How To Pick A Trainer
How To Pick A Trainer

I am currently writing a few “Ask The Trainer” articles for New York Tails Magazine, one of which answers the question:

“There are so many trainers out there, I am overwhelmed with choices. Can you give me some tips on things I should look for in a trainer?”

It’s a common and hugely important question, so I thought I’d post my response here. Without further ado, then…

Not only are there a million trainers out there, there are also a million-and-one different training beliefs, training styles, and training methods. Furthermore, in addition to being an under-funded, under-reasearched, and overly-contested field, dog training is constantly developing and changing, so often there is more than one right way to skin the…er, dog.  Here, though, is my list of the top four criteria to take into consideration when looking for an excellent, effective, positive trainer.

1. Education. I don’t mean the trainer has to have a Ph.D., or to have a zillion different unintelligible letters after his name. Often, in fact, great learners aren’t the best teachers; and there is a vast gap between studying and real-world application. However, first of all from a purely practical and factual standpoint, there are lots of medical, biological, and psychological facts that a good dog trainer should know – whether he gets them from traditional university courses, from studying under established trainers, from previous work in related fields, or someplace else. 

Ultimately, I am dubious about the investment, enthusiasm, and commitment of a trainer who hasn’t studied dog behavior to some significant extent. After all, I got into dog training for the same reason I started studying it – because I love dogs, and I can’t get enough of them or learn enough about them!   

2. Experience. Study all you want, have as much innate dog-sense as you want; still there’s no match for experience, for having seen as many different dogs as possible in as many different situations as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean choose the trainer who has been in business for the longest. Many trainers only teach restricted types of obedience classes, or haven’t tried a new method in ten years; while one who just started her own business may have worked for years in a veterinary office, doggie-daycare, grooming salon, or simply grown up around dogs while her parents ran a breeding business or pet store. 

Although specialized knowledge is sometimes a plus – e.g. with a veterinary behaviorist or a breed specialist – often a wide range of experience translates into better ability to adapt to your specific situation and provide for you what you need. Every case is unique in a million ways, making training closer to an art form than a science (given the basic education as an equal starting starting point). And the more paints a trainer has, the more likely it is that he’ll be able to patch up your particular canvas.

3. Openness. By this I mean a number of things, starting from your first interaction and continuing far after your training sessions are over. First of all, a website, brochure, or affiliate business should be able to tell you lots about the trainer – like his or her philosophy, methods, education, experience, and so on. When you then contact the trainer, he should be responsive by phone, email, or in conversation, willing to answer all of the questions you should rightfully ask. Before and during the training, then, the trainer should be as clear about the methods, theory, and technique of what he is doing as you want him to  be (and probably even moreso, since I believe that educating the owners is generally far more effective than having a third party train their dog). 

If you ever feel dubious or uncomfortable about something the trainer suggests or is doing, furthermore, you should feel welcome to express your concerns and you deserve a full explanation if not a recommendation of alternative methods. And finally, a trainer who genuinely cares about every dog he works with should be available for followup questions or updates by email or phone for months, or even years, after your training is finished. Dog training is not a magic bullet and cannot happen in an instant, and a trainer who is honest will tell you this and should have a plan in place to provide you continuous help over the long-term.

4. A holistic approach. By this I mean that the trainer approaches your situation and his solutions from a number of simultaneous angles. Beware any trainer who first of all doesn’t look at the whole picture – e.g. by asking you questions about your dog’s history, your own history with dogs, the specifics of your dog’s particular problems, incidents, any methods you’ve tried, how they’ve worked or how they haven’t, and so on. Also the trainer should be testing your dog’s temperament and behavior in a variety of ways himself, not just taking your word on the issue (after all, he’s supposed to be the expert and should often see behavior signs that non-experts aren’t trained to notice). 

In the same vein, beware any trainer who blindly follows a single, simple method for treating your problem, not to mention one who follows that same method for every problem. Be suspicious of anyone who goes immediately for a technological product – e.g. Bitter Apple, a Gentle Leader, a citronella collar, or especially something controversial like a shock collar. All of these tools have their place, and can help many cases if used properly; but only as part of an overall training or behavior therapy plan that also must contain many other elements. First of all, no artificial product – no “thing” – will by itself train a dog to be a good, calm, obedient, happy family member. Dog training is a branch of psychology, and results come from understanding, empathy, intelligence, and emotional control, not from any battery-powered device or bottled product. Second of all, no problem arises or exists in a vacuum: so in order to combat any particular problem, you must work on all areas of the dog’s life at once. If your dog is a bad leash-walker, he’ll probably benefit from a stricter feeding ritual; if he has separation anxiety he’ll probably benefit from off-leash socialization; if he has leash-aggression he’ll probably benefit from obedience class; and so on. A good trainer should show you how to have an entire healthy and balanced relationship between you and your dog.

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There are the four top criteria I recommend keeping in mind when searching for a good dog trainer. I want to finish by explaining an important difference between obedience training and behavior therapy (aka rehabilitation, manners training). Obedience training means teaching your dog to listen to commands – like “Sit”, “Come”, “Drop it”, and “Stay”. Behavior therapy means easing your dog’s psychologically- or emotionally-based behavior problems – like aggression, anxiety, or hyperactivity. Often, being a good trainer in the one area doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good trainer in the other area, so know which one you want to be working on. Often, in my experience, people think they’re looking for obedience training when in fact what they need is a good behavior therapist, someone who rehabilitates dogs with problem pasts and makes them well-balanced, social, and happy. Although obedient dogs are often better-balanced than disobedient dogs, it is still entirely possible to have an “obedient” dog – i.e. one who graduates the obedience class with flying colors – and yet who is all over the place with his behavior when not presently being told to sit or give paw.

I suppose I should have also included “Likability” in the list, since first of all dogs know and immediately sense a person’s true nature – and second of all you yourself are going to be spending a fair amount of time interacting with the person you choose. But we all know already that we should let our dogs pick who we hang out with, right? 🙂

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