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 The outdated, inaccurate, and disproven theories about pack hierarchies and alpha roles are wrong for wolves and ridiculous for dogs.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. 
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About the Author

Living with kids and dogs is a lot of work! But when things are going well, a dog can be your child's best friend. That experience is a wonderful gift for any child and well worth the effort involved. Got a question? Let's talk!

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