boxer dog getting treat

How to Choose a Dog Trainer

Must Love Dogs ... And People Too!

Let’s start with the most important thing: the dog trainer you hire is going to be handling your beloved dog, so you want someone who is kind, humane, and knowledgeable. You want someone who will work with your dog, someone who sets the dog up for success, someone your dog feels safe with. This is vital.

I wish it were easy to give guidance about how to find a good dog trainer, but unfortunately it can be a bit tricky.

Here’s the problem: No website says, “Our trainers are unkind, inhumane, and ignorant.” If only it were that easy.

A trainer using inappropriate methods can actually create more problems than they solve. Any method that rely on fear, force, or coercion can increase the likelihood of aggression, anxiety, and other stress-related behaviors. (Avoid electronic collars, prong collars, choke chains, noise deterrents, etc.) You are looking for a trainer to make your life easier, not harder and potentially more dangerous!

There are lots of misguided philosophies that describe dogs in unflattering terms. Dogs have been labeled as devious schemers who try to boss you around, so you are encouraged to be very tough and rigid in your interactions with them. The outdated, inaccurate, and disproven theories about pack hierarchies and alpha roles are wrong for wolves and ridiculous for dogs.

A far more accurate description would be that dogs are like toddlers—curious, social, and impulsive. When a dog jumps up to say hello, she’s not trying to dominate you; she’s just checking you out in a way that felt natural to her. It’s your job to kindly teach her what you expect. When your dog takes food off the counter is “stealing” the really best word to describe the behavior? If a young child reached over and took food off your plate, you’d know that he didn’t understand the social proprieties and not brand him a thief.

So it matters—a lot—what methods your trainer uses. Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers came up with three questions that I love because they’ll help you learn about about a potential trainer’s methods and philosophy:

  • What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it right?
  • What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

These are excellent questions. The right dog trainer for you will be willing to discuss their methodology with you, and in that conversation you should feel their respect for dogs and for people. (A disappointingly high number of trainers say they only like dogs, not people. Those trainers are not right for you and your dog.)

Companion Animal Psychology has an excellent, detailed blog post on finding a trainer. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just share the link. And if you are more of a listener than a reader, in episode 18 of Your Family Dog, Julie Fudge Smith and I talk about how to find a good trainer.

Choosing the Best Dog Trainer for Your Family

  • Ask the three questions listed above in the post and listen carefully to the answers. If you have any sense of unease, ask more questions. Still not sure? Move on. Your conversation with the trainer should make you feel comfortable and confident that you and your dog will both enjoy the training experience and learn new skills.
  • Look for a trainer who uses food. Using food is the fastest way for your dog to learn what makes you happy. You love your dog and are going to feed him every day (of course!), so be strategic about the timing and delivery of that food to use it as a powerful teaching tool.
  • Get trainer references from your friends and neighbors whose dogs are happy and well behaved. No shut-down, robotic dogs, please. You want good behavior, not suppressed behavior, for a great family dog. Not sure what happy really looks like, learn more here.
  • Look for certifications and continuing education. You want a trainer who is always learning more, not someone stagnant. There are a bazillion different codes that signify training certifications. These indicate a willingness to grow, which is good, but certifications don't guarantee you'll like their methods.
  • Look for membership in a professional organization. As with certification, membership is no guarantee of compassionate, effective training, but at least it shows the person is serious enough about their work to belong to a professional association. 
two golden retriever puppies

Should I Get Two Puppies?

I would like to get each of my daughters a puppy. One of my neighbors said she heard it was a bad idea to adopt littermates. Is that true? Should I get the dogs from different litters? ~ Wendy

Wendy: Don’t get littermates. In fact, don’t even get two dogs.

I think having a dog is a great experience for a child, but ideally the dog should be part of the family, not a personal pet. As the parent, you are the one taking ultimate responsibility for each dog in your household.

Each puppy in a litter will have its own personality, which means that one of your daughters will have a dog that is (pick a characteristic) smarter, more obedient, more social, less jumpy, less prone to chewing, more easily housetrained, and on and on. This could cause friction between your daughters if one perceives that the other has the “better” puppy.

Just as the puppies will be different, your daughters are too. One is likely calmer, more patient, more consistent, more clear, or gentler than the other. Many times family dogs will prefer one child over another. You really don’t want to have to explain to one of your girls why her dog actually seems to like her sister better. That’s a tightrope conversation because it can be hard to explain without sounding like you are judging your daughter’s behavior as being less worthy of a dog’s affection.

All of this is before we even address your daughters’ levels of responsibility. Will they be equally reliable? Would they prefer to do half as many dog chores by sharing responsibility?

In addition, your odds of dog-to-dog aggression issues increase when you have two dogs of the same size, age, and gender. It’s quite common for littermates to not enjoy each other’s company as adults and to sometimes behave aggressively toward one another.

All of these factors make me strongly in favor of families adding one dog at a time and giving that dog all the attention and training it needs before adding another.

Note: The writer didn’t tell me how old her daughters are, so I assigned this letter to the 7-10 age category as a guesstimate.

Mom frustrated with kids

You Better Behave … Or Else!

