Education Center

CHOOSING A DOG TRAINER

by Mailey E. McLaughlin, M.Ed.
used from her website with permission

OK, so you’ve found your perfect canine companion. You have brought him into your home, and he is learning about his crate, housetraining, house rules, 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 are not required to possess 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. Some dogs are easier than others! 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.

What exactly does your dog need to know?

First and foremost, a family pet needs house manners. These are usually covered in Basic Obedience, 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, Nosework, 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 you want him to protect you. You can develop a good alert dog for your home and family without specialized Protection Training, so don’t go overboard. (Often, a good alert dog is all that is needed to make thieves and other miscreants choose another house.) Some dogs are cut out for protection work, but many are not, and 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.

People often assume that dogs who have bitten people would make good Protection dogs. This is rarely true. Dogs who are defensively or offensively aggressive without provocation are NOT suitable for protection work.

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. AVOID trainers who claim they can “cure” aggression. This is unlikely–aggressive dogs can be trained, but most experts agree they cannot be cured.

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

GROUP CLASSES are very common in most cities. These can be sponsored by individuals, animal shelters, pet supply stores, veterinary clinics, 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 so big that they get out of hand (10-12 dogs is common; 30 dogs with one instructor is probably too many);
  • 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/her 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 space that is large enough? Many trainers don’t have an “ideal” space to train, but enough room for the dogs enrolled is important. Some classes held in “big box” stores are in very small spaces, with too many distractions early on, which can be stressful. Put away the yellow Pages. 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: inexpensive, and very effective.

The Atlanta Humane Society offers great, inexpensive dog training classes that meet the above criteria.

Individualized instruction
This involves a trainer coming to your home, or you taking your dog to them, one-on-one. This is a better 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 be comfortable around him or her (if your dog is particularly shy, it may take him a while to warm up to this new person–dog trainers aren’t magicians.) 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.

The Atlanta Humane Society offers Private Dog Training in both of our shelter facilities.

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,” or the owner whose dog has a specialized problem. 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.

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-recommended they come, how well you and your dog can relate to them, 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. Find out who the “testing body” is. Do not eschew a trainer who has titles, but do not select one solely on the basis of titles, either. 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.)

Lots of hands-on experience is best, and at least a few years of hands-on experience is vital, but some “just starting out” trainers are decently skilled at teaching tricks or the most basic behaviors, and could be fine for your needs. (For bigger problem behaviors, including aggression, seek a trainer with at least a decade of professional experience.) What you need to look for are: a willingness to get the job done in the way that best benefits you and your dog, results with your dog, 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 (or tons of treats) to train dogs. They are learning all the time, attending conferences, working with different types of dogs, 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 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.