? Are they happy with the results? If a trainer can't or won't provide references, it's a big red flag. If he or she has more than one bad review and the complaints seem legitimate, it's also a red flag.

  • Cost — You want to be very clear on a potential trainers' fees so there are no surprises. To calculate how much you'll spend in total, you'll want to know how many sessions the trainer thinks your dog will require.

  • You can find directories of credentialed dog professionals at the following sites:

    Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (C.C.P.D.T.)
    International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (I.A.A.B.C.)
    Karen Pryor Academy
    Academy for Dog Trainers
    Pet Professional Guild

    No matter how careful you've been in vetting and selecting a trainer for your dog, if that first (or any) training session leaves you or your pet feeling uneasy, follow your instincts (and your dog's) and continue your search for the right fit.

    Inspiration from Three Top Dog Training Gurus

    In 2017, I interviewed three top dog trainers and asked each of them, "What are some of the top things you wish owners would do for their puppies, but don't?"

    First up, Dr. Ian Dunbar, world-renowned veterinarian, highly successful dog trainer and founder of the first off-leash puppy socialization program. Dr. Dunbar is a pioneer in relationship-centered positive training and has been a long-distance mentor to me for many years:
    "I just want people to engage their dogs. I want them to enjoy their relationship. I find it so sad that a lot of people don't get the most out of their relationship with their dogs. It's not a vibrant, fulfilling relationship. This all has to do with the right way to communicate to the dog, because training is essentially teaching ESL, English as a second language.

    Communication is really important, because dogs speak their own language. Then comes motivation. You know, I think 5% of training is teaching the dog what to do and explaining it the way they understand. But a good 95% of training is motivating the dog to want to do it, to want to be on your side."

    From Victoria Stilwell, Britain's most well-loved and well-known dog trainer and star of the hit TV show It's Me or the Dog:
    "What I've seen in my training is that there's more emphasis, it seems, on people teaching their animals how to do things, rather than on relationship. I don't think people are playing enough with their dogs. I think there's too much emphasis being put on training them rather than building that bond. I say that's number one.

    I also think that, not just in the United States but really in many different countries around the world, there's still too much emphasis on more punitive training methods that really kind of exacerbate a lot of behavior problems and can really damage relationships. So, I definitely think people need to work on their relationships with their dogs before they do anything else."

    And from Tamar Geller, author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Loved Dog":
    "The thing of it is that if you think why people get dogs, it's because they want to be able to give love and to receive love. So you get a dog because you want love, but then you become nasty to him with obedience, make him submissive, you dominate and command and all of that, it doesn't make sense. I like to figure out how I can build a relationship with a dog."