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How to Find a Good Dog Trainer

How can you make sure your dog trainer is the real deal?

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
June 6, 2011
Episode #106

It’s entirely possible to train your dog with help from books and videos--I never attended a class with my first dog, Izzy, and I still managed to teach her reasonably good manners and a whole array of tricks. But if you learn best from a live teacher, then classes or private instruction are exactly what you need. Besides, classes are fun. (And at the end you usually get a little certificate of which you’ll be ridiculously, absurdly, eye-wateringly proud.) So it’s handy to have some idea of how to judge all those flyers on the bulletin board at the vet’s office and the pet supply store.

How to Find a Good Dog Trainer

Early on in this series, I did an article about how to find a good specialist to help you with any behavior problems your dog might have. I started by pointing out that anybody at all can legally call himself a behaviorist, regardless of whether he’s made any serious study of dog behavior and learning at all. It may not come as a surprise to learn that the same is true of dog trainers. Anyone can legally call himself a trainer, and often does, because there is no governmental licensing or mandatory certification of any kind. Translation: Field wide open for charlatans and hacks. So here’s how to find the people with real skill.

Good Dog Trainers Educate Themselves

To get a good dog trainer, look for a commitment to education. Many commercial schools offer their own proprietary certifications--usually the student winds up being called a “master trainer” or some such. Here’s a hint: The better the educational program, the less likely it is to imply that its graduates know all there is to know.

Some private trainer-training programs are excellent--currently the best are probably those offered by the eminent trainer Pat Miller, by Dogs of Course, and by the Karen Pryor Academy. The director of the San Francisco SPCA’s former trainer-education program has a new online course. On the basis of her prior work, I expect it will be excellent. Pick a graduate of one of these programs, and the odds of competency go way up. However, costs of attending are high, and many good trainers have educated themselves by the more economical route of reading, watching videos, and serving informal apprenticeships.

Look for a Dog Trainer with Independent Credentialing

Though educational possibilities are all over the map and there are no licensing requirements, there is one independent national credentialing program. It’s called the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, and its website has a search function to enable you to find a nearby trainer.

Good trainers educate themselves and use the modern, reward-based methods that scientists agree work best.

For manners trainers, the council offers a single level of certification, “Certified Professional Dog Trainer—Knowledge Assessed.” (A second level is planned, to assess practical skills.) The holder of a CPDT-KA has to have completed 300 hours as the lead or solo trainer in classes or in private work. She must provide references from a veterinarian, a client, and another CPDT-KA. And she needs to pass a 250-question exam. Trainers are required to sign a code of ethics and to recertify every three years, either by submitting proof of continuing education, or by re-taking the exam.

This is a good start, but it’s a floor, not a ceiling. Those 300 hours may or may not mean much, since the actual quality of the teaching done isn’t assessed. The written test isn’t terribly challenging. And someone can give the right answers but still favor outdated, coercive methods in real life.  All of that having been said, at least the person who holds a CPDT-KA has presented their credentials for independent assessment, and that counts for something.

What Methods Should Your Dog Trainer Use?

Once you’ve found a certified trainer (or a graduate of one of the programs I mentioned), screen him. He should use clicker training or lure-and-reward training, or a combination. For years and years, scientists who study learning have known that coercion and pain are inefficient and often counterproductive compared with encouragement and reward. There is really no excuse for a dog trainer who clings to choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, scruff shakes, alpha rolls, or any of the rest of the depressing range of ways to frighten and hurt dogs. 

Likewise, a trainer who uses the language of dominance (“alpha,” “pack”) is not keeping up with the science of dog behavior. It may surprise you to know, though, that “punishment” is not necessarily a bad word. Technically, it applies to time-outs, for example, which may disappoint dogs but rarely distress them. But look for a trainer who sets dogs up for success and shows you how to prevent problems, rather than reacting after the fact.

Dog Trainers and Professional Activities

A good trainer will attend professional seminars offered by modern trainers and behaviorists or, if none are offered locally, will take telecourses such as those offered by Raising Canine  and Animal Behavior Associates. She may go to training conventions, such as Clicker Expo and the annual meeting of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. She probably belongs to at least one professional association, such as the APDT or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. These two groups espouse modern, noncoercive training and behavior modification. Others, such as the International Association of Canine Professionals and the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, endorse all forms of training. If your prospective trainer belongs to IACP or NADOI, interview carefully concerning what methods he uses.

How Can You Tell Whether a Dog Training Class Is Good or Bad?

Classes should be fairly small--five or six students per instructor is a good maximum. Ask to observe. Positive reinforcement matters to people as much as it does to dogs, so the teacher should welcome questions, encourage the humans, and build on what students do right, rather than focus on mistakes. Look for clear demonstrations and explanations. Although a class may include shy dogs, in general you want to see happy wags and bright eyes; the dogs should be having a good time and acting eager to learn. If the class includes playtime (puppy classes, especially, often do), any bullying should be gently interrupted. Puppies may be separated by size and play style, too, though this isn’t always necessary.

Do You Need a Specialized Class for Your Dog?

Suppose you want to teach your dog a particular skill, or learn a dog sport? The emphasis and skill sets (canine and human) needed for pet dog manners, therapy work, agility, competitive obedience, tracking, Schutzhund (and on and on) are all different, even when trainers are committed to reward-based, noncoercive techniques. So look for a trainer who specializes in the kind of training you’re looking for.

How Much Should Dog Training Classes Cost?

Pretty much everybody needs to consider cost. It’s hard to say what a reasonable fee is for a six-week or eight-week class. Overhead varies hugely depending on location. Also, all other things being equal, smaller classes with more instructors will be more expensive. Remember, you and your dog are learning skills that with any luck from the gods of dog longevity will be making your lives together better for a decade and a half. Go with the smallest, highest-quality class you can afford.

That’s it for this week! You and your well-educated dog can send questions and comments to dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I may use them in a future article. I Twitter as Dogalini, and you can also find me on Facebook, where I post links to articles and videos and respond to your questions. Thanks for reading!

Note

The CCPDT Position Statement on the “humane hierarchy” in dog training can be downloaded here. It presents the modern standard of care in dog training and behavior modification.
 

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