I’ve always been happy to believe that my students need a dog trainer (otherwise, why am I there?), but it came as a surprise to learn that Pat Miller took her newly adopted puppy to class. Miller has decades of training experience; she’s the training editor of Whole Dog Journal, and people pay her to teach them how to train. So why … ?
Because, Miller admits, “I tend to get lazy about training my own dogs beyond the basics.” And because she lives on a farm, and it’s helpful to teach her dogs to be comfortable and mannerly in all kinds of environments. And because it’s good for her to “realize how it feels to be a student again.” One advantage Miller has is that she knows exactly what she’s looking for in a dog trainer, and she knows why. She isn’t reduced to making her choice on the basis of who has the cutest ad in the yellow pages, or an address nearby.
A good trainer is golden, like a good psychotherapist or car mechanic, and finding one can be equally hard—maybe harder. As Barbara Davis, of BADDogsInc. in Corona, Calif., points out, all you need to call yourself a trainer is a pulse and a business card. For example, recently I’ve seen fliers around my Brooklyn neighborhood advertising the services (names and details changed to protect the guilty) of one “Joe Smith,” who says he’s “certified by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.” Evidently, one assumes, a government body evaluated Mr. Smith’s skills; one imagines him taking a test of some sort, maybe undergoing a background check. One would be wrong: New York City has no certification program for dog trainers. Neither does any of the 50 states. Let’s improve your chances of avoiding Mr. Smith and his ilk.
Begin at the Beginning
The first and most basic question to consider is whether to take a class or sign up for private lessons. Fortunately, for most dogs and their people, there’s no wrong decision here (phew!). Private lessons are more expensive, of course, but your schedule might make group classes impossible, or you might learn so much more easily from a personal tutor that you wind up spending less than a class would have cost you. But a well-run group class offers advantages that private lessons can’t. From the outset, your dog will be practicing the skill of focusing on you, not other dogs, when she’s on-leash; some classes also provide an opportunity to study doggy social behavior in a safe context.
On the other hand, if your dog or puppy is shy or reactive, the presence of other people and dogs may frighten or overstimulate her and make the problem worse. One-on-one coaching could be the answer here, as it can be tailored to address any behavioral issues your canine friend may have. (There are also specialized classes for reactive and aggressive dogs.)
A third option is “board and train” (B&T): Your dog stays with the trainer and is returned to you with manners installed. The trainer should then practice with you so that your handling styles are consistent. B&T is the most expensive route to take; usually, lessons or classes are not only cheaper, but better, because they teach you skills that you can apply throughout the dog’s lifetime (think of that old saw about giving a man a fish). However, B&T may be the right choice if you just plain know that you don’t have time to train, even though you take good care of your dog otherwise. Keep this in mind, however: Your dog is going to be out of your sight and out of your protection. Be sure you know who you’re turning her over to.
Referrals, in my experience, come mostly from “my veterinarian” and “a guy at the dog park.” Both can be useful, and both have their pitfalls. Veterinarians have studied long and hard to learn how to diagnose and treat animal illnesses. Most vets have solid, practical animal-handling skills, but few are experts in dog training and behavior. Get names from your vet, by all means, but screen the list. Anne Martindale of Fultonham, N.Y., had a disastrous experience with a trainer to whom her vet referred her. The vet was unfamiliar with the trainer’s work, though Martindale didn’t know that at the time. “If a vet recommends someone,” she now says, “it would be good to ask how he or she knows this person is a good trainer.”