When the Student is Ready… How to find a trainer

OK, so you’ve found your perfect canine companion. You have brought him into your home, and he is learning about his crate, house-training, your yard, and the other family members. He is quickly learning the household routine. You are convinced he is extremely bright. In fact, you are convinced he is, quite possibly, the World’s Smartest Dog.  

You know you must harness that brain power, and soon. You have long heard that it is easier to create good habits from the start than to break bad ones (and you are right). Fido needs some training. Soon. But there are a bunch of places listed in the Yellow Pages and on the web, and you just aren’t sure what Fluffy really needs. You desperately want her to know right from wrong, and to become a real “member of the family.” But you’ve never trained a dog before (or at least not in a long time), and you don’t know where to start. Much of what you have read is confusing. How to sort through it all?

First, you should know that, unlike other professions, dog training does not have a regulating body, union, or certification process. (Though some trainers will have titles like “Certified Dog Trainer” after their names, their certification is simply through the school they attended, or a group to which they belong. These titles are not the same as in other professions.) Unlike lawyers, doctors, teachers and electricians, dog trainers do not have to have any particular schooling or credentials to say that they are dog trainers. Anyone can hang out a shingle and take your money to train your dog. Anyone.

It is important for you to decide what you want in a trainer (and in a training regimen) so that you will be able to find the right one. There is no “one size fits all” in dog training–dogs and their people are individuals. You might have to try a few things on first, and see if they fit. Your dog may not need as much training as the next guy’s, or he may need more. It is important to find a regimen you like, or you won’t follow through with it. Training is such an important part of dog ownership that you can’t afford not to follow through. Nobody likes to be around an untrained dog.

NOTE: there is a lot of misinformation floating around on the Internet and in other media about the “best” way to train a dog. There is no “best” way to train; all dogs and dog/handler teams are different. Truly, the “best” way to train is the way that you will put to use! Good trainers are skilled with many different types of tools and methods, and will find the best tool and method that works for you and your dog. Good trainers avoid vilifying tools, methods, or other trainers. Some trainers will state emphatically that they do not use certain tools (their choice), and will go so far as to insinuate that anyone who uses tools such as training collars or electronic collars (called “shock” collars by their detractors) is inhumane or abusive. This is simply not true.

The assumption is that the aforementioned tools can only be used to cause pain to the dog. But when used correctly, high-quality electronic collars and training collars can actually help some dogs learn BETTER because a good trainer knows that clear communication is important to the dog’s learning process. A good trainer uses a training collar not to cause pain, but to teach. Jerking and yanking are counterproductive, and have no place in any quality training regimen. There are many ways to correct a dog humanely and cause him no harm. A good trainer can do it, and s/he can show you how to do it, too. The dog learns faster and stays happy–because the corrections are simply information for the dog…a way to help the dog be correct. Rewarding correct behaviors (“positive reinforcement training”) is always the bulk of any good training regimen, but it is rarely effective as the ONLY part.

“Positive only” training simply does not exist. As soon as a leash is attached to the dog’s collar, something other than positive reinforcement is being applied. That doesn’t mean leashes are bad; it just means that unless the trainer is training dogs completely naked (the dog, not the trainer), they cannot make the “positive only” claim.

And even if they are training naked dogs, “positive only” does not give a dog all the information it needs to be truly, reliably trained.

ALL good trainers use positive reinforcement and rewards for good behavior liberally, but the best, in my experience, know how to use corrections fairly and accurately and believe that, in the right context, they are a necessary, humane part of dog training. Trainers who cannot or will not ever correct a dog are doing the dog–and his owner–a disservice. These trainers worry more about the dog’s (and their own) feelings, and not enough about whether he is trained. Good trainers understand dog behavior and use the tool or method that makes the most sense to the dog.

Good training sets the dog up to succeed, so corrections are not as necessary, and once he gets the hang of it, you will correct less and less. Good training gets the dog to a level of reliability in a timely manner. (In general, it should NOT take 8 weeks–or longer–to teach a dog to walk nicely “at heel” or lie down, or do a simple stay.) A good trainer will monitor your progress, give you realistic goals, and help you get there as quickly as possible–in a helpful , not belligerent, way. This does NOT mean that training a dog is a “quick” process–it isn’t! Dogs learn at different rates, and owners train them at different rates.

The amount of work you put into the training will be a large determinant of how long the process takes. But a good trainer won’t have you keep using a tool or method that clearly isn’t working. If you are putting in the time, and the dog isn’t responding, it’s time for a different approach. A good trainer will have at least one alternative.

TOOLS ARE NOT HUMANE OR INHUMANE; THEY ARE INANIMATE OBJECTS THAT CAN BE USED IN DIFFERENT WAYS. No tool or method works for every dog. Find a trainer who will explain why this tool is right for this dog, and will let you see results on several tools. In the end, it is the DOG who decides what is working, what is humane, or what is not working. Good trainers can read dogs. Good trainers don’t allow their own emotional feelings about tools or methods to cloud the truth. Good trainers fit the training to the dog–not the other way around.

