How to Choose a Trainer

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Our hope in writing this guide is that it will help dog owners find professionals who are right for them and their dogs, and avoid those trainers who are unethical and even dangerous. Paws For Life Animal Rescue believes that training is the foundation of the bond between a dog and their family. We highly recommend and encourage that every adopted dog participate in a basic obedience course.

Trainers, Consultants and Behaviorists, Oh My!

The term "trainer" has become an umbrella for a wide range of professions and experience, not all of which are appropriate for all problems and not all trainers are knowledgeable in all areas of training and behavior. With the exception of specific certifications offered by professional organizations, there are few, if any regulations about who can call themselves a trainer or a behaviorist. The following are the most commonly accepted certifications/titles:

  • Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed & Skills Assessed (CPDT-KA/CPDT-KSA)

    A CPDT-KA has met minimum requirements as an instructor (including a minimum length of training experience), has submitted references from a client, a veterinarian, and another training professional, has passed a certifying examination and is required to meet a minimum of continuing education every two years. A CPDT-KSA (Knowledge & Skills Assessed) has passed an additional certification process by providing evidence of training skill. These requirements are set by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), the only independent certifying body in the industry.

    To verify these trainers, check they are listed at ccpdt.org.

  • Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB)

    This certification requires minimum standards of education (Masters or PhD), experience and ethics. Many behaviorists work in universities and conduct the studies that provide the information animal trainers and behavior consultants need to better understand and work with behavior cases. There are currently fewer than 60 certified behaviorists in the US.

  • American College of Veterinary Behaviorist (DACVB)

    A veterinary behaviorist can be invaluable for dogs with behavior problems, especially when the cause is medical or requires the use of anti-anxiety medication to overcome the problem. Unlike your dog's regular veterinarian, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist has received education on animal behavior and passed an exam given by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist. Veterinary behaviorists and dog trainers may often work together on dog behavior cases.

    There are also many veterinarians who have a special interest in behavior and take additional courses to learn more. However, not all veterinarians do so and dog owners should seek additional opinions when a veterinarian recommends aversive techniques.

  • Other Labels

    Master Dog Trainer, dog psychologist, behaviorist, behavioralist and others are all terms which anyone may apply to themselves without restriction. Further, AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator is not a qualification, as just about anyone over the age of 18 who has worked with dogs can become an evaluator.

These organizations sometimes provide the only recourse for dog owners subjected to an unscrupulous or dangerous trainer. Professional organizations and certifications are far from perfect. Just as there are bad doctors and lawyers, there are some not-so-great certified trainers and even veterinary behaviorists, too. But a trainer should be willing to subject themselves to even the minimum level of scrutiny and standards that these organizations provide.

SCAM ALERT: Some dog trainers have been found to falsely advertise that they hold professional memberships and/or certifications. Certification and memberships are easy to verify on the certifying organization's website.

Dog Training Certificates

There are countless schools that offer courses to become an animal trainer. Some, like the Academy for Dog Trainers and Karen Pryor Academy, are highly respected and have high standards for the students who graduate from their programs. Others, unfortunately, are not so stringent. From the Association of Professional Dog Trainers:

One should realize that a "certificate" from a particular training school is simply that: A certificate for completing one of the numerous training courses available. Many individual businesses will also be happy to charge you a fee and 'certify' you.

There are many excellent dog trainers who learned about training and behavior without such certification programs. The mark of a true professional is that they continue their education through seminars and workshops after receiving their certificate and are members of professional organizations that set and enforce standards and may seek additional certifications through independent organizations like the CCPDT.

Other Dog Professionals

Some amazing dog professionals including veterinarians, owners of boarding facilities, breeders, groomers and dog walkers who regularly attend seminars and workshops, continuing to expand their knowledge of training and behavior. Unfortunately, they are outnumbered by those professionals who don't have that knowledge and yet still feel qualified to advise dog owners on everything from housetraining to serious aggression problems.

I was a child for many years and grew up around many other children. It does not make me a child psychologist. I have lived in houses my whole life, but that doesn't make me a contractor. I have been driving cars for over 25 years, and yet that does not make me a mechanic. My grandmother gave birth to eight children, and yet that does not qualify her as an Obstetrician.

Just because an individual has worked around dogs in one capacity does not mean that they are qualified to give training or behavior advice. Don't discount their experience entirely, but look for other indications that they are qualified as a trainer other than just being around or working with dogs.

Types of Training Methods

No trainer advertises as a "Punishment Trainer," "Shock Collar Trainer," "Physical Force Trainer," or any other clear title that gives an indication of their methods. In fact, if you ask any trainer who relies heavily on punishment and aversive equipment, just about all of them will tell you that they use positive reinforcement (often in the form of praise).

Over the years, trainers who eschew aversive methods and equipment have tried using different labels to make it easier for dog owners to identify us. Unfortunately, anyone can use those labels without restriction and, as such, they are almost useless in identifying a trainer's methods and philosophies.

This is why it is critical for dog owners to have a basic understanding of the four types of training methods, in order to make an informed decision when choosing a trainer.

