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Choosing the Right Dog Trainer

As for that guy at the dog park: The very first trainer I hired to work with me and my dog Muggsy was referred by several dog-park pals. His method involved eliciting the problem behavior—in Muggsy’s case, aggression toward strange men—and then punishing the dog by throwing a penny-shaker can at him. But you can’t punish anyone (human or canine) into liking people. A different trainer—also recommended by a dog park friend—showed us how to pair the appearance of strange men with delicious treats. Muggsy learned to like men PDQ, but for the rest of his life, reacted to that first trainer by barking and lunging at him whenever their paths crossed. Be aware that the stakes are high; someone ignorant and harsh can easily damage your dog.

Who Trains the Trainers?
Though a few highly regarded trainer-training programs exist, such as the six-week intensive course offered by the San Francisco SPCA, no educational institution includes a degree in dog training on its roster. Most people learn from hands-on experience, formal and informal apprenticeships, reading, and attending seminars.

A single program obviously can’t make a seasoned dog trainer. But, assuming a trainer also has lots of experience, should you limit yourself to those who have attended one of these programs? I’d say no. Space in the good programs is limited, and tuition is high. Many people are able to acquire skills through independent study, and there are other routes, such as apprenticeships and volunteer shelter work, to practical experience. Many skilled older trainers entered the field before formal programs existed. And not everyone who graduates from them is necessarily competent and kind.

Still, education is a Very Big Clue, however the trainer goes about getting it. Dog training isn’t a mystical art; it’s a combination of particular mechanical skills; a good, solid knowledge of the processes by which animals learn; and an understanding of canine evolution and behavior.

Whatever method of dog training you feel comfortable with, skip the trainer who talks about dogs being “spiteful” or “defiant” (complicated states of mind more likely to be held by humans), or who isn’t familiar with learning theory, or who talks about your household as though it were a wolf pack (dogs aren’t wolves). The important thing to remember is that dogs are a whole other species, and someone who’s taking your money to help you train yours really ought to have taken the trouble to learn some of the relevant science.

There is only one national independent certification program. It’s administered by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and people who earn this credential get to put “CPDT” after their names (see “Source Code and Resources” sidebar). Elaine Allison, of Canine’s Best Behavior in Los Angeles, who has the CPDT and is endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Trainers, stresses, “It’s important that the bells and whistles after [the trainer’s] name are not the sole factor.… Ultimately, it’s best to see them with dogs, particularly how well they relate to their own dogs.… [People] should be looking for someone who has skill and rapport with their dog.” Anne Martindale rejected a trainer whose “remote-control dogs … had no spontaneity left in them.”

As for experience, the more the better—just keep an eye out for the trainer who’s been working with dogs for 30 years but hasn’t learned anything new in the last 29. Animal training, like every other field with any claim to being scientific, grows and changes over the years. Real professionals work to keep up.

Personality Matters
Your dog trainer doesn’t have to be your new best friend, but it’s hard to learn from someone who leaves you utterly cold—so, just as you’d study the trainer’s rapport with her dogs, consider her relationships with people. A good teacher looks the same whether her field is algebra or loose-leash walking. Observe a class or two; any ethical trainer will be happy to let you do this.

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