NOTE: not-so-good trainers run at each end of the spectrum. Some trainers who use training collars and corrections have the idea that “good training” is “dominating” dogs. This is not true. These people tend to mock all other methods, and honestly see the dog as a being that is purposely trying to steamroll the owner. If you find yourself in a class or a lesson with someone who is heavy-handed with your dog; who tells you that you need to physically dominate your dog to train him or be his “alpha”; who goes to “force” as the first resort; who tells you that your dog is being willful or stubborn; and who leaves you feeling as if you and your dog have been violated, please end those lessons! That “trainer” is not reading your dog–or you–correctly, and there is no need for using force when other tools or approaches work better.

In the same way you don’t want to limit yourself to a trainer who only has “positive” in her toolbox, is easily stymied when treats don’t work for everything, keeps teling you to “use better treats” instead of showing you other ways, and thinks corrections are cruel, you certainly don’t want to pay money to have your dog overcorrected and punished for no reason. Seek balance in a trainer, and look for lots of rewards, smiles, and wagging tails with humane corrections when necessary. Dog training should be enjoyable both for you and the dog!

What exactly does your dog need to know? First and foremost, a family pet needs house manners. These are usually covered in a Basic Obedience or Manners class, and consist of the typical commands–sit, stay, lie down, come, walk on leash, etc. They may also include good staples such as how to keep dogs from jumping on people, socialization, leave it, drop it, and even retrieve. (Often, some of these other commands are saved for higher levels of training.) Basic Obedience can have several levels, so you may find yourself going to Advanced Obedience and beyond–it’s up to you. Basic Obedience was originally designed to prepare dogs for obedience competitions, and is still used as such, but it has expanded to cover house manners, too. As a pet owner, you need the basics, but you may choose to go further. It is up to you and your dog.

"Don't make the mistake of treating your dogs like humans, or they'll treat you like dogs."

Martha Scott

In addition to Obedience training, there is Protection Training, Therapy Dog training, Search and Rescue, Agility (and other “dog sports”) training, Service Dog training, and Tracking training, to name a few. Most of these require a foundation of Basic Obedience, so get that under your belt, then explore your options. Most dogs don’t need these other kinds; they are typically pursued when the dog owner finds his pooch has some natural talents for them, or he just wants to enjoy sports with the dog.

NOTE: you may think Protection Training would be good for your dog because yes, he is a family pet, but you want him to protect you, too. You can develop a good watchdog for your home and family without specialized Protection Training, so don’t go overboard. (Often, a good watchdog is all that is needed to make thieves and other miscreants choose another house.) Some dogs are cut out for protection work, but most don’t need it. Though a thoroughly-trained protection dog is actually LESS likely than another to “go off” or attack without provocation, insurance companies don’t know this. Having a Protection trained dog could end up being a liability for you, especially with your insurance company. Do not enter into this type of training lightly.

There are 3 basic modes of training you will find: group classes, individualized instruction, and board & train (aka B&T). Of course, you can always buy a few books and videos, and do the job yourself, too. Often, people find that they follow though better with some professional help, so let’s discuss the 3 options above in brief. Our discussion is geared towards Basic Training.

NOTE: if your dog has bitten anyone, or has acted in a manner that gives you the feeling that he will bite, please contact a trainer who is equipped to deal with aggression immediately. Aggression in dogs is complicated, and must be resolved swiftly if you are to have any hope of having a decent pet. Dogs who bite are a liability, and must be closely managed. Please do not hesitate to contact someone who will consult with you and will be realistic about your situation. You may need to deal with a veterinary behaviorist for more severe aggression. Your veterinarian should be able to refer you, or call your local humane society.

The best way to keep your dog from becoming aggressive is to train and socialize him early. Prevention of aggression is far easier than the cure.

GROUP CLASSES are very common in most cities. These can be sponsored by pet supply stores, veterinary clinics, animal shelters, or obedience clubs. They are generally held once a week for a certain number of weeks (5,6,8, or 10). You take your dog and the instructor teaches you how to train the dog. Socialization of the dogs, and hands-on work with your own dog (with the instructor’s help), should be a big part of these classes. Undersocialization is one of the main causes of aggression, so classes have many good things to offer most dogs and handlers. They tend to be less expensive than other training modes, and are usually easy to find. You can find classes for dogs of all ages and breeds, and levels from Basic to Advanced.