A note on "balanced" training. At first glance, this approach seems to be the most reasonable. No one wants to be considered an extremist. And it seems like common sense to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, right? However, "bad" behavior in dogs can have a lot of underlying causes, including stress, fear, anxiety, pain, illness, and more. Any trainer that determines bad behavior should be punished without taking these factors into consideration is a bad trainer. Most of the bad behavior I've seen in my career comes from either fear, frustration, or pain. None of which is going to be remedied by punishment.

Further, since most trainers are independently self-employed, they often have no one to observe their training skills or test their knowledge to determine whether or not the problem is the trainer, and not the dog.

So, while a self-proclaimed "balanced" approach may seem reasonable, if the trainer uses aversive methods as a standard solution without considering other factors, they are a bad trainer. Do their methods work? Sometimes. But when non-aversive methods also work, how can it be "balanced" to choose aversive over non-aversive methods when it is not necessary?

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The Interview

When interviewing a trainer by email or phone, we recommend including the following questions in your interview:

  • Where did you learn how to work with dogs?
  • What book(s) do you recommend?
  • What certifications do you hold?
  • What was the last seminar/workshop you attended?
  • What is your training philosophy?
  • What kind of training equipment do you recommend?

The trainer should be willing to answer these questions in a way that you can easily understand.

Because the only way to truly assess the quality of a trainer is to observe them in action with both dogs and their clients, it is very important to observe a training session. While it may not always be possible to observe private lessons, the trainer should be able to accommodate your request by allowing you to observe a group class. Any trainer who refuses should be suspect.

We also recommend purchasing one or two books the trainer recommends, which will not only give you an idea of their methods and philosophy, but may even give you a head-start on learning more about your dog's behavior, saving time during your first lesson that can then be devoted to teaching your dog, instead of teaching you!

Pricing: What Are You Paying For?

Prices vary significantly between trainers and price is not necessarily an indication of knowledge or skill. We've seen trainers that charge $30.00 to as much as $1,600.00 per session. Does that mean the more expensive trainer is better or the cheaper trainer is more reasonable? Not necessarily.

When looking at pricing, look for indications that you are paying for knowledge and skill: Is the trainer a member of any professional organizations, do they hold any professional certifications, do they regularly attend continuing education seminars and workshops by other professionals? If the answer is "No," then what are you paying for? Professional organizations set standards that members must adhere to and certifying organizations require professionals to stay current through continuing education.

Ask yourself: If a trainer is charging very low prices, but is behind the times, is that much of a value? If a trainer charges $300 per session, but has only learned from one other trainer (or worse, from television) and doesn't pursue additional education through seminars and workshops by a wide range of individuals, what is your money really paying for?

Red Flags

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The following responses during the interview process might be cause for concern and require further examination:

  • Dominance/Leadership is cited as cause and/or solution. Dominance has long been debunked as an accurate or effective definition of behavior problems, although it is still prevalent with trainers who have not furthered their education of behavior. "Establishing dominance" is often a euphemism for physical and sometimes harmful methods that temporarily suppress a problem behavior. "Dog Psychology" is neither a method nor a science. It is a catchphrase popularized on a television show and is being picked up by dog trainers hoping to profit off of the show's success. It is not proof of knowledge, skill or experience.

  • Claims to use positive reinforcement but not food rewards. Often a claim made by trainers who lack a basic working knowledge of positive methods. Some trainers are using the term positive reinforcement to describe the praise they use after they have used compulsive methods to get the dog to perform a behavior. What they are using is positive punishment and negative reinforcement, not positive reinforcement. A good reward-based training program incorporates many types of rewards other than just food — it also works with the rewards preferred by the dog, not just by the owner.

  • Claims to use "whatever works" or not to use a "one-size-fits-all" approach. This is often a euphemism for varying degrees of aversive methods and equipment. In reality, applying different forms of aversives ARE a one-size-fits-all approach. A skilled trainer uses many approaches to teaching a dog, all of which take into consideration the dog's individual history and behavior, and adapt to that dog without resorting to the use of aversive methods or equipment.

  • Is vague or combative when asked about methods or tools or uses ambiguous terminology. A reputable trainer has nothing to hide. For example, "calm-assertive" is not a method or tool and has been used to describe everything from using physical pressure to shock collar corrections. The fact is that there are no secrets when it comes to dog training, so a trainer or behavior consultant should be willing — and able — to explain what they do and how they will do it.

  • Suggests punishment or euthanasia over the phone. Behavior problems in dogs are frequently misunderstood or mislabeled by owners and cannot be determined based on a description over the phone or internet. A full history of the behavior must be taken and the dog must be observed in order for anyone to determine the right course of action.

  • Guarantees Results. Professional organizations such as the APDT, CCPDT and IAABC restrict their members from offering guarantees because there are too many factors involved in every case to be able to guarantee the outcome. A dog's genetics, early socialization, past experiences and duration of the behavior, plus the dog owner's ability and willingness to comply with a training or behavior program all play a significant role in the success of a program. None of these factors can be controlled by the trainer and so to guarantee a final result would be unethical.

Final Note

When you finally make your decision, it should be based on the trainer's methods, experience and knowledge, not on convenience or pricing. Don't skip the important step of observing a trainer in action. Doing a little research in the beginning will go a long way to helping you meet your training and behavior goals and protecting your dog and your pocketbook.

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