Pet owners have a difficult task when trying to find a reputable dog trainer. In a totally unregulated industry, where anyone can decide to go out and say they’re a “dog trainer”, it’s important for owners to be vigilant when trying to find a pet professional. This article will help you know what to look for when you start looking into dog trainers.
A note about service dogs: It can be difficult to find dog professionals who works with owner trainers and their service dogs or service dogs in training. Finding a credentialed force free trainer, even if they don’t have service dog experience, is still a great place to start for basic obedience and structured socialization!
For a quick overview of a few things to look for in a trainer, watch this great video from Fear Free Happy Homes!
When you start looking for a qualified trainer in your area, the first thing I’d recommend doing is looking at their websites and social media platforms. Here’s what I’d specifically watch for:
Do they have pictures where dogs are wearing aversive tools like e-collars, prong collars or choke chains?
Do the dogs in their pictures look stressed?
Can you easily find the services they provide and what they charge?
What credentials and professional affiliations do they have listed for potential clients to see?
Are they clear about what training methods they use?
Do they respect local laws and ordinances like only going to pet friendly stores and keeping dogs leashed in on leash areas?
Once you’ve found a trainer whose website and credentials look ok the next step is calling or emailing them with any questions you may still have. Remember, you’re interviewing them! They should be happy and willing to answer your questions. Here are the questions I’d ask:
What training methods do you use?
I would ask this question even if they mention positive training methods on their website or social media. Clarify what that means to them and specifically ask if they ever use or advocate for the use of aversive methods or tools.
What are your credentials?
These should be available on their website but you may have follow up questions.
What experience do you have?
Along with education, it’s important that a trainer also have hands on experience and that they can clearly tell you what types of dogs they’ve worked with in the past. They should also be able to tell you if there is a specific issue or area of training that they do not work with. Ideally, they have good relationships with other local trainers and can point you to someone else in your area who can help you with anything they don’t offer.
Can you provide references?
Trainers should be able to provide references from past clients, they may also provide a vet reference or let you know if there’s a specific vet they work with.
Do you require vet records?
Trainers should always require vaccination records for any dog they work with.
What types of safety protocol do you have in place?
This would be things like muzzle training dogs that are bite risks, requiring a no dog present consult if the dog has been aggressive in the past, requiring all vaccinations, using a harness paired with a martingale collar if they are taking dogs out, using helpers who aren’t handling a dog and can intervene if something were to happen, etc…
Do they believe in using anti-anxiety medication if necessary?
A dog trainer should understand that it’s important to look at animal behavior from a wholistic perspective. Behavior is affected by a dog’s environment, temperament, and genetics. Behavior can also be a result of underlying health conditions or medication side effects. It’s important to work with a trainer and a vet to make sure nothing is missed. If a dog is struggling with anxiety, it can be beneficial to pair medication with training.
Trainers should never blame owners for behavior problems. As stated above, behavior is a product of multiple factors. If you hear a trainer saying things like “it’s all in how you train them” or “there are no bad dogs just bad owners” it’s likely a sign that they do not have a full understanding of how complex dog behavior can be.
When talking with a trainer and looking through their social media, watch for scare tactics. Things like, “If you don’t use an e-collar your dog could run into traffic and get hit by a car” or “I’d rather make a dog uncomfortable but keep them from being put down”. These are false dichotomies that prey on some of the biggest fears dog owners have. The truth is that positive training methods are just as effective as aversive training methods and they are actually associated with fewer risks, including things like animals being surrendered for behavior.
Another thing to watch for when considering a trainer is the use of certain code phrases and words. All of the following can indicate a trainer uses aversive methods and/or believes in outdated training approaches based on dominance theory.
Leadership, alpha, dominance, submissive, or pack
Balanced, tools, or corrections
Boundaries, structure, or respect
Board and Train (not always a red flag but board and trains are much more commonly offered by balanced trainers)
Squirt bottles, alpha rolling, shaker cans, or bonking
“Consequences for behavior” or “holding your dog accountable”
“Be the boss of your dog” or “let your dog know who’s in charge”
For more information on dominance theory and the alpha myth click here!
Trainers should be supportive of people who adopt dogs as well as those who decide to purchase a dog through a reputable breeder. If they are overtly disparaging of either option, it may not be a good fit. Different homes and individuals need different things and just because adopting is the best option for one person doesn’t mean purchasing from a breeder isn’t the right choice for someone else.
A good place to search for trainers is through the directories of trusted professional organizations. The following entities provide membership, accreditation and certification to dog trainers and pet care professionals:
Training methods: Trainers are not required to be force free and they are permitted to use e-collars. CCPDT’s official stance is that e-collars can be apart of LIMA and the humane hierarchy. There have also been some reporting issues when it comes to trainers who may not be using humane methods with dogs. If a trainer is CCPDT certified I would encourage a pet owner to also make sure they are force free.
Training methods: I have not seen an official position statement from him regarding aversive training tools or methods but in his webinars and courses I’ve only heard him recommend positive training methods.
Training methods: Members are not required to be force free. APDT advocates for a LIMA approach and the use of the humane hierarchy. They do not have a position statement regarding the use of e-collars or other aversive tools. If a trainer is a member of APDT I would encourage a pet owner to also make sure they are force free.