Good classes are hallmarked by the following:

  • The instructor has trained many different breeds and types of dogs (purebreds, rescue dogs, etc) and has experience working with people;
  • The classes are not too big (10 dogs/handlers per instructor, usually);
  • The instructor has experience using several types of training tools and methods (stay away from class trainers who claim that their tool or method works on every dog);
  • The instructor does his best to find the tool and method that you can most effectively use to train your dog. After all, you are the one doing most of the training--the instructor is there to train you. Steer clear of trainers who say, "You are not allowed to use ___ type of tool in my classes" or "I only use ___tool" or "such and such tool is inhumane." The tool is not the problem. Good trainers have experience with lots of tools, and use what works best for every dog;
  • The instructor will allow you to watch a class session without your dog so you can see his or her training style;
  • The instructor will make herself available to you outside of class as is needed;
  • The instructor does not belittle/harass students, or treat dogs cruelly (if you feel anxious about the style or method, speak up). A good instructor will explain why he uses a method, and if you can't get a rational answer that makes sense to you, leave. Too many people stick with a bad trainer because they don't want to challenge her authority. They have a bad gut feeling, but, "he's the professional, after all." Don't let this happen to you. Ask questions, and remember: judge the training on the results you are seeing. Listen to your gut.
  • Does the class offer any professionally supervised off-leash socialization in an area large enough for the dogs present to move around, play, or get out of the way? This can be a "yay-boo" type of thing. It's great for well-adjusted dogs, but a no-no for dog-aggressive animals. Does the class involve you actually working with your dog so the trainer can make sure you are doing it right, and help you if you aren't, or is it just a lecture with no "hands-on" work? Which style do you think you will learn best from?
  • Is the class held in a large-enough area for dogs to not be on top of each other? Dogs have "comfort zones," just like people. Scared or shy dogs will not do well in class situations that are too crowded, or don't allow room to move, and exuberant dogs will exhaust you by always trying to be in other dogs' spaces. Classes in "big-box" pet supply stores are typically held in small areas; find out before you sign up. A competent trainer will make the best use of the space s/he has available.
  • Word-of-mouth is the best way to find a good trainer. Ask around; ask the owners of well-behaved, happy dogs in your neighborhood or at the park. Call your vet and ask for recommendations, or call your local humane society. If you do not use the referral method, research your choice of trainer carefully, and observe a class before committing. If you are not allowed to observe without your dog (why not?), make sure you can get a full refund after one class if you are not satisfied. If the class instructor will not allow this, go elsewhere.
  • Classes are not suitable for all dogs. Good ones can help shy dogs come out of their shells, and can help exuberant, non-aggressive dogs learn to settle down. But dogs that "toe the line" can get worse in classes, especially poorly-run ones. If you have an aggressive dog (one that has attacked or bitten people or other dogs), or a dog so shy that he is petrified of everything, classes are not for you. But for the average dog, they can be a great option and very effective.

Individualized Instruction

Individualized instruction involves a trainer coming to your home, or you taking your dog to them, one-on-one. This is the best option for aggressive or potentially aggressive, shy, or very hard-to-handle dogs (and for busy owners of “regular dogs” who can’t arrange their schedules around a weekly class). It costs more than classes, but it is tailored to your needs. Some trainers offer packages of lessons*, or you may find by-the-hour to better suit you. A good trainer who does individual instruction will offer a consultation and will carefully outline their methods to you. You will need to be present to learn how to train your dog. You should be comfortable with the trainer and his methods, and your dog should like him! (If your dog is particularly shy, it may take him a while to warm up to this new person.) The trainer should be willing to offer several approaches, and find what tools and methods work best for you and your dog. They usually offer problem-solving, too–which is hard to get in a class setting.

*IMPORTANT! Dog training has become a hot commodity, and at least one company out there is franchising dog trainers across the U.S. and in other countries. Be very leery of this approach! These franchises are typically bought by inexperienced people who think “dogs are simple” and are trying to make big bucks doing something “easy.” The franchisees–many of whom have only trained their own dogs before this–are given a short training class that focuses mostly on the business model, and then sent out to charge lots of money to novice dog owners for a “formulaic” training approach. I find this practice highly suspect, as I truly believe good dog training simply cannot be learned in such a short time span. Not only that, but no approach works for every dog. There are sound principles about dogs that can be applied in many cases, but each dog and owner is different, and a good trainer will have many different approaches to try.

The other beef I have with these companies, besides the often exorbitant amounts they charge for their formula, is their “lifetime guarantee.” It looks like a bargain, but my experience with clients who have used this company and tried to cash in on the guarantee has not been positive. It seems the company will come back out to you if you have a problem, but they typically just show you the same stuff as before (you know, the approach that didn’t work the first time), and tell you that YOU are the problem. The “guarantee” appears to be written very cleverly so that it can be voided very easily by the company (please read the fine print) if you make any changes to their approach (you know, the one that didn’t work). Not only that, but many people will not call out a trainer who was not able to help them–they search elsewhere. By offering such a guarantee, these companies can value their product higher and charge you more…and then blame YOU, never the method, when you don’t have success. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy, for sure. I’m sure that some of the trainers in this company are good, and some of their clients are happy with the results. I imagine a fair amount might not need the guarantee, even. It’s just “caveat emptor” before you plunk down the big bucks–especially for basic training. And ASK THE TRAINER how much experience he or she has training dogs and people. For that much money, you should get at least 5 years of hands-on experience with lots of different types of dogs. If they say “experience is overrated,” show them the door.