I am sick of repeating myself. My kids know how to behave around dogs, but I feel like I’m constantly nagging them about how they should act. I’ve even threatened to get rid of the dog! How can I make them understand? ~ April

April: Do your kids remember to use a napkin at every meal? Mine didn’t for years. They knew what was expected, but sometimes they forgot. That’s part of being a kid. Your kids may know the rules, but it’s hard for them to be consistent and empathetic.

When it comes to teaching kids how to interact with dogs, I tell parents to think of themselves as a coach, giving constant feedback (more positive than negative) and encouraging improvement. It's far more effective than nagging and a lot less frustrating too.

Will your kids still make mistakes? Yep, every single day. Instead of threatening to get rid of the dog, please choose a different consequence, like having extra chores or losing a TV show. It’s really not fair to get rid of your dog because your kids are acting like kids.

If your kids are just being boisterous and a bit clueless, spell out the rules and consequences clearly—and follow through, over and over, day after day. I’ll be the first to admit living with kids and dogs isn’t always easy, but it really is worth it.

Warning

If you have any concern that your kids are being cruel, that’s a different scenario entirely. In that case, I would recommend rehoming a dog and then also some counseling to help the kids learn more empathetic and cooperative behavior. This is a problem that must be addressed with professional support.

terrier mix

New Friend or Unwelcome Interloper?

I rescued my dog, Benji, a terrier mix, about a year ago. At the time there were no children in the household. However I now have a 4 year old stepson, Anthony, and a baby on the way, and we are noticing some upsetting behavior from Benji.

He regularly growls when my stepson gets too close and has bitten his foot when he steps over Benji. Benji does ok when Anthony gives him treats and will do tricks for rewards.

I am unsure if I should continue to foster positive interaction or try to separate the two to be safe. We currently have Benji sleeping in his crate at night to avoid any late night unsupervised interaction.

Thanks in advance for your help. ~ Teresa

Teresa: That's a lot of change for Benji in only one year. Based on what you’ve said here, I don’t think you need to keep Benji and Anthony completely apart. Instead pay particular attention to the things that are challenging for Benji.

For example, I would prevent Anthony from ever stepping over Benji and also figure out how close is “too close.” Having a mental image of where the line is allows you to intervene earlier, before they are too close to one another.

Whenever they’re in close quarters, you can distract one or the other to add a bit of distance and extra comfort.

Try to think of their interactions as a traffic light. The more you provide help and support in the yellow zone, the more comfortable the two of them will be with one another. The trick is learning to identify the signs of stress that come before Benji hits the red zone and feels the need to growl or bite.

Ideally interactions between kids and dogs should follow the same guideline as play dates with other kids: “Always leave them wanting more!” That’s so much better than burning out and getting cranky.

Give this a try for a few weeks and let me know how it goes.

 

 

teenager and dog

Scared of Teen

We just adopted a new dog. Bailey’s sweet and gentle with everyone. He really loves my 10-year-old son, but he seems a bit worried about my 15 year old. Whenever Trevor moves toward him, Bailey gets up and walks away. It hurts Trevor’s feelings. What can I do to help Bailey understand that he doesn’t need to be anxious around my teenage son? ~ Susan

Susan: Your teen’s body language and behavior now more like a man’s than a boy’s. Many dogs are more anxious around men than around women and children. Remind Trevor that dogs interpret straight-on approaches as more threatening than arcing, sideways movements. Perhaps in his eagerness to befriend Bailey, he is inadvertently scaring him by approaching too directly. Ask him to move a bit more slowly around the dog and to be aware of how he can make the dog feel more comfortable.

Sign up for a positive-reinforcement training class for Trevor and Bailey. Trevor can use delicious treats to train Bailey to spin, rollover, and give a high-five. Working on a few fun tricks will strengthen the relationship between your son and the dog. Take things slowly. Soon your dog will understand that everyone in his new family is gentle and caring, and that he has no reason to worry.

 

Loves Kids, Hates Adults

My dog loves kids. He’s great with my two boys (4 and 6) and all of their friends. But he’s really uncomfortable with adults. He often growls when a parent comes over to pick up their child after a playdate.

One mom won’t let her son play here anymore. How can I make these parents understand that that Sparta would never hurt their kids?
~ Gail

Gail: Get a trainer to help—soon! You need to work on changing his emotional state so that he enjoys having people come over, regardless of their age.

When Sparta growls, he’s warning that he could become aggressive, so it’s very important that you work with a professional to help you design a behavior-modification plan. You’ll use a combination of training and management techniques to prevent Sparta from feeling the need to growl.

We all get better at what we practice, so don’t let him practice growling at your guests. When you are unable to train, put Sparta in another room. Don’t punish him for growling though. We do not want to eliminate his warnings; we want to change how he feels about adults.

This is a very serious issue. Even though Sparta is gentle and kind with children, it’s completely understandable that parents would be uncomfortable about having their kids play at your house. I wouldn’t let my kids go to a house where a dog growled at me. So, enlist the services of a good dog trainer and get to work. Otherwise you may find that all playdates happen at other homes.