ALL training needs client compliance. Trainers are training YOU to train your dog. So, you get out of it what you put in, and there are no quick fixes. You cannot hire a trainer and expect results if you are not willing to follow the trainer’s suggestions. HOWEVER, these protocols need to be doable for you, adapted to your dog, and the trainer needs to have a backup plan if the dog doesn’t respond to the method. The method only works if you work it–but if you truly work it, and it ain’t working, you need a different method. A good trainer will refer you to someone more qualified if he or she is unable to help you.

Board & Train services offer the busy dog owner another option. B&T can be good for you if you travel and need to board your untrained dog, or if you are about to remodel your home or embark on some other major event that will disrupt your initial training of the dog. A good B&T trainer will make sure you understand exactly what to do when you get your dog back. You must continue with the training when your dog comes back home, or it will have been a waste of time and money. Dogs need consistency to “stay” trained. You will have to be involved in your dog’s success. B&T can give the dog a “head start,” but it requires follow-up. B & T can be great for the person who just can’t seem to get started training, and just wants a pro to “get him started right.” B&T programs vary in length. Make sure you know up front what will be taught, and what results to expect, and how the trainer hopes to get there. As with classes or individualized training, a good B&T trainer will use what works for your dog. Avoid those who only use one kind of tool or method, and boast that it works for every dog. It ain’t so. Talk to the trainer beforehand and find out what tools and methods will be used, and what is the backup method if this one doesn’t work?

What about a trainer’s credentials? Since there is no licensing board for trainers, and some will have titles and some won’t, who should you go with? I’d advise selecting a trainer on the basis of how well you and your dog can relate to them, the number of years they’ve been actively training dogs AND people, the references they give you or their word-of-mouth reputation, and what types of results you see. Titles can mean that they have had more training, but this is not always the case, and some of these titles are bestowed after nothing more than a multiple-choice written test. Do not eschew a trainer who has titles, but do not select one solely on the basis of titles, either. Ask the trainer where the credentials came from, and what s/he had to do to get them. Observe a class, speak with the trainer on the phone, visit the B&T facility, and see what you think. Are the dogs happy and learning? Some trainers are great with dogs but lousy with humans–and since the best training is someone teaching you how to train your dog, you need to find a trainer who can train YOU effectively. Some trainers are great with people, and friendly, and fun, but don’t seem to know much about dogs or getting results. (People will often stay with these types even though the dog is not improving simply because they do not want to hurt the trainer’s feelings. This is not helpful to anyone.)

Hands-on experience is essential! More is better, though someone who has been in business less than 5 years may be a great fit, especially if they’ve apprenticed with a pro. Did you know that there are online schools where anyone can learn how to be a dog trainer? Many of the graduates of these schools have had limited hands-on experience with actual dogs beyond their own. Some of the schools require students to mentor with a qualified trainer, but you should still ask how many dogs they have worked with. One of the most prominent online schools requires a certain number of hours working with dogs in a shelter. That’s great, except this is not monitored by the school, so what the student is actually learning may not be of much use. An online course for dog training is about as useful as an online course for learning how to be a pilot. Caveat emptor.

What you need to look for in a trainer are: a willingness to get the job done in the way that best benefits you and your dog, timely results with your dog, hands-on work with lots of different dogs of varying breeds and temperaments, and an easy-to-learn-from style. A good trainer will be able to answer your questions, but if he cannot, will not be afraid to say “I don’t know,” and then find out the answer. Good trainers do not need lots of physical force to train dogs, an they don’t rely on gimmicks. (Your dog should improve with the methods they show you–not get worse!) They are learning all the time, attending conferences, watching other trainers, reading, and keeping up-to-date. They know how to read dogs, and how to use the right tools for the job. They are personable, approachable, do not bash other trainers or their methods, and get results in a reasonable amount of time that help you improve your relationship with your dog. A good trainer will also offer some form of guarantee of satisfaction (as opposed to a guarantee that says their method will work for every dog); types vary (and all depend on you keeping up with your duties as your dog’s daily “coach”). A good trainer has a full toolbox, and knows how and why methods and tools work. Being a good trainer is being well-rounded. Search until you find the right one.

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions simply because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But when, after observation and analysis, you find anything that agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

The Buddha, in the Kalama Sutra